We had three days ahead of us and blue skies overhead. At an early hour, we found ourselves yet again walking away from Ishiyama-dera Station. This being the Shiga suburbs, it didn't take us long to lose the trail, always marked at annoyingly random intervals. (I said once again how I wanted to write a letter to the parks department, and this time Miki might actually hold me to it.) Despite walking lost between cookie-cutter houses, we made our way toward the tall hotels farther off, knowing they marked Nango Onsen and the bridge that would take us east across the river. The houses fell away quickly and we were soon on a farmroad that shook with every passing truck. The mountains weren't too far off and we were on them quickly. This area is known by the hopeful moniker of "Konan Alps", thought we found out later that this name referred only to the two low hills that rose to our left like perfectly shaped breasts. The figure of a lone hiker leaning into a stick was making his way slowly and gingerly up their steep sloped sides. The trail we were on was lovely, leading us along a stream. Just past a small Fudo Statue, a trio of waterfalls splashed their way down a series of huge boulders. We found a spot between them and tucked into our riceballs. Three old women suddenly came out of nowhere and complimented us on our perfect picnic spot. We surrendered it soon afterward and began to really climb, higher into the wilder and unspoiled reaches above.
At the top was Fudo-ji, and our approach was marked by more Fudo statues. One had a freakish gaze which followed us as we passed between the make-shift torii arch that serves as the barrier between the land of the living and the metaphoric land of death that belongs to Shugendo. The mountains where the yamabushi play are always marked by a certain quality. There's always the same sort of wind, the same sort of chill and darkness, with the clouds hemming in low overhead, and tree roots pushing up from the earth hazardously underfoot. This path is well-trod, sunken below the rest of the forest. The bird song, what little there is, sounds like a rusty gate. The temple grounds themselves are sparse, a few small structures, nearly windowless and lacking the frills and varnish of moneyed city temples. There are no patrons here, only hard training. Behind a small Jizo, a tiny ghoulish stone figure squats, and waits. We move up a set of stone stairs to an open area below high, swaying trees. A single figure of Fudo stands at one end, and upon our approach, he is lit up by a single beam of light from between briefly parting clouds. We have been accepted. Yet behind him too, nearly impercievable in the cliff face, is an older, more sinister Fudo, who scowls. There is some sort of duality going on here that is unsettling. Marking the furthest reaches of this open space is a cypress that is simply massive, stretching hundreds of feet up, with branches wind-shorn into an ironic bonsai. Shugendo is a sect strongly forbidden to women yet here on the grounds is a small shrine for preventing health issues specific to that gender. Nearby is a well named after a legendary dragon, and beyond that a path closed to all but those who lie down in this mountain. We find ourselves winded by a steep flight of stairs which we climb to the Hondo. It too is dark and dirty, thrusting out over the abyss and fastened to the cliff face by strong pillars and stronger faith. Whatever deity that is housed here (Fudo or Zao Gongen most likely) is hidden from us by the dark. We wander a little outside, pushing finally through a narrow gap in the rocks. Reborn once again, we descend sharply toward our world...
...which is sunny again. We follow the road awhile along a creek that flows through the grounds of the Shinji Shumeikai Sect, owners of the Miho Musuem which lies just beyond that hill to our east. The trail takes us onto their property at Misuji-no-taki Falls, dropping beautifully into fast moving water. A short ways away is a small farm collective, with a few farmhouses built in the traditional thatch style, yet completely refurbished within. We poke around some, and after awhile a young women comes over to chat, curious yet openly friendly in a way that members of these new religions tend to be. We move into the village proper now, older by centuries, then up a nice patch of forest. A half hour later it begins to widen, and Miki says, "Civilization again." Yet all I see is a hillside torn away, and the yellow machines that are responsible. We follow the narrow muddy potholed dirt road that led them here. Over the course of the day, we'll encounter three such roads, which seem to go on forever and offer little in the way of scenery. While I respect the fact those who designed this Shizen Hodo opted to use existing trails, I wish they'd been a little more creative in their choices. Close to half seems to be along roads such as this or down their paved, faster cousins. The trail markers here in Shiga are the worst of any prefecture. Most are old, and are quite dubious in which direction they are pointing. Despite them, we finally reached another village, gratefully grabbed a warm tea, then climbed into forest again. At the top of this particular rise were the ruins of Shigaraki Gushi, pronounced the capital in 745 by the impulsive Emperor Shomu. (The capital returned to Heian within the year.) Stones spread throughout the forest, marking the foundations of the cypress beams that had probably been contemporaries of the giant we'd encountered up at Fudo-ji. We stood up here amongst these remaining wisps of history, in a forest lonely but peaceful. Dropping down again, to meet the road at the Safari Museum(!), now closed. Dusk was falling and the wind, strong all day, was picking up. I'd been cold for hours so was thrilled when, upon approaching the platform, a train pulled up, saving us over an hour's wait 'til the next one on this quiet line.
