Friday, March 24, 2017

And Also the Trees...

There is some discrepancy about what defines the Nikkō Kaidō.  Some mark it from Nihonbashi in Tokyo, and consider it to include the first half of the Ōshū Kaidō.  Others, like myself, think of it as just the 37 kilometer appendage that branches off the Ōshū to lead pilgrims to Tōshō-gū.  That seemed like a reasonable, if not challenging, amount to tackle in a single day, so I set off early from Tokyo to Utsunomiya.

Even straight forward journeys aren't necessarily that straight.  This was proven by the circuitous route taken by a taxi driver who wasn't terribly familiar with his own city.  The bends were straightened out by my voice raised in crescendo to correct him, a voice strained by fatigue and perhaps a minor cold. Luckily the crescendo ceased well before reaching the fortississimo of complete exasperation.  

The initial hour through the outer city of Usunomiya wasn't terribly interesting, but I suppose I could expect that of a city destroyed both in the Bōshin War and the American bombings eighty years later.  I moved along one of those dull bypass roads growing tired of the scenery immediately, having walked a similarly urbanized section of the Tokaidō just the day before.  But sections of that road had had a little more charm.  These regional cities all tend to look alike, as I've written here many times before, and I recognized that I could have been just about anywhere.  The only things that captured my interest were the beautiful spring day, the unique kura storehouses made of porous stone, and the high peaks of Nikkō far to the northwest.

The city seemed to drop away abruptly, and the road narrowed to fit between twin rows of what was initially sakura, then eventually grew into the grand giants of cryptomeria.  I didn't know it at the time, but I'd stay mainly within these rows for the rest of the day.  I knew well these namiki, which in the Edo period had lined all the non-urban sections of Japan's old highways.  These arboreal tunnels brought shade in the summer, and offered some reprieve from rain and snow.  I've come across short segments on all of my walks, but never did I image that a section such as this one still existed, one that continued nearly uninterrupted for thirty whole kilometers.  It gave one a sense of what the roads had looked like back in their heyday. 

The initial hour or so was spent moving along a berm a few meters above the cars moving past to my left and the houses to the right.  It took me a minute to figure out why this section was raised, until I recognized that beneath me were all the roots.  It was a pleasant stroll, above the traffic, but every time there was a driveway or a crossroad, the path would dip down, only to rise again on the other side, like a roller coaster.   It was very difficult for the feet to find rhythm, and it certainly woke up the hamstrings.  

Spring was flirting with me.  I could feel the warmth of her caress on my arm, could catch her scent on the windAs the temps were triple the chilly five degrees of yesterday,  I took off my jacket as early as 9 a.m., and walked in comfort for the rest of the day.  There were occasional gaps in the namiki, but even here the landscape was rural farms and pleasing to the eye.  A few sections had even been closed off to vehicular traffic, perhaps in areas where the flow was too great to fit between and rather than widen the road, a new one had been built to run parallel.  These were by far the most pleasant parts of the day, where I could really feel the slipping away of time.  Plus I could get a little reprieve for the feet by walking across the carpet of strewn cedar needles.     The last section of namiki is the most famous, leading north from Kami-Imaichi, the path beneath an earthen floor packed firm by centuries of feet. The last few kilos into Nikkō were the least pleasant, as I once again shared the road with the rushing cars, with little shoulder to stand on.  My feet were in agony by this point, but more worrying was the throb in my left instep.  Little surprise after coming off a long lazy winter to take on 38 km over two days.   

I kicked them up in front of Nikkō Station.  Worse still was what was happening at the other end of my body.  As I had moved through the day, infected by the charm and grandeur of the cryptomeria, I had unintentionally chosen a day in March, and was thus infected a great deal more by their pollen. My head and sinuses swarmed with these invasive spores, as they jockyied for position with the headcold that had alreay taken hold.  I let them fight it out as I sipped coffee in a nice patch of sun, seeing no need to do anything else. 

