We walked out of Uji on concrete. Yet it was a pleasant walk, upstream along the Uji River rushing past toward the sea. This was a familiar route leading toward many of Uji's historic sites, and as such, there were more pedestrians than cars. We came to a fishing bridge suspended over the water, which we crossed then took the advice of a sign pointing us up a small trail, allowing us to forgo the busier road nearby. It was a lovely walk through the trees, between high narrow walls, a stream moving just below us. We eventually found the grave marker of an important but long forgotten princess, and the village of Shirakawa at her back. There was a small gate here, flecked with small holes that I at first took for the marks of bullets, though I know of no battles fought here. Miki corrected me in pointing out that the holes were the work of termites. The wild will eventually take this structure, no matter how old or historic. To emphasize this, a long stalk of weed had pushed itself through the wall of an abandoned house standing nearby. The gate gave us a clue as to the location of Hakusan Jinja, fortified somewhat by a deep circular moat and tall encircling trees. Atop the stairs was a unique structure, hexagonal, and covered in thatch but for an open cut at the top to let out cooking smoke. One of the biggest delights of tramping in Japan is coming across shrines like this one, remote yet well-kept. So well kept that it could stand here for 900 years. In front of one of the small shrines here were a couple of huge shells like those fired from a battleship. There was no indication of why they;'d been deified. Up the trail a bit we found a small crop of jizo, decorated with rice cakes and some slender strands of bamboo. This too is another highlight, these somewhat pagan rites known only to the locals and reaching back through time.
We came out of the forest to a huge cluster of tea bushes. A few small plants had a tripod-like covering of old rice stalks as protection from snow. We met the road again at the top of the filed, and here we stayed for the rest of the morning, but for a small trail taking us past a forestry station seemingly abandoned for the winter. A really old man rode his bike at incredible speed up a steep hill. We were amazed by this, then again as he raced back down. Past a chicken factory, the cacophony from within like an excited impatient audience before the symphony. A skittish dog foraged around the now abandoned "Green Village." The next town was of a decent size, but luckily the Hodō took us along its outskirts, bisecting older homes of some character. Two friends sat talking on the steps of a wooded shrine, signs at the perimeters warning of vipers. Huge tree trunks had been stacked in the lot of a large factory that makes Torii arches for shrines. Outside town, we spotted another grove, obviously a shrine. A group of young motorcyclists politely rode off as we approached. One of the ceders here was simply massive, wrapped with paper and straw to signify its status as a diety. How long had it been here, and what has it overlooked? The shrine below it was a youngster in comparison, erected in 1202.
The fields narrowed to become forest, and we made our way up a long, straight rise into the dark. The afternoon was getting on, and it began to appear that our maps were wrong. The Hodō is well marked these days, and easy to follow except in certain cases, so a map isn't really necessary. The book we were using was now 9 years old, and showed we were to bypass this mountain. The markers on the other hand looked to be only a few years old, and someone had decided to include this peak on the course. Jūbuzan was at 607 meters, not as big as some of the giants of the Nihon Alps, but Kyoto's Hiei was now covered in snow and is only slightly higher, I'd thought. (I checked. At 848m, it towers.) I worried at what we would find, and whether we'd get down before dark. I had a torch, but remembered only now that the batteries had died. We slogged on silently, spending 90 minutes moving at an angle across the mountain's face. Then the trail suddenly switch-backed and we were at a clearing near the top. I had been afraid to check the time, but it was just 3pm. No worries at all. We soon reached Kontaiji temple, the base for the Yamabushi who lie down in these mountains. A couple of them were enjoying a day off in a small room which was warm, but seemingly devoid of a heat source. One of the men was restlessly pacing in his shorts(!), and the other man, slightly older, was clacking away at his computer. They were both really friendly, the older one having just retired from his career in the Self Defense Forces. His humility and obvious intelligence suggested that he'd been an officer of high rank. He called his wife to make us tea and zoni, which warmed us as much as the conversation. Afterwards, we went up to the peak itself, standing above a cluster of buildings aging beautifully in the elements. Shugendo temples are always the most aesthetically pleasing: wordlessly expressing impermanence. From the peak we could see Biwa, Hiei, and even Kyoto, peeking up from beyond the Higashiyama range. In fact, from this vantage point, we could see the entire route we'd walked thus far, a nice auspicious start to 2009, this being our first tramp of the new year.
We dropped back to the temple and said our goodbyes. There is a big event here late summer, and hopefully we'll be back. Then we followed the trail down, running steep and wet, through the cedars. It levelled out pleasantly, and we came to a rise, the entire valley before us lined with tea plantations, their curved bushes running parallel up and down every hill like frantic caterpillars. It were struck by the beauty and lingered awhile, the sun backlighting all in yellow hues. As it dimmed, we worked our way down through the bushes to the village at the base of the mountain. It was near dark when we got to the bus stop, but with just enough light to hitch a ride to the train station a half hour away.