Shortly after finishing the Kansai section of the Tōkai Shizen Hodō in July 2009, I'd wanted to start this website, in order to create a sort-of hiking guide for the route. Eight months of travel and an international move distracted me some. An email from a friend and fellow hiker kept the project alive. What better day to begin than this, the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

Where earlier on Notes from the 'Nog, I'd published posts chronologically, here I'll write them geographically, in the order you'd walk them. I start from my home at the base of Uryū-zan, (behind Zōkei Daigaku), going up and over Hiei-zan's shoulder to Biwa-ko, then work south through Nara and along the Yamanobe route to Murō-ji before looping back to Ishiyama. From there the westbound posts will deal with the section heading from Hiei-zan to the terminus at Minoo above Osaka. Posts will appear more or less as they did earlier.

Looking back, I realize now that I didn't write about the entire hike, in particular the sections in North Kyoto. We had earlier walked these sections as the Kyoto Isshū Trail, which follows the same course as the Hodō. I'll try to fill in the gaps with basic course information, leaving out my usual witty insight and banter, no matter how much you plead.

Now, the tools. The resource I relied on most heavily was
東海自然歩道30選 関西編—大阪・京都・滋賀・奈良・三重 (Tokai Shizen Hodō 30 Sen, Kansai Hen --Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Nara, Mie), easily found at Amazon Japan. This book details most of the route, and does a fantastic job despite the fact that it's showing its age somewhat. The route has changed some in the 10 years since publication, what with the ever changing face of Japan. Entire housing communities now lie across certain sections, trails have washed away, and Matsutake growers allow no access during the picking season.

Some of the gaps can be covered with a quick visit online. Prior to setting out, I spent an fair amount of time at 東海自然歩道ぶらり一人歩き. This guy's stuff proved invaluable, particularly in transportation to and from the hike (Do double check bus times online, as this info too is 7 years old). Don't rely too much on the times he gives for the hikes, since they're so quick I began to think he did the Hodō on roller skates. Times in the
東海自然歩道 30選 book are much more realistic.

Other useful online resources:

(Unfortunately, all the information is in Japanese. So why not grab a native speaker and try some internationalization. A hiking date, perhaps?)

The only English information I've yet to come across is a blog called Nomadic Tom. In addition to the narrative of his complete traverse of the TSH in 2015, he has created a useful guide to walking the course.  Tom himself admits that the information is somewhat basic (and geared more toward those walkers coming from abroad), but it is still the best English resource out there. 

By far the greatest resources are the trail markers. They are for the most part consistent, though notable exceptions are in Shiga, Ōtsu in particular. If confused, it is far better to ask a farmer or old timer than someone in one of those MosMansions thrown up by Daiwa House the day before yesterday. (Most of these suburbanites don't even know the name of their neighbors, let alone a badly marked hiking course.) Asking other hikers would help, but aside from in the hills ringing Kyoto, you'll be surprised how few people you see out there. On the other hand, locals in the more remote farm villages often will take the time to chat.
One fascinating facet of doing the entire Kansai section is noticing the difference in character from prefecture to prefecture, village to village, mountain to mountain, valley to valley. It is an amazing way to learn about the region's history and ever-changing culture. The walk you do today will have a different character than my own.So throw those onigiri in the pack, lace up your boots, and get tramping!

Hiei-zan 比叡山 to Minami Shiga 南志賀

Having climbed most of the mountains in this region, and having completed the 60km Kyoto circuit trail, Miki and I have recently begun to walk some of Japan's ancient roads. Part of them have been paved over with busy thoroughfares, but quite often the simple act of taking the next street over will magically slide you centuries back in time. Much of their charm still remains in the form of small villages and old mountain trails dotted by statues and stone. These excursions have overlapped on occasion with the Tokai Shizen Hodo, a more modern trail that starts at Takao in west Kanto, meandering through the hills above its more famous ancestor the Tokaido, until finally coming to a sudden stop in Osaka Prefecture. On weekend days of generous weather, we can be found ambulating the loop that wends around southern Kansai.

We began our true circuit this summer. I've been long curious about the lights that are atop the mountains above my house, always beckoning me during my nighttime bicycle rides. They seem to be just out of reach, an hour's walking tops, I thought. We climbed our usual route up to Uryu-zan, then followed the Hiei-bound trail until it drops into a beautiful valley where a small stream curves away from Kyoto and begins to head south. The best picnic spot in the city. From here, the path shoots straight up with far too much enthusiasm. Our single-hour hike, doubled, then doubled again. At the top we found a hotel belonging to Seika University, whose caretaker had proven to be a rude shite when I'd tried to chat him up about hiking routes back in March. Across the road at L'hotel Hiei, we picked up the Tokai Shizen Hodo (TSH) Here the trail drops again, down the steepest staircase in the world. At the bottom, we were congratulating ourselves on not having to ascend them, until we saw an equally daunting set of switchbacks immediately ahead. Over this ridge then, and down a kinder slope, though one where a concrete fetishist had littered the narrow valley with about a dozen huge and pointless dams. Does it really snow that much up here? The ghosts of the ruined temples dotted about probably aren't amused. The stream we followed led us eventually to Biwa. Long lateral traverses are always much more difficult than relatively easy ridge walks, and although we hadn't covered a lot of space relative to the map, we'd exhausted much energy in crossing three ranges in a few hours. Tired, the train swept us in.

