The silence, I miss it. Like a blank page in a journal, no past, no future.
Pure, like milk.
My fingers move, black letters roll across the clean, white space. What order. The first lines march out with clarity, each letter stand straight, utterly sure of its purpose; each similar, yet different. Bring me back to the beginning, to the white page, to the silence of the forest.
Like these letters, the trees of Kii surround me. Their arms reach up and block the sky. The air is still save for the rustle of their feathers in the light mountain breeze. It is cool in the shade. A dirt trail neatly cuts through the shadowy maze. I am following it.
The trail looks much the same along the Kumano Kodo. Although, after two days of trekking alone, I begin to recognize each tree as I do humans. But I do not speak. I haven’t spoken in hours. There is no reason to do so.
For over a thousand years, people have followed the Kumano Kodo. People who held different memories, sought different things, believed in different gods. But people nonetheless. How many millions of pilgrims must also have fallen silent as they walked amongst these giants?
Words pale in its majesty—scent of pine jumbled with a sharp sourness of rotting wood; light prancing leaf to leaf, illuminate the forest a few trunks at a time; air heavy with condensation, weigh down upon my shoulders. You must see for yourself!
Every moment I pause, I seem to blend in with the forest around me. Tell me, if I could stand still for a hundred years, will I also reach over the trail? Will I also be covered in moss? But with each step I take, the yellow bell attached to my pack rings through the woods. Strange that such a small instrument should keep me from a bear. Strange that I should be speaking to a bear with “ding” and “dong”, and that it should, upon hearing this strange ringing, know of what’s coming (just me) and where, and choose to stroll the other way. Tell me, is the ringing a stern warning or a beg for mercy?
Jizos mark the path of man and remind me that I am in Japan. Their stone lips touch lightly, like flesh. It occurred to me that once upon a time, man lived in the forest. No wonder their gods resemble the character of the trees.
The story goes, the ancient men made a pact with the forest. For safe passage through the wooded land, man would honor the forest and all that is in it. And so, man became separate from the forest, never to become one again.
A long time ago, Jujo Shiro lived here.
Sometimes the woods would open and show us a glimpse of the highway snaking through the mountain. Sometimes, dirt and paved roads would converge, as if two dimensions running parallel, would, occasionally touch. Then, immediately split again, off into their own characters and being, towards their own destinies.
Just before sunset, I reach the end of the trail. The Kumano Nachi Taisha shocks my senses—its intricate wood structure and the bright orange paint. Tourists hustle along wooden hallways smelling of incense. Then, I knew: this is where the world of man begins again. The deep gong of bronze bells beckons at me. I pause, somehow unwilling to leave the small Jizos behind. They, who accompanied me through the forest. They, who, wrapped in vines and covered with wet, green moss seem so much, more. More than enormous curved roofs and painted orange walls. More than paved roads, busses, and trains. More than concrete apartments and glass high-rises. But it is late, and I must keep moving.
I select from one of three vending machines nearby. I buy a can of my favorite soft drink - white grape juice with jelly - and wait for the bus that will take me to Katsuura, where I must catch a Shinkansen to Kyoto. As I sip the sweet liquid from the green and white tin can, a coach rumbles into the neighboring lot. Two dozen men and women stream out, stretching, yawning, lazily scanning their surroundings. “Go to the bathroom!” A man in color-changing spectacles urged-commanded his unimpressed clients-dependents in Taiwanese. He appears to be the guide for this mundane excursion of bored souls. They rush to the bathroom and come out satisfied, having completed their first task of this perfectly normal afternoon. A skinny young man settles next to me and lights up. He sucks on the cigarette, holds, and breathes a sigh of relief.
How did we become so bored?
I look away and spot a printed sign with blue arrows, below them: “Amida-ji: 6km, 10 minutes”. I pause, and realize that I am in a different world.
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