17 August 2014

Day Four on the Kumano Kodo

May 4

Before continuing the journey, a further word about slippers.  Leaving one's shoes at the door is the easy to understand. The point is to avoid bringing dirt inside and not to damage the tatami mats. Then comes the dance of removing the shoes but not standing where the shoes are. That only begins to cover the custom, though. Both the spa in Yunomine and the minchuku in Chikatsuyu had toilet slippers - used only in the toilet area - which requires leaving the inside slippers outside the toilet, stepping into the toilet slippers just inside the toilet room, and reversing the process. Since none of these sandals or slippers actually fit, I spend most of my time in my room.

Breakfast at Yunomine was in a common room as it was as it was a Takahara and Chikatsuyu, but two floors down. I shuffle along, slippers constantly trying to fly off the front of my paddle shaped feet. This is supposed to be relaxing, but for me it is hardly that.

Breakfast was smaller, thank goodness, and though in a common room, each table is laid out for each person with their room number beside. This time people would see me eat, egad! Dried fish over a burning brazier, which I must turn over from time to time with my hachi. Another burner with tofu and onions, a soft boiled egg in a cup into which I broke it and added a shoyu sauce that made it wonderful. Rice porridge which is a soupy rice mixture I saw back in Tokyo, and better than it sounds. Salad and the other Japanese breakfast food - miso soup. Like dinner, no course is large by American standards, and the assortment of vegetables is excellent. But always very salty!

I am uncertain about how to eat dissolving tofu and how to pick flesh from broiled fish. Using a finger now and then to steady something, I became rather decent at plucking things. Sidelong glances confirm that Japanese do this too.

As we leave Basho speaks up, "I had a bath before I took shelter at an in," the poet remembers from his long journey. "It was a filthy place with rough straw mats spread out on an earth floor. They had to prepare my bed by the dim light of the first, for there was even a lamp in the whole house.” My stumbles are comic by comparison.

Today's trip starts with a bus ride from Yunomine to Ukegawa, there being no path between them for some reason which I do not know. I dislike skipping parts of the trail as I did last night but there is not a connection between these two places. My booklet says this would be an easy day, which it is by comparison only. Not as long as yesterday, to be sure, only four hours, and yet plenty of climbing and descending.
Driving me to the bus stop, I am delivered to the actual town of Yunomine, which is gathered around a narrow gorge through which a river runs and hot springs break forth into the river itself. The whole town smells of sulphur. People come here to take the waters as they do in Hot Springs AR, but this town is just a town not a city.

My host urged me to look around, which I did, first noticing several people carrying net bags of eggs which they will boil in the hot springs for their breakfast. Finding the trail that led here from the Hongu Taisha, the one that went over the ‘steephill, I decide backtrack along it for about 200 meters to the oji here, to pay my respects reverence and of course get the stamp. Coming back, I see the little old wooden onsen house for town bathing. It is perched over the river, its roof held on by stones.  It is women’s time as two are waiting on the porch.

leaving the hot springs,                                                                 
looking back how many times —
beneath the mist  (Basho)

Too plangent for me, companion. Ill try something a little playful for the morning.

The stones keep the wood
down. The wood holds the water.
Sulfur mists just laugh.

Waiting for the bus, the two American women with whom I started turned up. Remember them? I was relieved to see them, as carrying so much had to be awful for that first climb. Today they have much less stuff. They truly had no idea how tough the climbs would be and repacked the first night and sent the stuff ahead, something I said I did and they did not know they could do. As footloose folks, they are going to go to the end of today's section and walk backward to Yunomine for another night. We promised to share intelligence when we met up, which we will.  But not when or where.

The trail from the shrine of Kumano Hongu Taisha to its sister temple Nachi-Taisha, developed later than the first. In older times, imperial pilgrims would come to the Hongu Taisha and then travel down the river to see the Nachi-Taisha. There are, therefore, fewer monuments than on earlier sections. But there are excellent views, decent trails for the most part, and because it is a Sunday on a holiday weekend, more hikers. The landscape is now pretty steadily the same - beautiful mountainsides through which one sees neighboring mountains; gorgeous, ho hum. At the top of one, a little jizo pillar marks the highest point along this segment, with a view called hyakken-gura, or 3600 cliffs or peaks. Not quite accurate, there are nonetheless dozens of mountain tops and peaks visible from here.

No much farther along there is a branch trail to an even higher point famous for its sunset views. I start climbing and then see a sign indicating it is most of a kilometer away, and mostly up. Not being sunset I decide to pass it up.

