Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thru the Ages...

I step out onto the street and head in the direction of Miki, who's waiting with her chai at Starbucks. Iggy's on the ipod, and the music triggers a lengthening in my groins muscles, the usual preparation to strut. However this day on Karasuma, I'm blocked by a wall of uniformed adolescents, dilly-dallying, だらだら-ing in my way. Doin' the schoolkid shuffle. Miki believes this is due to weak abs. You can see it on the trains in the slouch and the curved backs, as if their bodies were designed by Dali. (Dilly-Dali?)

Miki and I had thought about taking a train down to Kyoto Station, but it doesn't look too far. In today's post-rain light, it looks to be hovering over the end of the boulevard like the Mothership . Once there, we find the building's subterranean arcades packed with the next demographic, marriage-able girls bucking the system with their other unmarried friends, looking for a lunchtime table under which to let down their heavy shopping bags.

South of the station, we jump a generation, finding the old-timers watching the world pass-by, through the dual fogs of memory and a liquid-humid afternoon. They're in the parks around the ruins of Rajomon and Saiji, their rigid figures sitting near rigid stele which mark time in their own ways. A large cluster of the elderly can be found at a gateball tourney just north of the tracks where Bullet Trains fly past with no time for ruminations.

A generation down, the middle-agers are at the other end of Umekoji Park, gathered for a Bike Rally. They drink beer from plastic cups while walking around the hundreds of bikes proudly lined up for inspection by these enthusiasts. These aren't Harleys, or even bemirrored Vespas (which would allow my own participation). No, these men are Honda SuperCub enthusiasts, eyeballing the svelte bodies of these mini machines and taking notes on little pads. Each Cub has a numbered tag like a bizarre sort of beauty contest. I wonder how many of these guys are postmen in the real world.

We move north, following a map from the Heian period, seeking out more stele that demark where the ancient regal chosen few slept and had their cups, with little apparent concern beyond the current phase of moon and turn of phrase best used to capture it. On any given day, we probably pass a dozen of these markers, but today we stop and fill up on history. At the northern apex of our route, we find the Heian Period Museum. Its presence seems to be a conciliatory gesture to angered locals, since the office building which houses it is built on palace ruins. Inside is an impressively massive model of the city, around whose perimeter we walk, looking for familiar spots. And, as I'm sure everyone else does, we look for where our house now stands. I'm especially impressed by the display of earthen strata from a nearby dig. Working our way down from our modern detritus, we pass through historical periods marked by soil of different shades, coming finally to a point before man's footprints began to leave impressions, and such measures of time didn't exist anyway. On the wall nearby are a few scroll paintings, showing time not marked but time wiled away. While I've often seen paintings of the cushy Floating World, today I find my first representation of the lives of the people outside Heian's walls, whose taxes made it all possible. Back on the streets, we continue our meander amongst their descendants...

On the turntable: Count Basie, "Atomic Swing"

On the nighttable: David Geraghty, "A Snake in the Shrine"

On the reel table: "Uwasa no Onna" (Mizoguchi, 1954)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cows Coming Home to Roost

My martial arts training predates my yoga practice. In fact, I started the latter because I found that Japanese budo training doesn't have much in the way of warm-ups. (The strong emphasis on stretching in US dojos I figure to be more about liability than flexibility.) After I began teaching yoga 4 years ago, I found myself growing worried about injury. My budo training has thereafter suffered, being too afraid to really put myself out there. This anxiety about injury has become self-perpetuating. A couple years ago, I began to feel a twinge in my right elbow, ironically caused by yoga, albeit in the Extreme Sport Style of Ashtanga, as taught in Japan, usually by former fitness instructors who get their "license" after a mere 2 week course, with their knowledge of the body seeming to go no further than "heads, shoulders, knees, and toes." (Knees and toes.) The elbow had been fine awhile, but around Golden Week I began to feel the twinge again. So I gave myself a couple weeks off before going back up to Takeuchi. And of course, I badly injured it on the very first technique, within minutes of arriving at the dojo. Then I wisely continued to train for 2 more hours, feeling the hyper-extension getting more and more hyperer. The next day, I felt like lead weights were hanging off my arm, with a decrease in mobility of about 20%. Well done. This further feeds the fear. I love budo, and my move to the Kyo was initiated by the chance to train here. But the nagging voice in my head has grown more confident. Can I train in a way that avoids injury and still allows me to teach? Or are the two mutually exclusive? As my odometer rolls toward my 41st birthday, my doubt grows.

I did teach this week, but badly. Murphy with his damned Law brought many beginners around this week, so I was forced to demo some pretty flaccid poses. I need to keep healthy. I have begun to teach more around town, and am bringing a couple big guns to Kansai for workshops. Plus Shugendo training season is coming soon. I give myself 6 weeks off from Takeuchi, though I'll try to at least watch practice, keep my feet wet...

