Thursday, December 03, 2009

So Much Water So Close To Home

My last day in Yonago, I went to see a Doctor of Chinese Medicine about my knee. He told me that my body has too much liquid, and gave me some herbs to remedy that. But how can I escape all this water?

It is beside my train, in the form of a river along which a tug pulls a barge loaded with dirt from what was once a mountain. This train stops at Kinosaki, its passengers disembarking for a three day weekend soaking in hot baths. My next train follows the Sea of Japan, whose rocky shoreline is carved by more water, both serving as natural defenses against ancient enemies.

In Yonago, I spend a few days feeding on crab and other things that this water offers, as if trying to instantaneously recoup the 7 kilograms lost during a 10 week walk.

Another train struts along other water, trapped in rice paddies now plowed into hourglass shapes. At Gotsu I follow the Ko no Kawa south to spend a couple days with Jake. On one of these we watch the water leap and rush through the narrow Senjokei. A month ago, Kagura performers mimicked this movement as they danced in the surrounding shrines now quiet on this warm autumn afternoon.

Thumb south to Tomo no Ura and Sensuijima floating in the Seto-Naikai. I hike around what the locals call `kemono no michi,` or trail of beasts. Where there are views, I sit and squint at the words on a page in the glare of sunlight reflecting brightly on water. I`ve always had a great attraction to these waters, love to walk the desert-like hills high over the waves. I often escaped down here with friends long returned to their homes, far away where water merges with other water. And I too will be soon gone, and the sentimentality I feel is a weight heavy, like the Bizen cup from which I drink my beer. I toast these ghosts, and then again. There is always the feeling of aware in off-season beach towns, yet mine is compounded and I often feel near tears. Leaving this country is like a breakup with someone I`m still deeply in love with.

There is other water too: at the end of the narrow alleys of Tomo no Ura; along the waterfront of Onomichi, above which I wander the hills between old temples; forming the spread fingers of the Hiroshima delta; at the southern edge of an overly built-up town facing Miyajima, where I spend my final days.

And the sentimentality lasts, though it could be that I have far too many minor chords on my iPod, making up the nostalgic songs that themselves flowed through all the different lives I`ve lived here. As an English teacher well-enthused at an expat life. As the husband and father. As a hollow shadow, trying to pull myself from the wreckage of a life destroyed. As a person in reconstruction, rebuilding myself in a new city.

Escape from the water. Tough to do on an island. Today I will cross over it, to see where the flow goes once beyond its limits...

On the turntable: Beatles, "Rubber Soul"
On the nighttable: Robert Stone, "Damascus Gate"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Silent, But Readily

Deep Kyoto has published my write-up on the Vipassana course. What isn't stated in the article is that I didn't finish. Sitting more than 10 hours a day took its toll. I had a few moments the first day where I wondered if I'd make it, yet day two was a tad easier, and I had no doubt that I would stick it out. But my knee had other ideas.

I've been nursing a Baker's cyst for over a year, which had been a nuisance but hadn't limited my activities in any way. But for some reason, last August it began to really hurt, and by mid-month, I had to curb teaching certain yoga poses, could no longer sit seiza. It was fine during the Kumano and Shikoku walks, but hours sitting cross-legged brought about incredible pain.

One of the goals of the Vipassana technique is to realize that pain is fleeting, and will fade eventually if not given too much importance. I could deal with the stiff back and legs, but I thought to ignore an existing medical condition wasn't wise. I decided to watch it and see how it went; pain at the end of the day was understandable, but if I awoke with pain I'd have to reevaluate things.

That morning did come. I continued most of the day in meditation, yet was distracted by incessant thoughts. If I quit, was I weak? That was ego talking. But if I stuck it out to prove something to myself or others, wasn't that ego too? I looked at it from many angles, and found that any action, or its opposing action, were all driven by ego. My feet sank deeper into the sand on the bank of the Rubicon.

I also began to question the reasoning behind such long periods of sitting. Ten hours a day isn't the real issue. Two hour sessions are. To the best of my knowledge, the zen or yoga traditions never sit this long, usually sitting in shorter periods, with breaks or walking meditation between. (One hour zazen sittings aren't unheard of, but I feel that this is less about quality meditation than about 'building character.' Ahem. Within the zen world, I prefer the "Take It Easy" form of Soto to the "Take it to the Limit" style of Rinzai anyway.) I personally find that anything more than 30 minutes is futile. In the Vipassana meditation hall, there would be silence for the first half hour, then the remaining time was a cacophony of shifting bodies. It seemed no one was able to concentrate anymore. What is the point? (I invite anyone who knows the reason to explain it to me.)

The night before I left, I went for a late night pee. Stepping outside, I startled a large animal, which crashed through the forest somewhere out there in the dark. The high pitched bark that followed told me it was a pair of deer, one calling out to its mate. I was inspired to make my own dash. At the Vipassana center we were segregated by sex, and sworn to uphold silence. I spied my wife on her side of the fence, but couldn't get her attention. Unlike the deer, I'd go alone.

