I'm living in Kusatsu-shi, Shiga-ken for an undetermined amount of time and teaching English as a second language at a local high school. This journal is to document my experiences, thoughts, and to stay connected with others at home and abroad.

Friday, August 17, 2007

和歌山/奈良 (Wakayama/Nara) Cycling

First the scenario, then the photos. Last time caused some confusion, so I will set things aright from the start.
Between August 4th~8th I went cycling and camping solo through the 紀伊半島山地 (Kii peninsula mountain range) in Wakayama and Nara prefectures. I didn't really know what to expect, because besides a bit of research about the famous temples in the area, I didn't really do much in the way of gagueing how difficult it would be to climb an 800 meter mountain pass on bike, or how long it takes to point A to point B, which only appear to be six inches apart on my map. I did have a map and a general idea of where I want to go, but the details are always so dull. And I also bought a new road bike, nothing too special, about $400 (honestly, a decent Gary Fisher can be in the $2000 range), 10kg, nice and light, easy to take on the trains and perfect for hill climbing.

Day 1:
10:30I boarded a southbound train out of Tehara station (closer to Katie's and my new apartment, and less crowded than Kusatsu). Just after my first transfer (still with 3 more to go) around 11:30, I met another traveling cyclist, a Tokyoite. His hog, however, was a bit better tuned, as he was on his way to a race near Nagoya. We talked for a bit on our 20 minutes together, and when he learned that I was planning on camping in haunted mountains (which apparently parts of the Kii range is), he gave a Japanese book on outdoor survival. He only hesitated to ask if I could read it after he had given it to me and we had talked for quite a bit, which I guess is a good sign that my Japanese is improving. Most people will not even talk to you if they think you don't understand Japanese, let alone give you a book full of kanji characters. So this man, Mr. Haruno Kinoshita, who I still need to email a thank you, was the first of my long list of benefactors on this trip. There would be many more to come that would boost my spirit along the way.

The rest of the train ride––Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and small talk with other travelers and train conductors.

20:15 I arrived in Kushimoto (串本), the southernmost town on Honshuu (本州="main island"). As I deboarded I noticed a familiar summertime sound: 花火, fireworks, exploding over the Kushimoto bay about five minutes from the station. I had unwittingly arrived in the middle of their summer festival, and although I was exhausted from 10 hours of riding the train, I decided to grab some dinner from on the of yakisoba stands lining the street and watch the remainder. Japanese fireworks, if you've never seen, are pretty amazing. They are a rare cultural tradition––inherited from the Chinese, the inventors of gunpowder, naturally––that is still carried with pride to this day. The modern generation generally sees many traditional arts as boring and useless, yet they are all moved to tears by cellular phones, seriously (does anyone else feel ill?). Anyway, fireworks continue with the same pride and flare as always, and it's pretty incredible. Many Ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artists of the 19th century feature Tokyo (then Edo) fireworks as in their paintings. This small town of maybe 10,000 people had a more colorful and impressive display than those of Lenox in Atlanta, one of the leading shows in the a state capital of 5 million. Otsu (Shiga Prefectures's capital), maybe a population of 300,000, had a show that surpassed what I saw in NYC a few years ago by far. Just imagine Osaka, Nagano, or Tokyo--all of which are apparently spectacular as well.

21:30 I was tired and the sun set at 8pm, so I found a simple lodge (民宿)for about 30 bucks to stay at for the night.

Day 2: Started early to try and set a good pace for the trip, and was out by about 6:30, maybe even a bit earlier. I biked down to the actual southernmost cape, called 潮岬(shionomisaki=cape of the tide). Here an older guy stopped and started talking to me. He worked on the Japan Naval/Air Base on the next island over, and he really enjoyed talked to travelers, foreign and Japanese, about what they had experienced, where they were headed. He offered to take me around the town and be my tour guide to some of the best sites of offer. Knowing that I would be hugging the rubber enema chair (my bike seat) for the next few days, I welcomed the opportunity. He took me to a nearby temple, to breakfast (treated!), and a waterfall. He had so much pride and eagerness to share himself and his town, and I will not forget his generosity. I mailed him a postcard when I arrived at my destination, Nara.

