Monks & destination propaganda 

Boating on the Kumano-gawa River, 2016

​The train to Tokyo Metro was packed with silent shirts headed to their desks. Advertisements on train doors aptly positioned at eye level showed an over-enthusiastic gesturing professor. Next to him, an ad for ‘Sweat Jelly.’ Overhead, Arnold Schwarzenegger indicated his military prowess for the latest war scenario game. It was silent the entire journey besides the Nokia noises indicating the train’s arrival & departure. As if the loudness and excessive ads sucked the life out of any normal level of activity. All the passengers’ necks were horizontal, staring at their phone screens. Curious, I took a peek trying to discover what had everyone so enthralled. About 60% were just flipping back-and-forth between the various homescreens.  It was a bee’s hive near the top of the escalator at Tokyo Station. In merely a few moments, everyone had neatly compressed into a single file line on the left. This was a revelation of neatness compared to the obviousness of Americans and their sloppy- joe tendencies.

The Japanese train system is impressively connected and far-reaching to the point that the trains are taken completely out of contemporary context and placed in atypical, natural scenes. Its tentacles reach into the most remote and seemingly natural, untouched areas. This is a fact that they’re obviously proud of – posters portray the trains as if they’re were movie stars. Their sleek noses overlaid on top of vibrant scenes of their daily journeys. Red-filled maples in Autumn, pink-cherry blossoms exploding in Spring, a rainbow of bright flowers before a snowcapped peak. We selected the one splashed with giant cedars and valleys of dark green mystery. 290 minute runtime.

The train to Tanabe cut through towns overflowing into the ridges and seasides. At Tanabe, I traded the train’s sizeable window seat for the captain’s chair on the bus to Kuyama. The bus jutted besides the following waters and slopes packed with concreate diamonds to hold back the pack mud. Whenever the bus was entering or exiting a one lane road, oncoming traffic halted immediately and let the bus pass. This was done seamlessly and without the anxious looks and erratic motions that typically accompany such waiting in the U.S.

A smell enveloped the bus, a sudden overwhelming eye-watering occurrence. Photographs of the Yunomine Onsen had been picturesque. In reality, however, it was a boiling creek of festering sulfur-emitting gas smack dab in the middle of all of the eateries that existed in the town. Luckily, we had opted to stay in Kuyama Onsen. The proprietor’s son, a delightfully attentive man with an overgrown bowl-cut and unknown age, instructed us to venture to a trail, fiercely elbowing the air while talking.

We ran down in the apparent direction, but no matter. We were cursed with traveler’s doubt and proceeded along our own way. A high-grade slope winded its way into the mountainsides, ferns crowded their way to the sky. Stacks of walking sticks piled at the trailhead with a curtain of shiny, scratched CDs pronouncing their once-esteemed artist. Within 15 minutes we were densely surrounded by an Amazonian landscape. Ancient concrete walls swallowed in algae and moss, water rushing down at constant speed. Tall cedars massacred ­– their limbs layered the forest floor, asleep on maroon piles of dead leaves. Flies and some vigilant type of biting insect tunneled around us while spiders were continuously misplaced from their homes to my head and shoulders. Their webs dispersing into fragments of floating wisps.

Sprinting along the Kumano Kudo, 2016

At every bend of the river, the trail was to be rescouted, yet it never seemed impossible to locate­– rather the perfect level of discovery. Each new portion of the route complete with the moss-grabbing, feet-tipping, rock-slipping, spider web shakes.  After a few miles of high-jumping fallen cedars and skirting the river on mossy rocks, we reached the O Falls. Their cascading water audible to the point that I thought we were nearing a road.

Little did we know this was the intended destination. The way back was sloppy as is usual with any out-and-back trail, the adventure had given way to monotonous routine. Cross the mossy tree bridge, jump stream, find this marker, etc. etc. We emerged from the dense forest and broke into full sprint, running through the wide corridor of the valley along the gray rock-lined river beds, its frosty water dappled with the setting sun. A small cabin perched in the middle of the river’s curve. Covered with sweat and fragments of the forest, we peered into the open door. An old man sat presumably enjoying dinner on his wooden stool. His kitchen filled with covered barrels, papers neatly stacked on the table. Beers? Out came two small glasses and large bottles of Ashita. We saddled up on a square basin overlooking the valley and bruising sky.

Using two tattered English-Japanese dictionaries and primeval noises, we extracted four (seemingly) fully communicated stories.  The most entertaining, a tale of the demise of a pack of snorting, gluttonous wild boars that had ventured down from the mountains to feast on his onions only to be killed and cooked on open flames. The meat enjoyed by this cook and enthusiastic avenger.

If you go:

Boating on the Kumano-gawa River unless you’re going to be entertained for the pure absurdity of the experience.

Ashita No Mori

Dig into the sand along the river and relax in your own outdoor hot tub.