Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday papers: Robert Twigger

"The threat of extinction, be it to animals, languages, ways of life, human skills is a wake up call to cease believing someone else will solve the problem. The solution begins with rejecting the lack of diversity in one’s own life, of refusing to accept the small extinctions forced on us by an addiction to convenient living. The concern about extinction has a real effect if it encourages us to make our own lives less like everybody else’s. If it makes us more willing to seek out our real nutritional need for that sense of delight that comes from things being various."

On the turntable: Jimmy Smith, "Back at the Chicken Shack"
On the nighttable: "Danger!" (Traveler's Tales)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Give a Hoot, Don't Commute

I just got home from Osaka, after a quick dinner at Cafe Absinthe, beneath the photos of some of the 100 famous Japanese peaks that Wes climbed during over a period of years. I was tired from teaching two physically challenging classes earlier in the day, the fatigue allying itself with the humidity to get me buzzed on a single pint of Guinness. I smiled as I walked to the front door, coming to a complete stop at the sight of Paris Hilton dining in front of the large open window. Her Russian was absolutely perfect.

With a nice light floaty head, I bounced along through Ame-mura, my first visit in many years to the place that was once a familiar haunt, back in those days when I first came to Japan and needed the occasional dose of Western Civ. I found Midosuji Dōri, and moved in the direction of Yodoyabashi and the train home. I walked the light of the day away, Tom Waits on myPod, admittedly better suited to the grubbier downtown areas that make up the bulk of my city hiking these days. Midosuji is all glass and glitter, boasting of an opulence that seems ridiculous considering the current state of the economy. This is not a street you walk if you're looking for perspective.

You'll see instead a church that is fronted by the pillars like some Wall Street place of worship, throwing shadows across a VW bug garlanded for faux weddings. Or another bank that brings to mind the lobby of NY's World Trade Center, so long as you excise the Excelsior Coffee shop next door.. Or Namba Temple done up in the finest of Soviet architecture, like some double-zentendre ironic protest. Or high-heeled fashionistas who resemble the store front models far less than I do (Though we were all trumped by that middle-aged woman done up like a frilly southern belle.) Or the short-sleeved Cool Biz commuter troglobtyes moving toward their trains. Most intriguing was the guy who awoke after the train doors closed, stood when the seats automatically shifted to the reverse side for the return journey, then sat again to ride back the way he'd come. I speculate on his passing an entire day this way, riding the train the hour it takes to go end to end, nine times a day, hiding from his family the fact that his job is long gone.

On the turntable: Tom Waits, "Spare Parts"
On the nighttable: Ian Littlewood, "The Idea of Japan"
On the reel table: "Porco Rosso," (Miyazaki, 1992)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gained in Translation

Adam sent me this interesting and thought-provoking article. Miki and I make a guest appearance at the end.

On the turntable: "British Blues Heroes"

Monday, June 22, 2009

Kamogawa Duck Tails

The duck raised its body out of the water, flapping its wings madly as if trying to life the river from its bed. Then it settled its body back into the water. A neighboring bird repeated this process, followed soon by another, as if collectively, they could reclaim this river that bears their name.

On the turntable: Eric Clapton, "Orchestra Night"
On the nighttable: William Zinsser, ed. "They Went"

Friday, June 19, 2009

Native Indian

Warai Hotoke smiles
to hide tears.
The view of the factory
billowing smoke
beyond the ridge.

On the turntable: Roy Ayers, "Coffy"

Friday, June 12, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown XIV

The day after the Katsuragi walk, I found myself on a train heading back down that way. Miki and I plan to do the next section of the TSH in a few weeks, and we'd start today from Murōji and cross the mountains into Mie-ken. From the station, we faced a 90 minute wait for a bus, but were able to thumb a ride with a kind woman thankfully heading into the mountains. Miki and I wandered in circles awhile around the souvenir shops, trying to decide whether or not to eat some yomogi before setting out. The owner of the shop settled it for us by not being there.

