Climbing Mt. Hiei

The signboard map of the shrine precincts
on the Lake Biwa side of Mt. Hiei
still shows the ancient pilgrims’ path,
abandoned when they built the funicular
& now so degraded it’s easy to find,
gullied out and clotted with boulders,
muddy from all the recent rains—
an open wound cross-stitched
by dozens of spider webs.

I clamber up, thankful for the handhold-
sized saplings that crowd the steepest section,
& catch my breath before each of the path’s
eight-eyed guardians, the spiders
hanging motionless like fat pears.
On hands & knees I wriggle under
each glistening net.

Even inside the funicular car
we could feel the low rumble
from the temple bell.

As we threaded our way up the crowded walk
she gave me a surreptitious stroke through my pants
& quelled my protest with a stern whisper:
It’s natural.

On the ride down I take refuge
in the lovers’ dharma,
abandon myself to her gaze
& it pays off: when we disembark she says
that felt like a thousand years

& the monkey in my mind settles
back on its haunches like
a half-tame temple macaque
examining its latest handout.

Alone on my third visit, too poor
to replace my broken glasses,
I have to get close & squint
at all the statues,
filling in from memory
the frightful scowl,
the maddening smile.


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