Minami Shiga 南志賀 to Mii-dera 三井寺

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.

Mii-dera 三井寺 to Ishiyamadera Eki 石山寺駅

Near Nagara Koen is a small temple dedicated to Fudo-myo. It has a bizarre layout, with a covered path that leads behind a waterfall to a small cave where a few statues of the deity stand. I crane my neck out to wet my head, already sweaty from the heat of a sun shining in the flawless blue of a post-typhoon sky. Thus purified, Miki and I rejoin the Shizen Hodo. Our gentle climb to ridge is accompanied by the rhythm of a taiko being played somewhere through the trees. The contours of Lake Biwa's eastern shore are easy to make out in this clear air. We descend again, to find a small shrine. We sit here awhile, the taste of our trail mix sullied somewhat by the smell of burning meat wafting up from a restaurant somewhere below us. We cross a skybridge high above a well-trafficked Rte 1. Then the stairs begin. I've mentioned before how lucky we've been not to have had to ascend some of the steeper sets we've come across, mere coincidence based on our choice of direction. Today our luck runs out. Each step is spaced a little wider than a normal stride, which means wearily lifting the thigh to a height where we're nearly goosestepping. Yet they give an alternative to a long climb up trails made wet and slippery after heavy rain. The stairs seem to have been built relatively recently, and the smell of cedar accompanys each step. Unfortunately, they seem to cover each of Otowa-san's 593 meters and over an hour later we're still climbing them. Near the top, the trail levels out to cut through kumagusa, and our fatigue immediately vanishes with the worry of an accidental encounter with a bear foraging before a long nap. On the peak, there is a clearing which offers fine views of Kyoto in the distance, but it lies under a series of electrical towers crackling and buzzing high above. A den of boy scouts has already taken up most of this clearing, and none of the adult scoutmasters seems prepared to return a polite greeting. After a quick look at the scenery, we move off the peak, to find a quiet lunch spot just off the trail further down. The descent is far gentler than the climb, taking us through sections of forest unique in that they aren't choked with the usual monoculture of sugi. At one point, I could actually be back in New Mexico, walking over reddish clay beneath short pines. Other places are of a more Alaskan tinge, the forest floor lush with ferns. The trail takes us alongside a creek for awhile, before passing between a series of small ponds. Wires cross-cross some of them in order to protect the carp from scavenging kites. It isn't too long before we reach a village, where a couple of old men rest beside cameras that have been aimed at the ridges above. A month ago, somebody built a small park here, all ropes and logs. We linger awhile to swing and climb, then doze a bit in a hammock, under a tree canopy high above, the tall boughs stealing kisses as they waltz in the breeze. Moving on through houses growing more consistent. A long flight of steps leads up to Basho's hermitage of Genju-an, where we sit and pen hasty haiku.

Not even autumn winds

Can lift heavy legs

Up Genju-an's steep steps

Walking back down the hill over damp mossy concrete is like walking on ice. Below, we encounter heavier suburbs, and soon the trail markers peter out. We are directed across the grounds of a high school, and eventually find Ishiyama-dera's train station past flimsy trophies of newly acquired wealth.

Ishiyamadera Eki 石山寺駅 to Uji 宇治

Miki and I trained it to Ishiyamadera, to continue another section of the TSH there. Just off the train, I opened my mouth to say something, only to take a full blast of smoke from some guy walking a few steps ahead of me. I appreciated neither the tobacco, nor the other bits of black sludge that he'd just expelled from his lungs. Truly foul. Today's walk, and the day itself, offered little to better my spirits. It was a long 22km over paved roads. Aside from the pleasant Iwamadera, where Basho supposedly heard the

Old pond's frog splash

(Voila! Revisionist minimalist haiku!)

and the subsequent long steep descent over slippery leaves, we rarely left the hard stuff. Not many cars, but the feet do ache after awhile. Plus curve after curve of garbage laden hillsides. Having recently taken part in the clean-up of a similar hillside, I know how much work it will take to restore this area. Really depressing. We quickly and nervously went past a gun range, and the only real open space we found, where we'd hoped to rest and lunch, was being used as a landing zone by a gang of remote-controlled helicopter pilot otaku. At the very end of the walk we were rewarded with another short bit of forest, but it was the verge of dusk and we lost the light quickly. This is the first time this has happened to us. On two occasions we passed a single lone man walking without a torch, both acting shady. At the end, we were rewarded by a beautiful night view of Uji from atop the mountain behind Ujigami Shrine. Overall, it hardly seemed worth, as we'd done most of this walk already a year ago, though in reverse. If we'd known this this morning, we wouldn't have bothered. Multiple experiences have shown that any hike in or out of Uji involves long stretches of asphalt. I recommend the train...

Uji 宇治 to Hirayama Bus Stop 平山バス停

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.