More than previous days, the trail hugs the hillside rather than following ridges, and as there are no railings and the trail can become rather narrow, my companion recalls when he was on his way to Sarashina, “Above my head, mountains rose over mountains and on my left a huge precipice dropped a thousand feet into a boiling river…”  My response,

Like the many tree roots
my toes struggle to hold on
to the mountainside

Today, aside from the usual climbing and descending, I meet new birdsongs, bothersome insects that loved buzzing around my head but did not bite (there seem to be no mosquitos in Japan!). Basho remembers a night spent in more belligerent company.

“Bitten by fleas and lice
I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow”

Thankfully nothing of that sort beset me. Today, in fact, I have a better maintained trail most of the time but also two trees that fell over the trail and require some negotiating.

The spiritual highlight is a Jizo about halfway along that had a great heap of stones at its base, Sai-no-kawara. Close to the pillar is a sign that explains how children's souls have not enough karmic credit to get into Buddhist heaven if they die, but Jizo will help them if they made piles of stones for him. But a demon, Oni, knocks them over. The souls need help from living people, it seems, so people pile stones on or around Jizo. In this place there is a great heap. Touching, but why here?

On the last descent, a really long one, I pause when I see an old tree with a great vine - a firehose of a plant - dangling from it. Or is it a vegetal boa constrictor, choking the tree over a period of years? Turning around to snap a better picture I spy another Jizo embedded into the hill that I had passed, shrouded by the hill and the tree as I went by. My goal is to take a photo of every Jizo I see.

My companion remembers,

Over the ruins of a shrine
 a chestnut tree
 still lifts its candles (Basho)

But having no shrines to remember,

Hiding from my view
Jizo naps in mossy bed
will pebbles awake him?

I emerge from the woods onto a road and the village of Koguchi, a handful of houses along a little river between the hills. How odd this feeling of relief and reluctance. The body is always ready to return to society but the mind pauses. It is not the desire to be alone as much as a change in company. Among people the mind must think ahead and plan and act, whereas in the trees there is simply being amid other beings.  The temples devoted to the Buddha are farther from him, I think, than the bare road.

Once in society again, even this slight village, I feel hungry. A small grocery offers iced tea in a cooler and a snack. The owner almost grudgingly appears to take my money. In a bus stop I can sit in the shade and drink until my lodging is open for guests.

She speaks little English, but has a streak of pink in her gray hair. My room is more modest than last night with a small laundry line. She will wash things for me, I finally understand. In my room tea and small snacks are on the low table. By 430 I have bathed in a simple tub which in Japan has very tall sides to allow for extended soaking. I put on denim guest pajamas which are very comfortable, and write in my diary while awaiting the evening meal. I have an 8 tatami room, with glassed shouji that opens onto a vegetable garden out back. There are only three guest rooms. One more arrives - a couple I think. The male proprietor has more English than his wife but not much. The other guests are Japanese. This will be interesting.

Dinner last night was lovely, both because of the food and the company.  Called by my host, I came out to the front room where I entered to find my fellow guests, a couple as I expected, already sitting. To my delight they both had fair amount of English. He, it turns out, is a professor of rice science near Kyoto and had spent a year in Florida not long ago. They were very engaging. We shared stories of adult children, travels, and the quality of rice in America which he confessed was equal to anything in Japan. His wife asked me if I heard the news, which of course I had not, that there was a notable tremor in Tokyo the day before. Checking the TV in my room later there was video of shaking shelves. But it could have been as far away as California to me.

Worth noticing was how homely the experience was, with folding chairs around a simple large table. Now and then I glimpsed into the kitchen from where I sat. A radio or TV played quietly in the background. But the food again was abundant and varied and always slightly different even when the materials were the same. What remains with me now, though, was the honesty that this was someone's house.

"The master of the house brought out some cups," the poet remembered from his trip to Sarashina shrine. They were "too big to be called refined, and were decorated with somewhat uncouth gold-lacquer work, so that over-refined city-dwellers might have hesitated to touch them. Finding them in a remote country as I did, however, I was pleased to see them and thought they were even more precious.” My folding chair and denim pajamas meant more than my blue yukata and hand served meal the day before.

Back in my room, my futon now unpacked for me, I checked my laundry for dryness, having hung it on plastic hangers on the clothes line in my room. To serve my evening sweet tooth I had bought a bag of candies in the store earlier, fruit gels dusted in sugar. I eat and read and write until bed time.


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