Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XVI


...it had rained all night but the morning was blue and clear. I looked out the window at the inlet just below, the tide dropping by the minute. In the bathroom, I noticed a small shrine to Fudo. He is the god of immovability, but the toilet is the one place where I most hope for movement to occur.

We checked out and within minutes are out of town, threading hills bathed in mist, as the trees slough off the night's moisture. There is a Zen training center out here, as well as a charcoal processing plant. The fog creates an otherworldly atmosphere to the morning. We move through it to a low pass, watched over by a small Jizo, as is common. It isn't long before we're in a village, long and open and lit by the sun. As we walk out of it, a farmer pulls over in his truck, warning us that the next pass might be tough going after all the rain. I tend not to heed these warnings too much, as much of the worry is usually over-exaggerated. The Japanese can be such world-class worry warts.

At the base of the next pass were a tall Jizo flanked by two stone giraffes. There was also a proper traveler's rest house here, containing a sofa and a cot. A house stood above it all, and in the front entry way, an old woman sat with her scruffy dog.

We went over the pass and on the way down, met a construction crew. They'd spent three weeks constructing what looked like a long rollercoaster that transported the telephone cable that they'd eventually lay across the hilltops. We stopped to talk to them a bit, one guy saying. "The mountains of Nachi sure are beautiful, aren't they?" I strongly suppressed the obvious refrain of , "They are, so why are you guys so gung ho about fucking them up?" Just a short while later, we surprised a tanuki on the trail. If you've seen the film "Pompoko," you'll get the irony of finding one in the section of the Kōdō where man has done the most damage.

The adjacent parts weren't much better. During the bubble, they'd built a series of bungalows around a man-made Edo-period lake. Now abandoned, the cabins are still in good stead if you need a place to sleep and are into a little creative B & E.

We rested atop the next section, beyond where both our guide book and frequent trailside signs warned us about the vipers that we never saw. The trail began to descend, and a moment after Miki said, "this isn't so bad," it shot straight up those frustrating faux-wooden steps, traversed a very narrow path over a high cliff, then dropped down a stream bed. In bad weather, this section would be very tough indeed, and I can now understand our farmer friend's warning.

Where the trail ended, we had lunch beside a quiet river. We circled around a pair of lakes, then moved up the final pass of the day and--for us--the Ōhechi. Each pass we'd crossed over the last five days had been a little lower than the last, making this one a mere baby, comparatively. At its top was a Jizo that supposedly had healing powers, and the high tech A/V system beside it told us so.

Dropping next into Kii Katsuura, moving through town past the old sake brewing factory toward Nachi station. This section was a mess, far too many roads built with tourist money, in the hopes of luring even more. What I saw before me completely justified the internal Kinsellan voice I heard when I first learned that Kumano got World Heritage status: "Before they build it, you should go." Miki noticed posters put up by a resident's group opposed to a proposed nuke plant down here. I feel that if this plant is built, UNESCO should not only repeal the World Heritage status of Kumano, but should never reward it to anything in this country ever again.

We paid a quick visit to Funarakuji temple, which housed a marvelous collection of statues and faded paintings, all shaded by majestic trees 800 year old. Beside the temple building was a model of an old sealed boat. Upon reaching the age of 60, certain monks would be sealed inside and set adrift, faithful that they'd reach the Pure Land. Of the twenty who attempted it, only a single monk returned. (Would this then be considered a success or failure?)

A bus took us to Shingu. Along the way, I tried to find those sections I'd walked back in 2005, and noticed immediately the damage that the construction industry had done, especially near the port. We dropped our bags at the station, where Miki ran into a friend she hadn't seen in 6 years, now working at the Tourist info center.

Salutations complete, we walked through town to Kuragami Jinja. The rocks leading up were jagged and wild, befitting a place where yamabushi train. A young, thin woman appeared from out of the forest, then turned in prayer toward the mountaintop. Something about her resonated something in me, some power she emitted. Miki and I walked on toward the source, over jagged steps, scaring off a viper in the process. In front of a large tree was a stone the size and shape of a Jizo. Thought lacking any distinct features, it had a collection of small white stones around its base. When we came down later, an old woman was standing before it deep in prayer, causing me to wonder about what secrets it espoused.

The shrine at the top was equally powerful, built into an immense boulder. Behind this was a gap--the typical passage to rebirth found in Shugendo. We wanted to pass through, but a couple of men were standing there talking, one obviously rich in knowledge about the Kumano region. Leaving them to their talk, we walked over to Hayatama Jinja, passing Hikitsuchi Sensei's aikido dojo on the way. As Miki and I walked and talked about whether this had been a spiritual experience for us, we both agreed it hadn't been. Sure, we'd suffered some and had learned a handful of things, but overall, it just felt like an especially long hike.