Hirayama Bus Stop 平山バス停 to Tsuki-ga-sei-guchi 月が瀬口

Awoke Valentine's Day to the warmth of April. More specifically, the muggy tropical warmth of the April of Hong Kong. We biked down the hill, jackets unzipped, hair finally freed from woolen caps, waving behind us all the way to the train station. We were forced by JR to ride a series of trains and buses which took a ridiculous amount of time, due to their usual poor scheduling. It amazes me how inconvenient this route is, despite being the main line between the tourist sites of Kyoto and Nara (with another, Uji, in the center), and penetrating into the heart of the suburban commuter Kansai Bermuda Triangle (if you include Osaka). JR further showed its obliviousness to context by turning on the air conditioner, despite this being an early February morning. A bus took us to a village whose name, Wazuka, loosely translates as "A bit." We stood there looking up at the high mountain in front of us, ribbed with tea bushes stretching all the way up to the crest. This tea represents about half of Uji's famous brand, and we'd need at least a cup in order to get to the top.

The trail led up a narrow track rutted by the tires of small farm trucks. On the crest, we had a quick lunch while sitting on a single iron rail used to transport tools up and to send freshly plucked tea leaves back down. The descent down the other side was steep, leading eventually to a small village seated in a high valley. This village was simply two rows of homes bisected by a single road, and to walk through it was to walk through any old Western film. Next to a pond were a group of geese, two female, and a male who protectively challenged my approach, craning its neck and hissing. I smiled and backed off, somewhat ashamed at ruining his date on this day reserved for lovers. At the far end of the village, a light truck wheeled up, its elderly driver smiling at me and making conversation. He seemed amazed to see me here, the huge smile never leaving his face. Though we'd spend most of the day on roads, we'd see very few vehicles, and nearly all of them bore the teardrop mark of an aged driver. We walked through rice paddies, some flecked by huge stones looking like the backs of breaching whales. Before long another group of farm houses appeared, stretching out along this high plateau. A sign told us that nearby were a Korean Confucian temple and the tantalizingly named "Fudo Falls," but they were far off our route today. We did find the Pond of Benten, that muse of poets, whose festival day is traditionally in April, and today's warm weather gave us a taste.

We descended now, dropping down for the next 2 hours, for the next 8 kilometers. This middle portion was somewhat uninspiring, but for the occasional glimpses of mountains and mountains unfolding south toward Nara, Yoshino, and Kumano beyond. With little to occupy us visually, we'd distract ourselves with rambling conversation. A few words, a bit of passion, and boom! off we'd go. We spent at least an hour debating Kipling's "East is east" quip. At the bottom we found a busy road, then a trail which climbed up to some high marshy land. The reeds rustled to a bossa nova rhythm, and amidst this beat we found a simple house standing where it was least likely to be found. The owner no doubt prefers it this way, and the warm rusticity hints at a simple, satisfying life. Where the reeds ended, more tea plantations began. In the wooded areas between them we found a few bamboo cutter hard at work, one of them complaining to us that with the unseasonal warmth, the bamboo shoots would come early, and unless he pruned back their taller ancestors, the youngsters would never get enough space and light to survive. A literal generation gap played out in the forest. And we walked on into spring, with the plum blossoms being serenaded into bloom by the uguisu, tuning its rusty pipes for an early, and sudden return to the stage.

Tsuki-ga-sei-guchi 月が瀬口 to Kasagi 笠置

Tim was in the Kansai to play a gig with Nara musician, Roman Rhodes. Miki and I did a hike nearby, following the TSH along the Kizu River. We got off the train at Tsuki-ga-Seiguchi, stepping onto a platform built excessively long due to the old SL trains that once travelled this valley. The first bit of our walk was along a moderately trafficked road, going past dams and a nuclear power plant. Beyond this we entered the forest, below Buddhas and Jizo carved into stone. The mountains down here feel particularly ancient. Near one bend in the river we heard the voice of what I thought may have been a bear cub, my heart stopping immediately. We didn't see anything, but it was probably some just kind of waterfowl. The trail took us up to a nice little village, where an old woman made her way gingerly and deliberately to pull weeds at the side of her garden. Atop the hill was yet another shrine connected to Amaterasu. The river became narrow and wild here, its length easily traversed by hopping large boulders all the way down. The last couple km were right next to the iron rails we'd ridden on that morning. At the far end we came to Kusagi, where the rafters finish their runs of the white water. On the table beside the sand were a dozen tea bottles, clustered around a 3D model of the river's course. The stone banks further down were covered by the tents of those enjoying the long weekend. A festival had just finished up in the village itself, dozens of kids now running around a mikoshi laid on its side, its carriers downing yet another sake round for their labor. Miki went home, but I met up with Tim and Roman, for our own parade of the Kyo's many Irish pubs.

Kasagi 笠置 to Yagyū 柳生

Flying in over the mountainous spine of the Chugoku region had made me long to get walking again. It took only a few days for me to lace up my boots and head upward. Miki and I picked up the TSH at Kasagi following the road through the village, then climbing the path to Kasagi Temple. There were quite a few folks about, braving the chill wind while picnicking under momiji full blown with color. We walked past the ancient temple buildings, beneath tremendous rocks cut with Buddhist deities. You had to feel a little sorry for the men--presumably men, in those days-- who had carved these figures, since their labours inevitably go unrewarded. As if often the case in Asia, such incredible feats are often labelled with mythological hyperbole. "Kobo Daishi rested here for a meal, then using his toothpick, carved these Buddhas in a single afternoon" and the like. Miki and I too rested for a meal, sitting on a boulder at the highest point of the trail. But the only feats we did were to take somebodies photo.

