On the turntable: "Kindred Spirits: A Tribute To The Songs Of Johnny Cash"
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Sunday, December 28, 2014
"How vast must the mountains of love be, that all those who enter them still lose their way."
--Tale of Genji, Royall Tyler trans.
On the turntable: "Celtic Christmas"
On the nighttable: Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City"
Monday, December 15, 2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
I'd been at sea for the past thirty-six hours, aboard a ship whose logo was a pair of seahorses that looked like they might be butting heads. There wasn't much to do on sea days of course, so the friendly crew had created an itinerary that was almost too full. The motto seemed to be: "Relax. All you need to do is enjoy." And enjoy I did, sitting in a deck chair for hours, alternating between reading a book, or staring out at all that water passing beneath. There were the odd distractions, like the dolphins playing in the ship's wake, or the dark evening when a channel pilot had stepped out of a doorway many stories below onto a smaller vessel running parallel, which then turned and sped toward the lights of Key West shimmering beyond the grey. But most of the time the sea looked just as it does on film, capable perhaps of showing only three expressions: grinning brightly under perfect blue skies; cool and garlanded with puffy clouds; or the gritted teeth of whitecaps on a stormy night.
After a long time at sea, there is some relief to be found in a return to dry land. One of first things I saw when boarding the bus was the squat church of San Francisco de Asissi, looking weathered and tired against the flash and noise of Cozumel. The bus door vacuumed shut, but not before I'd gotten a whiff of that tell-tale smell familiar to those countries once known as 'third world,' of food both rotting and cooked, with just a hint of diesel fuel underneath.
The bus took us past sleepy Mexican scenes of men in straw hats sitting in the entrances of small shops (one of which was named Lolita Lolita), dogs sleeping in the shade of police cars, and laundry hanging in front of concrete homes, all shaded by palm and bougainvillea. There were also the odd political posters, most often showing a dapper mustachioed man named Zapata.
On the bus, our guide was talking things Mayan in an exuberant voice, punctuated often with abrupt "How's?" and "Why's?" as if in Spanish. He mentioned that the Mayans use a 52-year calendar, at the end of which the people tend to destroy a great many of their possessions. This may account for the shards of broken concrete strewn simply everywhere.
The bus stopped briefly at a small souvenir shop, and I got off to stretch my legs. There's something about Mexico that makes you walk slowly. Maybe it's the heat, or the earthen look of the tiles, or the squat people built closer to the ground.
Back on board. The jungle on both sides of the road were alive in a way that deciduous forests aren't, the mangroves, cashew, mango and sugarcane all literally pulsing with movement. It was far different than the mellow stillness of wood. Pressing in, ever pressing in, as if ready to caress the bus whose tinted windows frustratingly muted the brilliance of the blues and greens outside.
But we got these, and the heat, full force at the ruins proper. A fleet of bicycle taxis whisked us along dusty trails that were punctuated with the mammoth edifices of grey stone. I climbed to the top of one pyramid, looking out over the green that stretched away endlessly in all directions, much like my recent companion the sea. I imagined other ruins out there, just waiting to be found. I had read that these temples and ball courts had been built for the priests and higher classes. The poorer peasants lived in smaller huts out in the jungle. Things had changed very little in the subsequent 1200 years. Earlier on, all along the highway leading inland from the beaches, were the large gated courtyards surrounded by similar dull pillars of stone, which framed the palaces which as holiday homes for the moneyed north. Their darker, flat-faced servants still lived in the same simple squalor of their ancestors, a squalor though which my tall bus rode proudly past.
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Morocco"
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
He is buried in grave down there somewhere, in a grave with my name on it.
My plane had left La Guardia just under an hour before. From the window, my eyes traced the broad Navesink River to the town in which I had grown up, and in which my father had died. I wondered: do thoughts and emotions remain in the place in which they sprang to life? If so, there is a patch of lawn fertilized by the sadness and fears of a young boy trying to make sense of the confusing dissolution of his parents' marriage.
Forty years and 30,000 feet removed, the boy was now in the midst of his own divorce. Not as messy, but he was trying just the same to protect a similarly uncomprehending child from becoming collateral damage. The boy is now a man of an age slightly younger than his father had been when his heart had finally lost the rebellion against the anger and hatred that had ever defined him.
On the turntable: "Texas-Czech Bohemian - Moravian Bands"
Saturday, November 15, 2014
"Sorry buddy we're closed."
In my near three years away, I'd forgotten about the unique, "we're all pals here" chummery of the American vernacular. The only customers within were a pair of stern-faced businessmen taking shelter in this darkened bar that smelled of ridiculously strong drinks. Based on their expressions, it seemed to be as necessary as medicine.
