Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chichibu-Tama: A Wild Sheep Chase

It's a perfect autumn morning and I'm on a train speeding north to Chichibu. Elderly couples dressed in running shoes and baseball caps are taking photos of each other across the bench seats. Through the window I look out on terraced squares planted with tea bushes, a football pitch and baseball diamond side-by-side on levelled dirt, a half-timbered Swiss cottage on a bend in the river, villages made up of a few houses strung across a road, each one seemingly with its own lawn-sized field to the side, onion tops and cabbages sprouting from the soil.

'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' was playing on a loop when I arrived at Seibu-Chichibu Station. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The temperature was nudging sixty degrees. I walked as far as Chichibu Shrine before I found a map, bought sushi and a bar of white chocolate for lunch from a supermarket next door to Cafe Snob (closed, of course), then picked up the trail back at the station, past a Mister Donut and up into the hills.

Several consultations of the map and one two-minute conversation with an elderly Japanese man - of which the sum total of my comprehension was, "Turn right soon" - later, a marker on the ground pointed the way towards Hitsujiyama. A flock of sheep grazing in a pen (Hitsujiyama literally translates as Sheep Hill) qualified as a rare enough sight to have become a tourist attraction of sorts, mothers proudly snapping their children as they posed by the fence. From here the track quickly diminished into a dirt path, which twisted like a tree root through a forest before hitting tarmac and beginning the long, steep climb to a wooden pavilion at the top of a small peak.

A few hundred metres further, following a drop easily as sharp as anything on the other side, I clambered up a faded metal staircase and found myself staring across at a gravel-covered hillside and not, as I'd initially thought, the slate-grey roof of a giant temple. Smoke was belching from metal stacks, there were some cement-scarred rocks and a factory that looked like something from an early episode of Doctor Who. I pushed on, quickly.

Fortunately, a wing of En-yu Ji, the twenty-sixth of thirty-four temples dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in and around Chichibu, was just around the next corner, propped up on wooden pillars with its back to the rock. It was here I met Yukio, a Japanese who'd quit his estate agent's job eight years ago to travel around the world ("I went to Antarctica, Tahiti, India, Australia...") and now worked in internet security. We walked together as far as the pearl-white statue of Kannon which overlooked the Kagemori plain, then took the short slog down to Daienji (temple 27), where the sounds of the city once more began to intrude: an electrical generator, the smell of incense, children hitting a baseball, the urgent ring, ring, ring of a level-crossing bell, a puff of smoke from a steam train...

Over the tracks, we skirted the main road as far as temple twenty-eight, backed up against a sheer cliff face, red maple leaves overhanging the stairs. I skipped the cave, left Yukio paying his two-hundred yen, and backtracked to the concrete bridge and the narrow path to Urayamaguchi Station, on the Chichibu Main Line. It took me as far as the metal bridge in front of Urayamaguchi Dam, one-and-a-half kilometres further on, to reach the conclusion that I didn't have enough daylight left to make it to the lake. I took out my last piece of sushi, turned around, and walked the three stations back to town.

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