Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Papers: Jean Cocteau

"I've always preferred mythology to history. History is truth that becomes an illusion. Mythology is an illusion that becomes reality."

On the turntable:  The Cranberries, "No Need to Argue"

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Knowing Tranquility XI (Takehara)

I jump off the train in Takehara.  The town is a bit of a misnomer as the fields of bamboo are long gone.  They had been replaced at some point in history by salt, which brought a wealth to the town that still remains, in the forms of large manor houses in the old part of town, now referred to as "Little Kyoto," a moniker given to any town that has kept a predominantly traditional look.  The flip side of this is that these areas become a bit of an island themselves, making the more modern towns surrounding them look unattractive and dull.

It is a short walk from the station, along covered sidewalks that survive from the post-war period and puzzle me as this area surely wouldn't get much snow, and these types of embellishments are usually found in colder climes.  The charm ends there however.  The town is quiet and lifeless, though then again it is Monday.  One house had noren from Takayama, which was another puzzle.  The nicest looking house in the newer town was a modern construction that didn't quite fit with anything surrounding it, but somehow it had a more classic look than the 1950s shops held together by  lethargy and aluminum siding.   

The arrow-bearing signs led me most of the way, but their absence at a crucial junction fed me into the old town by the side-door, as it were.  I wrapped around to find myself in front of the Kasai house, whose second floor was a large open space with a small stage framed in bamboo.  The woman downstairs told me that they often did events here, both traditional and modern.  This I find is one of the highlights of a trip to the Japanese provinces.  Whereas Kyoto is better known for showcasing Japan's classical culture, the city reeks a fair bit of formaldehyde. And what it does trot out for the tourists is so same-same it borders on tacky, like when you pull out that old traditional lamp that Auntie gave you when she comes to visit.  People in the country doesn't seem to feel the same pressures, and can be quite creative when it comes to using traditional forms as a springboard for something new.  On this stage I could envision a woman in a kimono playing koto, or I could envision interpretive Kathak dance of India.  And I could envision them happening at the same time.      

This fusion of elements old and new, native and foreign, can be seen in other places throughout town, in the form of cafes and galleries. Here in Takehara at least, this concept of blending was best manifested in the form in a statue of Takehara born founder of Nikka Whiskey, Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Rita. (The couple were featured in the popular TV drama Massan  a few years back.)  The adjacent museum is a lovely two-story house from the Meiji period, which detracts nothing from the Edo-period look of the rest of town. 
I wander the narrow high street, duck down interconnecting lanes, and climb up to Saihō-ji temple, and look out over the town from an unusual deck that is meant to resemble the real Kyoto's Kiyomizudera.  Here and again I spot yet another reference, though this one doesn't technically exist.  A popular comic called Tamayura  about a group of high school girls in a photography club here in town. This has led to an increase in domestic tourists, though not today as I have the town more or less to myself.  I sit in a older-looking coffee shop to have a drink to cool myself on a very muggy day.  Above me are photos from yet another production filmed here, 1983's "The Woman who Writes Time."  In Takehara, time follows a loose script, overwriting itself across multiple eras, but somehow finding a cohesion of plot.  And the filmmakers are lucky in that they have a variety of narrative threads to follow up.   

We are already a third of the way into September now, but the humidity stays high.  There was a typhoon brewing out to sea, but it was holding all the hot air over the mainland.  It reminded me how lucky I had been so far on these island wanderings, and these flat, overcast skies above me were the first signs of bad weather.  Naturally, the very moment I think this the rain begins.  I take refuge in the Mitsumoto house, whose annex showcases the works of the Imai family, with their weird looking creatures entrapped in glaze.  

I finish my visit at the Morikawa house, a large sprawling estate with copious tatami rooms.  This surfeit of empty rooms is a common feature of old Japanese manors, the architectural equivalent of a glass museum, where the joy comes from discovering minute details.  The most interesting features are usually the kitchens, where the visitor can play guessing games at the old utensils and cooking implements.  The gardens too delight, and this one has a long maple tree being tricked into color by the cooler nights of early autumn. The light red holds a fine middle ground between the dark of wood and the light patina of tatami.  And red also means stop, so I sit a while on the veranda, feeling the humidity lose its hold on the day due to the rain, and the breeze bringing yet another change.  As it always does. 

On the turntable:  Jovelina Perola Negra, "Luz do Repente"
On the nighttable: Wendy Doniger,  "The Hindus: An Alternative History "

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Papers: Robert Louis Stevenson

"No one knows the stars who has not slept, as the French happily put it, à la belle étoile.  He may know all their names and distances and magnitudes, and yet be ignorant of what alone concerns mankind,—their serene and gladsome influence on the mind.  The greater part of poetry is about the stars; and very justly, for they are themselves the most classical of poets."

On the turntable:  Depeche Mode, "Black Celebration"

Friday, September 08, 2017

Dotting the Eyes

"Where the bloody hell are you?"  Such was the tag line in an A$180 million Australian advertising campaign, which hoped to lure back the Japanese tourists who had once flocked down under.  Not a race known for irony, the Japanese didn't bite. 

I felt the same call every time I rode a train past Mt. Ikoma.  Wes and I had left our north-south traverse of the mountain unfinished for a surprising five full years.  And even getting back to the funicular station was a challenge, due in part to Kintetsu railway taking great pride in their passenger's skill in orienteering train stations devoid of signage.  Bizarrely enough, Wes wound up on a train I would have taken had my ESP skills been better honed, and up the funicular we went.  

The Ikoma sign posters must also subcontract with Kintetsu.  It took us a few minutes to find the trail, and over the next hour, we were constantly second guessing ourselves.  It had been a while since I had hiked this close to a major city, and the sheer density of trails was labyrinthian.  We circled a cemetery so long that I worried we'd eventually join its population.  

