Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sunday Papers: Diana Shipton


"However close you are to people, however mentally in tune with them, places and experiences that you have not shared have little meaning.  You listen to the stories they tell you of people and countries you do not know; you look at the photographs they show you, but however interested you would like to be, the unshared existence remains like something in a novel, shadowy and unreal. Only personal experience can be a firm reality." 

 On the turntable:  Gene Loves Jezebel, "Giving up the Ghost"
 

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Sunday Papers: Peter Fleming


"Communism is like platonic love.  It is all right as a theory, it is all right as an experiment, but after that it too often fails to maintain its original nature."

 On the turntable:  Jerry Reed, "Hot A' Mighty"

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Kumano Kōdō XXII: Hongudō revisited



 I'm unable to sleep, so despite the early hour, rouse myself and head down toward the train station.  It's the first train of the day, the carriage shared only by a still drunk hoodlum sleeping across the seats, shoes off, and a some boys in baseball uniforms.  With each stop, their numbers grow, until they eventually become a full team.    

I am happy for the early start, but hadn't counted on not having any place to store my shoulder bag.  I'd remembered coin lockers to the left of the station doors, but there are none.  Nor is anything open.  I spy a flashing light in front of a small eatery across the street, and ask the young woman running the place if I can keep my bags here for a few hours.  Happily she agrees, but tells me that no one will here after 9:00, but that she'll leave the door unlocked.  I'm not especially worried about theft (even with my computer inside), but throughout the morning I carry a small bit of anxiety that I won't be able to enter when I return. 

I board the lone taxi in front of the station for the drive out to the trailhead to Yokogaki-tōge.  I'd already hiked this with Daniel back in March, but as I mentioned in that post, we had missed a good deal of the true trail.  To miss a section here or there doesn't bother me, but I felt we'd missed too much of it.  So I return to hike it in the opposite direction, since all the signs seem to orient from this side anyway.  

The countryside appears to get more and more decrepit the further out we drive.  Even the banks here have been abandoned. I suppose I'd been too tired to notice the last time.  From the train a few days ago I'd seen that the rice was early this year, and ready to harvest.  Sadly, most of the fields we pass are flattened, laying down, beyond the work of machines. The people of this area have a couple of hard weeks of work ahead.  And if the typhoon gave the rest of western Japan similar treatment, there may be rice shortages this winter.

I hit the trail, picking my way over a trail strewn with thin branches, each one a possible viper.  I finally enter a small orchard.  The storm has disheveled some of the walls, the large stones having rolled across the trail due to rushing water.  Crates are knocked here and there, and more snakes colonize the trail, in the form of small sections of hose.  
    
I follow one unbroken sections of black hose that runs down the center of the path.  Spiders have begun their own cleanup after the typhoon, but my face continually undoes their hard labor.  My hair is quickly streaked with cobwebs, like a character in a Tim Burton film.  The white skull of a deer washed off the hillside above adds a great deal to the scene.  

I come to a small detour around an old landslide, then along a quiet stretch of forest that is a boulder field, more a feature of my home New Mexico than Japan. I come to the little shelter where we had lunch last spring, only today the sun is still too low and strong to allow vies of the sea.  After a quick chocolate recharge, I move on, passing the spur trail that we'd come along, literally stumbling upon the actual trail.  From here, I'll be moving along unknown territory, along the true Kumano Kōdō...

...which within minutes pitches into space.  The entire hillside here had been wiped away in a 2007 storm, then closed again in another slip last December.  I can find no apparent detours, so backtrack to the trail Daniel and I had mistakenly followed, which I now see had been correct after all.  That day we'd bushwhacked across a thin deer trail along a hillside covered with ferns, but I assume that if I take the old car road over the pass, I'll come to the other side of that washed away section.  

When I finally do, I see it is one of the backward pointing paths that we'd missed.  When it drops into the next hamlet, I am forced to open and pass through a couple of electrified fences, but one gate on a small bridge has been attached so strongly that I have to swing myself around the side and out over empty space, which doesn't appeal to my fear of heights.  

