10 August 2014

Day Three on the Kumano Kodo

May 3

Arising early, I eat breakfast a little before 7. Ma and Pa innkeeper, very amiable, had my place laid out with smoked fish, scrambled egg, rice of course, pickles, and miso soup. Pickles are as vital to a meal as rice. And in such variety of color and shape and taste. None are as potent and Japanese as the pickled plum; which a tiny mauve colored fruit, shriveled like a newborn baby. In the mouth it is an explosion of salt and sour without even a hint of sweet, which to the western tongue is a shock. Even after eating them for days, my tongue still expects something fruity; as in winter each day I expect warmth.

slowly spring           
is taking shape:
moon and plum (Basho)

The poet tells me. To which I reply.

Too slowly the tongue
realizes that winter
will never be sweet.

I was on my way by 7:15, retracing the steps I made yesterday. Today I make haste as the distance is 25 km and I must catch a bus at the end to complete the journey.

From the outset the trail was busier. A young man with strong legs is just ahead until Tsugizakura, where he pauses. Past the teahouse with the laundry line, I meet up again with the two Japanese women. “Did you see a gray hat, perhaps?” 

“Yes, in the road yesterday a half a kilometer to Chikatsuyu from the shrine.”  But we are now some distance beyond the shrine. They had stayed by the teahouse, in turns out.  I am sad and a little sorry for not picking up the hat. (I think about the Americans who I have not seen since leaving the bus on Thursday.)
This is an easier day than expected because, though it is longer, the portion of paved and level trail is higher. 

That said, the length and the three large hills to climb and descend make it strenuous enough. According to my information book, the road climbs 1200 meters during the day and descends 1400. With every mountain pitched at a reliable 25-30 degrees that means lots of very tall steps when there were steps. Going up gets the heart pounding, and that makes for stops along the way – places for seeing on purpose and taking pictures. Going down is even harder as the trail is stony and full of twisting tree roots which requires watching and planning every step down as well as up. My eyes must look down to assure a solid landing.

There are other animals today out today. Along the automobile road I see a macaque, wild monkey, loping across the asphalt about 50 meters ahead of me. It picks up speed when it sees me, darting into the bushes. If monkeys are supposed to be amusing, I am far from amused. Monkeys belong in zoos, movies, Africa – they exist in the wild which means this place here must be, well, wild. That this happens close to a car tunnel is an added incongruence. I think of the black bear that casually jogged across a road in Vermont one afternoon. Before I could say the word ‘bearit was gone. This morning I hear the leaves rustle as it climbs up the hillside.

Birds are very vocal in these woods, and I hear more frogs as well. Somewhere in the early afternoon I finally spy one - quite small for the loud sound it makes. Later on the trail I spy a blue beetle, yes blue. Not a dark purple or black with a bluish tinge, but a shiny royal blue carapace. Later in the day I see the empty shell of a tiny river crab. When you have to look down often because of the unpredictable terrain, you still see unexpected things.

Monkeys, beetles, crabs,
and birds. This is your home. I
should remove my shoes.

Less poet, more poem, Basho reminds me.

Sparrow, spare
The horsefly
Dallying in flowers. (Basho)

Sometimes even rocks and trees and moss assert themselves. An old stone water bowl from a ruined teahouse, large and heavy like a toilet, is all that the eye can see of the teahouse, and is itself rimmed with thick moss around the lip. Somewhat later a half meter wide boulder that fell onto the path some time ago stopped there because vines captured it in a ragged net as if snared by a hunter.  The road dwindles to barely a meter wide along hillsides, littered with small stones that elude the vines. “Imperial caravans came this way?” I ask myself again, incredulous. Chronicles tell of bearers and nobles, pausing at every oji to make ablutions and prayers and climb a little higher in purity. Surely the climb itself with its self-basted ablutions is as purifying as the shrines.

There are plenty of little ojis, without the trappings and formalities, eroded statues and lichen encrusted stone slabs like gravestones. Some are in name only, a spot on the map, a few have decent trappings. Between them is an assortment of Jizos, mostly sad little statues covered in moss visible only because a faded bib sticks out from the lumpy green of the stone figure. One or two have plastic cups with dried sticks rather than flowers, and several had baby cups or toys telling me something of the provenance of the giver. These have come to mean more than the grander shrines. They need a little more attention, I think, so I take their pictures. “Smile!”  (They always do.) 

Twice today, going through villages between mountains, a house has a roadside stand with ‘primitive’ carved wooden statues. The first had a man peeing, his member being the spigot for the water tank below. I think of the rude little boy in Brussels doing the same thing. Not as charming when it is a full-grown image rather than a little boy.

And water, I see a dozen waterfalls, mostly small but one makes a real splash, forgive me. Something of a surprise in this remote place, though. Even on the most narrow trail along the highest ridge, there are rubber pipes running along or close underground to carry water, I suppose, both to prevent erosion and capture the water and maybe the energy thereof. This remote and ancient way is being preserved by modern hoses and pipes that try very badly to hide themselves from view.

