Sunday, July 09, 2023

Sunday Papers: Robert M. Pirsig


"The whole Renaissance is supposed to have resulted from the topsy-turvy feeling caused by Columbus’ discovery of a new world. It just shook people up. The topsy-turviness of that time is recorded everywhere. There was nothing in the flat-earth views of the Old and New Testaments that predicted it. Yet people couldn’t deny it. The only way they could assimilate it was to abandon the entire medieval outlook and enter into a new expansion of reason.”


On the turntable:  Henry Rollins:  "Live at McCabe's"


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Ballad of a Thin Road


Before I even got close to the lake I found myself bobbing along the current.  This was mighty peculiar in that this current flowed uphill.  Or more precisely, up the stairs of Hikone station.  I had purposely left early so as to avoid rush hour, and I was successful for the first part of the journey.  But eventually, rush hour found me, and the train filled up with businessmen and schoolchildren, all of them kitted out in the dark attire appropriate to the season.  I eventually left the flow upon arriving once again at the castle.  I paid quick respects to the adjacent shrine, my mouth down-turned at the sight of a stele marking aikoku, patriotism, a concept I've never really understood, or accepted. 

I traced the narrow trails along the old castle moat, passing fishermen, elderly walkers, and a man sitting in the bleachers above a tennis court, ready to launch a basket full of balls, atop which a racquet was laid.  Workers were hard at work on extensions to the soccer stadium.  These grounds on the castle's far canal were surprising in the their scale, an efficient use of ample land which had already existed.  

I moved to where I had last left the Umi no Be, but along the canal I was surprised to see an elbow bend marking the path. Before long I was led back to the bicycle course I'd followed last time.  As that had been a pretty uneventful walk, I had chosen a few Bob Dylan bootlegs to distract me from the steady and ever present flow of traffic hissing past to my left.  For the most part I kept my eyes turned right, out over the waters of the lake.  The peaks across were clear and well-detailed, and over my shoulder, the unmistakable shape of Ibuki loomed far to the north.       

Luckily, a path led me down into a another lakeside park, as I'd found to Hikone's north.  It was much more pleasant going, along a welcome promenade of trampled grass, and beneath sakura and pine.  They'd obviously had some pretty severe weather recently, with a tremendous amount of flotsam as far as three meters from the now quietly lapping shore.  The ground itself was sodden.  Must've been a hell of a storm

And there were signs; warning of kamikaze crows, warning off the playing of ground golf (although one area must've been okay, either that or this city had some pretty rebellious seniors).  I'd rejoin the road at river crossings, on one occasion startling a bicyclist zipping along.  I popped into a convenience store to stock up on lunch.  It was due to close in two days, though the remaining stock looked like it wouldn't last even that long.  Had it been an hour later in the day I would've instead stopped at a  tasty looking deli about fifty steps away.  As I stood in front perusing the menu, an elderly woman caught me in the act of singing Dylan lyrics out loud, something about a tax-deductible charity organization.  

I rejoined the grassy promenade.  Further on, I noted that the Umi no Be signs were oriented toward the shore.  Was the shale beach there the actual trail?  I walked along it awhile, but it slowed my momentum, as my shoes found resistance in the stones.  As feared, it ended abruptly at the next river inlet, forcing me to do a high-wire act along some sodden concrete wall slippery with moss.  

The main highway moved away to the east, and my road was all quiet suburb now, except for a small factory where large and powerful pleasure craft spent their winters.  My trail led me behind the houses, moving just above the beach, here too strewn with debris.  There were many vegetable gardens here, and a friendly old man greeted me from his.  Behind was a lovely deck with some comfy looking chairs.  In one of them he would surely reward the day's labors with a brew and a view.  He moved toward the shore, to rake the driftwood and detritus that had built up., telling me that this line of debris was about two meters further inland than usual.  He then bid me take care, and we both returned to the work ahead of us.     

A black robed priest bicycled past, wearing a construction helmet.  Obviously heeding the new helmet laws, or perhaps concerned by the crows the signs warned about.  The stretch of beach beyond him was lined by a meter-high concrete wall that apparently protected the houses within.  More of the land here had been converted to fields, and in one an old man in a conical hat squatted to pull weeds.  A few houses also had basketball hoops, in most cases the rims bent thirty degrees toward the ground.  These were obviously the homes of bigger, stronger kids.  

The houses began to get further from the shore, and my path was once again shaded by pines, much welcome as this early May day grew warm.  Summer wouldn't be so far away. Finally the houses themselves disappeared altogether.  I now walked through the grass just above the shore, amazed at the various shapes and sizes of detritus, at the forms trees and branches and twigs could take. Then it occurred to me that the patterns in which they lay were the actual shapes of the waves, which mimicked the shape of the underwater line further out where the deep becomes the shallow.   

