Tuesday, September 09, 2014
I could barely open my eyes, which was a surprise since they'd rarely closed all night. I had slept in one of Japan's notoriously overcrowded mountain huts, forced to share a futon with a friendly man from Kyoto who had told me at dinner that he was a student of Sekishu-ryu, an old style of the tea ceremony usually reserved for the samurai. The futon was wedged between a small area enclosed by 2x4's, which were about 5 cm too short for me. I could extend my legs slightly into the next chamber, but as we were all sleeping head-to-foot, occasionally someone on the other side would give my feet a good kick. So I was forced to curl on my side in the fetal position, but within ten minutes the sembe-buton (thin as a rice cracker) would bring about an ache in the hips. I'd find relief by getting up and walking to the end of the corridor and looking down at the lights of Gotemba far far below. The rains had finally cleared.
And the early morning was gorgeous. The sun was coming through a thin veil of fog that had gotten itself hung up on the sharp edge of the volcanic cone. The sky went black to violet to blue in what felt like minutes, nothing between it and us at this altitude. Low vegetation glowed gold in the new light, brilliant against the deep black of the wet volcanic rock from which it stubbornly burst. There was a lot more vegetation here on the Fuji's southern slope, far more than I remembered from my previous clamber up the Yoshida trail on the opposite side.
Our party moved upward, ever so slowly. Nishimura-san told us that he wanted to keep the pace slow so as to keep us from sweating in the cold of morning. From the 6th Station it normally takes 3 1/2 hours to the top, but our group took ninety minutes longer. As it was, I never once felt out of breath, never felt like I was laboring at all. The physical difficulties of the previous day had vanished with the rains. A few people mentioned symptoms of a mild altitude sickness, but as for me, I was simply out for a stroll, up Japan's highest mountain.
We were instructed to greet other hikers with a hearty, "Yo Mairi!" or "Happy pilgrimage". Most who were greeted this way seemed puzzled, and after they heard the words come from my mouth, they'd mistakenly repeat what they'd heard as "Good Morning!" Due to the early hour, most we encountered were returning from a night spent in one of the huts. All looked exhausted and had no doubt faced worse weather than we had. But the reward was in the views, stretching from the glittering glass of Yokohama and Tokyo to the north, and well past Shizuoka to the south. The entire length of the Izu peninsula was visible below, pointing its knobby finger out toward the land of my birth. Around the peninsula, the sea was a slightly different color, due to the extreme depth of Suruga Bay, one of the deepest in the world. At each hut we'd stop awhile to take in the view growing ever more panoramic. One of my companions joked that a climber usually looks for views of Fuji while hiking, but today, Fuji offered views of everything else.
We also made a few of the usual stops at some of the spiritually important sites on the mountain -- little clefts in the rocks stuffed with coins or other offerings, or the odd statue tucked into a fold in the lava. At the Ninth Station we stopped to offer kaji to the staff there, one a woman who looked almost Tibetan with her tanned face and long unkept hair. Beyond this, the horagai began to bellow, and Shunken-Sensei started us in a round of "Sange sange" which we kept up all the way to the summit. Looking up, I could see a number of heads looking down, wondering at this wave of sound rolling up toward them.
Fujinomiya Shrine was under major reconstruction, so we walked further around the crater for our goma ceremony. Before a small gathering of decapitated stone statues, the yamabushi sat in a row, while Shunken-Sensei led the chants as he did a variety of things with his hands, before tossing items into the fire burning before him. The chanting sounded almost Tibetan to me, and it was at that moment that I realized that I was sitting atop a landmass not only incredibly high, but one incredibly old. The atmosphere was timeless, a sense of being on the top of the world here. No vegetation, no life, but a feeling of place very very ancient. Just as the chanting finished a plane flew over, a bird of war, bringing with it a bit of irony since we'd just been chanting for world peace.
Nowhere to go but up. A handful of us pushed up the pile of ash that had built up to form the true summit. In the shadow of the abandoned weather station was a tall man-made stele that marked the peak. We walked past a group of young climbers flashing peace signs for photographs to climb up a crest of volcanic rock that stood a few meters higher. Above this was nothing more.
Nowhere to go but down. We descended via the Gotemba route, following in my own footsteps from 1995. This is one of the least used of Fuji's paths and it showed. Most of the huts we passed were mere ruins of weathered wood, though they had probably been in use on my previous descent. Tall piles of rocks had been piled before their front doors, a defiant means of preventing free accommodation. No real surprise here as the majority of the staff of mountain huts in Japan are blatantly mean-spirited. Shinier new huts composed of a stronger building material stood not far off in the dust. In front of one, a young woman clad in fleece threw wood and paper upon a fire in some sort of goma of her own.