The hamlet here is defined by a great number of rice paddies. Today it is a scene from Van Gogh, crows dining on a golden platter of fallen rice. I am faced with a cluster of parallel tracks both paved and dirt, and at the obvious landmark of the stone Kameshima lamp I spend a long time trying to guess which one is right.   A couple of listless dogs watch me pass by, as I move down a dirt track that I'd seen from above. Partway down a farmer tells me that the track I'd originally been on is the true one, so I head back up.  

I come to a rare trail marker which tells me that I'd been right after all.  While I'm happy to see it and its affirmation of things, it further confuses in that it, and both of my maps, all contradict one another.  I follow the sign anyway, presuming it'll lead me right.  Along the way I see the other trail signs that we'd seen too late last time, and today they lead over small hills, or through thin sections of forest.

I rejoin the main road here, following more signs down into the village where we'd officially lost the trail.  All is quiet, people out of the heat.  A stream has jumped its bed, and now floods and pools in someone's garden.  A massive pair of cedar stand behind a school, their great height and weight held up by steel cables.  

Then finally I come to the center of the village, and my goal.  As I walk through the heat back up to the main highway, I ponder whether or not I feel good about getting things right.  I again come to the Farmer's Market where I'd had a bizarre encounter with one of the workers.  Today too, the woman here may as well be speaking a different language.  Not only is she completely ignorant about bus times, she insists on being particularly helpful, despite this being a sort of aid station for walkers of the Kumano Kodo.  Hot and tired, I bruskly suggest that if they really want to help people, they could at least post the bus times.  

I walk another half kilometer to the bus stop itself, but I already know the answer.  The morning bus left two hours ago, the next departs in three.  So I go sit a little while in a cafe there, less for a comforting glass of iced coffee, and more to allow the air-con dry the sweat from my clothes.  

Back outside, the very first car stops at the sight of my extended thumb.  The driver's brother in law lives in San Francisco.  (This is a commonality with almost all that stop for foreign hitchers, a family member abroad.) So I try to keep up an entertaining patter all the way back to town, comfortable with the fact that I will have two hours before my train, and optimistic that I will be able to fetch my bag.  Inside it is a clean set of clothes for the homeward train, but I wish I had them now, for my nervous chatter is fueled by the anxiety of how bad I must smell. 


On the turntable:  David Bowie, "The Deram Anthology, 1966-1968"
On the nighttable:  Tim Severin "In Search of Genghis Khan" 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Kumano Kōdō XXI: Kakenuke Kaidō & Ōhechi




 When I left the hotel, I was like a coiled spring, after a full day trapped in the room. I waited at least until the second train of the day, to give the storm a chance to completely move out.  The sun was poking through now and again, but the clouds still dominated the sky.  Thankfully, the winds had finally abated.  This last point would be important since I would be starting with a two hour loop in the mountains above Nachi Taisha. 

The typhoon was well out into the Japan Sea by now, but the JR lines were not running yet.  I had no choice but to take an expensive taxi up. Along the way, the skies broke open again, and it literally dumped with rain.  I was in a foul mood by the time I got there.

I wasn't really in a hurry anyway, so decided to sit awhile with my book and wait out the rain.  The loudspeakers in the village below began to drone on about lingering heavy rains.  Despite this, the skies began to clear, the cicadas began their song, and the birds joined in.  It seemed as good a time as any to go.

I noticed on the drive up that Nachi Falls was exuberantly hurling itself over the abyss.  From the trail it sounded like the roar of a jet engine. The forest was dark and misty, with the type of look that fairy tales are born of.  Humans aside, I figured that most animals were sensible and wouldn't be out in the rain.  However, at one point, up where the forest cleared, the call of a deer rang out of the mist, warning of something approaching, not too dissimilar to what the loudspeakers had been doing over the last few days.  Something wicked this way comes. 