On the afternoon of the 4th day, I was standing on the train platform, not sure whether to go west to Yonago or east to Kyoto. A westbound train came in, and I took it. After days of deprivation my senses were alive, finding beauty in every sight, sound, flavor. The peace I'd felt during the course remained. Yet something nagged. My escape to freedom was a move in the complete opposite direction from what the Buddhists define as 'liberation.' I felt I'd made the right choice regarding the knee, but had the knee given my ego an excuse to get out of a very challenging situation? I continued to beat myself up as the train moved slowly along the Sea of Japan...

On the turntable: King Curtis, "Live at the Fillmore West"
On the nighttable: David Foster Wallace, "Girl with Curious Hair"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Feet Up

Off the road for a few days. We traced the distended belly of the Kinki Region, where it juts proudly into the Pacific, walking 300+ km along the Kii-ji, Nakahechi, and Ōhechi sections of the Kumano Kodo. Like the Japanese expression, "Hara Hachi-bunme," we pushed back from the table and saved the Ise-ji for leftovers.

Then a couple nights at Koya, which has become perhaps my favorite place in country, this almost alpine town with Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. Oku-no-in at dawn is pure magic. It was here that we bowed to Kobo Daishi and asked him to watch over us as we walked his footsteps.

Shikoku 88. The guidebooks differ, but we walked somewhere between 1200 and 1400 km in 39 days. Maybe 90 percent of it over asphalt. Lots and lots of asphalt. A week finished and my feet still wake me with their complaining. Yet I can't think of a better way to see this country, on foot and sleeping out, fully susceptible to both the kind hospitality and the hostile looks.

In an attempt to disprove the laws of inertia, we will now arrest this motion and take part in a Vipassana retreat north of Kyoto, looking for a remedy for restless minds and aching feet.

(And for grateful stomachs, here is an article that I published over at Deep Kyoto in September. Bon Appetit!)

On the turntable: Jeff Buckley, "Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk"
On the nighttable: E. Annie Proulx, "Postcards"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Steps from the Kyo

And that road home is long and winding. I will leave Kyoto this morning, fifteen years to the day after arriving in Japan. Our plan at the moment is to walk into autumn, through Kumano, across Shikoku. Winter in Southeast Asia, India. Back to New Mexico by spring. We'll see how it goes.

I'll write here when I find time and the muse and an internet connection. Once a week I hope, but probably less. Do drop by from time to time...

On the turntable: Andre Previn, "Messiah Highlights"

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Road Home

There's a subtemple in the grounds of Kenninji whose kanji could be liberally translated as "The Temple of Both Feet." Miki taught the odd workshop here and I played a kirtan in the main hall last May. The temple was holding a special exhibition of the pottery of three generations, the oldest being a National Treasure, the youngest, Shiro, being a friend. We arrived at this zen temple and knelt in front of the main altar to pray. However before we had a chance, a woman began to explain the history of the artifacts up there. I frowned at how she seemed to hardly expect people of the younger generations to be interested in the spiritual wealth that such places represent, launching so quickly into her rap about the material. We moved over to an adjoining room overlooking the well-groomed garden. This being a fine summer afternoon, the garden presented a face far different than that I'd seen on that rainy morning of two months ago. There were a few of the temple's treasured scrolls hanging on display, brought out on only special occasions. I was surprised to find a map I'd seen up on the Chosenjin Kaido, of the route that the Korean contingent once took from Seoul to Edo. The temple's head priest was busy examining this, so I knelt beside him in order to ask questions. He was happy to see me, though everytime I tried to engage him about the map and the history, he'd bring the conversation around to the far more important topic of my language ability and my length of stay here. Sighing, I turned to stare out at the garden, the stones and hedges and carp fulfilling their predicted roles.

Miki and I went next to see the pottery, the prices escalating up the generations. Miki has been studying tea recently, so she spent some fair time in close examination. I stood out on the wooden boards overlooking the tsuboniwa they enclosed. The priest's wife, noting my stare, came to explain the symbolic religious significance of the rocks and the trees and design of sand. These past two months, I've been well esconsed in a difficult translation of a interview I did with a famous garden designer who happens top be my martial arts teacher. (To be published in the upcoming Kyoto Journal, #73.) In it he explains that gardens are meant to be observed in a non-intellectual way. I recognized now how deeply I'd entered my teacher's world. Though I appreciated the philosophy and religious lesson I was getting, what had mesmerized me was merely the movement of the leaves in the wind of an approaching storm.

We spent the second half of our visit in the tea house on the opposite side of the garden's pond. We partook of the tea ceremony, under the eyes of a high ranking teacher. Even after 15 years I am still incredibly hyper aware of performing the proper form and desperately afraid of sticking in both feet, finding no comfort in a eponymous connection with the temple. I relaxed some when joined by our friend the potter and we passed a pleasant afternoon. The tea sensei was the glamourous model of a Japanese beauty unmoving in her kimono. She possessed the perfect balance between strict teacher and gracious hostess. It was wonderful to see the facade begin to crack when she talked about her trip to see her daughter married away to London, and to watch it fall to pieces as she giggled about how much she loves McDonalds and Coca Cola.

