Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Along the Kohechi III (Mizugamine & Obako-toge)

As I've made multiple trips to Kōya-san, I try to choose a different temple each time.  Eko-in is still my first go-to choice with clients (though their prices have gone way up over the years). Or Fukuchi-in for those with deeper pockets, A third I won't mention prompted the only review I've ever written on TripAdvisor, and a scathingly negative one at that.  Tonight's temple, Sekisho-in is my seventh, out of the fifty offering accommodation on the mountain, a deliberate choice due to the controversy it stirred up a couple of years ago.  Despite this, I find the staff friendly if somewhat perfunctory, the gardens and grounds lovely, the rooms surprisingly large and comfortable.  

I find Daniel at dinner.  As the Kohechi had always made me a little apprehensive somehow, I casually asked a couple of friends to join me.  All had other commitments, though as Daniel too saw his guiding work fall victim to the coronavirus, he popped up a week ago and said he would come along.  When we meet again at breakfast, we decide to wait out the rain, then set off.

The morning is cold, and the rain returns soon enough, in the form of snow.  The views to the south that I'd admired here while guiding are lost to mist.  After skirting Koya's face we drop steeply into the small hamlet of Otaki, where we have a mid-morning snack in a covered shelter pointed out by a villager of considerable years.  The food gives us the strength the push on up to the Skyline road, quiet for the most part, though every ten minutes or so we're buzzed by a cluster of vehicles, no doubt released by a traffic signal somewhere.  The road takes us in and out of Nara prefecture three or four times in about 15 minutes.  Finally, a slight climb leads us to a forest path and Mizugamine, the high point of the day.  Not far along is shelter, where we have lunch before an unseen sea of sugi trees that I know are out there.  Then the road leads us down to the town of Omata and our lodgings.  

The day has been surprisingly easy, and as we arrive early, we walk another 20 minutes to our inn.  The words "onsen" are barely out of the owners mouth before Daniel and I mount bicycles for the ride over to the baths at Hotel Nosegawa.  Daniel draws the short straw, and is forced to ride a bike the size that an 8th grader would use for his paper route.  It always feels good to ride after a long walk, and it is an enjoyable few kilometers out along a river that shows some previous flood damage, including one tremendous piece of concrete than may have once "coaxed" the river's flow.  

After a quick visit to a small shrine that honors some local gods, we soak awhile, looking out over the river and cherry trees not yet into bloom.  It is still hours to dinner, so we enjoy beer and fried octopus before riding back.  As we are the only guests, we talk through dinner with the owner and his delightfully ancient mother, the flow of conversation dictated by the bad news coming from the TV screen.  

I awake beneath my now dry clothes, hung along a rope like signal flags.  Rain again threatens as we face the quick and steep climb out of the village.  We rest when it levels off at Kayagoya-ato, a beautiful cabin stocked with wood and bedding for the benefit of travelers. Beyond this we climb and climb, up and over the peak of Obako-san, one of the Kansai Hyakumeizan.  Its open summit is supposed to offer the best views of the whole Kohechi, but all we see is white.  The trail down a perpendicular trail is even less inspiring, a veritable mudbog impossible to navigate even with poles. At the base of this slalom course is another hut, stocked bizarrely with ample rolls of toilet paper, which I suppose could be used as pillows if you should overnight here.  

We opt instead for lunch, before heading back into the mist.  The trail is narrow as it hugs the forest wall, moving along big drops and over rickety bridges.  Moss covers all, the ferns thick like tempura.   The mist adds some mystery to a clearing where once stood tea houses, and supposedly even an old hag who used to frighten off travelers.  The ishitatami stonework down proves scarier, gravity conspiring with the unsure footing.  

Once down safely, we again laugh at the early hour, and decide to move along the road to the inn.  We've chosen the wrong bank of the river as a half hour later, we find the entire hillside has given way.  My eyes scout a route across, but any attempt promises to be fatal.  In the end we call Yamamoto-san, who graciously picks us up. After a long quiet afternoon in a small bungalow built adjacent to the main house, we join the Yamamoto family for dinner, our running commentary accompanying the news, until we all fall silent at the tribute to legendary comedian Shimura Ken, who the virus has taken that day.

On the turntable:  The Birdland Stars,  "The Birdland Stars On Tour Vol. 2"

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