We headed on along the ridge to Yagyu Village. I hadn't been out here for years, since the summer of 2003 when NHK was showing that "Musashi" program in which the Yagyu family played a prominent part. We poked around the old manor awhile. I was especially taken with the old wooden bokken and kenjutsu gear, the ancestors of today's kendo bogu. In one room were a series of photos of the village, comparing shots of certain locations taken both recently and back in the day. As usual, the newer came off the poorer. We walked up to the old dojo next, and sat on the steps to have tea and rice crackers. The Yagyu graves looked much as I remembered them, though I hadn't then noticed that Munenori's grave marker (teacher to the Shogun) was bigger than his father's (founder of the school of swordsmanship ). Typical how people with political clout are often more rewarded than those who create. We followed the trail past the tea fields to the mysterious grove where I'd had my bizarre encounter with a serpent. This time too I was mesmerized, at the stones and the trees and the silence. This is a magic place still. And a magic still place. Miki pointed out a carved Tengu on the hillside which I hadn't noticed before. This is easily one of the most amazing places in this country.

We wanted to follow the mountains back to Kasagi station, but found that the trail was closed. We went anyway, with the agreement that if we encountered any true peril we'd immediately double back. It was a mere twenty minutes until we met open trail again, but my mind reeled the entire duration. From the practical (a landslide) to the impractical (this is a forest thick with bears or boars) to the supernatural (this is the realm of ghosts or other beings of which the villagers know but we don't). We crossed a small area that looked to have had a landslide a few years ago, but was passable today. That was probably the reason for the closure. Not long after, near a thicket of high grass, we heard the sound of some animal moving just off trail, which gave Miki and I a good spook, both of us repeatedly looking back over our shoulders. Basically, this was a lovely stretch of mountain that seemed untouched and pure somehow. Back onto the road, which we followed alongside a stream which fed a few small yet impressive waterfalls. In fear of missing our train (A modern fear of the lack of control over that man-made construct, time), we hitched a ride with a surly middle-aged couple smelling strongly of the hot springs they'd just taken, though had apparently not enjoyed.

Yagyū 柳生 to Nara 奈良

At the bus stop, a group of maybe 50 people was milling around, waiting for the bus. I thought that there was no way we'd be able to ride out to Yagyu today. What was it that wanted to prevent our trip out there? You may remember that we'd missed the same bus a month ago, due to an sudden schedule change. Was this some kind of divine punishment for our entering that closed trail? Was that mountaintop traverse closed to all but a chosen few? As I pondered this, an employee from the bus company came out to assess the situation. He concluded that he'd have to get a second bus. This turned out to be a good thing, since we'd travel faster and in more comfort.

Yagyu was a popular place this day. There was a TV crew filming up at the old temple, and the young, short-skirt brigade was heading out here for that. The rest, their well-kitted grandparents, were off to a Plum Blossom festival the next valley over. Yet when we got off this bus, there was no one around. We saw maybe one or two folks out in their fields, but the place was completely silent. Even the dogs had nothing to say, lying quietly in the sun. We moved along the paths through the village, past the large carved Jizo outside of town, and into the forest toward Nara. This first part of the trail is paved with cobblestones, and was the only real climb of the day. Beyond it, we stepped into the wide open space of fields, stretching far along the range of hills. The bank of one rice paddy was sloped just right, so we stopped here in the soft grass, eating lunch and watching the clouds follow their shadows across the bare earth. It would be easy to doze here, but we had four more hours walk ahead of us. We entered the village nearby. Most of the houses had their own vegetable plots, and it was fun to watch our friends Juri and Sumioka as they'd assess the state of many veggies and herbs. They run a small cafe north of Kyoto which they support with their own homegrown organic ingredients. I greatly envied their knowledge. In front of one house, some shiitake mushrooms were left to dry in the sun. In front of another, were the pelts of several wild boar. One was so fresh, you could still make out the ears, the nostrils. As we were looking, an old guy came out of a barn to wash a long knife. I'd venture that it was with the same knife that he'd done the skinning. We talked with him about the boars around here, and he told us he'd killed eight this year. They'd been increasing over the years since most of the younger generations no longer had any interest in the hunt. Now the boar come down to the villages to destroy the gardens and on occasion, even kill. He'll sell the skins in town as decoration. Despite the someone gruff manner of the hunter, he was really friendly and chatty, and invited us to sit with him awhile. We all wanted to but had to get to Nara by dark. I liked how Sumioka begged off: "The road is long so we must go."

We followed another pass to the next village, on whose outskirts we found a lone Udon shop. Their banners had been spread along the trail, and hikers must make up the bulk of their business. We moved down to a large cluster of trees which unmistakably indicates a shrine. We'd been passing stone-carved Buddhist figures all day, but this shrine was far older than their 1200 years. Beyond this, a group of old folks played gateball. The clack of mallet on ball followed us deep into the forest. Above one small bend in the river were a handful of grave stones, dark and weathered but still retaining the Sanskrit symbols carved into the soft stone. In the river itself, the rocks were equally high, equally mysterious and ancient. The work of water had cleaved the tallest among them into three. From there, the trail climbed again, up toward Ninnuku Pass. A single beam of sunlight shone on a small green fern waving to us as we passed. A sign of new life amidst all the old.

