Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Deeper and Deeper
February surprised by giving us a Valentine's day weekend guaranteed to warm the heart with 19 degree temps. Monday it was back to work, as the cloudy skies brought things back closer to zero. As I stood on the platform of Kyoto Station the wind rushed around me with the cold determination of the commuters similarly swirling toward the intense heat of crowded transport.
Finding the correct door in which to enter a limited express train is a game of guesswork, with a low margin for error if one didn't want to stand for the duration of the ride. After I confirmed my pole position with a passing railway staff, a gentleman in his 80's approached and complimented me on my Japanese, a compliment that the foreigner in Japan is never truly confident in receiving. We took up conversation in order to ignore the cold. He was a university professor of the journeyman school, which in this country is not necessarily a respectable career path. Being a bit of a journeyman myself, I could appreciate the breadth of knowledge that variety can bring. We talked of his trips abroad, and in the midst of this, he handed me an English book he'd co-written with a Vietnamese professor dealing with the aftereffects of dioxin that had been dropped on that country by my own. (A book that didn't hold much interest for me, one I'm ashamed to say I 'forgot' on the train, not wanting to add additional weight to a backpack already overloaded for a two-day winter walk.) Today he was going up to Tsuruga to attend a conference on hikikomori shut-ins.
The lights of the train cut through the grey from the direction of Osaka. I hope you don't think me unkind to find irony in the subject of hikikomori, but as much as I enjoyed the conversation, the last thing I wanted was to continue it for the next hour. I tend to shun conversing with strangers while on transport, preferring instead to withdraw into the company of book and internal monologue. As it was, he led himself to a place farther down the train, and I found myself in the typical foreigner's position of sitting alone. Shut out, as it were.
The train sped along the cold waters of Lake Biwa. Beyond its northern shore, we exited a tunnel to see the first flurries of snow, falling near horizontally upon the icy surfaces of hibernating rice fields. Further along, my eye fell upon sections of the Hokuriku-do that I'd walked before. Unlike the real snow country of Nagano where they board up the northern windows of houses, here it was merely with mats of reed and bamboo. There was no snow on the ground at the moment, but one restaurant had pushed a small mountain from their carpark into the rice fields below, early irrigation for the blackened and stubbly soil.
The horizontal snow was an indicator that I had better put on the rest of my layers. Thus girded, I returned to where I'd left off my previous walk on a balmy evening in late November. From here 60 km to go, or two days to complete the Hokuriku-do. As this next stretch was lined with well-known onsen resorts, I had thought it best to do in midwinter, when the region's infamous gray skies have been scoured clean by the cold winds of winter.
Goethe warns us to be careful of what we wish for. With an almost Teutonic determination I pushed forward into the storm, the winds mercifully aiding me as I moved south. Visibility was compromised as the skies pressed in, and I could see very little beyond the road I trod. The weather was perfect though for photographing detail; the light ideal for black and white. It's funny but when you begin to shoot black and white, you begin to visualize things in black and white, and how well a photograph of a certain object would look in that medium. And so I carried on, head down, eyes open, getting my Domon Ken on.
Komatsu was a rather small city, if it could be called a city at all. Somewhere along the way was a stone marking an old ichirizuka, and another marking the site of an old technological school whose mere 13 year life had overlapped the years of the Second World War. This may or may not have had a relationship with the large factory that was my companion for at least 30 minutes. About midway along, it dawned on me that the Komatsu corporation may have indeed been founded here (Wikipedia tells me it was). Once a small rural enterprise, those same war years were good to the company, when its tanks and howitzers saw good use. It has since grown to become the world's second largest producer of construction equipment, contributing in part to these very walks I do, providing not only the medium, but the impetus to see things before they are all paved over.
Town ended where the factory did (both literally and metaphorically), and the road began to undertake a series of right-angle turns through the rice paddies. As my body shifted in space, the wind buffeted me from this direction and that. By the time I reached the windbreak of the next town, the nature of the snow had changed. Until now it been falling in large clumps, usually an indicator of accumulation, but the earth had been too warm to receive it. Now, it was small cold pellets. Frozen rain. The road surface was beginning to go white. As the road began to build up just north of Kaga Onsen, small turrets raised themselves from the central stripe and began to spray water in four directions. This moving water prevented the road surface from freezing, but as it ran off to the sides of the road, it mixed with the freshly fallen snow to form a slushy bog. Walking atop it was like walking through porridge, neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right to slow my progress by a third. Not good.
Today's plan had been ambitious. I had been forced to start the walk in late morning, hoping to move quickly to cover my intended 32 kilometers within the six hours before dark. And now, only halfway through, my pace was impeded even further by the ice beginning to form beneath the sludge.
I pushed on for thirty more minutes until reaching Kaga Onsen, a town I was quite fond of as we'd shot scenes for Children of Water there seven years ago. I toyed with the idea of staying the night and doing a long 40 km day tomorrow, but the weather forecast was less than optimistic. A train it would be.
Somewhere around Tsuruga, the wet snow had devolved into a sort of dust, blowing past a surprised plum tree opening toward partial bloom. Tunnels and more tunnels and more tunnels again. And to my disbelief, I arrived back in a Kyoto basked in the warmth of sunny skies.
On the turntable: Keb Mo, "Slow Down"
On the nighttable: George MacDonald Fraser, "Quartered Safe Out Here"