Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Papers: J.C. Greenway

"It looks like the era of ‘spin’ is finally over, not with a return to honesty, but because politicians have realised that they don’t have to give much more than a slight appearance of sincerity. Lie with a knowing wink, the loyal base believes whatever matches their own set of values and prejudices, the other side howls and the partisan bun-fight continues for another news cycle."

---Ten Minutes Hate

On the turntable: Camper Van Beethovan, "Camper Vantiquities"

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fuji Circuit Haiku

The face of Tanuki-ko,
Too dimpled to reflect 
Fuji in the rain.

Clouds born of typhoon
Steal Fuji from the landscape,
While I distract myself with dreams.

A flirtatious wink,
As Fuji coyly pulls back
Her autumnal veil.

 Mountain maples splay
Their fingers toward new hues.
Fuji's five lakes at my feet.

On the turntable:  Robert Johnson, "Crossroads" 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sunday Papers: Sheila Nickerson

"The written record cannot always be trusted... Any written statement is as true as the awareness and the intention of the writer at that moment; and awareness is always shifting, the magnetic pole of the psyche following its own dark powers."

--Disappearance: A Map

On the turntable:  Frankie Armstrong, "Lovely on the Water"

Saturday, September 22, 2012

At Matsumoto-jo

                   carve out
                           "S" 's
                             in the mud
                          of the castle's
                      shallow moat. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Nakasendo, solo XI

Naturally, I started the day with a steep pass.  There is a psychological advantage to walking through the forest on a road versus trail.  There is a certain feeling of safety, as if the bears turn their noses up at bitamen.  As it was still dark somewhat, I decided to delude myself with this feeling of ease. 

Mochizuki's five masugata had me zigzagging over the mountain.  In the village which followed, the smell of Udon hints at someone's breakfast.  I was still hungry after an unsatisfying 'meal' of roll cake and coffee.  I ate my remaining bread in a Hachiman shrine in the eponymous posttown of Yawata.  The shrine grounds were spacious and beautiful in the fog of dawn.  Back in one corner I found a structure that bears a puzzling mix of crests of the Imperial Family, Sōjiji, and Ise Shrine.

A few miles on through the fog I came to Shionada.  A parade of schoolkids pass me on the bridge spanning the Chikuma River, headwaters to the Shinano, Japan's largest river.  I too flowed on, through a series of small villages that begat towns that begat the city of Saku.  My impression of the place can be summarized by an English word of similar pronunciation.  The traffic on the little roads was too heavy and fast for my comfort, and twice I was nearly hit by drivers flying around corners on the way to work.  I remembered how I hated to walk at this time of the morning while on the henro, when the fear of tardiness outweighs prudence.  Saku also failed me because it was here that the signs disappeared completely.  I tend to daydream through uninspired scenery, and at one point I had convinced myself that I was 5km off course due to a new freeway that wasn't on my map.  I was actually where I should have been, but was amazed at how quickly this nation's concrete habit makes maps obsolete.  I also was curious at Saku's reason for existence in the first place, as these bland regional cities generally serve as bedtowns and transport hubs for larger cities nearby.  Yet here, Saku stood alone, serving as nothing more than as the catalyst for my growing annoyance.  Somewhere along the way I passed another walker, a hippie-looking guy who looked as bewildered and out of place as I did.

Grateful to leave the 'burbs behind, I found myself winded as I made my way through a small village.  Looking back, I noticed that I had been climbing, and would continue to do so for the next hour or so, all the way to Oiwake's 1000 meter perch.  The town had traditionally been known as where the Nakasendo and the Hokkokukaido part ways, hence the name.  Climbing toward her, I found myself walking through a forested area of posh second homes.  But for the volcanic Mt Asama popping out of the trees from time to time, I could have been in New England.  Oiwake posttown had a few tokens of traditional architecteure amidst the symbols of wealth, but apparently trail marks and historic explanations would interfere with property values, or something.

Which led to my next misadventure.  Minutes after praising myself for a quick pace and correct choice of direction, I wound up going at least a kilometer down the wrong highway.  I turned quickly around, swearing and shouting I went, presenting the drivers who passed by in their luxury cars the picture of a man with tourettes.  I found the correct highway after a short while, and pressed on quickly, hoping to get to my train on time.  Since the birth of my daughter, I find that on the last day of these walks I tend to hurry on toward home for dinner.  Whereas I used to fancy myself as "Lonely Man on the Road," I suppose I'm now "Lonely Family Man on the Road."

