Nine merciful hours of sleep later, we were in front of the train station waiting for a bus. Behind us was the tall statue of Basho. For a man who specialized in the subtle, there was nothing subtle in the scale. It seemed less for the haiku poet and more for the Tokugawa spy he may have been. (How else to explain his freedom of movement?) On the bus ride out of town, we passed a foreign woman on a bike. I lived long enough in the country to know that foreigners in small towns like this are almost tourist attractions in their own rite. 'The Iga Gaijin.' I tried not to think what might be in store for us today. Each of these three days had proved to have it's own challenges. The first day's were topographical, going over three peaks higher than 800 meters. (In fact, I later found that we'd essentially gone over what's known as the Muroji mountain range, a chain of six peaks above 700 meters, though mercifully we probably never dropped below 400.) The second day's were man-made, with the stairs and the bizarre choice of route. Today's will be atmospheric. As we sat out the electrical storm at the onsen, I noticed the darkest, nastiest clouds were over the valley we'd walk. This morning, the valley was still engulfed in cloud. Miki petitioned the sky gods as we trudged toward the temple again. Behind the main hall is a massive figure of Fudo-myo, his right eye twisted with his grimace. Incredibly, we'd met four people with a similar looking lazy eye, all within 30 minutes, including this temple's priest and wife (and their dog, but he didn't count.) I think of course of a limited gene pool, this village surrounded by mountains and cut off from the outside for centuries. This also explains the unfriendly way we were received. Our friendly calls of good morning continually going unreturned.
But we weren't thinking this as we moved over rough stone slippery with rain. Atop this rise was a small shrine. (My tally for this stretch of the TSH is two temples, two small shrines, and a single jizo. Due to the lack of such markers, I'd speculate that this area had been settled late, sometime in Edo perhaps.) The trail dropped straight down to the valley where the onsen is. I didn't even look in that direction. I was quite frustrated about how the outdoors has become a commodity, a place to which you drive and pay too much money in order to 'enjoy the nature.' People who want to have more of a pure communion are being priced out. Here in the forest was the real thing. We crossed a dozen streams, each flowing fast, then climbed into the foggy cedar groves, rich and sweet smelling from the damp. A yelp that we thought was a deer belonged instead to a dachshund being walked by it's owner. This was a sign that civilization was nearby, and we found it in a Youth Camp beside a large lake. We sat atop a grassy berm and had a late snack, before tackling the final climb up the spookily named Reizan, "Spirit Mountain." We had lunch beside a mound with a small Buddha inside, marking the former sight of a Tendai temple. Miki chose to lay back onto a large pile of deer dung, while I watched the trees exhale steam.
Then the knee surgeons were back, forcing us to descend five km down a 45 degree stretch of road. I can't remember how often we slipped, my mind too taken with the pain in knees and calves. Two hours later, the trail leveled off. We desperately wanted to sit and rest, but could hardly find forest floor due to all the rubbish strewn here. Welcome to beautiful Tsuge. As further insult, just inside town, the trail markers disappeared. And the rain, which had teased us all day, looked ready to up the ante. We were within a kilometer of the station, but didn't know which direction. We probably covered three times that distance until we figured it out. Exhausted and in pain, we walked silently, but for the sound of our final footfalls on the Yamanobe section of the TSH.
In our local sento back in Kyoto, I thought how well we'd done, aches aside. To date, we'd covered the furthest distances, along a stretch of the highest ground, over the longest number of hours, with the greatest amount of weight on our backs. All without a map.