This feeling changed once we got to the shrine, and that feeling of spirituality came on in a sudden rush. The trees, the quiet dignified buildings, the quality of light, all contributed to a great feeling of peace, of not wanting to leave its sacred precinct. I'd been here twice before, but hadn't felt it then. But today, this place, a major source of Japanese folk spirituality, had drawn me in. I want to make this my life-work.

A group of bus tourists tried to ruin it. As the tour conductor was purifying her hands before her in worship, one middle-aged man interrupted these ablutions, complaining that he didn't want to wait an extra hour until dinner. Then he and his three buddies pushed in on me as I prayed before the main shrine. I moved away, bowing in thanks before all the gods, and with that, my Kumano pilgrimage was done.

Miki and I scouted out the castle ruins as a place to sleep, but finding it less than ideal and too trafficked with dog walkers. Miki's friend instead directed us to a cheap hotel. The hotel clerk in turn lead us to a good izakaya. It was a small place, just a counter with six stool, all filled by a group of men in their sixties, local men and friends since childhood. It was funny to hear them talk about old school days. The master was a handsome man with the immense hands and powerful chest of a judoka. By day he caught the fish that he'd serve at night. I neglected to ask if he'd personally 'rassled the whale on the menu. When I did ask about the 'namero,' he brought a whole serving--basically an entire bonito, bones and all, ground into mince and served raw, seasoned with vinegar and chili. It is the type of thing that only fisherman could eat, and believe me, even with all the beer, it was tough going. That mission finished, we walked up Shingo's main shopping arcade, stomach churning and head abuzz. Closing my eyes that night was closing the chapter on this part of the trip.

On the turntable: Hootie and the Blowfish, "Cracked Rear View"

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XV


...we awoke in time to watch the sunrise from our tent. I took a short stroll toward the water and discovered a large pool filled with a half-dozen enormous sea turtles swimming about, their noses breaking the surface of the water in a great gasp of air.

After meditation and yoga, we broke down the tent, which in the full light of morning we discovered lay beneath an array of posters revealing the poisonous creatures that live in these waters. The only purpose of these posters that I could see was giving people the opportunity to develop about twenty new fears. We'd chosen a good spot, beneath the shelter of an awning, and atop that soft spongy material they make all-weather running tracks out of these days.

Last night, we'd taken care to find shelter in case of rain, which had seemed likely with the clouds rolling in with the setting of the sun. Ironically, it began to precipitate just as we left 'camp.' Dive shops were just beginning to open, and during the next 30 minutes, we passed perhaps a half-dozen, each containing a gaggle of stream-lined females in wet-suits, clustered around their male boss. We had a long breakfast in a town unremarkable but for its ugliness, in front of yet another small store with a quirky proprietress. Across the street, a group of elementary kids were practicing for their sports day. As they numbered fewer than 20, I wondered about how long their school would stay open.

Ten minutes further down the road, the rain grew heavier, so out came the rain gear. As I huddled in a doorway going through my contortions, I caught the unmistakable whiff of ganja from the other side of the door. We pushed out into the rain, beginning a long wet slog along the busy Rte 42. Not the best of days.

There were highlights. The sound of rain in a drain pipe sounded like shimedaiko. A pair of gardens were piled up with what looked like porous volcanic rock, but prodded with a shoe, proved to be as soft as sponges. The Hershey Kiss-shaped hills surrounding Koza. A group of seabirds stood on a sand spit, their wings spread is if to dry them. Kites and crows battled for choice sentinel spots on the lights over Koza's main bridge. The town's narrow lanes were lined with old homes, including a three-story beauty of faded gray wood. In this weather, it all looked like a town in the American Pacific Northwest or, if you'll stretch along with me, something from Melville's imagination. It was easy to be captivated by this town's charm. It was the first time on this entire walk that Miki actually seemed happy, singing along to the rhythm of her steps.

We made a brief rest stop at the tiny Hime Station, and found that someone had forgotten their wallet. As we inquired at a nearby shop, a woman popped in, and recognized the wallet's owner by his driver's license photo, saying that he was in town on business, and would find him to return it. Incredible, these small town networks.

We had a nice, one-hour diversion walking along a beach with more of those dried volcanic rocks. A few times, I came across the carcass of a lobster, its tastier bits eaten away. At one point, I set down my pack in order to jump around and peer into some tide pools. One of these was littered with the bodies of dead crabs, poisoned by the water feeding it extending directly toward the chimney of a 'recycle center' up in the hills above. There was also a great deal of Korean garbage here...oh sorry, wrong side of the archipelago.

In the next town, we navigated the maze of streets toward the station in order to get a short reprieve from the rain. A few minutes after plonking ourselves down on the narrow wooden bench, a man hobbled in on a cane, his feet and one hand heavily bandaged. Speaking seemed to take a great deal of effort, and at first I thought that he'd had a stroke. After a few minutes of hearing his story, we found that he'd been a pro racing driver who'd had one horrific crash. I asked him when, but he merely grimaced, which I took to mean that the crash had taken away some of his memory as well. We sat listening to his tale, his hands unconsciously arcing in the air as if turning a steering wheel.