After a couple of towns that actually looked Japanese, I traced a long, wide road through the shade of trees.  Along this stretch was a remarkable number of Italian restaurants, their parking lots filled with expensive German automobiles. Wave after waves of couples passed by on bicycles.  I was tempted to linger, but determined to make my train, so pressed on.  It was well after one p.m. now, and hunger was beginning to drain my batteries.  I had earlier bought a discounted bag of day-old bread, so sat on the wall of a small manor, to give my feet five minutes rest.  I realized then that I had been walking close to 25 km which stopping.  It was nice to sit, but I soon began to feel self conscious, wearing the same clothes for three days, and unshaven for a couple days beyond that.  (Before I give a horribly disgusting impression, I want to mention that I purposely wear quick-drying clothes that I can wash at night, plus I always have a change of clean clothes for the train.  Okay now?)  As I sat with my back     rounded forward to relieve the ache, I realized how much I must look homeless now.  So I threw my pack back on, and made my way eventually to the main street, turning right and walking down past all the young couples and their little dogs too.  I'd been to Karuizawa a number of times, and knew   that the small shop in front of the station had cold cans of the locally brewed beer.  Those, plus some cheese and jerky were the perfect reward for three longs days of 90km, leaving me five days walk to Nihonbashi, and the Capital...    

On the turntable: Smashing Pumpkins:  "Siamese Dream"

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday papers: John Muir

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”


On the turntable:   INXS, "Shabooh, Shoobah"

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Nakasendo, solo X

How does one write about a 40 km day, where most of one's attention is on the misery happening in one's feet?  Details are few, but for a landscape rising up and vibrating with every fall of foot...

I escaped my sanitarium around 5:30, when the light was just good enough to see by.  The clouds hanging low on the walls of the valley ensured it would stay dark late into morning.  My maps showed that I'd be following Route 142 up to Wada pass.  Thankfully, the traffic was lighter than it had been down in Kiso.  Another pleasant surprise were the trail marks that led me off the main road for short moments of reprieve.   One of these took me to the top of the infamous Ki-otoshizaka, where young men ride massive logs down the slope with often fatal results.  It is a good thing that the festival is held only once every six years for it would surely deplete the local population.  I followed the road through a small village, where a few older men were getting their machinery ready for the rice harvest.  There were a number of signs indicating where waterwheels had once stood, something that would've been more attractive than the small industry of this village.  Yet the morning was beautiful enough to distract me from the fact the road was now flattening out, and therefore, not my intended route.  I broke the quiet of the day by cursed my map and the lack of signs as I backtracked to Route 142.

I'd purposely stayed a few km above Shimosuwa in order to shorten this grueling section of the Nakasendo.  I knew that Wada Pass is the highest point on the old road, but what I  didn't know was that it was essentially nine kilometers directly up the side of a mountain.  I was equally unaware that these nine kilometers would include a 900 meter elevation gain, more perhaps than I'd ever done in a single day. 

As I pushed myself upward, the highway itself had little to distract me from my misery.  I remember a small roadside onsen, now shuttered.  I remember a stone monument to a group of ronin who had climbed this high only to be slain by Shogunate loyalists in a pleasant patch of shady grass.  I remember an abandoned love hotel that looked like it had exploded its contents all over the parking lot.

After nine kilometers tracing this straight line, the highway cut sharply to the left and through a tunnel.  My path led me into the forest, past a couple of signs detailing a pair of bear encounters that had happened earlier in the summer.  It was now autumn in the mountains, which worried me even more.  This fact, and the early hour, were prime time for foraging bears.  I saw no sign of them, but stayed alert as I walked through bear grass as high as my chest.  The boars had apparently been pretty busy through here, with imprints of snout and hoof freshly laid in the mud.  Due to the remoteness of the pass, little logging had been down up here, the natural forest tall and proud.  Occasionally I'd startle as a leaf fell loudly from its summertime perch. A number of times I would do the startling, and the forest would suddenly streak with white flash of deer's tail.  A few seconds later I'd hear a call, answered by a different pitch further out in the forest, like a game of Marco Polo.

Finally I reached the pass.  I lay in the sun, eating bread and listening to the wind and the birdsong.  Behind me was a large sign explaining the pass, which informed me of everything but the elevation, something I assumed would be of primary interest.  Then the clouds began to chill my sweat, and I remembered that the forecast for later was rain, and I still had 31 km to go.  So I started down the other side of the pass, the trails wide and grassy and a delight after the rocky scramble that I'd just come up. 

