Friday, March 25, 2016
Poipourri of Strolls
I have a busy day ahead, a series of hikes and walks splayed across Nara prefecture, which now appears bigger on maps than it had before. I'd only be able to cover that distance by car, so I rise with the sun and drive into its fresh rays not long afterward. This early start ensures that I beat Kyoto rush hour traffic, but I hadn't counted Nara city proper, so with a crawl I move in the long shadows of its ancient relics.
I am nearing my first destination when a sign welled up, for something called the Ancient Tang Burial Mound. Intrigued by the name and the low tower silhouetted against the hills, I pull into the car park. The tower is built into one corner of a man-made pond, punctuated by wooden planks used as a seat for fishing, and ringed with sakura just coming into bud. The park that surrounds it had been built in 1994, but there seems to be a bit of expansion going on, and I wondered if it were connected to the recent influx of Chinese tourism, and whether those tour groups found their way out here. Upon approach, I find the tower was off-limits to climbing, but it makes for a pleasant excuse to stretch my legs and bladder. There is a basic information sign telling me that the tomb had been discovered in 1901, but not when it had been built. There are photos of a few broken relics, now housed in a nearby museum, but I can't budget time to investigate further. I am intrigued by this long dead Chinese, of a status that warranted him a sizeable tomb. This area is rich in Korean influence, reflected both in its place names and its artistic traditions, though the Tang had come a bit later and their touch lingers to this day.
My actual first destination is the alleged burial mound of the legendary Himiko, a shaman-queen who appears in the archives of that Tang Dynasty. Japanese records are non-existent, so the location of her tomb is in dispute, if she had existed at all. I had already visited one of her 'tombs' on Kyushu's Kunisaki peninsula, and a month ago I learned of this Hashinaka site. A flotilla of ducks floats across the placid surface of the pond that bordered this reasonably sized tomb, though the lack of infrastructure gave hint of few human visitors. There is a small rock garden and a cafe, and how pleasant it would be to sit at the waters edge and ponder what may have been. Instead I park my car near a kindergarten on the opposite side, the laughter of the children dissolving into that of crows, feisty and active in the forested tomb above. I circumambulate around the tomb, to the accompaniment of the usual sounds of morning, of the excitable voices of old woman greeting one another in the street, of the bangs of construction somewhere out of sight, of the canned music of a kerosene truck circling slowly and optimistically.
A short drive away is Omiwa Jinja, where I park and walk up to the adjacent Hibara Shrine. Here I am given a sash, a blessing, and a somewhat stern reminder of the rules. I must appear impatient as I am eager to set off before the group of perhaps 60 old timers kitted out in hiking gear. I move up quickly and steadily, legs taken aback at the steep pitch of the trail. I overtake a few people, a family, a middle-aged woman and her less than enthused teenage son, a number of women walking alone. The forests are wild, untouched, far more beautiful than the straight rows of cedar beyond the fences. There are a number of features along the way, a waterfall, a spring, an ancient and majestic cypress, towering, towering. I make good time, nearly half that as predicted by the maps, and before I know it I am standing before a large circle of stones. This is one of Japan's oldest holy sites, and even today the mountain itself is seen as a god. In a remote corner of the peak a woman is doing full prostrations to the god, her devotion obviously far deeper than that of the usual 'power-spot' groupie. I descend just after her, and her sureness of foot betrays the fact that she is quite regular in her veneration. As I drop lower into the forest, I pass another young woman, with the supple and straight posture of the yogini, feet bare to absorb every bit of prana that the gods allow.
Onward, south to Uda, an ancient village celebrated in the Manyoshu for its light. The sky isn't the red of the poem, but a rich blue that doesn't seem to mind that the leaves and flowers have yet to return. This next section of walk takes me forward through the centuries, from the ancient Asuka countryside, to the mountain temples of the Muromachi, to the centralized hub of Edo town. Visiting one temple, Tokugenji, I see that the house adjacent to the main hall is littered with drums of a variety of cultures. Curious, I call out to whomever it is I hear washing up back in the darkness. I expect a shaved-headed older priest, but instead I am approached by a man closer to my age, with tidy beard and long scraggly hair. Under the pretext of him clarifying a name on the temple's historical information sign, I shift to ask him about music. So begins a half-hour conversation about life, music, and common acquaintances. I'm not sure from his look and manner whether he is the priest here, but his life and vision is far closer to the Buddhist ideal than the more programmed ordained. His wife, a woodblock printer, joins us, and though I could pass the afternoon here, I need to peel off at some point. After a quick look at the Oda clan graves in the forest above, I drop down to walk the compact and well-preserved grid of narrow street that make up the town center. It is a beautiful and quiet place, and once again my mind begins to explore the contours of a life lived in these remote reaches.
After a long meandering drive through the hills that border Mount Yoshino, I find myself less enthused with the town of Gojo, which is spoilt and overbuilt and hides its lovely old post town look away beside the river. This single street is the only thing of interest here, and I don't take long to trace its length up and back.
Then, and finally, I continue to Taishi-cho in order to trace a section I'd skirted as I walked adjacent along the Takeuchi Kaidō. At its most extreme reach is Futagozuka Tomb, tree-covered and bored out to partially reveal the entrance to the twinned tombs within. It is rare that you are allowed to walk atop one of these tombs, and from the summit I stand and watch the sun dropping toward Kansai Airport far to the west. As I turn again toward my car, I see two women in an adjacent field, one lightly patting the belly of the other who has apparently toppled over. She is quiet and breathing regularly, and I sit with them until a group of men return to help. I stand there a moment more, wondering what, if anything, to do, until I figure that there is little I can do, and that medical attention had been called. But the image of these woman stays with me as I too head toward that setting sun, until the traffic pulls my focus back once again to the passage of the road ahead.
On the turntable: Art Pepper, "Lost Life"
On the nighttable: James Kirkup, "Me All Over"