Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Waiting on the Sun (Ise Hon-kaido VI)

It was a day too warm for February, and the birdsong was in the key of March.  I'd wanted an early start, so had come down to Matsusaka the night before, in order to catch the first bus of the day.  My feet hit pavement not long after 7:30.  

The road on which we'd ridden out here to Kakinō was a busy one, but luckily I was walking a smaller road just above both it and the river that was quiet today, but at one point must have raced through this gorge with great power,. scaring and twisting the rocks in the riverbed into phantasmagoric shapes.  These, and the mist hanging between the hills overhead, lent itself to the cliche of a Chinese landscape painting. 

This smaller road was leading me through the remains of a post town, the location of the old inns designated by paper lanterns hanging in the eaves of what were now modern houses.  The oldest house in the village dated from the Meiji period, but rather than lanterns, Christmas lights hung from  its cracked and faded beams.  This lingering holiday sentiment was refuted somewhat by the sight of plum blossoms that exploded into view a few steps on.

Before leaving the river, I climbed up above a Shingon temple whose twin waterfalls hinted at esoteric practices, to an overlook that was becoming hemmed in by the untrimmed pine branches that blotted out the view.  I imagined an older priest here, no longer interested in undertaking such manual labor for the sake of a dwindling number of parishioners.  As the day went on, I noticed that the few temples I did pass seemed to be all Shingon.  I was closing in on the Ise shrines, and imagined the pro-Shinto fever that must have purged this area of all signs of Buddhism as State Shinto raised its snake-like head in the Meiji Period.  These Shingon temples must have had Shugendo roots, so were therefore deemed Shinto enough.

The river behind me, I found myself walking a straight line throughout the day, village begetting village, with only rice fields between. Kadomatsu New Year's decorations hung from many of the doors, making it feel as if my previous walk in January was still going on.  

Villages, farmland, villages.  The one forest I did enter was flat, along a track that bisected a thick bamboo thicket that must be rife with snakes of its own in warmer days.  At the forest's far end, I heard what I at first thought was gunfire, but was merely a pile of bamboo trees ablaze, their air-filled chambers bursting as the heat escaped. 

Lunchtime came, and it brought with it hunger.  In many ways this was a dream walk as the path kept me far out in the countryside.  However, the walker tends to grow reliant upon the small cafes and convenience stores found just about everywhere.  I eventually came to a small yakuniku place, but the owner told me he was finished for the day, despite it only being just past one o'clock.  A bit annoying.  

Earlier while walking the river, I had tossed a fist-sized rock into a pool of very still water.  I was amazed at just how wide and for how long the ripples traveled.  I thought this a good metaphor for those who complain that a single person can have no effect upon a large and complicated world.  And in the same spirit, this fellow's refusal to serve me had ramifications throughout the day.  The ripples of my initial annoyance growing eventually into full blown anger, as my energy waned and waned.  I just couldn't find food anywhere.  More than that, I wanted an excuse to sit awhile as I was now about 25km into my day.  

Around 3 pm, I finally decided to detour off my track to a convenience store a few km away, not far from where the Ise Kaido meets a lesser traveled section of the Kumano Kodo that leads south toward those grand shrines.  I finally got my lunch, and as I sat I noted that I was just on the outskirts of Ise City proper.  Not long now.

When I rejoined the path, my laughter cleared out any anger I was still carrying when I came upon a food shop a 100 meters on.  Then another.  Spirits high, I walked on, trying to ignore my eyes made runny by the pollen that is always an unwanted companion to the welcome warmth of spring.  The farm villages continued for an hour or so, then crossing a broad river, I was in Ise proper.  

The kaido took me past the Inner Shrine.  I debated going in, but it was past 4 pm now, with the light fading.  Plus I'd recently paid my respects a few months before.  So I carried on the last four km toward the inner shrine, which I found more important anyway.  

This section was quite fascinating, as it had once been lined with brothels and inns.  Had this been 150 years before, I expect it would have quite the lively scene.  Today, all was quiet, just a few school kids cycling home.  One of these inns was the scene of a multiple murder that soon inspired popular entertainment. But it, and most of the other inns, were now replaced by bland new suburban homes.  Only Asakichi Ryokan remained, stacked up in a jumble of wood upon the side of a hill.  

I hadn't expected that I'd finish this walk with a climb.  Thanks to my lunch detour, I was clocking about 45 km for the day, far more than I'd walked in the last decade or so.  But incredibly, I felt fine, with none of the aches I usually get after about the 27th km.  But I could have done without this hill. And along the descent down the far side I felt a momentum like pull, leading me through the mock Edo frontages that are a large tourist draw these days.  All were shuttered and closed by now, the punters moved on.  

And at the far end, the bridge leading over to the water to where the Sun Goddess awaited, just as her spherical form was beginning to leave the heavens.    


On the turntable:  "Skankin' 'Round the World"

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Sunday Papers: Antoine de Saint Exupery

"Life creates order, but order does not create life."