The trail bisected the road that switchbacked upward.  Below one turn lay the body of a freshly dead deer, eyes rolled upward in a look that was almost mortification.  The flies were just settling in to their meal, and I hoped that the deer's belly was distended with internal gasses rather than with an unborn fawn.  (The wrong season for fawn I imagine.)  The trail followed a stream running past a couple of restored period tea houses that would have provided an excellent place to sleep.  All in all, a wonderful section of the Nakasendo, and I walked on in great delight.

An hour later, I found myself singing my favorite George Harrison song, "All Things Must Pass."  The highway had found me again, and I'd stay with her for nearly the rest of the day.  The mind began to distract itself with mundane thoughts, and I recall little else.  Along a short section through the woods, I nearly broke through a rotted log of a bridge.  Just beyond, I warned another Nakasendo walker about the bridge, and he rewarded me with a pair of plums.   It was the only food I'd see, as all the prevalent roadside food spots were forlorn and dark.

I ate the plums and a day old rice ball in a bus shelter in Wada town.  It was a quaint little place, obviously proud of its heritage.  It was the type of place I take to immediately, carpeted with copious rice fields, ringed with tall mountains, with a pair of beautiful old Meiji-era schools.  The road out of town took me through a series of hamlets lined up against the forested hillside.  There were a few galleries along here.  One of these, called Gepetto, displayed a fine variety of woodwork in its yard.  Forested shrines honored the trees still living, and one area had a small "Dosojin walking course,"  that proved a nice diversion.

Then the highway again.  I pressed on, stopping for only a few minutes to eat some chicken in a convenience store parking lot, my eyes staring blankly at the concrete. And more concrete.  Hours of concrete.  Miles of concrete.  And finally the next post town of Nagakubo, where the Nakasendo made an abrupt right and led me cruelly up another pass.  The legs complained bitterly about this, not having been previously informed.  The brain concurred.  After 300 more vertical meters, I was up and over.  A few km down the far side was the outskirts of Ashida post town.  The Namiki shade trees pleased the eyes, but not half as much as the grass beneath them pleased the feet.  Tiny frogs jumped out of the way like bright green rainbows.  (Actually, it did rain lightly sometime, somewhere during the day.)  Ashida had a nice preserved feel to it, but not half as much as neighboring Motai.  Amazingly, this town had never been a posttown, yet celebrated the Nakasendo in a way that few of the actual 67 posttowns do.  The main street through town was lied with structures old and historical, culminating in a wonderful sake brewery at the far end.  Then the road quietly made its way into forest once more.

Over my last rise, and down into Mochizuki, zigzagging through rice field masugata, and past the handful of inns that have hung on in this remote town, nay village, tucked up into a narrow corner of high hills.  Here I took the last few steps of what must've been thousands.   The expected heavy rain had been merciful in holding off until I'd completed my 40 km, but its dance on my skin was a pleasant physical sensation, one that was a welcome change from what had for hours been merely a persistent throb in the feet.  

On the turntable:  James Gang, "Live in Concert"
On the nighttable:  H. Byron Earhart, "Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan"


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nakasendo solo, IX

Seba was as quiet as a ghost town as I left it behind.  Rather than tumbleweeds, it was the odd kei-truck that rolled slowly by.  The high walls of the Kiso valley were receding behind me now, the vistas opening out to reveal the Alps ringing Matsumoto to the north.  Mt. Norikura was over my left shoulder, and I could still feel her in my legs. 

This valley was filled with the perfume of grape, purple on one side of the road and white on the other.  Above the orchards, the sky wasn't so much autumn as summer's final stand:  soft blue sky, wispy clouds, and a light breeze that tempered the 32C degree heat. The organic plants were soon replaced with those of an industrial type.  I was disgusted at the cynicism of a Fushimi Inari shrine within the walls of the massive Showa Denko complex.  

If I translate Nojiri, as "Wild Ass,"  then Shiojiri must surely be "Salty Ass."  My own was pressing on through town, the former main street now a highway, yet still flanked by the remains of old inns.  Beyond town I came to Kakizawa, where two women were scraping dried mud off the street after harvesting their rice a day before.  Before them was the incredible Eifukuji and its replica 88 temple pilgrimage, each stone carved with the Buddha of its corresponding Shikoku hondo.  The main hall here had a massive kayabuki roof, and a surprising shimenawa hanging in front.  Kobo Daishi stood nearby, beside an Imperial horse.  This seamless Shinbutsu blending begs a return visit.