I came to a diversion in the trail, with an familiar English sign that I love to misread as "Not a Thorough Trail."  I'll sometime ignore these, as the landslide damage beyond the signs usually presents little obstacle.  But today I thought that perhaps it wasn't the best idea, to walk over unstable terrain after three full days of torrential rain.  I obeyed like a good schoolboy and followed the detour.

The detour doubled back to the original trail, and as I looked down upon the former section, I sa that it was a more creek than trail, as the rain continued to fall.  I ascended, and ascended some more, and arrived at a pass of sort, The descent down the far side was over an incredible accumulation of debris from the trees above.  The larger trees that have fallen had a darker scarring, therefore victims of older storms. 

Amida-ji rose out of the fog, a refuge of sorts.  I had been expecting a small hall so was surprised to find a large complex, with a number of structures standing at a variety of levels across the mountainside.  They were very compact and tidy and attractive.  The priest's wife was out sweeping the courtyard, an obvious work in progress as the wind was now pushing the treetops around.  A beam of light fell upon a statue of Jizō, forming a halo in the surrounding foliage, which was beginning to take on autumnal tints.

It was a tough slog up the set of ishitatami steps to the peak of Myōhō-zan, capped with the Oku-no-in of the grand Nachi temple far below. I noticed that I was standing at the same level as the clouds, which were whipping past. Just as I was dropping down the far side of the peak I startled a wild boar.  Or should I say, we startled each other.  This was the closest I've ever come to one, just off trail.  He gave me a annoyed snort, then raced off.

I continued to whistle awhile, not wanting to run into the rest of the boar's inevitable pack, though luckily all I'd encounter was the answering whistle of another deer.  The trail kept dropping, past a Fuji viewing platform, which marked the most distant photograph of the mountain, taken back in 1997.  (I believe that record was broken in the mountains of Shiga not too long ago.) But in today's weather, I couldn't even see the trees twenty meters away.               

I came finally to Nachi Park, a wide open area for picnickers and day trippers.  I sat awhile beside a koi pond, filled with a hundred very small fish.  I made an attempt to see the Falls from here, but the clouds have closed in again.  On the descent a few minutes later, I came to a sign which I believe may lead to to the top of the famous falls.  As usual, I'll leave Kumano with something for a future visit.

   
I'd called for a taxi, which picked me up at the base of the Falls.  I had walked the section down to Nachi Station (and have guided it a few times), so will skip that, plus a good stretch of Route 42.  I walked from here to Shingu back in 2005, the subject of one of my first blog posts. I recently discovered that I'd missed the most interesting sections by keeping to the busy road.  I was not keen on repeating that road walk, hence the taxi.

The driver dropped me at the trailhead to Ōkuji-tōge, and as I looked back, I was embarrassed to see that I'd left a large wet spot on the backseat.  The weather down at the coast was far better than up in the mountains, the sky clear and running hot.  The first pass was a quick up and over, the second needed a little more effort.  Along the way, I noticed a group of surfers taking advantage of the storm-borne swells.

Back down again at sea level, the map showed that I was facing a 50 minute walk along the dreaded Route 42.  Luckily I was able to hitch a lift pretty quickly with a genki young guy who, though seemingly eager to practice his English, kept defaulting back to his mother tongue.  He asked what I thought of Kyoto, and about the tourist boom there.  I answered that its good for me from a work perspective, but not so good regarding quality of life.  He pointed toward his lap and started to say in English, "Here..." and I thought he'd finish with the usual "...is good.  You should move here!"  But instead he said the opposite:  "Here no good.  No money, no job!"  Then we quickly reached where I wanted to disembark, and he swung wildly into the opposite lane, nearly wrapping us around a truck.

Narrow lanes followed this narrow escape, with the Kumano Kōdō waving between them, The turns were too tight to be masugata, and I can't imagine what on the ancient landscape would have forced it to do so.    The signage here became a bit schizophrenic, alternating between two sets of signs, which seemed to be missing every third one, so I found myself second guessing myself and backtracking a lot.       