A short walk up the road was Ryuketsu Jinja. It was a simple, beautiful structure fading into the forest beneath massive cyprus trees. These blocked the sunlight so effectively that the shrine was nearly lost in the dark but for the lanterns that hung from the eaves. We sat here awhile, eating lunch and trying to ignore the occasional outbursts and laughter from a trio of middle-aged motorcyclists jabbering away out on the main road. As if in contrast, a half dozen women were standing behind the shrine, chanting the Heart Sutra repeatedly for the entire half hour that we were there. This shrine is where you come to petition the God of Rain, though I doubt the women's effort was worth it this close to rainy season. But they played their part well, dressed in the garb of the pilgrim, much like the guys out front played theirs, wearing clothes that screamed, "Sunday Biker."

We walked up the highway, past a luxury car with Fukuoka plates, and a man who had absolutely no life in his eyes. Leaving the main road, we climbed up toward the cave where a dragon was said to dwell, giving name to the shrine below. Along the way, we came across a hole in the earth between two huge stones. This was supposedly the lair of Amaterasu, who, if you believe the talk of local shrines around the country, has spent the night in more places than Wilt Chamberlain. Moving up the hill again, we were nearly mowed down by a car driven dangerously fast by our friend with the lifeless eyes. (These snake/dragon shrines tend to attract some bizarre and frightening people.) And there was the cave, up a river gorge fed by a waterfall. It was framed with a shimenawa, hung by some brave soul immune to the laws of gravity. It was an inspiring sight, this immense cut in the rock wall, above a fast and powerful river.

We dropped back to the main road, following the wide river fed by the dragon's gorge. Above it were a series of rice fields, and the frogs singing merrily within. I've been lucky to have spent nearly every weekend since March out in the country, and it had been wonderful to experience the spring as it has unfolded. I've been able to listen to the song of the frogs change as it has matured from the creaking and popping of tadpoles in April, into this throaty self-sure song of summer. It was a similar story with the birds. The nightingale was still the prominent diva, having honed it's skills over the past two months. But a few newer voices were now beginning to push their way onto the stage.

They were all in full aria as we moved along a logging road that petered off into forest. The track now became cobblestone, slippery with the covering of soft pine needles. It got steep quickly, shadowing a river that dropped away repeatedly into unseen waterfalls. One spot in the forest was thick with the smell of dank mold. This odor was thickest around an old collapsed house here in the middle of nowhere. I worried about what may be rotting beneath.

Over the pass we met road again. Sudden movement between my feet proved to be a snake that shot quickly into the high grass. A short while after, I stopped to push a large stone with my foot into the river below. Watching it drop, I noticed an enormous black snake the size of a house cat, sunning itself in the hanging tangle of brush a meter from my shoe. (And I officially amend my statement that yesterday's snake was the biggest I've ever seen in Japan.)

Before long, the road dropped onto trail again, following a series of waterfalls that dropped like a staircase into magnificent swimming holes. At their base was Soni village, whose lucky residents got not only these pools, but a stunning panorama of peaks that ring the valley. The most impressive was Yoroi Yama, looking like Devil's Tower with hair implants. This area was an outdoorsman's paradise, the campground containing a heated toilet for those "roughing it." A fish farm kept the local streams well stocked with dinner. The water of the pond beyond them was far less clean, the surface thick with unbroken green like this country's famous tea. We walked happily through the village, feeling that at last, it is summer. Atop the rise was a temple built like a farmhouse, and below it, some firemen were climbing into an old and tiny firetruck. A small boy seemed more amazed by the sight of me than the fact that he got to ride in the open back of such an awesome machine.

Arriving at the main highway, I felt something in my shirt, and reaching in, I startled a bee into stinging my chest just above my heart. I'm not allergic to bees, but I'd never been stung in Japan before. I tried not to think about it as the pain began to kick in, instead focussing on hunting and gathering a lift to Nabari Station. We got a ride pretty quick, our luck better than the driver, who had been unsuccessful at fishing in some of the incredible water we'd been walking alongside through the afternoon.

On the turntable: Low, "Secret Name"

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Amongst Spiders and Wizards

The weather report throughout the week had proved schizophrenic, but the clouds Saturday seemed encouraging. So it was that I met up with Ojisan Jake and Aurelio for the long ride down south to Gojo where we'd start walking the Katsuragi Kaidō. I'd long been interested in this walk, as this was reportedly the birthplace of En-no-Gyoja, the legendary founder of Shugendo.