My toes began to point upward toward Shiojiri pass.  It was a long slog along a non-divergent straight line, which finally began to twist and wriggle once it reached the trees a couple of km further up.  I took a short cut across a baseball field, and past a motorcycle cop who returned my hat tip.  The houses up here were more of the wealthy weekender type, and even these dropped away, leaving me alone with the bear warning signs.  The view from the pass however was worth the ursine risk, of Lake Suwa filling the broad valley below.  Fuji-san too was enjoying the good weather, disembodied and floating further out. 

The pass dropped quickly past a Kannon shrine, and beyond this I lost my compassion for the builders of the new bypass and new environs that looked nothing like my map.  I wound up in a housing development far off trail.  I apparently asked the right local to set me straight, for he'd helped another Nakasendo walker the week before.  He was going in that direction anyway...

I backtracked in order to figure out where I'd gone wrong.  This little 30 minute detour would ensure that I wouldn't get to my inn until well after sunset.  The walk was pleasant though, through an older suburb with plenty of trees and high shrubs and a couple of nice river crossings.  It was nearly dark when I got to Shimosuwa proper, where a school girl pointed me toward the famous area of hot springs and inns, through which I walked, disappointed at the lost light.  (I plan to visit the famous Suwa shrines at some point, so hope to see this all during the day.)  After this section, the incredible inconsistency of my map with actual reality revealed a possible drug habit on the part of the mapmaker.  Everything was an incredible jumble.  Finding roadside marks in the dark was impossible, so I wandered in circles, until a school boy offered to show me the way.  There, just below a sign I had previously squinted at, was a large stone carved with the name Nakasendo, and an arrow pointing right.

It pointed up a wide road completely devoid of street lights.  This was probably the first time in years in which I was walking at night, as I prefer early morning starts and early evening beers.   A couple school kids punished their calves as they pedaled upward to be lost in the dark.  A wild river rushed unseen below me, and finally, I found my inn.

I'd hoped to be here an hour before, at six.  As I apologized, the mother-and-son team tuttered and flitted about, making a big deal about my obvious non-Japaneseness.  This fact had of course been pointed out to me on multiple occasions, and ensured a long night.  The son of the owner (who he referred to as Okami-san)  led me to my room, which looked more like a hospital room.  As I looked around I realized that all the rooms looked like this, and that I'd somehow checked myself into a rehabilitary spa of some sort.  The son apologized about the condition of the room, and I made a bad joke in saying, "That's okay, I'm handicapped by my inability to write kanji well," something I'd demonstrated upon check-in.  No reaction.  It suddenly dawned on me that this man too had a mental handicap of some sort, which went a long way to explain the horror in his voice when I'd telephoned earlier and explained that I'd be late, but would be along soon as I was walking just below the large cemetery down the hill. 

Before my bath, I went back to the lobby to have some of the cold barley tea I'd seen there. The son sat down next to me and simply stared at me as I tried to ignore him by looking around the lobby at fixtures and design decades old.  I love these kinds of places, decades past their prime.  Okami-san's father had been a famous painter before dying in 1947 at the age of 22.  Many of his oils hung in the hallway.  I assumed that his daughter had been quite young when he'd died, and I was saddened somewhat by the fact that he may never have had a chance to paint her.

After my bath, I sat alone in a large open tatami room, my back to where a few dozen others could have sat.  I was thrilled that the inn served locally brewed beer, which went nicely with my meal, eaten beneath a large landscape done in oil.  Perhaps it was the view I'd been denied due to my late arrival?  

As I ate, a shrieking started up in the kitchen.  A few moments before, the son had asked me if I'd mind paying my bill after dinner, as I'd made in clear earlier that I'd be departing at dawn.  Having told the mother this, she began to chastise him about his rudeness.  If I'd been Japanese, I would have surely been deeply offended, she screeched, my meal ruined by this gross breach of etiquette.  She carried on and on with this, about how he'd embarrassed her, for a good ten minutes.  But no madam, you have only served to embarrass yourself, and essentially ruined my stay.