Rain begins to fall as I reach a rest house in a valley between hills - an open pavilion with tables and attached WC - which makes it worth a stop to take off my raincoat and let it drip a little before resuming.  Thankfully, I need only empty my bladder as the toilet is the traditional squat sort, a small metal trough in the concrete floor and no cleaner than most rustic facilities. 

The rain grows heavier and the wind blows the water under the eaves. Basho remembers a poem from his friend and Zen teacher Buccho, appropriate to the moment.

This grassy hermitage
Hardly any more
than five feet square
I would gladly quit but for the rain. (Basho)

I must of course quote him in return.

Weather worn satchel,
hardly more than five feet tall,
we cannot quit yet.

I still like the more obvious puns and turns of phrase, as you can tell. 

Detoured because a typhoon a few years ago washed part of the actual pilgrim road out, I walk a modern road for a while, a relief but also a regret. I want honest blisters.

Clouds clear off a bit and the sun begins to steam the air. Back into the woods I go, a relief in the warm sun, but there is soon a large clearing at the edge of the forest. Not a clearing, no it is a collapsed hillside from that same typhoon I guess.  And the trail has been remade over top of the debris.

All along the way there have been small repairs where rocks or mud have come down. Some have masonry walls and some just stacked logs. Nothing as enormous as this, though, a steep hundred foot slope of dirt and rock where a forest was. Below the temporary trail fifty foot tree trunks are heaped like toothpicks.

Spring rain
conveyed under the trees
in drops. (Basho)

His wisdom is paying off.

Waterfalls everywhere
gentling the air and the ear
swallowing the trees.

Then, in a short while, I am beside a river, walking along its bank and then almost without warning comes a little red bridge where there is another pavilion and a dead end road and a cookout and cars parked snug against the bright red bridge where the river and the ancient road meet, where I fill my water bottle and eat a little, standing apart from the gathering. But a few meters further on a gathering of some organization, which I surmise because there are bright vertical banners posted near a shrine. Men in traditional clothes stand about in conversation. Children play in a little circle, and women handle food - offerings to the kami at the shrine here, while talking and eating themselves.  I decide not to pause here, or to collect the stamp. 

The road is not mine, now. All this time it was Kumano and me and a few fellow pilgrims: our place. Now, I am the visitor again, trespassing with my dirty clothes and European features, outsider. As the road rises and the trail branches off into the woods I am glad. So much has solitude become my partner that company makes me feel alone without it.

Following the modern road (and my two women friends from the rest stop yesterday) I choose not to take the trail when it goes down to the river and back to the road. I imagine the steep steps down and back and think the three mountains already today are plenty. I know from the map that the old road will rejoin the new in about 500 meters, and the thrill of steep steps has long passed.

A few hundred meters further now the path leaves to road to climb a steeper path of course, and with each step I hear the sound of people and in a few hundred meters  find myself at Hosshinmon-oji which marks the far edge of the Hongu sacred district. Hosshin means “spiritual awakening” or “aspiration to enlightenment” and mon means “gateway.” While each oji along the way is a ritual passage toward the goal, this one signals a transition into the most sacred area. Nothing about its appearance makes that evident, except probably the carved stone markers in Japanese. The spigot that feeds the chozuya is across the automobile road from the oji itself. A sign clearly says it is not for drinking, presuming passers- by would do that. A local walker fills his canteen without a thought.

He shakes the sacred
water from his hands, like flies.
Too pure I surmise.

Yes, my poet companion, you are right. It is about the moment, not the meaning, which is why yours is still superior.

Just as I scoop it,
it rings in my teeth:
spring water  (Basho)

Speaking of water, somewhere in here, feeling hot and tired, I remember that I have had no caffeine today. In one of the villages along the way ahead I prowl the ubiquitous drink machines and succeed in finding some koku zero. It gives me a little kick, enough to power to the end, past the leisure hikers who amble along the path.

The road descends mostly now. I come to Fushiogami-oji, ‘falling on the knees shrine,where one can glimpse the main shrine down in the valley. Not today, of course. Mist and haze cloud the view far below. More day hikers here, and across the road in the rest pavilion. They are showing their stamp booklets. This is the first time I see one or know of them. My little pad of stamps looks rather silly I think, as I tug on the chain that keeps the stamp attached to the kiosk. Children eat ice cream cones with spoons. Where did they find them?

The stamp kiosk, which looks like a birdhouse, has become part of the ritual for me. Some have them and some do not. The ‘birdhouse’ contains an ink pad and stamp, usually chained in some way. They are like woodcuts, but some pads are nearly dry and barely make an impression while some are very fresh and the impression bleeds on the page.

Down, into another village with another carving shop, and beyond it my first look at tea farms. They are shrubs in long rows, like a hedge. Old men and women in wide hats pluck the leaves. A thousand years would not change this scene. Prints and paintings from China and Japan that seemed fanciful in museums – with their farmers in paddies and steep mountains nearby – now seem like photographs.   

portrayed in painting:
bamboos of Saga (Basho)

Says my companion. The image, just that and nothing more. Perfect.

Hats yellow in sun
roll slowly through the tea leaves
above old fingers.

Not bad. I am making progress.

