Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mitsue Mountain Hop (Ise Hon-kaido V)

When I returned to my room, I noticed that the water had spread across three of the six tatami.  Shit.

The inn hadn't supplied me with any towels, so I quickly stripped the pillow from the pillowcase and used the latter to begin mopping up the spill.  I rubbed and rubbed the faded surface of the mats until they took on a uniform color again, the darkened wet spots now nearly indistinguishable. I then pulled the water reservoir from my pack, thinking I'd not screwed the top on properly,  but found that it was snug and secure.  I must have set the bag itself on top of the mouthpiece, which then leaked while I was out of the room.

I tend to travel an comparatively exorbitant amount, so I'm allowed a certain percentage of culturally stupid fax pas.  But they always seem to happen in the most remote inns, the ones where, due to the seemingly few foreigner guests, I'm thrust into an uncomfortable role of bumbling ambassador.  I am still mortified by the sukiyaki incident of '09.

And my hosts had been incredibly nice.  Not only had they accepted me as the sole guest during the New Year's holidays, but they spent a great deal of time talking with me about my walk and giving me pointers for what lay ahead.  They joined me for dinner, where the television served as an additional companion,  the conversation turning into questions about topics seen on screen.  Again, my foreign background seemed to make me an expert on such diverse topics as mountain rescues in both Nepal and Niigata; the growing economic cold war between Russia and the Balkans (China's relative quiet of late has forced Japan to join the growing international criticism of Putin.  Helps to build support for a pumped-up SDF, especially when you remember that the two countries are still technically at war); and drunken English revelers passing out or otherwise behaving badly on New Year's Eve.  (Quoth the Pot:  "Kettle, there none more black.")

When staying at inns I tend to decline breakfast, since that allows me to leave when I like, usually just after first light.  My hosts graciousness had extended to making me breakfast at six, then bowing me out the door when the day's first rays topped the hills lining this long broad valley. 

I made my way gingerly over the sheets of black ice. Nothing moved but myself, passing beneath a massive camphor tree and the humble shrine visible between its bare branches.  A little further on, a pair of fireman carried out the first rubbish of the year.  I entered the hills, moving over the crunch of snow beneath my feet, toward a large oval structure seen through the trees, which proved to be a rather unorthodox primary school.  A man was sweeping out front, making me wonder if school was in session on this first Monday of 2015.  After passing beyond the frozen swimming pool and pitch-white athletic grounds I had my answer in the sight of a young boy waiting beside the road with his father, the pair of them turning their heads in unison toward the small bus tottering up the hill.

It was yet another hour and two more villages before I got my coffee.  Surprised I made it that far.    As I sat on a low concrete wall I thought how I had seen no vending machines nor shops since leaving Haibara.  Whereas the day before I had only encountered hamlets of a dozen homes or so, this morning I found myself walking through what could be properly termed villages, expanding spatially rather than temporally, as many of the trappings of the second half of the last century had yet to enter their orbit.  And this is precisely why I love these old roads and the places they take me.  Here, it is still definitely 1958, and my surroundings are right out of that golden age of Japanese cinema of which I am so enamored.    

And further beyond were views from even further back in time.  To my left I was leaving behind the tell-tale peaks of Soni Kōgen, and up ahead was the saddleback shape of Ōborayama (which only later I realized I had climbed in 2009.)   The mountains out here were truly magnificent, and I really needed a return visit to give them the attention they deserve.

But luckily not this day.  My hostess of the night before had mentioned that this would be an easier day than the last, in terms of topography.  I would be therefore able to move at a greater clip, which would enable me to cover the 25 km to my intended accommodation by noon.  Far too early to stop, but it was unthinkable to push on another thirty km to a train station before the darkness fell at five pm.   Even without the heavy pack, my age bracket takes that out of the realm of possibility.  Fifty five kilometer days are a decade or more behind me.

So I decided to simply walk as far as I could until four pm, then find a bus, or hitch to a rail line.  The weather and my high spirits were in my favor.  Upon reaching a train station at Ise-Okitsu, I stripped down to a T-shirt and sat eating my lunch in the sunshine.  This town literally was the end of the line, perhaps due to the very steep mountain wall on the edge of town, where an hour before I had needed my poles to manage its steep descent.  I had at first thought the station to be closed, but found that it had been reduced to one third its previous size.  The rest of the structure was divided between a civic hall of some sort, whose bored-looking employees giggled when I came in and spoke Japanese at them.  (And that was just the men.) The other half was a small folk museum, emphasizing mainly that the town had the previous year been the principle location for a film that had received quite good reviews, yet one whose title always brought giggles to the part of my brain that is perpetually thirteen year old.  Wood Job.