Our time under the trees proved too short as we were eventually fed onto a paved road that would lead us all the way down to Takaida station at the mountain's southern extreme.  Luckily there was little traffic, but for the cacophonous campaign cars politicking, including one guy on a bull-horn mounted bicycle.  A woman shrieked "Please support me!"to us in passing, and overcome by the absurdity of it I turned and rebutted, "But you people won't let me vote!" 

We'd only walked for two hours but it was time again for the train.  A long sit in the middle of a hiking day is dangerous, as the laws of inertia make it difficult to start up again.  We debarked listlessly at Ikoma Station to begin our true hike of the day.  A series of steps led from near the station all the way up to the Hōzan-ji temple, one of the more sacred sites in the area.  The traces of this route's long history were easy to see, in the form of older inns and tea shops that had once been part of the pilgrimage.  But as is often the case in Japan, change was being enforced upon the area, and the perfectly sufficient older stones steps were being given the root canal treatment, replaced with concrete.  Wes railed at this awhile, as this was his home mountain, and this route one of his favorites.  Thus we continued to huff and puff up the hill, Wes' exhalations taking the form of colorful words. 

Thankfully the spiritual foundation of the temple was still sound.  It truly was one of the most picturesque in the region, one still mercifully free of the tourist invasion.  The handful of people about were sincere in their devotions, which was equally true of Shigisan Temple which we'd skirted earlier on.  The scent of incense lay thick on the late summer air, the song of cicada heavy in the forest.  The temple grounds were rich with history and symbolic statuary, its centerpiece being the main hall with its overlapping gables, all crowned in cypress bark.  There was also a puzzling European building from the Meiji period, apparently a guest house.  

We continued up the steps in a light-falling rain.  The mountain was infamous for the amusement park on the crest, itself hemmed in by a new forest of cellular phone antennae.  We found the marker for the true peak, ringed as it was by a kiddle train. The attendant was kind enough to allow us to literally step over the train and even shot our summit photo for us, Wes and I looking quite the couple in our (unintentionally) matching T-shirts and backpacks.       

The ever increasing rain and  the idea of an early train home spurred on a rapid descent.  A bit too rapid perhaps as Wes took a hard fall midway down.  All appeared intact, including his sense of humor.  Despite being popular with hikers, the trail was steep and rocky underfoot, and overall, rather bland.  Here and again I'd catch a whiff of the sweet smell of decay, which, in a bizarre parallel to our walk five years ago, sent me on a Proustian journey into childhood, to memories of picnics and sticky soft drinks spilled in the sun, and the accompanying attraction of bees.  I thought that Japanese children could never have such memories, as the people are so tidy, and would mop up such a spill as it occurred.

Our finish line for the day was Hiraoka Shrine, its main torii gate in particular.  A series of workmen were laying a new one into deep postholes, shoring up the foundation with sand atop which concrete would later be laid.  The foreman explained that this will make it easier for the eventual replacement, one hundred years further on.  I found this optimism refreshing, as I looked back at the mountain, a once sacred relic heavily fondled and abused.  The question remained:  Will there be a Shinto in 100 years?  And more importantly, will there even be that many Japanese?  

And then we all will be the ones asking, "Where the bloody hell are you?"

On the turntable:  The Band, "Music from Big Pink"         
On the nighttable:  Harry Ricketts, "Rudyard Kipling:  A Life"

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Chubu IV

It is a quiet Sunday, but I don't like how it has begun.  My taxi driver doesn't know the way, and each of his U-turns costs me fare money. I point this out to him, and feel badly immediately at being so petty, so tell him the girl in the photo on his dashboard (a grandchild obviously) is really cute.  He then turns off the meter.

I look for my farmer chauffeur but don't see him.  I'm hoping the neighboring beasts are similarly sleeping in.  Within minutes, I'm already in the forest, facing a steep uphill push.  The can of coffee and single piece of bread are quickly proving insufficient as fuel.  I'm already exhausted when I come to a Youth Camp at the top of the mountain, the middle-school boys eating noisily and excitedly, the girls jogging along in a wide variety of heights.  Like my energy levels, the signage soon eludes me, so I walk to a tall building to ask directions.  A man in the window cautions me against bears, which have become more active the last few years.  I take this information with me, fear newly fed.  

There is a tourist farm of sorts adjacent, with cabins and a few families milling about. It makes me miss my own daughter, so I have a quick chat with her over another can of coffee.  The road then drops me a long way before entering forest again. Each step downward will eventually be paralleled by another one up.  It is a roller-coaster day, crossing laterally a series of ranges.  Up and up to a pass, then down again to bisect a forest road. And repeat, and repeat.  And repeat.   This is the nature of the TSH, designed as it was to take in as much of the natural landscape as possible.  I mean, the thing actually detours in order to climb the steepest parts.  

That said, I would consider this particular sections to be one of the best.  Granted, a lot of the forest was cedar, but that too is part of it.  Nature, albeit with a lower-case "n."  So too were the views, of electrical towers walking the hills much like I was. Boy, do I envy their stride.  

And in the hills I remain, the ground alive with leaping insects, the narrower grassy sections the abode of spiders, awaiting the next home-delivered meal.  The constant shifting of elevation is doing a number on my legs, and thus inspired, I pull out my poles at some point, speeding along demi-arachnid style.    

I reach something called the Ise Pass, which has an elaborate torii framing the direction of the Grand Shrine itself.  My map shows that another farm was coming up, which promises a cold drink.  But it has closed long ago, so onward I push, through a mixed growth forest, the varied leafy vegetation punctuated with signs warning of bears.        

