The man who ran the bodega in a back street of Hijiori Onsen served me three cups of coffee, each in a new cup, with new saucer, when nothing else in town was open. It was seven a.m., and I had been up since five. He looked older than I think he was. I told him, through Translate, that if the thermal-springs had the qualities attributed to them, the people here must live long lives. He bowed and thanked me profusely, as if I had said, “Your waters feel great, and I wish you and your family long, fruitful lives.” It would be nice if technology did skirt our natures sometimes and provide a touch of grace.
I caught the bus down the mountain to Shinjo. Two elderly women rode with me, holding their bags in their laps and looking out the scenery. The driver took all the switchbacks respectfully. I had shooed a hornet out of the bus in Hijiori, but it flew back in and was on the journey with us. One could imagine its distress and desire to find its way back. That is often us, in a sense.
I took two trains that flowed down the mountain like water. My itinerary listed only stations where I would start and end. It was an odd feeling to see road signs out the window for other cities, and station stops I did not know existed. (Japanese trains are so punctual I did not even need to know a station name to disembark, only the time of arrival.) Sometimes I did not even know which cardinal direction I was headed. The ability to navigate successfully without knowing where you are is relatively new. Even with the aid of satellites, cell towers, and a handheld device—or because of them—I often had less awareness than Basho did of this landscape.
In Yamadera I walked up to the Basho Memorial Hall. Afterward there would be 1,000 steps up to the mountain temple of Risshaku-ji, in Basho’s footsteps. The small museum had many textual artifacts, some of them in Basho’s hand. I asked the two women at the desk how many foreign visitors came.
I wrote numbers on a piece of paper: 10,000 per year? Oh, no. 5,000? Oh, no. 1,000? They thought maybe so but didn’t seem certain. I asked: If I went up to someone on the street in Tokyo and asked about Basho, could they tell me about his life and work? They had to think on it but said yes. I wondered if a person on the streets of Galena, Illinois, could tell me about Melville, who visited there, but maybe the more fair comparison would be asking a Londoner about Shakespeare.
The temple was founded in 860, and Konpon-chudo Hall, made of beech, is said to date to 1356. Halfway up is a resting stone at the base of a cliff, where Basho may have written his famous cicada poem:
And yet the cicada’s voice
Is loud enough to shatter rock.
The thousand steps came relatively easily, after walking in the mountains. The guidebook said they represented an ascent to heaven. As usual I took a detour to heaven by visiting an overlook of the valley below, then finished the climb. As I headed back down I realized I did not feel as close to Basho when walking his literal steps as I did walking through conifer forests that had mostly replaced the conifer forests he had walked through. But then I think he saw nature as the closest we get to permanence in impermanence.
A wall of conifers outside Yamadera rose from the side of the track to the blue sky. We passed through miles of tunnels, rails screeching. The fog came down the mountain, and it started to rain, and I was glad I was riding. It forced me to think about this old-timey technology, the railroad. If I had to walk parallel to its tracks, my trip would take weeks, perhaps, from station to station.
The villages and agricultural fields of Yohoku felt very different from lonely Midwestern acres or the dark hollers of West Virginia. Habitation here felt simply like the established culture of millennia, a different category of rural to me than most places I have been.
The mountains sank and the towns rose, and about 15 minutes out of Sendai a gaggle of teens got on the local. They were the first teenagers I had seen being teenagers north of Tokyo, and some had dyed hair and were talking loudly, and others flirted and laughed, except the kid with the t-shirt that said, Anti-social Social Club Turbo.