The first traces of history we found were from much later, in the form of a well-preserved Edo period residence of the Fujioka family. The painted fusuma within were well kept, including one room that had a wrap-around view of Lake Biwa. Nearby was Goryō Jinja, whose grounds seemed much younger than the buildings it contained. The paint on the main shrine was well-faded but hinted at images previously bright and alive with color. It reminded me somewhat of the temples of Korea, no real surprise since this region was the traditional home of the Kamo artisans who'd settled here during Japan's early history. I tried to ask the caretaker about this history, but he'd proven surly and unwilling to talk. ( In hindsight, I feel somewhat guilty about interrupting his sweeping, and certainly hope I didn't make him lose his place.)

We moved into out into country, between rice fields late in their flooding. Tractor tire marks looked like kanji traced in the soft muddy beds. A couple of old-timers were just putting the rice shoots in, as one young boy ran about catching frogs. He placed a small one in a bucket beside a massive bullfrog staring off into space and no doubt wondering how he'd gotten into this predicament. The younger of the two old men told us how after the war, they'd often eaten these giant frogs, and they were tasty when prepared with certain herbs. His older friend, toothless and wearing a hearing aide, merely repeated a single question, four or five times saying, "I'll bet you've never seen such a thing, have you?"

We continued along the ambiguously marked trail, inadvertently exploring a few side roads in the process. When even the postman couldn't help us, we bushwhacked along a berm, arriving at the highway below, where some police where hoisting a broke down truck onto a wrecker. We found the true Katsuragi Kaidō now, which led us to Takagamo Jinja and a lunch break. Jake shared some of his homegrown potatoes, along with bread he'd baked. I swapped some of my trailmix. Aurelio seemed happy with his corn on the cob. We sat beneath the eaves of a resthouse, talking about revisionist Shinto and the Kojiki, until a couple of rather persistent bees encouraged us to get on with our walk.

The rest of the day we quietly explored the shrines and temples, and talked through the spaces between, alternating between discussions about folk religion and teasing Aurelio about his dislike of mariachis and Mexican food. We climbed up a road past the corpse of a viper cooking in the sun that was now beginning to come out. Atop this rise was Takamahiko Jinja, looking old and magical with its tree-lined approach and the play of light in the valley above. Our map showed the curiously named "Ground Spider's Nest," which was a reference to the Nihon Shoki story of the powerful and long-legged tribe who'd given the early Yamato settlers a good fight. My brain was awash with Tolkienesque imagery as we entered the forest down a cobbled path, startling the longest snake I've ever seen in Japan. We missed the site at first, surprised to see a bicycle at the middle of a long flight of steps. We then back-tracked to find what we'd been seeking; a handful of stones and graves marking where the ground spiders had been defeated, in this grove of high grass beneath big trees.

We meandered down to a small Shingon temple (all the temples around here were Shingon, hinting at the Shugendo connection). An old woman worked her veggie garden, beside two sleeping cats tied to the rail of a small bell-tower. A mother and her child were in the well-groomed open space below, which was marked with a lotus and the words, "Meditation garden." It was peaceful to sit here awhile, but the day was getting away from us. We moved down through the forest then followed the Kaido through a series of interlinked villages. They in turn seeped into the towns further down, which stretched away to become a semi-urban cluster. One of these villages, Nagara, still preserved an Edo feel, despite the best efforts of a few pre-fab homes. The telephone office at the far end was pure Meiji, the wood faded to a grey that was nearly turquoise, the lettering on the windows thick and tactile.

We moved toward the mountains again, up to Hitokotonushi Shrine. You were supposed to make your request to the gods using a single word. The ema hanging about bore the character, "Nagau." Please. At this late hour, we saw only one other person, who spent at least 10 minutes bowing before the shrine. Either he was a Shinto linguist reformist, or he was in the midst of pronouncing the longest word known to human language. We left behind both him and the high peak of Kongozan, which had been above us through the day. Its sibling, Mount Katsuragi, rose above our left shoulders and took the sun from our faces. We decided to call it a day at Kuhonji, where a friendly priest was welcoming a few dozen kids to a session of zazen. We wandered above them to a countless number of Jizo spread out among a half-dozen groves along the mountainside. In the fading light there was a sense of peace up here, sharing the quiet with multiple generations of the village's dead.