And finally, the morning side of noon, I reach the base of the stairs leading to my final peak, Nebiso-ga-take.  Despite all the up and down, I have stayed relatively high, but still face a good 400-meter vertical ascent to its 1120 meter summit.  I sit and eat rice balls, day-old and slightly crunchy.   Just up the road from me is a carpark with a dozen vehicles. This is good luck for me, as I plan to return to where I am in order to thumb it to a train station.  I have three to choose from, each about 45 minutes drive away, and in a different prefecture.  I hope to go north, back to Akechi, in order to visit the Taishō period buildings I saw yesterday.  But first...

I push wearily up more stairs, leaning into my poles. I begin to pass people heading down, each a potential ride.  Most painful is meeting a groups of twenty old-timers, who chat with me awhile amidst a worn away section of eroded steeplechase steps.  I accelerate away through the beautiful forest, using the root system of deciduous trees for traction.   

I arrive in a sweaty mess at the top.  A chubby guy sits smoking over his camp stove.  Apparently Fuji is visible from up here, but he's never seen it despite three attempts.  A young couple tries to sit quietly not far from the summit marker, but they're interrupted by a group of chatty women in plaid who've come up the TSH from the Aichi side. I too will follow suit and try my luck with the Fuji view again, but that day is long off.  For now I have a ride to catch.

I fly down, using my poles as if skiing.  I am happy at each person I overtake, but the holy grail is the bigger group.  The descent should take 30 minutes, but I'm cutting well into that.  Suddenly, an ankle rolls, and I'm down.  Structurally I'm sound, but the dust and dirt have muddied an already sweat soaked body.  I dry as I go, and reach the carpark to find the group stretching out their goodbyes, as is customary.  

Just up the road is a small van, and stepping behind it, I change my clothes into a clean set from my pack.  I always take this precaution on summer hikes, as I don't want to revolt a potential ride.  But no one comes.  One by one, my group all turn west toward Nagoya.  The one vehicle that does pass is a younger man I'd met who leaves me by the side of the road.  Shit.

I walk east, knowing there is a turn off toward Akechi, which might be easier.  It is only about 15 minutes away, but no one passes in my direction.  I find the road to be a small one, which isn't promising.  Along the way is a bus shelter, which I approach optimistically, to find that the one bus a week leaves on Wednesday.  

Just as I have talked myself into giving up and thumbing toward Nagoya, a sports car approaches and stops.  The snaggle-toothed driver takes the turns quickly, his wife looking less than pleased with him for picking me up.  They drop me at a michi-no-eki on a busy road, telling me that my "chances are better here, that is, if anyone stops."  I frown at the pessimism and think as I always do, "Well dude, you stopped..."

It acts as a jinx, and I stand beside the road for nearly an hour.  I walk in the direct of Akechi, cursing snaggle-tooth with every step. My curses are eventually directed at each passing driver.  By the top of the hour I've convinced myself that the people of Inabu are the least hospitable in Japan.  Drastic, I know, but this it is the first time in over twenty years hitching in Japan that I am looking to be denied a ride. And I am really stuck, as I am far from trains or any alternate form of transport.  

Finally, a logging truck surprises in pulling over.  The driver, a logger, is young and friendly, and we exchange mountain stories over the next hour.  I've given up on the idea of any further sightseeing, which suits my feet fine.  I arrive finally at the train and once aboard, I gently sway along the border of seasons, as the cool of autumn blows through the window.

On the turntable:  The Clash, "Elvis has Left the Building"

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Chubu III

I've noticed over the years the fear creeping in, the anxiety about the wild that hangs upon me more heavily than my backpack.  Granted, there has been an increase in animal encounters in Japan recently, but it doesn't warrant the fear.  The day's hike brings with it more worry than usual, as I am forced to undertake a late start, one that will guarantee the final hour will be walked in full darkness, and in a mountainous section to boot. The past few days have brought a taste of autumn, a time when the pre-hibernation beasties are most active, gorging themselves on the all you can eat banquet that is the Japanese mountainscape.  

Luckily I check my flashlight, and replace the failing batteries.  I dawdle when I reach Ena station, as I know that the train company has changed their schedules, forcing me to kill an hour.  The time allows me a rethink, and I decide to fork out for an expensive taxi ride in the hopes of getting to my inn before too late.  

I begin my walk a half an hour later in Akechi, an attractive little town that bills itself as "Taishō town,"  since a handful of buildings dotting this small valley were built in that early 20th Century era.  I cover the section I missed last time, following not only the TSH, but also something called the 'Taishō Walk' which leads me past a few of them, then up and over a small pass out of town.  

It is a pretty day through a series of attractive rural villages.  I'm fed now and again onto narrow forest roads that bisect short sections of plantation cedar. With each step I am getting more and more remote, but there is an annoying number of roads out here, which twist and spiral atop one another. Apparently the LDP has spent a lot of money in the area.  Multiple roads mean multiple places to go wrong, and I really don't have the daylight for it today.  I am (and will continue to be) lucky with the ample signage, but one sign has been scratched out and the directional arrow redirected.  It contradicts the map in my book, so I go with the devil I know, assuming that the 'corrected' sign is a prank.  After a nervous 20 minutes or so, I find that I made the right choice. 

I suspect 'road demons,' for the prank, especially after I pass a turn off for one of their race courses.  What is it with Gifu Prefecture and its Speed Kings?  Moments after thinking this, I hear the sound of motorbikes shrieking through turns somewhere above me.  The sound follows me well into the forest and never grew any less annoying.  

Bizarrely enough, members of that tribe come to my rescue.  I find myself walking up a newer section of road, one that is climbing steadily and beginning to compress into hairpin curves.  I've been diligent about walking every meter of this TSH, but I see no reason to be on this road, which brings a feeling of redundancy in the way it curls back on itself.  I turn to thumb a ride with the first car passing, its lowered frame nearly flush with the ground.  My heroes, a pair of Speed Kings, scream away in their usual noise, but prove to be polite in conversation, deferent in their choice of verb tenses.  I'm in the car less than five minutes, but they've saved me a tough climb and helped add fifteen crucial daylight minutes to my day.

