Friday, May 20, 2016
Middle of Somewhere
I've walked a great number of roads in this country, but today was the first time I've walked a road that no longer exists. There is a triumvirate of ancient paths between Asuka and Nara, traversed perhaps when the former capital passed the baton of Imperial seat to the latter. I'd already walked both the High Road and the Low, so I figured it was time to honor my Buddhist heroes and take the Middle Way.
The walk started at Asuka Station, with the first hour or so passing between monuments dating to a time when the wild Jōmon tribes began cutting their hair, putting on robes, and calling themselves the Yamato. This is perhaps my favorite period in Japanese history, a time when Japan was most soulful, to judge from the ancient shrines, burial mounds, and the trendy accessories of an import called Buddhism. (Sadly, a lot of this went away two centuries later with another import. The Ritsuryō codes gave birth to a bureaucracy that quickly entrenched itself so effectively that it survived 1500 years of near constant regime change.) So it was with great joy that I walked, eyes filled with some of the greatest beauty this land can offer, right down to the temporal shapes of the sakura.
I had little to go on, map-wise, except for one that was simply a single line running between the shrines that acted as way points, a map that paid no heed to the contemporary reality of house, factory or fields, passing directly through them. And most amazingly, my path did indeed run arrow straight, like a compass pointing due north. I found small dirt paths between new suburban homes, crossed parking lots, and tightrope-walked low berms between earthen plots. I only had to deviate once, at a concrete ditch which my legs were a decade too old to leap. After a brief detour, north again I went.
The day was warm and fine and busy with old timers working in their gardens or preparing their fields for planting. By contrast, the suburbs north of Asuka were near devoid of life, and the few people I did meet seemed unable to return my greeting. Perhaps this too is part of the Ritsuryō. Beyond these deserts, I startled a pair of mandarins who took flight from a small canal, to land again upstream. They rose with a great deal of kinetic energy, far more than it would take to say hello.
Leaving this no-man's land I was approaching Nara, my path now called Route 53. There were no sidewalks, so my mind grew occupied with mental martial arts maneuvers as defense again oncoming wing-mirrors. In quieter moments, my eyes sought vistas familiar from previous walks, of Mounts Miwa and Ryozan, of the forests of Kashima Jingu and the dormitory village of Tenri, of the as yet unclimbed peaks of Nijo-zan, and Katsuragi.
I've mentioned Tenri before so won't go into it again here. But I'm always amazed and the size and the scale of the place (built upon the site of what had been the capital for a decade at the end of the 5th century). I noticed today for the first time a whole section of their campus tucked up in a nook of the hills, all tall apartment flats and massive boxes that could only be auditoriums. Incredible how the visions of a middle-aged peasant woman could grow into an organization with over 2 million followers.
Just beyond was the Nara river, little more than a small creek of one-meter-across. On its far shore was a small hut sheltering a couple of dozen Jizo, who found eternal shade beneath the broad branches of the chestnut tree above. Raising my head to look beyond its upper reaches, I found some comfort in my first glimpse of Wakakusa-yama's bald pate. Not much further to go.
The rest of the day was a slow creep into Nara. There wasn't much to catch the eye, so I allowed the ears their turn, offering them the voice of Allen Ginsberg to distract them with some of his poems. All the way, cars rushed by like the ghost of Neil Cassidy.
In Nara proper, I eased off my ever-linear northern trajectory and detoured into the warren of lanes south of the station. Most tourism in Nara is centered around the deer park, leaving me alone to walk the narrow paths lined in wood and tile and earth, which front temples and galleries and cafes. There is a definitive Bohemian feel to Nara, albeit one grounded in the 8th century. And as I wrapped up my stroll I felt yet again how much preferable the place is compared to Kyoto.
This thought returned to me that evening, when I attended a small festival at Goryō Jinja, my neighborhood shrine. Yet even at this stripped down scale there was little warmth. Whereas most festivals I've attended in Japan gave a sense of cathartic communitas, in Kyoto they take the form of touristic processions, where the only real community participation entails standing in the heat along the route. Actors move along in fixed lines and positions, dressed in attire that was traditionally never worn by the commoner, implying a certain separation. It inevitably culminates in a group of men carrying or dragging along a shrine or a cart or those towering yamaboko. In Kyoto, history's weight is heavy.
On the turntable: Art Pepper, "Goin' Home"
On the turntable: Toby Thompson, "Positively Main Street"