I thought of my own transformation as we walked through the form fitted trees above the pond to the exit. I had once been enthralled by the subtle grace of Japanese beauty, and my own study of zen and various forms of traditional arts had been an attempt to place myself in that context, to make some of this exquisiteness my own. Yet how much more interested I've become in a different kind of dignity, that of the old and the weathered. The refined space of the zen temple and the dojo had once been controlling yet comfortable spaces for me; I knew how much I was allowed to fill. Now I find more peace in a mountain temple nearly abandoned to time and the weather. It represents a reflection of the wild spaces still within. I feel that leaving this land is a way of honoring that. Is this how I relate to what I've become, whatever that is? Do I see myself as the bonsai, pruned to where it can no longer express itself fully? Or is it in this pruning that full expression is revealed? Or do I see myself as those wild spaces, coming as I do from New Mexico, whose deserts are raw and unrefined and threatening?

All I do know is that the Japan that I carefully constructed in my brain changed after I moved to the museum that is Kyoto. The old roads through the villages and toward the mountains are leading me toward universal truths that will be fully revealed with time and distance. In seeking that authenticity, a return to my own roots is in order. I need that perspective. How bizarre that I feel I need to return to America in order to get past the American varnish of this place.

I came here looking for Basho and Ryokan and Gary Snyder, but found Santoka and Ikkyu and Yamao Sansei. And I can still feel the pull of Kerouac and Henry Miller, Dylan and Harry Smith. I want to roam the soiled urban landscape with Henry Chinaski, sing the open spaces with Edward Abbey. Explore the dusty backroads of America, and the dusty parts of me that are still American.

On the turntable: Badmarsh and Shri, "Dancing Drums"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Let Me Get Back to the Sea IV

The train was the first of the day, and it led me west along the coast. One beach lined a crescent shaped cove, but the ends had been lopped off and concreted. A beautiful old wooden station had lost its view of rice fields and forest to a five meter high pile of dirt upon which a questionably necessary bypass will be plonked. Two stations further on, a simply immense television drones on to an empty parking lot. It was fast becoming a depressing morning. I am glad to see a bit of the countryside before the central government completely fucks it up.

I got off the train at a small rural station where the only sign on life was a cat sleeping on the wooden rail where the ticket taker usually is. (Shape shifter?) I walked to the main road and was able to hitch a lift up to Matsunoodera, a lovely old temple with 1300 years of history present in its statuary. It was deserted but for a lone man busy at work on new carvings. The radio at his feet kept him up with the baseball at Koshien.

I got my nokyo stamped, number 31 on my Saikoku Kannon pilgrimage. On the road back down the mountain, I passed a trio of monkeys, the male seemingly upset with me about something. Not a single car passed on this quiet road, and even on the busier highway below it took about 45 minutes to get a ride. A Nagoya family were on their way to the beach, but the weather had other plans. The sea and rivers that we passed were the color of mud, with all sorts of flotsum bobbing along the shore. We passed through Maizuru, such a lovely name, for such an ugly town. Along the way, I dropped quite a few hints to my driver about how nice the view was from above Amanohashidate, which was a short walk from my destination of Nariaiji. They didn't bite, and I eventually found myself at the station. I'd wanted to use a boat, cable car, and bus to get up to the temple, but the rain had caused a landslide and the cable car wasn't running. There was a road up from the other side, but I needed a car to get there. A taxi was my option. For 31 temples, this was the only time on this pilgrimage that I compromised on one. Throughout the ride I was kicking myself because I'd forgotten my nokyo when I came this way last year. An oversight costly in time and money. This road too had seen many slides, with road teams pushing dirt and rocks into the streams below.

At the temple, I paid my third visit to Nariaiji, but was disgusted that they'd started charging admission, which must have helped fund an ugly new pagoda that rose from beside the parking area. Amanohashidate was hardly visible with the mist, which rose to veil the surrounding peaks. I started the long walk down , passing the odd jizo on the way. I stepped over fist-sized stones which had come down during the night, above swift streams running white and brown. Fresh landslides gave my mind something new to ponder. A few cars passed, but none stopped. I thought this ironic as they'd all been returning from a visit to a temple dedicated to the Goddess of Compassion.

A minute after arriving at the main road I was picked up by a man who had seemingly made a U-turn to do so. A retired salesman, he'd driven this region for decades, and now did little more than fish. Seemingly lonely, he was really enthusiastic about me joining him for a visit up to Ine, a lovely little village that I'd visited with Miki last year. He then changed tactics, wanting me to stay here in town and drink with him and his friend. It took some doing, but I finally got him to drop me at the station.

The rain and floods had fouled the train schedules. (Arriving home I found that it had been a typhoon which had killed 13.) I finally made my way south toward home, through valleys so wet and cold that the train windows fogged, and our arrival time grew more and more distant.

On the turntable: The The, "Dusk"

Friday, August 28, 2009

Let Me Get Back to the Sea III

It was raining the next morning, so we didn't set out until 9:30. I lingered out front, looking at at plaque stating that this school, which had opened in 1885, had graduated its last class back in the spring. I was struck by the far -reaching effects of the country's population decline. Each school closure means more kids are educated further away, and therefore become that much more removed from their own local identity. These final pupils had laid their hands in concrete to commemorate the closure. There set in stone were the marks of 10 little hands.