My former yoga teacher used to call our American society adrenally charged. This applies too to our choice of depressants. And here I was seeking out my own, a body clock set to Tokyo having wound up my mind. But the bed I had been lying in for the past two hours was in midtown Manhattan. I had been riding that push me-pull you feeling of insomnia, that tension between do I get up vs. I'm think I'm starting to drift. The former won out, and as I made my way out I glanced at the clock. 11:03 pm.
There was a lounge on the 4th floor that had comfy sofas and internet. But upon arrival I found that they'd stopped serving beer at the top of the hour. The bar on the first floor was similarly closed. As was the cafe across the street. So too were the bars in the four hotels on this or the adjoining blocks. In the last, I had found a sympathetic staff who told me that they'd like to serve me but had already dropped the register till down the safe. I asked them, "What the hell has happened to this city."
I went over to visit Duane Reade. They had a good selection of bottled craft beers, but were only sold as six packs. The only singles available were the usual bilgewater of the American mainstream brands.
I returned thus to my bed, my frustration a stimulant, which did little to help with the drift.
On the turntable: "Friends of Old Time Music"
Friday, November 14, 2014
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Monday, November 10, 2014
Saturday, November 08, 2014
Thursday, November 06, 2014
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Sunday, November 02, 2014
"To arrive on foot at a place whose name one has dreamed all day, whose picture has lain for so long in the mind, casts a backward light over the road. And what was accomplished in fatigue, sometimes boredom, in the face of that absolutely solid presence that justifies it all, is transformed into a series of necessary and joyous moments. Walking makes time reversible."
On the turntable: "International Pop Underground"
On the nighttable: Frederic Gros, "A Philosophy of Walking"
Sunday, October 26, 2014
Monday, October 20, 2014
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Friday, October 17, 2014
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Monday, October 06, 2014
Sunday, October 05, 2014
"Despite its many flaws, history will judge the Occupation a uniquely successful experiment in transplanted principles"
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to World Music"
On the nighttable: "Foreign Correspondents in Japan"
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Friday, September 12, 2014
Ah, David Cozy fished me in with a recently popular meme, asking me to list ten books that have stayed with me. Thinking completely off the top of my head, and in random order:
"The Razor's Edge," W. Somerset Maugham
"The Quiet American," Graham Greene
"The Sportswriter" (and its three sequels), Richard Ford
"The Roads to Sata," Alan Booth
"The Inland Sea," Donald Richie
"Thank You and OK!," David Chadwick
"The Forgotten Japanese," Miyamoto Tsuneichi
"Japanese Pilgrimage," Oliver Statler
"The Things they Carried, "Tim O'Brien
"The Snow Leopard," Peter Matthiessen
Deep Kyoto Walks
On the turntable: Bill Laswell, "Dreams of Freedom"
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. Nishikawa-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"
Saturday, September 06, 2014
Nishikawa-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 Nishikawa-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 Nishikawa 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 Nishikawa-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. Nishikawa 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. Nishikawa-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"
Monday, September 01, 2014
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"
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
The land on either side of the train was covered in a fine green quilt. Along the stitched edges, a casually dressed pair walked beneath umbrellas blooming upward against the rainy sky.
Damn you Mie and your damned changeable weather! The forecast just an hour before had been for rain early, then cloudy skies. But now it showed rain all day. The view from my train seat served as co-conspirator.
Back in Tsu lot much later, I returned to the stone that I’d passed three days before, which demarcated the southern terminus of the Ise Betsu Kaido, another spur branch that connected with the Tōkaidō 8 km to the northwest for the convenience of Kyoto pilgrims heading to the Grand Shrines of Ise Jingu.
The rain had dulled to a fine mist, so I didn’t bother to unfurl my umbrella, lashing it instead to the side of my daypack. I ziz-zagged my way out of Tsu, through quiet rural neighbourhoods. It wasn’t long before I arrived at the massive Takata Honzan, headquarters for the eponymous brand of Pure Land Buddhism. The temple had a long history, though the modern halls didn't reflect that. Their grandeur was instead represented by its size, a hint that financially this temple was doing very well indeed. Workmen rushed about, changing banners for the throngs expected during the Obon holidays. With little of interest barring the spectacle of scale, I quickly left the gates and was back walking again.
The rest of the day was spent along this small road, which wasn’t particularly interesting but at least it kept me in the countryside. The humidity was incredibly high. I don’t think I’d ever walked in such intense humidity . The day threatened rain, and when it eventually fell, I felt relief, as the humidity index dropped quite a few percentage points along with it. Then relief turned to frustration as the skies threw at me everything they had.