At the far end of town, a few families were swimming in the deep tidepools of the sea, the rocks sheltering them from the bigger waves breaking beyond.  I cut across a farmer's small garden to begin a long meandering crossing of Kōyazaka, which is the most pleasant part of the entire day. More of those large red crabs scuttled underfoot, their pinchers like the white gloves of politicians (and just as crooked in their movements).  The forest here reminded me of Okinawa, with low stone walls, tropical vegetation, and of course the heat.  Especially the heat.  Though here the signs warn of mamushi, rather than habu.  I kept alert as I climbed one of the longest set of ishitatami I've encountered in Japan, and was even more alert as I diverted a few times through higher grass and beneath towering bamboo. 

The forest diversion led me out to what once was a lookout point for whalers. Today the sea was strangely white, milkier than the whitecaps breaking over the tatami-like stone floor of the sea below.  I'd also come across a small shrine for harpooners, whose tendency to actually jump atop whales while out at sea took a certain amount of blessing from the gods.  Much more dignified was a small 17th century pagoda that stood at the center of a quiet grove. Later I'd come across a Jizō statue so old and worn that it looked like a meteorite.  There was magic at work up here.

I continually stopped to admire the sea.  One view presented the curve of the coast, as a train slowly squeaked by below.   I reached this rail line after a quick final descent.  From here my map offered two choices: one paralleled this line along the beach;  the other took a zigzag route into town.  I chose the latter, thinking it would be interesting.  But I regreted it almost immediately, as I begin with a short steep climb which led to a busy road, through bland suburban development, and no shade. (Apparently I walked the beach route back in 2005.)

The two routes relinked, and I turned inland, weaving through Shingū along another a bizarre series of right angle turns.  A few people are out and about, and everyone seemed to be clutching ice cream. This seemed a fine idea, and grabbed one to take back to my hotel.  I ate it while standing by the window, and for the first time in the four days I'd been here, I noticed that my room had a view of the sea.

On the nighttable: The Jam, "Dig the New Breed"

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Kumano Kōdō XX: Kawatake-kaidō





I'd meant to get on the move by 5:30, but a quick look at the forecast showed that the heavy rain wouldn't arrive until the afternoon.  So it was that I set out at 7:00 instead, and as my taxi cleared the long tunnel out of Shingū, the sky up the Kumano River valley was the grey of iron.  And naturally, seconds after stepping out of the car, that same sky opened.  

I looked in vain for the ruins of Yoji-no-watashi, where pilgrims would have crossed the river after following the Kokumotori-goe from Hongu.  (Daniel and I had done exactly this last April, then continued east to meet the Ise-ji.)  Although most pilgrims would have taken the boat down to Hayatama Jinja (a trip that still exists, and someday awaits me), another option was to follow the Kawatake-kaidō down the river's east bank. 

Aside from the Yojiyakushi-do temple, little else on this side of the river survived to the present day. Coming across old decommissioned schools isn't that unusual in Japan, a sight that never fails to poke at my innate sentimentality. But most of these have been repurposed into cultural centers, or places for the elderly residents to gather, probably in the very classrooms where they had studied many decades before.  It was rare to come across one completely abandoned, and falling into ruin.  But then again, that was the case with everything here; the village itself was gone.          

I'm not sure when the residents had left, but perhaps it was after one of the great floods that are nearly an annual occurence in this area.  An iron handrail leading down some concrete steps to the river bed was pushed and bent downriver. The road I walked too was sagging in some places, the earth below gradually being washed away.  As I went on, I spied more and more abandoned houses lost to the forest and weeds.  It looked to have been a decent sized settlement.  And I stopped dead still at the sight of the school's old swimming pool, filled with weeds growing to heights well over my head.  Only the handrail to one side gave hint to what had once been.  