I keep to this road awhile before it peters out in a picturesque village at the end of the day.  The sun is still bright and brings out all the shades of green.  The rice harvest is not long off now.  And above wells up my last set of mountains.  I have about an hour of daylight left, but need at least that to get through.  I push hard up the stairs into the trees.  My legs are drained and don't appreciate these concrete 'logs' that are a prominent feature of the TSH. While I appreciate the attempt to improve the trail, the earth beneath them gradually erodes away, and after a few years they are too high to comfortably ascend.  A few years after that, the hiker faces a steeplechase.  I'll take a gradual slope any day.

I arrive atop the pass winded and covered in a poultice of sweat and spiderwebs.  I've made good time.  The descent will take a full two kilometers, into the setting sun. The light is welcome, but it blinds me somewhat, and I can't get a good look at where I place my feet. What's making things worse is my state of mind.  The Japanese believe that telling ghost stories in summer helps to bring chills that ease the heat.  In that spirit (no pun) I've read a half dozen books of spooky tales over the last week, and my eyes are bringing new definition to the shadows.  And as the sun begins to leave the sky, the birds and insects seem to protest its going in a noisy cacophony. 

I pick up my pace as I turn through a long series of switchbacks, scaring a pair of deer whose footfalls echo away in a rhythm graceful and light.  Deer of course are not very bright, but can bears and boars become habituated to man's absence in the night?  Pigs are famously smart (though not enough to fly), and Russian bears can be taught to ride bicycles.  Do they know that after dark, man goes away, and the forest is essentially theirs? 

I reach the road again in the grey crepuscule.  I walk a short distance over to a bus stop, the one and only bus having left hours before.  I can't figure out the kanji for the village's name, so I take a photo of the characters to show my taxi driver for when I return tomorrow. I notice a farmer standing there, who seems on the verge of saying something, but chooses instead to turn toward his house. 

I face a long 8 km walk to Odo onsen, and my inn.   This is the only accommodation along this whole section, and had forced me to cover the distance I had gone.  But it ensures an easier day tomorrow.  I plod along the wide road, hoping for traffic, but everything is going in the wrong direction.  A single car passes in a half an hour, and doesn't even slow.  I know from experience that after full dark, no one will stop.  I call my inn to ensure them that I am still coming, and will be later than expected.  They seem less than happy at this news.  And at that very moment, a car pulls up, with the smiling face of the farmer.

He must be in his seventies, and built with the usually wiry gristle of his occupation.  I worry that he drove out this way simply to give me a lift, but he says that no, the only food around here is at the convenience store in town.  (Funny concept for a farmer.)  My inn happens to be next door, and the old woman in charge is surprised that I arrived so quickly.  So soon in fact that the bath is still tepid.  I sit as close as I can to the faucet, seeking the balance between full relaxation and a painful scalding.  Dinner too is a similarly lukewarm affair, taken alone in my room.  I had hoped for a bit of social hour in a common room, where the foreigner is the night's entertainment.  But I seem to be the only guest.  And the woman looking after me (probably the daughter-in-law) seems a bit anxious.  I ask if they ever get any foreign guests, and she tells that they had one once.  I do my best to be a good specimen, eating all my food, and replacing the futons in the morning.  I've pulled all of them out to build a high-rise bed platform, far more inviting than the single rock-hard layer provided.  But good manners aside, I pushed hard today, and need good rest for the 18 kg to come, all of them in mountains... 

On the turntable:  The Dubliners, "Greatest Hits"
On the nighttable:  Robert Byron, "The Road to Oxiona"


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sunday Papers: Herman Melville

"Meditation and water are wedded for ever."

On the turntable:  The Clash, "Out of Control"

Friday, September 01, 2017


Along the border
Of province and season,
All is in steady decay.

On the turntable:  The Style Council, "The Complete Adventures of The Style Council"

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Nothing is more important than peace, and f*** you if you don't agree.

On the turntable: The Cure, "Join the Dots"

Monday, August 28, 2017

Nakasendo Waypoints #102

Under wind-scoured skies, 
Summer masquerades 
As autumn.

On the turntable:  The Clash, "Tokyo, Japan, 1982-02-01"

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Papers: Jonathan Raban

"Travelling always entails infidelity. You do your best to mask the feeling of sly triumph that comes with turning your back on home and all it stands for; but disappearing into the crowd in the departure lounge, or stowing your bags in the car at dawn, you know you're a rat." 

On the turntable: Dead Can Dance, "Toward the Within"

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Island time
Gradually denuded,
As the hands move ever forward.

On the turntable:  The Cure, "Disintegration"

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Racing the Squals

You can't step in the same river twice.  Heraclitus' best known quote applies as equally well to Japan as it does to Greece.  When I arrived in Japan in 1994 I wasted little time in traveling across the country as much as I could, assuming, as most of us do, that I'd only be here a year or two.  I saw a good deal that initial year, but having limited Japanese, and only a basic understanding of what I was looking at.  Recently, with over two decades of experience as my guide, I've begun to revisit some of those places.

You can't step in the same river twice.  Nor can you bicycle the same plain.  I must have visited Asuka sometime in 1995, and followed a recommended hike down from Okadera to a bicycle rental place to finish the rest of the sites in the saddle.  I remember little of that trip, but have stronger memories of subsequent visits, mainly road walks detailed on this blog over the last few years, though the highlight would surely be the almost primordial Kodo gig amongst ancient tombs (especially the part where I wandered off during the Odaiko solo and was mesmerized by the shadow of the drummer dancing upon the stones).  The bicycle-friendly maps I'd seen during my walks had tempted me back yet again, and it was time to revisit the sites themselves, to interact and learn from them, rather than simply stroll past.

