I woke early yesterday for breakfast before an 8 a.m. train southwest along the Sea of Japan to Ōda, where the woman running the station’s little shop helped me decipher the contents of various onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice balls). I picked one with some sort of sour fruit and took a seat on a bench at a bus stop in the sticky late-morning heat. I was soon joined by a septuagenarian couple who asked me the usual questions, where was I from and what was I doing. The woman, with provincial quirks to her speech I don’t think I was imagining, kept saying, “All alone?,” and when I couldn’t understand her, to her husband, “He just doesn’t know the words.” I asked if they lived in town–no, just joining friends for karaoke. A small yellow car swung up to where we sat, and we bowed our sayounaras before they headed off for their pre-noon party. As soon as the couple had left the woman from the shop came out with some papers in hand. She asked if I was headed to the silver mines and when I said yes handed me a map and a pamphlet. I asked if she knew anything about the hike along the old transport path from the mines to the port town through which had flowed, in the late 16th-century, about 1/3 of the world’s silver, and wryly and a bit aghast she said, “It takes five hours!” I nodded and smiled. She suggested I speak to the guides at the mines–heavy rains the day before may have made the route impassable. The bus arrived and she ushered me on, telling the driver where I was headed. I thanked her profusely and was driven through rice fields pocked with steaming, piled-rock vents, then on into the rocky hills, verdant in ways new to me.
At the old mining town, I asked a guide at the tourist information center about the hike. He scratched his chin and summoned another guide, who with fabulously congenial mien said hello and shook my hand. He said the rains had broken the road. With a smiling sigh I lamented and relented. Happily the sky was blue, formally extravagant foliage rose all around, and the township felt prosperous in the easy joy of the day. I ate soba in a tatami-floored shop run by a brother and sister who’d spent a few years studying in Nebraska, then headed in the direction of the one open mine. Halfway between that and the town, small, blocked-off openings began to appear in the mountains, and the laborious honeycombs of 16th-century extraction began to be sensed and take form in the mind. Along the road were gardens of hydrangea and wisteria, roses and all manner of things I didn’t recognize, and at the foot of the mountains, conifers grew next to palm trees and over ferns and tall grasses, alongside the occasional stand of bamboo, and all run through with lichen-covered stone steps up to sagging shrines. Two sensory aspects of this trip I don’t think I’ve properly emphasized are the very happy, always near smell of juniper and the nearly constant raucous trill of cicadas, a shrill reminder of all the life that rattles in the trees. Twenty feet from the entrance of the open mineshaft I could feel its very cold exhalation. Inside the ceiling dripped and caused me to stoop. Mosses and small, liverwort-like plants grew on the walls that the lights lit. Unreinforced side passages, with signs barring entry, split from the walk. In front of me, always around a bend, was a Chinese couple and behind me, always around a bend, was a large Japanese family. Lining the exit were drawings illustrating the process of silver extraction and smelting. The first role given to children was the removal of undesirable stones.
On my map was marked a trail leading to castle ruins, leaving from near the mouth of the mine. I put my foot down on the first log step and out jumped a grasshopper and a frog. All along the climb were signs warning of “falling, or fallen rocks,” and the biodensity never lessened, with lizards and spiders at my feet, and huge black butterflies with white wingspots always at the edge of vision. Small piles of mammalian shit buzzing with flies hinted at what else lived there. Thin-trunked trees that left tan, eucalyptus-like leaf litter bent in agreement with the rock-warning signs. Near the summit the canopy cleared, and the sun beat on what took the form of a cornfield but whose nature I couldn’t really determine. A small rock foundation seemed to be the last bit of the castle. In the distance I could see Yunotsu, the port town that I’d wanted to hike to, sinking into its little seam and opening to its little bay. I was dripping sweat, rushing to catch the bus, alert to hornets, rockslides, and bears, and the descent was as beautiful as it gets, the foliage way green, with stands of citrus or citrus-adjacent trees running down each side of a thin ridge tracked with red-bamboo-banistered, very loose stone stairs.
I took a bus and a train, with a group of teen girl jocks in long shorts, of which Japan’s overgrown seaside towns have wonderfully many, to Yunotsu, which prior even to its silver-port heyday had a long history as a resort town with healing mineral baths. A tall, thickly wooded peak rose impassably between Yunotsu’s station and its main street. I took the direction that seemed to more efficiently reach the baths, not knowing it unfit for pedestrians, with barbed-wire shack-ruins and rusting piles of metal beams lining the road, which led to a semicircular stone tunnel. Nonetheless I pressed on, hurrying along the moss-slimy shoulder of the tunnel, past a lone man’s lone house, the sort from whose window, if in the marijuana boonies of northern California, you’d imagine a shotgun peeking, past old women silently pulling laundry from the line, and finally to a main street slightly less ghostly–all the while with the deafening shriek of the cicadas joined by the high, quick, legato, one-note crescendo-decrescendo keening of a new, dutifully eerie insect. I ate a quick dinner at a glum restaurant and headed along the bay, imagining its waters filled with Portuguese galleons, to the train station, where I waited with an old man, a woman in her early 40s, and many, many fat-abdomened spiders spinning their webs across the ceiling.
Today I had a wonderful time in Hiroshima, of which more later.