Most specifically, I saw no need to visit the shrines, as I'd been here a half dozen times already.  In fact I don't really like them very much, in the same way that I don't really like Las Vegas.  To me, Alan Booth had the last word on Nikkō, so I'll give him the last word here:  
"Japanese guidebooks and brochures intended for foreigners rarely fail to quote the famous saying about Nikko:  Nikko o mizushite 'kekko' to iunakare, which these publications invariably translate as 'Never say "splendid" until you've seen Nikko', but which might equally accurately be rendered, 'See Nikko and say you've had enough!'"

On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "The Complete Pacific Jazz Live Recordings Of The Chet Baker Quartet With Russ Freeman"

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tomohiro Hata and the Complexities of Nature

The architecture series soldiers on after all.  This time I profile Kobe-based architect, Tomohiro Hata...

On the turntable:  Caetano Veloso, "Araca Azul"

Monday, March 20, 2017

On the Great Eastern Road

This is one walk that I hadn't intended to do just yet, this Tokaidō.  I still have a number of these old roads to explore, but I feel the need to do them in their entirety, over a series of days, in order to slip into the rhythm of the long-distance walker.  (Only you won't see me doing it in straw sandals.)  Yet I find myself in Tokyo with a number of days to kill, as I await a visa for a largish adventure next month. And a walk from Tokyo to Yokohama appeals.  

I'm not sure what is making me feel more ill, the taxi driver's toxic halitosis, or that second bottle of wine I'd had with my friend Kit the night before.  Still, I had it far easier than most of those who'd made the trip to Nihonbashi, though the wind that washes over me as I step out of the vehicle nearly turns me back to the warmth of inside.  I press on, grateful that that wind is at my back.  It shoves me down the Ginza, her gold tarnished somewhat by the dull dark of cloud above.  Hours before the shops open, there are few people about.  Workers in dull suits begin to appear in dribs and drabs around Kyōbashi, and as the clock moves toward 8 am, their number eventually becomes a torrent.  I find myself going both with and against the flow depending on the block, the current shifting with every subway entrance.  There's a certain exhilaration in this, but my smile is the only one to be seen. 

I come to Shinagawa minutes before 9, and the speed of the flow increases dramatically, then begins slow.  It is around this point that the Tokaidō begins to angle to the southwest, parallel to what had once been the coastline.  Today it is still very much part of the city, though an older part, and bisects a shopping arcade that is a half century away from the glitz of the inner Yamanote.  These places always strike me as being the bed-towns of the retirement set, where the vortices of life spiral them back toward an identity as 'villager.'  This city has often been called a series of villages, and here it is easy to see why.  I had left Tokyo, and had arrived in Edo.

For some reason, this street has an unusually high density of Thai massage places.  In front of one, a sole ginkgo leaf sticks to the pavement, and on this March morning I marvel at its longevity.  Not so the next section of the city, as the old shopping arcade eventually peters out and I am funneled onto a bland modern road that parallels a rail line.  The orderliness of central Tokyo is gone, and here I find suburban monoculture, though one gray and urbanized. The apartment blocks towering above seem less like homes and more like places to bide time between trips to the office.  I've never seen much appeal in the suburban 'life,' and even a short time spent passing through such places tends to induce boredom.  'Short' is a relative term however, and after more than an hour passing through this landscape, it is a tossup which will go numb first:  my feet or my brain.  

The Tama river no longer serves as such a distinct boundary anymore, as the scenery remains built up, though the Kawasaki side is more pleasant, a proper city with tidy tree-lined streets and attractive shops and eateries.  There is order too in the vast homeless village in the river's reclaimed bed.  Sturdy wooden shelters have been hammered together, around which are simple open kitchens and a few vegetable plots.  As spied from the bridge above, it is the most lived-in community that I've seen all day.         

Bars begin to appear near the station area, and beyond this there's a small but definitive Chinatown.  In front of one restaurant, a Chinese uncle is trying to lure people in to eat.  A few blocks on is a large stone upon which is carved a cryptic message: "Happiness can be found here."  I am not sure where happiness can be found on this planet, it must be far far from here.  I continue on through suburb for the rest of the day.  