Atop the pass was Enseiji Temple, with its large pond and admission charge. We moved around back to sit and drink tea on some large stones that will one day become grave markers. At the moment, all there was was a lone Jizo, so I dug into my trailmix to make an offering of almond and raisin. Where the first half of the hike had been amidst villages and fields, the remainder was all forest. We followed the ridge line awhile. It was somewhat eerie here, with much fallen bamboo and the forest floor shredded by foraging boar. At some point we passed an unkept tea field, its bushes grown wildly into afros. Next to this was a sugi forest planted so deep and dense that absolutely no light could penetrate. It was the darkest forest I've ever seen and deserved it's monicker of Hell Valley. Clustered in the next valley was a small village , most of the houses here offering veggies or fruit or tea. The latter came from the tea bushes climbing up the western hill. Three Jizo stood peering our from some bushes near the top, as if playing hide and seek. At the next pass was a tea house where we stopped for some tea and waramochi. It was damp and chilly outside, but it was more pleasant out here, away from the stench of dog that permeated the inside. As we were the only customers, the owner came out to talk with us. We mentioned that we'd seen no other hikers, and he said only a couple dozen pass each day. He was happy with his immunity to the pollen allergy, living beneath all these sugi. (I was suffering badly.) He wished us well as we moved downward toward Nara. This was the lair of waterfalls and huge ancient trees. It was all testament to how beautiful this country can be, if only the government could keep its damned hands off it. We pass quite a few Buddhas carved in to hillsides above us. One triptich was starting to crack and lean, as the massive stone on which it is carved begins its slow gravity assisted journey into the river below. Most of these carvings are so old that no records exist on their origins, and the credit is usually given to Kobo Daishi, who was quite the busy fellow. I imagine they were instead the work of Koreans who came prosteletyzing to these islands in the 6th Century.

We were to the outskirts of Nara now. We startled three deer grazing just off path, more skittish than their cousins below who make their living as begging tourist attractions. A woman carrying an infant walked with her toddler son, whose feet spun at incredible speed as he negotiated the pedals of his tricycle on a steep hill. We moved into the forest again and over a trail to Kasuga Shrine, where we said goodbye to Juri and Sumioka, who headed back up to Kyoto. You can find them at Cafe Millet. Miki and I moved through the encroaching dark to join the crowds at Nigatsudo for the Omizu-tori festival, book-ending the event we saw in Obama five days before. As the flames moved along the hallways of the temple, throwing sparks into the crowd, we all roared our approval, in a collective welcome of Spring.

(Sumioka-san's photos of this walk can be found here and here. Don't miss the world's most amazing picnic spot midway down.)

Tenri 天理 to Nara 奈良

(This post takes us in the opposite direction than what we'd been traveling previously. The reason is detailed in the opening paragraph.)

Awoke Saturday to snow gently falling. If there's snow, it must be a day for tramping. We had intended to walk from Yagyu into Nara in time for the burning of Wakakusa-yama at dusk. There are only a few buses a day heading out there, leaving from Nara. As we made our way south, we nearly missed our connection since I hadn't noticed that my train pass had expired. Made the train in seconds flat, and later in Nara, walked up to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare, even more so when we saw that our 10:20 bus had left around 9:30, the next one leaving after lunch. Shit. As a friendly bus company employee led us through our alternatives, I thought that we could walk back to town from Tenri instead, if we could catch a train due to leave in three minutes. We sprinted through the station, me hurdling one of those wheeled suitcases as if in tribute to an old OJ Simpson Avis commercial. Ran up the platform in time to notice that the waiting train was finished for the morning. Huh? Are we not supposed to hike today?

The next train got us to Tenri. The rest of the day was a slow, pleasant walk along the Yama-no-be, darting in and out of the foothills. We once again passed through the arcade that time forgot (quite bustling today), bowed to Tenri Temple, where the metal on which banners wave groaned like the Sho pipes of Gagaku. Ate rice balls amongst the chickens at Isonokami Jingu. The northbound Yama-no-be wasn't as nice as the path we'd followed south of here, but it did keep us in the forest more. Unfortunately, we also spent nearly as much time on roads, though none particularly busy. Deeper in the hills behind Isonokami Jingu, a beautiful set of stone steps flaked and crumbled with age, leading to a shrine nearly invisible in the shadows. We'd pass many shrines, all small and well cared for like prized antiques, their histories going back to times inconceivable. I love Nara for this, the resonant history, not heavy with the veneer of Kyoto, but light and weathered, with a quiet dignity that is eternal. The forests and fields that surrounded these beauties were even quieter in the snow, falling with the consistency of powder, as if in our presence the shrines were throwing off their long accumulated dust.

Just beyond a strange art installation masquerading as a greenhouse, we came to a lake, where a few die-hard fishermen were braving the intense cold of the day. Just down the hill was a baseball field. As I walked by, about two dozen kids turned to me in surprise, the brims of their baseball caps the bright yellow bills of young duckings. They quacked out a greeting as I passed. Further off we could hear the singing of their older siblings as they began a game of their own. A valley away was Kōninji, the ancient path passing between buildings over a millenia old. The snow was doing some fantastic tricks in the light, so we sat awhile in admiration. This temple has some shugendo ancestry, with many esoteric symbols and statues dotting the grounds. We enjoyed the weather and the quiet, until a group of old timers came and broke it.

