It was a day too warm for February, and the birdsong was in the key of March. I'd wanted an early start, so had come down to Matsusaka the night before, in order to catch the first bus of the day. My feet hit pavement not long after 7:30.
The road on which we'd ridden out here to Kakinō was a busy one, but luckily I was walking a smaller road just above both it and a river that was quiet today. In former times, the latter must have raced through this gorge with great power, scarring and twisting the rocks in the riverbed into phantasmagoric shapes. These, and the mist hanging between the hills overhead, lent itself to the cliche of a Chinese landscape painting.
This smaller road was leading me through the remains of a post town, the location of the old inns designated by paper lanterns hanging in the eaves of what were now modern houses. The oldest house in the village dated from the Meiji period, but rather than lanterns, Christmas lights hung from its cracked and faded beams. This lingering holiday sentiment was refuted somewhat by the sight of plum blossoms that exploded into view a few steps on.
Before leaving the river, I climbed up above a Shingon temple whose twin waterfalls hinted at esoteric practices, to an overlook that was becoming hemmed in by the untrimmed pine branches that blotted out the view. I imagined an older priest here, no longer interested in undertaking tough manual labor for the sake of a dwindling number of parishioners. As the day went on, I noticed that the few temples I did pass seemed to be all Shingon. I was closing in on the Ise shrines, and imagined the pro-Shinto fever that must have purged this area of all signs of Buddhism as State Shinto raised its snake-like head in the Meiji Period. These Shingon temples had Shugendo roots, so were therefore deemed Shinto enough.
The river now behind me, I found myself walking a straight line throughout the day, village begetting village, with only rice fields between. Kadomatsu New Year's decorations hung from many of the doors, making it feel as if my previous walk in January was still going on.
Villages, farmland, villages. The one forest I did enter was flat, along a track that bisected a thick bamboo thicket that must be rife with snakes of its own in warmer days. At the forest's far end, I heard what I at first thought was gunfire, but was merely a pile of bamboo trees ablaze, their air-filled chambers bursting as the heat escaped.
Lunchtime came, and it brought with it hunger. In many ways this was a dream walk as the path kept me far out in the countryside. However, the walker tends to grow reliant upon the small cafes and convenience stores found just about everywhere across Japan. I eventually came to a small yakuniku place, but the owner told me he was finished for the day, despite it only being just past one o'clock. A bit annoying.
Earlier while walking the river, I had tossed a fist-sized rock into a pool of very still water. I was amazed at just how wide and for how long the ripples traveled. I thought this a good metaphor for those who complain that a single individual has no effect upon a large and complicated world. And in the same spirit, this fellow's refusal to serve me had ramifications throughout the day. The ripples of my initial annoyance growing eventually into full blown anger, as my energy waned and waned. I just couldn't find food anywhere. More than that, I wanted an excuse to sit awhile as I was now about 25km into my day.
Around 3 pm, I finally decided to detour off my track to a convenience store a few km away, not far from where the Ise Kaido meets a lesser traveled section of the Kumano Kodo that leads south toward those grand shrines. I finally got my lunch, and as I sat I noted that I was just on the outskirts of Ise City proper. Not long now.
When I rejoined the path, my laughter cleared out any anger I was still carrying when I came upon a food shop a 100 meters on. Then another. Spirits high, I walked on, trying to ignore my eyes made runny by the pollen that is always an unwanted companion to the welcome warmth of spring. The farm villages continued for an hour or so, then crossing a broad river, I was in Ise proper.
The kaido took me past the Inner Shrine. I debated going in, but it was past 4 pm now, with the light fading. Plus I'd recently paid my respects a few months before. So I carried on the last four km toward the inner shrine, which I found more important anyway.
This section was quite fascinating, as it had once been lined with brothels and inns. Had this been 150 years before, I expect it would have quite the lively scene. Today, all was quiet, just a few school kids cycling home. One of these inns was the scene of a multiple murder that soon inspired popular entertainment. But it, and most of the other inns, were now replaced by bland new suburban homes. Only Asakichi Ryokan remained, stacked up in a jumble of wood upon the side of a hill.
I hadn't expected that I'd finish this walk with a climb. Thanks to my lunch detour, I was clocking about 45 km for the day, far more than I'd walked in the last decade or so. But incredibly, I felt fine, with none of the aches I usually get after about the 27th km. But I could have done without this last hill. And along the descent down the far side I felt the pull of momentum, leading me through the mock Edo frontages that are a large tourist draw these days. All were shuttered and closed by now, the punters having moved on.
And at the far end, the bridge led over to the water to where the Sun Goddess awaited, just as her spherical form was beginning to leave the heavens.
On the turntable: "Skankin' 'Round the World"