VII. Oya Shiradzu, Ko Shiradzu.

Toward the middle of the afternoon we reached a part of the coast locally famous or infamous, for the two were one; a stretch of some miles where the mountains made no apology for falling abruptly into the sea. Sheer for several hundred feet, the shore is here unscalable. Nor did it use to be possible to go round by land, for the cliffs are merely the ends of mountain-chains, themselves utterly wild and tractless. A narrow strip of sand was the sole link between Etchiu on the one hand and Echigo on the other. The natives call the place Oya shiradzu, ko shiradzu, that is, a spot where the father no longer knows the child, nor the child the father; so obliterating to sense of all beside is the personal danger. Refuge there is none of any kind. To have been caught here in a storm on the making tide, must indeed have been to look death in the face.

Between the devil of a precipice and the deep sea, he who ventured on the passage must have hurried anxiously along the thread of sand, hoping to reach the last bend in time. As he rounds the ill-omened corner he sees he is too late; already the surf is breaking against the cliff. He turns back only to find retreat barred behind by rollers that have crept in since he passed. His very footprints have all been washed away. Caged! Like the walls of a deep-down dungeon the perpendicular cliff towers at his side, and in the pit they rim, he and the angry ocean are left alone together. Then the sea begins to play with him, creeping catlike up. Her huge paws, the breakers, buffet his face. The water is already about his feet, as he backs desperately up against the rock. And each wave comes crushing in with a cruel growl to strike - short this time. But the next breaks closer, and the next closer still. He climbs a boulder. The spray blinds him. He hears a deafening roar; feels a shock that hurls him into space, and he knows no more.

Now the place is fearful only to fancy. For a road has been built, belting the cliffs hundreds of feet above the tide. It is a part of what is known as the new road, a name it is likely long to keep. Its sides are in places so steep that it fails of its footing and is constantly slipping off into the sea. Such sad missteps are the occasion for bands of convicts to appear on the scene under the marshaling of a police officer and be set to work to repair the slide by digging a little deeper into the mountain-side. The convicts wear clothes of a light brick-color which at a distance looks a little like couleur de rose, while the police are dressed in sombre blue. It would seem somewhat of a satire on the facts!

The new road is not without its sensation to such as dislike looking down. Fortunately, the jinrikisha men have not the instinct of packmules to be persistently trifling with its outer edge. In addition to the void at the side, another showed every now and then in front, where a dip and a turn completely hid the road beyond. The veritable end of the world seemed to be there just ahead, close against the vacancy of space. A couple of rods more and we must step off - indeed the end of the world for us if we had.

When the road came to face the Oya shiradzu, ko shiradzu, it attacked the rise by first running away from it up a stream into the mountains; a bit of the wisdom of the serpent that enabled it to gain much height on the bend back. Trees vaulted the way tapestrying it with their leaves, between which one caught peeps at the sea, a shimmer of blue through a shimmer of green. The path was strung with pedlars and pilgrims; the latter of both sexes and all ages, under mushroom hats with their skirts neatly tucked in at the waist, showing their leggings; the former doing fulcrum duty to a couple of baskets swung on a pole over their shoulders. The pilgrims were on their way back from Zenkoji. Some of them would have tramped over two hundred miles on foot before they reached home again. A rich harvest they brought back, religion, travel, and exercise all in one, enough to keep them happy long. I know of nothing which would more persuade me to be a Buddhist than these same delightful pilgrimages. Fresh air, fresh scenes on the road, and fresh faith at the end of it. No desert caravan of penance to these Meccas, but a summer's stroll under a summer's sky. An end that sanctifies the means and a means that no less justifies its end.

While we were still in the way with these pious folk we touched our midday halt, a wayside teahouse notched in a corner of the road commanding a panoramic view over the sea. The place was kept by a deaf old lady and her tailless cat. The old lady's peculiarity was personal; the cat's was not. No self-respecting cat in this part of Japan could possibly wear a tail. The northern branch of the family has long since discarded that really useless feline appendage. A dog in like circumstance would be sadly straitened in the expression of his emotions, but a cat is every whit a cat without a continuation.

With the deaf old lady we had, for obvious reasons, no sustained conversation. She busied herself for the most part in making dango, a kind of dumpling, but not one calculated to stir curiosity, since it is made of rice all through. These our men ate with more relish than would seem possible. Meanwhile I sat away from the road where I could look out upon the sea over the cliffs, and the cat purred about in her offhand way and used me incidentally as a rubbing post. Trees fringed the picture in front, and the ribbon of road wound off through it into the distance, beaded with folk, and shot with sunshine and shadow.

