Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Generation Hexed

Japan's economic miracle begat what I think of as its cultural miracle, where rural communities were given funds to build attractions in the most unlikely of places.  It is astounding the types things you come across as you travel around the middle of nowhere.  

One of these is Matsue's Kunibiki Messe, a post-modern behemoth that squats on the shores of Lake Shinji.  With a design plan seemingly based on a painting by de Chirico, it is a building far out of place in the old castle town where Lafcadio Hearn wrote his best books.  For some reason it also had a cultural exchange office, which had an incredible number of Japanese books and films, yours for the borrowing.  Over the years, I read and saw just about everything.

And so it was that one day I borrowed a VHS copy of what became one of my favorite films, "The Ballad of Narayama."  I found the film's central concept horrifying, that of abandoning the elderly residents of a small rural village in the mountains when they became too physically unproductive to warrant any further feeding. (Like "Logan's Run" as set in 19th Century Japan.)   

Imagine my surprise when 20 years later I passed through a train station that bore the name of the mountain in Imamura's 1983 film, Obasute.  While the shooting location  was slightly to the south in Azumino, the train station stood at the foot of Ubasuteyama, these days referred to as Kamurikiyama.  I knew immediately I needed to climb it.  

It took me a few years, and in less than the ideal season.  I found myself in the neighborhood during the first days of December, and while I was concerned with early snow upon its 1200 meter flanks, I figured that at least the bears and the vipers would be asleep.  A quick look at Google Street View reaffirmed the station's remote environs, so I had a taxi meet my train.   The trip to the trailhead was meant to take 20 minutes or so, but about 5 km shy we came to a gate that definitively closed the road for the winter.  I did some quick calculations, and figured that even with the additional 75 minutes it would take, I could probably be down again before darkness fell. I paid my somewhat anxious driver and set off.  

The sun shone down on the road as I wound through the turns.  There were a good number of bear warning signs which didn't help my enthusiasm.   Within ten short minutes I was happy to see a van parked at the side of the road, with two forestry workers resting within.  Thank god for lunch hour. 

With a little persuading I got them to agree to drive me up. I wished that I had something to give them, but they refused all I did have -- a mikan and a granola bar.  Instead it was they who gave me something, a canned coffee that they pulled out from a box in the back.  (If you are a taxpayer in Nagano, I thank you.)

Ten minutes later, I began walking toward the trail, through a well-funded campground composed of a number of tidy cottages and a large central dining hall.  Just beyond a small array of monolithic stones named after Buddhist deities, the path began to switchback mercilessly upward.  I found myself quickly winded, due probably to not having had any real lunch, combined with the elevation.   But before long I was reentering the sunshine at the top.  

The view on this clear day was incredible, not only of the Chikuma rivershed and Nagano city beyond, but also of Mounts Asama, Ontake, and all three ranges of Alps.  Fuji's flat-topped cone was well-recognizable out in the far distance.  I offered a quick prayer in the shrine, and tried to puzzle out the worn characters on the much older stones nearby, attempting to see if they made any reference to the mountain's infamous role.  It was a lovely day made for lingering.  But after awhile I began to grow uneasy about bears, which the forestry workers had assured me were still lurking about.  So down the far side I dropped. 

It was easier going on this side (and I would recommend climbing from this direction, as a return trip from the carpark not far below).  Along the way, I startled something big which crashed down the hill below me, probably a bear from the sound of the movement.  Reaching a stone forestry road brought some relief, and my feet hitting pavement not long afterward brought more.  

Incredibly, a young construction worker raced by just at that moment, but unfortunately he was heading in the wrong direction to give me a lift.  My map showed that Kamuriki train station was only an hour away, and the day was still bright.  Long descending road walks relieve you from having to take care with where you place your feet, and the attention begins to drift.  The rhythm of my footfalls always bring songs to mind, and today it was "Her Majesty," by The Beatles," which went on much longer than the band's twenty-three second version on Abbey Road.   I was probably on my 123rd chorus when a trio of trucks rolled past, the last one driven by the worker I'd met earlier.  Happily he gave me a lift.  

For some odd reason I am almost always racing for a train at the end of my walks, but today I had about a half-hour to kill. The sun had begun to drop not long before, replaced by the chill.  I was dying for a hot drink, but a railworker told me that there were no machines nearby.  On the wall of the old station were newspaper stories about the cat who was a stationmaster there, a not unusual, only-in-Japan phenomenon.  Unfortunately the "stationmaster" was in the hospital, but there was a stand-in, a stuffed cat that sat where the ticket-taker would be. 

I gave it a friendly little pat on the head as I stepped out, thinking that the concept of aging in Japan had certainly changed over the past century.  While the elderly have grown more physically resilient due to more ample resources, trite distractions like the stuffed cat are a sign that emotional grown has ceased long before.

On the turntable:  Icehouse, "White Heat; 30 Hits"

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