We moved off Rte 42 for the first time in hours. A row of doghouses were lined up before a hill face, the residents alert and noisy. Up river, two ducks peacefully floated by, then quickly turned and flew off in the opposite direction, spooked by something we hadn't seen. We found a new trail running parallel to the busy Rte 42, but rejoined it inevitably later. Making our slow way uphill, we were passed by a bicyclist, its rider close to 90. He eventually got off to push his machine and we in turn passed him, but I applaud his efforts. We three made for a strange sight for passing drivers, the way we trudged in line up that hill. One of these passing vehicles was an earthquake simulation truck.

Atop the hill we entered NachiKatsuura-cho and immediately, the trails signs resumed. (Kushimoto had been pathetic, lacking even a single one. To compound things, the Kushimoto sections were the only places where I saw trash spilling down hillsides.) Just over this border, we found the trail we'd been looking for, at whose entrance a handful of ants were tucking into a dead centipede. We'd expected a 10 minute hike, but it stretched out to 40, along a trail well marked but overgrown. At one point, I grabbed a ground-whacking stick to scare off any vipers resting in the tall grass below those bamboo groves that these snakes find so heavenly.

Dropping into Uragami, we chatted awhile with two farmers, who laughingly tried to hoist my pack. They were the first friendly people we'd seen in days. (Kushimoto folk tend to answer direct greetings with a curt bob of the head. I encountered this so often that I'm beginning to doubt that the residents have tongues.) In fact, everyone was so friendly that we were well set up for the night, with bread purchased from a smiley shopkeeper, and the exuberant inn owner who made us dinner despite our late arrival. All was welcome, this day being our longest yet, a 10 hour tramp through a steady rain. It was punctuated by train stations that we'd visited without actually boarding any trains. We'd returned a wallet, met a race driver, and prior to turning in, realized that we'd left our maps in the station just up the road. We lay in our futons, figuring that they'd still be there come morning, as the rain started up once again outside...

On the turntable: Al Green, "Greatest Hits"
On the nighttable: Michael Chabon, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union"
On the reel table: The Human Condition" (Kobayashi, 1959)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XIV


...the seaside breeze kept the mozzies away, and the ants scampered off after the lights went out. I didn't sleep well but I slept enough, and around six I once again perched myself on my high concrete wall to meditate. Out to sea, a fisherman was similarly seated on a tall tower of stone, and I still can't figure out how he got there. The first train rolled in at 6:22, and rolled out again with a few high school students aboard. When the platform was clear, I went up there to do some yoga. We were again walking by seven.

We hadn't eaten anything substantial in 24 hours, so the going was slow. A few women were watering their flowers, a few were sitting in the doorway reading the newspaper, all of them enjoying the quiet of a day barely begun. A hour into our own day, we passed beneath a cafe sitting on a bluff high above the sea, with a look like a southern plantation. Just down the hill was a village store. The proprietress was a joyless woman who'd stocked her shop with second rate foodstuffs, overshadowed by a unproportionally large amount of foreign kitsch, including a photo of one of the employees standing with Beckham. We grabbed a few items in order to scrape up a meal that had a passing resemblance to breakfast. Then we walked into morning.

The route took on a predictable pattern, weaving on and off Rte 42, and onto the smaller roads paralleling it, which would drop up down into fishing villages, or lead into the farm settlements of the hills. Once an hour or so, we'd follow an narrow trail up and over a pass, then back to asphalt after a nice 10 minute diversion. There were also quite a few coves, and in arriving at these, we'd sit awhile, staring out at the waves. From the main Rte 42, it was easy to see portions of the real Kōdō, hidden in the overgrowth of forest. I wondered if they'd eventually be restored and made part of the mapped system. Moreover, how did they decide on the places they HAD marked, especially those running behind homes or across a beach made of overlapping slabs of porous volcanic stone. During one of our rests, a man came over and pointed at our guide book, telling us that he was one of its authors. In the fog of thirst and fatigue, we forgot to ask these very questions. He did give us the typical advice given to nearly every hiker in Japan: Take care about the wasps and the vipers.

We had a nice long rest on a narrow stretch of beach, laying in the sand and watching a large black butterfly flit above the waves, which eventually swamped it. Just when I gave it up as a goner, it righted itself and flew off. After lunch, we sat against a palm tree, watching the boats come in. It was a very tropical scene, with the butterflies and the flowers, the stone walls and the tile roofs. The mild climate seemed to draw a fair share of tourists. One bait shop was piping out Japanese classical music. Across the roof of an inn, sheets and futons had been strewn like the aftermath of a pillow fight gone wrong. Yet the consistent tsunami warning signs gave a hint to the heavier side of life down here.