Not far past the old iron bridge that long ago replaced the ferry service I came to the living village of Wake.  Nothing was moving, with the coming storm.  Besides me.  I was moving along a road that is covered by a canopy of trees.  They worried me as they twisted and danced in the high winds.  Much debris had already been dropped upon the road, including some boughs frighteningly large.  I tried not to think of them, but kept aware.  There was some relief during the stretches when I was beneath nothing but sky.  I was given broad vantages of the river, and of the steep peaks that have been carved out.  While I was for the most part lucky not to get rain, when it came, it did so with a fury.  I could literally see the curtains of white rolling up the river toward me, which mercifully allowed me a minute or so to get my umbrella out.  This was how it would play out through the morning: short bursts of squall that would completely soak me, then an hour of high winds that dried me out.  

I thought how wonderful this walk would be in good weather, provided that one didn't mind 20 km of asphalt.  The scenery was beautiful and relatively untouched.  Waterfalls appeared again and again, all with names right out of poetry.  The most dramatic set of falls suddenly appeared a few years ago after a landslide, and a bridge had to be built so as to let the water flow under the road and down to the river.  There were also boulders of incredible size, many decorated with bee hives, for some reason.  

The wind was so strong that it pushed me sideways as I crossed the higher bridges.  It was little surprise then to look the side feeder streams and see entire swathes of forest had come down.  It was hard to say when these trees fell, given the number of storms, but one section startled me in that the fall of cedar had been so recent that they still carried their needles.   The bulk of the storm was still a day away but its presence was ominous, made moreso by the lack of any life here.  At one point I passed another abandoned hamlet, and noticed that the floor of the adjacent forest was covered with mud, remnants of last years storm, whose surge must have been so great that it raised the waters to this level, five meters above its usual flow. 

I tok a snack break at the beautifully named Blizzard Falls, the force of the torrent so strong that it has carved out a large bowl beneath.  The adjacent visitor center offered lifejackets for those who want to swim at her feet, though of course no one was out today, nor were there any tents in the adjacent campsite.  As I sat, a loudspeaker gave warning of the storm.  Stay home unless completely necessary.  Right.  

The campgrounds were at the edge of Asari village.  The road took a long bend through her, but my map showed a short cut through rice paddies.  These were all surrounded by tall electrical fencing to keep out deer, and seeing the main gate open I thought nothing at passing through.  The heaviest rain of the day chose to fall at this moment, and my heart fell with it when I reached an impassible gate at the far end.  I didn't want to backtrack in the weather, soaked as I already was.  I noticed another side road and followed it to another gate, which was fastened only with a bit of twine.  It was a leap of faith to reach for this fence flowing with current, as the water splashed all around my feet.  I stayed well away from the live wires running across the top, and luckily the lower portion opened easily.  I stepped through and retied the twine, taking care not to let me umbrella touch the higher section above.  

The road from here was wide, and the odd car appeared.  A patrol car slowed its pace to meet mine, and I half expected the officers to force me inside.  Not that I would have minded at this point.  Instead they rolled on.  Houses began to appear, one by lonely one, the closer I got to Shingū.  The road banked to the left, and here too I was unable to find the Otomo-no -watashi ferry ruins, where people would have crossed over to Hayatama Jinja.  I could not see the shrine proper, but the telltale grove of trees was impossible to miss.  

Nearing the Shingū Ōhashi bridge, I spied a newsman with a large camera, no doubt out to film the storm.  I passed him and climbed up to the old pedestrian bridge over the river.  Not far from the sea, the wind toyed with me, and partway across I noticed the bridge itself was moving up and down.  It was only then that I realized that it had no supports of its own, being simply affixed to the slightly larger (and relatively unused) automobile bridge a meter to my left.

I made a quick visit to the shrine to offer a prayer of thanks.  It was quiet, but the weather here in town was better than that of the mountains.  There were still a few people about, no doubt taking advantage of their holiday before the storm comes.  As for me, I would forgo my plan for the following day, thankful that my hotel had a pair of restaurants.  I got back to room for a long bath, and wouldn't step outside again for forty hours.