I was sorry when lunch was over and we took leave of our gentle hostesses; tabbies both of them, yet no unpleasing pair. A few more bends brought us to where the path culminated. The road had for some time lain bare to the sea and sky, but at the supreme point some fine beeches made a natural screen masking the naked face of the precipice. On the cutting above, four huge Chinese characters stood graved in the rock.

"Ya no gotoku, to no gotoshi."

"Smooth as a whetstone, straight as an arrow," meaning the cliff. Perhaps because of their pictorial descent, the characters did not shock one. Unlike the usual branding of nature, they seemed not out of keeping with the spot. Not far beyond, the butts of the winter's neve, buried in dirt, banked the path.

For miles along the raod the view off was superb. Nothing bordered one side of the way and the mountain bordered the other. Far below lay the sea, stretching away into blue infinity, a vast semicircle of ultramarine domed by a hemisphere of azure; and it was noticeable how much vaster the sea looked than the sky. We were so high above it that the heavings of its longer swells were leveled to imperceptibility, while the waves only graved the motionless surface. Here and there the rufflings of a breeze showed in darker markings, like the changes on watered silk. The most ephemeral disturbance made the most show. Dotted over the blue expanse were black spots, fishing boats; and a steamer with a long trail of smoke showed in the offing, stationary to the eye, yet shifting its place like the shadow of a style when you forgot to look. And in long perspective on either hand stretched the battlement of cliff. Visual immensity lay there before us, in each of its three manifestations; of line, of surface, and of space.

We stood still, the better to try to take it in - this grandeur tempered by sunshine and warmth. Do what he will, man is very much the creature of his surroundings yet. In some instant sense, the eyes fashion the feelings, and we ourselves grow broader with our horizon's breadth. The Chaldean shepherds alone with the night had grander thoughts for the companionship, and I venture to believe that the heart of the mountaineer owes quite as much to what he is forced to visage as to what he is compelled to do.

We tucked ourselves into our jinrikisha and started down. By virtue of going, the speed increased, till the way we rolled round the curves was intoxicating. The panorama below swung to match, and we leaned in or out mechanically to trim the balance. Occasionally, as it hit some stone, the vehicle gave a lurch that startled us for a moment into sobriety, from which we straightway relapsed into exhilaration. Curious this, how the body brings about its own forgetting. For I was conscious only of mind, and yet mind was the one part of me not in motion. I suppose much oxygen made me tipsy. If so, it is a recommendable tipple. Spirits were not unhappily named after the natural article.

It was late afternoon when we issued at last from our two days Thermopylae upon the Etchiu plain. As we drew out into its expanse, the giant peaks of the Tateyama range came into view from behind their foothills, draped still in their winter ermine. It was last year yet in those upper regions of the world, but all about us below throbbed with the heartbeats of the spring. At each mile, amid the ever lengthening shadows, nature seemed to grow more sentient. Through the thick air the peaks stood out against the eastern sky, in saffron that flushed to rose and then paled to gray. The ricefields, already flooded for their first working, mirrored the glow overhead so glassily that their dykes seemed to float, in sunset illusion, a mere bar tracery of earth between the sky above and a sky beneath. Upon such lattice of a world we journeyed in mid-heaven. Stealthily the shadows gathered; and as the hour for confidences drew on, nature took us into hers. The trees in the twilight, just breaking into leaf, stood in groups among the fields and whispered low to one another, nodding their heads; and then from out the shadow of the May evening came the croaking of the frogs. Strangely the sound fitted the hour, with its like touch of mysterious suggestion. As the twilight indefinite, it pervaded everything, yet was never anywhere. Deafening at a distance, it hushed at our approach only to begin again behind us. Will-o'-the-wisp of the ear, infatuating because forever illusive! And the distance and the numbers blended what had perhaps been harsh into a mellow whole that filled the gloaming with a sort of voice. I began to understand why the Japanese are so fond of it that they deem it not unworthy a place in nature's vocal pantheon but little lower than the song of the nightingale, and echo its sentiment in verse. And indeed it seems to me that his soul must be conventionally tuned in whom this even-song of the ricefields stirs no responsive chord.