We walked down the valley, rich with spirituality, including Jinguji where we saw the Omizu-okuri last March. I'd stop at every temple and shrine, then hurry to catch up with the group. After Wakasahiko Jinja with its 1000 year old cedar and wonderful Noh stage, the road forked and I lost everybody. The frequent jizo assured me that I was on the right path, but it eventually became highway. I pushed on trying to make it to Obama's Izumi market for the scheduled 12:30 final event. I just made, but the kids took some time to arrive. There were speeches and high fives, then we all sat down to mackerel soup. Afterward, we walked the last 10 minutes to the sea. I, like Gary before me, had made it. The photograph ritual began, so I said a quick goodbye. As I moved away, I overheard a few muttering voices. Most of kids never got my name, and I remained "The American," like some character in a Graham Greene novel.

I found a hotel near the waterfront and dropped my bags. This place was gripping tightly to its former bubblicious glory. Apparently, the Emperor stayed here once, a year before he took the job. I wonder if he partook in any of the services available, including (from the English translation) a geisha girl (12000 yen), and companion (15000 yen, limit of three please.)

My feet continued to ache as I walked the town. Tourist sights were well kept and the signs pointing to them prevalent. This is obviously a town that has respect for its past, but it also has an disturbing interest in my own nation's present. The face of my president is simply EVERYWHERE, to the point that it becomes surreal. I really don't know what to make of the President Obama vending machine. Prior to last year's election, this town was known for its temples. I strolled the outskirts, passing many temples and shrines. I saw an Atago jinja, and another for Kumano, but my feet vetoed the idea of climbing those high steps. I walked over to Hosshinji, the famous zen dojo of the great Harada Roshi. The valley around it was in veiled in clouds. There were quite a few monks about, cleaning and preparing for Obon. A few gassho'ed me, and it hit me that I was dressed somewhat like them, a brother monk. Moving on, I got a one handed gassho from a European monk on a bike, his zafu as bicycle seat. He wheeled around to chat awhile, then rushed off. I followed to his temple, Bukkokuji, another well-established training site. A different European foreigner was sweeping the tatami. I thought it must be tough to be a non-American foreigner in Obama these days. Every local person you'd meet would feel a little let down.

I walked the covered streets, nearly everything closed on the Sunday. Obsequious boy band music was piped in, making me ponder if it is played at the White House too. A shower took such stupid thoughts from my brain, then it was dinner time. I found a small sushi shop that offered mackerel on the menu out front. I went in and ordered, but quickly got vibed out. The sushi chef seemed content to hide behind stereotypes, rather than understand my perfectly good Japanese, which his wife had to 'translate.' The woman next to me asked me if I could eat fish, seconds after she watched me shovel two pieces into my maw. This in a town which is currently basking in the association with an internationally famous name. Next time I'm in Harlem, I'm going to start asking the locals if they only eat fried chicken. We'll see how long the blood stays in my body.

And why is this bothering me? I was perfectly happy to play the role of adopted mascot the night before. And the main reason I ate out tonight was to chat up the locals. And they would only have started that conversation due to my skin color. After all, I've never seen two Japanese strangers strike up a conversation here. Why does this not offend me? I, like every other foreigner in Japan, is happy to play the race card when it benefits them. Why do we think we can have it both ways?

After quickly chugging my beer, I'm gone in minutes. The grilled mackerel and draft beer I'd been seeking is found up the street. Here, I wind up talking to no one since everyone's attention is riveted to the Japanese woman's volleyball team on TV. I go back to my hotel and treat my knees to the bath they've been craving. Coming back to my room, I nearly fall over in laughter. When I'd checked in, I'd requested a bed, so as to give my poor knees some soft respite, a point I'd mentioned to the staff. All the Western Rooms were full, so I took this one. And now, I find that the maid had set out on the tatami four futons, piled half a meter high. I'm really going to miss this silly country. I pass a restful night in my cotton tower, trying and failing to figure out where the pea is......

On the turntable: David Grisman, "Acousticity"

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Let Me Get Back to the Sea II

Breakfast was late and so was my departure. I hadn't slept well and my eyes showed it. I walked out of town, along a beautiful stream, with the occasional old man at random intervals, poles poised for bounty. The moving water and fishermen theme continued for the better part of the day. About an hour into my walk I saw the absurd sight of a couple dozen men tolling lines in a man-made pond, their backs to a perfectly good stretch of river. And they'd paid for this! I thought there might be a drink machine inside, but was stopped by a scowling young man. I asked if I could rest for a bit, yet he refused. It dawned on me that I'd passed into Shiga-ken. Ten minutes later, I greeted a couple old women before a liquor store, to no response. (Shiga!) I don't mean to be harsh on the prefecture, but I have had my share of encounters with its surly people, and far too long on the side of its roads, thumb out in futility.

The heat began to come up and the walk became a slog. I rested when I could find shade, but kept along this single road, a hamlet appearing every hour or so. I finally arrived at my destination for the day , Oisugi. I'd expected to get there about 4, stay the night, and enjoy their local festival. Along with the fireworks and the Bon dance, I'd be an unexpected attraction. But it was still only 1:30 in the afternoon. I began to wonder if I could make it across the next set of formidable looking mountains before dark. But there was no one around to ask. Despite the festival, the town was quiet. Finally, I found four people standing around a truck. Ironically, they were about to lead a group of kids up the very same mountains, and assured me I'd be over well before nightfall. I made my choice and headed up the road.

