Wednesday, June 01, 2016
Well I Needn't
The sound of the rain atop the metal gutter was like the nervous tapping of the caffeine addict. Luckily I heard it from the other side of the glass, snug and safe as I was in my bed. This morning the rain is of completely different character, almost a dust. To call this a drizzle would be exaggerating. It is more like the particles of steam that hang in the shower before a sunlit window. The moisture gently caresses my face as I make my way down the monotonous Route 145.
Thankfully the precipitation is a lot different than when I was here in February. I laugh when I remember that I had wanted to walk this stretch in winter, to experience the harsh weather that this region is known for. Boy, did it deliver that day. More troubling than the rain is my spirit. I am only about half an hour into the first of two consecutive walking days, days in which I am hoping to cover the remaining 56 kilometers of the Hokuriku-do to Sabae, but even this early in the walk I am listless, a combination of accumulated fatigue and general lack of interest. Once these two days are complete, I'll probably walk one last section during the summer, and after that I intend to walk the other roads that I have on my list in their entirety, rather than segmented into day-trips as I have been doing. Day hikes will return me to the mountains, and their softer, more atmospheric trails.
Kaga Onsen town peters out. I come to Tsugo Isobe shrine, whose concrete torii stands before a massive gate that can only be called Buddhist. This old gate is marked with the crest of the powerful local Maeda clan, but just beyond it rears an iron stallion, as if in pain from having the imperial crest stamped into its flank. The building beside it also implies Buddhism, so I imagine that this former temple once held a great deal of influence in this area, until the fall of the shogunate and all their affiliate regional allies.
I come to another town before long, where I refill on rice balls and tea. My map-maker gets it wrong, zigging far off the trail for no apparent reason. I stay on the main road as I assume that that is correct. But a phone call comes in, and thus distracted, I go wrong myself, and my subsequent backtracking nullifies any time that I had hoped to save.
Thus fueled, there is a new spring in my step as I march out the other end of town and into the hills. The trail is overgrown, the wet grass quickly soaking through the mesh running shoes that I wear on my road walks. I am cautious of vipers, but more concerned with what lurks beyond. I whistle awhile (I usually whistle the Winnie the Pooh theme in these cases), but this creates a cacophony amongst the bird population above my head. So instead I use voice, and by default, Blake's "Nurse's Song" becomes my new go-to bear repellent. I repeat and yodel its refrain a hundred times, since "And all the hills echo'ed," feels much more appropriate.
The trail is well-marked through here, and also has a number of signs that tell me about the local history. Again and again I enter hills, and I realize that I could never have down this walk in the snows that I encountered last time. They had been an omen somehow. On one particular hill I am told that a series of tea houses once stood here, but today all I find is a graveyard, one that presumably 'serves' the village I have just climbed out of. Amongst the newer graves are six standing Jizo, perhaps marking where a cluster of older graves had been, for travelers who'd died here on their own journeys. Just below is small Buddha with its head knocked off, most likely dating to the forced Buddhist separation from Shinto in the 1870s. When I see this type of religious vandalism I can't help think that this is never the work of a lone individual who comes along one day and decides to impulsively take a swing. No, this kind of thing can only be mob-rule, fueled by stubborn ideology, and perhaps too much sake.
Ironically this particular section of the Hokuriku-do can be characterized by similar religious persecution. The medieval priest Rennyo too had walked this path, as indicated by the new stone markers that sprout up at every turn. This was his escape route, as he fled the violent uncontrollable monks of Mt. Hiei, who were alarmed by the success he'd had in restoring the Jōdō Shinshu sect after the decade of violence that had completely leveled Kyoto in the 15th century. (The massive Hongan-ji temple complex is a monument to his success.) Rennyo later went on to play a large role in the Ikko-Ikki peasant revolts, which, along with those monks of Hiei, were completely eradicated by the great leveler, Oda Nobunaga.
Up and down, up and down through the hills and forest, past a golf course and a orchard that completely fills a long narrow valley. I would count this stretch as one of the nicer walks in Kansai, though you'd have to tolerate a 30-minute stretch of busy road until the train station at Maruoka. It was here that I board, my legs not willing to do the 34 km I had ambitiously intended. I grab a hotel just off Fukui station, where from my bed I can hear the dull roar of the dinosaurs below, as they lower and raise their mechnical heads. One eye-balls me as I wait at the crossing, and despite my rational mind knowing that it is a machine, I have a brief, unsettling Westworld moment. The feeling continues as I find Fukui itself to be mechanical and redundant in its movements. I am usually pretty good at digging up interesting eateries as I travel, but an hour of creative Googling refuses to excavate anything worthwhile. I settle for some fried chicken and beer at the train station, and am asleep by 8:30.
Early to bed, early to writhe. My body is heavy, but my head is antsy, so I rise at dawn and am back on the trail before seven the next morning. For the first hour I follow a long canal, which has been horribly smothered by a layer of concrete across its face. I live in a land of criminal concrete abuses, but this is pretty extreme. Eventually I leave it, and begin a zigzag through rice fields newly flooded. I realize quickly that my map-maker has gone wrong again, but I don't mind as it is a pleasant walk. There is a new development here, and in one corner, about two dozen primary school children have packed themselves inside a glass-walled bus shelter, looking like a bunch of uniformed guppies. The number of children seems to equal that of the houses here, and I wonder if in these days of population decline, mandatory child-rearing is a requirement for home-ownership.
The sun is still rising over my shoulder. It is supposed to get up to 29 degrees today, and I hope to finish long before that. Coming to the Nine-Headed Dragon River reminds me of Peter Matthiessen's Zen classic of the same name, and how another great Buddhist leader had also escaped prosecution in this area, the great monastery of Eihei-ji still as relevant to Japanese Soto Zen as when Dōgen lay its first stone. Latter-day monks would have crossed the old funabashi here, walking delicately over the series of boats moored side by side. A wooden bridge had been built for the Meiji emperor when he came through in the 1870s, to be replaced with the current iron model after a devastating 1945 quake. This latter point goes a long way to explaining why I find the city unattractive, the majority of the city being less than 70 years old.
I am entering Fukui proper now. The Hokuriku-do plays slalom around new development, then takes a wide berth around the site of the old castle. Once over the Asuwa river, the road shoots due south, and there it will point for the rest of the day. Once the development falls away, I find myself passing through a series of surprisingly large farmhouses, a hint at what must have once been a wealthy domain. Laundry dries in front of one house, and written on one of the shirts is the maxim, "A Day without Laughter is a Day Wasted."
I'm closing in on Sabae now, briefly shaded from the heat by the burial tumulus of Kabuto-yama. Then I find the familiar high-street, and descend toward a train that whisks me home, from which I play peek-a-boo with the Hokuriku-do that I've walked on and off since 2009. This section now complete, my spirit is nearly as pleased as my body. I've covered 56 km over two half-days, on legs that had been at rest for too long. My left instep is swollen and painful, and I am pretty weary overall . I feel these walks more than I used to, partly due to the passage of time between them, and partly due to the passage of time itself. I will turn 50 next year. Age appears to be my kryptonite.
On the turntable: Bill Laswell, "Psychonavigation"
On the nighttable: Donald Keene, "The Emperor of Japan"