Ano benchi was listed on my map as a historical landmark.  I imagine this is tongue in cheek, this lone bench sitting at the side of a carpark, denoted by bicyclists and bikers, and people out driving on a Sunday.  The parks continued, broken now and again by inlets and bridges.  Thus went the day.



I finally left these altogether, tracing the peninsulas covered by farm houses and their corresponding plots of land.  I began to hate these, as they offered little by way of scenery, or variety, and simply meant more kilos walked under the hot sun.  Most of the fields now surrounding me were wheat, and a couple of combines were making the rounds.  Adjacent fields held green onions.  Two workers sat pulling bulbs on overturned milk crates, faces unseen due to conical hats and unhealthy postures.  I assumed from the tough physical work involved that they weren't Japanese.

I moved back along the beachfront now.  Cars were parked in the intermittent pullouts, men lazed behind their vehicles in folding camp chairs or even hammocks, shirtless in the sun.  One small section of shoreline had been cleared of debris, forming a clean sandy approach shaded by a table atop which were drinks.  A trio of vehicles were parked above, filled with paddles, lifejackets, SUPs.  One of the drivers was reclining along the length of one board, his own hammock of sorts.  This stretch of the Umi no Be certainly was bucolic.   

The beachfront was eventually replaced by a grove of trees that lined the shore.  Through one break in the foliage I saw a half dozen people on SUPs, slowly paddling along the coast.  Which explained the trucks, and their sleepy drivers.  

I followed this frontage road to where sand hit rock, and finding no trail into the forest, I moved along the face of the small mount now looming above.  There was a gate, which contrary to similar gates that break most country paths, was impossible to open, fixed as it was with three sets of thick, Gordian-knotted wire, the whole works smothered in cobwebs.  Luckily someone had knocked down a small section of adjacent fence, which solved the problem of getting through.     

In the carpark ahead I found a marker for the Umi no Be, the first I'd seen in awhile.  It pointed me up a forested path toward Isaki-ji temple, which I was assured was 900 meters away.  The trail was broad, lined with railway ties and covered with gravel which made for easy walking.  But the slow steady incline gradually brought the rhythm of my breath into pace with that of my footfalls. 

The temple hondo was an attractive wooden structure perched atop rock. A smaller Fudō hall further down by the shoreline was a mix of wood and concrete, which though less aesthetically pleasing, made sense I suppose, considering its position on the windward side of the lake.  

Doubling back to rejoin my trail, I met the temple priest in the garden, the color of his work clothes matching that of the weeds he was pulling. He confirmed for me that people once traveled here strictly by boat, a fact made evident by the stones steps descending through an elaborate gate and to the water's edge.  

But I moved away from these, up a path steep and overgrown and pointed due south.  I kept my eyes lowered, ever aware of snakes.  More active were the wild boar, who'd torn up sections here and there.  I moved along, climbing and puffing into the dappled sunshine, quite pleased that, after days of trudging on tarmac, the Umi no Be would draw to a close in the hills. 

Or nearly.  There was a final short meander along a shoreline road, which terminated on the beach of the Kyukamura resort.  All was quiet, but for a guy whacking weeds somewhere, and the occasional car drifting by above.  I was able to thumb a lift from one, which brought me into Omi-hachiman proper, to celebrate with a pint (or two) at the local Two Rabbits brewery, an activity made more auspicious in this year corresponding to the same animal of the Chinese zodiac.    


On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1995-04-05, Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum"

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Wherever you Roam



I should've called a taxi.  I'd arrived at Kawake, granted a small country station, but as it displayed within a regional museum, I'd somehow assumed there'd be taxis waiting to meet arriving trains.   I know better than to assume such things.

Hitching a ride saved me from repeating the dull 90 minute slog I'd undertaken in late 2021 when I climbed the ridgeline south from Shizu-ga-take.  I'd followed the Umi no Be on that day, yet descended from the castle ruins at Yamamotoyama east toward the station, rather than west along the actual route.  Ever the purist, I raced back up the mountain in three-fourths the map time, tapped the summit marker, snapped a couple of pics, then shot back down the other side along a very steep trail. The electrified fence at the bottom was hung with a drawing of a ferocious looking bear of the type that doesn't exist on these islands. 

The Umi no Be led through some quiet farm villages, then out to Biwa's eastern shoreline.  Here, near the waterfowl park, trees rose from the waters themselves, as well as along long, pencil-thin islets.  Tiny waves gently made their way to the shore,  and dotted here and there were the top-heavy white figures of cranes.  I stood on a bridge, watching cormorants fish, seemingly unbothered by the trucks roaring overhead, shaking the entire structure. 

