Wednesday, August 13, 2014

If the Sun Refused to Shine...

The old man was standing at the base of the stone steps, hands clenched in prayer.  The steps were steep, and at their top, I could see the pitched roof of the shrine, emblazoned with overlapping gold.  The old man had bandaging and tape on both legs, and didn't look all that healthy.  But there was life in the smile that he gave me as I walked past and began to ascend toward the shrine.

It was hot.  It had been since morning, during a bucolic train journey that took me across the Mino plain.  The train was old, and of a surprisingly narrow gauge, the seats close together like on the London Tube.  The train pitched and rocked every time it picked up speed, and if I were to close my eyes, in the heat I could almost image being in a hammock in the tropics somewhere.

I disembarked on the outskirts of Yokkaichi, an ugly city of towering smokestacks striped in red. A short walk away I found a tall stone marking where the Ise Sangu Kaidō parted ways with the Tokaidō, and made its way to the famous shrine.  In the feudal days, the only real excuse for a peasant to travel was to go on pilgrimage. and those coming from Edo would have passed this stone as they made their way toward the holiest of holies.  I followed suit, bowing a greeting to a man filling two water jugs with water from the sacred spring shaded by stone.

For the first hour I found myself on a busy highway, unhappy with the 36 degree heat.  Two years ago while walking sections of the Nakasendō I had promised myself that I would no longer walk any sections of road in the summer.  But yet here I was once again.  I justified by it to myself by saying that the countryside was always interesting in the days leading up to a traditional holiday.  But this wasn't yet countryside, and all I saw were cars and trucks going their way on what was still a normal workday.

An hour later, I found a convenience store built beside a low hillock atop which was a small temple hut. Provisions quickly bought, I had my lunch sitting beneath the huge cast iron bell on the hill, the temple building beside very old and apparently long abandoned.  I was unable to see an actual temple hall anywhere amidst all the new suburban homes below.  This must have been a training temple in its day.

Just as I was thinking this, a middle-aged woman came up and confirmed it.  Broom in hand, she had come to clean around the hut, and found me sitting here.  She explained that the structure was barely stable, and had suffered a great deal from three centuries of being battered by the typhoons that seem particularly attracted to this prefecture of Mie. But since I was here, would I like to see the statues inside?   They too were 300 hundred years old, but still revealed a nice color when conjured up by the light of my torch.  A dozen protective deities each had on its helmet the unique feature of one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac.  The woman told me that she'd never seen these details anywhere else. 

She next took me down to the actually temple building, which was essentially a nondescript older house amongst all the new plastic homes in the neighborhood. The living room served as the Hondo.  There was no danka here, she explained, but the statues and altar needed a priest to do the proper rites at the proper times.  Formerly Shingon, it was now a branch temple of Kyoto's Myōshin-ji Zen sect, and was being looked after by her father, who would be succeeded by her son when he was old enough.  Being an only child, she was unable to become a priest according to the tenets of Rinzai, and her husband, adopted into the family upon marriage, appeared to be no longer in evidence. Impermanence.

As I walked away, I thought it funny how often I am approached by someone who is interested in explaining some obscure bit of Japanese history or tradition, who then expresses relief that I can understand the language.  I wonder what would happen if I didn't.  Yet I am impressed that the stereotypically shy and reserved Japanese make the effort anyway.

I crossed the Suzuka River, and dropped into what was finally the look of an old road, flanked with the two low parallel rows of houses. This would be my scenery for the remainder of the day, barring the rice paddies that demarcated the villages, or the odd burst of arborial splendor that were the shrines, their precincts screaming with cicadas.  Most thankfully, it also keep me off the main highway running just parallel, as it weaved and zigzagged through small farming communities and some of their larger suburban cousins.  

I arrived at the sea by midday.  Despite that, I never actually saw the water, hidden as it was by the bodies of large factories, and the long unending walls of grey concrete. The only reasons I knew the water was close were the signs warning me that this was a tsunami zone, indicating that the area would be inundated by a wave four meters high, then two, then one-point-five.  Far off behind them, I could see the tall cumulonimbus clouds stacking up.  Being this close to the water made me feel hotter for some reason, so I took a rest on the grounds of an old feudal police office, now being used as a park.  In one corner of the park was a sumo ring, covered by a tarp made concave due to all the water that the recent typhoon had brought.  As I sat there, a swallow repeatedly swooped down over the waterlogged tarp in order to quench its thirst.   

As I went on, I saw more standing water everywhere, covering the vegetable plots, and carving channels in the sand of building sites.  The grounds of one shrine was a bayou where the trees extended from the water.  The majority of the rice stalks, just shy of full maturity, lay lazily atop one another, the mud around their roots so waterlogged it could no longer handle the weight.  But like in the Coleridge poems, there was not a drop to drink.  

In the heat of the late afternoon, I saw the first of a handful of signs for local sake.  Just as I was thinking how nice it would be if they did their own beer, those same magic words appeared.  I made a quick detour down a narrow side street, entering the grounds of the distillery.  It was quiet just before the holidays, but I found a young man sitting at a desk.  I asked him if I could buy a beer directly from him, and he without responding pulled one out of a fridge and poured it for me.  As I drank we talked about sake, and about some of our respective favorites.  We both agreed that the sake made in Kyoto wasn't very good.  I had the same opinion about that city's beer as well. He professed to being more of an expert on sake, and poured me a few cups so I could taste his product.  He felt that beer sales were rapidly declining in Japan, and that the craft beer scene wouldn't go anywhere.  Sake sales were on the rise again, he told me,  and he and his colleagues here were attempting to cater to younger taste buds, creating suitable flavors.  "Can you taste it, smooth like white wine?" he asked as I took a sip from my glass.  "Something for the young ladies."

My carbohydrates suitably reloaded, I walked the final hour toward Tsu.  The clouds I'd earlier seen out to sea now began to roll in,
mercifully taking some of the heat off of the day.  Perhaps they were conjured up by the massive wind turbines visible on the peaks to the west.  Through those peaks wound the Ise-ji section of the Kumano Kōdō, a walk I hoped to do sometime next year.  

A walk through the hills sounded pretty good right now.  Post work traffic was rushing a little too quickly down the narrow road, and at one point I had to sidestep into a shrine to avoid getting clipped by a mirror.  The placard hanging off the shrine's aluminum torii was charred a dense black.  Beside the torii was an poster for a classic film series to be screened through the autumn.  Each day there would be a free double feature.  The starting time of the first film was 1:30, a hint at the demographic that they were hoping to entertain. 

For me, I'd find my entertainment on whatever was in front of my feet. The following day, I was facing a further 37 km to Ise, not an impossible distance, but one I'd rather not undertake in the full heat of August.  Luckily, I'd be trailing a train line for most of the day.  Come afternoon, I'd simply walk from station to station, then gauge whether I wanted to carry on walking.  Wherever the answer would come up "No," I would get on a train.  A block or two before arriving at my hotel, I saw a sign written in English, "You've got the Power."  Not any more, I thought.

And that sign proved more prophetic than I had thought.  As I slept, Mie had turned her charms to yet another storm.  Rain brushed the window of my hotel room, and the forecast was for heavy rain all day.  While the 27 km I had covered the previous day hadn't been horrible, they hadn't been particularly wonderful either.  I'd be back in the cooler days of autumn, my footfalls leading me to Ise Shrine, the motion of my feet to be succeeded by that of my two hands coming together, to greet the gods who had attracted the feet of so many others before me.

On the turntable: "Urgh! A Music War"

On the nighttable: Shigeru Mizuki, "Onward Towards our Noble Deaths"

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