10:30 After four hours of being shown around Kushimoto, I jumped on my bike and headed north along the coast. The riding was pretty much flat and scenic, every bend revealed another sapphire bay with cliffs and orbiting clusters of wooded islands.
This is one famous site is called "橋杭岩 rock bridge"
Another interesting find was a halfway land called 太地 (Taiji), the location of a recommended whale museum. And not just a whale museum, but several restaurants I passed were advertising whale meat cuisine. Last time I checked, there is an international ban on killing whales, but for those unaware of the tenacity of the Japanese people (and Norweigiens apparently), they kill around 800+ or so a year for "research", that is sold and eaten before any miraculous research can be yielded. Whales.org

About two hours and 3o kilometers later I arrived in 紀伊勝浦(Kiikatsuura) and ate lunch at a small Chinese restaurant. The place located in the covered arcade near the station. It was small and run by a husband and wife that were really friendly, as almost everyone I encountered on my trip, and they made the best yaki meshi. Usually "fried rice" only has egg, sometimes meat (so I have to be careful, and onion and carrot bits, but this stuff had small pieces of broccoli, peppers, and a medley of other fresh veggies--yummy! I don't remember the name, but if you're in the arcade in 紀伊勝浦, look for the Chinese restaurant with a lot of plants in front of it and a Boss drink machine closeby.

1:30 Probably the hottest part of the day, but I only had about 10 more miles to get up to the 那智(Nachi)waterfalls.So with my belly full I charged up the home stretch, although it wasn't the smartest idea, nor the stupidest, I've had. 10 kilometers was nothing on fairly flat coastal highway, but I was beginning my mountain portion of the vacation. I must admit I saw a few stars before finally reaching the base of 那智 falls about 45 minutes later. And to add insult to near injury I realized that I could not actually douse myself in the falls as I had planned. These were no ordinary falls, they were sacred, hence, no one may touch the God-given water (I don't know what the guy expected us to do with it!––suck in it's moisture through osmosis?). So I went downstream, partway back down the hill I had just climbed, so that I could get myself into some magic water (which isn't revered nearly as much as it five minutes earlier when he tumbles over these falls).
But you have to admit that this is a fairly spectacular, possibly deserving of the sanctified status it has gained at a World Heritage. Looking at the falls from this position, untouchable, offset from the hand, as I wrote in my journal, "I think the 那智 falls are lonely."

This is a photo of the 那智 falls from the grounds of the 那智 temple nearby. Surrounding the falls and the temple area is a primeval forest that has remained basically untouched throughout Japan's history. I took an evening sunset hike up on the ridge of this ancient forest to the area to the left of the falls. It seemed okay, at least up to a point, but I did notice that the deeper I got the more I began to notice signs in Japanese that said, something along the lines of "THIS IS SACRED GROUND, NO TRESPASSING," and the like, and then when I saw the same signs again with English translations next to them, I knew I couldn't pretend to be a blind, wandering foreigner anymore. So I continued a bit farther as an knowledgeable and proud (mostly because I had understood the earlier Japanese signs) Salem. Is that a crime? Most likely, so please don't tell anyone (sssshhhhhhhhh;-). Despite my rudeness, I did have enough respect for the land not to photograph it and spoil its secrets. I will say that the water was cooler than it would become in the 5 minutes after it fell from the heaven's 那智 falls, icy as if it too were primeval, descended from the moon, and never been warmed by an animal's touch. Anyone would be lucky to dive into that waters while they are still in the clouds and rush over the edge of 那智 falls, and I believe if that person did he would turn to drops halfway and run the next 10 km into the Pacific Ocean.

Night I had considered staying up above in the forbidden territory, but something about that seemed excessively intrusive, so I decided to set up camp on the temple grounds an hour or so after dark so that no straggling visitors or monks would see me. I ate お土産 (souvenir) sweet bean-paste desserts for dinner. I bought them earlier in the day when I realized everything this high up on the mountain would be closed by 6pm when the tourists left. I went off to sleep to the sound of ageless water meeting ancient rock.

DAY 3 Something in my head told me to get up and pack up my stuff, IMMEDIATELY. The eerie 5 am light was yet a shadow in the thickness of pines and cedars surrounding me, letting through just a hint of the imminent sunrise. I've never had much in the way of premonitions, but this voice had a backbone and teeth and not the slightest rhyme of dreaming. I pulled myself up off the large flat stones of the temple below 那智 falls, and set to reducing proof of my lodging. I had the tent down, teeth brushed, and bags packed in about ten, and sure enough, within a few minutes a couple of guys camp down the path that dead ended at the temple and 那智 falls. They were only tourists, and the worst that would have resulted from being seen camping on sacred ground would have been a bit of embarrassment due to being caught, but alarm in me knew. It sounds minor, but I will not fail to follow that voice's admonitions should I hear them again.