My ex-wife used to often ask me what I am looking for on these walks.  I guess today it hit me that I'm seeking melancholy. And melancholy is everywhere in the Japanese countryside.  Its in the gradual physical decay and loss of memories that accompany population decline, perhaps Japan's greatest manifestation of mono no aware, the pathos of things. It is during these moments, particularly in autumn, when I am most happy while out on the road.  I don't know, maybe it is that I'm looking not for the ghost of my late son, but for the ghost of the melancholia that accompanied the deep mourning from that time.  

Again and again, I spied caterpillars crossing the tarmac.  With the bicycle lanes it is basically a four-lane road, so they have a long way to go.  It is almost like a scaled down version of what I'm doing.  I too simply keep my head forward, seeing nothing but grayish blue tarmac stretching out before me.  

I took a short snack break beside a small lake into which retired men fish, then its back to my long, straight trudge.  The land jutted out at one point, and my feet were finally able to move along a softer surface, the path now connecting a series of waterfront parks and campsites.  These led me into Nagahama.  

I did a quick round of the city, up the castle for the view, into shrines and temples for the history.  I'd twice visited here while walking the Hokkoku Kaidō, but warily passed through rather than visit.  And again that was more of my focus here, admiring the old architecture and the well-preserved streets.  I couldn't help but feel that tourist sites I paid to enter didn't quite live up to expectations.  The best highlights were the last two: the railway station (where I spent a fair bit of time admiring the old photographs), and the Keiunkan villa across the road with its vast garden.  The view from the second floor revealed a little too much of the borrowed scenery of Showa and Heisei Japan.  As I left, I passed a group of quite elderly women admiring the azalea bonsai exhibition. I was reminded of Dylan, "your old road is rapidly aging."    



I took a long rest with lunch and beer at Nagahama Roman Beer, to fortify myself for the final 12 km to Hikone Castle.  Perhaps I'd waited too long, as the weather grew heavy, with dark, dark, overcast skies.  Gone now was the beautiful blue waters upon which the sunshine danced.  A set change had replaced it with the slate gray lake surface which mirrored the colors above. I preyed that this was merely a staring contest, and that the clouds wouldn't blink first.    

When the rains did find me, about halfway along, I swore a bit. Not at the sky or the weather but at the meteorological team who seemed to have grown far less precise after the very expensive technological upgrade that the government had been so proud to announce not long ago.  All remained a mere drizzle, mercifully. I was occasionally led into more of those little lakeside parks, but for the most part I was up on the main road, devoid even of a bicycle path.  As such, it was a walk to get through, rather than enjoy.  The rains slowly increased, and when I finally pulled out my umbrella, they ceased.  I guess it was I who blinked first.  

Slightly higher waves now brushed the shoreline, here and there decorated with a surprisingly large number of dead fish. Large brown kites feasted on the more fresh, showing that they too have an affinity for sashimi. Further out, what must have been one hundred cormorants, flying and diving, flying and diving, stalking a massive school of fish unseen beneath the water. 

The final section in town was down a smaller, quieter road that hugged the shoreline.  I remembered swimming here two summers back to wash off the sweat, after climbing some peak further north.  I liked then the look of this little lane, the tidy little vacation houses across whose frontages leaned the toys of summer: kayaks, inflatable rings, SUPs, and small boats.  A few sailboards lay along the water's edge, and a handful of people were taking advantage of the winds that the rain had brung.     

A short walk away, I turned the corner to find myself face to face with Hikone Castle.  


On the nighttable:  Ian Buruma, "China Lover"

On the turntable:  Bob Dylan, "Rundown Rehearsals"     


Friday, June 02, 2023

The Nature of Kyoto



Quite pleased to be a part of the fifth Writer's in Kyoto Anthology. 

On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1993-05-26,  Cal Expo Amphitheatre"

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Sunday Papers: Ernest Hemingway


“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing." 


On the turntable:  Bob Dylan,  "Park It Where The Sun Don't Shine"

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Sakura Zuihitsu



Thanks to Writers in Kyoto for publishing my look back at the flurry that was last spring...


On the turntable:  Bob Dylan, "Oh Mercy Outtakes"


Sunday, May 07, 2023

Sunday Papers: Thu-Huong Ha


"There is something to be said for shaking up Kyoto, which year after year draws crowds to the same set of predetermined temples and attractions. It surely takes courage to try something different in a place celebrated for its ossified immutability."


On the turntable:  The Hollies, "Live Hits"