Bizarrely, in the days following the injury, mukade began to show up in the house again. (For any yoga students reading this: Remember, this blog is my writing practice, and that last sentence was pure fiction. So please, enjoy that savasana.) One was trying to blend with the sofa, Ninja-style. I didn't want to kill him, so I rigged a mukade catcher (co-designed by W.E. Coyote and the Acme Corporation) consisting of Tupperware, a newspaper, and a tea tray, then I introduced him to our neighbor's yard. The next day, another Ninja had shown great dedication by getting itself boiled alive in our bath. Within moments of this event, fate made me read that centipedes are messengers of Bishamon, the Japanese name for the god of warfare. Wondering if this was some portent regarding my elbow and training conundrum, a few days later we hiked out to the Bishamon Temple in Yamashina to see what he wanted. But the god was strangely silent. He did introduce us to a small figure in an adjacent shrine, that of a Fudo stature wrapped by a great white serpent. In many traditions, including Christian, snakes represent knowledge. (Cue Eve, Tree of Knowledge, apples, etc.) Fudo represents Immovability, Strong Intent. Fudo is the Japanese name for Acala, another Hindu figure, closely related to my Yoga name, "Tejas", meaning spiritual fire and intensity. A CLUE!. I have been quite heady lately, more into books and this Mac than much else. Has my quest for wisdom and ideas begun to constrict my body, snuffing out my desire to train and improve in both yoga and budo? Hmmm.

Walking back along the canal that runs between Biwa and the Nanzenji aqueduct, we see another snake on the high curved concrete embankment. We can't tell whether it was live or dead, but this snake doesn't seem appetizing to the kites above or to the feral cats who haunt these parts in great numbers. OK, I get it Mon. Knowledge is only so palatable to the cats who are more about instinct, or the kites who live by reflex and concentration. Feed the body. Feed the body.

But it still doesn't sink it fully. We leave the canal and climb up toward the crest of Higashiyama, to that place where 6 trails intersect like spokes on the Wheel of Dharma. I try to let memory lead me to the hilltop home where PsychoSanta now lives. It's been 6 months since we put him there. But my head fails me. I give over to the feet, which take us along deer trails and down a fun and hilarious descent to Oku-no-In. But the head's not down yet. It wants to go up to the Amaterasu's cave behind Himukai Jinja. Feet defiantly follows a narrow path between the aerials of new ferns and too a small cemetery, whose grumpy keeper we had the misfortune to meet a week before. We hop the fence and as we cross the unkept grounds, I wait for his voice to call out, "Chopper, sick balls!" The "Stand by Me" reference lingers as we walk the rails down toward Keage.

Body trumps head. Head tries to raise by writing this post. A lovely rain falls outside, lulling ears and eyes toward sleep. Head folds. Body rakes in the winnings...

On the turntable: Duke Ellington, "Centennial Edition"

On the nighttable: John Updike, "Your Lover Just Called"

On the reel table: "Songcatcher" (Maggie Greenwald, 2000)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Wishes. Horses.

If this were a humane world, China would cancel the Olympics and use the money to help its people.


On the turntable:  ...silence...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

On Gold Rails (pt 2)

Satisfied, we headed deeper still, to Miyama and the primeval forests of Ashiu. This area has been leased by Kyoto University since 1921, their forestry students living and studying up here. Another old unused small gauge rail line follows the Yura River deeper in deeper into the wild.

It took us a while getting up here. We'd boarded a bus from Demachi, packed with first year university students standing and yammering their way toward a party at some pork-barrel mountain lodge resort. Miki chatted with a 90-something man who was going mountain herb hunting despite his children's protests. My own neighbor was an old woman who was elated in her grandchild winning a Judo medal, now certain to represent the nation at this summer's Olympics. She narrated our passage through the northern part of the city, superimposing upon the modern blight a mental map of memory drawn more than half a century before. As her stories subsided, so did our forward motion. Somewhere in the curves above Kurama, a car had gone off the road, and own bus was too wide to get by. So we all got to unfold ourselves from our neighbors and pace the roadside awhile. Miki and I sat beside the streambank and laughed about how with the delays and overcrowding, this trip felt more like an Asian voyage than a Japanese one. After an hour we started again, the bus getting lighter and lighter the further north we went. For the last hour or so I daydreamed that I heard "Greensleeves" played over and over again.

The bus went no further than Hirokawara, so we grabbed our packs and set off up the road. It was a long slog up a narrow switchback road, us sweaty and weary on the hot asphalt. We had a couple more clicks to the trailhead, but got lucky in hitching a ride with a young business-type who'd left Nagoya that morning with hopes of getting to the sea by nightfall. Happy to finally get on the trail, we walked along the ridge, the steady increase in height bringing more mountains into sight. The trail then cut down a hillside so steep that it was tough to keep a steady footing. Halfway down, one of my (Platypus) water bags decided it could take no more, and hurled itself into the gravity. I stood slack-jawed as I watch a quarter of our water supply somersault down toward a stream far below, giving off a catherine wheel of water every time it came into contact with the forest floor. More impressive was how it came to rest nearly on the trail again. (Well, they do say that water always takes the quickest way down.) We eventually made it to the stream which we then followed toward the river beyond. Winter had been brutal here. This narrow valley was littered with boulders and trees, making it now impossible to find the trail. Half of the trail markers were on fallen trees, and so many others were marked with tape that the forest looked like a zebra. We followed a narrow path which climbed again. Hairy in parts, it finally got us to the river and a grove of cedars. We needed no more incentive to camp; we'd only been going a few hours but the descent left us spent. We sat on a narrow patch of earth where the stream met the Yura, watching the sun drop behind the ridge and the forest slowly lose its shape.