It was near dark as we made our way down, past a some guys breaking glass and throwing loads of trash on a fire. The last bus was hours gone, and as I called a cab, there was a flash and a boom, as these geniuses got a first hand lesson in combustibility. I looked above them toward the peaks outlined by the lights of Osaka behind. I'd come here to Katsuragi looking for traces of En-no-Gyoja, but it was up there that I'd find them, up above the meditation gardens and tethered cats and painted screens. Where things no longer needed were not incinerated by a fire in a drum, but were instead purged by the internal heat of tantra.

(Jake posted some photos of the walk here. More to follow...)

On the turntable: Herbie Hancock, "Maiden Voyage"

On the nighttable: Alan Booth, "The Roads to Sata"

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Off the Rails in April

The conductor was having a hard day. During nearly every announcement, he's made a mistake, quickly followed up with "Shitsurei shimashita." Forgive me, I've committed a rudeness.

It was funny at first, until I remembered last weekend. On Sunday, I was on another train, just behind the conductor's window. From within, I could hear a second voice, belonging to the train driver's senior, who bitched out the driver throughout the entire run. I imagined that on this train too, there was probably some big scowling bully standing over this rookie driver, cursing at him once the mike was off. No wonder that some of the Japanese rail system's biggest accidents have occurred in April, when the new hiring is done.

The train passed over a narrow river. Tethered to the bridge were three swan boats, all missing their heads. This is how this conductor will turn out, able to perform well the function he was designed for, yet losing that which gave him character.

On the turntable: Jani Kovacic, "Povabilo na Bluz"
On the reel table: "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" (Naruse, 1960)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Westbound IV

...And it's even harder to concentrate on a hike when you are deep in conversation with three. Marcin and Hideyo joined us for this next section of the TSH. (He's been in country a mere 4 months, but they've already walked most of the Kyoto Loop Trail.) I don't remember much about the first half of the hike, except that the trail ran above a lovely stretch of the Settsu-kyo Gorge (a nice swimming spot), up past all the viper warning signs to a waterfall and beyond, along a series of newer sections in the form of raised wooden walkways that zigzagged through the trees like an Ewok village, the old trail overgrown and visible below. I also remember walking for a long while on a road. At one point, some guy stopped his truck to give us a half dozen freshly pulled onions. (It's a good thing to do these walks with two attractive women wearing tight T-shirts.) He was driving a small pickup truck bearing the logo for Kogen Giga Beer, but he didn't have any of those goodies, to our great disappointment.

I do remember the second half of the walk a little too well. As we began the ascent up Ryuōzan, a squall came in, forcing us to huddle under the trees while the skies opened like a faucet. More worrying was the lightning shooting horizontally through the clouds overhead. It seemed like the Dragon King didn't want us on his mountain that day. After a half hour, the light show had moved on, and we followed suit, into that rather persistent downpour. As we entered a clearing off to our right, we were alarmed to find out we'd been sheltering ourselves beneath the high electrical towers that climbed up from the valley.

There was no talking now as we made the final push up to the peak, the four of us spread out along the wooden steps, each in our own soaked and shivering and silent misery. There was a high four story wooden tower at the top, which offered some shelter but little of the view. What I could see was that the region around us was relatively clear, and that only this mountain was getting the full force of the storm. The Dragon King really didn't want us up here. We came to his shrine soon enough, at Hōchidera, its small altar in the middle of a pond, ringed by smaller altars to other, lesser serpent gods. (These are quickly becoming a theme lately.) And as we paid our respects, the rain fell away, then ceased.

We followed a series of stone steps for twenty minutes down to a bus stop beside a gas station. The owner, once he'd finished his goose step aerobics, told us that the storm had caused a blackout. While waiting for the bus, we tried to warm ourselves with hot vending machine tea, but never really warmed up until we got down to Ibaraki and had a bowl of cheap ramen, while the accompanying beer worked its magic against the fatigue.

On the turntable: Quantic, "Mishaps Happening"

On the nighttable: Hiroaki Sato, "Legends of the Samurai"