A good fortune somewhat unexpected is good sleep. Fatigue overcame novelty. Awake just before dawn, the valley below is covered in fog, cotton nestled between the ridges like batting. Clear sky above, mountains around, clouds below.
amethyst sky, firmament
below, cloud blanket
We both like the sky, it seems:
than a lark in the sky
a mountain pass (Basho)
Dressed for the trail, I breakfast at the same table with the same waiter. “Breakfast here, coffee after outside?” Cured fish, rice, miso soup, pickled plum, baked egg - more than enough for the road ahead. On the terrace a small cup of coffee, a Japanese couple who speak some English - enough to be noticed but not deeply engaged: perfect. The fog has lifted and the river is visible now as well as the highway as it twines around the river before entering a tunnel.
Paying for the sake, I leave and promptly turn the wrong way. Two old women in straw hats and large smiles point me in the right direction. I smile and bow, ‘arigatou!’ The trail goes up, always up.
This hike resembles other walks in Spain and England in some ways - hours alone in the woods (ah!), shade dappled trails (oh!), the sound of leaves and birds and water (ooh!). But it is also distinct. Japan is two-thirds mountain, and this path is as well: one third climbing, one third descending, and one third strolling. Whether climbing or descending, steep is hard.
Today the mendicant poet tramping through Japan is strong with me. Up more than down, on paths more than roads, through woods more than towns, accompanied by cedars, bird song, and the aroma of camphor and dead leaves. Perhaps he is present today because of the croaking frogs. More a low peep or creak than a croak, their cries dapple my ears – here and there – as the sun and shade dapple my view. A frog is central to Basho's most famous poem, the first and last lines in Japanese I have never forgotten. Here are all three, from the book on my back that I bought back then:
mizu no oto.
The last line is utterly plain - sound of water. The middle line is a little more complex but comes down to - frog jumps. The first line eludes me. I remember asking my professor, now my friend Tom, about the 'ya,' and he said something about it being not a word strictly, but that it had meaning. Meaning without words was weird to my 18 year old mind. Less now.
No frogs plop today, but they continue peppering the air with their conversation. And yes, there is a pond halfway up the first mountainside today. It is large, a hectare, feeding the stream that created the way the path used to climb upward. Over the pond hang branches of trees with new yellow-green leaves or purple left-over blossoms. Pollen dusts the water surface inviting insects to land, which in turn cause small ripples in the water. In the morning light, the ripples reflect back the branches above, which move them without moving them.
Pollen coats water
green like tea. Dragonflies stir
it, and flowers wave.
The master improves on this:
Drinking morning tea
the monk is peaceful
the chrysanthemum blooms (Basho)
Mountains often beget streams, and they are everywhere today. I cross half a dozen wooden bridges and see even more little water falls. Rarely was there a flat place, but where there was, it was lovely to my feet.
Today is a short walk that ends four hours after starting, at 1230, and that includes a long break at a roadside rest area. Two women who were at the hotel last night (not the ones I saw at the beginning) are on the road as well. We meet up later as the day goes on. Like shipboard strangers, we are friendly because we are about the same business. "Can two walk together, unless they be agreed?" asks Amos. Sometimes all we have to agree on is that we are walking together. Both speak English, one quite well because she attended college in Escanaba Michigan, which is "Up dah You Pee" as it is often said in the Upper Peninsula. She did say You-Pee, but not 'Up dah.'
Who knows where the vine
begins, or our lives? But my
Feet know where they end.
Basho knows how to do without verbs. I envy him.
it is spring!
a hill without a name
in thin haze
After a cold drink and a rest without shoes on, a tourist bus parks and it is time to leave. Across the road, back up the arbitrary steps and into the shade and quiet of the trail, not much distance remains because I left early. From a clearing on the path the town of Chikatsuyu appears below, where I will sleep tonight; but it is not yet 1 and check in is no earlier than 3.
Of all choices more walking is best, so I explore tomorrow's path a bit, deciding to walk an hour down the road and back. Of course the way leads up now down, along a genuine asphalt road which feels hard and hot through my shoes. Ball field, barn, vegetable patch, laundry hung on front porch, all pass until the trees come back alongside, fellow marchers day in and out.
Grateful for flat road and the sound of water running downhill, time moves pleasantly and my inner clock soon tells me it is time to turn back. I see a hat in the road, floppy and gray. Like Whitman’s letters from God I leave it where it is, figuring whoever seeks it will be combing their steps. Standing halfway up a hill I decide to go to the top before turning around.
In the shade beyond the crest, shadowed by trees, a shrine hides at the top of a steep course of steps. Tomorrow is a long walk, 29 kilometers. Though tired, it is best to stop now because I might not tomorrow with so many kilometers to cover. Good choice.
It is called Tsugizakura because there was once a cherry (sakura) that was grafted to another tree, which struck someone as remarkable. The term for grafted is 'tsugi,' hence the name. Thinking of the friend who united my wife and me in marriage, he is a Konko minister (a Shinto sect) of which a central practice is Toritsugi, mediation, which combines the word for bird - 'tori' - with 'tsugi.'
Something more than mediation in this, I realize; something that has elevation and communion. At the top of the steps I notice cedars enormous as a redwood in size and character. They are called ipposugi, one direction cedars as their branches cluster on the south.
Many steep stone steps
help the little red shrine look
cedars in the eye.
Always Basho does more with less.
Three months since cherry
we see Twin trunks of the pine. (Basho)
Below, on the road, an empty teahouse open to the elements could be a shrine but for the laundry hanging within. Heading back, the gray hat is still in the road, a hidden waterfall passes beneath the road. Shamrocks, or so they seem, cover the massive black stone retaining wall alongside the road that is cut into the hill.
My first completely Japanese guest room – tatami, low table, futon rolled and waiting – my host kneels perfectly while I cannot. He brings a chair which pleases me as it also embarrasses.
Anticipating the onsen, hot spring bath, I don the yukata, but this time must walk outside to a blocky building. On the right is the men’s bath. A blue curtain hangs from the lintel with writing that must say “men” as another in red hangs from the other entry which is for the women. The curtain hangs but halfway over the door, very like restaurants I have found out. There is some anthropology waiting to be done about this practice.
This time I am alone in the bath, lounging in the sulfurous waters that roll off my skin like oil. A huge window that forms the fourth wall, edged with fog, looks out onto the river nearby. On the way back, my heels sticking out of my slippers by inches, but they bear me to onsen, to dinner, and back to my room.
Chikatsuyu means 'dew or blood' - based on a legend about a visiting emperor or nobleman. This is rural Japan; the village is small, just a hamlet. Lovely meal, again, and very different, but in the ways prepared not the ingredients. Always fish and rice and vegetables arranged as much for the eye as the mouth, like flowers in cups. Hachi, chopsticks, get easier every day. It helps that the food presumes them.