Yagyu was a popular place this day. There was a TV crew filming up at the old temple, and the young, short-skirt brigade was heading out here for that. The rest, their well-kitted grandparents, were off to a Plum Blossom festival the next valley over. Yet when we got off this bus, there was no one around. We saw maybe one or two folks out in their fields, but the place was completely silent. Even the dogs had nothing to say, lying quietly in the sun. We moved along the paths through the village, past the large carved Jizo outside of town, and into the forest toward Nara. This first part of the trail is paved with cobblestones, and was the only real climb of the day. Beyond it, we stepped into the wide open space of fields, stretching far along the range of hills. The bank of one rice paddy was sloped just right, so we stopped here in the soft grass, eating lunch and watching the clouds follow their shadows across the bare earth. It would be easy to doze here, but we had four more hours walk ahead of us. We entered the village nearby. Most of the houses had their own vegetable plots, and it was fun to watch our friends Juri and Sumioka as they'd assess the state of many veggies and herbs. They run a small cafe north of Kyoto which they support with their own homegrown organic ingredients. I greatly envied their knowledge. In front of one house, some shiitake mushrooms were left to dry in the sun. In front of another, were the pelts of several wild boar. One was so fresh, you could still make out the ears, the nostrils. As we were looking, an old guy came out of a barn to wash a long knife. I'd venture that it was with the same knife that he'd done the skinning. We talked with him about the boars around here, and he told us he'd killed eight this year. They'd been increasing over the years since most of the younger generations no longer had any interest in the hunt. Now the boar come down to the villages to destroy the gardens and on occasion, even kill. He'll sell the skins in town as decoration. Despite the someone gruff manner of the hunter, he was really friendly and chatty, and invited us to sit with him awhile. We all wanted to but had to get to Nara by dark. I liked how Sumioka begged off: "The road is long so we must go."
We followed another pass to the next village, on whose outskirts we found a lone Udon shop. Their banners had been spread along the trail, and hikers must make up the bulk of their business. We moved down to a large cluster of trees which unmistakably indicates a shrine. We'd been passing stone-carved Buddhist figures all day, but this shrine was far older than their 1200 years. Beyond this, a group of old folks played gateball. The clack of mallet on ball followed us deep into the forest. Above one small bend in the river were a handful of grave stones, dark and weathered but still retaining the Sanskrit symbols carved into the soft stone. In the river itself, the rocks were equally high, equally mysterious and ancient. The work of water had cleaved the tallest among them into three. From there, the trail climbed again, up toward Ninnuku Pass. A single beam of sunlight shone on a small green fern waving to us as we passed. A sign of new life amidst all the old.
Atop the pass was Enseiji Temple, with its large pond and admission charge. We moved around back to sit and drink tea on some large stones that will one day become grave markers. At the moment, all there was was a lone Jizo, so I dug into my trailmix to make an offering of almond and raisin. Where the first half of the hike had been amidst villages and fields, the remainder was all forest. We followed the ridge line awhile. It was somewhat eerie here, with much fallen bamboo and the forest floor shredded by foraging boar. At some point we passed an unkept tea field, its bushes grown wildly into afros. Next to this was a sugi forest planted so deep and dense that absolutely no light could penetrate. It was the darkest forest I've ever seen and deserved it's monicker of Hell Valley. Clustered in the next valley was a small village , most of the houses here offering veggies or fruit or tea. The latter came from the tea bushes climbing up the western hill. Three Jizo stood peering our from some bushes near the top, as if playing hide and seek. At the next pass was a tea house where we stopped for some tea and waramochi. It was damp and chilly outside, but it was more pleasant out here, away from the stench of dog that permeated the inside. As we were the only customers, the owner came out to talk with us. We mentioned that we'd seen no other hikers, and he said only a couple dozen pass each day. He was happy with his immunity to the pollen allergy, living beneath all these sugi. (I was suffering badly.) He wished us well as we moved downward toward Nara. This was the lair of waterfalls and huge ancient trees. It was all testament to how beautiful this country can be, if only the government could keep its damned hands off it. We pass quite a few Buddhas carved in to hillsides above us. One triptich was starting to crack and lean, as the massive stone on which it is carved begins its slow gravity assisted journey into the river below. Most of these carvings are so old that no records exist on their origins, and the credit is usually given to Kobo Daishi, who was quite the busy fellow. I imagine they were instead the work of Koreans who came prosteletyzing to these islands in the 6th Century.
We were to the outskirts of Nara now. We startled three deer grazing just off path, more skittish than their cousins below who make their living as begging tourist attractions. A woman carrying an infant walked with her toddler son, whose feet spun at incredible speed as he negotiated the pedals of his tricycle on a steep hill. We moved into the forest again and over a trail to Kasuga Shrine, where we said goodbye to Juri and Sumioka, who headed back up to Kyoto. You can find them at Cafe Millet. Miki and I moved through the encroaching dark to join the crowds at Nigatsudo for the Omizu-tori festival, book-ending the event we saw in Obama five days before. As the flames moved along the hallways of the temple, throwing sparks into the crowd, we all roared our approval, in a collective welcome of Spring.
(Sumioka-san's photos of this walk can be found here and here. Don't miss the world's most amazing picnic spot midway down.)