Monday, May 11, 2009

Road of the Hungry Ghosts (Wakasa-kaido III )

I had planned to climb Ibuki-san today, but apparently my legs didn't agree. After the 30-some kilometers of yesterday, they were like heavy cord wood in my bed. I turned off the alarm and awoke a few hours later. Needed that I suppose.

The train pulls out at the luxurious hour of 10 a.m. It runs quickly up Biwa's western waist, beneath high mountains looking majestic and boastful against the brilliant clear sky. To counter some of this bravado, a team of workers lays concrete in a crease of Hira-san's flank, for no apparent reason other than "Deru kui wa utareru." Some other protruding nails ride their motorcycles up a nearby highway. They all have jackets proclaiming themselves as the "Yellow Corn Magnum Highway Pack." Closet Simpsons fans perhaps?

I take a bus out to Kutsuki, which is where I'll walk a section of the old Saba Kaido. It's a different branch than what Miki and I hope to walk this summer. This one starts down in Ohara and finishes up in Obama. Near the bus stop are a row old homes against the ubiquitous rice fields, now flooded and cacophonous with frog. In the middle stands a home that looks like a cross between a 1760s farm house and 1960s Brady architecture; a hybrid that somehow works. A temple stands up on a hill above them. It is a quiet wooded space, upon which a Kannon statue sits and watches.

I move out of town and into the hills. I've been at it only an hour but its already lunchtime! The Loft is a welcome sight at a bend in the river. The proprietress is very friendly, though I don't get a laugh when I offer to give her a photo of my shoes to hang alongside the hundreds of pictures of customer's cars which cover all the walls. The ample shelves are filled with knick-knacks and doo-dads, over which an '80's soundtrack allows me to mine my college-age memories for annoyingly catchy tunes to hum for the rest of the day. I like this place and my good hearty lunch, which satisfies far more than the riceballs in my pack.

I climb into a lovely cedar forest, which is pollen free and filled with bird song. There is something else that I can't figure out for awhile, then get it: There's no trash strewn down the hillsides here. I do come upon a ripped up valley, the trees looking as if massacred. Angers starts to rise, until I see a sign saying that this is where local school kids come to learn some of this region's forestry legacy. I come to one hill where the temperature reads 22 degrees, then a 100 meters later it is somehow only 19. There's an 'environmental' center out here, which in Japan translates to "a place that comes up with creative ways to incinerate trash." Atop the highest pass I'm surprised to see a small crab. I drop down to a busier road, but decide to stay on the old highway that runs just above. Unused for decades, it's now strewn with moss, with trees and shrubs that overhang the trail lower and lower to eventually become a mere deertrail. When it peters out, I make my way down an embankment and find the distinctive print of a bear's foot.

I come to a small village with a particular haunted look, of kayabuki and demon masks, decaying buildings and an unkept shrine with slippery steps. Above a clean, fast river is a kiln built of cinder blocks. Still off the busy new road, I rejoin the old highway, which becomes more and more post-apocalyptic. One section hangs and crumbles into the river far below, swept clean by a recent landslide. I carefully pick my way across, near a car that has been pummeled by vandals. Another small row of buildings comes up soon. Ahead of me, I see the figure of an old bowlegged man moving along with his cane. We exchange greetings. He is against a background of rock graves overgrown with weeds that literally explode with white flowers. I'm moved by the simultaneous literal and metaphoric beauty of it. As I walk away I catch a quiet melody under his breath.

The name of the next village, Kumagawa, has already been given clarity by the bear print of an hour ago. It is a one lane film set, basically. This has to be one of the best preserved towns I've ever seen. Seriously, it belongs more to cinema than to reality. It is pure joy to walk through. The only accommodation to the calendar are the political posters that hang in front of the town hall. This being just outside Obama city limits, they show a group of politicos shaking hands under the slogan, "Yes, We Are!" I allow them to continue their search for the proper grammatical object as I thumb a ride back to where the trains are.

All aboard, I look across the lake at Ibuki-san, which has an accusing look that says, "Hey! Where were you?"

On the turntable: Jimmy Smith, "Organ Grinder Swing"
On the nighttable: Robert Twigger, "Angry White Pyjamas"
On the reel table: "Samurai Rebellion" (Kobayashi, 1967)


Chris ( said...

Sounds like a much more charming way to spend the day than Ibuki (nice as it is). Kumagawa sounds enchanting, I might have to take a trip up that way when I'm next in Kansai - my wife's bear-phobia notwithstanding..

ted said...

Hey Chris,

No bears that I could see, but one lovely little town. You should think about doing the visit in summer, as the Nihonkai is just 14km away.

Miki and I hope to hike the Saba Kaido from Kyoto to Obama over 4 days in August. Maybe we could all do part of it together?