During the afternoon, the theme turned to "The Battle with the Spiders." This is the season when their webs are everywhere, and after breaking through dozens with the prow of my face, I'd had enough. It was impossible to simultaneously look down at my footing and up at their yellow and black bodies stretched across the trail at (my) eye level. So at those sections where we entered mountains, I'd grab a stick, swinging and twirling it blindly before me like Zatoichi. And like him, I'd usually take out about 30 baddies before shuffling off down the road.

As evening approached, we passed through a long tunnel, scaring off a bat hanging from the ceiling. On the outskirts of Kushimoto, we found a wide expanse of lawn beside an aquarium. The restaurant had already closed, so we hastily bought some oily smoked fish and lukewarm beer to eat beside the seawall, yet another in a series of bad meals. Once all the employees headed off into the night, we took a shower from the hose hanging out back, chilling in the wind coming up as the sun went down...

On the turntable: Belly, "Star"
On the nighttable: Stanley Crawford, "A Garlic Testament"

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XIII


...it was the first time in 5 days that we wore our packs. The rain of yesterday had stopped, though the train that we boarded at eight was speckled with drops. At Hiki, where we'd stopped a couple days back, we found that there would be no buses for three hours, despite what I'd been told. Across the street, the lone taxi in town was parked in a garage, its driver no doubt sleeping in on this Sunday morning. We tried to thumb it, but nobody seemed to be going our way.

A woman who owned the only shop in town noticed our plight and offered us a lift. She'd lived in this village all her life, and when much younger, had decided that the local people needed a place to shop. These days, hardly anyone came. Those who walked the Kōdō did so as day trips now. During our brief 10 minute ride, she stopped for a 5 minute chat with a friend riding a bike between rice fields. I truly love the unhurried pace of the countryside.

She let us out where the road stopped. The trail was narrow and overgrown, looking more like jungle as it hugged the hillside 20 feet above the Hikigawa. When it dropped again, we walked to the water's edge, into its clean smoothness. People used to cross here by walking across planks lain over boats tied end to end. Today a single boat was moored on the opposite bank, rides available to those who telephoned the owner.

The water looked inviting, but it was early and I didn't yet feel like a swim. A half-hour later I'd change my tune, after a quick calf-burning ascent to the pass. We rested awhile, then dropped down an incredibly steep pitch, my pack shoving me forward all the way down. Along here was a Fudo statue of such age that no one could remember when he'd arrived. Further down was an unusual shrine dedicated to the god of the Earth. Although there was a stone base, nothing was placed upon it, signifying that the object of worship was everything beyond: the trees, the rocks, the hills. I went down to the stream below to wet my head as the heat was coming up. Ayu swam freely by, seemingly untroubled by the fishermen who'd driven from as far as Osaka and Kyoto in the hopes of catching them.

We walked down this stream as it traced the long valley filled with shorn rice fields and the odd farm. There were more plum groves out here, and barrels tied to trunks of maples in order to collect the sap. Just after the noon chimes, we turned left at the town candy shop and arrived at Susami station. The lone employee sat in his office in a wife-beater shirt, brushing his teeth at his desk. Despite even this, it was a pretty weird place, one half converted into a museum dedicated to squid. There were dozens of photos on the walls, and as much kitschy squid crap as you could fill your car with. A large tank nearby didn't actually hold any squid, but there was a lobster, and two small sharks, and a particularly toothy eel whose mouth was perpetually open as if in disbelief that it was even in here.

We wandered up to the main highway and grabbed some pretty pathetic lunch fixins, made better by being eaten on a lovely stretch of sandy beach. We followed this with ice cream, eaten back at the station while looking at the wanted posters. Those pictured had all been on the lam for over 10 years, and the artist's rendering of what they might look like today were quite bad. This country produces some of the best graphic artists in the world, but these pictures here on display looked like those old "Draw Like This and Win!" ads in the back of the comic books of my youth.

We moved out of town, up a pass whose name translated to something like, "Pass That Even Horses Can't Cross." It was steep and crumbly and overgrown, in a day of steep and crumbly and overgrown trails. At the top was an open space with a single tall Kannon statue staring out to sea. We sat wearily on a bench beside her, sharing with her the view. Moving across this open plateau was like crossing the desert and my eyes automatically made the transition from looking for skinny vipers to looking for their fatter, rodent-fed, rattle-toting cousins. Just as I was thinking this odd, I nearly jumped at the sight of a snakeskin, moving with the wind.

We followed a road deep into the next valley. Midway up was the ruins of an elementary school, now used by the locals to store tractors and wooden planks. I walked across an athletic field now overgrown to a plaque that told me that this school had stood on this site from 1893 to 1973. Even the youngest of its final group of students are older than me. The remaining kids of this village must love the dolphin-shaped house nearby, cozy-looking and well lit. The trail took us off the road along a narrow grassy trail that ran up above the village houses and along the edge of the forest. Many of these people owned 3 or 4 dogs, each of them quite vocal.

