This day’s walk would be nine miles, with an overloaded pack and 2,100 feet of elevation change. Three trains, including the “Peregrine Falcon,” one of Japan’s fastest shinkansen, took me to Naruko Onsen by 10 am. Full of egg-salad sandwich, yogurt, and coffee, I had a tickle of pleasure in my stomach, and a warm capable feeling in my legs and wool-socked feet.
Houses in the village were tight against the road, and the mountains rose around them, topped in fog. Water off the mountains ran hard under grates in the streets. It had rained in the night but now was clear and 70 degrees.
Outside the village, a bridge crossed the Naruko Gorge and met the Dewa-Sendai Highway, which followed Basho’s path. A mile further on, the path swerved into thick woods and led to the remaining stones of the Shitomae-no-Seki Barrier Station, an administrative toll that Basho and Sora passed with difficulty, due to a “suspicious” guard.
I began to climb the Yakushi-zaka Slope as the rain began again. By the time I reached the (first) top, I remembered how, stationed in Panama in the army, you had to make the decision to be soaked by the rain or to put on raingear and be slimy with sweat. Never mind forest bathing; this was more like the pleasure of the hump. All this route—the gorge, the slope—would have been treacherous, in Basho’s time, with mud, loose rocks, fallen leaves and branches. Most of the day would be in bear country; shortly after the trailhead I found scat.
A ridge line gave temporary relief through ancient conifers, though I had to bang skillets hanging from strategic posts and talk loudly to the bears about things I was grateful for. I thought they probably just lived fully in their lives, the greatest thanks of all. It was so wet and steep on the back side of the ridge that my left knee started feeling loose and painful.
I walked into the hamlet of Nakayama-Daira, where a woman running a convenience store asked where I was from. When I told her, she said, Ohhhh, Los Angeles! Arizona! You have a big tree!
Tree? I said. She pondered as I shopped for water and rice crackers, then said Sequoia!
I walked up past the fertility shrine into the cedars again, passed through another hot spring town where the vents boiled with sulphur and steam, then reached paddies of sake rice. It was misty, foggy, and very, very green, and no one was out but me. A passage by foot through a landscape is also a passage through time. The fields were calming but were also surreal and death-associated in some way.
My knee was almost gone, and I plodded past the chartreuse terraced fields into the tree line. I performed a long monologue for the bear and clapped and called out, Are you out there, Bear? Are you with me? The ability to speak without judgement, without disapproval, without hesitation, was very unusual—a gift. The bear was the ideal audience.
I went from plodding to trudging to hobbling. It was dark in the woods, but there was birdsong, and a light-filled clearing ahead. I would not want to be left in the woods all night with my audience.
By the time I reached the Hojin-no-ie Museum at the end of the day, sweat dripped from the cuffs of my plastic jacket. I was running out my scuppers. The museum was the house of the border guard between Sendai and Shinjo provinces in Basho’s time, and the last place where Basho stayed that was known to be standing in its original form. He and Sora got stuck there for three days, due to bad weather, and he wrote one of his most famous hokkus there:
Fleas and lice!
A horse pisses
next to my pillow!
(I never imagined the house to be as large and elegant as it was inside. But, yes, there was a stable within the house.)
By the time I got to my ryokan, or traditional inn, for the night, I hurt so bad I went straight down to the onsen, sat on the plastic stepstool next to the other dude naked on his stepstool, and soaped myself up good. I rinsed and got in the milky-white thermal bath. I hate hot tubs, but the hot spring bath felt great. Then I moved to the scalding, sulfurous-yellow bath, and that felt great too.
I donned my summer-weight kimono with swifts on it and was served one of the most delicious and beautifully-prepared meals I have ever had: an aperitif of sake; okra tofu shrimp wasabi; jelly of conger eel; sashimi; fried char with mustard; a grill of Mogami beef and summer vegetables; rice with eel and green soybeans; steamed egg custard with green tea sauce; homemade soba; miso soup; and for dessert, a hardened gelatin in graham and cinnamon powder, which was surprising and delicious.
The young server had studied English in Canada for two years. Her father owned the hotel; her husband drove the hotel car. She wished she was back in Canada, but her parents were divorced, and she had to help her father run the place. I said maybe one day they would sell it and she could go back to Canada, and she said she certainly hoped so.