When I paid, he apologized, but I told him truthfully that I wasn't at all bothered.  He seemed relieved.  Despite my earlier bad feelings toward his mother, I couldn't help feel sorry for her.  There was no apparent husband around, and the future of this inn would rest solely in the hands of this young man and his mental challenges.   He was earnest to be certain, but quite awkward.  

With this on my mind, I walked beneath the gaze of two dozen oil eyes to my room...

On the turntable:  The Germs, "MIA"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #42

Ken's beloved cosmos.
Autumnal reminder
Of Spring's sudden end.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Sunday Papers: Eihei Dogen

“To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.”

On the turntable: Syd Straw, "Surprise"  

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #41

Autumn's chill,
Once again begins to nibble
At the edges of the day.

On the turntable:  Henry Saponik, "Melodic Clawhammer Banjo" 
On the nighttable:  Ikku Jippensha, "Shank's Mare"

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Nakasendo, solo VIII

I said farewell to my clients at Matsumoto, then said farewell to the train at Kiso-Fukushima.  It took about 30 minutes back the way I'd come, but they were a hot, uphill 30 minutes, over 2 kilometers of hot asphalt.   As I was standing before a long tunnel, weighing the merits of exhaust fumes and merciful shade, a ride appeared, relieving me of having to make that choice.  The driver had a certain rough working class way to him, yet there was a certain sentimental sweetness there too.  Plus he was driving a Prius.

He let me out at Narai station, where six of my walks have come to a conclusion.  I set off up the road, bleached flat by the midday sun.  Sound emitted from inns lining the street, human movement behind closed bamboo blinds.  

The road crossed a small river which until now I had assumed was still the Kiso river.  A look at Google shows that it was instead a river named after the town I'd just left.  The Kiso, so mighty as it pours through the town of Kiso-Fukushima, was now in the next valley over, its true nature tempered by a dam higher up.  The Narai River then led me through the town of Narakawa, past the shade of the old, high-gabled elementary school.  Here too was a posttown of certain beauty, its residents some of the most famed lacquerware artisans in the country.  Suma shrine at the town's far end brought some much welcome shade.  As I ducked into an ancient outhouse to pee, a massive spider dropped from the ceiling, barely missing me as it hit the wooden floor with a noisy thunk.

Not far on I'd arrive at the busy Route 19, where I'd spend too much of my day.  The Nakasendo leaves it now and again to run through the old post towns, but they are post towns in name only, taking the form of ubiquitous suburban homes nowadays.  One remaining relic are the water features, which were a blessing on such a hot day.  I drank at all that had a ladle.  

I took a short break at the old barrier station, now a museum, as expected.  Just beyond, I entered forest proper, along the top of one of those concrete embankments that shore up countryside hillsides and Tokyo bank accounts.   I rested again with a group of old Jizo at a curve in the road, again attempting to connect with the past.  

Memories of the rest of the day are of a rally between rest stops. Beside a high stele marking where the Meiji Emperor had had a short break.  (If it was good enough for him...)  At the long sought after stone written with the words, "Everything south of here is the Kiso Valley."  (Ah, but the true 'valley' ended a few kilometers back, at that hydroelectric station.)  At a group of vending machines priced at 100 yen, where I made small talk with a man touring by motorcycle, overheating in helmet and leathers.  

It was a long walk through the post town of Motoyama.  The main street is broad and proud, but the homes are all new here.  They surprised me in being marked with the names of inns, though I'd guess that is more historic than current.  I can't imagine any reason that the town would get that much tourist traffic, despite the pleasant views of soba fields and the distant hills where the cicadas scream.

And finally into Seba, winding down past a hillock topped by an old Meiji era community center, and through the town.  I find the station nearby and sit in my own sweat, drinking an orange soda that I'd been craving for hours, since I passed that bottle discarded on the side of the road, filled with piss of a similar color.  An old man brought his young granddaughter to sit with him and watch the trains come in.   A wonderful exercise in teaching patience, as this station sees only one an hour.  But it still beats TV...  

On the turntable:  Midnight Oil, "Red Sails on the Sunset"
On the nighttable:  "Tales of the Heike"

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Nakasendo solo, VI & VII

I'm not happy to be starting this walk in the heat of the day, but clouds are starting to hug the mountains above.  I'd rather not have the rain, but I'd welcome the cool. 