Below the Seventh Station, the trail became a straight track of loose earth, of a steepness that pulled the body forward. Some of the older members of our group had an uncomfortable look on their faces, but the majority of us laughed as our footfalls increased in tempo and were soon in full cantor. I did a few small jumps as if I were skiing moguls, my feet sliding sideways across the ashen powder.
Our trail continued past the pimple on Fuji's eastern flank: Hōei-zan, a volcanic vent that had blown open in the mountain's most recent eruption in 1707. My nose was running slightly from all the ash being kicked up, and as the clouds closed in on us, the world became dim and grey.
Then, just above us at a junction came the fuzzy outline of a yamabushi, dully silhouetted against the mist, hands clasped in prayer before her. It was the calm woman who had showed up yesterday, yet had opted out of the ascent itself. I felt relieved, knowing that just beyond her was the ephemeral world of buses and beers and baths. But the sight of this figure standing on the edge of the slope was a vision of timelessness, of mountains waltzing across the eons, and the sense of awe that continues to pull us into the dance.
On the turntable: Freddie Hubbard, "The Blue Note Years"
On the nighttable: Jordan Sand, "Tokyo Vernacular"
Sunday, September 07, 2014
Saturday, September 06, 2014
Nishimura-san looked exhausted. He had only gotten four hours of sleep over the last two nights, busy in wearing two hats, that of the organizer and guide of this event, and as a local yamabushi. The true leader today was supposed to have been Hatakehori-sensei, whose study of this Murayama Kōdō and subsequent book had led to this event being organized three years before. While Sensei was ostensibly the leader of this Fuji Mine Iri Shūgyō climb, his back had been acting up so he had been forced to bow out. This left poor Nishimura-san to do the heavy lifting.
But he knew the route well, having worked quite hard to restore signage and explanatory signs in order to resuscitate this, the oldest of Fuji's hiking paths, with roots going back to the Heian period. And his efforts seemed to be paying off. With Hatakehori as the brains, and Nishimura as the muscle, Shogo-in's Shunken-Sensei was the heart. A surprisingly young man for such a high position, he felt that it was important to restore the yamabushi to their rightful relationship with the mountain, as the yamabushi were the only ones who had climbed the peak in the old days. Fuji's recent addition to the World Heritage list had been awarded for the mountain's cultural importance, and it was the yamabushi who had crafted that culture in the first place. This particular event appeared to be effective PR, as the crowds who came out to be blessed increased year to year.
Unlike Nishimura-san, I had slept quite well, a surprise since I was sharing a large open room with close to twenty snoring men. Upon arrival the previous evening, I smiled when I found myself back at Jumbo, in whose courtyard I had taken a brief catnap last November. When the lights came on at 4 a.m., I snuck down to a lukewarm bath for a quick dip, then grabbed a restorative coffee from the machine out front. This would have to keep me until breakfast four hours further on.
Our numbers were half what they had been the day before, as most had taken the one-day option. Headlamps attached, we remaining twenty immediately entered the forest, leaving behind the camera toting passersby who the previous day had been quick to snap a photo of our procession with their phones, a device that serves as physical manifestation of the old proverb "ichigo ichie." These days, not a single moment of life is beyond capture.
Due to the early hour the great horagai conches were silent, and the only sounds to be heard was the crackling of the tall electrical towers at the edge of the village. As the land sloped upward, we moved into the gullies carved out by a thousand years of human feet. As this trail had been somewhat dormant over the last century, the more recent carving had been undertaken by water, eventually making for a rougher, more difficult passage. To avoid this, a newer trail had been tramped into the berm above, and as we walked it I looked down into the black earth of the gully, hearing the voice of Sting in my head repeating again and again that we "work the black seam together."
This new trail was well kept, and Nishikawa-san continually stopped to point out sections of more recent work that he had been personally involved in, most of these for the prevention of erosion. The Japanese are fantastic at building trails, but not always so good at their upkeep, the result being that they are left alone to erode and wash away. Nishimura also spent a good deal of time pointing at certain rocks and strata. Any discussion of Fuji inevitably involves geology.
There was an obvious absence of fauna, but the flora was magnificent: great swatches of ferns erupting upward as one; the bright green of moss softening the tone of the black, hard, volcanic rock. In a demonstration of the irony of nature, the most fertile stretches of moss were found just above the Nyonindō women's hall, which had once served as the upper limits that that gender could proceed. All that was left here now was a small clearing where the hall had once stood, the trees before it purposefully kept low so as to offer a view of the sacred peak.
