Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Chubu I
Rain begat rain begat rain. Amazing the precipitation we'd been getting, five, six days a week worth, for the past couple of months. Rainy season was long over, but nobody had told the rain.
All of which made Sunday even more glorious. And a good day for walking.
I'd thought I was finished with the Tōkai Shizen Hōdō (TSH) when I faced its terminus at Minō falls seven years ago. But that was before I caught Henrō-byō, which ails most of those who walked the Shikoku pilgrimage. Rather than return to that (not-so) small island as the stricken usually did, I chose to explore some of Japan's other old paths, and had taken on work where I tried to instill in others the joys of the open road. Two tours I led took me along multi-day segments of the TSH, and before long I found myself thinking that rather than be satisfied simply with the Kansai section, why not follow it all the way to Tokyo?
It was in this spirit that I got off the train in Ena. A festival was in progress, and all the lockers full. I batted my eyelashes at a middle-aged man in the tourist information office, who let me leave my suitcase with him yet warned me that he would close at 6. So much for my open-ended day.
Thankfully taxis were available, so I had one take me to where the TSH diverged from where the Nakasendo carried on into Ena. I moved quickly downhill, then played leapfrog with a pair of highways. Before long I found myself thinking that I was walking with different eyes again, that I wouldn't have the usual visual landscape clues that help navigate me along the old feudal roads. Thankfully the signage was good, far better than it had been a decade before. The recent hiking boom had helped with that. But one sign worried me in giving a walking time of 70 minutes in order to cover the next 3 km. A mountain was surely ahead.
The road rose heading into a small hamlet, and turning my head left I looked into the mouth of the very familiar Kiso Valley, with the tell tale peaks of Mts. Ena and Kiso Komagatake defining its right shoulder. Near a golf course, a handful of cats milled about, probably abandoned. They certainly had plenty of toys to bat around, as the higanbana spider lilies swayed across every berm.
The more I drew away from the rail line the more rice fields appeared, their stalks mostly listless and slumped over. Since this was the first truly sunny weekend day we'd had in weeks, I imagined that a flurry of harvesting was going on, up the length of the country. The heat of the day was high, 30 or more, a sure sign that yet another storm was building out to sea. In a month or so, I will surely see a newspaper article about what a disaster the crop had been this year. Things are undoubtedly worse in North Korea. Any time a round of missile tests begin, news about a flood or famine follows close behind. The US steps in with food aid to quiet things down. And a few years later, it starts up again. Yet Abe and his lot are traveling the world, talking up the dangers of the Pyongyang regime, in the hopes of getting assistance of their own. They know nothing, or perhaps everything, about politics.
The ache in my muscles took on a subtle shift, and my climb was upon me. I was surprised that it was ishitatami, above which my shoes tried to find grip on stones slick with lichens and a week's worth of rain. It was slow going, even more so for the fallen trees. The apparent lack of hikers had me worried that I was on the wrong track, and once I topped out, I read my maps intently, and replenished my energy with a peanut butter sandwich. Not far on was the site of an old tea house, then the trail passed behind a cattle farm whose stench nearly asphyxiated me as I tried desperately to slow my breathing which had quickened with the climb.
The trail was arrow straight here, along the top of Mt. Yudachi. It had been a tough climb to be sure, but not nearly as steep as the infamous Mt. Asadachi. I quickened my pace along this flat forestry road, trying to make up time. If the signs were correct, I'd arrive in Iwamura twenty minutes after my intended train pulled out. Despite the speed I was truly enjoying myself, remembering why I liked the TSH so much, which alternated between quiet forest paths and narrow lanes bisecting hamlets. It was all far more pleasant than a forced march along overdeveloped roads, with the roar of vehicles rushing past every few seconds.
A man in the next village turned off his weed-whacker to ask me where I was going. Unlike a pair of women earlier, he didn't make an explosive sound of surprise at my answer, which led me to believe that I was better than halfway there. What followed was a few lateral crossings across long flat valleys, and short climbs over stumpy hillocks between. A stand of kosatsuba proved my suspicions that this too was an old highway, and a bit of Googling later told me that I'd walked the Daimyō Kaidō. Apparently I'd been in good company. Kano no Chomei had enshrined 1000 stone Buddhas out here. Not far away was the grave of Confucian scholar Sato Issai, who probably followed this road home when the Edo period forever closed, an event upon which he had no small impact.
My forced march had brought me to the station a half an hour before my train. The station was small, with a short platform, and as is rapidly becoming the case with these out-of-the-way stations, the waiting room had been turned into a display of rail days of yore. Bizarrely, one part of this was housed a small butchery operation, which as well as slinging meat also served take out coffee. A pair of middle-aged motorcyclists nursed small mugs of beer, which looked too good to resist. I took mine outside and sat on the platform on an old wooden bench, washing down a potato croquette and enjoying the silence. But the peace wasn't to last. Before long, a gaggle of noisy old women showed up, bringing the day to an end with a clamor as profound as the brakes of the train as it shrieked to a stop.
On the turntable: The Beatles, "The River Rhine Tapes"
On the nighttable: George Orwell, "The Clergyman's Daughter"