We arrived at a large but empty shrine where we'd considered spending the night. It had water and toilets and shelter from the rain, should any fall. But it was still only 3 pm; we could easily get over the next pass by dark. This, the final big climb of the Kōdō, was lower than the previous two (388m), but the climb was short and steep. At the top, the trail was a squared off path that crumbled away on both sides. The twisted and gnarled maze of roots along the trail's length betrayed earth packed down by a millenium of passing pilgrim feet.

The final steep descent dropped us amidst a few houses and a small train platform, Mirozu. We collapsed onto a bench and quickly downed a cold drink vended from a machine. I looked at the top of my pack, turned nearly white from cobwebs. I must've busted through dozens during the day, the spiders harder at work than even the Japanese Construction Ministry.

The train platform was small and remote, a mere concrete shell with two long benches running the length of both sides. These benches looked wide enough for sleeping. The problem was that we had nearly no food. After a quick shower from the hose out back, I tucked into my dinner of slim jims and chocolate cupcake, washed down with the remains of the tea in the thermos. The misspelled English on the "Waitng Room" sign made me crave Vietnamese spring rolls. Later we went across the highway to lean against the guard rail, the sun setting into a Pacific ocean expanding and splashing onto the base of this concrete berm 30 feet below.

Back at our station lodgings, we read and wrote while waiting for the final train. There was one every ninety minutes or so, with no one disembarking anyway. But we'd wait until the final 10:22 train, before rolling out our sleeping bags and rolls and hoping that the mozzies would give some respite...

On the turntable: Tabla Beat Science, "Tala Matrix"

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XII


We slept in, until the humidity began to pat us on the cheek. The rain was making promises, it was ringing from its mobile, but it just hadn't shown up yet. Later, when we a little more roused, Miyuki, the owner of Buddha Guest House, asked if we wanted to pass the morning at a cafe she liked. We quickly agreed. Ikora Chaya Cafe was a large open garden-like space filled with books and magazines on amazing topics. I grabbed a stack and sat out on the patio above a stream moving about as slowly as the day. One magazine was filled with pictures of Kumano, causing me to badly regret my decision to leave Japan. I fantasized about moving down here, spending my days doing research on the shrines and the mountains, my nights in conversation with the quirky people down here. (I was falling more in love with Tanabe everyday. But I recognized it as Yonago nostalgia, pure and simple.) One such quirky character was Tanaka-san, called A-chan while behind the bar. His taste in books and music was incredible. He had Miyuki take us up to his home, a Therouvian bachelor pad. It was a small building up amidst the plum groves. One room was empty but for a lone bed. Another room, very dark, had two chairs, two towering speakers, and stacks of LPs climbing the walls. I'd seen music rooms like this in ads, but never in anyone's home. (I pictured Peter Murphy asking for the usual.) Upstairs was a loft, with a couple old organs and baskets full of guitars. Throughout the house were unbelievable antiques, plus books on fantastic subjects. In my greatest loner moments, this is the house of my dreams.

Back at the cafe, A-chan and I chatted awhile, until I took one of the shakuhachi off the wall and began to blow. A-chan joined in on fue, our notes harmonizing much like our conversation had, and like the way he blends the spiritual richness around him with his simple but rich lifestyle.

Around noon, we returned to the Guest House. I took an hour-long stroll around town in search of a decent meal. I finally settled on the jazz cafe across the street, but found only frustration when my cheese dog turned out to be nothing more than some cheese melted on a bun. Foiled yet again by the misuse of English! I nearly cried, having eaten little more than bread for about a week. But I found solace in gyoza, fried rice, and a large cold beer in a ramen shop a mere block away.

I passed the afternoon in books or slumber. After dark, Miki and I braved the rain to have dinner at Gorilla cafe, the pizza and pasta quashing my week-long pizza craving. An early night's sleep capped things off perfectly.

This day off had come at a perfect time. The previous day had been a long frustrating one. I was the most tired I'd been in the nine days since we'd set out, and the concrete landscape had gotten so bleak that we decided to cut out the final 6 day Ise-ji section off our trip entirely. We hope to get there eventually, but for now, we'd had enough of rural blight. Shingu was now our goal.

The following day we were mentally recharged. Physically, we would be able to lug our heavy bags over the high passes without much grief. And Miki's ever-growing list of body complaints seemed to have come to an end.

On the turntable: Guitar Wolf, "Missile Me"

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XI


As I dragged the razor across my face, I had little idea that it would be a day of close shaves.

