Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Wakasa Kaidō II
I board a bus on the shores of Lake Biwa, which climbs back into winter. Above the Self Defense Force driving course stands lone deciduous tree, its branches bare and splayed to look like a fossil.
I disembark in the village of Tōchū, where I left the Wakasa Kaidō six months ago. Whereas that day had been a late summer day tinged with the chill of autumn, today was a spring walk heavily wrapped in a shroud of bitter cold.
The road sign shows 2º C. The outermost of my many layers is a bright orange hardshell. This color is mainly used for winter gear and is completely psychological, as it symbolizes warmth. But I had chosen it for its practical purpose: to be completely visible to traffic as I moved through the series of upcoming dreaded S-curves with shoulders hardly wider than my own . I've probably researched this section more than any walk I've ever done, trying to find a way to avoid them. As I ascend, I scan the roadsides looking for anything resembling trail, but aside from one track that appears to lead into the wilderness, there is nothing. I do get a quick break in cutting across a forested section of one curve, and just beyond this I receive a little help by a surprising source: The Ministry of Construction. One of their newest follies is to reinforce the hillside by cutting away all the trees and laying the bare ground with string netting. I get in touch with my inner Spiderman and begin to climb, up a pitch that increased rapidly to beyond 45º, forcing me to crawl along on all fours like some bizarre humpbacked orange beast. This leads me to believe that this is the actual Wakasa kaidō, as the climb is too steep for people to climb straight up, they'd have naturally created switchbacks. Later on, the modern Route 367 would have been laid atop it.
I take a long rest at the top, taking a thick stick and trying to unblock a drain of a winter's worth of debris. There is a certain satisfaction to watch it begin to break apart and rush down the hillside. Not far above this I come to the old road which avoids the long tunnel and winds up and over the pass. The road surprised in having been recently resurfaced, which made sense when I come to the cryptomeria plantation, then bellies of most trees wrapped in a veneer blue haramaki. I'd taken a gamble in my choice of footwear, taking my chances in the risk of lingering snow in wearing my light trail runners rather than a sturdier winter boot. This proved to be the right choice as there were only a handful of patches here and there, including one surrounding the rusting hulk of a Suzuki Samurai victim of a duel decades ago. Mostly I moved across carpets of fallen cedar branches, a welcome relief from 26 km over hardened tar.
I move down the far side of Hanaori Pass, so named for the pilgrims who would pick flowers there to leave as offering at Myōō-in Temple a couple of hours further on. But to paraphrase the Japanese proverb, hana yori yuki, rather than flowers, snow. The old road parallels the river, and here I find long interrupted stretches of white a meter deep. Still, it beats to busy road above and its tunnels. I try to follow a single set of footsteps a week or so old, over crusty snow that gives under me. The footprints have packed the snow pretty well, but my shoe size is greater, and my weight certainly heavier, so again and again I posthole up to mid-thigh. Now and again the footprints cease completely, my predecessor having chosen another route somewhere. I try an old martial arts trick where I put all my mental attention on my belly and slide rather than step across. This works surprisingly well as there is no dramatic weight shift, though the moment I think about how well I'm doing, I crash through the surface. Weird ninja magic.
Luckily, and bizarrely, the snow patches are only in sections that curve toward the south. All are sections are clear. My feet are thoroughly soaked as I move along beneath the entrance to Ushi no Hana tunnel. (There are a number of passes throughout Japan with the same name, so called because they were so steep that they would have to coax the pack animals up by pulling the rope attached to the ring through their nose.) In the end I should have been a better a Buddhist and chosen the middle way and worn light hikers. But before long I've wound beyond the tunnels and come to the broad valley of Katsuragawa. I have fond memories of a summer day here, of a dozen bottles of Kirin beer cooling in a stream running fast before a ryokan.
A fresh memory I suppose is upon reaching the place, the sun finally appears. I sit on a log by the roadside and eat a rice ball, finding some feeling again in my feet. The sun is feeding an array of newly laid solar panels, which explains all the freshly cut timber I passed a kilometer before. Here the powers that be have decimated a section of healthy forest so as not to interfere with the panels with their shade. It reminds me of the time I was caught in a sudden squal with a friend who is very active in the Japanese antinuclear movement. Post Fukushima, Japan is now one of the greatest importers of fossil fuels in the world, and the offset of carbon emissions is creating the exact kind of weather patterns that had forced us to run for cover. More solar power is a preferred alternative, but at the expense of the forests? I begin to think that there are no simple issues to anything.
I carry on. There is a new petrol station I've never seen, called "Smile Oil." You'd smile too if you monopoloized by being the only service station along most of Route 367. I receive a true smile from a woman in a passing kei-truck, who asks if I'm going to Miyata-san's B&B a kilometer of so further on. I tell her what I'm up to, but that I'll drop by for a rest. Upon arriving, I find her and a friend having lunch in the sun out front of an old farmhouse. They are bith artists, and mention that this entire area is like a big museum, due to all the creative people living here. The woman in the truck, Makiko, mentions that she'd appeared in a Papersky article, photographed on one of her horses, which she rides along Kaidō from time to time. Her friend Keiko and I found some common ground in our connection with Kōdō, with whom she'd been closely affiliated until retiring out here. We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation, but I had ground to cover. The B&B is only an hour or so from my home by car, and I promise to return.
My GPS shows a parallel path on the other side of the river. I'm not sure whether it is the old path, but I've many time traveled Route 367 by car, and it looks a pleasant alternative. As I cross the river, I somehow find myself in the middle of a large tribe of monkeys, who scatter in the three directions at my approach. There are bear warning signs on the far bank, and despite the winter feel of the day, I am reminded that mother nature is rousing herself. She is all I have to accompany me, as there aren;t many houses or hamlets. I am convinced that this couldn't be the Wakasa, until I find the ruins of three teahouses, their wells obvious upon the forest floor. There is also a broad open spring which looks more at home in a high Alpen meadow. A sign tells me that the spring has been here since the Kamakura period. Perhaps I'm on the road after all.
The sky spits at me a few times, but mercifully isn't too serious about it. I cross the river again and move into my last hamlet, a mere cluster of log homes that are probably used by vacationers. Beside one is a long unused stand-up paddle board, and on the other, a handful of children's bicycles. How profound the death of hobbies when children appear. But even the kids have moved on, the rusty swings in the wind as quiet witnesses. I come to a cluster of small eateries, one advertising duck, another boar stew. I catch a whiff of hamburger for some reason, then see some men having a barbeque beside the river. Beyond them across the water, I see what might be an old overgrown trail, which would link the section with the teahouses with the road on the same bank further up. As I cross over yet again, from a closer vantage point atop the bridge I decide that it has been wishful thinking, and that my eyes have simply followed natural lines in the terrain.
Back on the west bank, I gradually enter the village of Kutsuki. High to the east is snowy Jyatani-dake, which nearly killed me four years ago. The fields below are wide and open and bare. But the day has warmed to promise spring and new beginnings, as I too have come full circle to where I departed in 2009, and my own walk upon this old road comes to a close.
On the turntable: Cowboy Junkies, "Black Eyed Man"
On the nighttable: Peter Frankopan, "The Silk Roads"