I hadn't slept too well. This area was infamous for both vipers and bears. I could swear I heard the sound of the stream change, as if something momentarily blocked its path. Miki made tea and I cut bread. The soft morning light played off the river in front of us. We stayed until it was time to leave. We followed the rail line proper now, keeping a pretty consistent height above the river. Where the streams ran down to join the river brought hazards in the form of bridges in various states of disintegration. I usually find great joy in the fact that nature always trumps the things made by man. But myself being man made, I found this less than heartening today, as the bridges swayed beneath every step. A couple had been lost entirely. After an mere hour's walk, we came to one that I just couldn't go over. The older(!) bridge crumbled into space, but portions had been lashed to a couple of logs that were crossed by wooden footholds, the whole thing tied to the crumbly rock cliff by wires. This newer bridge had once had six support beams, but five of them were visible on the rocks 15 meters below. The sole remaining beam was listing into the void. A sign had warned that the crossing was impossible, but we tried anyway. Miki went a few steps out and came back. I went maybe two, then panic overtook me. Even without backpacks, I couldn't do it. Leaving our packs on the trail, we went down to the river, trying to find another way across, but were afraid of getting off trail too much, especially in an area as wild as this. There was simply no way to get those packs across. Back up on the trail we sat deliberating for a long time. Just as we decided that it was humanly impossible to proceed, a man in his 50s came up. We told him the situation, and he agreed that the bridge's condition was worse than when he'd come a few years ago. We watched him crawl partway out on all fours, then come back. He said that yeah, with our packs he wouldn't do it, then he turned and literally strode across, impervious to the wobbling below his boots.

Dejected, we walked back toward Ashiu. I wish we'd never met that guy, and could be safe in our illusion that no one would have made it over. I had been concerned with bears or snakes, but what had really done me in was my own fear. Sure, our decision to give up was prudent, but this was the first time I'd given up on something because I was afraid. My taste of my pride as it slid down my throat was bitter.

From Ashiu it was easy to hitch a ride out. We took a series of rides south, occasionally getting out to walk through the countryside sunshine awhile. We had the our lunch in the shade of a small shrine on a hill beside the road. From far off, I again heard the ghost music playing "Greensleeves." Miki told me that out here, the buses played music loudly so that people could come out and flag a ride. The bus we'd ridden the day before had indeed had music. All along I'd thought it was somebody's cellphone, ringing and ringing and ringing...

Our last ride was with an ancient couple with poor hearing. Miki complemented the driver on his keen ability to negotiate the winding road, as he sped far too fast through turns. What Miki took for confidence, I saw as fear, a mad dash toward the safety of straight roads. And she continued to praise this old guy, who was totally oblivious to his hubcap flying off into the valley below during one turn, or of flattening an immense snake on the next. Safe in Kurama then, where the train took us away from snakes and bears and bridges, and toward Italian meals and films and clean sheets.

On the turntable: Count Basie, "Plays the Blues"

On the nighttable: Xi Xi, "A Girl Like Me"

On the reel table: "Fast Food Nation" (Linklater, 2006)

Friday, May 09, 2008

On Gold Rails (pt 1)

Flowers of white were beginning to climb the trellis, emitting the scent of jasmine which has since overtaken all the rooms in the house. The hills ringing the valley were alive with color. Spring had settled in, and it was time to hit the deep mountains.

But first, a test run. It was a Tuesday, recently politicized as Showa Day, but will forever be Green Day to me. Into the green of the day we went, walking an old train line along and through the hills above Takarazuka. The rails led us along a river dense with picnickers, setting their tarps and tents on the uncomfortable stones of both banks. (A bank holiday?) The middle reaches of the river here grew wild, white taffy pulled between the huge boulders still hanging on despite inevitability. We'd passed through a couple of tunnels, but along this stretch they'd grown longer, taking up to 10 minutes to reach the arch of sunlight at the far end. We'd brought a torch to keep our feet from tangling in any obstructions on the uneven floors, but I spent a good part of the time training the beam on the smooth stone walls, looking for the tiny bats that I'd heard slumber here. Quite often we'd kill the light and stand still and breathe, engulfed by the dark and the silence and the lack of any sensory cues but the cool damp air. The other people we'd pass didn't seem so comfortable with this loss of bearings, chatting nervously until their giggles were lost in the dark behind us. And we'd too move along, passing from the black to the grey and through all the spectral colors finally settling on green, with the sound of our footfalls beginning to grow in pitch until lost to the roar of the rapids below.

On the turntable: Dizzy Gillespie, "To Bird with Love"

On the nighttable: Brian Daizen Victoria, "Zen at War"

On the reel table: "Cafe Lumiere" (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2003)