Somewhere around lunchtime, the rains began, which didn't cease until the following morning. This dense forest offered some respite, but after an hour or so my energy began to wane. We were attempting a 2000 meter elevation gain, which Hatakehori-san had claimed is the most possible in any single day climb anywhere in Japan. (Though I silently and respectfully disagreed, as I had ascended over 2300 meters when I had hiked Fuji back in 1995.) But more than the climb, it was the conditions that were taxing. When given the option, nine of our group had opted to quit early and walk up a perpendicular road to a bus stop. One of these was a yamabushi would had been suffering terrible blisters due to attempting the ascent in waraji sandals bound in plastic string rather than the traditional straw. How foolish, I thought, not to look after yourself and allow a macho sense of pride to overshadow self-preservation. As someone who guides in the mountains, I am quite unforgiving of this type of folly, which puts not only oneself but others at risk.
The rest of us carried on. One man came around and offered us sweets, an act that is almost a Japanese cultural trait by now: When the going gets tough, the candy comes out. Perhaps the sugar had fueled a certain giddiness amongst the yamabushi, who would happily clamored up ropes, or run up the steeper embankments. If one of them performed an act in a particularly cool and dexterous manner, he'd be told by the others that he "looks like En," refering to En-no-Gyoja, founder of the Shugendō sect in the 7th Century.
The rest of us weren't feeling so spry. To spur us on, Shunken-sensei started up the call-and-response chant familiar to all sects of Shungendō. His voice was powerful, touched with a resonance that hinted at a beautiful singing voice. But his melodic calls of "Sange sange!" began eventually to sound like "Sunday, Sunday," and coupled with the rain became to me "Gloomy Sunday," and we all know what that leads to. My mood bottomed out during one steep section of trail that had been partially blocked by dozens of fallen trees, which required a lot of physically-taxing over and under, my backpack often snagging these trunks to bring down a sudden cascade of rain. As I looked at the Montbell pack of the guy in front of me, with its brand name of "Zero Point," I thought, "Yep, there is no real point in this, is there?"
But the wet fecund forest itself offered resurrection, as did the broad meadow filled with wildflowers. Here and there too were little Jizo statues poking their heads out from the undergrowth to spur us on. At the height of the early Meiji period anti-Buddhist backlash, all of the little figures on the mountain had been decapitated. Nishimura-san told us that written records gave the numbers of statues that had once been along the trail, and he personally had spent many an afternoon poking through the brush, trying to find their little bodies. Many still remain missing. He also told us a humorous anecdote about how one- and ten-yen offerings tend to stay in front of the statues, but that one-hundred yen coins are usually carried off.
After twelve full hours, we finally arrived at the 6th Station Hōei mountain hut, our digs for the night. Wet layers thus removed, the beer began to flow, and soon a party-like atmosphere overtook the hut. A couple of new yamabushi turned up, including one middle-aged woman who carried a demeanor of calm solidity. The monks all drank and dined together, but one of them came over to our small table of four, and talked a great deal about the sect. It was a pleasant night, and despite the 10 km and 2000 meters of constant up, my legs felt fine enough to sit cross-legged at the table. But bedtime came quite soon...
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Nigeria and Ghana"
Friday, September 05, 2014
Left leg bent at the knee, I leaned out over the abyss. Beneath, all was calm and cold, but should the dry rocks begin to heat up and liquify, more was at stake than my mere toppling forward and down. It would mean the evacuation of the 750,000 people who live and work at the foot of this colossal mountain.
The road here began two days before. I had met an assembled group of 40 souls at Fuji City's Kinomoto Shrine, who would follow nine yamabushi up to the summit from the shores of nearby Suruga Bay. The leader led us to those waters on horseback, beneath the shade of pines bent from decades of winters, then up and over a concrete embankment and onto the stone-laden beach of Tago-no-ura. Here the yamabushi stripped down to their fundoshi and immersed themselves to their waists, hands clasped before them in prayer. I was playfully invited to join them, but merely rolled my pant-legs as high as they would go and walked into the sea. The water wasn't very cold, but as each wave struck my legs it would splash upward, until I found myself quite wet anyway. The chanting finished, the yamabushi lowered themselves up to their necks in the water, as a passing fishing boat rolled its wake toward them. Peering up from over the strand of pines behind, the great mountain made no comment.
Before leaving the beach, I picked up a smooth stone and put it into my pack, intending to place it atop Fuji's peak. We moved along the concrete embankment, sections of which were being shored up in order to protect the homes here from future tsunamis. We weaved between these homes, arriving eventually at a Fujizuka that mimicked the mountain rising directly behind this man-made summit.
