Thursday, March 01, 2018

On the Great Eastern Road V

It was a spring day really, flirting with 12 degrees. a far cry from the cold wind and snow of the week before.  I am the only one off the train in Minakuchi, so the only one to hang a left and rejoin the Tokaidō.  I soon come to a masugata turn, which I nearly miss since a centuries-old trail marker (according to my guidebook) has been replaced by a brand spanking apartment building.  The theme continues, as I next find a sign telling me that here once stood a small Jizo hall, sheltering a statue that dated back to the 8th century.  Today it has been replaced by a hideous little garage built of the cheapest materials.  

Minakuchi is rapidly shaping up to be a town proud of what it used to have.  There are ample signs telling me what once stood here and once stood there.  But the things themselves are long gone. It is a bit like an aged and flabby man bragging on what a sportsman he'd been in youth.  I do find one sign intriguing, denoting a 180 meter long row of nagaya rowhouses, which, to judge from the vintage of the automobiles in the later photographs, stood here as late as the 1960s.  At least the town's people are friendly enough, and while I can't say that the greetings I receive are hardy, at least there are greetings at all.  

I pass the torii for a shrine, whose straw rope is frayed and limp, blowing in the wind like Spanish moss.  I see a tall lanky man ambling toward me,  a squat bespectled woman at his side.  Prior to reaching me, they veer toward a house and ring a bell.  The woman's handbag is filled with pamphlets, and from the way that the woman hides them with her body, I know immediately that they are Jehovah's Witnesses.  Typical Saturday morning in the Japanese suburbs.  

I angle out of town past a curious little graveyard whose grave markers consist of little wooden stakes that extend from mounds of soft dirt.  I've seen this a couple of times before, and haven't a clue why they look that way other than a possible high water table.  The river is close by, and could be prone to flooding, at least back when there was a proper river here.  It must have run fast, for the stone marker where the ferries once departed is far down the opposite bank.  On this side there is a nice little park, with curious stepping stones.  These sorts of things are always lovely, but I always find myself wishing that the municipality had allocated some of the budget on decent directional signage for walkers.  But alas, the car is king, and has been for decades.     

I come to a tunnel cut through a large berm.  There are steps up on the other side, and a small Taishi hall stands shaded by a towering cedar.  Beside it is the path of a small river, it too now dry.  I find out later that during the frenzy to build new temples for the recent import of Buddhism back in the Nara period, most of the surrounding hills had been shorn as bald as the monks themselves.  After a heavy rainfall, silt and earth would pour down with the waters, eventually raising the river itself above the level of the surrounding land.  A tunnel had been built through it in 1886 for horse carriages to pass beneath.  Most amazing to me is that it is still in use.  I'll eventually come to a corresponding tunnel further on, which makes Kosei something of a fortified town.   Midway through town I come to a sake brewery, and take a few samples to fortify myself against the cold.  

The next town, Ishibe, has a pleasant little walker's salon with a few nice photos and artifacts.  I fall into conversation with a chubby little man on an expensive road bike, who I noticed stopping at each landmark to take a photo.  I'd also passed a number of walkers, something I see little of on the other lesser roads I've walked over the years.  I appreciate the "brotherhood of the road" as its called, appreciate the sharing of interests. 

The Tōkaidō had kept its narrow, traditional look all the way from Tsuchiyama on my previous walk, making for hours of pleasant scenery.  This look begins to break down outside Ishibe, due to the quarry work going on the hills outside of town.  I have a choice here, to follow one of two routes, the latter having come into existence in the late 1600s.  Neither choice is particularly good, as they both flank the quarry, but I choose the one that loops through the hills, albeit on a rather forlorn road. (I get a look at the other route later from the train, as the line runs beside it.) 

The sight of Omi-Fuji is welcoming, as I know that I am not far from the Lake, and my final destination of Kusatsu.  I imagine that those who walked the entire route from Edo would have found great joy in this view, as they knew that Kyoto was just a day away.  As for me,  I am pleased that the nice old houses return, with the old road leading between. 

I realize just outside Kusatsu that I had gone wrong due to a massive construction project.  I reconnected with the trail soon enough, and quickly saw that it would have been  impossible to stick to the Tōkaidō anyway since the works going on had severed her for a hundred meters or so.  Kusatsu's river too had risen above the town, and as it has been decades since it has seen any water, the powers that be have decided to pave it and make a park.  I can't believe that they'd so willingly bulldoze away their history, but then again I can, having lived in Japan long enough.  

And just beyond I come to the confluence with the Nakasendō.  I nearly miss it since a bunch of people are milling about, all of them engaged with their phones.  One bicyclist hovers over the stone marker, which I only see once I step around him with neck craned.  When I passed through here on the Nakasendō in 2012 I kept pushing on, but today I purposely allowed myself time to look around.  I circle back around and up the viaduct.  Despite my initial reaction, I have to admire the new river park, and think how pleasant it must be for the dwellers of the surrounding apartment blocks to stroll along.  The people I see are all young and well-dressed, befitting this modern Japan in which they live.  Clean, safe, and a bit dull.  And in no way do I blame them.  Then I drop back into an older, crustier part of town, which is after all, what I came all this way to seek out.  

But I'll go no further.  I've already walked the last section between Kusatsu and Sanjo Ōhashi, as part of the Nakasendo since from here the two routes become one. Granted, I came then from the opposite direction, but it is too many miles over tarmac, through bland characterless suburban neighborhoods.  And Shiga-ken has proven time and again to have the worst signage nationwide.  No, I think that for this particular route, this is far enough. 

I take in the town on my way to the station.  There is one of the last remaining Honjin inns, and there is a flower arrangement school shaped like a wedding cake.  There is a centuries-old tea shop, and an apartment block about to bury an archeological site, the findings outlined in chalk as if a crime scene.  And it is all perfectly well.  For this is the dichotomy that intrigued me as a teenager, this tension between old and new, which allows me too to live a pretty easy life, until it is time yet again to bemoan what once was. 

On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Solo Acoustic Demos"
On the turntable: Isak Dineson, "Winter Tales"

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Cool. I like your idea of walking from Kyoto to the terminus (?) of the Nakasendo. I'm glad you're still writing! -- Nevin