Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Goin' Bump in the Night

Stepping from darkness,
A pint-sized posse
Of ghosts and witches

On the turntable: "Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour #5: Coffee"
On the nighttable: "Stallion on a Frozen Lake: Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama"

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Suddenly Last Summer

Late July.
I was walking through a light mountain rain toward the Western District of Hiei-zan. I lowered my head to avoid banging it on the walkway of the twin dumbbell-shaped temples of Jogyo-do and Hokke-do, then passed into the large courtyard of Shaka-do. Finding a dry place to sit, I alternated between staring into the forest and dipping into my secondhand copy of that classic Kyoto guidebook by Gouveneur Mosher. (I was surprised to find inside a bookmark which the book's previous owner had picked up at Beijing's Pass-by Bar in 1999. I'd had lunch there a few months before.)

I was walking because I decided to blow off the lectures going on back at a lavish hotel in the Eastern District. The morning lecture had been good, covering the basic tenets of Tendai Buddhism, but the two afternoon talks were on psychology. MatsuMiki was interested but I wasn't, so after a huge macrobiotic lunch, I set off alone into the rain.

I'd been wanting to attend this event, the Kaihogyo, for about a decade, after reading about the Marathon Monks of Hiei in another classic book, this one by John Stevens. (More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tendai_Marathon_Monks) Later that night, we would trek 40 km throught the dark behind a man who had followed this path over a 1000 times before. After a few hours sleep, we arose at 1 am and met in front of the hotel. My grogginess was beginning to clear as we knelt in prayer before Konpon-chu-do. Suddenly, we moved along the paths at a surprisingly quick pace. The rain had cleared but the clouds kept everything below the knees in darkness. I was carrying a small flashlight which I'd "borrowed" from the hotel, unplugging it from the outlet nearest the door to my room. But after the first initial descent down a long flight of stone steps wet with rain, I decided to trust my footing, rely on instinct. As this was a pilgrimage, I was channeling Thich Nhat Hahn, peace and mindfulness in every step. I did slip a few times, mainly snagging my feet on tree roots. Even those with lights slipped occasionally, shooting a kaleidoscope of flashlight beams into the trees. A lot of these pilgims were past middle age, and as I watched them slip, I began to see the nature of broken hips: of the shock at sudden loss of balance and the quick, jerky, unconscious thrust of a leg to stop the fall. The only one of us with sure footing was the monk's dog which dashed along the trail, appearing and disappearing into the dark. But then again, he had four.

During our walk, we would often stop to pray at various spots which our guide, the Gyoja, had long ago memorized. Many were temples, some were statues, but most were simply trees or stones, which could signify that this pilgrimage goes way back to more animistic times. The prayers would last only a few seconds--a rustle of beads, a few muttered words, then we'd be off again. We walked on, along the ridges, the lights of both Kyoto and Biwa's cities far below us but above the heads of people sanely sleeping away the muggy mid-summer night. Up here, the man-made concepts of time and distance meant nothing. We would finish this hike when it was finished. I liked the idea of this, of doing a task for its own sake. I was beginning to envy the monks, passing a life this way for seven years. But then it hit me. Isn't their training, as amazing as it is, merely a long, deluded attachment to the completion of it?

We had a long tea break in the far western park of the mountain. I had been chosen to ring the temple's bell for some reason, and having done that, the 60 of us began to descend east toward Biwa-ko. The sun began to rise then, giving me for the first time a clue as to the chronological time. In the dull blue light, I thought that lakeside Shiga looks a little like Hong Kong.

It was full dawn when we reached Hiyoshi Taisha and the mountain's base. We took a long break at a temple nearby for more tea and onigiri. We'd lost quite a few people on the way, but I was surprised to see one woman in her 70s who we'd met on the bus. MatsuMiki also began to talk to a smiling, almost Gollum-like 85-year-old. I wondered how they'd fare next, on an almost vertical 14-km climb back up to the temple.

Six hours after we started, MatsuMiki and I were among the first to arrive back at Enryaku-ji. There were only about 15 people present for the closing prayers. I have no idea whether the rest were still behind or had given up and were snoring comfortably in their hotel beds. As for us, we had enough time for a long bath before we took a bus back to the Kyo.

Slept most of the afternoon, then hopped a bus back to the Nog. The next morning I'd be loading a truck, saying goodbye to my home of 12 long years.

