An autumn journey in Nara

Wandering senses

An autumn journey in Nara

The golden November sun shines through the branches of the Mikan mandarin trees, illuminating the Yamatoplain, with the Kasagi mountain range unfolding along the horizon line. Leaving Nara City in the morning, my train is directed towards Sakurai, but I get off one station earlier, and head to Omiwa-Jinja, one of the most ancient Shinto shrines in Japan, where the spirit of sacred Mount Miwa is venerated. At the entrance of the Shrine, close to the Torii gate, several small shops sell handcrafted Miwa Somen, hair-thin noodles served with a season broth, following a 1200-years old tradition. I treat myself before paying a visit to the shrine itself, and watch out for the signs that indicate my destination of today, the Yamanobe-no-michi, literally the road at the base of the mountain.

The best period for walking this history-loaded trail south of Nara that leads through this ancient part of Japan, is for sure the season of auspicious nostalgia: this moment when the craving for the vanishing summer materializes into the Kaki fruits maturing like miniature suns on nude trees, just before the first cold days of the winter break in. On this tepid autumn day horizontal sunrays inundate the magnificent countryside with their warm light, and fields and orchards seemingly flow together into a Satoyama landscape, exemplifying the harmonious union of human presence and natural space. Here at the foothills of the Kasagi mountains, the Yamanobe-no-michi meanders along dirt paths, countryside roads and small farm villages towards Tenri, approximately fifteen km north. As I am walking along the road stones with incised poems of Japanese authors, I think of the verses of Matsuo Basho, whose steps perhaps passed here during his journey through Yamato province:

The ivy leaves

Are tinged with the past

Autumn foliage*

The path continues through small forests and along artificial hills, named Kofun, the burying sites of the most ancient Japanese dynasties. Several shrines and temples can be found along the way, as Hibara Shrine, an auxiliary shrine of Omiwa Jinja, and referred to as the Original Ise by local tradition. Another particular place of worship is Sumo Shrine, legend has it that Sumo originated here. A thatched roof house instead belongs to Yatogi shrine, here the four deities of Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara city are worshipped. How many history and stories hidden along the trail, unveiling step after step!

On the roadside, farmers sell Kaki fruits in different shapes, fresh, or dried, either cut into thin paper-like slices, or entire fruits, dry outside, but with a juicy heart. It is a true sensual pleasure to taste the season fruit, delicious Kaki, slightly sour Mikan mandarins and the juicy and perfumed Nashi pears. The fruit is almost overripe, as is the warm season, and a sense of Nagori pervades me: an almost imperceptible taste of nostalgia flows through my throat and stomach, a sweet longing that warms up my mind.

All over sudden, the afternoon is coming to an end, and the sun bows deeply over the country road in a last goodbye as I am reaching Isonokami shrine, on the outskirts of Tenri, with its roosters running freely around a pond in the forest. The reminiscence of the autumn light pervades me as the shadows grow longer and the taste of Kaki persists in my mouth, holding me back to the reality of this day. The train takes me to Nara in the dusk, and I promise myself to return for a spring journey, with the mandarin blossoms, Japanese Iris and the first strawberries, acknowledging the renewal of the season’s eternally changing cycle.

Post Scriptum: The onset of the COVID19 Pandemics and the subsequent travel bans refrained me from fulfilling my promise to wander the road at the foot of the hills during the of springtime. Another autumn has arrived and the journey continues inside my mind. Soon the day will come when the Kaki fruits appear again on the fruits stalls at the local market, and will remind me of the cheerful moments spent in the Japanese countryside’s autumn light, in search of lost time, and a promise renewed.

*From: Basho’s haiku. Selected poems by Matsuo Basho. Translated by David Landis Barnhill. State University of New York, 2004.

Converging Waters (Kamogawa Delta Blues)

It is a burning afternoon in early May, and I am riding my bike with Fabio, a hippiesque Venetian destiny had crossing my path earlier that same day at Kyoto Station. We are cycling to the north, and the blue-skinned mountains of Kitayama loom as an extension of the city, the limbs of a body whose vital organs are nourished by the Kamogawa, a true ensign of the place. We have started our quest from the bridge known as Sanjo-ohashi, at the very heart of downtown Kyoto. The river not only divides the city into its two sides, but it is also the green heart attracting those two shores to join together; it is a place where the urban dweller and wildlife mingle in a seemingly flowing Shintoist spirit. 

Down by the water a grey heron patiently awaits the unwary fish, and raptors are circling over our heads, scanning the grounds for the leftovers of distracted humans. The shadow of a Japanese maple tree is an invitation to take a break on the river bank; it’s time for a packed picnic we have purchased at Sanjodori. Fabio’s long blond hair is floating in the wind and reminds me of koinobori (carp streamers) populating the streets of the city during these lively spring days. The action of swimming upstream like koi (carp) assumes an overall symbolic value for the two of us, caught in the stream of a year full of changes; it is our passage to the unknown, as we are about to leave fragments of ourselves behind to let them go with the flow, as you do with a little frail paper boat.

We let the northern mountains attract us like magnets with their promise of ensconced places and new discoveries. We feel like modern-day see-through pilgrims in the sun just like Murakami’s colourless Tazaki Tsukuru in his quest for truth and happiness, approaching the Imperial Gardens in the Marutamachi area.

We take another break at Bon Bon Café while heading to the Kamogawa Delta  ahead of us, but it is now the moment to choose a direction; will we go to the northwest or shall we turn to the northeast? Finally we heed the call of the trees lining the horizon behind Kamigamo Jinja, a place of ancient Shinto rituals in the old capital. The road finally leading to nowhere appears like a metaphor for life itself, heading deep into the black forest. It is here in a narrow valley of Kitayama that our unspoken friendship is just born.

Back downtown, we cheer on our springtime regained at Takumiya Beer Pub and the translucent day fades into the dark of the approaching night. The lights and the chattering and the sound of glasses and the kampai toast. Now we need to conjure up a new departure – upstream, like the carp, with the Kamogawa waters flowing silently through the liquid night.