Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Along the Kohechi II (Chōishi-michi)

As I've done all too often with this region lately, I play a staring game with the rain. It blinks first.  The tell-tale drops in the hotel car park cease, and I make my way toward the door, energized and with a full belly.   While most business hotels are of the cookie-cutter variety, I tend to go for Route Inn, partly because the name always reminds me of Luton, which the Pythons got so much comedic mileage from, but more so because they generally have hot baths and an izakaya pub on site.  Oddly, the latter was across the car park rather than attached.  So it was that at dinner last night, I found myself sitting at a counter seat in a pair of rubber room slippers and those loony-bin pajamas that these types of hotels always provide.  In these days of corona, there weren't many other punters besides myself, but I did get a few stares.  From a distance.  

The train takes me a brief way to Kudoyama, an old castle town associated with the Saneda samurai clan. I detour along the town's main street, past a funky little coffee shop that sits at the edge of town, and whose views of the spreading rice fields make me envy the location.  All is quiet at the early hour, as I bisect the low earthen walls with a live album by The Decemberists in my ears. 

Sakura are in full bloom at Jison-in Temple.  I remove my earbuds upon entering, and am about the engage the friendly priest in conversation, but my attention is pulled to all the breasts on display, affixed to the ema prayer boards, as this temple looks after the spiritual needs of women, affiliated as it is with Kobo Daishi's mother.  Women were traditionally forbidden to climb Koya-san, so she reputedly visited her son here nine times a month, hence Kudoyama, "nine times mountain." 

A long staircase takes me past the first of the Chōishi route's 180 stone markers, many going back to the 13th century.  They accompany me up yet another paved path, which meanders up through another orchard. The clouds are beginning to hem in, and before I reach the relative safety of the trees, the rain gets its final say.  Verbose it proves to be, keeping up its chatter for a good hour or so.  

Forms of Koya culture appear now and again, many with good English explanation about the amazing exploits of Kobo Daishi.  And of course, there are ever present stone markers, ever marching out of the mist.  Somewhere around the 150 mark, two trail runners come past.  I hear their voices looming up from behind, and after a quick greeting, they disappear again into cloud.  Not long after arriving at the Ropponsugi clearing, I catch the jingle of a bear bell rising from below.  A college aged guy greets me from beneath an umbrella, a greeting I return, but before he can overtake me I am off again, not wanting to hear that incessant ringing for the next three hours. 

I have my lunch at Futatsu Torii, under the same shelter as yesterday.  I shiver as I eat, and decide to pull on all my rain gear.  Of course it is then that the rain stops for the day.  But even after it lifts, the mist remains.  Things loom out: tall broken trees, massive bullfrogs.  I rewatched Apocalypse Now a few days before, and I'm reminded of those sections near the middle of the film, when things get mysterious and foggy, north of the Do Lung bridge.  Frogs and insects creak just out of sight off trail.    
I'm getting close to the top, way ahead of the estimated course time.  This is the advantage I guess to walking in the rain, that you just put your head down and power on.  While I've had absolutely no views as promised by the guide book, I know that there is a shelter ahead, and I need another snack break for the final push.  When I arrive, the picnic table is crowded with a hiking group, all over 60, as usual.  They offer me a place to squeeze in, but as I'm carrying a bit of coronoia, I say thanks and go to sit on the ground. As I begin to lower myself, my hand slips on the damp concrete floor, and I come down hard on my right knee.  Not a good thing as I still have a week of hiking ahead. One of the women drops a handful of chocolate into my outstretched hand, which crawls with virus in my mind's eye.  

I only have an hour left to Koya's main gate.  This section of trail seems to have gotten the brunt of the 2018 typhoon that devastated the mountain's southern flank.  Enormous trees have been toppled, some resting atop the canopies of their younger brothers.  It feels like walking through a mine field.  Then, the trail suddenly and steeply switchbacks upward, and I find myself at the edge of town.  

Stone marker Number One is a little further down the road, and then I'm in town, familiar from many visits.  It looks like rain at any moment, not that it matters, as I've been wet all day.  I'm relieved to find Bon On open, one of my favorite cafes in Japan.  There are only two customers, an Italian researcher busy at his computer, and an older local playing classical guitar in the corner.  I chat with the owner a little, then he joins the music on his cello.  The Italian and I talk softly from our respective tables, and distance.  At a time when it feels like the whole world is shifting, we are already making the necessary adjustments.

On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Chet"

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