The heat of August is always unpleasant, making even the act of brushing your teeth a sweaty affair.  But it seems the perfect time to lose the few kilograms I'd put on during two weeks in Alaska.  The weather has other ideas, and the thunderstorm that awakens me successfully keeps the sun at bay.  Yet the forecast looks promising so I jump a train south, wincing out the rain-soaked windows.

I depart Asuka in sunlight.  As a stream of schoolgirls walk heavily down the station steps, I wheel in the opposite direction, east.  Not far off is one of Asuka's highlights, the Takamatsuzuka tomb, a pine tree covered hillock as evinced by the name itself.  The sides have been cleared and turned into a pleasant park, criss-crossed with paths for the cyclist or pedestrian.  I cycle up and around the pines, as beneath me, an imperial lost to history lies surrounded by an array of elaborate wall murals.  The Azure Dragon, Black Tortoise, White Tiger, and Vermilion Bird find parallel to figures found in a similar tomb in Mongolia, depicted as traveling in an entourage of Sogdianian traders of the Central Asian Silk Road. These, as well as the adjacent Asuka Bijin beauties are National Treasures, and defy any attempt to remove them due to the fragility of the stone.  (As such they were on view to the public for a short time earlier this year.)

A bicycle underpass brings me to a small museum whose highlight is a large diorama of the entire plain.  More important on such a hot day is the air conditioning and cold tea.  Out front, vine-laden gourds get a similar cooling due to a misting system, under which I too take a turn.  Behind the museum is a small pond, completely covered with lotus plants, many blooming a brilliant purple, a suitable august color, if using the term in both its connotations.  Two old-timers sit beside the pond, their camera lenses as large as cannons.  I am tempted to ask what they are shooting, but another mist begins to fall from the sky above me.  

Through a small village and into a bamboo grove, I come to the paired stones known as Oni no Manaita (Demon's cutting board) and Oni no Secchin (Demon's toilet).  Japanese legends are rife with oni, and due to the time frame, I presume that they began with encounters with larger, hairier refugees from the Asian mainland, who hid themselves as brigands in the hills, descending to raid villages and carry off food, women, and livestock.  This pair of stones is supposedly where their victims were carved up for dinner, and then subsequently disposed of through defecation.  

All this may have occurred during the time of Tenmu, the 7th Century emperor who had commissioned both the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, the only "religious texts" associated with Shinto.  The gods seemed occupied with myself as well, if in the form of a heavier rain, causing me to find shelter briefly under the roof of a small gate to Tenmu's tomb.  The weather breaks out again a few minutes on, as I marvel at the Kameishi stone carved to look like a turtle.  Beside it is a shelter covered in corregated iron, which offered benches for visitors, as well as a series of shelves displaying local produce bagged and tagged at 100 yen.  It is easy to entrust the honor system, what with all the gods and ancestors about.  

After a brief rest, I pedal away with one wary eye on the western sky.  I follow a pleasant path meant specifically for bicyclists, with leads me through rice fields to Tachibana-dera, the supposed birth place of Shotoku-Taishi, and one of seven temples that he had commissioned.  The late 6th Century imperial regent was an early propagator of Buddhism,which had not long before been introduced from China as a way to civilize the wild tribes of the Japanese archipelago. The temple is named for a type of mandarin orange that comes from a tree transplanted from China, and is also well known for the Janus-like two-faced stone, carved to represent good and evil.  In the adjacent Ōjo-in hall, the visitor is encouraged to recline on the tatami mats and admire the 260 flowers painted on the ceiling.

In its day, the sprawling grounds of Tachibana-dera would have abutted those of the adjacent Kawahara-dera, whose modest form stands amidst an open patch of land, the foundations stones of its ancient incarnation still visible amidst the grass. It is a pleasant surprise in a country known for its shoe-horn approach to development.  I express this very point to the wife of the resident priest, how unusual it is that the temple lands weren't broken up by the pro-Shinto Meiji-ists at the end of the feudal period, or by the occupation forces after the war.  She smiles in a way that shows that she too is pleased.  I had initiated our conversation by asking the meaning of the sign out front claiming that this temple was the first in Japan to do sutra-copying.  This practice began in the 12th century, when the temple was already five centuries old.  Parishioners lay clear paper over a sutra (usually the Heart Sutra), and trace the characters in order to gain merit.  With the recent influx in foreign tourists, the temple has begun to offer the service in English.  The wife asks me if I'd like to try but I beg off, not liking the look of the sky and still having ground to cover.  

It is a gentle rise to Ishibutai tomb, a wide open patch of grass at the center of which is a massive pile of stones, the largest megalithic site in Japan  The grassy tumulus has long disappeared, but perhaps the mountain itself was meant to take on that role. There is little to see inside, so it is better to step back and ponder how anyone could have moved stones of such size (the ceiling stone alone weighs 77 tons), or the reason why, though similar sites can be found the world over.  

Asuka village proper begins here.  Backtracking slightly, I enter a small lane that has maintained the look of the feudal period that came a century after the height of the Asuka civilization, a look that is unspeakably Japanese to the foreign eye.  Simplistic buildings of dark wood stand shoulder to shoulder, most converted to galleries or cafes.  My ears pull the focus from my eyes, captured by a recorded lecture piped from one of them. Inukai Manyo Memorial Hall is dedicated to Professor Inukai Takashi, who walked throughout the country to sites related to the 1400 year old Manyoshu, one of the world's earliest collection of poems.  He felt that visiting the sites would bring a deeper understanding of their meaning, visiting 250 of them over 50 years.  His exertions led to the Manyoshu's current popularity, and he even collected a number of the poems which he illustrated in the form of karuta cards, a game popular at New Year's. His daughter has continued this work of illustration, and I read through a series that she has translated into English.  She joins me as I eat a plate of hayashi rice in the museum's cafe, the enthusiasm about her father's work as colorful as the prints on the walls around us.