There were a few river crossings and I soon made my way up to a waterfall. The trail grew thinner here, and steep, with small wooden steps rotting away on the hillside. I was on the wrong trail. But I gone past the point where I could return down safely with my pack. I had no choice but to keep heading up. I checked my map and found that I was in a valley just below the trail. This narrow path was literally hanging onto the canyon wall, with bear tracks every ten steps. My heavy pack was pulling me into space, so I leaned way into the dirt wall, grabbing deeply at roots and ferns. I eventually was able to cross the river. Then shot straight up. I'd pull myself up from tree to tree, resting often so not to tire and make any stupid mistakes. With every rest I'd scan above, taking what looked the most like trail. For the first fifteen minutes I was on all fours, then the slope became gentle enough that I could walk upright. Bizarrely, I'd find the occasional strand of rope, so knew that I wasn't the first to do this. I kept getting closer to the top, but still couldn't find trail. I was a little worried that I'd keep heading deeper into the mountains, but had a pretty good idea of where I needed to go, which was the direction of Obama. Then the fogged rolled in. And with it, many voices. It was the people I'd met below, now leading the kids to the peak. I moved diagonally toward their sounds, popping onto the trail behind the last of their group, and scaring the hell out of some young woman.

I kept with them until the peak, taking my place at the end of a long line of thirty people. As part of a group, I really felt like I was doing the Saba Kaido, making our way to replenish supplies. I chatted with everyone at the peak, then made my way down alone. The fog made it a magical forest, down a half tube trod by centuries of feet. The song of one bird was like an ocarina. I also heard the cries of deer a few times, then saw their fleeting forms racing downward. I finally came to road. On it, a centipede was tucking in to its tasty dinner of cricket head. Arriving in Kaminegori, I faced a dog standing in the middle of the road like a character out of Yojimbo. Rather than snarl and bark like most dogs, he chose to walk beside me for the next half hour. He'd often stop to sniff at something, then come charging down the road and within inches of my legs. I asked a woodcutter that I passed if he knew him, but he just laughed and said the dog would go home when it was ready.

The fog made it seem darker than 5 pm. I arrived at an abandoned school where a couple of team members were setting up for the arrival of the kids. As I'd run into them repeatedly, they invited me to stay. I 'showered' with a faucet and bucket, then went into the school to lay on the moldy tatami until the kids came. It was full dark by then, but they were made to eat inside the school's spooky gymnasium. Afterward, there were games and fireworks, then we all walked down through the dark to another school, 4 km further downhill. The first 100m were lit with candles, then it became pitch dark. I set out later than the others, having taken time to put my bag in one of the support trucks. It found it nice to walk alone at night, until I remembered that this is exactly how I'd had my bear encounter in Hokkaido. I overtook a group of kids and was happy to stay with them. One of the boys asked if I'd ever seen a ghost, so I shared a few stories until noticing one girl with her fingers shoved deep in her ears. The night was dark but for the white of a river rushing below, over rocks so massive that I was a little sorry not to see them in the light of day. Here and there mushrooms clung to trees, little white bulbs against the night. Around ten we arrived at Shimonegori elementary school. The kids went quickly to sleep while the staff had a meeting. They invited me in to go over the next day's agenda, but when things began to get bogged down in details, I snuck away. I found a small two tatami-mat nurse's office which had futons in the closet. My sleep was comfy but restless, as voices and banging echoed down the halls....

On the turntable: "Organized Konfusion"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Let Me Get Back to the Sea

It started with a photograph. It is captioned, "Just north of Kyoto, setting out to walk to the Japan Sea, late April 1961," and shows Gary Snyder doing just that. For years I've had that photo in my mind, and thought that I wanted to do the exact same thing. Miki and I had tried to do the walk last September, but a typhoon changed our tune. This time, she was busy so I set off alone, along the old Saba Kaido that once brought mackerel to Kyoto from the sea.

I'd start from Kuruma, since a previous walk had already taken me that far. I got to the train platform to find that the schedule had been halved, with Kurama bound trains going every twenty minutes now. Due to the sagging economy, Japan has ben cutting costs where it can, but at the risk of undercutting its legendary efficiency. The train finally came. At each stop, more and more kids got on, headed toward their kindergarten at the end of the line. An old man sat nearby, looking much at peace with the world.

Off the train, I walked beyond the village, up a paved road which climbed steadily to the north. It was a tough slog, but thankfully this turned out to be the most challenging part of the day. I could feel how out of shape I'd become in the few weeks since the Mie walk. The past ten days had been the worst, mostly sitting idle on the film set waiting, followed by a series of dinners with friends, loading up on too much food and beer. It was a punishing 90 minutes, but I eventually made the pass. I was happy to see a clearly marked Saba Kaido sign, which led me up a road that, while sealed, was narrow and felt more like a proper trail. I wasn't too worried about keeping to the proper route this time since my real goal was simply getting to the sea.

Atop the ridge now, I was rewarded with the view of a sliver of Biwa. The trail stayed flat for awhile, keeping to a road that was beginning to wash out. In more than a few places, the road had become pond, with tadpoles and water skimmers rippling the surface. Here and there was the obligatory illegally dumped trash. (I am now firmly convinced that I live amidst people who most definitely shit where they eat.) During the day, I also came across a dozen abandoned cars, including a white jeep far down the hillside, its grill and headlights rising from the mud like a grinning skull.

