Thursday, February 22, 2018

On the Great Eastern Road IV

The passage up to Seki is filled with lingering snow.  I'm riding what's called the Shinobi Train, geared to tourists, with the word "shinobi" written in Roman letters, though only a Japanese speaker would know what that means.  

I pick up where I left off in December, just on the outskirts of town.  Seki is perhaps the best preserved post town on the Tokaidō, yet just off this main street of machinami row houses, a new housing development is being laid out on a tell-tale grid a la California suburb.  Before long I come to the torii gate that marks the start of the Ise Betsu Kaido, the connective tissue to the grand shrines of Ise that I'd followed a few years ago.  From here, the true machinami begins. 

With the wind and the faded paint of the old buildings, I feel like I am a gunfighter strolling into a frontier town of the Wild West. The bank is constructed in a nice classic look in keeping with the rest of the town, an effort that won it the Mie prefectural architecture award.  Directly across the street, incongruous to all is a restaurant that despite a traditional frontage, announces its specials in a garish neon scroll.

I time the start of my walk to coincide with the opening of a pair of old homes that now serve as historical museums. They contain the usual artifacts, though I do learn a few things, namely that the post road system ended in 1872. One museum has done up a room with a futon and a set of lacquerware to display the hospitality a traveler could expect during a sojourn down the old road.  The real charm of these places, and others, is the architecture, all solid beams and darkened corners.  The best displays actually can be found in Seki's guest house, decorated with items from the previous century: telephones and motorbikes and a long row of sake bottles.  As I am examining the latter, I notice a odd form not far from my left foot.  A guest has been given a space in the hallway, his bearded face barely visible in a sleeping bag tightly cinched. Seki must have been busy this holiday weekend. And cold.

I brave the latter as I continue to wander the town.  They've down some nice things here, in creating small parks, sitting spaces, and a balcony overlook from where you can enjoy a different view upon the town.  While my initial impression of the Seki was that it was a bit of a sterile museum peace, the more I poke around the more it charms me.  I begin to see that the residents have gone to great lengths to preserve the history here, the usual blemishes aside.   But they have also found ways to engage with the life of its current residents.  In that way Seki is different than the truly preserved post towns of the Kiso Valley, where there is little to do there but admire the pretty look of things, and one finds oneself quickly getting bored.  But here there are ample cafes and abundant galleries, including one fossil shop.  It is interesting to see how they have adapted these centuries-old spaces.  The best perhaps is the flea market held in the open courtyard of Jizo-ji temple. Other temples and shrines similarly offer their vast environs for the good of the community, and I find the sight of a new children's playground on the grounds of a shrine refreshingly optimistic. 

It was easy to see why Seki was chosen as a barrier station, as the tall jagged mountains ringing this narrow valley offer good natural defense.  I move toward them now, as the sky darkens and threatens rain.  I feel a drop now and again, and I want to believe that the weather will hold off as the gods debate awhile just what form the precipitation will take on such a chilly day.  The forecast had promised sunny skies, but the current temps are near freezing, especially with the strong wind that keeps up a constant tattoo upon my face.  In fact it was the forecast itself that had encouraged me to leave the house at all.

The weather finally compromises on frozen rain.  This goes on for awhile but at one point I notice my shadow moving out in front of me again.  It points me toward a trio of walkers just ahead.  From the way they keep glancing at their book I know that they too are walking this old road.  Tokyo-ites, they have been walking the Tokaidō in stages for over a decade.  The oldest man in the group is interesting to talk to, and we discuss awhile the old road and its best sections.  The woman, probably his daughter, is merely interested in the usual inane questions about where from and how long.  The guy I take to be her husband couldn't be bothered with me at all.  So I push on.

