Lost mountain trails of Japan

I sometimes found antique trails in the mountains of Japan. Pathways which connected high mountain villages before the age of roads, when the fastest way to the other side of the mountain was along steep ridges and around tall waterfalls; through dense forests haunted by moon bear and fierce boar and giant spiders and resounding with the hum and whir of insects. The best way to pick up such a trail was to ask the oldest man in the village “how did folks in the old days get to the next valley over?” Invariably I’d be told to look behind the statue of a roadside saint, or to go around the back of the graveyard, or to walk to the end of an abandoned farm road to discover the barely discernible outline of a trail leading into a wall of temperate green rainforest.

The first kilometer was usually easy to follow due to the infrequent use by farmers coming to harvest wild mountain vegetables. Beyond a kilometer though, as the canyon began to steepen, I often had to strain my eyes to keep the trail. Passing waterfalls I’d sometimes spot weathered statues of Jizo Bodhisattva gazing at me, an Eastern equivalent of Saint Christopher, and a comforting sight to believers passing through the wilds. Invariably the trail was lost. And I was left to push on as far as I could, searching for some sign of the old way over the mountain.

Before I left Japan I saw an old map owned by a man I met, showing a network of these old mountain trails, pedestrian highways where goods and people moved in the days of feudal commerce. The network was extensive, and used even up until the modern era, as I remember once talking a woman in her 80s, living alone in a giant traditional farmhouse, in a nearly empty village, at the end of a rugged valley serviced by a treacherous one-lane farm road. She was a chatty soul, and she told me how she’d walked to this village to marry in her teens, across the mountain with her father. Carrying her world on her back, to begin life with a man she’d never met and with whom she’d lived many long and happy years. She told me of the mountain trail head across the river which I tried and to failed to find. Though she was very old and frail, she’d known a journey and adventure I can never live. I expect the knowledge of her village’s lost trail will become forgotten when she dies. And the statues in the mountain will stand alone, and will never again be gazed on by grateful human eyes.

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