We walked on, past farms and villages. The entire walk was a love affair with Nara, in deep infatuation with her proud silence and faded beauty. In the Japanese language, few phrases are as misunderstood as mono-no-aware and wabi-sabi. These are concepts better felt than defined, and Nara is an excellent teacher. We wandered into the park, the deer napping and grazing while watching us with hopeful eyes. The sun ducked behind the ridges to entice the cold, which began to play with our cheeks and noses. We escaped into an Italian place to warm up with an uninspired meal of pasta and wine, then climbed back up to Kōfuku-ji, a good vantage point from which to see Wakakusa burn. Back in '96, I'd followed the Takisaka-no-michi into town in order to watch this annual event, but sudden rains called it off that year. Long awaited, it didn't disappoint; plus I hadn't expected fireworks. They went off with dull thuds, nowhere near the chest thumping bursts of warmer, thinner summertime air. After they were done, atop the mountain we saw a few flashes of light, and after a minute or so, flames began to reach up here and there, finally becoming a ring that burned up the hillside like a monk's tonsure. Miki and I hugged against the intense cold, watching the roof of the temple's main hall glow, backlit as if it too were ablaze, and the iron bell just behind us ringing and ringing...

...after the flames, we boarded a train home. A few stops on, a young mom pushed a pram onto the train, then gets busy with her keitai. Her baby looks at me, at her, then me, then her. Then bursts out crying. I nearly apologized for my face...

Tenri 天理 to Sakurai 桜井

Miki and I grabbed some food, rudely eating on the train as a subtle form of revenge on the pointy-elbowed brigades seated around us. (Miki wouldn't go so far as to pull out a compact and apply any make-up though. Girl's gotta have some standards.) The end of the line was Tenri, where we planned to start one part of the Yama-no-be trail, the most ancient of Japan's numerous old roads.

Tenri is a small city which rose around the growth of the Tenri sect. (Think Salt Lake City.) The train station was at the open mouth of a long shopping arcade, which seemed to thrive despite similar arcades across the nation dying with a spectacular sucking sound as money is pulled out of the countryside toward the capital. Here were shops selling vegetables, selling robes, selling toys, selling Buddhist paraphernalia. Millions of pilgrims passing through have brought the money back from the capital again. At the opposite end of the long arcade is the main headquarters of the Tenri-kyo. The complex is surrounded on all sides by massive dormitories with pitched, Chinese-style roofs, making me think of housing projects crossed with the hotel in the film "Spirited Away." A massive temple serves as the heart-center of this space, space being the key word here since unlike most other Buddhist temples, there was no alter bearing candles or images, merely a large pit open all four sides. It was if four temples had been fused together, with an entrance at each cardinal direction, facing toward the dormitories beyond. At first I cynically thought that this religion has no center, but Joseph Campbell later told me that within it is a post that marks the spot from which mankind evolved. (So there!)

Miki and I entered and knelt awhile, enjoying the cool air and soft tatami. In the short time we were there, dozens of followers came in from each of the four doors, knelt before the open space before them, and did these perfect half bows. Then they'd start in on a chant, their hands tracing out a series of mudras in time to the rhythm. It was beautiful to watch, especially the kids tracing out smaller forms with their tiny fingers. Beside the families, there were also a few young couples, dressed as if this were part of the day's date. Many of the followers wore uniforms similar to judo practice tops, all black, and wrapped with that thick belt coveted by martial artists worldwide. One young guy sitting in front had a powerful and mesmerizing voice. I could've stayed here all afternoon, had we not had a 16km hike before us. I honestly felt really moved by what I saw, at the sheer faith that the followers displayed. I sometimes wish I had a strong unwavering faith in something, but for now I'll have to trust in my cynicism.

We stepped outside, past the shoehorn wallahs armed with the tools of their trade. In front of me, I was surprised to see two foreigners stop their bikes, do a perfunctory bow, then ride off again. Were these two members of this religion, or merely a couple of JET teachers working locally and made to do this as part of their living here? Puzzled, I moved on.

The rest of the day, we wandered in the shadows of the mountains, without actually entering them. At Isonokami Shrine, we watched the sacred long-tailed chickens, flitting from branch to branch like kids on a jungle gym. The trail took us past quiet ponds shaded by lily pads, between ancient burial mounds, and along waterways which fed the many fields and rice paddies. It was like walking through the Kojiki, but for the stones inscribed with passages from Basho who walked here a couple millenia later. These served as a reminder that time plods ever on, and is constantly being marked by bright minds attempting to make sense of our brief place in it. The day was growing hotter, so we took refuge in the shade of a house in one of the many villages we were to pass through. Someone had laid out some complimentary tea and sold veggies on the honor system. The reading material on a shelf nearby was very, very nationalistic, somewhat contradicting the open approach to strangers. Later in the afternoon, a squall broke overhead, but we sat happily on the steps of a small temple, enjoying the rhythms the rain played on the surface of a pond. An hour later, the rain caught us again, the two of us running to the shelter of somebodies makeshift barn. Further on we climbed up to a small shrine atop a tomb. Littered about were the bodies of about a half-dozen freshly killed crows. Well spooked, we quickly moved on. We entered the forest then and the shrines and temples began to take on a thicker concentration. This slowed our pace significantly, and we arrived eventually at Sakurai Station well past dark. Riding the train north, we sat tired but happy, out footfalls having taken us along one of the nicest hikes in the Kansai...

