28 August 2014

Last Day and Last Words

May  5
In the morning we gather for breakfast which has become rather predictable over the days but never boringKnowing that today rain was likely, and that this last portion had the steepest ascent, I leave barely after seven.
The trail leads near to the grocery and, remembering how I appreciated a little caffeine the day before, I stop to buy a can of coffee from the machineThat itself is a novelty, a can of coffee from a vending machineWhat comes out is not only in a can but hotI am used to cold drink machines but not hot drinks in cansI drink it standing by the trail head, which is a stone staircase of courseAnd with the empty can in my backpack I start my day.
My last day was rated difficult because of the amount of climbing and descendingOver 5 km I would climb 830m, and over 500m of that came in the last halfThank goodness it was cloudy, but it was prelude to rain coming from Southeast Asia.
At the top of the first short climb, up from the village of Koguchi, I encounter the famous wardo-ishirock, a watermelon slice about ten feet tall covered in moss and lichen and decorated with the names of the three gods who are said to meet here once a year, the spirits of the shrines and temples we are visiting.After days of nature doing improbable things this notion does not seem at all far-fetched.
Not long after this, along a flatter portion, I come to a place of ruined teahouses, now just a clearing that is slowly returning to forestAlready I am in a sweat from the climb and seeing no one on the trail on the way up, I pause to remove both knapsack and shirt and enjoy the cool breezes beneath the treesIt turns out the trail is not as empty as I thoughtFirst, a young woman going north passes, and then a young man going southI feel over exposed, not the least because of my aging torso, and reclaim shirt and knapsack.
For the next 4.5 kms I climb toEchizen-toge pass, the highest point on the trail. Though not as steep as some of the early portions, this is the longest continual climb of the whole pilgrimageI am grateful for the generally even path, meaning wide and straight enough not to require studied attention every step and only a few stones to be avoidedBut at every turn the path continues up, beyond my view, no end in sight, a Sisyphian taskThose three miles take ninety minutes, each minute had 30 steps, or 2700 steps.
At the top of the Echizen-toge pass are four people pausingTheir presence tells me I am at the topThat and the assortment of little signs on posts - none more than a foot high or wide - hammered into the ground to prove they made itAt just that moment, the literal high point of my journey, the promised rain arrived.
forty or fifty feet
in the sky, raindrops
in the willow (Basho)
A noise like fireworks 
crackling, radio static
created by rain on trees,
It began slowly but quickly grew to a din. I get out my raincoat and wait under the trees, hoping it would be a brief cloudburst. It wasnt. And so begins my descent on stone steps now slippery with rainThough even more diligent now, do slip and fall, sliding along a wet stone and getting mud on my pantsNow, instead of perspiration wetting me from the inside out, the rain gets inside my slicker and wets me from the outside in. What about the contents of my knapsack, I thinkI have wrapped things in plastic bags, but not everything.
A cold rain starting
And no hat -- So? (Basho)
But you are now old
fellow traveler, and rain
may be your ruin
Looking for better footing I work my way down the stairs even more carefully. I have no room to injure myself, even a twisted ankleLooking for good purchase, I test the stones with my staff, and I slip again when the staff slides on the wet stone. It slips into a crack and I begin to fall againBreaking my fall by leaning on the staff, I bend itThere are a lot of steps aheadDoing without it is scarySlowly, using the crack in which it bent, I reverse the damageVictory sometimes comes in small packages, but it still feels like a triumph.
If you think that was memorable, the poet puts me in my place from years before, "... the mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air underneath so hushed that I felt as if I was groping my way in the dead of night... the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging cloudsI pushed my way through thick undergrowth of bamboo, crossing many streams and stumbling over hidden rocks, till at last I arrived at the village of Mogami after much shedding of cold sweat.”
Methinks my few words
are nothing compared to yours
but we sweat the same.
Great ocean views promised by the guide books do not exist as mist follows the rain, billows visibly filling in between the trees and blurring the landscapeBut in a sense this was even more Japanese.Confirming the photographer's rule that the best shots come during the worst moments, my eyes are rewarded with scenes that sunlight cannot produce: mossy Jizos more touching in the gray light, the edges of the world softened; bamboo groves turned into brush paintings; a tangle of moss covered tree trunks and a green boulder that are a snapshot of giants bowling in the forest.