Manyoshu has a close association with Asuka, and not far off is a even larger museum dedicated to the work itself.  But with the weather holding, I prefer the poetry in motion of bicycling.  I do make a brief stop at the Sakafuneishi which stands on a hillock above.  This large 5.5 meter stone sits alone in a stretch of bamboo forest, and it is presumed that the mysterious, almost alien-like grooves and channels carved into its face were for some ancient means of oil or alcohol production, though to me it resembled perhaps a primitive operating table (Though I have been recently watching The Knick).  A further section, mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, was discovered in the year 2000, and can be seen below at the foot of the hill.  

From here it is a short ride to Asuka-dera.  A temple has stood on this site since 588, built under the guidance of Korean craftsmen, (who had a hand in much of the culture developed at the time, and whose name resonates in the bizarre pronunciation of the kanji for many villages in the area).  I step inside and begin to learn about the temple's history from a young monk who seems happy to talk with visitors.  We stand before the temple's Great Buddha, the oldest in Japan.  There is a steadfast dignity in the old Buddha's gaze, unwavering since the year 606, but the scarring in the copper strongly reflects the impermanence of form.  This impermanence is further exemplified in a small pagoda that sits out back beside the rice paddies, which commemorates the death of Soga no Iruka.  His execution, and his father's subsequent suicide, marked the demise of the Soga clan, immigrants from the mainland who founded Asuka-dera and were the Asuka era's most important family.  

While the pagoda still stands, most other temples from the period remain only as foundations.  I play connect the dots with the ruins, most impressive being Dainkandai-ji's multi-level stone stele, and the Yamada-dera site, portions of which have been converted into the impressive Asuka Historical Museum today housing many of the old Buddhist art and relics. 

Similarly, Asuka-dera's original structure was disassembled to be rebuilt in Nara as Gango-ji, supporting that temple's claim of being the first in Japan.  Buddhism itself is based on the idea of change, and change to the area came quickly.  Unbeknownst to Shotoku Taishi, the coming of Buddhism was the beginning of the end to the Asuka, as the world he knew evolved into a more refined society due to that belief system's code of morals and ethics, followed by the more political Risturyo Codes a half-century later.   This codification too was a Chinese import, Confucian at heart, and thus began the rush to catch up with the Continent and throw off Japan's subordinate status. The imperial court entrenched itself not far to the north at Nara, and just after the turn of the next century, the move was complete, and the country began to take on a shape familiar to modern eyes.   

On the turntable:  James Galway, "Over the Sea to Skye"
On the nighttable :  Deborah Dawkin, "Knut Hamsun, Dreamer and Dissenter"

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Papers: Colette

"The future is what doesn't happen."

On the turntable:  Duran Duran, "Thank You"

Saturday, August 19, 2017


  Sketches for an Alaska travel piece that probably won't be written. 

...sitting on deck, scanning the water for wildlife.  Anticipation becomes the dominant emotion of the day.  Every whitecap is the flank of an orca, every shadow a humpback ready to launch itself into orbit...

...not surprising for a center of government, the state capital Juneau attracts a fair share of lovably eccentric wierdos like our guide Micheal who sings us the safety features of his bus on his ukelele, or the young Tlingit who plays his drum and sings us down the cable-car.  His enthusiasm is attractive, but not nearly as much as the quiet wisdom of the grandfather elder whose stories accompanied us on the way up...

 ...looking up at the glacial-scarred hills.  I begin to see certain patterns that resemble the totem art of the local natives.  And in such looking I may have some insight into their origin...

...amazing emerald green of their rivers, laden with the minerals of glacial melt off...      
...the impossible blue of the Sitka spruce needles, enhanced perhaps by my colorblind eyes;  Eagle flying past below me to perch in a tree, its white head ever watchful amongst the green branches of the hemlock;  Canadian maples, red all summer long...

..Prince Rupert, where the highway ends. From here the choice is by boat, plane, or (suicidally) foot... discoveries:  Dolly Varden salmon;  the subtle blue-greys of Sitka Spruce;  the awe in watching floatplanes landing and taking off; the landscape that dwarfs everything;  the glacial u-cuts of the valleys, the weight of their ice depressing the earth; the cruise ships overwhelming all: 6000 passengers in a town of 900;  the wonder that is spruce beer...

...staring at the shoreline as it passes, in awe of the mountains as they rise above. The density of vegetation, the wildlife within.  The waters too equally dense, an unfathomable 1500 fathoms below me, in a body of water as narrow as a modest river... 

...stepping on deck to see a whale sound; a mere curvature of slick grey back, like a great serpent sinking beneath the deep...

...Alaska is a place where the many "me's" collided.  That is to say, the various persons I was at different times in my life:  

An unfinished anthropology Masters degree, where the lecture hall resounded with the hard consonants that form the names of Tlingit and Kwakiutl, as well as with the more melodic Salish and Haida

Being offered a job on a fishing boat the summer before Japan, one that turned I down when the captain wouldn't offer return airfare and I was pinching pennies for my move to Asia. (Fair enough, as he only knew me through a couple of friends who had crewed for him previously.) But this month, reading McCloskey's Highliners, is a reminder of the perils of romantic ideals.  Then again, I read it with the apprehensive eyes of middle age, having long ago forgotten the indestructibility of 27;

I suppose the apprehension began nearly two decades ago, upon reading Krakauer's Into the Wild, a book that served as reminder of who I'd once been.   McCandless' spirit was mine, and I just as easily could have shared his early demise...        

