We moved quite slowly the next morning, downing canned coffee and showering with a hose.
At six-thirty we started up the fire road where we'd spend most of the morning. Six km later we arrived at the campsite where we'd expected to stay, had yesterday's trail been more cooperative. The vegetation here revealed that we were once again moving toward Kansai. We passed through a community of posh 'second homes' where the vending machines charged 160 yen from a can of tea and the toilets were off limits, then pushed on up to Aoyama Kogen which was flat and open, revealing what we'd spent a day and a half walking over. Ise Bay stretched away to the east. We talked with a man who was gearing up to climb the Chuo Alps this summer. This view was also popular with the motorcyclists who'd ride up, have a smoke, then move along the road to the next view. The map up here showed us five more rest stops in the next 10km. Little did we know that we'd be instead walking the ridge below them, along overgrown trails which forced me to hunch over. The forest here was very active, most of that life airborne. I kept knocking cicadas off branches with my bag, and they'd smack into one of my temples, or both. Worst were those that tried to climb into my ears, their screams like the worst speed metal distortion. It's a wonder I didn't have tinnitus at the end of the day. But worse yet were the trail planners. This stretch was a roller coaster, up and down, up and down, over those stairs that I've come to loathe. There is no apparent benefit that I can see to putting a body through this. A path running parallel to the road would've been fine. Perhaps it was a conspiracy involving local orthopedic knee surgeons. There were some bigger animals up here, deer and rabbits dashing startled through the brush. The ridge was lined by tall windmills, their blades slashing through the air with a roar that caused the whole forest to throb. At the end of the row was a windmill commemorative rest stop with typical self-congratulatory display. "Look what we're doing to the Earth!" It must be the only tourist place in Japan that doesn't have a vending machine, which was sorely missed on this hot day. The reason could be related to their 'eco-conscious' themed signs, but how to explain the sensor-activated electric doors?
The trail now was a gentle ascent through a beautiful stretch of forest. Why ruin it then with the highest, steepest flight of steps leading back up to 800 meters? Erosion made most of them rise from the ground like goal posts, and gravity brought many of them vertical, becoming more ladder than stair. (Later, I noticed that our TSH blogger called then "Hell's Staircase.") I moved toward them laughing, singing Tom Waits' "Straight to the Top" until I was too winded. Then Waits' "Step Right Up" became more apropos. At the top of Kasatoriyama, we met road which descended as a steep concrete strip toward the village of Oyamada. There were quite a few Buna trees up here, a species I'm beginning to much admire. They are the rebels of the Japanese tree world, following their bliss amidst the monotonous straightlaced cedars. I lost interest in them too eventually, as my legs complained about the angle of the slope. I didn't know my knees and calves knew such foul language. I was so far gone that I forgot to be startled by the viper that I nearly stepped on. It was young and cocky, moving toward a rock wall, then turning to look back and mock us, like saying, "I could've had you if I'd wanted." Which begs the question: Do poisonous snakes know they're deadly? If so, how do they figure it out?
We reached the village proper now and sat beside an abandoned shack to the delight of our legs. There was a river beside us, which, if you believe the signs, is teeming with those rare Giant Salamanders. We crossed the bridge to a sake shop to ask the proprietess about lodging. I'm constantly amazed how local people can give so much information while simultaneously giving so little. This talent cuts across cultures. After her 10 minute zen koan, we moved on to Daibutsuji, where we'd start the following day's hike. There was an information center here, with a small folk museum upstairs. These are always interesting. We poked around, then melted into chairs to drink the tea a woman served us. Her answers to our lodging questions gave us a few more options, but most of them she couldn't answer. We left our bags and went next door to the temple to have a look. This was the first real living temple of the trip and should've held our interest. But we'd done back to back 30km days over tough ground. Last night, we'd agreed that it had been the hardest single day hiking for us, but today definitely prevailed.
We'd puzzled out that there was an onsen nearby that did food and may have camping out back. We thumbed a ride, from a jimbe clad guy in his 60s whose taste in cars and music was that of a man half his age. At the onsen, we weren't impressed by the surly staff, and less so with the 4500 price tag for a tent site. We hemmed and hawwed awhile before fatigue prevailed. Just as we stepped outside, the skies tore open. Sigh. We sat licking ice cream with Charlie Brown black clouds around our heads. Other guests sat waiting the storm out. After a short while it dawned on me how big a hit my genetic makeup was making with the locals. Inspired, I went back to the counter, told them what they could do with their overpriced square of dirt, grabbed the grottiest, most abandoned-looking umbrella in the rack, then stood out in the rain to hitch a ride...somewhere. Now let me take a moment to say how incredible a woman my wife is. No matter how long or hard the walk, she never complains. I could practically see her twitching with anticipation for a hot bath and bowl of warm noodles, but still she didn't moan. After a couple of minutes she was beside me, thumb out. Carload and after carload of pampered, happily relaxed day-trippers drove by our sorry, sopping, sagging selves. But Miki was a trooper. Finally, as dark was nearly complete and our hopes were almost gone, a pair of heroes picked us up and drove us the half hour to Iga Ueno. As long as I'm doling out kudos, I shouldn't forget the person who decided that it's imperative that the Yoronotaki izakaya chain have such wonderfully big draft beers. Nor the person who designed the lengthy tubs in Green Hotels. I lay there, my calves blown up like balloons and heavy as lead, the song of cicada still echoing in my ears...