Tedium and fatigue are beginning to creep in.  I even miss the stone marking the Namamugi Incident, now buried beneath a massive new flyover for the motorway.  In fact the marker itself has been moved one hundred yards up the road from where the brash young Englishman Lennox lost his life.  I knew the story and had long wanted to see this place, but like all too many things in Japan, the current physical environment is incongruous with how it had looked in the imagination.  And imagined landscapes are inevitably superlative.   I'm tempted to temper my disappointment with a visit to the Kirin Brewery nearby, but choose instead to stride on.

On walks like this one, I begin to lose enthusiasm after kilometer twenty, and after twenty-five, the body too begins to rebel.  There is little here to distract from the pain in the hips and feet, so perhaps in my pain I am closer to the spirit of Lennox than I thought.  I certainly share with him a stubbornness, one that drives me onward for an additional hour until I arrive at Yokohama Station, and journey's end.        

I'm not sure when I will pick up the next section of the Tokaidō, a two day stretch from Yokohama to Hakone Yumoto, from where I have walked previously while guiding. What is more certain is that a pair of fellow imbibing bibliophiles live at about the midway point, and so it is in their good company that I will come to take my rest.

On the turntable:  Charlie Parker, "Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve"

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sunday Papers: Apsley Cherry-Garrard

"Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion."

On the turntable:  Curtis Mayfield, "Roots"

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Papers: Hickman Powell

"Today is savoury, flavoured with a million yesterdays.  We taste today, nor gulp it hurriedly to grasp the minted ashes of tomorrow."

On the turntable:  Clarence Gatemouth Brown, "One More Mile"

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Imbibing Bibliophile #10

The Last Paradise by Hickson Powell
Archipelago Brewery, Irish Ale 

On the turntable:  Camper Van Beethoven, "Telephone Free Landslide Victory"

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Sunday Papers: Alfred Russel Wallace

"During the last century, and especially in the last thirty years (1869), our intellectual and material advancement has been too quickly achieved for us to reap the full benefit of it. Our mastery over the forces of nature has led to a rapid growth of population, and a vast accumulation of wealth; but these have brought with them such an amount of poverty and crime, and have fostered the growth of so much sordid feeling and so many fierce passions, that it may well be questioned, whether the mental and moral status of our population has not on the average been lowered, and whether the evil has not overbalanced the good.

Compared with our wondrous progress in physical science and its practical applications, our system of government, of administering justice, of national education, and our whole social and moral organization, remains in a state of barbarism. And if we continue to devote our chief energies to the utilizing of our knowledge of the laws of nature with the view of still further extending our commerce and our wealth, the evils which necessarily accompany these when too eagerly pursued, may increase to such gigantic dimensions as to be beyond our power to alleviate.

We should now clearly recognize the fact, that the wealth and knowledge and culture of the few do not constitute civilization, and do not of themselves advance us towards the "perfect social state." Our vast manufacturing system, our gigantic commerce, our crowded towns and cities, support and continually renew a mass of human misery and crime absolutely greater than has ever existed before. They create and maintain in life-long labour an ever-increasing army, whose lot is the more hard to bear by contrast with the pleasures, the comforts, and the luxury which they see everywhere around them, but which they can never hope to enjoy; and who, in this respect, are worse off than the savage in the midst of his tribe.

 This is not a result to boast of, or to be satisfied with; and, until there is a more general recognition of this failure of our civilization--resulting mainly from our neglect to train and develop more thoroughly the sympathetic feelings and moral faculties of our nature, and to allow them a larger share of influence in our legislation, our commerce, and our whole social organization--we shall never, as regards the whole community, attain to any real or important superiority over the better class of savages."

On the turntable:  Catherine Wheel, "Ferment"

On the nighttable:  Hickman Powell, "The Last Paradise"

Friday, March 03, 2017

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Chubu II

I pick up the trail where I'd left it.  Reading back over my previous post, I appeared to have had the same weather, though this time I had been blessed with good weather for the duration of my week-long tour.  The waning days of February had jumped ahead to mid-March temps, which had made for easy walking, though the hard crust beneath my snowshoes had turned to soup by lunchtime.  

But here at lower elevations I know that snow is behind me. My jacket is tucked into my backpack as I step off the train in the company of a bunch of elderly women, a surprising number for a weekday.  On the train I'd notice a tourist pamphlet that one of them held, and decide that this little town of Iwamura had enough going for it to explore.  I have little distance to cover today, but as daylight is an issue, I allow myself only hour to cover the three km up and back through town.  