On the turntable:  "Cafe del Mar Volume 9"

Saturday, February 28, 2015


The sun goddess
Welcomes me with a day
Far too warm for winter.

On the turntable:  "Repo Man (Sdtk)"


Friday, February 27, 2015


Changing her make-up
As the clock ticks toward night.
Winter splendor.

On the turntable;  "IndiaRama"

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Looking for the 'There' There Pt. VI

I quit my walk at the perfect time.  The rain grows heavier and heavier and it is with great relief that I find a bus stop.  An hour later I drive past this same spot, in a rented car I picked up back in Sendai.  As I pull onto the highway on the edge of the city, a sign tells me that I can expect to get 1.2 microsieverts of radiation if I were to race through the exclusion zone at 80 kph.

But for now, that is far away, yet growing closer as the car points south.

And to the east, the sea walls stretches on and on and on.  Although it is being built at a more human scale than up in Iwate, I have yet to see the water, despite being only 100 meters from the sea.  There doesn't appear anything for miles around to protect.  This shoreline is a series of lakes and canals, most of the land beneath being swamp land.  It didn't look farmable, not a place of habitation.  But anytime I wonder if there had ever been anyone living out here, I'll come across a gutted house, an abandoned school. Beside one of the latter is a 'thousand year' memorial stone.  I'm 350 kilometers south of where I started this walk.  The scale of the waves, of the destruction, is enormous.  

I keep driving south on Route 6, into areas whose names I recognize from the news.  I'm not sure how far I'll drive.  I'll turn around the moment I begin to see people in masks, or god forbid, a Hazmat suit.  And while the number of obviously abandoned homes and businesses was increasing, a good number still had lights on, beneath which people went about their day.  

Not much later, I'm getting into areas that I know are within the exclusion zone,  open to residents to spend the day, but not the night.  Workmen wave their traffic wands, without masks.   Few drivers coming from the other direction are wearing masks either. The smiles of a trio of policemen are visible as they investigate a minor accident.  A handful of people eat their lunch in a small restaurant. Yet amidst this is the view of tsunami damaged businesses, including one with a sign saying 'open year-round.'  A Family Mart has been abandoned, its fully stocked shelves visible through the windows.  At a Lawson's a block away, it is business as usual.  

One entire shopping plaza has been barricaded, and policemen stand at the turn-offs to residential areas, both to deter looters I suppose.  Police cars slowly cruise other roads off in the distance.  Here and there are signs warning us of cows or other livestock suddenly entering the road.  The town hall has a large sign offering free radiation screenings.

I plan to turn around well before this.  I will drive right up to the barricade, manned or unmanned, telling me that all beyond was unsafe and off-limits.   That is how I have already scripted the true end to this journey. 

And I'm wondering just where this checkpoint is going to pop up, when I notice the name Fukushima Daiichi Reactor slide into the corner of the car's GPS.   Then the towers themselves well up out of the grey mist.  My heart, already wary and nervous, nearly stops.  I calm myself somewhat in remembering the article about the bus services that recommenced just three weeks before. (What I hadn't known was that this Route 6 had reopened to all thru-traffic last September.)  Riders were expected to receive 1.2 microsieverts per trip, which is what I assumed I now got.  To put it into perspective, I received a hundred times that dose when I flew from Tokyo to New York last autumn.  At any rate, a quick check of the Geiger counter back at my hotel later proved to read far less. 

But I didn't know that at the time.  I wheel the car around as quickly as possible, using the main driveway that leads down to the stricken plant.  The snow begins to fall thickly and softly upon my windshield, blurring somewhat the view of the guardman waving his baton, the diners happily munching away in the restaurant, and other scenes in what is now the new normal.  

On the turntable:   "Martin Scorsese Presents Jazz"

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Looking for the 'There' There Pt. V

There had been no initial clue as to why the train had been delayed.  After a half-hearted attempt at hitching, I found a taxi driver willing to take me to Morioka.  It was along the way that I learned about the earthquake.  And as my Shinkansen sped its way south, I learned of the tsunami, which at a mere ten centimeters lapped at a pair of harbor towns that had been scoured from existence nearly four years before.

How ironic than that I have chosen this day to continue the walk of the Tohoku coast that I had begun in June.   Due to some incorrect bus information, I wind up in another taxi, headed out to the small village of Onnagawa, nestled between a long low valley and an extremely craggy coast.  Berms are being built up along the former, which I presume had held most of the homes of the inhabitants.  Those who survived are being housed in a long row of shelters that must hold a hundred households, the sounds of which carry out over the rice fields that had for centuries heard little more than the hushed whisper of rice stalks. 

My driver tells me that this cab is one of eight donated to Ishinomaki by Okayama Prefecture.  When I had entered the taxi, he asked why I wished to go out to Onnagawa.  Last summer I had been too sheepish and ashamed to tell people why I was doing this walk, but today I apologetically confess that I am thinking about writing a book about the region's reconstruction.  So he drives slowly and thoughtfully, narrating along the way.  Where all I see is empty expanse stretching toward the east, he sees six decades of memory.   The pair of schools, the shops, the neighborhoods, all peopled by those now gone elsewhere.  I don't have the nerve to ask his story.  I don't dare.    