As has happened several days, when I hear the distant rustle of river water I know the end is approaching.After a long quiet stretch on a ridge, steps return to descendI change tacticsInstead of looking for the least wet stones and gingerly testing each as I go, I step onto the largest one in each step whatever its condition and discover I can stride confidently downOh, that I had discovered this beforeWhat time I could have savedThen again, spending time is why I am hereBut walking down is now far more pleasant than climbing down.
From the peak when the rain started, down to the river, I have seen fewer fellow pilgrimsBut not none at allMy new walking strategy allows me to pass a couple easily, very different from those who watched me stumble an hour beforeCloser to the river the others are going up the hill as I go downDo they know, or care, how long and steep and slippery it isPhotos of these stairways are breathtaking to the eye, ones I have seen before and those I am taking now, and reveal nothing of their difficulty or peril.  
After many steps the steep slope begins to flatten out, a cemetery appears to my left enclosed in low walls, the sound of water grows; and then, at the bottom of another set of steps I am quite suddenly in a park outside the town where the shrines wereNo transition at all save for a carved stoneAnother pavilion stands nearby where I pause along with a group of young adults arriving to climb up. The trail,now more tidy but not less stony, takes me through a manicured lawn like a golf course and then to a long stone stairway that goes down to the shrines of Naki-san, named for the 400 foot waterfall that has been sacred for centuriesAgain, the stairs end suddenly in the complex, coming in the back door as I did atHongu, making me feel out of place among the day trippers strolling casually on the sidewalk that connects the shrines and shops.
As often happens, the Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple stand cheek by jowl, a remnant of the time when Buddhist monks also cared for Shinto sitesBut the buildings are always distinct in design and color. The Buddhist temple has a great bell inside, and a promising statue, but only for those willing to pay. Havingseen many others already I decide it is not worth the price.  I can see a bit inside along the side porch.  And I can hear the bell quite well indeed.  The Shinto shrine is beautiful but typical.  What makes then stand out is how they fit the place where they are built. Clinging to a hillside, hallway up from the valley, the gain their sanctity from the waterfall a half a km awayBetween them is a Buddhist pagoda, among the tallest in Japan, that serves as a viewing towerThat I am willing to pay to see.  Its inside walls are filled with Buddhist paintings but you have to climb up to see. I do.  
Thinking of a temple he visited in the far north, Basho noted
Even the long rain of May
Had left it untouched -
This gold chapel
Aglow in the sombre shade.
That’s the zen in him, finding clouds with every silver lining.  But ultimately he is right.  All is vanity.
Beautiful paintings - 
Rains can wash them all away 
while cleansing the world
To come this far and not approach the falls themselves would be foolish, so even though the rain has resumed, I trudge down more steps to the bottom of the gorge where buses gather to disgorge visitors who then join me in the last 150 meters through tall cedars to the foot of the fallsItself a shrine, there is anenormous incense burner at the bottom attended by a priest, and many sticks of incense stuck in the brazier, the smoke mixing with the mist and rain into a looming aromatic cloud.
Though no Niagara, Naki-san is impressively tall mesmerizing us allWhat is there in flames and waters that attract usEach perfectly balance order and chaosThey move but do not choose how they move. They are not alive but are essential to lifeThey are liminal things that bridge the apparent boundary between animate and inanimateThese things do not occur to me then, of course, as I take in the narrow ribbon of water that falls 400 feet to the rocks belowI simply look, as others do, many with translucent umbrellas against the increasing rain.
Each spot at Naki-san has a sense of finality as this is the end of the trailI look for a token to buy, to signify my endThere are several souvenir shops near the falls with a wide choiceI buy a t shirt, as I did in England and SpainIf there is a place to turn the official booklet with stamps I cannot find it, but I do not have the book eitherThe sense of accomplishment is murky, like the weatherHave I ended?
Mid growing rain again, I take a final long stairway of 600 steps – the Daimonzaka - which brings me to the official exit from the sacred region, a bookend to Takijiri-oji five days agoLike that place, this one is not quite apparent until one looks hard. Two Massive cedars guard the path - called husband and wife - and one last Torii gate signal leaving the sacred area, and outside there is one more large stone carved boasting of UNESCOMy official passage is complete.
