Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Papers: Colette

"The true traveler is he who goes on foot, and even then, he sits down a lot of the time."

On the turntable:  David Tanenbaum, "Acoustic Counterpoint" 

Thursday, November 16, 2017


All that ripens
Must eventually fall.
Deepening autumn.


On the turntable:  Elvis Presley, "The King of Rock 'n' Roll"
On the nighttable:  Mike Marquesee, "Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art"

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

On the Great Eastern Road II

I stand with my back to the water.  The river is wide, and a long narrow island lies just off shore, covered with those bristly susuki reeds that symbolize autumn.  Boats used to ferry people and livestock across, but the service ended in the late 50s, after the typhoon.  The only movement out here is an elderly dog walker, who had earlier pointed me to this place.  

As I had already begun walking the Tōkaidō last spring, I decided to walk a few stretches closer to home.  Traditionally, the road had stopped across the Ibi river at Miya, and those ferried across would pick it up again here at Shichiri-no-watashi.  It seemed a good place to start the Kansai section.  

The 'shichi-ri' in the name would refer to the seven ri that it would have taken to walk, one ri being the old Chinese measure of distance, equal to how far a man could walk in an hour while carrying a full load on his back.  Ri markers still line the old roads in Japan, having been used as waypoints of sorts.  Roughly equal to 3.75 kilometers, the walker will indeed find himself passing one about once an hour.  

The morning is early.  I need to be up in Nagoya by mid-afternoon, so left before daybreak.  I look around through the sharp light of dawn, hoping to find something that tells me whether or not the old boat across still exists, even once a year on a festival day or something. Seeing nothing, I begin to move up the road, led forward by shadows.     

Kuwana is a pleasant little town, if lined by modern homes.  It makes sense, as this area got the full force of the Ise-wan Typhoon, which killed over 5000 people and flooded 80% of the town.  The typhoon is still considered the worst storm ever to strike Japan. Having lost most of their history in a single day it is little wonder that Kuwana takes such pride in what remains.  Signage is ample, as are explanatory signs along the way.  It is easy to trust in the path, and leave the eye free to take in what it bisects.  

I follow the canal system lined with power boats and crossed by small bridges.  There is a small park that has been down up as the Tōkaidō in miniature, including a mini Mount Fuji.  I am fed past multiple temples and shrines, and  even the most mundane suburban street have something to hold interest.  An old-timey toy shop has paper adverts for treasures of a pre-digital age.  

The road climbs up to an embankment and abuts the Inabe river.  An old inn still operates here, its frontage a small park.   But the boat service here too is long gone, so I cross on a wide bridge nearby.  I see an old man taking photos, surely another walker.  I'd met two others earlier on, so surely this is a popular section. Or perhaps the fine autumn weather is too perfect to loll about indoors.  

Squashed animals are becoming a theme.  I've seen a frog, a surprisingly late season centipede, and even a small turtle, which may have tried an escape from the small garden in front of a restaurant nearby.  Corpses of another sort hang in the window of an old butcher shop.  Birds above are quite active, especially along the waterways.  There are crows and cranes and egrets.  An old man in hipboots stumbles along one stream net in hand, apparently after the same lunch. 

On a poster I see the face of that Benin guy from Koko ga Hen da yo Nihonjin, a popular show from about 20 years ago.  I'm not a TV watcher, but I enjoyed that one, though I didn't trust that the editing revealed the whole truth, and was cut in a way to emphasis conflict and misunderstanding. (And over the years I've become friends with a number of Tokyo foreigners who were regulars.)  I imagine viewers went away from it with their stereotypes about foreigners even more firmly entrenched.  The Beninese was particularly volatile, yet bizarrely enough went on to become Ambassador to Japan.     Spying his face got me thinking about the nature of foreign "talent" in Japan, and how I've been seeing the same handful of faces for over twenty years, perpetual one-hit wonders who linger about as if they are playing the county fair circuit.  I remember an old interview with Dave Spector from back in the 80s, him saying that he'd do anything for fame.  and would even play a panda if asked.  Perfectly apt for a black and white worldview.  

I notice that there are another of historical signs for the ruins of temples,in a far greater percentage as you would normally see.  I imagine that these must have been victims of the suppression of Buddhism at the end of the feudal era, and were particularly acute here due to the proximity to Ise Grand Shrine, the most important symbol of Japanese mythmaking.  Much like that shrine is reconstructed every 20 years, Japan too completely recreated itself culturally, and much of what we (and the Japanese themselves) think of as being ancient traditions were actually adopted at that time.  The temples, and the foreign religion of Buddhism, no longer had a place.