The yamabushi chanted to both, before turning to bless the locals standing nearby. Known as kaji, these rituals involved the head yamabushi stepping over children who were sprawled atop a tarp covering the ground. (Ironic how they were not allowed to lie directly atop the dirt beneath, considering that the entire belief system of the yamabushi and the Shugendō sect is about finding mindfulness and enlightenment within nature.) The kids looked at the yamabushi with a mixture of fascination and horror, and I could imagine that in the old days, parents had threatened naughty children with being snatched by these mountain monks if they misbehaved. The adults lined up next, and to the collective accompanying chants, the head priest rubbed his staff twice down their backs before laying it along the length of the spine and giving it a gentle push.
As we made our way through the city, the kaji was repeated at least a half dozen more times, occasionally at shrines, but more often along one of the city's main streets. Traditionally, the yamabushi have come from the ranks of the ordinary folk in Japan, and in these rituals, this connection was still apparent. As the monks went through their routine, the rest of us chanted the Heart Sutra along with them, or received tea and snacks as settai. As I was the only foreign participant, I received only slightly less attention than the sight of a yamabushi proudly riding through town on horseback. At every stop, someone would come over to get my story.
If I had been honest, I would have mentioned sore feet and a restless mind. When I do my own 'road work' I will rely on the iPod to get me through all the monotonous industry and traffic pushing in too closely. Today, I heard only the rhythm of feet, the jingling of bells. The pace of the group was much slower than what I would have done, and my knees ached from a stride half of what it should be, which meant of course that I took twice the number of steps. Alone, I probably would have covered the 20km by 1 pm. As a group, we finished after 6.
We spent the better part of the morning weaving our way through Fuji City. If you've ever taken the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, you know Fuji City. It's the place that ruins any decent photographs of the mountain itself, a place filled with ugly apartment blocks and tall smokestacks striped red and white. At some point we crossed the Tokaidō again, turning right and directing ourselves straight toward the mountain, a trajectory that we'd hold for the next two days. Along the way, we made a short stop at a lesser Sengen shrine on the edge of town (Sengen shrines being dedicated to the Goddess of Fuji). Here I stood in the heat of midday, listening to the prayers harmonize with the voices of late season cicada, chanted by a very old priest with a very limber back.
As the day wore on, we moved beyond the suburbs and into a series of smaller villages surrounded by wide tea plantations, walking single file, our party being a few legs shy of being a centipede. Our last prayer stop for the day was at Jirocho-cho, named for the famous late Edo period yakuza Shimizu no Jirocho, who had been active in this area. The subject of over 100 films, this Japanese Robin Hood eventually went on to become a police officer for the new Meiji government, and allegedly served as a bodyguard for the equally legendary Yamaoka Tesshū.
Full up on watermelon and boiled peanuts, we climbed through patches of forest that served as the borders of rice fields. At the corner of one field, was a small shrine that looked like a thatch cabin, above which hung tall poles of bamboo, the lair of the water god, greatly honored in this landscape of steep lava-carved slopes which pose tricky challenges to irrigation.
And finally then to Maruyama Sengen Jinja, as both the sun and the rain began to fall. I had visited this shrine during my circumambulation of Fuji last autumn, and had been awed by its proud trees and beautiful old statues. There were a handful in a lesser hall that I hadn't seen, exposed now to hear the final chants of the day...
On the turntable: "Only 2 Degrees of Separation"
On the nighttable: Stephen Mansfield, "Tokyo: A Cultural and Literary History"
Sunday, August 31, 2014
"The New York Times and Huffington Post represent so-called 'responsible journalism.' That means that they are practiced in the art of writing lurid allegations in such a way as to seem tasteful while still pushing all the same emotional hot buttons that writers for the New York Post or the Sun push far less pretentiously."
On the turntable: "Cafe Del Mar, The 20th Anniversary"
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Saturday, August 23, 2014
Standing before the concrete water basin, I am suddenly enshrouded in white. As I was undergoing my water purification before entering Kashihara Jingu, a group of about two dozen priests surround me, and begin to go through their own ablutions. Slightly intimidated, I move away from them, over the raked gravel that covers this wide open space. In shrines of this scale, the sense of airiness always feels that the whole place will take flight. Perhaps the stone covering the grounds is a way to tether it to the earth.
In entering the shrine, I have left the Shimotsumichi, one of the three old roads that had once led to the Heijō palace from the south. This palace was the home of the Imperial court during the Nara period, which lasted for the majority of the 8th Century, a time when that city was considered the true end of the Silk Road, its treasures having been filtered through the parallel palaces of the T'ang.
