Monday, December 31, 2007

Year-end in Review 1

As the Three Wise Men were led by a light, I too followed light through the latter part of December.

The bridge and bamboo forests of Arashiyama were lit up by multicolored spotlights. Every turn in the path brought a new hue, an ethereal quality to the air made thick from days of rain. The steam rising from the hot spotlights themselves added to the fairy tale quality. The hillside beyond Togetsu-kyo bridge was lit all across the spectrum, in a way rivaling, yet falling somewhat short, of what nature had done for free a few weeks before. A day of rain had thinned the tourist numbers and some of the more intimate nooks of Sagano were ours alone. The night was cold but the rain had stopped. Amazingly, Starbucks had set up a small kiosk near Torokko Arashiyama Station, warming us all with a free cuppa. During my travels I'd noticed that Starbucks had scored a prime location near every tourist site, but this mobile joe was certainly new. More than the coffee, the light itself warmed us as we wandered the forest, a far cry from the usual cold neon Tanizaki nightmare. If only downtown were lit so well.

On the Solstice itself, we braved more rain to attend a candle-lit event featuring Goma, in a subtemple of Kodai-ji. The event was a mess from the start. The flyers said a 4:30 start, but about 60 of us stood in heavy rain until 5, and the first wails of the didgeridoo sounded well past 5:30. Miki asked about this and was told, No the flyer said doors open at 4:30. So why were we still in the rain a half hour later? The candles were nice, the didge enchanting, but the vibe just wasn't happening for us. Goma went off on a half hour rant about the spiritual qualities of the music, a sound that goes back to a time before words and musical notes. OK, so far. Then he went on about how his dream was to study these meditative qualities using Western science, and I was confused at the contradiction. So Miki and I left then , going back home to a candlelit dinner and "Paris, Texas," a far profounder look at the contradiction between light and dark.

A few days after Solstice was Christmas, and the full moon. Last month, Adam had found some bizarre statue at Kitano flea market. It was a foot high figure of a seemingly Scandanavian shamanic figure, full-bearded and clothed in red like a pagan Santa. He sat in our garden for a month, anointed in falling ginkgo leaves. On Christmas, Miki and I teamed up with JesusChris for a mission to place Santa on a undisclosed mountainside somewhere in the Kyo. Along the way, we met a lone Aussie-Chinese girl walking alone, and she, taking an interest in our quest, rounded out the numbers. We eventually left the trail, following a deer path up to a hidden pond. It was an ominous place, the earth all around it torn open by foraging boars, under a sky going grey toward evening. One particular tree caught our attention, having a number of trunks growing out of a single flat base. We collected branches from the forest floor to build a platform and placed Santa atop it. Then we rummaged around for other bits of forest detritus--pine cones, slabs of bark, sprigs of sakaki. JesusChris left a crystal that he'd found in a cave in northern India. We meditated a while, then finished off with photos and a few rounds of Oms. I can't imagine what this woman we'd met made of us, and I wonder if at some point she feared she might be sacrificed.

Descending into town, a nearby temple had become a film set. The klieg lights coming through the trees threw psychedelic shadows on the pavement, equipment, and everyone's faces. The courtyard on the far side of the temple gate was a bizarre shade of blue, and some of this light flashed off the sword swirled by one of the actors. We stayed awhile to watch them set up a single shot, of a horseback ninja riding up to the gate, who is challenged by a yamabushi that steps from the shadows. You too can share in some of this light as it reflects from your TV set in the guise of an NHK samurai drama called, "Kurama Tengu."

Fade out 2007.

May the New Year bring you much light...

On the turntable: The Waterboys, "Fisherman's Blues"

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Year-end in Review 2

Mid-month was kabuki.  The Kaomise event brings some of the top names to Kyoto for a month of shows.  The afternoon program had four plays all set in the Edo Period, many dealing with the same themes I have encountered in my study of traditional arts.  I'd never seen real Kabuki before, so off we went.