I cross the last of my rivers, of which there were many.  The Tōkaidō may have been Japan's principle old feudal road, but it with all the river crossings it would have been unreliable, especially during rainy seasons or typhoons.  My own progress has been much quicker, although impeded by gusty breezes that have built over the last hour.  I decide to shorten my walk by a few kilometers.  The last stretch takes me through an old shopping arcade, whose mascot seems to be some strange monk with an elongated neck.  (I find out later that this is Onyudo, a malevolent spirit know across Japan, though here in Yokkaichi he brings good luck in business and as such is celebrated by a festival.)   As I leave this renowned shape-shifter behind, I make my way toward the train station, to undertake my own metamorphasis into tour leader, for a group awaits me at Nagoya station.  This morning walk had served me well, a modest 18 kilo stroll to get the legs back in action after two months kicked up in leisure.    
On the turntable:  Elton John, "Friends (sdtk)"

Monday, November 13, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #33

Gaijin by James Clavell
Matsumoto Brewery, Castle Stout

On the turntable:  Elton John, "Honky Chateau"

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sunday Papers: John Blofeld

"I [believe] that the power which certain places have of evoking a mood of intense spirituality stems chiefly from the atmosphere created by the pious thoughts, high aspirations and ardent prayers of generations of pilgrims who have come to those places century after century with deep faith in their hearts."  

On the turntable:  John Mayall's Bluebreakers, "Bluesbreaking"

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sunday Papers: Sandy Boucher

"An epic novel lies unwritten in the Benares train station."

On the turntable:  Eric Clapton, "Crossroads" 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #32

Sri Aurobindo; A Legend, by Madhumita Dutta
Bira 91 Brewery, Blonde

On the turntable:  Elbow, "Leaders of the Free World"

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Papers: Andrew Schelling

"From the start, Buddhism showed a sharp impatience for stay-at-home habits."

On the turntable:  Iodine Eyes,  "Idee Du Nord"

Friday, October 27, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #31

Assessing the damage after a visit to the College Street bookstalls, Calcutta.

On the turntable:  Ernest Tubbs,  "Retrospective, Vol. 1"

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #30

Along the Ganges by Ilija Trojanow
Masala Chai

On the turntable, "Eels, "Beautiful Freak"

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Biblioing Imbibophobe

On the turntable: Ernest Ranglin, "Gotcha!"

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


All that remains of once great tribes:
Paw prints in the dust,
Monkeys in the stones.

On the turntable:  Furry Lewis, "Back on My Feet Again, "


Monday, October 16, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #29

Plain Tales from the Raj, Charles Allen
Indian Chai

On the turntable:Erroll Garner, "Body and Soul "

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Papers: Marcus Aurelius

"Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight." 

On the turntable:  The Blues Project, "Live at Town Hall "

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Ribbon roads
And pungent pine,
At the collision of continents.

On the turntable:  Ernest Ranglin, "Gotcha!"

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


In the higher reaches,
Some jewels of the Raj
Still maintain their sheen.

On the turntable: Red Foley And Ernest Tubb, "Red And Ernie"

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #28

A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker
Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery, Super Nova

On the turntable: The Eagles, "Hotel California"

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #27

The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
Ayinger Brewery,  Celebrator Doppelbock
On the turntable:  EPMD, "Strictly Business"

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"

Friday, September 22, 2017



On a day before storms.

On the turntable:  Eric's Trip, "Love Tara"


Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Above and below;
Along stepping stones laid
Laterally across the sea.

On the turntable:  Elvis Costello, "The River in Reverse"

Monday, September 18, 2017


Sound of the koto,
Bamboo in the rain.

On the turntable:  Eric Clapton, "Crossroads" 
On the nighttable: Philip Hoare, "Noel Coward"

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"

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #26

The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger
Kure Beer, Kure Ginjo

On the turntable:  The Exploited, "Live at the White House"

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"

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #25

In Light of Shadows by Izumi Kyoka
Matsumoto Brewery, Traditional Bitter

On the turntable:  Etta James, "At Last!"

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

Imbibing Bibliophile #24

The Book of Yokai by Micheal Dylan Foster
Kujiranami Junmai Ginjo
On the turntable:  Eric Clapton,  "Slowhand"

Friday, August 25, 2017


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

On the turntable:  The Cure, "Disintegration"

Thursday, August 24, 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"

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Among the crush of tourists
The pressed palms and bowed head of the old uncle
Reminds me what it's all about. 

(Photo courtesy of Paul Crouse)

On the turntable:  The Bolshoi, "Friends"
On the nighttable:  Ajahn Sucitto, "Rude Awakenings"