April 25, 2024

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A Long Walk in a Fading Corner of Japan

7 min read

Stand on the summit of Mount Hinodegatake, look inland across the Kii Peninsula, and there before you are a thousand peaks, crumpled earth like tin foil, frozen roil to the horizon, razorback edges of rock and soil. All muted tones. Turn toward the ocean and you’ll see the jagged coast, wrapping from the port of Nagoya down and around, back up to Osaka Bay, shaped by what’s called the Kuroshio, or Black Current.

Before the Nanki train lines were blasted from the mountains, and the lonely National Route 42 was carved out alongside the coast, these highland paths were in active use. People young and old would walk and haul their goods, stopping at a teahouse at the top of a pass for some yomogi mochi, or mugwort rice cakes, or maybe a few dango rice balls slathered with soy sauce and grilled over charcoal.

And, if not walking, then people could use boats to ply the coastal waters. Sailing from cove to cove must have been a wondrous experience 200 years ago: Imagine being young and in love with someone from Hadasu, maneuvering with the tide, meeting on sandy beaches, placing your feet together in Kukai’s spring.

Once, according to an ancient folk song, memorialized on a stone monument in the city of Owase, a boatless carpenter fell in love with a girl from the town of Mikisato, on the far side of a mountain range. He sang: “If I had my way, I would flatten that Mount Yakiyama with a hoe, and allow her to pass.” Today, a train ride of just a few minutes could carry him through the mountain to true love.

I was first invited to visit the Kii Peninsula 12 years ago, to spend a few days around Koyasan, a mountaintop city whose main Shingon Buddhism temple, Kongobuji, dates to A.D. 816.

The fertility of the area astounded me — those trees! The graveyard is home not only to the remains of many lords from Japan’s turbulent Sengoku, or Warring States, period, but also to moss lush enough to lie down on.

I moved to Japan for college when I was 19 and have lived here for most of the last 22 years. The town in America where I was raised — from which I emigrated — was mostly tobacco and blueberry fields, its ground infused with farming and industrial poisons, leading to rumors of uncommonly high rates of dementia and violent impulses. Who knows what’s in my blood.

But after three days spent up in those Koyasan temples, I felt my body change in the way that pure nature changes bodies — the fresh inputs of mountain water and mountain vegetables flushing out the contaminants I had unwittingly brought with me.

In the intervening decade, I’ve leaned into that sense of cleansing, of renewal, and have walked thousands of miles of old roads and paths across this spit of land. The peninsula itself covers some 4,000 square miles. It is wet — one of the wettest places in Japan, and considered one of the wettest places in the earth’s subtropics, pulling in some 157 inches of average annual rainfall. With that wetness comes a richness of history and ecology.

The Kumano area of Kii is written as 熊野. The original character for “kuma” (熊) is 隈 — nook, corner, recess. A recessed space. The second character: “no” (野) — undeveloped or virgin. The wilds. Allan Grapard, the French academic, historian, and Japanologist, describes such an area as a “natural mandala.” He calls it “a large geographical area endowed with all the qualities of a metaphysical space.”

Walk the peninsula, pay attention, and you’ll find yourself floating between worlds.

Despite being in the center of Japan, the language of the Kii Peninsula feels thick in the mouth: warbled, informal. It calls to mind a North Carolinian drawl.

In the middle of a 30-day walk last June, I said hello to an old woman tending her patch, and she replied with the equivalent of, “They done saw a bear o’er yonder — watch yerself.”

Even the A.T.M.s say things that sound like: “Oh hon, thanks for using me, now you come ’round again soon, y’hear?”

I’m always tempted to take out a few extra bucks just to hear more sweet robotic gab.

One of my favorite peninsula villages is simply named Furusato, or Old Village. It feels timeless, suspended between low mountain passes and facing the ocean, a sort of lost micro-Eden. When I approached, I found hunched elderly women — wrapped in floral-print smocks — picking their way through small groves of mikan oranges. Smack in the middle of town, between shrubs and fields and farm machinery, is a public hot-spring bath.

On a recent walk, a tipsy farmer in the locker room — his head barely reaching my shoulder — kept insisting I was putting my robe on backward. “No, you ain’t got it. It’s right over leftright over left,” he said, growing increasingly irritated. Others in the locker room looked at us and laughed. “Left over right is how women do it,” he said. “You ain’t a woman, are you?”

I was pantsless.

For a second I panicked, thinking I might have had it wrong all these years. A lot of people get more things wrong than you’d think. People sidle up to a Shinto shrine and flash cash, clap twice, then bow, when they were supposed to bow twice, clap twice, and then bow again. Some people even clap at Buddhist temples, which sends the monks into a tongue-clicking tizzy. And this guy, with his ax to grind, wasn’t trying to get me to do it the manly way, but rather the way of death: The dead are wrapped right-atop-left.

I told the farmer, “All right buddy, if you do right over left, I’ll do the same.” He did. So did I. And he took me on a little tour of the town, both of us the walking dead.

For me, walking through working villages and towns is the great joy of the Kii Peninsula. Being able to cap a day of strenuous mountain routes with a bath alongside locals, wacky though they may sometimes be, is never not interesting. The whole of the experience, however, is one of acute bittersweetness.

The countryside of Japan is aging into nothingness, and it’s rare to see people under the age of 50 out and about. Many of the old coastal tea estates have been converted to solar farms — vast fields of trees replaced by gleaming black panels.

Abandoned homes and gardens abound. Part of the reason I’ve walked Kii so obsessively in recent years is because I can feel, palpably, the fading of what once was. In Odai, I missed having a cup of coffee at La Mer, a classic Japanese kissaten-style café, by just two months. The 80-something-year-old owner left a sign outside: “I’ve aged out of the business.” In Tochihara, an inn that has been in operation for hundreds of years may soon take its last boarder.

But these changes don’t necessarily induce gloominess or sadness. They’re simply part of the inexorable flow of contemporary life — the aging of a population mixed with the loss of employment opportunities in the countryside. We’ve made certain decisions about certain industries on a global scale, and this, in part, is the result.

Instead, if I feel anything, it’s gratitude toward the energy of the peninsula itself — the abundant vitality of the land and the kindness of the people who are still there, all buoyed by the thousand-plus years of historical import.

I wish you all — all of you reading this — could teleport here right now, right in this very moment, and I could take you on a long walk around one of the peninsula’s towns on a Sunday morning, all blue skies and sunshine, to bear witness to the pride with which it’s all being maintained. Just a few folks left. And yet: streets swept, shop gates lifted, kissaten beacons flashing. One imagines flying carp in the spring and the last of the summer festival shrines carried on the shoulders of shirtless men in white-rag fundoshi underwear.

But you’d have to come now. Right now. Like a tiny nub of glowing charcoal, this brightness and warmth isn’t long for our world.

Craig Mod is a writer and photographer based in Kamakura. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter. His latest book, “Kissa by Kissa,” chronicles his walking along the Nakasendo highway from Tokyo to Kyoto. His next book takes place on the Kii Peninsula.

Craig Mod

2022-04-25 09:00:33

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