After a brief conversation with the other early-birds, who had driven more than 8 hours from 3 prefectures (Aichi, they were from) away overnight to arrive at dawn, I jumped by on the saddle. With a few more sweet bean sweets I was off quite earlier than expected. Good that I did, because the next stretch was quite a bitch, to say the least. Uphill, continuously, for 6 kilometers and about one hour. Luckily because it was still hardly past daybreak and there were no cars whatsoever on the mountain pass, I survived; although had there been it would have seemed like hell. At the top of this monster I reached a temple and hiked the rest of the way to the mountain peak, 妙法山 (Myohosan) 749.1 meters, and I took this photograph:

From here I made a long, maybe 6-8km, breezy ride downhill into a valley on the other side of 妙法山 and 那智山 (Mt. Nachi), taking in the still cool morning air (it was still on the verge of 8am) and reveling in my hard day's work. The time it took to undo a total of 1.5 hours of steep riding and hiking: about 10 minutes. But that was enough time to revive my legs, more accurately re-palpitate my heart and give it the soaring desire to continue on for another 8 hours.

That is when I came across a little stepe township called 口色川 (Kuchiirogawa). This photo shows the only elementary school within about 40-50 km, as well as the terraced rice paddies (棚田)that I have fantasies of being able to lie across as if they are feather beds and swim through like waves in the ocean. Oh!––if only I could open my mouth and feed on the sheathed grains and grubs in the muddy soil beneath!

口色川 is also a World Heritage site for its tea. I learned this as I was invited for tea by an おじいさん (an ojiisan=grandfather/general term for an old man). His home and those of his closest neighbors rested on the highest point of 口色川, which I was foolishly in the midst of climbing when he drove by and told me to stop at the top for a sip. Their community consisted of about 10 homes lining either side of the road, a small general store/post office where everyone bought anything, and a bus stop at the end of a line that ran once a day to and from 紀伊勝浦(Kiikatsuura). It's about as remote as civilization gets in Japan, and after thirty minutes of resting and chatting with the man and his neighbors, I took off with an even lighter heart and a お弁当 (bento=lunch box) that one of the kind women made me for ever distanter locales.

The road went a bit higher and higher, although still considerably lower than the morning's ascent, until it soon leveled out a couple hundred meters above the valley. On this high-cut path I came across views quite contradictory to the bucolic, agricultural haven of 口色川.

First was dereliction. This was a house that had been abandoned more than ten years, as was evident by the moss growing over door knobs and vine-controlled kitchens like this one. After heading out of the teeming 口色川 of about 2000 (that's a generous guess), the only houses I found for the next 20 km or so had long been abandoned. Not a big deal, right? It happens. People move often, especially nowadays. But how often to people bail with dirty dishes in the sink and clothes hanging on the lines? My point is that there's a difference between a house that has been left behind and the ghostly shell of a life ditched abruptly as if a bubble had burst. The former feels natural, the latter quite unsettling. I know you are saying, "Here comes the apocalyptic narrator again," but this is sign of real problems to come in Japan and the world: the poverty gap between the world's richest and poorest is increasing as more humans are becoming dependent on mass-production commodities, and this is connected directly with people fleeing to take refuge in concrete megalopoli where they can find jobs and easier access to money and resources. Whatever happened to 'running for the hills'? Here is what:

This is a (vertical) panorama series I called:

The people we place our international consumer faith in keep finding and exploiting shortcuts to increase their capital while keeping you complacent in your childish demands for more convenience. Those benevolent souls, about 75% of whom I must add are over the age of 60 in Japan, who know how to work with integrity and self-respect,
cannot find work nowadays, and are forced into cages in the cities where they can find false security in subways and Subways.

So I went through alternating Edens and Hells for the next few hours, picking and choosing my breaks to coincide with the former where I would swim alone and naked like all people
should be from the inside out if this planet is going to survive us. For the contrasting images, such as the one above, I saved five minute spells of curses that I will spare you. Please do not feel cheated, I assure you I possess enough fire to cover the world in brimstone for eternity, however I am trying to save that for the real apocalypse.

