Like newborn horses the stream of climbers reach the summit of Mt Ibuki, slick with sweat and on legs skittery from the short, steep climb. Some forget to stop climbing and continue to lift their feet high over non-existent boulders, so baked are their brains by the August sun. They soon disappear among the crowds of day-trippers who had driven, or been driven in enormous souless tours, to the summit via the road that has been shaved into the back of Ibuki’s head.
This head, and its rocky shoulders, rise dramatically above the fresh green rice fields that surround Lake Biwa to the northwest of Kyoto, much like Mt Buko of Yuka’s home town does over Chichibu. Like Mt Buko, the cement companies have done their best to defile Ibuki, digging deep into its right shoulder. On its tonsured scalp is an untidy mess of cheap souvenir shops, touting for business during the season when the alpine blossoms riot on the mountain. As if to hide its shame, Ibuki pulls a veil of clouds around its peak and refuses to show us the grand views over the Kansai plain which, the guide holding a poster sized photo of the view on a clear day assures us, lie below. Picnickers sit staring into the grey. I snap my usual one-handed summit proof, much the amusement of all present, and run back down the mountain to Kyoto as fast as I can.
The old capital boils in the midsummer. Seeking the cooling breezes of the high ground, we make our way up to Kurodani and give thanks at Konkaikomyo temple for safe passage so far this year. We watch children, limbs glazed by the sun, chase dragonflies and cicadas on the steps of the temple’s great black gate. I’m saddened though to find that the path from Konkaikomyo to the temple at Shinnyodo has been paved. I liked the hot, dusty yellow track that it used to be. Regardless, we follow it up the hill to Shinnyodo, to its pagoda and quiet, mossy gardens.
Yuka writes her journal on the great wooden steps. The heat makes me restless so I walk, stopping only to watch the fish swim through the trees reflected in the pond for a few cooling minutes.
I find myself in the forest of granite obelisks that fill the hot graveyard to the south. As I try to frame a shot of turning maple leaves against the azure sky, I hear a step on the path behind me and whirl around, camera in hand.
“I hope you’re not going to take a photo of me!”, comes a voice, heavy with the lilt of Kyoto. I look down, and I meet the lively eyes of an old lady, stooped double, her white hair scraped into a neat bun. She holds a water bucket in one hand and a ladle in the other; she’s here to tend the grave of a loved one.
I assure her I’m just taking photos of the trees.
“You see, I’m 94 years old. I used to be so beautiful. I was the queen of the festival round here when I was 16… I wouldn’t want people to think I didn’t used to be beautiful… So I don’t let anyone take my photograph these days!”. I felt the fire in her soul cut through her momentary melancholy.
I tell her I think she’s still beautiful. Coquettishly she sweeps a thin hand over her face as she turns away giggling, but flicks her eyes back to me in a sidelong glance at the last moment.
Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword.
But these girls slay men with their eyes.
I wish I could have taken her photograph at that moment.
Suddenly she was 16 again.