We faced a big climb at the end of the day, so decided to leave our bags at Buddha Guest House and take the train back later. We passes a monotonous morning walking out of town, following the busy Route 42 between massive box stores dwarfed by even more massive parking lots. Occasionally we were rewarded by being led down quieter roads parallel to the highway, or into farmland. One house bore a mark with the kanji for water, indicating that this had once been the old water company for this village. A watermark of a different type was cut into a stone slab, showing the reaches of a post-quake tsunami that had devastated this town in 1946. And the devastation continues. We'd missed some famous statues on a hillside, due to the recently built mega-stores and their maze of access roads. This area no longer resembled our maps. Despite using a new guide book to the Kōdō that proved to be generally clear and accurate, it still got us lost a few times. Our confusion, the concrete, and the uninspired landscape didn't do much for our spirits. The usual sacrifice of the old and traditional for the new and fleeting was beginning to wear us down, initiating a conversation that would play out in eventual changes in our approach to this walk.

After a long shopping stop at A-coop, we moved along a large river. Hills rose above it to the east, their porous, tree covered walls camouflaging statues of Kannon and The Great Sun Buddha. We'd seen very few symbols of the spiritual character of the pilgrimage during the Kiiji portions. This Ōhechi section was proving to be much richer.

Zig-zagging along a wide farm road, I stepped right over a foot-long viper that was sunning itself in the road. While in the mountains, I normal keep a wary eye out, but here I'd missed one in plain sight. I had a similar close escape in the next town when a large blob of birdshit landed just to my left.

Beyond the bigger towns, the Kōdō was well marked and well-mapped. It led us past a series of Jizo shrines, (and a house that had its own telescope) to a large temple where we had lunch. The sign out front stated that it had been left desolate until 1774, but here in 2009 it still had a forlorn look. A group of diggers were hard at work beside the main hall, and it was hard to tell if they were building or excavating.

The trail led toward Tondazaka, worn deep below the forest floor. A few minutes along, we heard some angry growling and snorting from just above us on a shelf of forest floor, but we never actually saw the boar that had made it. We eventually calmed enough to enjoy the trail, which started out as a steep climb crowded with ferns, before widening and leveling out as it hugged the ridge. It was a lovely hike with a few ruined tea houses along the way, as well as plenty of good views of mountain and sea. Beyond the pass, we had a steep drop down a fire road dotted with jizo, then a gentle walk along a river that cut across the valley floor. As usual, these level reaches always feel extremely long, and once we hit pavement again, it was near dark.

We hitched a lift from an Osaka couple who had had a decent day fishing for Ayu. From their truck, I watched a deer walking daintily in the river's shallows. The couple dropped us off at the station, where I began to talk to a bus driver about how to return to the trailhead the next day. During this conversation, the Osaka couple surprised me in pulling up again, handing me my camera through the open window of their truck, then quickly driving off. Another near miss.

The train was filled with a bizarre group of heavily made up girls doing their best 'Droog" imitation. In Tanabe, we grabbed our bags and ate our bento at the beach. We'd hoped to camp in the park, but an event of some kind had drawn around 150 high schoolers to the same area. I didn't feel secure here, and after an especially long day, wanted a good night's sleep. I felt more tired than I had in the previous 9 days since we'd started. Miki and I had a huge fight, and near rare tears, she reluctantly followed me back to Buddha Guest House. But her fury turned to a hug fifteen minutes later when the skies opened. Someone had really been looking out for me today...

On the turntable: Marcus Miller, "Live and More"
On the nighttable: Andy Couturier, "A Different Kind of Luxury"

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Kumano Kōdō X


...the bus left the station at 6:30 a.m. and an hour later, let us off where we'd hitched out yesterday. One stop before, a young woman with a large camera had gotten down. Shortly after starting our own hike, we passed yet another lone woman on the trail. I'm often intrigued by these women who travel alone, as it's not done much here in Japan. I'll always remember the young woman I saw years ago at Koryū-ji, moving about with deliberate slowness as she quietly shot her photos. I was impressed to see so many women traveling alone out here in Kumano, though I wonder if they lose confidence when coming upon Ogin Jizo, dedicated to a Kyoto geisha killed by brigands. An hour after meeting the second woman, we came across another anomaly: a Frenchman sprawling across the trail, writing in his journal.

It was a delight to get on the trail early, to move across a forest floor dappled with light. We followed a stream for much of the morning, crossing bridges covered with moss. A long climb brought us to Mikoshi Pass and its rest hut. Along the way, we saw a deer at Yukawa, grazing lazily up the slope above the shrine, obviously unafraid of humans.

By late morning we arrived at Funatama, and its long boat with a figure of Jizo carved into the prow. Signs warned us off camping here, as it is apparently overrun with vipers. (While wondering if this were a ploy, I was simultaneously bitten by seventeen of the loathsome creatures and expired on the spot. Much better now.) Since dropping down this side of the pass, Mie welcomed us with a variety of signs commanding us to refrain from this or that. Far from the welcome feeling of yesterday.