After lunch I left the rather bland farming roads for the larger, more heavily trafficked roads, with the pachinko and the convenience stores and the cake shops. So many cake shops. From that point on, I began to notice the signs for dentists.
The rain eventually let up, and some blue sky began to reacquaint itself with the earth below. This new lighting revealed a more attractive landscape, of woodland and fields, and quainter villages of a older look. When I first came to Japan, I loved this old style of architecture, and would go out of my way to find places like this. Today, my eye is more drawn to the anomaly of Western buildings of which one or two can often be found, though those too have have one foot in the 19th Century.
Then finally I ran into the Tōkaidō at the post town of Seki, passing beneath the great torii arch that faces the direction of Ise Jingu. The beautiful preserved look of the town was as good as it gets anymore. After all, this was the Tōkaidō, the granddaddy of the old feudal highways, and I promised myself I would follow its length before long. But it also made me ask myself just how far I want to take this walking of old roads. As this day had proven, there are small spur roads simply everywhere in this country. How minor a road do I want to walk? That said, each of those roads does have its own history, but how much of that history is still visible and remembered?
On the turntable: Skatalites, "Skabadabadoo"
On the nighttable: Christal Whelan, "Kansai Cool"
Sunday, August 17, 2014
"It is not just in a human being's prerogative to challenge himself with reading, it is in our collective social interest. Through reading not only do we acquire smarts but we also become a better, more compassionate, empathetic species. There is a historical argument gaining momentum which suggests that the rise of the novel and the belief in the universal rights of man could very well be interconnected."
On the turntable: Led Zeppelin, "The Song Remains the Same"
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
The old man was standing at the base of the stone steps, hands clenched in prayer. The steps were steep, and at their top, I could see the pitched roof of the shrine, emblazoned with overlapping gold. The old man had bandaging and tape on both legs, and didn't look all that healthy. But there was life in the smile that he gave me as I walked past and began to ascend toward the shrine.
It was hot. It had been since morning, during a bucolic train journey that took me across the Mino plain. The train was old, and of a surprisingly narrow gauge, the seats close together like on the London Tube. The train pitched and rocked every time it picked up speed, and if I were to close my eyes, in the heat I could almost image being in a hammock in the tropics somewhere.
I disembarked on the outskirts of Yokkaichi, an ugly city of towering smokestacks striped in red. A short walk away I found a tall stone marking where the Ise Sangu Kaidō parted ways with the Tokaidō, and made its way to the famous shrine. In the feudal days, the only real excuse for a peasant to travel was to go on pilgrimage. and those coming from Edo would have passed this stone as they made their way toward the holiest of holies. I followed suit, bowing a greeting to a man filling two water jugs with water from the sacred spring shaded by stone.
For the first hour I found myself on a busy highway, unhappy with the 36 degree heat. Two years ago while walking sections of the Nakasendō I had promised myself that I would no longer walk any sections of road in the summer. But yet here I was once again. I justified by it to myself by saying that the countryside was always interesting in the days leading up to a traditional holiday. But this wasn't yet countryside, and all I saw were cars and trucks going their way on what was still a normal workday.
An hour later, I found a convenience store built beside a low hillock atop which was a small temple hut. Provisions quickly bought, I had my lunch sitting beneath the huge cast iron bell on the hill, the temple building beside very old and apparently long abandoned. I was unable to see an actual temple hall anywhere amidst all the new suburban homes below. This must have been a training temple in its day.
Just as I was thinking this, a middle-aged woman came up and confirmed it. Broom in hand, she had come to clean around the hut, and found me sitting here. She explained that the structure was barely stable, and had suffered a great deal from three centuries of being battered by the typhoons that seem particularly attracted to this prefecture of Mie. But since I was here, would I like to see the statues inside? They too were 300 hundred years old, but still revealed a nice color when conjured up by the light of my torch. A dozen protective deities each had on its helmet the unique feature of one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. The woman told me that she'd never seen these details anywhere else.
She next took me down to the actually temple building, which was essentially a nondescript older house amongst all the new plastic homes in the neighborhood. The living room served as the Hondo. There was no danka here, she explained, but the statues and altar needed a priest to do the proper rites at the proper times. Formerly Shingon, it was now a branch temple of Kyoto's Myōshin-ji Zen sect, and was being looked after by her father, who would be succeeded by her son when he was old enough. Being an only child, she was unable to become a priest according to the tenets of Rinzai, and her husband, adopted into the family upon marriage, appeared to be no longer in evidence. Impermanence.
