The day after the Katsuragi walk, I found myself on a train heading back down that way. Miki and I plan to do the next section of the TSH in a few weeks, and we'd start today from Murōji and cross the mountains into Mie-ken. From the station, we faced a 90 minute wait for a bus, but were able to thumb a ride with a kind woman thankfully heading into the mountains. Miki and I wandered in circles awhile around the souvenir shops, trying to decide whether or not to eat some yomogi before setting out. The owner of the shop settled it for us by not being there.
A short walk up the road was Ryuketsu Jinja. It was a simple, beautiful structure fading into the forest beneath massive cyprus trees. These blocked the sunlight so effectively that the shrine was nearly lost in the dark but for the lanterns that hung from the eaves. We sat here awhile, eating lunch and trying to ignore the occasional outbursts and laughter from a trio of middle-aged motorcyclists jabbering away out on the main road. As if in contrast, a half dozen women were standing behind the shrine, chanting the Heart Sutra repeatedly for the entire half hour that we were there. This shrine is where you come to petition the God of Rain, though I doubt the women's effort was worth it this close to rainy season. But they played their part well, dressed in the garb of the pilgrim, much like the guys out front played theirs, wearing clothes that screamed, "Sunday Biker."
We walked up the highway, past a luxury car with Fukuoka plates, and a man who had absolutely no life in his eyes. Leaving the main road, we climbed up toward the cave where a dragon was said to dwell, giving name to the shrine below. Along the way, we came across a hole in the earth between two huge stones. This was supposedly the lair of Amaterasu, who, if you believe the talk of local shrines around the country, has spent the night in more places than Wilt Chamberlain. Moving up the hill again, we were nearly mowed down by a car driven dangerously fast by our friend with the lifeless eyes. (These snake/dragon shrines tend to attract some bizarre and frightening people.) And there was the cave, up a river gorge fed by a waterfall. It was framed with a shimenawa, hung by some brave soul immune to the laws of gravity. It was an inspiring sight, this immense cut in the rock wall, above a fast and powerful river.
We dropped back to the main road, following the wide river fed by the dragon's gorge. Above it were a series of rice fields, and the frogs singing merrily within. I've been lucky to have spent nearly every weekend since March out in the country, and it had been wonderful to experience the spring as it has unfolded. I've been able to listen to the song of the frogs change as it has matured from the creaking and popping of tadpoles in April, into this throaty self-sure song of summer. It was a similar story with the birds. The nightingale was still the prominent diva, having honed it's skills over the past two months. But a few newer voices were now beginning to push their way onto the stage.
They were all in full aria as we moved along a logging road that petered off into forest. The track now became cobblestone, slippery with the covering of soft pine needles. It got steep quickly, shadowing a river that dropped away repeatedly into unseen waterfalls. One spot in the forest was thick with the smell of dank mold. This odor was thickest around an old collapsed house here in the middle of nowhere. I worried about what may be rotting beneath.
Over the pass we met road again. Sudden movement between my feet proved to be a snake that shot quickly into the high grass. A short while after, I stopped to push a large stone with my foot into the river below. Watching it drop, I noticed an enormous black snake the size of a house cat, sunning itself in the hanging tangle of brush a meter from my shoe. (And I officially amend my statement that yesterday's snake was the biggest I've ever seen in Japan.)
Before long, the road dropped onto trail again, following a series of waterfalls that dropped like a staircase into magnificent swimming holes. At their base was Soni village, whose lucky residents got not only these pools, but a stunning panorama of peaks that ring the valley. The most impressive was Yoroi Yama, looking like Devil's Tower with hair implants. This area was an outdoorsman's paradise, the campground containing a heated toilet for those "roughing it." A fish farm kept the local streams well stocked with dinner. The water of the pond beyond them was far less clean, the surface thick with unbroken green like this country's famous tea. We walked happily through the village, feeling that at last, it is summer. Atop the rise was a temple built like a farmhouse, and below it, some firemen were climbing into an old and tiny firetruck. A small boy seemed more amazed by the sight of me than the fact that he got to ride in the open back of such an awesome machine.
Arriving at the main highway, I felt something in my shirt, and reaching in, I startled a bee into stinging my chest just above my heart. I'm not allergic to bees, but I'd never been stung in Japan before. I tried not to think about it as the pain began to kick in, instead focussing on hunting and gathering a lift to Nabari Station. We got a ride pretty quick, our luck better than the driver, who had been unsuccessful at fishing in some of the incredible water we'd been walking alongside through the afternoon.