As I moved away I noted that this town, like Mitsue where I had spent the night, finally had the marks of a post town.  Every community in between had been too small. The houses here were built broad and squat, with lower roofs to keep off the accumulated weight of snow.  There were also quite a number of Tenri-kyo signs, no real surprise considering that the sect's founder had been born not far away. The locals seemed to delight in their history, and each home along the way had a plaque bearing the name of the inn it had once been.  I imagined the bustle of porters, hustling up business to assist with the pass up ahead.  Despite the town's charm, I knew what was to come.

I arrived at the top soaked and winded.  My choice of lunch location had been less about the aesthetics of a pretty place, and more about the timing of refueling.  But the weight in my belly had been a hindrance, and I sat a long while on a bench that marked the location of a tea house long gone.

The descent made me feel worse, upon finding the beautiful valley where I had intended to stay the night.  I had visions of sitting in the chairs out on front of the inn Nakaya, alternating between my reading books and engaging in sake-laden conversation with the owner.  I felt quite guilty as I slinked past.  This inn and my previous one Matsuya are the only ones that remain along this section of the old road.  Once they are gone, it will be impossible to do a through-hike without a tent.  In fact, my host from the previous night had told me that that was the reason he kept in business, despite being close to the age of eighty.  His son wasn't interested in taking over (the old story), so it was up to him and his wife.  The walkers relied on them, he said.

What came next could almost be seen as a sign of karmic retribution.  The beauty of the valley was short lived, for I was pitched once and for all upon the wide modern highway I'd been paralleling since the day before.  It was mercifully free of traffic, but its asphalt form was devoid of any charm as it climbed and climbed and climbed.  And as I made my weary ascent, I kicked myself for believing the old woman and her words that this day would be easier than the last.  No matter the good intentions, I know better than to listen to the advice of those who haven't themselves walked.

Upon reaching the pass, I found that the previously ample signage was now gone.  What was there was conflicting, matching neither the terrain nor the maps.  I carried on in what I was the right direction, but another sign quickly tempted me in yet another.  Gullible as a schoolboy with a crush, I moved into the dark of the unknown.  Another sign further on directed me over a stream, but I was soon thwarted by a dead end. A side road here seemed to head the right way...

From the pass, the trail was supposed to drop an incredible 300 vertical meters in less than a kilometer.  And for now the road beneath me was straight, but at least wasn't climbing.   I had another look at my guidebook, which told me "by all means follow the stream."  And the sunny spots just around the bend could be the pass, right?  Oh, well, then maybe the next one.  It was late afternoon, the shadows beginning to fall over the road.  It just didn't seem right.  The altimeter on my watch told me I was now 150 meters above the height of the pass.  Another look at my other guidebook.  At the pass, make a right turn after the bridge.  Had I crossed a bridge?  Shit.

I whirled around and moved quickly back down the hill, beneath shorn hillsides, in a demonstration of what passes for forestry in this country.  Eventually, I found myself at the spot where I had been an hour before.  No bridge.  I moved along the main road again, found the trail proper, and raced along the decline, poles swinging from my wrists, my four limbs a flurry of motion.  (At the bottom I found that local school children had left cheerfully-painted wooden sticks in a box to be used to aid walkers on this section.)   The guidebook told me I had two walking hours until the nearest bus stop, and I had a mere 45 minutes of daylight left.  If I missed the bus, I'd never get a lift since the Japanese tend not to stop after dark.

So I raced on, feet aching, mind tense and clenched.  I barely noticed the shrines and old farm houses fading into shadow.  The final approach took me along a small stream, but mercifully kept me out of the forest.   From above, a pair of crows heckled and jeckled my rushing, shuffling form.  A mother and son were a bit kinder as they rode their bicycles past, a New Year's greeting coming from their receding silhouettes.  And I made the main road at exactly five.

I turned and walked toward the bus stop, thumb out just in case.  Across the road, a voice asked where I was going.  A workman on his way home had pulled in to buy a coffee at a vending machine beside a shuttered factory.  "Any train station will do."  "Okay, I'm going to Matsuzaka."  Perfect.  A station that had express trains back to Kyoto.

My driver was my age, and had remained single in order to maintain his lifestyle as a surfer.  We talked of world famous surf breaks that we'd both visited, until the lights of the city welled up and I hobbled toward my train.  Along the way I noted that I had covered just over 40 km on the day, a distance I rarely do anymore, and never in heavy boots better used for snowshoeing.  And later still, as I peeled off my socks to climb into a hot bath, did I see the bruises around my ankles, the blackened toenail, and most of all, the holes in my feet, stigmata perhaps for my sin of refusing hospitality, a complicit act of betrayal against the spirit of pilgrimage, which in this particular case, may be beyond the hope of resurrection.

On the turntable:  "Daytrotter Session:  SXSW"

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