Sakurai 桜井 to Kuzu Jinja 葛神社

I've mentioned before how difficult it is to focus fully on a hike when deep in conversation. Miki had just returned from her month away a few days before, so much of this walk was spent in other places and times. What I do remember is cedars. A whole lot of cedars.

We picked up the Yamanobe in Miwa. On the train in I noticed a high set of torii, supposedly the tallest in Japan. I'd been here before, back in 1994, when a friend and I wanted to pay a visit to this Ōgami Jinja, which enshrines the god of alcohol. We arrived at dusk and couldn't figure out where the shrine was, so we merely sat at the base of the torii, drinking cheap sake bought from a vending machine. Today, Miki and I had a bit more focus. Just off the train, we powered up with a bowl of this town's famous somen. In a warehouse nearby, drying somen noodles hung in bunches like mop heads. We then spent the next half hour retracing our steps from our previous walk here back in July. An abrupt left took us along the Ise Kaido, shadowing a small river through villages alive with farmers doing their thing. We did our obligatory head bobs at the many temples and shrines we saw, though ironically decided to skip the large and famous Hasedera, the both of us having been out here a couple of times already.

After some onigiri and ice cream beside the river, we climbed up to a large dam, then into the forest itself. The middle part of the day was along high mountain trails, which took us up and over two 800 meter peaks. Below them was a small park with a small lake whose surface was covered with new lotus flowers. It was a scene inspired by Monet. Or vice versa. The higher trails were overgrown somewhat, it being still early in the season. (This section hadn't been in our book, and may either be a newer, more challenging section for more seasoned hikers. Or we may simply have lost the trail in the confusion of the park, then rejoined it later. In either case, our legs were certainly surprised.) We chased a fox off the trail, and later, a strange bird soared over the pass, looking slim and sleek. For a moment, I actually thought it was a flying snake. Quite the disturbing sight.

The final descent is still in my knees as I write this. And through it all, I don't recall seeing any trees that weren't cedar. Many of them were strewn about the floor as if by a child throwing a tantrum. This approach to forestry resembled the thought given to city zoning. No sense of order that I could see. Our shadows lengthening now, walking into villages and over the low passes between them. We talked awhile with an old woman having tea beside her field. Nearby, the sudden sound of gunshots surprised us, the blue smoke visible just inside the trees. The road from these high villages led us straight down to Kuzu Jinja, where we were able to quickly hitch a ride to the station. Our luck held as we made a series of good train connections back home.

Kuzu Jinja 葛神社 to Murōji 室生寺

Ezaki Mitsuru was having another exhibition down at Gallery Mu-un. So it was that Miki and I, along with KJ John and Sage, spend a long morning making our way down to south Nara. There were a few of the usual Yoromi suspects around, including that couple from Fukui who do kamishibai. We passed the afternoon in conversation. It was interesting to see Ezaki's latest works, and how he is continually developing as an artist. He talked about the creative process behind his new fish hanga, and explained the multi-faceted Buddhist philosophy behind one of his earlier works, which up until now I'd taken for an eye chart.

As the conversation shifted toward other ears, the four of us walked through the village and up the hill to the swampy lake, then got lost in the forest on the way down. In the late afternoon John and Sage hopped a train north, to be replaced an hour later by Zach, who was in Kansai on business. He was pleased with the natural and healthy food to come, as he'd been holed up in a dormitory somewhere in the industrial bowels of Osaka and force fed starch and salt. This simple dinner had all the feel of a party, and although we'd arrived worried that we'd brought too much beer, as we staggered off through the dark toward our beds we found it had been just enough.

Dawn marked the curtain rise on a comedy about me noisily rattling a dozen doors in search of the toilet. Giving up, I walked over to Mu-un along a road damp with rain. I sat awhile and looked across the hills toward the bigger peaks draping their shoulders with white mist. It was a quiet morning, last night's revelers appearing one at a time as if making stage entrances.

After a late breakfast, Miki, Zach and I made our way to where we'd left the Hodo a few weeks before. We quickly came across a small shrine that pointed in the direction of Ise. A tiny green frog was balanced on a hollow piece of bamboo, and another was bathing in the rainwater within. Zach picked him up but he leapt away, launching a desperate kung fu kick in our direction as he fell. We followed a paved road around a lake. It was hot day, and below us, a few men under umbrellas had wonderful ringside seats for a good day for fishing. As we crossed a high suspension bridge we saw a school of large grey flat monsters moving toward the baited hooks. We kept along the road, falling into conversation when the scenery let us down. Which wasn't often. The striated lines above the water told the history of the lake and above, birds perched in trees waiting for lunch to swim by. Eventually the water stayed behind as we moved into the hills. After too many experiences of searching frantically for trail markers, we found one that was the size of a small house, pointing into the forest. Just inside, a car came rushing down the hill, chased by what I thought was a deer. On closer approach, it proved to be the biggest dog I've ever seen, probably a Mastiff-Great Dane mutt, out for a 'walk' with its master, running after his car doing at least 20kph. It looked pretty tired, but turned to flash a wet, sloppery smile as it passed.

