Took a morning train west, to catch a bus for the next part of the trail. Detraining with us were dozens of men, all heading to the free shuttles that would take them to the Bicycle Races. They shared the same frumpled and unhealthy look, as if gambling with their health was part of the package. Our own bus was full of old timers heading to view the sakura at Hananotera, its stone walls enclosing 400 trees. We headed the other way, through a series of villages. One beautiful house has a wrap-around creek How pleasant (I thought) to sit with your feet hanging over the garden, the water below gurgling away hot and starry summer nights. Up and up toward Kanzoji, a shaded cluster of buildings stacked up the steep mountainside. A small dilapidated hut stood on the east side of a clearing. I image a monk living here for decades, looking out over a view that becomes gradually unrecognizable, the view creeping toward him as more and more homes pop up on this long plain that connects Kyoto with Osaka.
The trail levels off, through a forest with many mamushi warning signs. The lizards play hide and seek with us, so I imagine the vipers are up too, giving me the chance to worry about something besides boars. I wonder if their distant Ursine relatives have finished their own hibernation. Sure enough, they have signs of their own. We soon come to a clearing with a truly bizarre sight. The valley is literally paved with granite, grave markers fitted together in a way reminiscent of Tetris. There must be thousands of them here, old grave markers relocated and abandoned. In front of them all is a single brazier for incense; to pray for one is to pray for all. Very Buddhist. I head over to the older graves, some of which must be centuries old. The small jizo statues also stretch back in time, marking the deaths of children who never grew old enough to contribute their genes to the more recent generations of dead whose own stone markers are nearer the front. Under the trees were some larger stones of animals or mythological figures. I wander away, wondering where all these graves came from, and what has been built on the site where they once stood.
The next village rests in a very high valley. We pass an old man and his young grandkids readying the fields for irrigation. The trail suddenly shoots straight up toward
Ponpon-yama. The name comes from the sound that feet make as they walk toward the crest. I'm guessing the name has an older and now forgotten source. Besides don't all footfalls sound like that? Earlier, Miki and I had a conversation about how we rarely meet anyone on these trails. Not so this one. Today, we pass dozens of hikers in organized groups. They are uniformly clad, and well-kitted out. One woman looks Miki over, her face showing her scorn at my wife's lack of gear. At the top of Ponpon is a small clearing. Lunchtime! It's hard to find peace up here, with that group and their loud stove, not to mention that joker over there with the radio. We turn our backs on their racket and look to the peaks stretching north.
The descent is as steep and fast as the climb. Partway down we spy what I call a tengu tree, an unusually shaped trunk marked with a small shrine. They're usually gnarled and spooky, but this one is stunning, simply a pair of high cypress whose limbs stretch toward each other in anticipation of an embrace. One has a hollow knot at the base, and inside this yoni is a small orange torii. Beautiful. We soon come to a large Tendai temple where we ring the large bell, the echoes of iron throbbing outward into the forest. The trail turns concrete now, racing toward the valley. Where the land levels off is another temple, spread out along a creek. The entrances to both of these temples are marked with the bizarre looking kanjogake-style gate, like a Shinto Torii but intertwined with vines from which bound branches hang down. It looks more European than Asian, as if they marked the domain of the pagan Green Man, who serves as the local deity. But we stayed on our own human side, passing between shops and noodle joints, toward the bus that will lead us back to Kyoto. Other human friends are waiting there, celebrating the return of Spring in the own way, upon a throne of rainbow-colored sheets overlooking the river...