30 July 2014

Something New

You may not know, but I made a long desired and delayed trip to Japan in May.  It centered on walking a 5 day Buddhist pilgrim path through the rural Kii Peninsula.  As I have done before, I made a journal of the pilgrimage and then expanded it afterward on the advice of friends who enjoyed reading it.  Now I am expanding that list to you.  Below is the first - and each is rather long - day's record of my walk.  Do let me know what you think.  A couple of folks say 'publish' but I have my doubts.



Basho and I Take a Long Walk

May Day – I am in Tokyo, that great city, in the thrumming heart of Shinjuku where skyscrapers and underground trains meet and the river of humanity that fills the towers flows up from the ground. Leaving my hotel, I jump into the human river and follow its current to Japan Rail, flashing my Rail Pass nonchalantly on my way to the Chuo Line, which will take me to Tokyo Station and the Shinkansen Train to Osaka.

My suitcase has been sent ahead, to wait for me in Yunomine three days away. On my back are a few clothes, a raincoat, toiletries, bits of food, a camera, a computer tablet, my folding walking stick, and Basho.
We met through a mutual friend in 1971. In my first semester of college my advisor tells me to take courses in things beyond my interest in music theory. “Here,” he says, opening the thick catalog of courses, “right here on the first page is Introduction to Asian Studies. You should do that.”

In the old classroom, Midwestern heat and humidity making the study chairs sticky, and still unnerved by a brand new place and a brand new life, two professors describe the course. The younger one is a specialist in Japanese literature. On the syllabus (what is a syllabus I think, but everyone else seems to know already so I do not raise my hand to ask) are Sansoms History of Japan, Sosekis Kokoro and Bashos Narrow Road to the Deep North. At the bookstore Basho was the smallest of the books I buy, the least intimidating.

That volume - among the first books I ever purchased in college - is in my knapsack as I leave Shinjuku. My walk will not be along his paths, but along a road very like those he walked, the Kumano Kodo, a pilgrim path first trod by emperors in the 11th century in a rural southeast corner of Honshu. Even now it is a sparsely populated area. Though I did not know of it until 2012, when I did the memory of that book and that time told me I had to go.

Forty three years after meeting Basho on the Narrow Road to the Deep North, I am on board a bullet train bound for Osaka. From there I will take a slower train to Kii-Tanabe on the coast, and then a bus, and only then will I start my walk along the pilgrim road, ending in a hilltop village called Takahara.

“From time immemorial,” Basho writes, “the art of keeping diaries while on the road was popular among the people, and such great writers as Lord Ki, Chomei, and the nun Abutsu, brought it to perfection. Later works are little more than imitations of those great masters, and my pen, being weak in wisdom and unfavoured by divine gift strives to equal them, but in vain.”

Chastened at the outset by his humility, we set out. An hour outside Tokyo, approaching Odawara, from my window I can see Mt. Fuji, famously shy – so shy in fact, that it hid itself completely in clouds and fog despite being so large and singular. I bemoan the weather, but my companion turns out to be good company with his experience to comfort me,
“misty rain,
a day with Mt. Fuji unseen:
so enchanting”  (Basho)
 To which I cannot help but reply,  
Perhaps enchanting
but only if one has seen
the face without mist.

That day (was it just two days before?) I arrived on a jitney – two subway style cars – just as the clouds closed in. There were only slashes of blue left in the sky as the train rattled up the valley. At the station in Fugiyoshida, which refers to the pilgrims who came then and still do, I stepped into the street in time to catch the first drops of rain. Momentarily turned around without the mountain to show me the way, I finally found and passed through the torii on the main road in the town. As I walked up the road I saw shide, folded paper streamers, strung from rope that went from light pole to light pole all the way up the hill. Historic markers described inns that once existed here in abundance, some of which remain as private homes.

As the village receded and the trees gathered around the path I heard rain falling on the trees, a scattering sound as if birds were moving among the branches. The damp and quiet was calming despite the constant incline that made it an effort to walk.

A fast road nearby, and cars regularly hum up and down, and for a brief time I must walk along it without a shoulder. I could hear a group of voices in the distance which I discovered later to be from an athletic field, but on the path my footfalls were louder. There may have been a bit of distant thunder - is the mountain kami unhappy? - but aside from wanting to go further and not having enough time to do so, it was very satisfying to be on this famous mountain for a while. Though I could not see it, I felt it, stood on it, sensed it with my feet if not my eyes.

At 1 pm I had to turn around to make the return train. By then I was more wet from sweat than from the rain. Pausing before returning, trying to capture the place in memory, I looked around at the trees, up through the leaves, and down to see that the stones over which I walked were volcanic. I plucked one the size of grape – pocked and rough  – to hold the memory of my presence here.