As if to tell me more clearly, the rain grows heavier as I walk away, down the automobile road toward the bus stop. There is a final 5 km of trail, down to the seaI considered walking it when there was nothing but mist, but the rain is now heavy and so I take my agents advice and hail a bus to Kii-Katsuura, dripping on the floor of the bus as it lumbers along; the wipers thumping back and forth on the foggy windshield make the loudest soundAt the very end, which is also the train station, I walk to the wharf to find the boat that takes me to yet another hot spring spa built in the Catskill styleThat is, the place is enormousThe check-in desk has six clerks in matching blazers.  People in yukatas go back and forth to the famed onsens which are set in grottos and on cliffs.  My room looks out onto the harbor, incongruously lavish compared to where I was hours before, muddy and wet in the forest. And there is a private shower.  The bathroom is designed to be an Ofuro, a formal bath with a drain for rinsing and a tall sided tub, but being able to take simple shower alone is the real luxury I crave.  
Unlike Yunomine, meals here served as a buffet in a giant hallLong tables surround enormous tableaus of food.  Around the edges are more food stations.  My incompetent slippers lead me to walk in socks, which causes some amusementA woman behind the entry desk hands me a pair of slippers with a big smile.  Beyond her a very tall man in a tuxedo (and shoes!) points people to their seats at the long tables,with numbers at each seatWhole families in Yukatas walk back and forth between the sashimi and croissantsNot what I expected, but little has been.
By morning the sky clearedFrom the boat and train I see small islands in the harbor and along the coast.After an hour we pass Kii-tanabe where I started.  From Wakayama on the scenery is mostly greater Osaka, the second largest metro area in JapanI change again at Shin-Osaka, and the trip to Kyoto takesonly 20 minutes.
In Kyoto, my luggage is waiting for me, but Kyoto – yes that great city - was a little less thrilling when one arrives from sacred mountains and waterfallsI feel a certain incompleteness in fact, that there ought to be some ritual moment that closes my pilgrim passage. Fortunately, fate gives me a fitting end to my pilgrimage that evening.
By the time I have arrive and settle in it is 4 pm and the major sites will close soonExcept one.
The Fushima Inari Taisha, is a low mountain south of the city and dotted with shrines to Inari.  All arelinked by pathways that are nearly encased by torii gates erected side by side to gain favor from the kami of prosperityThere are even signs telling you how much a gate costsIt all makes for tunnels ofvermillion toriis, thousands of them, interrupted by shrines of various sizesIn the clusters of shrines miniature torii gates stack up on the altarsIt is a pilgrimage itself, and indeed I see someone jogging along the path from shrine to shrine paying respects at each with an offering, a bell ring, a prayerful bow and a solemn 'clap-clap.'  
Walking to the top and back was a good 2-3 km in itself - snaking in and out of clearings, up and down slopes, and all well prowled by catsThe path was getting dark as I circled back to the hilltop when the sun setPeople lingered on the ledge to watch the light turn from gold to red to purpleMy descent to the town was almost solitary, until I find the gate where I enteredAhead of me is a young couple, sitting on a step, relishing their solitude in the twilight.
“I visited the Gongen shrine,” Basho recalls.  “There are hundreds of houses where priests practice religious rites with absolute severity.  Indeed the whole mountain is filled with miraculous inspiration and sacred awe.”  I will settle for this lesser hill south of Kyoto on the Nara line.  
Five days later, after seeing Kyoto and Nara and Ise, I am walking through downtown Kyoto on my last evening there and at the busiest corner I collide with the two American women I met at Takajiri.  “We were supposed to meet at Naki-san,” I begin, “but we got a late start and the rain slowed us down,” one said. “So I went to my hotel,” I continue.  “Want that drink now?”  “We are leaving tonight,” the other says.  How could it be otherwise, as Buddhism is all about the illusion of certainty and control?  
Five days after that I am packing up to go to Narita and home.  Along the way I have relinquished underwear and shirts and socks, by design I should add.  I have accumulated papers and booklets and a gift for my wife and a stone or two – remember Fuji? - to remind me of where I was.  And in my hands I hold Basho, the book I have owned since 1971.  It is in pieces.  From Echizen-toge down to the bus stop it rained, and the rain got into the knapsack as I went.  
Shed of everything else
I still have some lice
I picked up on the road
Crawling on my summer robes.  
How sad it seems and then how right.  He traveled to lose himself – to unloose himself from the world.  The book has now done the same, unloosed itself as we traveled.  In the Ueno part of Tokyo, not far fromwhere he lived before leaving on his journeys, a section of town with same name as the village in which he was born, I leave the fractured book on the desk of my small room.  Why keep it? We are both going home.

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