We climbed up to Hosshin. Our passage through the gate a symbolic step into deeper realms of the spirit. We lunched here, smiling as the Frenchman passed by, in conversation with the woman walker we'd seen, neither no longer solo.

The next descent was through a series of villages and galleries selling veggies and wood carvings. One stretch of homes had wooden dummies lining the route, as if the locals were watching the tourists file past on parade. The tourists were indeed out in great numbers, as they'd take the bus up to Hosshin and follow the gentle slope for an hour and a half down to Hongu. The final reaches were almost anti-climactic, moving through a series of square, squat suburban homes out of the Ike years. Yet the actual arrival at Hongu changed that. Clapping my hands before the shrine, I felt happy, at peace. After years of trying to get to the Nakahechi, my feet had finally led me along this inner, mountainous passage of the Kōdō, the missing link of my now complete traverse between Kyoto and Shingu.

Kumano Hongu was quiet, having changed little since my 2005 visit, the same long steps, the same squat buildings rising from the gravel. One addition was the small stand selling kitschy character trinkets, including items of the JFA who'd adopted Kumano's three-legged crow as mascot. (For the next three days, any time I'd see a crow, my eyes would automatically check for that third leg.)

As on my last visit here, I sat near the base of the steps, eating ice cream and people watching. Both of my previous visits here had been during Golden Week, and today, the place was reasonably quiet. I smiled at my good luck with timing as three buses suddenly puled up to disgorge a large group of women, the older ones wearing sensible shoes, the younger looking like foals on those steps in their heels.

Out front on the new access road, we tried to hitch back to Tanabe, but without luck. I mimicked the facial expressions of the drivers as they passed, pretending not to notice us. On the bus later, I stretched out my tired feet along the back seat and read for the entire two hours back to town. There were a few other hikers on board, looking weary but rewarded. A group of school kids had gotten on at one point, peeling off into little groups as we edged toward town...

On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Cuban Son"
On the nighttable: Aurobindo, "More Lights on Yoga"

Monday, June 07, 2010

Kumano Kōdō IX


We crossed the Tonda River, marking the barrier of the Land of the Dead. And the monocultural sugi forest through which we climbed was devoid of any life; no birdsong, no scampering insects.

We'd gotten a late start. On the bus along the way, my eyes had traced the route I'd walked back in '03, a year after my son had died. (Prior to setting out that year, my son's mother was certain that I would find happiness in dying out there, amongst the mysterious peaks of Omine. I'm sure she'd been right.) I remembered crossing that high suspension bridge, and the almost magical wave of sorrow that had overtaken me at Fudaiji Temple. Where last time I'd been turned back by lack of food, today Miki and I fared better. After buying big onigiri from a very genki couple near the trail head, we passed through a narrow opening in the rock representing the Womb. Officially within the mandala now, we moved up and up.

This trail was harder than I'd thought, sure to turn off a large number of tourists. I wondered if anyone has died up here, after the publicity explosion in the wake of the UNESCO status, expecting an easy day out and getting caught unprepared. There are certainly sections that would terrify anyone, the trail clinging to forested walls dropping of
f sheerly into cedars.

We came to Takahara Kumano Jinja, surrounded by ancient and immense kusanoki trees. One had three trunks rising out of an an enormous trunk base. Nearby was a small village, the first of many we'd come to here on the Nakahechi. (Had I pushed on six years ago, I wouldn't have been more than two hours away from food, despite what I'd heard from locals.) Each of the homes had a spectacular view of the mountains rising across the valley, the autumn sky above striated with cloud. I find myself strongly drawn to the peaks of this region, and all the lore that they contain.

At a rest stop here, an unfriendly group of middle-aged hikers was just finishing lunch, some of their women reapplying fresh make-up. We hurried to get out in front of them, climbing from the village, past a small A-framed structure rotting slowly into forest. On the ridge above was the lovely Koban Jizo, marking the place where a holy man had fallen. Above him was a spacious clearing where we stopped for lunch, near an impressively green toilet with recycled water. Leaving this ridge, we found a man dozing on the trail, and on two occasions ran into a single woman hiker.

We dropped fast then, to meet the highway and a small rest area. A guide told us that the hiking group we'd seen earlier had taken an overnight ferry from Kyushu, would hike half the trail, then return by another night boat this evening. Express-lane pilgrimage.

Climbing up again, we startled a large viper with bright yellow head. He was pointed toward Gyuba Ōji, an impressive stone figure standing in perpetuity amidst a grove of tall cypress. On the same mound were diminutive figures of En no Gyoja, Jizo, and Fudo. This was like a personal Buddhist greatest hits package, my three faves pow-wowing together. There was an unmistakable feeling of peace here, and the idea of having to leave was an agony. After a long while, we finally got the feet in motion again.