On the turntable:  The Adolescents, "The Complete Demos"
      

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Kumano Kōdō XIX: Nisaka-tōge


   
The wind off the sea conned me into believing that I'd finally escaped the heat of summer.  But just a few minutes outside the station I was enwrapped once again by the wet blanket that is August. I'm not sure what expectations I'd had for this express train stop, but Kii-Nagashima had no coin lockers, and much more tragic, no taxis.  I was able to store my bag at a shop selling milk across the road, but that didn't solve the problem of transport. So it was, I walked briskly through town with head down, out to the main bypass in the hopes of hitching a lift.  Along the way, a crab matched my step, a little sphere of red, white claws raised at my ankles. 

I raised my own appendage at the oncoming traffic.  It was the perfect spot to catch a ride, with a large turnout behind me, and about 100 meters before a traffic signal.  Despite this, I stood watching a few dozen cars pass, the driver inevitably with a bemused smile.  I've griped about Mie before, and its lack of decent signage.  I'll extend the metaphor that a lack of signs implies a certain lack of hospitality, an unwillingness to assist those from outside the community.  Here it was playing out in people's unwillingness to assist me.  As I was beginning to wonder if the increase of foreign tourists was leading to a circle-the-wagons mentality with the locals, a white kei truck skidded to a halt in the dirt behind me.

Those who stop for hitchers tend to fall into a interesting dichotomy: either old and kind, or young and a little bit rough, having fallen through the cracks of Japan's well-oiled society.  My driver was of the latter sort, his truck reeking of cigarettes, and an open can of Chu-hi was in close reach. But even guys like this tend to be somewhat shy. I was with him for only ten minutes or so, and it took him at least half that to warm up to asking questions.  His beat-up little work truck too had a difficult time getting going, straining upward toward the pass with a high pitched complaint.  He told me that his father-in-law had helped build this road 50 years before, no doubt tough work, in an area known for its stubborn weather.   

I walked back up the way we'd come.  It was pretty easy going, the degree of the climb barely noticeable.  My legs had an easier time of it than the truck had earlier.  I finally left the main road, down a parallel path that led to an abandoned love hotel, with roman statues keeping sentry at the entrances.  The road becomes forest, and I was not long down the moss-cover path before I saw a sign pointing toward the grave of a pilgrim.  I followed a side trail toward it, coming to a rickety bridge that bounced as I crossed, allowing me to draw immediate parallels with the film Sorcerer that I'd seen a couple of nights before. (Spookily, my camera seized up and prevented me from getting a photo.) I hoped then that the grave referred to the past, and not to my own unsuspecting fate. 

The grave was a small stone many centuries old, yet its proximity to the road just above let me muse that the pilgrim could have been the victim of hit and run.  I had my own near miss back on the main path, as a long snake darted out of the way of my encroaching legs.  I didn't get a good look at it, but soon enough, mamushi warning signs greeted me at the trailhead for the pass. Similar signs are ubiquitous throughout Japan, but this one had the best likeness of the viper that I'd ever sign.  The sign was one of a literal forest of signs, close to a dozen, in a relatively minor site.  I was immediately reminded of Alex Kerr's warning about Japan's love of signs, 'helping' tourists to stay within the acceptable channels of omotenashi.  

The trail dropped, dropped, dropped immediately, which worried me as I had a pass to cross.  Eventually I began to see those mountain signs with fractions (the locals love to mark of the increments during a climb), and realized that I'd been heading down, and the pass itself had been marked with all those wonderful signs, barring one telling me that exact point, and the height for that matter.  All that remained then was this descent through the forest.  I was beginning to wish I'd brought my trekking poles, especially as I was now hiking a steep trail slick with rain.  I'd earlier seen one of those pole boxes that exist near trail heads, but this one had been empty, something I'd never seen before, a testament to the fact that most people hike it in the same direction I was, the reverse well known as being tougher.   So I went on without poles or rain gear, this being a pretty impromptu trip.  Most of my intended walks this week would be over tarmac, and my choice of shoes and gear reflected that.     