On the turntable: "Bombay Dub Orchestra"
On the nighttable: Uno Chiyo, "Confessions of Love"

Friday, October 27, 2006

Endless Summer Revisited

Last year's summer seemed to go on and on. Except for some hot flashes in August, summer barely seemed to arrive at all. Or maybe with my Kyoto move, I was too busy to notice.

But, look there, coming over the ridge of memory---

On the turntable: "Weekend Sessions 3"

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tongue Twister for Hikers

Kinnikutsu ni kizuku

On the turntable: Cheikh Lo, "Lamp Fall"
On the nighttable: Randy Komisar, "The Monk and the Riddle"

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Bipolar autumn weather
Makes it difficult
To pick clothes

On the turntable: "Padmasana"
On the nighttable: Hillel Wright, "Rotary Sushi"

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Warning! This post has too many metaphors...

Last week, in a surprise move, Kodo played a gig in Nara-ken. The event was Tenkyo-sai, held every year amongst the ancient burial mounds in Asuka. This festival is the showcase of Yamato Daiko, essentially their scaled down version of Earth Celebration. I'd been wanting to see Yamato for about a decade now. And I wasn't disappointed. Young taiko groups tend to overemphasize flashy movements in an attempt to hide lack of power, but Yamato has both, dynamic, well-choreographed moves and a full sound which strikes the listener in the chest where it should. Their handling of bachi is incredible, with sticking so high that it'd get you penalty time in the NHL. Over half the group is women, equal in power to the men. Strangely, they all have big boobs and even bigger hair. Essentially, they're from New Jersey. One song has them all playing shamisen, knocking hell out of the things in a frenzied jam. Another number features the two lead male players, in sort of a drum battle. During this piece, they keep rolling out bigger and bigger drums in a mockery of the arms race. Then by the end, both players begin to harmonize, finishing with a handshake. Very Japanese.

Then Kodo came on. They are currently in the midst of a full tour, and as this gig seemed a mere hiccup, we got a younger, more stripped down version of the group. But blazing just the same. While Yamato may have power, Kodo has POWER. Plus their playing had the usual finesse; move subtle, more tradition. This younger Kodo was missing all of the older, pre-apprentice program stars but one, the one I call Mohawk Boy. During one piece he was at the end of a five person drum line. The other four, all former apprentices, had identical sticking exact to the millimeter. Only he was slightly different. Marcin has a theory that Kodo's apprentice program is creating almost an assembly line of drummers, at the risk of creativity. I agree, but feel that this is making for some incredibly precise stage shows, something I've noticed over the past few years. While the live shows will get better and better, future CDs will no doubt suffer. Think Grateful Dead. (Sorry Mickey Hart, dude!) On stage or off, Kodo doesn't need the flash of the younger groups since the music is what has always driven audience emotion. (Think European film vs. Hollywood.) A testiment to drumming's shamanic role.

Prior to the fireworks show which closed the festival, the two groups combined to perform "Zoku." Here the differences were glaring. Yamato members looked like kids, jumping around, while Kodo, the elders, played solid and steady. (Or, a flashback to the 2002 Soccer World Cup: workman Germany against the "play" of Brazil.)

It's OK kids, the food is just as tasty at the small table, but the conversation doesn't resonate as long...

On the turntable: Aki Ueda, "Invisible Visions"
On the nighttable: Joseph Svinth, "Getting a Grip"

Friday, October 20, 2006

On the path...

Spent the week contemplating for the infinite time the role that my late son had in my life. During this period, coincidentally, I re-read Maugham's "The Razor's Edge."

I read it the first time not long after finishing college, at a time when I thought I wanted to be an environmental lawyer and activist (Oh the ulcer's I'd have today!). Unknown to me at the time, this book was to have a profound influence on me, fertilizing the creative seeds I'd long patronized as being mere hobbies.

The second time I read it, I'd just moved to Japan. It fed my desire for travel, of baptizing myself with foreign soil. Prior to this move, I'd been rallied by some words I'd read, though I forget the exact quote and can't properly attribute it. It was some long dead figure's call to arms: "The end of idle contemplation draws near; now is the time for action."

Reading the book once again this week, I was struck by how it has gone from being a source of motivation to almost a map of my growth as a man. The India sections talk about having "a passionate craving for Reality." In my twenties, I'd assumed this path to God was through knowledge. After coming to Asia, I thought it was through experience. Now I strongly believe that it is through love.