On the turntable:  The Doors, "Waiting for the Sun"
On the nighttable:  John McPhee, "Coming into the Country" 

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Beautiful BC
Shrouded in the smoke of
A thousand fires.

On the turntable:  The Clash, "On Broadway"

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Along the outer reaches
Where the salmon commute...

On the turntable:  The Doors, "When You're Strange"

Monday, August 14, 2017


Thanks to Amy Chavez for linking one of the recent Inland Sea posts to her Mooo blog.

On the turntable:  "The Last Waltz (Sdtk)" 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map IX

It was still dark when we arrived in Istanbul, and due to the early hour, we were whisked through immigration and customs before I even had time to think of Midnight Express.  Our hotel proved generous in allowing us an early check-in, so we were crawling into bed just as the muezzin began his morning call.  This hotel, the Four Seasons, was well situated, and advertised itself as being a restored palace.  It was only later that I found out that it also been Sağmalcılar Prison, the very place where Billy Hayes had done time.  I’m sure the rooms are a lot nicer now.

We awoke in time for lunch at a sidewalk café, then wandered over to Hagia Sophia.  Despite being the off-season, the place was bustling, and I wondered at how crowded it must have been before the semi-monthly terrorist strikes that plagued 2016.  The place was undergoing major restoration, and I began to grumble about paying full fare.  The nearby Roman Cistern had come highly recommended, but was infested with vermin – hundreds of school kids shrieking and filling the already cramped space with their incessant selfie posing. 

We retreated back up to the Topkapi Museum, number one on my list due to the great old film with Peter Ustimov.  But here too was crowded with older students, pressing themselves through the narrow doorways into rooms already jam-packed. And here too was the scaffolding, with more than half the rooms off limits, including, and most frustratingly, the displays for the Spoonmaker's Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger, which I had most hoped to see.   I cooled my anger with a coffee on the terrace out back, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  

But it was the massage at the Aya Sofia Hamam, that finally brought calm.  This beautifully restored Turkish bath was a masterpiece in tile, the ceiling above as designed by Spirograph.   The time, the day, the era, all blended together by the work of strong hands.

I found the freedom I had been seeking at dawn the following day.  Using the classic Strolling Through Istanbul as a guidebook, I hopped a taxi out to the far side of Galata Bridge to begin a morning’s stroll.  I crossed the Golden Horn once again, alone but for a handful of fishermen casting lines into the waters below, which twitched in the wake of ferries whose own crossings were proceeded by whistle-blast. 

I skirted the Spice Market and began to climb toward a quiet Sultanamet, having the broad open spaces to myself, my photos unencumbered by the shapes of strangers.  After a simple breakfast in the shadow of Aya Irini, I walked through the Outer Garden of the Saray, popping into color in the early springtime.  A failed attempt to cross back below the Topkapi brought me to a military post, so I reversed myself and continued to wander the district, popping into lesser museums covered by my three-day pass.  A number of them were similarly under renovation, and I cursed the tourist bureau once again.  (Later I heard from others that this seems to be Istanbul’s perpetual state, a ploy perhaps at getting return visitors.) 

This walk set the tone for the next few mornings, and I covered a great deal of the city this way, book in hand.  The quiet of the smaller mosques reminded me of the lesser temples of Southeast Asia, always an oasis of green calm in a chaotic cityscape.  Dogs lazed about, and worshippers nearly blended into the surroundings so quiet was their prayer.  I walked ever westward, toward Europe, climbing each of the seven hills, wandering the massive mosques that defined them, each with quaint neighborhoods of their own.  At some point during these ambulations, I fell in love with the city. 

The Fatih area was perhaps my favorite, so far off the tourist track, so run down the archeological sites, sitting amidst neighborhoods sliced into interesting geometric shapes by haphazard lanes, all running into the ganglia of intersections that seemed villages in their own right.  Schoolkids made their way toward classes, and older residents sat with their newspapers and strong coffee.  A pair of tourists too fuelled up in a café, where the owner reached over to the vendors next door, to break the usual oversized denomination.  Nearby, a rubbish collector slept inside his empty mobile rubbish bin. The open marble grounds of the Fatih Mosque were bright and beautiful on a sunny day.  Fountains splashed invitingly in front of a set of escalators leading downhill.  A somewhat sketchy guy dozed over his cigarette, but I worry he was going to steal my shoes.   Down a street adjoining the mosque I began to notice a different brand of Islam had taken root, with bushy beards and women in fuller burqas.  I watched one woman vacuum the street and wonder perhaps unkindly if she ever caught the drag of her hem in the suction.

In the afternoons I’d do similar walks with LYL and her friend Naile, who’d flown over from Ankara to join us.  The days stayed cool and encouraged longer distances, always punctuated by coffee and Turkish delight.  Meals were exquisite, on par with Italy in my opinion, taken at outdoor cafes where we’d admire the dogs, chat with fellow diners, and try to think about anything but terrorists.  (I was affected by them anyway, in the form of Trump’s travel ban.  Unknown to me, electronics had been banned from US flights originating in certain countries, Turkey among them.  The UK had followed suit, and thus I was deprived of reading material for my London flight.  I got of easy off course, compared to too many others, but was annoyed nevertheless.)  

And how not to love this city? With its Bosporus views from Suleymaniye Mosque; the bustling stroll down the trendy Istikal Caddesi; zigzagging through the former Silk Road caravanserai that dot the hill between the Grand and Spice Bazaars; the medieval charm of Galata?  Even the polished patter of the carpet sellers was amusing, offering a brief moment of laughter as you drifted past.  If any of their wares had been of the flying variety, I’d have bought one immediately, if only to return, homing pigeon-like back to the city of its birth. 