I came to a scenic overlook of the sea, all below me lit up with sun.  Not long afterward, I came to a choice of trails, one from the Meiji, the other from the older Edo.  The former took a long meandering zigzag down the mountain face, while the older road more or less led straight down.   They were hardier folks back then.  

I reached the bottom, and was immediately among rice fields.  As I was fiddling with my gear, a farmer drove past, shirtless in the heat.  Where the fields left off I found a michi-no-eki, which offered shark meat grilled on a skewer.  I took a few and sat beneath a tree at the water's edge, the scent of the muddy estuary rising up. In a few days it would disappear, beneath the surging water of the encroaching typhoon.  Earlier, an announcement came over the loudspeaker far off, warning the residents to prepare.

The road led through a small village, many of the house with anti-Abe signs in their windows. This progressive attitude couldn't save the place itself, and it felt as if one in every three had been abandoned.  One house was currently being used as a boat shed, the prows extending out from the broken glass of what had once been a living room.  There were also some strange bricked up caves in a high stone wall at the foot of the hills, and I wondered if they had been used during wartime.  

Back at the station, I had two hours until my train, so I settled in at a coffee joint that doubled as a folk house at night.  The master was a funky character, with his beard and sunglasses and hipster way of talking.  I only partially allowed myself to be drawn into conversation, preferring to escape to a quieter place with my book.  

I'd prove to be more pliable that night. I learned of an izakaya from the tourist burueau, and it proved to be a good choice, with an ample choice of sake, about which the friendly master was willing to enthusiastically explain.  Two of his classmates were there, a pair of working men in their sixties, who drew me into conversation.  As is often the case with Japanese men, one will be chatty and exuberant, the other smiley but saying little. This went on a while before I was invited for one more glass at a bar nearby.  It turned out to be a snack bar, my first visit to one in at least two decades.  The girls, the guests, and the mama-san were of course surprised at my appearance, but I was amenable and allowed myself to play pet gaijin, a role I usually hate.  Once the usual round of questions ended, the mikes came out, and I was of course expected to sing English.  And a few others followed suit, one song even sung in Tagalog.  It was a fun evening of sorts, but one I can probably go another two decades to repeat.  The pouring of alcohol was a bit too free, as were the inhibitions of the customers. (And I am never comfortable being pampered by the staff.)  Loneliness tends to hang over these kind of places, and I prefer to spend my loneliness alone.  


On the turntable:  Bob Marley, "The Birth of a Legend"

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Knowing Tranquility XXII (Washuzan, Shimotsui, Kojima)



The landscape has aged 50 years, but I imagine it is much as Donald Richie notes in his Inland Sea.  The industry never lets up, and it also takes me an hour to get from Uno to Shimotsui.  But unlike him and his bus, I have a car, and therefore mobility.  My daughter is with me, and as it's her school vacation, I want to treat her to a little beach holiday.  We stay over in Tamano, close to a pair of water parks, which serve as a prescription against the killing heat, which has taken the lives of 80 people already this summer.  

As I drive west toward the great bridge, I felt pretty fatigued, especially in my shoulders, after a morning chasing my eight-year-old around a system of inflatable docks that allowed one to engage in some low-risk mountaineering, hoisting oneself up and over a series of obstacles, with nothing more to worry about than a mere meter drop into the refreshing sea.  My legs too are heavy, as we slog up to the peak of Washuzan. I am a little worried about my daughter in the heat, but she is in playful good spirits, and the climb should only take about 15 minutes.  

Richie was funny here, saying that he wasn't interested in ascending heights on what was intended to be a sea journey, but then he goes on for five pages about a previous visit.  What most certainly had not been here then was the Seto Ōhashi Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was opened in 1988.  I feel an almost sentimental connection to it, as I arrived in Japan a handful of years later, and many of my initial rambles had me continually heading down in its direction.  I remember lots of museums and displays on the then-new bridge, and those that still exist are rusting and look neglected.  Hopefully the same can't be said for the bridge itself.  

