Friday, March 24, 2017
And Also the Trees...
There is some discrepancy about what defines the Nikkō Kaidō. Some mark it from Nihonbashi in Tokyo, and consider it to include the first half of the Ōshū Kaidō. Others, like myself, think of it as just the 37 kilometer appendage that branches off the Ōshū to lead pilgrims to Tōshō-gū. That seemed like a reasonable, if not challenging, amount to tackle in a single day, so I set off early from Tokyo to Utsunomiya.
Even straight forward journeys aren't necessarily that straight. This was proven by the circuitous route taken by a taxi driver who wasn't terribly familiar with his own city. The bends were straightened out by my voice raised in crescendo to correct him, a voice strained by fatigue and perhaps a minor cold. Luckily the crescendo ceased well before reaching the fortississimo of complete exasperation.
The initial hour through the outer city of Usunomiya wasn't terribly interesting, but I suppose I could expect that of a city destroyed both in the Bōshin War and the American bombings eighty years later. I moved along one of those dull bypass roads growing tired of the scenery immediately, having walked a similarly urbanized section of the Tokaidō just the day before. But sections of that road had had a little more charm. These regional cities all tend to look alike, as I've written here many times before, and I recognized that I could have been just about anywhere. The only things that captured my interest were the beautiful spring day, the unique kura storehouses made of porous stone, and the high peaks of Nikkō far to the northwest.
The city seemed to drop away abruptly, and the road narrowed to fit between twin rows of what was initially sakura, then eventually grew into the grand giants of cryptomeria. I didn't know it at the time, but I'd stay mainly within these rows for the rest of the day. I knew well these namiki, which in the Edo period had lined all the non-urban sections of Japan's old highways. These arboreal tunnels brought shade in the summer, and offered some reprieve from rain and snow. I've come across short segments on all of my walks, but never did I image that a section such as this one still existed, one that continued nearly uninterrupted for thirty whole kilometers. It gave one a sense of what the roads had looked like back in their heyday.
The initial hour or so was spent moving along a berm a few meters above the cars moving past to my left and the houses to the right. It took me a minute to figure out why this section was raised, until I recognized that beneath me were all the roots. It was a pleasant stroll, above the traffic, but every time there was a driveway or a crossroad, the path would dip down, only to rise again on the other side, like a roller coaster. It was very difficult for the feet to find rhythm, and it certainly woke up the hamstrings.
Spring was flirting with me. I could feel the warmth of her caress on my arm, could catch her scent on the wind. As the temps were triple the chilly five degrees of yesterday, I took off my jacket as early as 9 a.m., and walked in comfort for the rest of the day. There were occasional gaps in the namiki, but even here the landscape was rural farms and pleasing to the eye. A few sections had even been closed off to vehicular traffic, perhaps in areas where the flow was too great to fit between and rather than widen the road, a new one had been built to run parallel. These were by far the most pleasant parts of the day, where I could really feel the slipping away of time. Plus I could get a little reprieve for the feet by walking across the carpet of strewn cedar needles. The last section of namiki is the most famous, leading north from Kami-Imaichi, the path beneath an earthen floor packed firm by centuries of feet. The last few kilos into Nikkō were the least pleasant, as I once again shared the road with the rushing cars, with little shoulder to stand on. My feet were in agony by this point, but more worrying was the throb in my left instep. Little surprise after coming off a long lazy winter to take on 38 km over two days.
I kicked them up in front of Nikkō Station. Worse still was what was happening at the other end of my body. As I had moved through the day, infected by the charm and grandeur of the cryptomeria, I had unintentionally chosen a day in March, and was thus infected a great deal more by their pollen. My head and sinuses swarmed with these invasive spores, as they jockyied for position with the headcold that had alreay taken hold. I let them fight it out as I sipped coffee in a nice patch of sun, seeing no need to do anything else.
Most specifically, I saw no need to visit the shrines, as I'd been here a half dozen times already. In fact I don't really like them very much, in the same way that I don't really like Las Vegas. To me, Alan Booth had the last word on Nikkō, so I'll give him the last word here:
"Japanese guidebooks and brochures intended for foreigners rarely fail to quote the famous saying about Nikko: Nikko o mizushite 'kekko' to iunakare, which these publications invariably translate as 'Never say "splendid" until you've seen Nikko', but which might equally accurately be rendered, 'See Nikko and say you've had enough!'"
On the turntable: Chet Baker, "The Complete Pacific Jazz Live Recordings Of The Chet Baker Quartet With Russ Freeman"