On the turntable:  David Byrne, "Rei Momo"

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map VIII

The best description of Ashgabad can be found in Lonely Planet, which I’ll paraphrase as being Las Vegas as if designed by the North Koreans.  Each and every building looked like a casino, most of all the ministries that were of an impossible scale.  The roads that lined them were near empty, home only to angled street lamps that looked like the psychedelic bats that nest in ralph Steadman’s imagination.  We weren’t allowed off the bus, but I kept my camera clicking like a machine gun the entire way.  It truly was a bizarre experience, touring a city that we weren’t exactly welcome in.  As we drove around the word that kept rolling around and around in my brain like a Lotto ball was “ostentatious.”     

Besides lunch in a building completely devoid of signs, the only stop we made was a museum.  It was Wednesday, the usual day off, but the opened up just for us, which no doubt made an already dour looking staff even more unhappy.  The whole placed reeked of kerosene, in an abrupt attempt at fending off the gloomy day outside.  The staff seemed to do little but keep our groups in the sections we were designated to see.  One of them led us around, explaining things in a very bizarre English, filled with mispronunciations that hinted at a passive language development with only books as a resource.  He went into remarkable detail about absolutely everything, which hinted at a long morning ahead. LYL and I broke away to explore on our own, under the pretext of needing the bathroom.  (While the museum itself was a beautiful specimen, the toilets were like an archeological site, with sandpaper toilet paper.)  All the non-historical (read: non-tourist friendly) rooms were monuments to the glory of the empire, and got more and more bizarre as we went along.  The minders we passed didn't seem too happy with our being there, but simply kept their heads down and fiddled with their phones.  As is always the case with these kinds of museums, the payoff comes with the most recent exhibits where the central motif is the handsome, well-coifed leader, photo-shopped into action hero poses before an array of backgrounds.   

We got some reprieve from all of this by driving out to the Nissa, the Parthian capita until the 3rd Century CE.  The land here was lush, the white marble falling away to be replaced by juniper and pine.  Hundreds of thousands had been planted, thickening the closer they came to the carved out hillsides beyond, yet of a smaller height. The easy comparison for me was with New Mexico, right down to the blocky adobe structures baking in the sun, beside the more curved walls of kiva.  

Nissa itself could have been an uninhabited Taos Pueblo, shadowed by monstrous peaks that shot rapidly toward the sky.  On their far side was Iran, a lone road curved and dipped dangerously up to the pass leading up and over.  Somewhere as I walked along my iPhone sent me a text telling me that I’d actually entered that country.  It was a tantalizing thought, but I was happy enough here, walking through the narrow passages that would open now and again into keyhole-shaped doorways that revealed the green oasis that surrounded us. 

Tukemenbashi had ordered some of Ashgabat’s biggest and most garish structures to be built outside the city, including our own rocket-ship shaped hotel.  Nearby was the world’s largest (and perhaps least-used) indoor ferris wheel that looked like a massive lozenge.  Another was an enormous TV tower that brought in very little, but did extend a middle finger toward neighboring Iran. 

Largest of all was the mausoleum to the great leader himself.  It was a beauty indeed, probably the most impressive in town, and certainly the most colorful building in Central Asia, with towering minarets and that ubiquitous 8-pointed star that could be seen everywhere and never failed to remind me of a sheriff’s badge.  How fitting then that we arrived just in time for the changing of the guard.  Their self-conscious showboating was like a Monty Python skit, especially when the highest-ranking officer twirled his rifle high in the air and nearly got a bayonet in the forehead.  Fear of detainment is all that kept us from bursting into laughter. 

The sun eventually fell, and the marble neon was once again lit by a million colored bulbs.  An oil-rich nation, Turkemenistan lacked nothing for natural energy.  But it was the absence of life here created a bigger impression.   How ironic the parallel that an alignment of marble such as this is more often found in cemeteries. 

Our dinner that night was equally dead, energy-wise.  What is the point of throwing a farewell dinner for people who already wished they were gone?  There was music, there was dancing, but the life had gone out of the group and dinner seemed more something to get through than to enjoy.  Like everywhere else in country, the service was inefficient, the people cold. (I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking populace, who only broke their scowling countenances when shouting at you if you tried to raise a camera, even if it wasn’t pointed at them.)  The highlights of the trip were already behind us, leaving Turkmenistan as an amusing afterthought to the glories of Uzbekistan, the beauties of Kazahkstan.  (And if I were to condense the entire journey to a single line, it is this: Kazahkstan has the landscape; Uzbekistan has the monuments; Turkmenistan has the oddball politics.)   But I couldn't imagine starting here. 

After a few hours sleep back at our space capsule, we went to catch our late night flight to Istanbul.  The airport was brand new, just in time for the Asian Games later in 2017, and it was a beauty, but it wasn’t long before the flaws began to reveal themselves.  Security checkpoints began just inside the sliding glass doors, which ensured that queues spilled out onto the sidewalks and roads.  The check-in process was a long and complicated one, the blind leading the blind.  Before reaching the gates, our bags were checked twice, our documents three times.  You never quite knew when you were through, and could sit and caffeinate toward the 4 am departure.   And it was with great relief to lift off, the bright lights of the city receding behind our wings.  I’d never been so happy to leave a country, and am certain I’ll never return.  That said I’d recommend a visit very highly, as you will never find a more bizarre place on earth.  Though I’m not sure that this qualifies as a compliment.  For which I feel slightly guilty.   As I left the Turkmenistan Consulate in Tokyo a few months before, visa in hand, the last thing the Consul said to me was “Write something good about my country.” 

I’m very sorry sir, but I’m not sure that I can. 

On the turntable:  Dead Kennedys, "Live at the Deaf Club"