As I walked away, I thought it funny how often I am approached by someone who is interested in explaining some obscure bit of Japanese history or tradition, who then expresses relief that I can understand the language. I wonder what would happen if I didn't. Yet I am impressed that the stereotypically shy and reserved Japanese make the effort anyway.
I crossed the Suzuka River, and dropped into what was finally the look of an old road, flanked with the two low parallel rows of houses. This would be my scenery for the remainder of the day, barring the rice paddies that demarcated the villages, or the odd burst of arborial splendor that were the shrines, their precincts screaming with cicadas. Most thankfully, it also keep me off the main highway running just parallel, as it weaved and zigzagged through small farming communities and some of their larger suburban cousins.
I arrived at the sea by midday. Despite that, I never actually saw the water, hidden as it was by the bodies of large factories, and the long unending walls of grey concrete. The only reasons I knew the water was close were the signs warning me that this was a tsunami zone, indicating that the area would be inundated by a wave four meters high, then two, then one-point-five. Far off behind them, I could see the tall cumulonimbus clouds stacking up. Being this close to the water made me feel hotter for some reason, so I took a rest on the grounds of an old feudal police office, now being used as a park. In one corner of the park was a sumo ring, covered by a tarp made concave due to all the water that the recent typhoon had brought. As I sat there, a swallow repeatedly swooped down over the waterlogged tarp in order to quench its thirst.
As I went on, I saw more standing water everywhere, covering the vegetable plots, and carving channels in the sand of building sites. The grounds of one shrine was a bayou where the trees extended from the water. The majority of the rice stalks, just shy of full maturity, lay lazily atop one another, the mud around their roots so waterlogged it could no longer handle the weight. But like in the Coleridge poems, there was not a drop to drink.
In the heat of the late afternoon, I saw the first of a handful of signs for local sake. Just as I was thinking how nice it would be if they did their own beer, those same magic words appeared. I made a quick detour down a narrow side street, entering the grounds of the distillery. It was quiet just before the holidays, but I found a young man sitting at a desk. I asked him if I could buy a beer directly from him, and he without responding pulled one out of a fridge and poured it for me. As I drank we talked about sake, and about some of our respective favorites. We both agreed that the sake made in Kyoto wasn't very good. I had the same opinion about that city's beer as well. He professed to being more of an expert on sake, and poured me a few cups so I could taste his product. He felt that beer sales were rapidly declining in Japan, and that the craft beer scene wouldn't go anywhere. Sake sales were on the rise again, he told me, and he and his colleagues here were attempting to cater to younger taste buds, creating suitable flavors. "Can you taste it, smooth like white wine?" he asked as I took a sip from my glass. "Something for the young ladies."
My carbohydrates suitably reloaded, I walked the final hour toward Tsu. The clouds I'd earlier seen out to sea now began to roll in, mercifully taking some of the heat off of the day. Perhaps they were conjured up by the massive wind turbines visible on the peaks to the west. Through those peaks wound the Ise-ji section of the Kumano Kōdō, a walk I hoped to do sometime next year.
A walk through the hills sounded pretty good right now. Post work traffic was rushing a little too quickly down the narrow road, and at one point I had to sidestep into a shrine to avoid getting clipped by a mirror. The placard hanging off the shrine's aluminum torii was charred a dense black. Beside the torii was an poster for a classic film series to be screened through the autumn. Each day there would be a free double feature. The starting time of the first film was 1:30, a hint at the demographic that they were hoping to entertain.
For me, I'd find my entertainment on whatever was in front of my feet. The following day, I was facing a further 37 km to Ise, not an impossible distance, but one I'd rather not undertake in the full heat of August. Luckily, I'd be trailing a train line for most of the day. Come afternoon, I'd simply walk from station to station, then gauge whether I wanted to carry on walking. Wherever the answer would come up "No," I would get on a train. A block or two before arriving at my hotel, I saw a sign written in English, "You've got the Power." Not any more, I thought.
And that sign proved more prophetic than I had thought. As I slept, Mie had turned her charms to yet another storm. Rain brushed the window of my hotel room, and the forecast was for heavy rain all day. While the 27 km I had covered the previous day hadn't been horrible, they hadn't been particularly wonderful either. I'd be back in the cooler days of autumn, my footfalls leading me to Ise Shrine, the motion of my feet to be succeeded by that of my two hands coming together, to greet the gods who had attracted the feet of so many others before me.
On the turntable: "Urgh! A Music War"
On the nighttable: Shigeru Mizuki, "Onward Towards our Noble Deaths"