Even at the early hour, there are plenty of cars in the car park, and I am lucky to have gotten one of the last spots. I'd assumed as much on a national holiday, just not this early. After I walk across the bridge I understand why. Dozens of primary schools kids roughhouse as they wait to undertake an organized assault on Atago-san. A handful of their teachers ignore them, looking unhappy to be stuck with this duty on a day when they should rightly still be in bed.
The hamlet of Kiyotaki itself still sleeps in shadow. I move through them and up out of the steep canyon to where the sun is. Before me is the long thin tunnel that seems more suited to the narrow gauge trains steam trains that ran through the hills nearby over a century ago. It is still utilized by car traffic, though they are let through one direction at a time. I've biked through this once, a harrowing ride where side mirrors missed clipping my handle bars by centimeters. From my own car, I've seen hikers pinning themselves to the grey sooty walls. There is no way I am going to walk through. Luckily a little-used bypass road spirals up and over the pass above. (It is a very unique case where the older road is the one that bores through the mountain.) At the top, I see a sign pointing up toward a 'Fudo-in' further above. Both the name and the location intrigue me, so I begin to climb a few hundred stairs to this small temple hidden within the absolute western limits of Kyoto.
In a clearing on what could be called the mountain's shoulder is the usual assortment of Kobo Daishi statues and a large open space under the steady gaze of En-no-Gyoja. I myself see little besides a small goma hall made disappointingly of ferroconcrete. Alongside is an octagonal path lined with 88-metallic stepping stones; beneath is sand from each of the corresponding temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage. And despite my initial disappointment, the Fudo-myō statue within the small hall is beautiful, holding the usual sword to cut through delusion, which in this case might be emanating from a pair of satellite dishes nearby.
The path continues a short while more, leading me to a saddle that offers stunning views of Atago just above, and of Kyoto itself spreading away to the east. The air is as clear as air can be, and it looks as if each peak of the Kitayama mountain range is stretching itself upward like the arched spine of a newly awakened cat. I stay here for a good long time. When I finally recede into shadow again, I feel the rush of wind as a crow swoops low over my right shoulder, coming to rest again atop the statue of En-no-gyoja. This stops me quicker than the view had just previously.
A three-legged crow know as yatagarasu was said to have lead the Emperor Jimmu to the sacred lands of Kumano, past and current home of aesthetic monks following in the footsteps of none other than En-no-Gyoja himself. I smile at the symbolism, and don't move on again until I count the legs of this bird perched on the saint's stone head.
At the bottom of the steps are a couple of dozen VW Beetles resting and rusting behind a structure that must house the priest here. Further along is a monument to those who died in Siberian POW camps at the end of WWII, many of the survivors unable to return to Japan for a full decade after the peace treaty had been signed. I offer a quick prayer to their tragedy, on this early November day that marks the birthday of the Emperor in whose reign the roots of that tragedy were born.
Happier faces can be seen a short walk up the road at Otagi Nembutsu-ji, hundreds etched in stone slowly going green with moss. Beyond the temple grounds, raucous young baseball players race up the hill that I just descended. Continuing in my own direction, I come to Otagi's somber counterpoint of Adashino Nembutsu-ji, where all the graves that once lined the old pilgimage path to Atago were collected in order to make room for the wider automobile road that replaced it. I had planned to visit, but the temple is closed today for some unknown ceremony, as somber chants emanating from inside pass over the heads of the black-clad figures silently standing on the steep stone steps.
The outside world holds greater appeal anyway. This particular stretch before me is as nice as anything I've seen in Japan, all thatch roofs beneath a colorful zenith of maple. It is exactly the type of landscape that I seek out on my longer walks, and it is a mere 20 minutes from home. I slow my step to relish it, and the delight moves with me as I continue through the semi-rural suburbs of Sagano, past Daikaku-ji and to the shores of a Hirosawa pond, now filled with water as is normal for the season.
But the modern centuries eventually intrude as I follow a canal system due south to the built-up banks of the upper Katsura-gawa. This is all familiar ground, so I see no reason to linger, though I do take a quick coffee at a new shop whose bright white box of an exterior stands somewhat at odds with the dark wood of the ryokan and tofu restaurants surrounding it. Still, it is respectful in its simplicity. More importantly, the quality of its product is quickly acquiring an international reputation, a fact made obvious by the dozen or so Asian tourists in the queue.
Thus fueled, I continue pushing south, over the bridge of Togetsukyo and around the bend that traces the Arashiyama foothills. Matsuo-Taisha marks the next directional change, east now, but not for long, as I quickly reach the quiet semi-urban shrine of Umenomiya. That feels right for today. Above, clouds have invaded what had earlier been an empty sky, and they now threaten rain. Below, my feet tell me that my 12 km have been just enough, and are ready to mark off only a few more steps until the clock crosses noon.
On the turntable: "Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, Best of '83"
On the nighttable: Micheal Scott Moore, "Sweetness and Blood"