We awoke later than planned. Found our way to the station and boarded the train to Tanabe. It headed south along the coast for a couple of hours. The views made up for the fact that it was uncomfortably warm. I was very excited about our walk along the Komono Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route, in fact several routes. I was quite anxious too as I wasn’t sure how hard it would be and whether we would be up to it. Our arrival at Tanabe was unfortunate as all the eateries were closed and ended up having one of the few, not bad, but distinctly forgettable meals in our time in Japan. We took a taxi out to our guest house, which was a converted school, now a community centre with some rooms, presumably to pay its way.
Dinner was a spectacular array of items, truly incredible: vegetables, pickles, rice, miso soup and tea. No alcohol offered or drank.
Breakfast was another treat: rice porridge, salted dried sweet fish and most important a salted ume (an Asian plum). Tart is not the word. It was salty and oh so tart, the perfect breakfast food, a real heart starter, it just woke you up – boom, bang. We caught the bus which would deliver us to the beginning of the pilgrimage. The only others were foreign pilgrims: a dutchman and his three sons and an unfortunate Australian, I say unfortunate, because his opening remark was “so are you all from the states”, which never goes down well when not, in my experience. I became increasingly anxious as they all exchanged tales of hikes and felt like a greenhorn out of his depth and possibly endangering his precious daughter. Neurosis is such a fucking downer. The scenery was beautiful, as we wound our way up into the hills to our next adventure.
We left the bus, crossed a bridge and began our journey. It started. The climb. I had planned to walk 14 km the first day. The first km ascended 300 meters. The first 500 meters was a climb. I mean a climb. Steep, so steep, we were exhausted, knackered, fucked, dead on the jones, but we persevered, pushed on. Well, what else were we going to do. After this ascent it leveled out. The forest, for it was all forest so far was wild and beautiful and as the trees periodically changed so did the aromas. Occasionally a view would just occur as we walked along a spur. These occasional glimpses were magnificent, I really felt like I was dreaming.
We walked for three or four hours, had our lunch, which the guesthouse had provided for us. We had passed no abodes or signs of humans, apart from the Dutchmen and the Australian on the bus. In a tiny hamlet we stopped for a cold drink at the first opportunity , a small pilgrims stop with a telephone, a notice board, tables and a vending machine . I looked at the map and found a cheat, it was clear we would not make our stop for the evening without help. There was a road nearby and we could get a bus towards a village close to our lodgings for the night.
Walking down a windy mountain road with steep ravines, through forests of spear straight trees into a valley with paddy fields, a meandering river and finally we arrived at the small village with the fabled bus stop. The next bus was in three hours. Unperturbed we explored
this tiny place, with its shop that was a mixture of all sorts, most just on the floor, I don’t remember any shelves. A bar. SHUT. And not much else. The time rumbled on and before we knew it we were rocking round corners on the bus. We were dropped off in a large valley about a mile from a small town. The valley was fertile, green and the hills around were tall. Into the town, which had plenty of provision stores for a pilgrim, we walked onward and upwards toward our lodgings. Up and up and up. My god, my legs were sore. The landscapes were beautiful and the evening was a joy, blue sky and clear views. As we reached the summit, a car was coming down, the driver slowed and asked “are you Jake?” Happy, I was, but that feeling accelerated when we reached our lodging: “Third Place”. I don’t know what First Place was and I didn’t want to. It was so beautiful, a small eighty year old traditional house on the summit of the hill, with views to kill for. The inside was equally beautiful, the furniture, the glasses, the screens, the sliding doors, the cutlery, the clock. We had entered our own magical world and all to ourselves. Our host was so hospitable, I know it sounds too good to be true, but it was not a dream; he was a farmer as it turned out and promised us some rice and vegetables at seven.
He arrived at 6:45 and snuck into the kitchen and shut the door, telling us to wait. What was to follow will live with me forever. A more beautiful feast I could not imagine. First off “Kanpai”, cheers in Japanese with a glass of ume brandy (remember breakfast – this is clearly a good area for these Asian plums) made by a friend of his. It was strong, but smooth and I felt my chest hairs growing as it slipped down. Then the meal. Foraged wild vegetables: asparagus, bamboo shoots, fronds, aubergine, radish and ginger as well as tofu made locally. All presented so beautifully, as well as prawns tempura, rice and other vegetables. We partook with relish and the stars of the meal were undoubtable the foraged vegetables, with their wonderful textures and distinct flavours.