As we drive, I keep changing my destination. Part of the reason is that it has begun to rain, which had been a constant during those few days I'd spent walking in Iwate.  It seems fitting somehow.   And I'm again beginning to question my motives for coming.  Somewhere between last summer and today, I no longer remember the point.  

So I ride on, both road sides empty and green; the right side all neat rows of stubbled rice paddies, the left a twist of weeds and the odd squared foundation.  Will anyone ever return to claim this land?  

I arrive finally at a train station, serviced only by a few buses daily.  We parallel the rail line, past the air base that is the home to Japan's Blue Impulse air demonstration team, their bright and shiny machines parked atop high berms of their own.  On the outskirts of town, I see a handful of men squatting atop a new bridge, putting the finishing touches on the Senseki Line which is due to reopen this spring.  All the new concrete hints at the ferocity of the water that had moved through here, shifting these enormous heavy slabs.  This long low valley must have served as a funnel, for as at Onnagawa, I saw most of the damage in such a terrain.  And as the introduction of the locomotive helped assert over man the importance of clock time, so do these railway workers endure in their metaphoric turning back of the clock's hands.
I get off the bus in Matsushima.  I've guided here numerous times so give the town a miss, but do want to visit Oshima, whose old bridge had washed away, severing the historic link to the poet Basho and the generations of monks who'd confronted life's mysteries in the caves that pockmark the island.  A newly built bridge leads the way. Below me, tour boats trudge up and back, up and back, sluggishly feigning enthusiasm on such a cold wet day.  

I too drag myself toward Shiogama.  This was a particularly nasty piece of road, devoid of any sidewalk or shoulder to protect me from the barrage of trucks racing past.  I could completely understand why Basho had chosen to skip this stage and instead take the boat.  The hissing wake of passing vehicles sweeps me monotonously to a small train platform, and here I will quit for the day.   I've walked most of this next section between here and Tagajo, and less a reprieve for the feet as for the enthusiasm, which never showed up today. 

In yet another taxi the following morning in Tagajo.  Out amongst the hills to the west lies the ruins of what had once served as a sort of northern capital during the Nara period.  Not far away is another row of shelters.  One spring afternoon last year, the sight of a young girl my daughter's age playing amongst them brought tears, as I thought of the lost promise of what could of been. 

Aside from that I see no apparent damage nor reminder of the tsunami, though I know that this town had a significant loss of life.  And again I ride on, ride on, repeated my mantra of "Further, further," like one of Ken Kesey's somnambulic Pranksters.  The continuously poor weather conspires.  My heart is no longer in this walk.

I get out beside Sendai Airport.  Beside it, they are building a park called a Thousand Years of Hope.  They've actually created two hilly berms that resemble the ancient burial mounds of that aforementioned Nara period, upon which people are encouraged to come and watch the project.  These same mounds also serves as evacuation zones built as they are, ten meters high. 

And here beyond them are the new graves shiny and black, tucked into the corner of a large empty space.  This is the third time in two days that I've encountered this.  On what had once been a tidy suburban community, there was now only similarly aligned black stones.  I normally leave them alone, but today I feel I want to pay my respects. Each stone was not for a single person, but for an entire family, all born over a span of decades. And upon a few, rather than surnames, I find sentiment etched in marble: "Hope,"  or  "Souls united for eternity." Most painful are the graves of the children, so many, so many.  And the tears fall again, washed immediately away by the rain.  

And suddenly I'm angry.  What is being done in the memory of these people?  Each stone has been dedicated by a surviving family member, but what is being done for them?  Where are the rebuilt communities, the promise of a new start?  Where can it be found beneath all the talk of the Olympics, of Abenomics, of taking tougher stances against China,  terrorists, or even against a world demanding accountability for wartime 'improprieties,'  for the erosion of a free press, and for nuclear reactors still out of control.  I usually consider myself somewhat pragmatic on the latter topic, but now all I feel is that any talk of reactor restarts is an insult to the memory to these people lying here, and an even greater insult to those displaced nuclear refugees who face the far bigger challenge of living on.  I want to ask these men in government, "Mr. Abe, I know you've visited these stricken communities as a politician, but have you ever once come as a human being?"

My heart is no longer in this walk because my heart is breaking.

And my anger stays with me, as the diggers continue to scrape away at the land.  The question is "What have they been doing all this time," as even this particular project didn't get started until last September.  I'm sure there must be a good reason for the delay.  I know that it has nothing to do with these workmen who have been suffering the elements of various seasons.  But I want someone to explain to me, why has nothing been done out here for the last four years?

And with that, I'm done.  There are no answers here, nothing left to seek. 

But there is still one place left to see...

On the turntable:  "The Complete Stax"
On the nighttable:  Kyūya Fukada, "One Hundred Mountains (Martin Hood, trans.)"

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Papers: John Berger

"True translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal."

On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Hungarian Gypsies"