On the train to Osaka two days later I see Fuji as Hokusai did. Would he paint a view through a shinkansen window? Then the mountain is gone as quickly as I see it, behind buildings and passing trains and then hills and railway tunnels.

The Tokaido road is the oldest in the land, following the coast and valleys to Nagoya and Kyoto and Osaka. My train follows it, though today it is the equivalent of the I-95 corridor on the American east coast. By 11 am I am in Shin Osaka Eki, New Osaka Station, which like the stations in Tokyo is multilayered and crowded and there are no windows and no sense of direction. Thank goodness I have an hour between trains. This is nothing like Basho's travels, when the Tokaido road was footpath.

My next two steps, though, slow my pace. The second train to Kii-tanabe takes as long as going to Osaka but only a third as far. Fewer tunnels but more seaside. I think "from here across the Pacific in a straight line is Los Angeles. I remember standing on the beach at Venice and wondering what was on the other side. Now I know."

“It was when I wandered out onto the beach of Suma,” Basho says, “The sky was slightly overcast and the moon on a short night of early summer had a special beauty.” But today it is afternoon along these beaches, and the sun is bearing down brightly so I will just have to take him at his word. “The mountains were dark with foliage,” he adds, which is true as I can see from the window. How steep they are, if not tall. My memory thinks of West Virginia which has hills shaped like these though no beaches.

At Kii-Tanabe, a good sized town, I have almost two hours before catching the bus. I stroll, prowling the sleepy mid-afternoon main street with its omiyage shops and fish mongers, down a narrow alley that is not the back door to anything but the front door to bars and eateries. Main streets resemble American cities with wide straight roads and shop window building fronts, while the little streets are narrow and bent, built for humans not cars; two worlds in America that are one world here.

Back at the station, which is also where the bus stops, I purchase a cold drink and a rice ball. Have not yet divined the code for which have tuna and which have chicken and which have pork. I look for a place in the shade to eat, and see two other Americans – sisters it turns out – in backpacks. We realize we are about the same business. I will worry about them but without reason.

Mercifully, the bus has English announcements as well as Japanese, a courtesy that was present almost everywhere I went. No place in America has Japanese helps, either written or spoken.  The bus climbs up the valley. As mountains come closer the town shrinks to a trickle of houses perched between hillside and the road. We cross a bridge that spans a little river. There is a clot of three buildings. Our stop.

I see the shrine but not the official Kumano Kodo Welcome Center across the road from the shrine where the trail begins. The shrine is between a picnic enclosure and a convenience store – almost hidden by the trees. Unsure at first where to go to find the path, I start for the shrine then wonder about the Welcome Center.  I go across the road to the Center which has maps and toilets and then back across the road to the shrine. My instant American friends do the same only in reverse. (In my confusion I did not see the stamp collecting books available at the Welcome Center, probably from not knowing there were ink stamps along the way like the Camino de Santiago. I lacked that booklet as well. A very small thing that robbed me of nothing but obviously not insignificant or I would not mention it. )

At last I understand where I am and where the path begins. Takijiri-oji is an ancient shrine, dating to the 11th century, but the current structures are not that old. It looks like a sacred campsite with a haiden and honden that are the size of a summer cabin, and a chozuya that could be a watering trough for a horse. A stone torii, though, adds gravitas and marks the entry into the shrine and the sacred precincts that are the Kumano Kodo. An official stone marker by the road tells me it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, something I see and hear many times, an evident point of pride in Japan. Between the chozuya and the haiden there is the usual stone walk, with stone markers carved in Japanese and thus unintelligible to me.
The shrine is here because ancient pilgrims came up the river as far as they could, which is here, and then went overland from here to the Kumano Hongu Taisha, a major shrine that is one of three in the region. 

Long ago, those arriving signified the beginning of their journey by purifying themselves in the river Iwata itself. I follow current practice – with a ladle I rinse the left hand then my right, next I pour water into my left to rinse my mouth (but not drink!) and then tip the ladle so waters runs down the handle before setting it back on the chozuya. I walk up the stone path, drop a coin into the offering box, ring the bell – very like a cowbell  - clap twice, bow and hold my hands in prayer for a few moments.
In the utter silence
Of a Temple
A cicadas voice alone
Penetrates the rocks (Basho)
No cicada here. Silence is different outside.
Leaves and water sound
like silk sheets upon the ear
Surrounding silence.