The road continued, tracks in the mud alluding to traffic of auto and swine. I finally came to an ancient shrine with a few people picnicking out front. This inspired me to have my own lunch near a small lonely farm. More and more homes began to appear, teasing me into thinking I'd come to village, but before long, I was in forest again. It wasn't hard to feel that I was truly in the middle of nowhere. I reached a junction, offering the choice of continuing along this road through the valley, or up a steep path to a pass. I stared at the characters on the sign. 'Valley' (), looking like a comfy monopoly house, under a cozy layer of snow. Or 'pass' (), all spikes and angles. A no brainer really. But my guidebook stated twice that the mackerel bearers (great blog title!) had come over the top, and so, by the grace of cod, did I, all the while muttering, "I'm gonna regret this." A hot sweaty ascent once again brought me to the warm fuzzy road, upon whose grassy fringe I sprawled awhile and stared at the sky. A trio of insects raced around my head in a crazy rendition of the Indy 500.

Along this next level part of the trail, I found a fully inflated balloon that had been launched from Mii-dera, a good 50km away. A note was attached, written by an elementary school student (judging by the handwriting, which was still favorable to my own.) and wishing for world peace. My needs were more modest, merely lunch, so I stopped beside Hacchodaira, a very ancient swamp going back to the Jurassic. I wanted to lay on the ground again but the viper warning signs kept me in motion. Soon after I arrived at Ogurozaka pass, and faced a mercifully pleasant descent along long switchbacks. A black snake shot across the path, marking the only life I'd see today, barring the odd bear warning signs. Even the cicada had little to say. At the bottom, I soaked my feet in a small stream, then moved down through the road to Kuta Village, where I'd sleep. It was still only 3 pm. I'd expected a 10 hour day but had done it in less than eight somehow. I had some trouble finding my minshiku but an old man had explained it to me as I tried desperately to sift through the dialect. I finally found it, a lovely old farmhouse under thatched roof. I read the afternoon away on the veranda, wondering when I could have that bath. The clouds came over to erase the day's course, backlighting a row of dragonflies queued along a power line. An old man armed with a fishing pole and optimism set off to catch dinner. Some younger folk from the city were dressed in a way they thought their country relatives did.

I finally got my bath, in a tub that was perfectly adapted to my height. While washing up, I found that my ankle was bleeding quite badly, and it took mere seconds to realize that when I'd soaked my feet in that stream, I'd picked up a hitchhiker -- a leech. This explains the strange stains on my socks and on the tatami in my room. The area where the leech's head enters the body takes the blood hours to coagulate. I can now better understand why many cultures used leeches as a way to release those pesky humours from the body. I worried now about my sheets tonite. In staying in a minshiku, you are basically staying in a stranger's home, and it always feels that that person is a distant aunt you hardly know. ("Don't touch the hummels dear.") To complicate things further, dinner came. The first course was fantastic -- deer meat and river fish. Then came sukiyaki. It never ceases to amaze me how even after 15 years here, I still encounter food I don't know how to eat. In those same years I've had sukiyaki maybe twice, and didn't at all pay attention to the process. When my hostess brought me my complimentary glass of blueberry liquor, she let out an audible gasp at the sight of me poking around in the bubbling brown sludge. Things escalated further after dinner. I read out on the veranda again and returning inside I saw that the 100 gnats I'd inadvertently let in were now happily crawling around the tatami. Thinking myself clever, I turned off the light, hoping that they'd migrate toward the lights of the room next door. But while brushing my teeth I heard a familiar sound. Before laying out my futons, the hostess started vacuuming up all the bugs. To the next foreign guest of Kunoya Minshiku, I am truly and deeply sorry.

On the turntable: Donald Byrd, "Blackbyrd"
On the nighttable: Kunal Sinha, "An Ordinary Traveler"

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


It takes some time getting to Chikubujima. You first must take a train up to Biwa's narrow northern shoulder, eternally bullied by the brawny peaks of Hirasan above. A boat will then take you to the island. On approach it looks in decay, centuries of guano having stripped many of the trees and eroded the slopes. Just off the boat, a photographer snipes you paparazzi style, then later will try to bilk you of 1000 yen. A flight of very steep steps begin here, leading up to the main grounds. Our group of five detoured first to the shrine. Along the way, a couple of smaller shrines hug the islands ridges, one to the white snake god (which I now know is a manifestation of Benzaiten/Benten) and another to the black dragon god of rain. It is easy to imagine the latter, rolling slowly across the waters of the lake, to wreak fury on the islanders who'd chosen to live in the middle of one of the oldest lakes in the world. No one lives there now, except for a handful of priests. One of them sold religious trinkets in a small structure that seemed to defy gravity. For a couple hundred yen you could buy two small disks, write prayers on them, then fling them sidearm through the torii arch out on a rocky promontory below.

We wandered down a small path to find a cluster of buildings that offered the required view and place to sit. Lunchtime. Above us, cormorants played gargoyle in the bare trees. Now and again a hawk would cruise by, eyeing our food but acting cool about it. We followed the trail a bit more down to the water, where we found what had probably been an old boat launch. Compared to the busy port on the other side of the island, this was very low tech with a mere two pieces of rope. I wonder how many monks escaped at night, to row over to mainland bars and brothels.