4:30-5 ish By the early evening I had arrived at my destination for the evening: 本宮 Hongu.
The area is famous for its hot springs, which are apparently spectacular during the winter months. After 60-70 mountain kilometers I could have certainly used one; however, because I had already gone swimming at a couple places earlier in the day, I decided to take an early dinner and save them to the morrow. It wasn't hard to do, and sleep came quicker than usual just after a 7:30 sunset.

7ish am I packed up the tent gear and got back on the bike. My camp site wasn't a short ride to the main part of Hongu town. I camped in an area called 川湯 (Kawayu Onsen) on the 大塔川(Ohto River), which during the winter months is morphed into an outdoor spa called a 露天風呂 (rotemburo) by the neighboring hotels and onsen. It looked like something worth coming back for in December or January, but this morning was August 7th, and it was muggy, so a bath wasn't the first thing I was looking for.
Here's what I stumbled into instead. This tori gate stands at the sight of the former
熊野本宮大社 (Kumano Hongu Taisha), one of the main temples that was vital to the spread of Buddhism in Japan about 1500 years ago. The current temple was moved out of the river valley due to damage caused by constant flooding. Below is a picture from within the tree cluster you can see in the top photo--the site of the original site. Proverbial birds were singing inside this nature sanctuary. It was easy to believe within that circle that I was existing in a well of only oxygen and insect songs, and when I looked up at the 8am sky I was really seeing stars and a crescent moon.
My journal from this moment: "There are so many things I do not understand. All I want is a tree whose shade I can occupy and with whom I can share all the love I have. I don't want to live a life where I hurt others. I have much to give and I am off to throw myself. Inside this temple of trees with locusts buzzing and thin clouds overhead I cried and cried and wished for that tree."
The Kumano refers to an ancient road that runs from the Pacific Ocean to the interior of the Kii Penincula and Honshu, the main island of Japan. Korean immigrants brought Buddhism over, and monks used to walk the 熊野古道 or the Ancient Kumano Road when they would journey between temples of worship. In this sense, Wakayama and Nara (which at this point I hadn't even reached yet) are the mouth of Buddhism for Japan. 那智, where I previously visited and which is located about 15 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, is another step along the 熊野古道. The trails between these two and many other spiritual orificies, many radiating like corona from the tops of mountains, make for several thousand kilometers of impressive, unkempt forest--the best kind. I hope to get the opportunity to go hiking along these sometime and really feel out the religious soil. Biking was great, but I felt like I was chasing the earth away, that I never really got far enough from pavement.

Needless to say, after another day of wonderful sights from these places I had little left to want for. Except of course for a house among among the tea groves and terraced rice paddies. And I may have even found that! Yes, land within two hundred meters of these two consecutive photographs from atop a hill in 本宮 was land for sell: 0735 21 5665. Any investment partners out there?

10-13:00 Other than this, I traveled along for another 30-40 kilometers or so into Nara Prefecture where I passed through an area called  十津川 Totsugawa. Quite deep in the mountains and out of reach except by car and the rare bus or bicycle, 十津川 is also well-renowned for its onsen (that's a plural--onsens--but Japanese doesn't have a additive pluralized form for common nouns). I waited out the hot of the day and the afternoon showers that came along with the high humidity in one of these onsen. The area is well known for having a system that filters the natural water directly out of the mountains, and then recycling it. I was reading this is Japanese, so technologically speaking I know jack; but I was comforted by the line in the article about how although this recycling system is sometime criticized because people have died from bacterial infections in other parts of Japan due to the inability to completely purify the water without additive chemicals, the 十津川 onsen area has not suffered a casualty yet. I'm not really planning on going that far, so, oh well.