I parallel a small river awhile.  It is lined with an array of viper warning signs, compliments of the PTA, which I presume are more about keeping schoolkids away from the water. The clouds ahead to my left look equally vicious, and sadly I am heading into their waiting jaws.   Just ahead, I notice a small rise lined with 53 posts, each emblazoned with the name of one of the stations on the Tōkaidō.  Near the top of the rise is an beautiful old building that still serves as the community center.   A guy is working in the garden out front, in a light sweater vest, bearded and pony-tailed.  I greet him and receive a smile in return, and though I never break stride, I am half hoping that he'll invite me for a warming cup of tea.  I am curious about him, for beards in Japan generally signify an interesting character, one who has opted out of the comfort of mainstream society and found an alternative way to pay tribute to their dreams

I am alone now, moving steadily toward Suzuka Pass.  I nearly follow the wrong trail marker when I forget for a moment that I am not taking the Tokai Shizen Hōdō today.  As I am puzzling out where to leave the road and enter the mountains proper, I see a couple just up the road, carrying the same guidebook as me.  Now set straight, I move into forest and take a side trip to explore the ruins of a shrine.  The road steepens from here, and I find out later that this is one of Japan's 100 passes.  Whatever that means.  It was always considered one of the hardest sections of the Tōkaidō, sharing infamy with Hakone in the East.  Though hard going, all is peaceful in the light falling snow, and upon arriving at the top, I find myself surrounded on all sides by rows of freshly dusted tea bushes.

Going downhill now,  the weather too.  The roads remain free, but the countryside, and more worrying, my clothing, are coated in white.  I think that if the storm worsens that I will call it a day, but I don't really have an escape plan as there are no trains or buses nearby.  The steady traffic tempts me to hitchhike, but I convince myself that the weather will improve once I am out of the mountains.

A long walk through blowing snow brings me to the beginnings of a town.  I cross the bridge that appears in Hiroshige's corresponding woodblock print, and rather than the cold I would happily settle for its title, "Spring Rain at Tsuchiyama".  Over the bridge is the sprawling Tamura Shrine, atmospheric with its stone bridges over twisting brooks.  It holds a close second in interest to the thought of lunch, for it is getting late in the day.  I find a convenience store nearby and as I warm myself inside, the sun comes out, to accompany me for the rest of the afternoon.

This section of the Tōkaidō through Tsuchiyama is over two kilometers long, and even as it leaves the town proper, it will maintain its distinctive traditional look for the day's remaining 10 km.  I imagine that this is how things had always looked back then, and as my overall distance on the lengthens, this thought keeps my spirits high and my body strong.  I nearly forego a detour to the Tsuchiyama's Tenmakan, which appears at first to just be a simple rest stop for walkers, but has secreted away a pair of incredible exhibitions on its second floor.   One room has prints of Kurogawa Shigekazu's "revisionist" print series on the Tōkaidō, and in front of each of the 53 prints is plastic replicas of the food best known from that particular town.  In the opposite room hang Hiroshige's prints, the scenery of each reconstructed in a bonsai-type bowl by a local pair of confectioners.  Once again I will express amazement at such simple but unsung works of art hidden away in the recesses of this country.

The lateness of the afternoon and the waning light spur me onward.  I match step with another walker, who will finish his own Tōkaidō walk tomorrow in Kusatsu.  Later, an old man begins to talk with me as he walks to a neighbor's house somewhere up the road.  On the outskirts of Minakuchi, a quintet of aging Zen monks do their begging rounds, their age dictating the use of a flute rather than the usual deep resonant chants of their younger counterparts.  Two young children in happi accompany them as they go.  Rows of tea bushes fill the gaps between houses.  And finally then the train line, serviced at irregular intervals by a single old rattling carriage.  Today it is filled with young riders, a completely different demographic than expected.   I am the oldest person on board and must look it, as I shuffle aboard on legs weary from 27 km and sub-zero temps.

On the turntable: Greg Brown, "In the Hills of California"
On the nighttable:  Joseph Conrad, "Rescue"



wes said...

Great report of this secluded part of Mie. Looking forward to revisiting Seki with you tomorrow.

Edward J. Taylor said...

Will be fun!