Sunday's forecast was for cooler, overcast skies, promising nicer walking conditions. But the closer we got to Hiei's eastern face, the less I liked the look of the sky. Those carved valleys were holding onto clouds, letting loose precipitation which would eventually precipitate cuts deeper still. Mere minutes off the train, the rain found us and the cuts most quickly noticeable were those in my mood. The squall moved on soon enough but my mood remained dark. We'd had a black cat run out in front of our bikes today, and those old wives tales were proving their staying power. Yet can I default to superstition what had truthfully been my own absent-mindedness? In less than 15 minutes, I'd forgotten my camera, habitually stepped into flimsy sandals rather than decent hiking shoes, and boarded the wrong train. When I'd noticed my empty camera case, Miki and I had been deep into a conversation about a lecture she'd heard the day before. The speaker had mentioned that two of the major crises facing Japan are its falling birthrate and the lack of self-sustainable food sources. It's as if people today, overwhelmed with the conveniences of modern technological society, have forgotten two of the most fundamental parts of human survival- making food and having babies. Ironically, having forgotten my camera--the technological extension of the eye--I'd have to rely on my own sight and memory.
We found the place where we'd left the trail a couple weeks back. It led us to Omi Jingu, whose beautiful roofs matched the line of hills behind it. The word "Omi," used as a prefix for many of the towns and train stations in this area, denotes the region's wealthy merchant background. This massive shrine, comparatively ornate for the simplistic nature of Shinto, was a testament to that wealth. After a few claps and a bow of the head we moved on. And got lost. It took us some time to find the trail marker, behind a fence and facing in the direction that it was least likely to be seen. About a hundred yards or so, we found another marker at the edge of a new-ish bedroom community. The trail markers earlier on in Sakamoto had had arrows showing the direction of the path. These new posts had replaced those single arrows with a kind of slogan or brand, of multiple arrows extending in various directions like a hydra's head. I assume that the trail markers of a particular area is the responsibility of the municipality. Otsu-shi, into which we'd just stepped, had no doubt decided that in order to be different from their neighbor city, it would design a unique, yet counter intuitive, sign. This decision, encapsulated in a single simple wooden post, led us first about twenty minutes up a steep mountain road to a lonely shrine, then later, coupled with some helpful, yet incorrect advice of a local old-timer, further into the mountains along a different road, into the waiting arms of those storm clouds occupying this valley. We sat a while under the gate of a Jodo temple. (I smell a metaphor here. The major tenet of that sect's belief is that in times of trouble, one can find refuge in the Sutras. Which to them seems be sufficient since their closed-off temples definitely won't offer refuge from the elements.) The sky cleared as we backtracked, and we were directed to yet a third route, which proved correct. We quickly grew lost again, and by a series of frustrated guesswork, made it through a lush city park, past a few posh condos and into the woods where those previous, useful signs resumed. This traverse through the 'burbs should've taken 15 minutes at most, but it took us over two hours, all due to a single sign. I fumed the whole while. Why erect signs at all, if you plan to space them so far apart that they're impossible to follow? Apparently somebody agreed with me, since the only other marker we saw had had most of that confusing hydra symbol torn away to reveal at least the correct cardinal direction, if not the path itself. (This loss of direction is metaphor number two. The scenery below and around us was of monoliths of wealth, in the forms of rec facilities, stadiums, and towering apartment blocks. Yet the town chose not to fund a few yen for decent signs. And the three local people who we asked directions didn't have any idea what we were talking about. Again, those trappings of modern society serving as disconnect from things on a human scale and our more localized 'place in space.' But isn't a map or trail marker also technology? Am I being a hypocrite to rely on these rather than in the intuitive skills which define me as human?) All I know is that once back in the woods, on a well-marked path, my shoulders fell away from my ears, and I was again taken over by the enjoyment that a good walk can bring.
At the border here of new and old, we found a small temple with uneven stone stairs and a weathered gate whose thatch was peeling in the corners. The garden beyond was overgrown, and behind it were a series of grave stones dotting the forest floor. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon the final resting place of Ernest Fenollosa. I'd known he was buried somewhere in Shiga, but I hardly expected to find him here behind a seemingly forgotten temple. Next to him were the graves of Tendai convert William Sturges and of James Woods, an early American scholar of the Yoga Sutras. Nearby was a bench offering views of the buildings of Otsu city stacked below. We watched dark storm clouds coming over from the direction of Hiei. When the thunder and lightning began, we rushed through high grass to a small shelter I had spotted through the trees. It turned out to be a bell tower, but oddly, the bell had been removed. The long wooden striker still hung from a rusted chain, but the platform on which we sat was cracked and uneven . The bell seemed to have been taken quite a long time ago. I pictured Nobunaga, in his rush up to burn out the Sohei of Enryaku-ji, had melted the bell down as iron for his guns. The elderly woman in the temple itself later provided the answer. During the Second World War, the bell had indeed been taken to be melted down for munitions, but had never been used. After the war it was to be returned, but as the workmen had not wanted to carry it further up the steep hill, it was taken only as far as neighboring Enman-in temple, who refused to give it back to the proper owner. I thought it amazing that one temple would steal the bell of another (not too surprising if you remember the enmity between the Tendai sects around here), but upon arriving at Enman-in twenty minutes later I quickly understood. It was the gaudiest temple I've ever seen, with a massive concrete design under a bright neon sign. Money and profit seems to be the driving force of faith here; even the kanji can be read as "Full of money." They had a Soba shop on the grounds, plus offered services for Mizuko Jiko, these services for aborted fetuses being big business. Hundreds of flags dotted the courtyard, the names of the business donors flapping in the wind. It was if an old samurai army were camped in this concrete fortress. And of course there was the bell. Rather than being housed in the usual simple platform of wood and stone, it instead hung from three massive steel rods fashioned into a curved pyramid. The insult was complete. Miki and I expressed our disgust at the well where worshippers purified their hands and mouths. Being a follower of Buddhism, I have great respect for those rituals which give the sect definition. Yet today, I redefined the form by using these ladles to wash off my muddy feet and sandals.
Cleansed, we soon came to nearby Mii-dera, one of my favorite places in Japan. The rest of the day was spent wandering these temples, admiring the simple beauty of the wooden Buddhas, and trying to coax the caged peacocks to open their tails. Later, up at Kannon-do, we meditated before the many armed statue of the god(dess), noting how it would look right at home in India, the land of this diety's birth. All the while the fluorescent lights above droned like a tamboura, an instrument from that far-off land, out of whose seemingly monotonous tones melodies are born, much as how thoughts, and the moods that accompany them, come out of the unceasing constant of Reality.