42. Climbing Hieizan

Since my experience with Japan dates only from the 1950s (excepting a few months in Tokyo in 1946 in the Army) I certainly can't think of myself as an "old Japan hand." But I have done quite a lot of traveling within Japan over the years, often using the minshuku ("people's lodgings") system that that allows you to book lodging at some local hostel, often a former private home in which the owners rent rooms (or futon beds in communal rooms) at low cost to travelers and give them meals of local cuisine. And I can testify—joined by, I'm sure, most other people who know Japan from the 1950s-70s—that the most terrible thing that has happened to its travel sites and scenery has been the building of roads. The awful bridges across the Inland Sea that make it possible to drive to Shikoku, once a quiet place with many secluded pleasures; the building of a road up Kôyasan, the great esoteric Buddhist stronghold that was before reachable only by a train from Osaka and a cable car up the mountain, where one stayed in temples and felt the atmosphere of quiet spirituality that pervaded the place—the destruction of these by making them accessible to motor traffic make up a great national cultural atrocity and disaster. Perhaps even the Murôji, my favorite temple, which could be reached only by a longish train ride through the mountains, is now accessible by road and so overrun by weekend family culture-seekers. I hope not.


One of the worst of these destructions of hallowed places was the building of a road to the top of Hieizan, the mountain to the northeast of Kyoto. Its familiar outline against the sky had been a prominent feature of the shakei or "borrowed scenery" for many of Kyoto's temple gardens, and visits to the top by a cable car ride and a climb were among the many outings that the environs of the city offered. The building of the road destroyed not only its quiet but even its shape: a deep gap was cut that marred forever that much-loved silhouette. So it is with a sense of loss that I recall some of my trips up the mountain.


One odd one can be recounted quickly. During my Fulbright year, 1954-5, when I was hiving on Higashi-Ichijô near the river with my then-wife Dorothy, a representative of some big newspaper came in the afternoon to announce that we were invited on an "International Student Picnic," an overnight event, and would be picked up a short time later. Mystified but ready to take the chance, we put together our minimal overnight things and were ready when the bus came. Of the others on the trip, we knew only a few. We were driven to the far side of Mt. Hiei, the Lake Biwa side, and taken up by cable car? (my memory is unclear) to a camp where we were to spend the night. We attended a performance of local dance—it was a festival time--Bon festival?—and had dinner below before being taken to where we were to sleep. Sleeping accommodations were primitive; one option, which we two chose, was to sleep in a tree-house, with only a simple mat and a blanket as bedding. The next morning we came down and went to breakfast—a small loaf of bread and a bottle of milk at each place (they had done their investigation and learned that was what foreigners had for breakfast.) At some point we were interviewed by the newspaper people for an article on the great International Student Picnic. Then we were bussed home, with promises of another next year.


Most trips up Hieizan, however, were up the side facing Kyoto. A train from the Demachi station in northeast Kyoto, on a Toonerville Trolley line (when it crossed several busy streets, bells ringing, men in uniform stationed there waved red flags to stop traffic) took you to the Yase stop at the foot of Hiei, connecting with the cable car. A ride up on that, and then a climb along a modestly sloping path to the summit, with paths to other places worth exploring. One, off to the left (west), was the esoteric Buddhist temple, the Enryakuji?—about which I don't remember much—it had played a part in Kyoto history, with militant monks coming down to raid (memory dim). What I do remember is a place overlooking a valley that had strong updrafts, and a vendor selling bags of slightly concave clay disks, which, if skillfully sailed out over the valley, would hover back and forth, spinning, in the rising air for some time before finally falling. (Presumably they were gathered at the bottom and carried up to be re-sold.) But what I remember most of all was the woman selling hototogisu whistles.


The hototogisu is the Japanese (nightingale? thrush? no dictionary handy)—anyway, a singing bird that lives wild and can also be caught and caged. On one trip up Hieizan, on a pleasantly sunny day, as we left the cablecar station and started up the path, we passed the stall of a women selling very simple bamboo whistles, on which, if one manipulated one's thumb and index finger over the two openings properly, an equally simple tune could be played. She taught it to me, and I continued up the path playing it. After a while I heard, from bushes along the path, someone playing the same tune, but far better than I—a better whistle. or whistler? And then another—and I realized at last that these weren't people with whistles, they were birds responding to my little tune. It was a thrilling experience, a "communing with nature" that was a real communication, such as I'd never expected to enjoy. Back in Kyoto, I related my experience to Professor Mori, an old Japanese art specialist who was especially generous with his time in guiding and advising foreign students. And I learned from him the even more enchanting background to it. The hototogisu of different regions of Japan have different calls, or songs. They teach them to their young; but the birdlovers of each locale also catch the birds, keep them in cages, and teach them the right songs for their locale, then release them to serve as master, or teacher, hototogisu.


Many experiences of this kind, accumulated over many years of living and traveling in Japan, have convinced me that no other people have been (at least in ideal times and circumstances) so perfectly attuned to their natural surroundings and so creative in devising poetic modes of interacting with them. I should have used that insight in writing about the Saigyô Monogatari scrolls, or the late works of Yosa Buson.

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