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"

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