In college I set Bashos Visit to Sarashina Shrine to music. It never got heard or played, which is a blessing to all. Much shorter than The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Sarashina shares the same form and style, which observes the world more than the observer, and Basho wrote poems as he went that captured a moment or a sight or a sound - haiku as phenomenology.  Often, Basho traveled with company, and included their poems along with his. We are traveling together, think I, and so, standing where the river and the mountain meet, beginning my walk with Basho I think:
Four of us met here -
earth and water, fire and air
Which of us is which?
To which he might reply, as a renga:
Long conversations 
beside blooming irises – 
joys of life on the road  (Basho)

Being after 3 pm, and expected at the hotel by 530, I do not linger. The trail starts behind the haiden and honden. Turning from the shrine there is a little gabled kiosk that has the ink stamp, my first inkling of their existence, forgive the pun. Not knowing that there is a booklet for them across the street, I use a notebook of blank pages that becomes my record.  With this visa, I begin.

Scarcely 10 meters behind the shrine stone steps lead up the hillside. A sign confirms the climb. For a half hour I climb up stone steps, unofficial steps formed of tree roots, steps over rocks that are not steps and am very glad for my walking stick and my small back pack. At my first pause to catch my breath I remember the sisters were carrying very heavy packs had no staff. I ponder while panting, then think, “They are young.”
Twenty more minutes upward, often using tree trunks as a second walking stick. The trail twists and turns, as though finding its way up the hill. Nothing about it resembles a road. “Emperors climbed this hill?”  I think with doubt. Though I walk 10 kilometers every day at home in less than two hours, this 4.5k took me two hours. There are excellent views with each gap on the climb, and the higher go the quieter it gets. The river fades away in sound and sight.

Along the first climb I happen upon what would become routine – small stone jizos – statues of a beloved boddhisatva who protects travelers and children, especially children who die before their parents.  These first are tucked under the edge of a great rock that seems either to shelter or threaten whatever is underneath. Legend says a babe was left here and the gods made milk drip from the rock to feed him. Like most jizos, they wear red knit caps and red bibs, to resemble a child. Old corroded coins lie in their laps.
Why do you wear bibs?
To help you eat rusted yen?
No one else wants them.
Not Basho of course; too obvious, but not bad.  Yet not as good as this one from an unknown writer found somewhere else in my travels.
Stone Jizo
kissed on the mouth
by a slug (Anonymous)

The road, which was only rarely more than a trail, reaches a ridge and for a while I walk more than climb. Lest I think I have reached the top, the climbing resumes and my back feels wet from sweat caught between the shirt and the pack.  Every day will have climbs that are so long and steep that I must pause to let my heart slow down.

Suddenly, I am going down, which turns out to be as hard as going up, and so it goes for some times until quite suddenly there is a road and houses. Takahara which sits on a ridge, with a shrine wedged into a corner where the trail meets a modern road. It is the oldest shrine structure along the road, from 1403. Vivid red like so many I have seen in cities, it does not look its age until you see the moss growing on the roof. A great camphor tree looms beside it like the rock over the jizo, large enough to make the shrine look like a gnome house. I wash my hands, rinse my mouth, ring the bell, bow my head and clap.

Early evening sun hits my shadow suited eyes as I enter the village from the trees. They squint into the valley from an empty parking lot. An older man, older than me at least, sits smiling through gapped teeth. “Kumano?” 
Hai.”
He points down the road, where my guide book tells me to go. “Domou,” “very!” meaning ‘thanks very much,I say waving my walking stick.

There is only this lodging in town, a small new hotel built to give every room a view into the valley. The river below, the one I crossed hours ago, is now a silver thread. My room is a hybrid with beds but also tatamis and shoujis. The ritual of shoes and slippers begins, with one pair for the room, another for the toilet, and another for the common areas and bath. Socks or bare feet work best for me as my enormous feet do not fit these slippers. Should I wear my yukata – robe - to dinner or not?

Speaking of baths, this is a big deal in vacation hotels, which this is. I have been to a Turkish bath so the ritual was not completely new - shower and soap and rinse first, then loll in hot water. But details such as using and placing towels are still obscure. Yes, this matters. A young father and toddler son come in. We share the very large, very hot bath water, so hot that when I leave I am perspiring again. Another rinse with a hand held shower to cool off and then back to my room to rinse out my shirt and socks for tomorrow. They hang on the balcony as the sun sets over the mountains outside.


Following written advice, I wear my yukata (over skivvies) to the dining room for a dinner. There are about ten courses, some 'amuse buche' sort of things including mushroom custard in an egg cup and seaweed soup that did not taste like anybody's weed. Despite the number of courses, it was not too much. My waiter seems to be the owner as well, and inveigles me gently to have some sake, which costs only $6. Though alone at my table, his attention and the swirl of tastes and textures leave no time to feel lonely.    

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