Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Low Road to Nara

Standing before the concrete water basin, I am suddenly enshrouded in white.  As I was undergoing my water purification before entering Kashihara Jingu, a group of about two dozen priests surround me, and begin to go through their own ablutions.  Slightly intimidated, I move away from them, over the raked gravel that covers this wide open space.  In shrines of this scale, the sense of airiness always feels that the whole place will take flight.  Perhaps the stone covering the grounds is a way to tether it to the earth.   

In entering the shrine, I have left the Shimotsumichi, one of the three old roads that had once led to the Heijō palace from the south.  This palace was the home of the Imperial court during the Nara period, which lasted for the majority of the 8th Century, a time when that city was considered the true end of the Silk Road, its treasures having been filtered through the parallel palaces of the T'ang.  

I allow my detour to continue, swinging widely to the east, in order to visit the site of the old Fujiwara palace that preceded Heijō as the capital, though for a mere 16 years.  This site served as both a physical and temporal transition from the earlier Asuka capital a short walk south.  I love this area, so rich in history, so fertile and broad in the never-ending rice paddies and the tell-tale tufts of forest that mark the eternal resting places of Imperials dead for over a millennium.   This Fujiwara-kyō is simply massive, taking me a good half and hour to cross, passing dozens of two-meter high pillars laid out in parallel rows here and there across the plain.  Marking the locations of ancient buildings, I lean on what I expect to be wood, but find to be instead some spongy synthetic material.  The color is similar to my T-shirt, which had been orange when I put it on at dawn, but is by now sweat-soaked to a dull ochre. 

Heading west brings me to Ofusa Kannon-ji temple, its courtyard filled with roses.  Above, hundreds of glass wind chimes have been hung.  In summer, the Japanese believe that a wind chime helps to cool the body, since the sound of striker on glass is the sound of the movement of wind.   As I pass beneath however, the breeze stirs up not a delicate jingle but a cacophony of a fully-loaded tray dropped in a restaurant.

Back to the old road proper, narrow and lined with old wooden structures. A pair of old men hang paper lanterns over the road, the sign of an impending festival.  I'm on the outskirts of Yamato Yagi, a town famed for its preserved look.  Unlike the broader streets of the later Edo period post-town, these older lanes are far narrower, the structures darker and less earthen.  At the crossroads of the equally old Yokōji road, a man beckons me into what had once been an old inn and is now a very simple history museum.  The caretaker is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but all too often his enthusiasm turns to me and just how remarkably foreign I am.  I have complained about this in the past, where I want to have an intelligent conversation about history and culture, yet the other party can't see past my eye-color and the unique structure of my nose.  I can understand the natural curiosity about 'other,' I mean, at this very moment I am seeking out that which is particularly Japanese.  But after a few basic polite questions, it is nice to move on.

So I do.  Beyond the train station, the town becomes yet another suburb, and beyond this I follow a small river.  I love Nara for its water.  Steams cross and recross, leading to and from what must be hundreds of small lakes and ponds that dot this entire basin.  I am accompanied by water the rest of the day.  The river here is alive and healthy, filled with fish and turtles and cormorants.  The lower tree branches on the far bank are bedecked with trash and debris, compliments of a pair of powerful storms that roared through the Kansai during the past two weeks.  The pillars of bridges are similarly tangled with a snarl of reeds and tree limbs. 

And so it goes for the next six hours.  Where the earlier part of the day had been a delightful stroll along the cusp of history, the rest of it is spent atop a berm, with water ever to my right, houses representing a half-dozen different generations to my left.  On such a hot day, the water should be inviting, but factory after factory shadow the canals on the far bank.  I get a short reprieve in the form of a small village completely surrounded by moats like a medieval European town, but here too the water is a suspicious hue.   

At this point, I am puzzled as to why the maker of the map I am following chooses to send me to the west, rather than on the due-north trajectory that would take me directly to the main gate of Heijō palace.  Later at home, as I look at Google Street View to see what I missed, I notice that he did me a favor in detouring me off a narrow, busy road with no apparent shoulder.  Instead, I walk the bank of a much wider river, all the way into Nara proper.  Along the way, I find a mystery.  Six stone Jizo statues are lined up nearly behind a tree, but behind them is what looks like a cemetery, though devoid of all grave markers.  Even odder is that each grave looks freshly dug, these symmetrical little piles of earth topped with a pair of tubes meant to hold flowers.  I wonder if the people at rest here have been recently moved, their old plots now earmarked for some construction project.  As we have just passed the Obon holiday, I further wonder if the souls of these people had been able to find the way to their new home. 

Further on still, I come to a small park that supposedly contains a marker for the palace's old gate.  The park is overgrown and unkept, and amidst the high grass I see only a few stones written with poetry.  Yet upon one has been carved the illegible, flowing grass-style Chinese characters that may be commemorating the old gate.  Sharing the name with its better known descendant in Kyoto, the Rashomon here is as equally absent as the newer one about which the film was made.  And where Kyoto's grand old Suzuku boulevard now goes by the name of Senbon-dōri, here, what had once been the palace's main thoroughfare is now a canal that carries away what the modern city of Nara now longer needs, serving as an ironic metaphor to Japan's relationship with its own history.

On the turntable:  "Rhythmes et Melodies de L'Inde Classique"
On the nighttable:  Donna Henes, "The Moon Watcher's Companion"


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