It is worth the detour, along the straight arrow lane bisecting the old post town.  At some point, someone decided to preserve the place, and even the banks and post office wear an Edo period visage.  I can see the appeal for the aunties as well, since every single structure, be it business or house, has a display of dolls in their front windows for the upcoming Girl's Day. 

Many of these buildings have placards above announcing castella, which could also be serving as honey for the auntie hive-mind.  Of more interest to me is the Iwamura Sake Brewery, whose most famous output "Lady of the Castle" is a tribute to the area's famed former leader, "Onna Joshu."  (Which explains the popularity of the dolls.)  Inside the brewery they have prepared a tasting section, set up on a little narrow-gauge rail system that runs from the back of brewery.  I fortify myself with a few samples of the Lady's liquid courage, all of which are on the sweet side.    

I backtrack through town and pick up the TSH on the other side of the train station.  It follows a small stream, then is lost in the site of a new apartment building.  I cross the train line and cut through a field to find the path again.  It wends up between rice fields, then begins to climb.  

I huff and puff my way into a cloud of smoke which stretches toward me from a rubbish bonfire beside a new carpark at the top of the hill.  The carpark is massive and new and unbefitting its size.  The same can be said for the temple it serves, a sprawling mess of concrete and gravel.  I'm not sure how long the temple has stood here, but everything in it appears new, and rather than a sense of peace that these country temples tend to bring, all I get is the feeling that somebody around here needs to reread the precepts.  

On the way out I notice a tall Jizo, at the base of which are dozens of food and toy offerings for the deceased children the deity protects.  I buy a sweet drink and leave it at the statue's feet, an offering for Shimazaki Toson's three daughters who all passed away in a single year.  I had been reading about them just the day before in Naff's biography, in a harrowing passage that emphasized their illness and suffering, a passage that had conjured up tears.  As an aspiring writer, I know how difficult it is to balance work and family and creative endeavors. But in no way can I understand sacrificing all for one's art.  Toson lost the plot, lost all sense of priority, and in my eyes he's a far lesser man for it.  

I choke my way up another hill topped with a pig abattoir, eyes awatering.  The feet are suffering as much as the nose, as I'm wearing heavy winter boots and have seen very little but tarmac.  Luckily there is very little traffic, mainly the odd granny driving very very slow. After close to an hour of this, the path begins to angle out amongst fields again. A school girl walking alone calls a greeting across the paddies.  She appears to live in a single house at the end of the valley.  I wonder what sort of life this is for her, isolated from friends, though she has proven cheerful.

Just beyond the house, I enter the mountains, on forested paths for the first time all day.  I am losing the light, so decide to shoot for the earlier of the two trains I've chosen as my goal for the day.  Once I reach a low pass, I begin a quick, gravity-aided descent down the other side.  I am nearly running, and am thankful that the snakes are asleep (though I did see fresh bear tracks a few days before).  

I allow myself the only rest of the day at the temple in the next valley.  It is open and sunny, but the chill is coming up along with four o'clock.  As I nibble a Clif Bar (a gift from Wes on our last hike, which at the time hadn't been for sale in Japan, but now goes for 2000 yen online!), I note that I have thirty minutes until my train, and 35 minutes of hike left.  Local guide books tend to be quite conservative with hiking times, but the new book I am using is pretty accurate, despite my usual quick pace. Luckily it is downhill to town, and I steeplechase hop a couple of electric boar fences on the way.  The final section cuts across town beside a small river, and somewhere in my haste I lose the trail itself.  No matter, it is near the station; not too far to backtrack next time.  Most importantly, I have a few minutes to spare to buy a canned coffee which I sip on the ride back, wondering why each and every time I walk I end up running for a train at the end.

On the turntable:  Coldplay, "X&Y Live 2005"


Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Nakasendo Waypoints #95

Takanami. (武並)
Rows of steadfast warriors
Replaced by cedars.

On the turntable:  Calexico, "Algiers"
On the nighttable:  William Wayne Farris, "Japan to 1600: A Social and Economic History"