4:30 After the rain I jumped back on and made for my next stop. 十津川 was a great place, however I had different ideas about where I wanted to spend the night.
Here! In a town called 谷瀬 (Tanise), about 15-20 km north of 十津川 is the sight of a once famous vine bridge. Although it does not continue in its original state, the idea and heart still remain. The area was gorgeous, and I definitely recommend the area, especially for the KOA style camping. Directly beneath the bridge are two different camping sites, one of which I picked out a spot and set up camp. While I have my reservations about experiencing nature on a compound with about 50 other people, my neighbors were quite outgoing and generous. At first they shared their fire with me, then they just decided to have me over for dinner...and breakfast the next morning. Watermelon!!!! is not a cheap thing like in Georgia. A cantaloupe-sized munchkin costs usually around 10 bucks!!! Thank you so much Ms. Kishimoto, Yuki, Yousuke, and Naoya! They taught me in Japanese, and more importantly in action
"旅行は道ずれ、世は情け” = "Traveling has many roads, the world is full of kindness"
Less concisely, cause that option is often overlooked: "While we are traveling we encounter many different paths (literal roads as well as people on their own paths), and we have many opportunities to share the compassion and kindness of the world with one another." Another similar proverb in Japanese is
"一期一会” = "One time, one encounter" or "We have but one chance to meet each other, so when the opportunity to meet a new person, we should take advantage of the privilege."

I truly felt blessed by so much benevolence from so many strangers along my journey, and the Kishimoto family was another set of hands that helped weave my experience into a whole patchwork quilt of honest faces and sincere gifts.

Day 5 Sorry for the delay. It was not worth the wait. Honestly. Most of my travels were already finished by the start to the 5th day, although I did not know it yet. I awoke around 6:30 am to explore the vine bridge and some of the surrounding town before other tourists could arrive. I'm very particular, especially when experiencing heavenly places. I awoke and got my twenty isolated minutes before anyone else could there, and it was worth it.

How else could you get shots like these and the one above.

Unfortunately I rushed my misty bridge to get back in route, thinking I had another long day of riding ahead. After two hours back on the road, trucking along the 十津川 (the river in the photo above), I came across an opportunity to take a road that would a) lead me into greater and high mountains or b) more or less take me down out of the mountains and back to the train line. I regret to say I chose the road more often traveled. Tired from many kilometers I was not really excited about heading down another road that would most likely lead to deeper and wilder terrain. So at the crossroads I headed back for civilization, i.e. the road most traveled. I never felt so ugly as I did then. I played chicken with nature and I lost. Am I wrong to think that I added another chapter to the failure of humankind? I could have made something amazing, and my fear of the dark held me back.

One thing I forgot to add is that the convenient road to the city only applies to automobiles. While I assumed that I had chosen the easier of the roads, I soon realized that my trail for McDonald's and Starbucks required an excruciating uphill in the town called 大塔(Ohto). I hit a dead uphill path, and after so many days of this sort of abuse, I could not longer bear it with the same courtesy. At the top of 大塔 was a spectacular traditional Japanese restaurant that overlooked the monstrous hill I had pushed my bike up. At the restaurant I talked with some of the other people eating, and one family invited, no, insisted that they drive me down the mountain because it was too dangerous. I was tempted to decline, but my legs were too tired to resist, and so I soon found myself in the back seat riding toward my final destination. Admittedly, with a blushing smear of chagrin, I rode out the final 20 kilometers of my planned itinerary in a car. In my defense, the roads were seemingly dangerous from the inside of a car. Although most parts were more mild than some of my earlier paths, the road had a two kilometer tunnel that winded and went downhill. Why risk it when you can avoid it in a luxury automobile?––this is the call of the atrophying mind that has no respect for nature and no imagination.

Once back in town and safely delivered to a train station, I boarded a train and headed home. I think the point where I unconsciously decided to return to the city––the Frostian split in the road I mentioned earlier––was pivotal to the outcome of my trip. Had I chosen to back further in to the mountains I would have surely been lost for two or three more days. This would have been no problem, in fact, it would have been a lot of edifying, and given the opportunity again I would have definitely decided to lose myself.

Conclusion: Anyone faced with a possibly important, especially a life-altering decision, my command is to take the less practical road. It will always lead you to more fun and knowledge. Although it may seem inconvenient or difficult, you will certainly grow and recover from it with at the least a great story to tell. I repeat: make as many mistakes, or at the least, possible mistakes (I believe these are called risks) as you can. Life is only a matter of how much gumption you've got stirring up your belly. It wants to get out there and renegade across the earth taking bored hostages of mental captivity and making them smile. Maybe you can commandeer some of these vessels and steal their hearts as well, then be the true gentleman or gentlelady that you are and had it back to them with an origami tiger as a memento of you. Take that fluid in your belly and vomit your miracle onto the world.

And good luck in the meanwhile.