I'm starting in Nagiso, a town that I've often passed through on my tours.  We usually take the older, high mountain route, abandoned in the road's later history because of the dangers posed by terrain and the beasts and the bandits.  This treacherousness remains today, and we will call it an early day in the event of bad weather. (One one occasion, we did so due to a bizarre spring typhoon; the type of weather that clients often die in.)   So I'm going to follow the safer lower route today, the one that hugs the river. 

This late in summer, plums are literally dropping off the branch. I'm almost hit by one as I pray at a small Jizo shrine.  The walls of the Kiso valley are too sheer to do much rice cultivation.  The region's main industry is on display in the piles of timber stacked up in the rail yard, above Momosuke's bridge. Like many Meiji men of industry, Momosuke showed bold spirit in building a bridge at the widest part of the river, simply because he could.  Local lore has it that he did it to impress a geisha named Sayaka, once depicted on the cover of Harper's Bazaar riding her motorcycle, male companion in the sidecar.  Ultimately, Momosuke's plan failed, and Sayaka went off the Russia to entertain the Czar.    

Just past town, the Nakasendo joined Route 19, and here I stay awhile.  I try to ignore the passing traffic by keeping my eyes on the Kiso River below, weaving between massive stones of white.  I long to swim out to one and briefly escape the day's heat, but there is no easy means off this damn road.

I enter Nojiri eventually, a name I love to translate as 'wild ass.'  The rain finds me on the opposite side of town, and when I am fed back onto Route 19 a little later, I find myself hollering at the trucks and their wake of water and wind. As I drop down into Okuwa, the rain really hits, so I huddle in the entrance of a shop to pull out my rain gear. A little girl of four or five is working up the courage to come say something.  Luckily she doesn't, for I doubt I'd have been able to put on my best face under the circumstances.  I did return her wave and bye-bye as I step out from beneath my shelter.   Naturally the rain immediately stops. 

Okuwa is a picturesque little town, and my road here takes me above a valley filled with rice fields.  Mists paint fantastic shapes up in the hills.  Komagatake is high above me, looking quite like an evil wizard in the weather.  Just outside town, a man is perched on a high bluff, camera propped to shoot trains as they make the turn framed perfectly by the steep hills.  The road drops into another hamlet, one that hosts a temple propped on pillars and wedged into a rock overhang.  Then Suhara, and the dainty little farms, one with grapes climbing a trellis.

The final hour of the day is along the busy highway again.  Walking these old roads always entails long stretches like this, which is natural due to the limited space above this wide river that winds though these high mountains.  The birth of the automobile made the Nakasendo obsolete, so it was replaced by a wider road that in turn became obsolete with the rise of automobile culture. Makes perfect sense.  Yet my understanding doesn't change the fact that through the fluke of coincidence, I often find myself on these busy roads at the end of the day, when my feet and back hurt, and my mind rebels with shouts of "This Sucks!"  If I weren't so goddamned stubborn, I'd hitchhike through this crap.

The rain threatens again, so I make a deal with the sky, asking it to please hold off another half an hour.  I push on toward the train that means the difference between a long pleasant bath and meal, or a rushed version of the same.  My burden lifts a little as I spy the only roadside restaurants I've seen over my 21 km today: a soba shop beside a ramen shop beside an udon shop.  Then the road stretching away again toward nothing.

I get the train, late as expected due to the severe storm that soaked me earlier.  I find my inn in Agematsu, and  fall into the bath within minutes.  As often happens, I wind up dining alone.  The meal is good, shared only with the baseball announcers on the TV.  Then, as I hang my clothes in front of the window, the rain falling behind, I try not to think that I've been checked into Room 13... six a.m. the rain has stopped, and not much else is moving.  I briefly toy with the idea of hitching, but there is no sign of any living thing in Agematsu this morning.  I sit in front of the station with my poor excuse for a breakfast:  raisin cookies and canned coffee.  The train comes through and I disembark again where I'd boarded 12 hours before.  I backtrack a few hundred meters to the trail I'd seen the previous night yet hurried past in the fading light.  It is a gorgeous morning, the sun still tucked behind the high walls of this valley.  I'd counted on this, hence the early start.  I've gone fast and light, leaving my bag at the inn to be picked up when I pass by again in another 9 km or so. 

Moving through the next hamlet, I surprise a man wearing a lovely button down shirt and not much in the way of trousers.  Within minutes I pass a sign aimed toward him and his tribe, warning older men against pissing at a roadside rest stop.  It's main point seems to be that there are toilets at a rest stop 20km further on, or 25 minutes by car.  That same distance will take me the rest of the morning.