The trail dropped into Chikatsuyu village, laid out across a wide valley. I slightly bemoaned the fact that we weren't planning to stay out here, to stroll her narrow lanes after dark and swim in her rivers. A foreign woman drove past, her car bearing those familiar beginner's stickers. This mere glance was all I needed to guess her story. She'd be the only foreign face in town, a recent arrival judging by the sticker. She'd go into Tanabe to party with the other JETs. I've seen her story played out dozens of times, in the lives of friends back in the 'Nog, most long departed. And it made me instantaneously miss the community I'd had back there, and made me face up to the fact that, in a matter of weeks, I too would be gone.

We moved up again, along a road that hung high above the valley. I was well into the rhythm of the hike now, loving the scenery, the remote feel. Tsugizakura completed this sense of wonder, its stone steps rising between trunks centuries old. One elder was hollowed out with enough space to shelter a VW, and may have been standing here when the very first Kumano pilgrim strolled by over a millennium ago. Close by was a beautiful example of the classic Japanese farmhouse, hanging onto the face of the hill. I longed to pass a quiet night here. A bit further on, another farmhouse clung similarly to the slope, its roof long given away to the effects of gravity. My eyes strayed to a handful of graves on the hill behind, and I felt pity for those ancestors who, now that their homestead had been abandoned, will also fade into the forest and out of living memory.

We reached Kobiro Ōji, and then the main road. Clouds were starting to come over the ridge in strange formations, as if heralding the coming of autumn. We had a bizarre moment where our out-stretched thumbs simultaneously pulled over two cars. We jumped into the closest, squeezing in with three young women. The driver commented on the clouds, saying that this kind usually precede earthquakes. And we drove further west, toward a sky a color more like New Mexico than anything I'd ever seen here...

On the turntable: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, "Studio Jams"

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Kumano Kōdō VIII


We're back where we'd started the morning before. Well before the sun rose, I was awakened by the sounds of trucks loading up nearby. It took some time to give myself to sleep again, sleep that was plagued by dreams about tribes of monkeys coming down the hill to rifle through our bags. In reality, their calls turned out to be those of birds. At six, I was awakened by a completely different voice, that of a woman reciting a story, up on the grassy level above us. It took me a few minutes to confirm that it was indeed English that I was hearing, delivered in a strange and artificial radio announcer intonation. I went up the hill to find a middle-aged woman facing the rising sun and reciting her thing. What made her even more bizarre was the fact that she was standing rigidly still, holding her handbag stiffly at one side. She also had the biggest bust I've ever seen on a Japanese woman.

We hurried to catch our eight a.m. train, riding it with a group of students to the place where we'd finished the previous day's trudge. This day wasn't much better, moving up and around the concrete laden hills between plum orchards. The highlight of the morning was when the trail dropped into what was more jungle than forest, before opening onto the beach. The sand made for tough going, forcing us to take a long rest at a shrine shaded by palm trees. From here, we moved through tall grass up to a low pass, before dropping again to the 'Plum Center.' Once inside, we ignored the exhibits, staying busy by dodging a busload of Hong Kong tourists and raiding the free samples.

The road from here was more drudgery, along a single frontage road that alternated between trees and concreted hillsides. There wasn't a single trace of beauty here. After a monotonous hour of this, we had lunch at a shrine, the two of us weary and bickering. Just beyond the curiously named "Cow's Nose Shrine," we once again met Rte 42, its heavy traffic propelling us into town. We passed the birthplace of the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. It was a vacant lot, just as it had been six years before. (On that earlier visit in 2003, I'd trained a couple of nights with the Tanabe dojo, and had intended to walk the Kōdō for a week over to Shingu, in order to train with Hikitsuchi Shihan, 10th degree black belt. I'd been hoping to write an article, "In the footsteps of O-Sensei," but running out of food on the second day had put the kibosh on that. Hikitsuchi died a short time afterward.) The Kōdō split soon after, but we continued along what had become the Ō-heji, to the Buddha Guest House, our home for the next three nights. It was a lovely spot, run by a friendly young couple. The house was literally filled with incredible Buddhist art from all over Asia, the remnants of the stock of their previous shop. It was all still for sale, at very decent prices.

After dropping our bags and sorting out our upcoming route at the tourist info office, we split up, Miki to buy a few things, and me down to the sea for a swim. The water was perfect, absolutely refreshing after six hard hot days on foot. I lounged awhile on the beach near the Ueshiba statue, then went back into town for an iced coffee. I enjoyed strolling around Tanabe, this being my third visit. I find more to like each time.

I showered a rested awhile in front of the Guest House, satisfied that we'd agreed to a half day off. Then it was beer and dinner, toasting the completion of the Kii-ji portion of the Kōdō...

On the turntable: Sebadoh, "III"
On the nighttable: Pyle/Fass, "Lost Over Laos"