It looks pretty sound from up here, stretching away from island to island before disappearing into the industrial clouds of Shikoku beyond. One of those islands has an interesting parking area, where the traveler is led to food and shopping down a spiraling off-ramp, a necessity as the land itself isn't ample enough for a longer ramp.  It is funny how the nearest tower keeps reappearing at every vantage point, as we climb toward Washuzan's true peak.   We rump from boulder to boulder awhile, then sit with to drink our cold water.  A train rumbles over beneath us, and from further below comes the whine of small engines, from the boat race course we'd passed on the drive in.  We watch a couple of races, trying to pick the winners.  Then the heat defeats everything, and we descend.

Shimotsui lies in the shadow of the bridge, cut off now from the water by a dogleg of concrete built to protect the harbor.  These walls had gone up with great haste after the 2011 tsunami, forever severing the people for the waters that had always provided sustenance.  Even the sky is gone, under the great span.  Not much is moving, but for a handful of travellers on this, the first day of the long Ōbon holiday.  We've all converged upon the old Shipping Agent's house, whose white and grey wattle-wall stretched for an entire block.  It is a courtyard more than a house really, a half dozen two story structures interlinked.  

We climb up and down the stairs in each, exploring this extended folk museum. I love these kind of places, with their physical manifestations of a time long gone.  The old warehouse has been converted into a restaurant that bills itself as Italian, but aside from a single aglio e olio pasta, the menu is all Japanese.  I settle in to a nice pile of sashimi, and the heat of the day makes me unapologetic about the accompanying beer.

I drive cautiously through the town's narrow lanes, before winding up and over the castle ruins to Kojima.  I had been here a couple of weeks ago, leading a family of clients who wanted to daytrip from Kyoto to get custom-made jeans.  It is amazing what I learn from my foreign guests, and how there seems to be an entire Japanese subculture of things famous abroad that don't touch the lives of myself or anyone else I know here.  

To call Kojima sleepy would be generous, and unfortunately that slow speed is impinged upon by heavy and unattractive industrial progress.  Oddly enough, the fading shopping arcade had been colonized by young jeans designers, and there must be three dozen shops spread over a few blocks.  I have no interest in jeans (much preferring khakis), but I am interested in this new life.

I park in front of the visitors center, which proves a delightful surprise.  The day after I first arrived in Japan, a group of us were in Okayama for teacher training for AEON, and having a day off, decided to go to Kurashiki.  Being newbies, we got on the wrong train, an express bound for Shikoku, and realizing our mistake, detrained in Kojima. We wandered around, and eventually wound up on top of this building, whose arched staircases mimicked the span of the Bridge.  Since then, I've been wondering about this place, and for 25 years have been curious where/what it was, assuming it long ago destroyed.   

But no.  It has faded and the roof is now off limits, and what I hadn't seen that long ago Sunday was the interior, which contains an entire antibellum Southern plantation of sorts, beneath of checkerboard of murals lit in neon.  

The sunlight outside is harsher, and keeps the number of visitors down.  Shop begat identical shop, but a couple of older Meiji period structures stand proud, their former incarnations once banks or public offices.  Beyond all these is the Nomura house, with the usual array of empty tatami rooms that at least offer a bit of shade.  The family made its fortune on salt, and it is the kilns and the kitchens out back that provide a bit of variety on the theme.  Amongst all the usual kitchen implements seen in all old houses of this type, this one has a tall wine rack that resembles a trebuchet. (Intriguing possibilities!)         

While a nice glass of white would later bring relief to the heat, to a child's palate only a shaved ice will do.  Thus we forego the denim soft cream, though the color of her Blue Hawaii is of a similar hue, and brings to mind a certain entertainer whose fame with the Japanese began at the very same time as the jeans industry that still flourishes.  


On the turntable:  The Charlatans, "Live at Delamere Forest"