A Walk Through Old Japan

An autumn trek along the Kiso Road wends through mist-covered mountains and rustic villages graced by timeless hospitality

Travelers walked the Kiso Road as early as A.D. 703. Old stones still identify it as part of the Nakasendo, the inland highway connecting Kyoto and Tokyo. (Chiara Goia)
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On our way to find lunch, we passed a little plaza where a man sat on the pavement soaking his feet. (This public, underground hot spring had removable wooden covers, and it reminded me of the baths in our inns.) Farther along, a woman emerged from a café and suggested we enter, and so we did. This was a far cry from the gaggles of women who, in the old days, descended upon travelers to extol their establishments.

Kiso-Fukushima was the largest town we had seen since Shiojiri, and I remembered that in Before the Dawn, Hanzo walked here from Magome when called to the district administrative offices. Houses dating to the Tokugawa shogunate (which lasted from 1603 to 1868) lined a street that Bill said was the original Nakasendo. Across the river, the garden at the former governor’s house provided a beautiful example of shakkei, the practice of incorporating the surrounding natural scenery into a new, orchestrated landscape. The old barrier building—a kind of immigration and customs bureau—was now a museum. Shimazaki wrote that at the Fukushima barrier, officials were always on the lookout for “departing women and entering guns.” (Before 1867, women needed passports to travel the Kiso Road; moving guns over the road would have been taken as a sign of rebellion.)

The house next door to the museum was owned by a family that one of the Shimazakis had married into, and a display case held a photograph of the author’s father. He had posed respectfully on his knees, his hands resting on thick thighs, his hair pulled back from a broad face that, in shape and expression (a determined seriousness), reminded me of 19th-century photographs of Native Americans.

Back at our minshuku, Bill pointed out a wooden frame filled with script that hung in the foyer. It was a hand-carved reproduction of the first page of the Before the Dawn manuscript. “The Kiso Road,” Bill read aloud, “lies entirely in the mountains. In some places it cuts across the face of a precipice. In others it follows the banks of the Kiso River.” The sound of that river lulled us to sleep.

At breakfast Mr. Ando, the man in the brown cardigan, invited us to a goma (fire) ceremony that evening at his shrine. Bill had told me that Mr. Ando was a shaman in a religion that worships the god of Mount Ontake, which Hanzo had climbed to pray for his father’s recovery from illness. Shimazaki called it “a great mountain that would prevail amidst the endless changes of the human world.” I had assumed he had meant its physical presence, not its spiritual hold. Now I wasn’t so sure.

We ate a quick dinner—a hot-pot dish called kimchi shabu shabu and fried pond smelts—and piled into the back seat of Mr. Ando’s car. I had a strange feeling of exhilaration as I watched houses zip by (the response of the walker who is given a lift). We careered up a hill, at the top of which Bill and I were dropped off in front of a small building hung with vertical banners. Mr. Ando had temporarily ceased shaman service because he had recently become a grandfather.

Inside, we took off our shoes and were given white jackets with blue lettering on the sleeves; the calligraphy was in a style that Bill couldn’t decipher. About a dozen similarly garbed celebrants sat cross-legged on pillows before a platform with an open pit in the middle. Behind the pit stood a large wooden statue of Fudo Myo-o, the fanged Wisdom King, who holds a rope in his left hand (for tying up your emotions) and a sword in his right (for cutting through your ignorance). He appeared here as a manifestation of the god of Mount Ontake.

A priest led everyone in a long series of chants to bring the spirit of the god down from the mountain. Then an assistant placed blocks of wood in the pit and set them ablaze. The people seated around the fire continued chanting as the flames grew, raising their voices in a seemingly agitated state and cutting the air with their hands in motions that seemed mostly arbitrary to me. But Bill told me later that these mudras, as the gestures are called, actually correspond to certain mantras.

Bill joined in chanting the Heart Sutra, a short sutra, or maxim, embodying what he later said was “the central meaning of the wisdom of Emptiness.” I sat speechless, unsure if I was still in the land of bullet trains and talking vending machines.

Each of us was handed a cedar stick to touch to aching body parts, in the belief that the pain would transfer to the wood. One by one, people came up, knelt before the fire and fed it their sticks. The priest took his wand—which, with its bouquet of folded paper, resembled a white feather duster—and touched it to the flames. Then he tapped each supplicant several times with the paper, front and back. Flying sparks accompanied each cleansing. Bill, a Buddhist, went up for a hit.


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