I allow my detour to continue, swinging widely to the east, in order to visit the site of the old Fujiwara palace that preceded Heijō as the capital, though for a mere 16 years. This site served as both a physical and temporal transition from the earlier Asuka capital a short walk south. I love this area, so rich in history, so fertile and broad in the never-ending rice paddies and the tell-tale tufts of forest that mark the eternal resting places of Imperials dead for over a millennium. This Fujiwara-kyō is simply massive, taking me a good half and hour to cross, passing dozens of two-meter high pillars laid out in parallel rows here and there across the plain. Marking the locations of ancient buildings, I lean on what I expect to be wood, but find to be instead some spongy synthetic material. The color is similar to my T-shirt, which had been orange when I put it on at dawn, but is by now sweat-soaked to a dull ochre.
Heading west brings me to Ofusa Kannon-ji temple, its courtyard filled with roses. Above, hundreds of glass wind chimes have been hung. In summer, the Japanese believe that a wind chime helps to cool the body, since the sound of striker on glass is the sound of the movement of wind. As I pass beneath however, the breeze stirs up not a delicate jingle but a cacophony of a fully-loaded tray dropped in a restaurant.
Back to the old road proper, narrow and lined with old wooden structures. A pair of old men hang paper lanterns over the road, the sign of an impending festival. I'm on the outskirts of Yamato Yagi, a town famed for its preserved look. Unlike the broader streets of the later Edo period post-town, these older lanes are far narrower, the structures darker and less earthen. At the crossroads of the equally old Yokōji road, a man beckons me into what had once been an old inn and is now a very simple history museum. The caretaker is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but all too often his enthusiasm turns to me and just how remarkably foreign I am. I have complained about this in the past, where I want to have an intelligent conversation about history and culture, yet the other party can't see past my eye-color and the unique structure of my nose. I can understand the natural curiosity about 'other,' I mean, at this very moment I am seeking out that which is particularly Japanese. But after a few basic polite questions, it is nice to move on.
So I do. Beyond the train station, the town becomes yet another suburb, and beyond this I follow a small river. I love Nara for its water. Steams cross and recross, leading to and from what must be hundreds of small lakes and ponds that dot this entire basin. I am accompanied by water the rest of the day. The river here is alive and healthy, filled with fish and turtles and cormorants. The lower tree branches on the far bank are bedecked with trash and debris, compliments of a pair of powerful storms that roared through the Kansai during the past two weeks. The pillars of bridges are similarly tangled with a snarl of reeds and tree limbs.
And so it goes for the next six hours. Where the earlier part of the day had been a delightful stroll along the cusp of history, the rest of it is spent atop a berm, with water ever to my right, houses representing a half-dozen different generations to my left. On such a hot day, the water should be inviting, but factory after factory shadow the canals on the far bank. I get a short reprieve in the form of a small village completely surrounded by moats like a medieval European town, but here too the water is a suspicious hue.
At this point, I am puzzled as to why the maker of the map I am following chooses to send me to the west, rather than on the due-north trajectory that would take me directly to the main gate of Heijō palace. Later at home, as I look at Google Street View to see what I missed, I notice that he did me a favor in detouring me off a narrow, busy road with no apparent shoulder. Instead, I walk the bank of a much wider river, all the way into Nara proper. Along the way, I find a mystery. Six stone Jizo statues are lined up nearly behind a tree, but behind them is what looks like a cemetery, though devoid of all grave markers. Even odder is that each grave looks freshly dug, these symmetrical little piles of earth topped with a pair of tubes meant to hold flowers. I wonder if the people at rest here have been recently moved, their old plots now earmarked for some construction project. As we have just passed the Obon holiday, I further wonder if the souls of these people had been able to find the way to their new home.
Further on still, I come to a small park that supposedly contains a marker for the palace's old gate. The park is overgrown and unkept, and amidst the high grass I see only a few stones written with poetry. Yet upon one has been carved the illegible, flowing grass-style Chinese characters that may be commemorating the old gate. Sharing the name with its better known descendant in Kyoto, the Rashomon here is as equally absent as the newer one about which the film was made. And where Kyoto's grand old Suzuku boulevard now goes by the name of Senbon-dōri, here, what had once been the palace's main thoroughfare is now a canal that carries away what the modern city of Nara now longer needs, serving as an ironic metaphor to Japan's relationship with its own history.
On the turntable: "Rhythmes et Melodies de L'Inde Classique"
On the nighttable: Donna Henes, "The Moon Watcher's Companion"