We climbed up and over the pass, through a forest well used. There was a large sprawling park at the other side, then a village, then Muroji. We had time to kill until the bus, so spent it searching in vain for the ice cream we all craved. Shaved ice just wouldn't cut it. And so the bus came and took us to the train, and we moved west, toward the bigger and crowded cities where people understand that summer's value is measured in ice cream...

Murōji 室生寺 to Soni Village 曽爾村

The day after the Katsuragi walk, I found myself on a train heading back down that way. Miki and I plan to do the next section of the TSH in a few weeks, and we'd start today from Murōji and cross the mountains into Mie-ken. From the station, we faced a 90 minute wait for a bus, but were able to thumb a ride with a kind woman thankfully heading into the mountains. Miki and I wandered in circles awhile around the souvenir shops, trying to decide whether or not to eat some yomogi before setting out. The owner of the shop settled it for us by not being there.

A short walk up the road was Ryuketsu Jinja. It was a simple, beautiful structure fading into the forest beneath massive cyprus trees. These blocked the sunlight so effectively that the shrine was nearly lost in the dark but for the lanterns that hung from the eaves. We sat here awhile, eating lunch and trying to ignore the occasional outbursts and laughter from a trio of middle-aged motorcyclists jabbering away out on the main road. As if in contrast, a half dozen women were standing behind the shrine, chanting the Heart Sutra repeatedly for the entire half hour that we were there. This shrine is where you come to petition the God of Rain, though I doubt the women's effort was worth it this close to rainy season. But they played their part well, dressed in the garb of the pilgrim, much like the guys out front played theirs, wearing clothes that screamed, "Sunday Biker."

We walked up the highway, past a luxury car with Fukuoka plates, and a man who had absolutely no life in his eyes. Leaving the main road, we climbed up toward the cave where a dragon was said to dwell, giving name to the shrine below. Along the way, we came across a hole in the earth between two huge stones. This was supposedly the lair of Amaterasu, who, if you believe the talk of local shrines around the country, has spent the night in more places than Wilt Chamberlain. Moving up the hill again, we were nearly mowed down by a car driven dangerously fast by our friend with the lifeless eyes. (These snake/dragon shrines tend to attract some bizarre and frightening people.) And there was the cave, up a river gorge fed by a waterfall. It was framed with a shimenawa, hung by some brave soul immune to the laws of gravity. It was an inspiring sight, this immense cut in the rock wall, above a fast and powerful river.

We dropped back to the main road, following the wide river fed by the dragon's gorge. Above it were a series of rice fields, and the frogs singing merrily within. I've been lucky to have spent nearly every weekend since March out in the country, and it had been wonderful to experience the spring as it has unfolded. I've been able to listen to the song of the frogs change as it has matured from the creaking and popping of tadpoles in April, into this throaty self-sure song of summer. It was a similar story with the birds. The nightingale was still the prominent diva, having honed it's skills over the past two months. But a few newer voices were now beginning to push their way onto the stage.

They were all in full aria as we moved along a logging road that petered off into forest. The track now became cobblestone, slippery with the covering of soft pine needles. It got steep quickly, shadowing a river that dropped away repeatedly into unseen waterfalls. One spot in the forest was thick with the smell of dank mold. This odor was thickest around an old collapsed house here in the middle of nowhere. I worried about what may be rotting beneath.

Over the pass we met road again. Sudden movement between my feet proved to be a snake that shot quickly into the high grass. A short while after, I stopped to push a large stone with my foot into the river below. Watching it drop, I noticed an enormous black snake the size of a house cat, sunning itself in the hanging tangle of brush a meter from my shoe. (And I officially amend my statement that yesterday's snake was the biggest I've ever seen in Japan.)

Before long, the road dropped onto trail again, following a series of waterfalls that dropped like a staircase into magnificent swimming holes. At their base was Soni village, whose lucky residents got not only these pools, but a stunning panorama of peaks that ring the valley. The most impressive was Yoroi Yama, looking like Devil's Tower with hair implants. This area was an outdoorsman's paradise, the campground containing a heated toilet for those "roughing it." A fish farm kept the local streams well stocked with dinner. The water of the pond beyond them was far less clean, the surface thick with unbroken green like this country's famous tea. We walked happily through the village, feeling that at last, it is summer. Atop the rise was a temple built like a farmhouse, and below it, some firemen were climbing into an old and tiny firetruck. A small boy seemed more amazed by the sight of me than the fact that he got to ride in the open back of such an awesome machine.

Arriving at the main highway, I felt something in my shirt, and reaching in, I startled a bee into stinging my chest just above my heart. I'm not allergic to bees, but I'd never been stung in Japan before. I tried not to think about it as the pain began to kick in, instead focussing on hunting and gathering a lift to Nabari Station. We got a ride pretty quick, our luck better than the driver, who had been unsuccessful at fishing in some of the incredible water we'd been walking alongside through the afternoon.