We got off the train at another lonely platform, surrounded by fields and not much else. The hill directly in front of us was flicking with Christmas lights. We had reservations for a small inn out here, and had little idea which way to go, but the owner had earlier assured us that we'd know. We headed toward the lights. The owner of Oishi Minshiku was standing out front, having had some sort of premonition (or at least an idea of the train schedule). "I wasn't sure whether you were coming." He showed us to our room in an adjacent building. It was two adjoining rooms, both tiny, and at first I guessed that this was a renovated love hotel. We later found out that it was a dormitory for his apprentices. Oishi-san(?) was a potter and a wood-carver who'd once lived in Osaka, but had moved out to these wilds 17 years ago. His temperament as an artist was apparent in the inn's design, of a few rambling buildings completely littered with artwork both classic and cheesy. His pottery and woodwork were simply everywhere. On the hill behind the inn was an outdoor hot spring, which he offered to let us use, but he'd have to get it ready. Taking the hint, we said, "No, no, the bath in our room is fine." A smile of relief crossed his face as he turned, his ponytail bobbing its way toward the kitchen and the pressing business of dinner. I'd found his inn online and had wanted to stay here for the food. Oishi was also a hunter, and whatever he'd recently shot would be our meal. Today we had slices of frozen deer, katsuo sashimi, and thin sliced wild boar. The latter was to be eaten shabu shabu style. I was worried both karmically (as recently my anxiety about meeting one in the wild seems to be growing weekly) and gastronomically (not wanting to be weighted down by digesting meat during the following day's hike). Unlike the heavier, oilier botan nabe, this meat was really light, due to the fact that he'd raised the animal himself. His traps are especially small, letting him trap only adolescent hogs, which he'd fatten for three years to around 60kg, making for some tender and tasty meat. (There were apparently 17 more inoshishi on the grounds here.) The meat from a single boar would last around one week, and could last longer except that the internal organs are too smelly to be eaten by anything but his dogs. Alcohol seemed to be on the house tonight and flowed freely. We were the only guests, and besides the omnipresent TV, the only entertainment for the night. He was a funky guy with his own way of thinking, which entertained us as well. Written on the board above him are all the different types of game that he was able to prepare. (I believe another trip out here is necessary.) He told us how business had been off since the new bypass was built. "Most folks just come out for a quick golf game or a look at some pottery, then head home." As if to emphasize this, the news on the TV was mentioning that this had been the first day that highway tolls had been reduced to 1000 yen, and that traffic was triple the average. Some folks had driven all the way to Shikoku just for lunch, then returned home. Miki and the owner clucked their tongues, saying how ridiculous that the government talked "Eco-this" and "Eco-that," yet would create measures which ensured waste by encouraging more mindless, sheep-like consumerism. With this, we pushed ourselves off the wolf-skins upon which we'd been sitting and waddled toward bath and bed.
The train back to the trail left before eight. Oishi had woken us early, fed us, and even let us make some rice balls for lunch. He was a real delight and I hope to go back. (As should you. Oishi is atop this list.) We picked up the trail again, climbing a steep set of stairs into beautiful soft light. Miki and I are early risers but rarely make it out this early since we are usually on a train making our way toward a trailhead. It is a bit lame to call light delicious, but it was, and I miss those days of solo travel when I'd break camp at dawn and set out. (I look forward to seeing more of this light come summer.) The trail went over this low peak and descended again, alongside a creek. We passed a few shrines during the morning, most being little more than a rope or a stone marking a huge tree. The animist element of Shinto was alive and kicking out here. The next village was about a dozen homes spread out along a wide valley. This rare acceptance of space is unusual for Japan. Each home was huge and far away from the others. I could imagine the villagers coming together for festivals, gathering at the town hall, which stood just in front of the rice paddy where we sat and enjoyed some trail mix. We climbed out of the village into some real forest, dark and wild. The trail led through a small tunnel cut into a narrow bank of earth, passing between a few high lakes. Atop the next peak we had a wonderful view of space stretching away toward some high, wild looking peaks out west. (I'd later realize that we were now looking at the remainder of the day's walk.) It was rare to look out at this much...nothing. None of the usual concrete eyesores or power lines scarring the sky. The villages too were few, the green of trees ever-present. What we'd descend toward in a few minutes was the border of modern Shiga and Mie Prefectures. But in older times, this line bisected the towns of Iga and Koga. Both were traditionally the strongholds of the ninja. These ninja clans are mysterious in origin, thought by some to be remnants of defeated warriors, either of the dethroned Taira, or of the T'ang who'd fled China a couple centuries before. Or they could simply be former yamabushi who'd given up their mountain training grounds for a more settled existence of farming or esoteric Buddhist espionage. Either way, it was easy to see how the vastness of the forest below us would appeal to someone looking to be anonymous. We moved through the day, criss-crossing this border. The forest was filled with Spring, of new flowers, of bees, birdsong, and the voices of frogs. We moved along fencing designed to keep out the boars. It was creepy to pass through a gate between the safe village-side and the outer, unprotected barricades. It added to the whole medieval feel of things. Being this close to the pottery center of Shigaraki, it was natural that some of these villages had a kiln. Smoke rising from forged weapons could therefore be easily disguised as pots firing. We found ourselves moving through a Mie-ken relatively untouched, along a trail system which didn't rise or fall much, proving to be built more to traverse an area with ease and a certain amount of speed. In fact, we hadn't expected to go this far in one day. As the morning turned to afternoon, we realized that we wouldn't need our hotel reservation for the night, and that we wouldn't have any more hike to do tomorrow. For us, the trail stopped just below where those high ominous peaks shot straight up. They would keep. In their shadow was Tsuge Station, and a reasonably short ride back to Kyoto. We'd get there before dusk, to settle in with a DVD--Princess Mononoke, reminding us of where we'd come from.
On the turntable: Ryukyu Underground, "An Evening with Ryukyu Underground"
On the night table: Will Ferguson, "Hokkaido Hitchhike Blues"
On the reel table: "Gandhi" (Attenborough, 1982)