We walked back through the shrine and up to the Buddhist buildings above. There used to be more of a fusion here, but now the two religions have been sent to their neutral corners. The buildings are amongst the most beautiful I've ever seen, with gorgeous curved roofs, faded wood, and detailed animal carvings. Hōgonji's main hall elicits respect as it climbs skyward above the trees. Among other things, there is a carving of En-no-Gyōja here (though under a different name), a long hall built from the wood of Hideyoshi's boat, and Kannon statues showing her in all her various manifestations, as if it were Oscar night. Plus the obligatory statue of Kobo Daishi standing proudly overlooking all.

I stop by the noykojo and get my last stamp of the Saikoku Kannon 33 Temple pilgrimage. I'm quiet for a while after this, and I'm not sure why. When I started this pilgrimage in June 2002, I did it for my former father-in-law, then diagnosed with stomach cancer. I'm not much of a prayer, but I wanted to dedicate the spirit of my efforts to him and his fight. Little did I know I'd lose my own son four months later, then my father-in-law three months to the day after that. I suppose my quiet today is due to their being with me as I closed this sacred circle.

As we make our way back down to the boats, dragonflies swirl above us, appropriate to an island where the spirits of the dead are reputed to live. The ride back is cooler, the humidity and clouds of the morning burned off, the sky rich and blue, the details of the surrounding peaks vivid. A short walk off the ferry in Omi Imazu we find a quiet stretch of beach and baptize ourselves in the waters of the lake. Later, back in Kyoto, we'll take sacrament in the form of pizza and beer...

(Michael's photo accompaniment to this piece can be found at his.)

On the turntable: Chet Baker, "Boppin'"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday papers: Rory Maclean

"I am just an old bhikku, or wayfarer, a leaver of home and family, striving for knowledge to help liberate other good citizens from suffering.

-- Colonel Than in Under the Dragon

On the turntable: Andrew Hill, "Dusk"

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Deep Osaka 2

But it was during my final visit that I finally came across the heart of Osaka, tracing the roots of its oldest history to an area filled with people living a life without pretense.

Thursday was my last day of work. Afterward, I met up with a handful of friends who we hadn't seen in some time. We met at Tani-9 near the site of the old Naniwa Nagara-Toyosaki Palace which was Japan's capital from 645-654. This is the oldest part of the city, obviously, and an ancient path leads south from there to Shitennoji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. There are many temples and shrines along the way, as well as sections of the old trail, most of them leading up and down steep slopes. A couple of these temples had large stone statues of Fudo, both surprisingly within the precincts of Zen temples, rather than the more likely Mikkyo sects. One large shrine had a section for prayers for the local Tigers baseball team, with home-made folk elements like banners and photos which had been added by fans. The trail winds up at Isshinji, a bizarre mix of international elements. It was the feeling of a Chinese temple, with water and trees and large porous rocks, yet the main hall is definitely Japanese, with beautifully aged wooden steps. A group of monks were chanting nearby, clanging Tibetan looking cymbals to time their chant. Beside the main hall was a smaller hall that held very old stone Buddhas, surrounded by flowers, and lit candles, shrouded in incense in a way that felt more Indian than Japanese. Most bizarrely were a couple halls done in a modern avant garde style of smoked glass and twisted metal. This whole layout was shaded by a tall events hall that mimicked Frank Lloyd Wright.

From the distant past we stepped into the more recent past of Shin Sekai, which leapt out of the postwar films I've been relishing lately. Created in 1912, it was apparently modeled half on Paris and half on New York's Coney Island. (This in itself is interesting, as pre-war Japan felt much more European, and postwar is, well, the 51st state.) The main arcade looks as I imagine the occupation looked with its cheesy shirts and other tat on display, touts hollering in front of oversized restaurants, 50 yen game centers, and wide sidewalks leading to the Tsutenkaku tower. You almost expect to come across remnants of the black market, and this seedy underbelly pervades all. Most of the people here are older, many looking in dire straits. Not homeless, but damn close. A couple guitar buskers are in their sixties. More men of that age sit drinking at make-shift tables, others stand in the many tachi-nomi joints about. There are three movie theaters, which are fronted by those beautiful old painted billboards of what's currently showing. Two of the cinema are for the unseasonal raincoat crowd, but the third has a split bill of a skin flick and the latest Jackie Chan. For some reason, huge gaudy creepy Billiken were everywhere. We walk down Jyan Jyan Yokocho arcade, lined with photos comparing then and now. As usual, the present gets a beating. Many of these shops are small, single counter restaurants, many with long queues even at this early hour. We pass under the JR line, a dark dank tunnel where a few card tables have been set up from which to sell second-hand porn DVDs.

