Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Chubu III

I've noticed over the years the fear creeping in, the anxiety about the wild that hangs upon me more heavily than my backpack.  Granted, there has been an increase in animal encounters in Japan recently, but it doesn't warrant the fear.  The day's hike brings with it more worry than usual, as I am forced to undertake a late start, one that will guarantee the final hour will be walked in full darkness, and in a mountainous section to boot. The past few days have brought a taste of autumn, a time when the pre-hibernation beasties are most active, gorging themselves on the all you can eat banquet that is the Japanese mountainscape.  

Luckily I check my flashlight, and replace the failing batteries.  I dawdle when I reach Ena station, as I know that the train company has changed their schedules, forcing me to kill an hour.  The time allows me a rethink, and I decide to fork out for an expensive taxi ride in the hopes of getting to my inn before too late.  

I begin my walk a half an hour later in Akechi, an attractive little town that bills itself as "Taishō town,"  since a handful of buildings dotting this small valley were built in that early 20th Century era.  I cover the section I missed last time, following not only the TSH, but also something called the 'Taishō Walk' which leads me past a few of them, then up and over a small pass out of town.  

It is a pretty day through a series of attractive rural villages.  I'm fed now and again onto narrow forest roads that bisect short sections of plantation cedar. With each step I am getting more and more remote, but there is an annoying number of roads out here, which twist and spiral atop one another. Apparently the LDP has spent a lot of money in the area.  Multiple roads mean multiple places to go wrong, and I really don't have the daylight for it today.  I am (and will continue to be) lucky with the ample signage, but one sign has been scratched out and the directional arrow redirected.  It contradicts the map in my book, so I go with the devil I know, assuming that the 'corrected' sign is a prank.  After a nervous 20 minutes or so, I find that I made the right choice. 

I suspect 'road demons,' for the prank, especially after I pass a turn off for one of their race courses.  What is it with Gifu Prefecture and its Speed Kings?  Moments after thinking this, I hear the sound of motorbikes shrieking through turns somewhere above me.  The sound follows me well into the forest and never grew any less annoying.  

Bizarrely enough, members of that tribe come to my rescue.  I find myself walking up a newer section of road, one that is climbing steadily and beginning to compress into hairpin curves.  I've been diligent about walking every meter of this TSH, but I see no reason to be on this road, which brings a feeling of redundancy in the way it curls back on itself.  I turn to thumb a ride with the first car passing, its lowered frame nearly flush with the ground.  My heroes, a pair of Speed Kings, scream away in their usual noise, but prove to be polite in conversation, deferent in their choice of verb tenses.  I'm in the car less than five minutes, but they've saved me a tough climb and helped add fifteen crucial daylight minutes to my day.

I keep to this road awhile before it peters out in a picturesque village at the end of the day.  The sun is still bright and brings out all the shades of green.  The rice harvest is not long off now.  And above wells up my last set of mountains.  I have about an hour of daylight left, but need at least that to get through.  I push hard up the stairs into the trees.  My legs are drained and don't appreciate these concrete 'logs' that are a prominent feature of the TSH. While I appreciate the attempt to improve the trail, the earth beneath them gradually erodes away, and after a few years they are too high to comfortably ascend.  A few years after that, the hiker faces a steeplechase.  I'll take a gradual slope any day.

I arrive atop the pass winded and covered in a poultice of sweat and spiderwebs.  I've made good time.  The descent will take a full two kilometers, into the setting sun. The light is welcome, but it blinds me somewhat, and I can't get a good look at where I place my feet. What's making things worse is my state of mind.  The Japanese believe that telling ghost stories in summer helps to bring chills that ease the heat.  In that spirit (no pun) I've read a half dozen books of spooky tales over the last week, and my eyes are bringing new definition to the shadows.  And as the sun begins to leave the sky, the birds and insects seem to protest its going in a noisy cacophony. 

I pick up my pace as I turn through a long series of switchbacks, scaring a pair of deer whose footfalls echo away in a rhythm graceful and light.  Deer of course are not very bright, but can bears and boars become habituated to man's absence in the night?  Pigs are famously smart (though not enough to fly), and Russian bears can be taught to ride bicycles.  Do they know that after dark, man goes away, and the forest is essentially theirs? 

I reach the road again in the grey crepuscule.  I walk a short distance over to a bus stop, the one and only bus having left hours before.  I can't figure out the kanji for the village's name, so I take a photo of the characters to show my taxi driver for when I return tomorrow. I notice a farmer standing there, who seems on the verge of saying something, but chooses instead to turn toward his house. 

I face a long 8 km walk to Odo onsen, and my inn.   This is the only accommodation along this whole section, and had forced me to cover the distance I had gone.  But it ensures an easier day tomorrow.  I plod along the wide road, hoping for traffic, but everything is going in the wrong direction.  A single car passes in a half an hour, and doesn't even slow.  I know from experience that after full dark, no one will stop.  I call my inn to ensure them that I am still coming, and will be later than expected.  They seem less than happy at this news.  And at that very moment, a car pulls up, with the smiling face of the farmer.

He must be in his seventies, and built with the usually wiry gristle of his occupation.  I worry that he drove out this way simply to give me a lift, but he says that no, the only food around here is at the convenience store in town.  (Funny concept for a farmer.)  My inn happens to be next door, and the old woman in charge is surprised that I arrived so quickly.  So soon in fact that the bath is still tepid.  I sit as close as I can to the faucet, seeking the balance between full relaxation and a painful scalding.  Dinner too is a similarly lukewarm affair, taken alone in my room.  I had hoped for a bit of social hour in a common room, where the foreigner is the night's entertainment.  But I seem to be the only guest.  And the woman looking after me (probably the daughter-in-law) seems a bit anxious.  I ask if they ever get any foreign guests, and she tells that they had one once.  I do my best to be a good specimen, eating all my food, and replacing the futons in the morning.  I've pulled all of them out to build a high-rise bed platform, far more inviting than the single rock-hard layer provided.  But good manners aside, I pushed hard today, and need good rest for the 18 kg to come, all of them in mountains... 

On the turntable:  The Dubliners, "Greatest Hits"
On the nighttable:  Robert Byron, "The Road to Oxiona"


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