Luckily, I don't have to stay with Route 19, and am led along smaller parallel roads shaded by trees.  The way into Agematsu is a pleasant journey through nice stretches of green.  Not much remains of the old post town, a fact confirmed by the owner of my inn, who tells me that a fire wiped out over 700 structures back in the '50s.  Only her two kura survived.

The trails signs are good throughout the day, though I never get to the point where I put away my map book, despite it's big and cumbersome A4 size.  The signs do fail me once, point up the wrong side of a train crossing.  I soon find myself stubbornly pushing on though waist high weeds, until the certainty of stepping on a viper brings me to my senses.  I double back to find the true trail, and am right as rain from then on. 

It is a long 32km day, best remembered as features passed in the small communities through which I passed.  One town has a great water source, cool against the sun now high and persistent.  Not far away is the similarly cooling Ono Falls.  I'm startled to see a pair of shoes lined up at the water's edge, which I hope were merely forgotten rather than the signifier of a suicide somewhere over in those trees. 

I come to a shrine for Mt. Ontake at the edge of the forest.  There is nothing here but a torii, no shrine structure at all.  It dawns on me that it once framed Ontake itself, formerly visible through the trees.  The mountain itself was the shrine.  I continue on into the forest, passing through an old tunnel, dark and atmospheric, dating from the time when cars and man once shared the roads.  The far end opens onto the outskirts of Kiso Fukushima, a familiar town that I've visited on every tour.  The river runs wild and fast through town, but at this west end it throws itself against a dam.  An old man fishes daringly in a spillway.  I buy lunch at the Co-op and eat in the shade of another Ontake shrine, visible from the train station yet previously overlooked.  The statues in the main hall have weird glowing eyes which upon closer examination reveal themselves as diamonds.

The journey is pleasant from here, in and out of villages quiet and picturesque.  I'm startled to find a sign notifying me that I've only now reached the midway point on the Nakasendo.  It has taken me 9 long days from Kyoto, and though I've already done 2 days walk to the east, I still have at least a week to get to Nihonbashi.  My feet aren't happy with this new piece of information.  But I'm still better off than those buried beneath the tall stones at the edge of Miyanokoshi, whose stone visages remain discreet in regards to the identity of those who perhaps didn't survive the hard climb over Torii Pass. 

Not far past the Kiso Yoshinaka museum, the Nakasendo makes an abrupt right turn, mimicking the river.  It is shady and cool here, and a man takes advantage of it with a snooze in a small gazebo.  I'm forced onto the highway again, eventually coming face to face with a tunnel.  My map tells me that there is an older road that bypasses it, but signs of a newer vintage warm me of landslides over that way.  I'd go for it but am afraid to miss my train, so plunge headlong into the tunnel's darkness.  I find little respite behind the iPod, whose maximum volume can't cover the incredible noise the trucks make as they thunder by. On the tunnel's far side I pass the occasional hand-written sign for older Nakasendo courses leading off into the forest. These contradict both the newer wooden signs and my guidebook.  Again, if it weren't for my train, I'd go explore.  Perhaps I'll make a return visit.

Before long, I leave the road again and bisect rice paddies before tracing the river again.  I follow the road to where it meets Route 19 again, which I'm prevented from rejoining due to a high cement wall.  At one point it slopes just enough to gain a few footholds.  Above me are some thick metal springs extending from the concrete, which I grab and wrap around my fists to gain better leverage.  My feet are slipping as I climb this embankment, shoes gaining no traction in the earth gray and greasy from decades of exhaust.  I literally pull myself up as if doing a chin-up, until I can grab the chain link fence at the top.  It was a risky move that I can't quite believe I pulled off, yet not without price.  One finger is badly bruised at the joint, and three fingers bleed at the knuckles.  Legs and forearms have raw nasty scratches.  Then a rain comes, showing a different character than the aggression of yesterday's squall.  A nurturing rain that washes away the blood, washes away the grime.  Thus anointed, I take refuge in my train.

On the turntable:  Trent Reznor, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"


Sunday, September 02, 2012

Sunday Papers: Buenaventura Durruti

"No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges."

On the turntable:  Jimmy Cliff, "Anthology"

Saturday, September 01, 2012


Faltering voices of cicada,
Spurned on by "Eh-sa, eh-sa!" chants.
All fades with the twilight.

On the turntable:  My Morning Jacket, "Chocolate and Ice"