Akakura Onsen to Hijori Onsen

It was a gorgeous morning, cool and sunny, and I would be under conifers much of the day to cross the Natagiri Pass.

Basho and Sora had hired a young man for a guide, who wore a short sword and carried an oak walking stick that could no doubt serve as a cudgel, to cross the pass.

“We timidly followed, convinced that today was the day we would surely meet with peril,” Basho writes. He gives no hint of what was feared, though I suppose it could have been bears or bandits. He says they struggled with the terrain (which translates to “hatchet-cut” for its steepness), patches of bamboo, the dark in the woods in daylight, streams, and rocks.

Not much of that was a hardship for me. The trail was overgrown but apparent, and the signs called the path to the top “the great turning ascent.” I had unpacked much of the weight from my daypack.

It was as still and quiet on the trail as I have experienced in years. It felt strange not to see squirrels, deer, rabbits, or any of the other mammals of North America in the Honshu woods, though the birds often sang. I was actually hoping to see a bear, now that I was that much closer to the end of the trail.

At the top of the pass was a Basho stone, with some of his words about crossing; a notable ancient cedar called the “child-carrier” for the shape of its cradling branches; and a Jizo shrine to the bodhisattva of lost children. Because the trees grow so thick and lushly, the view was minimal, but I stood a while at the climax of Basho’s journey.

Somewhere on the downside of the pass, near the site of a former teahouse for weary travelers, loud noises came from under heavy brambles and vines on a slope. I could hear a stream burbling on its rocks down there and something crashing around, but never saw a bear.

Finally I was on tiny asphalt roads, walking between paddies; crows rose and wheeled, angry I had interrupted something. The mountains rose in the background, covered in cedars and hemlock, and I strode out happily. Fed, pain-free, unburdened, and feeling strong, I felt this would make an excellent eternity. Long hours passed without thinking of why I was there, and when I did, I felt I had never known anything about Basho, what he did, or his work. There was joy in direct experience, and knowing you contained now what it contained.

Near the main road was the “Basho resting stone,” where the poet is said to have rested after crossing the pass and (perhaps) wrote a haiku for his host, a safflower merchant. But there are seven stones to choose from, and like the game from that Indiana Jones movie, you must choose wisely—choosing poorly, perhaps, makes you a prose writer instead. I picked the one with the ass-shaped contours. I have known too many poets to ever pick an uncomfortable rock.

The taxi waiting for me was driven by a young man who was also a Shinto priest. He had studied at Ise, though he did not say if he meant the Grand Shrine, Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine, or at Kogakkan University, a private school and only one of two in Japan to offer a Shinto studies program. He said he could not make it on what he earned as a priest, so he also drove a cab. He had two sons, four months and seven years old. He wanted to know what Illinois was famous for, and I said Chicago, and he was happy to know it. I said Abraham Lincoln, and he said the name back to me in recognition, the way I might say Basho or Chekhov or Woolf.

It was a long drive on mountain roads to reach Hijori Onsen, another of those thermal-spring towns with steaming sulfurous vents. Mount Gassan, a holy mountain in Shinto, had snow on its peak in the distance. The priest asked if he should stop the car at a restaurant so I could eat noodles, and I said only if he would join me. We shared fried dumplings, and I ate soba, and he had the ramen. He encouraged me to slurp my noodles more loudly. Later we stood and watched the Dozan River and one of its tributaries merge in the center of the village, and spoke of our sons through Google Translate.

He dropped me at my ryokan, or traditional inn, which was lovely: 150 years old, with hand-joined woodwork, tatami mats, and an excellent futon and buckwheat pillows. But I was sorry to see him go.

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