We cross a wide boulevard to enter another arcade, this one much grimier and seedier, if that's possible. A couple cafes have been set up by activists, their facades lined with flyers. The caterwauling of karaoke spills out of many restaurants, drowned by the roar of pachinko with the opening of the sliding doors of the half dozen or so parlors here. People seem drunker here, pedestrians muttering to themselves, bicyclists practicing slalom precision. We pass through this poorly lit zone, on our way to our dinner reservation. As the arcade ends, we find ourselves in Tobita red-light district, a small grid of narrow two-story buildings that have taken the name of a teahouse. Upon approach, you see the mirror reflection of a plainly-dressed woman sizing up passersby, and from front on, you see the girl on display, her clothes and hair and makeup done to perfection, visible in the glare of a spotlight. To my surprise the girls are all young and most of them knock-down gorgeous. I had expected more weathered goods for rent here. Large breasts seem to be the going thing, the cleavage very visible. A few of the girls are uniformed, catering to certain tastes. Even the madams are younger than I'd thought, many probably younger than I. A couple of them beckon me to come closer. One old granny makes me laugh as she says "Dōzo!" in a gravelly voice. I walk a little ahead of my wife, playing the role of window shopper. If a girl makes eye contact, I quickly and bashfully turn away. You can take the boy out of the Catholic church but...

We have dinner at Hiyakuben, an old Taisho building at the red light district's lower corner. Our friends had been wanting to come here for years, but had been afraid. The building's interior is done up in a gaudy style that is a blend of shinto shrine and Chinatown palace. Loads of vermillion, as befitting a former brothel. Each party gets their own room. I'd peeked at other rooms on the way to the toilets; many had small stages and drums for private entertainment. Our own had interesting woodwork overhead, with a raised section at one end that resembled the prow of a small boat. When we opened the screen to look out the window, we found a bullethole. The staff here are a little too saucy and the service brusk, though the food doesn't live up to their pride.

For much of dinner, our conversation had been on the neighborhood outside, and on the trade of its residents. It's amazing how superficially similar to Gion it is, yet the roots much older. After dinner we passed back through, it being full dark now. A car rolled slowly by in front of us, and I made a joke about drive-thru service. Whereas earlier most of the women had been sitting in the doorways, now around half were empty. My eyes drifted toward second floor windows, my ears at attention. How ironic my imagination at work, yet regarding this profession, imagination needs little place. The reality is right there, unadulterated, unabashed.

On the turntable: Flower Travellin' Band, "Challenge"

On the nighttable: Rory Maclean, Under the Dragon"

Deep Osaka

(With apologies to Mikey L.)

During most of this year, I taught a lesson or two a week in Osaka. I'd always disliked that city, turned off by it's ugliness. Yet she finally won me with charm. My students were always open and fun, quick with jokes. After work, I'd usually walk the city's narrow alleys and streets, sometimes its rivers or parks. Most people noted my foreignness, which Kyoto-ites are always too cool to acknowledge. Many times I walked the length of Ogimachi's long arcade, finding more the interesting things down its narrow side alleys. Tsuruhashi was the real gem, the Korea town below the JR station was different world. It has a feel somewhat like parts of Kowloon, and the same sense of an almost subterranean society with laws of its own. This is most definitely not Japan. Amongst its traditional clothing shops and markets I found a chijimi shop that I particularly liked. The three aunties I found there were always happy to take my money and give me grief. Their teasing was refreshing.

Other parts had their own sights and charms. A girl in very high heels trots against the light across the crosswalk, to have a bus nearly sweep her away. Annual hay fever played out in sniffles and sneezes. A half dozen city workers evict a homeless man in the winter rain. The springtime pink surrounding Osaka castle. A sign written with "Amusement Developer" raises a smile. Other signs: "Climax Campaign," "Cook Dolphin." A happy slacker on a train, grinning his toothless smile at everyone. A bicyclist singing to his ipod startling the hell out of a straight-laced salaryman pedestrian. And my favorite, the zig zig girl.

I noticed her coming down the subway steps, moving diagonally from the upper right corner to the lower left. From there she moved diagonally again to the opposite wall, and again, and again, until she was through the wickets and gone. I actually stopped and watched awhile, trying to make sense of her behavior. I wonder too: how does she feel about the linear movement of trains?

On the turntable: Cornelius, "69/96"

Friday, August 21, 2009

On the Night Table

During these final six months in Japan, I revisited those books in which I found great inspiration, insight, and beauty. Limiting this list to narratives about the expat experience, here they are, in no particular order.

In hindsight, there were three other books that I remember enjoying very much. Bouvier's book is a mastercraft of prose and photography. Hearn's book was almost my bible that first year in the 'Nog, as he was writing about my 'hood a century earlier.

On the turntable: Aphex Twin, "Selected Ambient Works Vol. II"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown Dance Steps

There isn't much available out there on the Tōkai Shizen Hodō, and nothing that I can find in English. We mainly used this book:

It isn't perfect by any means. It was written in 2000 and many of the routes have changed, especially where they've by overlaid by new suburban houses. Also, the final four sections are missing, with no explanation whatsoever. Better than nothing.

We also relied heavily on this site:

Mr. Bracht gave good info, especially transportation details to and from the hikes themselves.

This site helped fill in those last remaining blanks:

I recommend parts of this hike, especially the Yamanobe section, where it leaves Uji heading south, before looping back again to Ishiyamadera. The sections closer to Otsu-Kyoto-Osaka have nice pieces, but prepare yourself for lots of concrete. Nara-ken is by far the most atmospheric, with jizo lined trails and well-weathered mountain temples. Happy trails!

(I intend to create a new blog detailing this hike as it is walked geographically, rather than chronologically, as posted here on Notes from the 'Nog.)

On the turntable: "Latcho Drom"