Friday, December 27, 2013
Linking the 8th Century (Ise Hon-kaido III)
A number of my hiking guidebooks show that I had left some unfinished paths. What I mean by this is that I'd previously walked part of a walking course featured within, as sections that overlapped the Tokai Shizen Hōdō which I had walked in 2008-9. Two such partially finished courses were to the south of Nara, so I decided to complete them in a single walk from Hasedera to Murōji.
I stepped off the train at Hasedera Station and into a fierce cold. The station is built atop a rise, and at its bottom is what is known both as the Ise Kaido and the Hase Kaido, though the latter is written with a different kanji (初瀬) than that used for the temple (長谷). I was retracing my steps from four years ago, but then I diverged by crossing an old bridge shadowed by a massive tree that was literally thrusting itself from the hillside. Its season-shorn limbs and branches gave it a look of despair that was almost violent.
I climbed a steep set of stone stairs to a Tenjin Shrine, allegedly the first in the country (which I find somewhat hard to believe, for reasons that are too protracted and dull to write here). The trail markers and signage were new and easy to follow, reminding me of why I love hiking in Nara. One of the signs revealed this place as a power spot, seemingly defined as any weathered religious edifice that requires a modicum of effort to reach. The trail led me down, then up again, the path paved and coated with leaves in a soggy state of decomposition. At the pass, a massive buna burst through a pile of stones at it base. The trees up here certainly were dramatic.
From the pass, the trail hugged the hillside above a village, before rejoining the busy Route 165. I traversed this for the next hour, on a sidewalk covered with untrod moss. Few seem to undertake this particular walk. I passed a small pottery workshop as well as a trio of vending machines hidden away in a corrogated iron shack as an attempt to shield the eyes of those offended by the porn that they sell. This high brow/low brow pairing was further emphasized by an ancient jizo statue, its face worn by the elements despite the stonehenge like shelter, standing across the road from a similar bunker made of concrete that served as the local rubbish dump. Further on still was a long closed pachinko place, betraying the hope in it's name -- Heisei.
I arrived in Haibara, a town whose name always reminds me of an ashtray. It was a pleasant place, with a trail marker for the Ise Kaido that pointed me down a groomed hillside behind a row of suburban homes. I arrived eventually at an arcade with a similar monicker, leading me as it did along a road with classic post town features. An Edo period and Meiji period building proudly flanked the road, beside a modern upstart being throw up in defiance of history or good taste. Living here can be so depressing sometimes.
Like many of my walks, it is a game that moves as I play, if I may paraphrase Exene Cervenka. I had intended to walk the entire way, but along the way I'd suddenly decided on a future attempt at the entire Ise Kaidō, all the way to the grand shrines at the end, so put off this next section until another time. It was a 45 minute wait for the bus, one of only four on the day. I instead walked up the road, thumb out. In less than 10 minutes I was picked up, but not before I started to wonder how long I'd be able to keep up hitching, heading as I am into middle-age. Will my aging foreign face soon become a source of amusement for the locals, as they make their merry Sunday way along these old highways?
My driver was also a hiker. She told me that she and her husband were a day away from walking the Ise Kaidō themselves, timing it for an arrival on New Years Day. I would have loved to talk longer with her, but I had my own walk to do.
The snow was falling now as I moved steadily beside rice fields and toward the hills. Up until then I'd been walking in sunshine, but the weather over the peaks was dark and grey. I was on to my second uncompleted walk now, under far different conditions than last time. Above these hamlets was the beautiful old Butsuryūji temple, standing proudly atop a long flight of 900 stone steps. In spring, the sakura here must be magnificent. The old hall stood anachronistically beside an old shrine. Behind the latter was a tiny stone pyramid that protected a 8th Century stupa. Another reason to love Nara, these dignified old stoneworks lining every country path.
As I moved now into the forest, the stonework of the path itself was a millennium younger, being mainly an Edo period invention. I made my way slowly across these ishi-tatami, slick as they were under the fresh coat of snow. They brought me quickly to the pass, and a paved road. En-no-gyoja sat beneath his own stone hut, gazing eternally over the valley I'd just walked. The surface of the road betrayed the presence of figures more mobile; the prints of deer, of boar, like musical notes on a fresh score. I followed the tracks of a fox as it wended its way toward Muroji.
The road brought me to a village, then began to slalom around farmhouses bundled up against the cold. It was truly brisk out, and at one point my iPhone died, its battery no longer able to face the cold. When I finally reached Murōji, I stepped into a souvenir shop and asked if I could resuscitate my phone by plugging it in. I bought some somen to make amends.
Without my phone, I wouldn't have been able to call Togeii, whose blog I'd been following for quite a number of years. After a number of false starts, we finally met, and drove into Nara city for a nice chat over coffees. He's an intriguing guy who has been living in rural Nara, working as a potter and an antique dealer, amongst a few other things. It's always a delight to meet in person someone who you've been long following in print. In the past, this has led to a number of my closest friendships.
As the conversation kept my head busy, I wasn't paying attention to what was happening in my body. But it all became clear as I descended the steps to the train platform. My legs were heavy with fatigue, far more than usual after a mere 18 km walk. The day's bitter cold had taken its toll. More worrisome was the tingle in my fingertips, a souvenir of my snowy night in the mountains of Shiga just about one year ago. I'd hoped that the nerve damage wasn't permanent but...
No matter. They apparently can function well enough, as I type out what turns into yet another lengthy blog post.
On the turntable: Moby, "Hotel"
On the nighttable: V. Vale, "Incredibly Strange Music"