22.5. Wanihama 和邇浜

Whew, what a day.

I set off in the morning from Tokyo along a new and unexplored route to the Tomei Expressway: half an hour on a local train from Shibuya and another half an hour of slogging up and down hills in a residential suburb and there I am, waving my thumb at a service area. I decline the first offer politely as the driver was heading off the expressway soon, but the second one looks a bit better -- a 28-year-old fashion designer (a guy doing women's clothing) takes me a few dozen km down the highway to Ebina, and we hit it off well enough to exchange numbers. Next ride is from a young pipe bender (!), or to be more precise a guy who works for a Nagoyan pipe bending equipment company. A bit on the quiet side, but in a friendly way, and he barrels me the 250 km to Nagoya at 130 km/h.

So it was 1 PM and I'd already reached my planned destination for the day -- why not push on all the way to Hieizan? After a quick lunch I try my luck again, and this time I'm (quite surprised to be) picked up by a Nisseki gasoline truck. I clamber to the giddy heights of the cabin (I love trucks!) and meet the driver, who despite a set of truly remarkably... um, remarkable teeth, bad enough to hinder pronunciation, turns out to be one of the best rides I've had. He's on his way from Shimizu to Okayama (some 700 km!) and is more than happy to give me a lift from Nagoya to Otsu, along the shores of Lake Biwa; once there, he gives me a Nisseki cap (whee!) and issues a friendly invitation to call him once in Shikoku, where he lives -- and I just might take him up on the offer!

I walk 30 minutes on foot downhill from the Otsu SA to the station. Unlike any other SA/PA I've ever visited, there are actually instruction and maps available on how to get from the service area to the nearest bus stop on foot! And then off to the little town of Wani on the shores of the lake. I'd first called the Saikyoji temple youth hostel right on Hieizan, but it was all full (I think: I later started to ponder whether I had misunderstood and they were just saying that no food was available?), and the Otsu YH had ceased to exist, leaving me with no other choice. Wanihama Seinen Kaikan YH (和邇浜青年会館) turned out to be possibly the weirdest hostel I've stayed at -- a huge, rambling, decrepit complex of buildings maintained (in the loosest sense of the word) by an old couple, who added up my bill with an abacus! I was the only guest in the hostel, and by the looks of it, the only guest in the equally ramshackle lakeside village of Wanihama. The local economy seems to consist (at least in theory?) of cheap little minshukus and boat rental operations, with a few "adventure sports" (even scuba!) outlets thrown in for good measure. The nearest restaurants are along Road 161, some 15 minutes away on foot, and it's half an hour to the station with no buses or similar luxuries. Then again, I can't really complain, for 2500 yen/night I have a Japanese-style tatami room to myself with bathroom, TV and the works. Dinner was at a yakiniku place, 700 yen for a Korean bibimba and another 700 yen for a cup of Kubota sake. Mm-mm...

23.5. Sakamoto/Hieizan 坂本・比叡山

I opted for a second night in rustic Wani and headed off to the Tendai Buddhist center of Mt. Hiei (比叡山). At the foot of the mountain sits the aptly named Sakamoto (坂本), "Hill Source", an attraction in itself with a range of temples and shrines scattered along its slope. Hiyoshi Taisha (日吉大社) shrine is the biggest of the lot, but it has little to distinguish itself from any other larger shrine; even my favorite bit, the little valley with the poetic ??? Dragon waterfall, was full of advertising and (deserted) teahouses and restaurants. Then I spotted one sign saying "Feel free to eat your lunch here, we'll give you tea!" and was relieved to see commercialism hadn't totally taken over -- until I read the small print that stated a fee of 300 yen for this service. Sigh.

I'd been thinking about climbing up the mountain, but 500 meters (vertical) of stone steps sounded a little hardcore, so I chickened out and took the cable car. As company I had an unfortunate little fellow who sucked in every breath very, very loudly while muttering random commentary to himself, the end result resembling Darth Vader on helium. I later ran into him again in a noodle shop and heard him place his order, in a squeaky, high-pitched voice entirely different from his mutterings -- I wonder how much he himself is aware of his own condition?

The temple on Hieizan is collectively known as Enryakuji (延暦寺), literally "Long Calendar Temple" although there's probably some other profound meaning to that. Originating as a simple meditation hut built by Saicho (posthumously dubbed Dengyo Daishi) in 788, it became a center of Tendai Buddhism and proceeded to torment Kyoto with its legions of warrior monks out for bounty. Razed in the 16th century by Oda Nobunaga, the present incarnation has wisely decided to dump the warrior monks and espouse world peace instead.

The subtemples of this virtual temple are scattered all over the mountain and I didn't even attempt to cover more than one section, known as the Western Pagoda (東塔) after the (former) building of the same name; there is also an Eastern Pagoda and a third section dubbed Yokawa as well, plus assorted temples elsewhere around the mountain. The biggest of the bunch is the Konpon Chudo (根本中堂), which contains the "Inextinguishable Dharma Light" (不減の法灯), a fire that has been burning for 1200 years. As I entered, a monk was tending the fire and chanting sutras, punctuating his phrases with exactly timed hits of the tong in a hypnotic rite.

After pottering around for long enough I set off down the mountain on foot, only to find myself once again cursing the utterly inexplicable Japanese tendency to produce maps with the faintest relation to scale. I missed the turnoff to the trail I'd planned to take (which would have gone near the cable car track, past a waterfall, an observation point and other goodies), so I ended up at Mudoji (無働寺) -- the Immovable Temple -- instead. Not that I'm complaining, the buildings were beautifully perched on the mountainside and totally deserted to boot. The trail after it was somewhat hairy though, and after a second wrong turn at an intersection that would have led back to my intended trail, I found myself walking back to Sakamoto along a paved road to a water treatment plant.