Down gently now, the sound of the river Kumano grows slowly. More steps and I reach the outskirts of town. Now, the sound of people adds to the babble of the river. I am on a road with houses, and like a servant I enter the Kumano Hongu Taisha from the back door, between outbuildings, passing trash bins and trucks parked in back. Not a grand entrance for a pilgrim destination.

This is not where the shrine should be. An enormous storm in the 1880s flooded the river where the first complex was for centuries. The emperor then ordered it moved uphill. Of course, all major shrines are rebuilt regularly, so no place is actually very old, although there are some ancient Shinto buildings in places like Takahara-oji. It is the place and the kami that make it reverent, not the buildings. Nature is timeless, you see, creating and destroying as it will without regard to what we humans prize.

I do not reverence the kami here, mostly because the lines are long, and I ‘gave at the Jizo officeearlier in the day. But mostly because those here are truly part of this land and I am not. This ritual is a family affair and a good guest does not inconvenience ones host.

There are three shrines behind one common fence, along a wide fence with people lined up at each. I linger around the edges, taking in the quiet that prevails despite the many people, listening as they ring the bell and clap. In the outer court people mill about like tourists and shoppers. There is always a place to buy amulets and charms, and young men and women in priestly dress to sell them.

After all that hustling to make the bus it turned out I had two hours to spare, so after a long rest on a stone bench, smelling my own stench, I go down the front steps, many and steep, flanked with white banners. Very impressive.  

A village surrounds the shrine complex, serving visitors like any other tourist spot. Having time, I walk a short way on to the original shrine site – and part of the pilgrim road – which was demolished in 1889 and now marked by the largest tori in the world.  It is an Otorii actually – an honorific form of torii - and is still a sacred precinct because only some kami who lived there moved up the hill. Two resident spirits remain on the riverside.

“There was the ruined site of the temple built by the high priest Shunjo at the village of Awa in the province of Iga.” Basho always remembers other places wherever we go. This place, though, is not a ruin. There is a raised area, where the original honden was, I surmise. “The main hall had been completely destroyed, leaving only foundations,” the poet remembers.  Rice paddies cover the area just outside the enormous torii gate, seedlings poking up from the water. Very pretty I think. “The priests living quarters had been reduced to paddies and fields,” he continues.  Pretty paddies are the luxury of the tourist.

The pilgrim road continues on from here to Yunomine Onsen where I will sleep tonight. But my guidebook advises taking a bus after all that walking because the last 3 km are very steep. Considering that the guidebook never mentioned the trail being steep before, I shudder to imagine what it will be when it is worth mentioning. The sun has come out in earnest; it is almost hot waiting for the bus under the translucent canopy by the museum and a can of beer bought from a vending machine feels very satisfying.

I met the river here,
chasing it down the mountain,
and toast the victor.

Cast your eyes a little wider, my companion says. Like this,

This hot day swept away
into the sea by the
Mogami River  (Basho)

A little crowd boards the bus when it arrives, precisely on time of course.  It is a short tide and I know exactly when to get off, but my bus stop is odd – there is nothing nearby. Have I made a mistake? A sign in Japanese that I cannot read lists a phone number. It matches the one I have, so I follow the arrow uphill - yet again - but only briefly.

My hotel is a spa featuring extensive onsens. They greet me at the large hotel front doors threshold with a smile and directions to leave my shoes right there. A numbered tag will protect them like others lined up on the floor.  My slippers are even smaller than the last. Japanese women walk faster in kimonos than I do to my room.

After situating myself in a very lovely room with a view over the nearby valley, I head toward the onsen both for spiritual and physical purposes.  This one truly is under the sky. It is more of a pool made to look like a pond edged with stone. The women in the next pool, separated by a wooden wall, are just audible. My senses take in the sounds of voices and waters, the sights of rock and tree and sky and waves, the sensations of hot water and cool air.

And, after a returning to my room, another elaborate dinner, this one served to me in my room. When people say Japanese food is boring or unsatisfying, they must not have eaten like this.  To be served alone in one’s room is fun but also a little unsettling. A young lady with some English lays it out - explaining it all - kneeling very demurely before me as I sit at the low table. She leaves from time to time, but not without bowing first, closing the shouji behind her. Soon she is back with more food, several times over the hour. Like other meals, no course is very large, starting with a hot pot to cook scallop and prawn (big enough to be menacing if seen on a street corner) along with cabbage and onion and tiny mushrooms I should know the name of. There is rice of course, and a demitasse of split pea soup, sashimi, sushi, seaweed soup (which was really good) and a starter of raw snail (was it alive?), a little mushroom custard served en croute no less, pickles of course, and then a tiny almond pudding.

Like my bath, every sense is strung along like a Brahms melody that refuses to end when you think it will. Afterwards an older man lays out my futon. What a sensible bed this is, but what a meager pillow.

From bath to dinner
moments pass like pearls on thread
adjacent alone

As ever, yours is better, sensei,

hold for a moment
the sound of slicing soybeans:
bowl beating (Basho)

1 comment:

drew kennedy said...

WFW: As a partner in solitude, I love your line: "So much has solitude become my partner that company makes me feel alone without it."

Soulful travels!
retired drew