On the turntable: Miles Davis, "Seven Steps"

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Chicken Little Accessorizes


One strong umbrella
Capable of protecting against:
Chinese acid rain,
North Korean nukes,
Japanese political fallout.

On the turntable: Minoru Miki, "Eurasian Trilogy"
On the nighttable: W. Somerset Maugham, "The Razor`s Edge"

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Foghorn chorus
Of begging monks
Pulls me from my dreams

On the turntable: Rufus Wainwright, "Want One"
On the nighttable: Julia Boyd, "Hannah Riddell: An Englishwoman in Japan"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Gardening at Night

Saw "Before Sunset" with MatsuMiki last night. In some places, the film can be challenging, even for native speakers. At one point I started to watch her watch the film, her body leaning forward, back straight, completely concentrating on both the English subtitles and the dialogue. A shiatsu practitioner, MatsuMiki is well-versed in bodywork and knows well the value of deep belly breathing. So it was funny to see the upward motion of her chest and shoulders. Engrossed to the point that she forgot how to breathe.

On the turntable: Chemical Brothers, "Singles 93-03"
On the nighttable: Phillip J. Cunningham, "Peacock Hotel"

Monday, October 09, 2006

To the east again

A month ago, I`d noticed that Tokyo, in a near unanimous showing of thick, earth-tone solidarity, had declared summer over.
Today, I saw that Fuji had already put on her white winter coat, in these early days of October.

On the turntable: Bob Dylan, "Desire"
On the nighttable: Nicolas Suino: "Budo Mind and Body"

Friday, October 06, 2006

Simply rubbish!

During my aimless meander across southern China, and again while wandering the length of Vietnam, I realized how fabulouly socialist Japan is. It could be arguably the greatest socialist state in the history of the world. In over a dozen years here, I still have little idea whether the people I meet are rich or poor, educated or not. Of course it is the central governments's job to be that animal which is more equal than others.

The washroom at Kyoto's City Hall is an especially well-known breeding place for Bolsheviks. These Big Brethren decided that from October 1st, all Kyoto residents are required to dispose of their garbage in city-issued bags. I understand the reasoning behind this, yet don't appreciate having to pay 450 yen for a mere 10. Worse, most of the bags are simply huge, with much more volume than needed. This environmentally conscious single occupant doesn't create that much trash in a month, let alone twice a week. So on the very first day of the new system, I tried use the smallest bag, but was told by nosy neighbor #1 that that particular bag was for cans and bottles only. She suggested putting the whole works into a legal yellow bag, but this would generate even more trash. So, after about ten minutes, she let me off, after I promised to bring my illegitimate trash home if the city refused it.

Two hours later, nosy neighbor #2 is standing at my door, my poor unwanted white bag in hand. I started up with my spiel again, but after a couple minutes we both lost interest. My trash is now once again steadily decomposing in my kitchen.

Few things here seem to rankle old women as much as improper waste disposal. Seemingly every foreigner has a story.
In the country of my birth, there's a saying that good fences make good neighbors. In the country where I hang my hat, bad trash policies make for bad.

On the turntable: "Miles Davis, "Live in Stockholm"
On the nighttable: S.T. Wellman, "The Mirror Stone"

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Currency of Love

About a week back, I went with MatsuMiki to have dinner at the home of friends. It was to my happy surprise that I found myself dining with the eldest Son of Soy, Rick. He composes a blog which I've been reading for well over a year and now lives just to the north of me. (Find link at left.) To the pleasant strains of Sakamoto Ryu, we dined on macrobiotic delights whipped up by his wife Mari, who works at Biotei. I recommend a visit soon. (To the cafe, not their home.)
Also in attendance was their interesting neighbor, Kitaoka-san, local tea-house architect and connoisseur of life. His knowledge expands in a myriad of directions. When he was younger, he took a long trip around the Japanese archipelago. During his travels, he soon found that he could judge the friendliness of a region based on how the local shopkeepers returned change. The kinder ones would cradle the back of your hand as they gently placed coins into your palm. Less warm were those who dropped the coins from above. In Kyoto, the mats atop the shop counters were miscolored by the fingers of those picking up their own money. Samui!

On the turntable: "Look at All the Love We Found: Tribute to Sublime"
On the nighttable: Nicholas Shrady, "Sacred Roads"

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Riverside Tai Chi

Swaying hands
Direct water
Down the Kamogawa

On the turntable: "Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa"
On the nighttable: Russell Working, "The Irish Martyr"