Minami-za is a beautiful old beautiful dating back to 1694.  We climbed to our cheap seats in the upper reaches of the theater, up a flight of stairs so steep I regretted not wearing hiking boots..  They were high-backed, with a rail in front like a roller coaster.  I had no leg room at all, my knees pressed hard into the seat in front, for the next five hours.  It was like being on a long flight a decade from now.   It took me a while to settle down, and I wasn't the only one.  The first 5 minutes of dialogue were lost due to the Rattler phenomenon that Brady wrote of here.  When the actors' delivery finally reached up here, it was in the affected macho voices of Tom Waits, if he were hung like a tanuki.  Pure, gruff masculinity.  The stage effects were amazing, with unbelievable attention to detail.  Birds sounded, blossoms fluttered, the delicate subtle indication of a season's passing.  Action behind the scenes was silhouetted as if it were happening by candle light.  Even the veranda around the Shogun's retreat had the squeak of nightingale flooring. The crowd was enthusiastic and I'd  long been waiting for the kakegoe shouts done at the appearance of an actor, or to show appreciation of certain grandiose displays of emotion.  Their timing really helped emphasize the "ma."  The lighting at dawn of the final scene where the last Shogun departs for Kyoto was perfect.  

The next show was the Kanjncho story of Benkei and Yoshitsune at the Ataka gate.  I'd  seen this story performed twice before, once at firelit Noh at Osaka Castle, and in an early Kurosawa film.  The acting was top-notch though overwrought.  Kabuki is obviously the expression of emotion, but to an ignorant spectator like myself, a lot of it had the emotional depth of a Busby Berkeley film.  The moral I got was that in a thousand years we've gone from sentimental border guards to fingerprinting machines at immigration.  

After an incredble bento, the second half began.  Midway through the third show--a sentimental tale of giri--my attention began to wane.  I looked around at dozens of people dozing off with full bellies.  Below me were the rich seats,covered by an array of brand name clothing, and I imagined the days when a kimono clad crowd resembled a field of flowers.  The final show was a shorter dance piece, but I could no longer ignore the pain in my knees.   I walked around awhile, admiring the architecture.  In the lobby, a stage hand clad all in black dozed in a chair.  It was the purest display of humanity I'd seen all day.

On the turntable:  John Fahey, "Womblife"

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Year-end in Review 3

Miki's Tai Chi group is an amazing bunch. They have a very full schedule, including aikido, hiking, social dance, and a plethora of Chinese martial arts. Their Xmas party had demos of each of these (except for hiking, unless some folk chose to take the stairs to the Hotel's eighth floor), with the main event being a formal dress-up dance cotillion. Moments after arriving, Miki's senior in Tai Chi came over to greet us, then immediately took my hand and led me out on the floor. Back in Eighth Grade, I'd had weekly dance lesson along with the rest of my class, yet my skills apparently hadn't graduated with the rest of us. To further embarass myself, I asked Miki's sempai, (who happened to be model gorgeous), if my hand, which rested mere inches above her bottom (also model gorgeous), was in the right place. She said, not exactly, and moved it about a foot higher up her back. The redness in my face I played off as the effect of the wine. The song ended, but this coerced dancing never ceased. If anyone was caught standing and chatting (you know, the "social" part of social dance), they were led quickly onto the dance floor. In one case, some guy grapped Miki away as we were in mid-sentence. In my native New Mexico, lesser acts have led to pistols at dawn. The most amazing part is how little fun everyone was having. They all seemed so intent on their dance steps, even doing the obligatory "Sei, no!" before starting. Miki and I seemed to be having the best time, laughing as we worked through a reasonable semblance of what everyone else was doing, yet moving with the grace of a car on ice. Four left feet in action. And I can't see how everyone missed the sheer hilarity of it all. These dances of my grandparent's day done to the music of my own. Foxtrotting to Michael Jackson! Rumba to Madonna! Waltzing to the theme from 'Chariots of Fire!'

And a good time was had by two.

On the turntable: Widespread Panic, "Live in the Classic City"

Friday, December 28, 2007

Year-end in Review 4

The Origin arts foundation has a new machiya down in Gion, and we were invited to the opening party.  We sipped wine as Bodhi, the manager showed us around.  It was a breathtaking house, a perfect blend of Japanese aesthetic  (huge beams carved from tree trunks older than my country,  steep stairs moonlighting as dressers, the bath an oversized hinoki sake masu)  and Western function (hidden indoor heaters, high tech toilets).  An apprentice maiko danced for us, then came over to chat as I reached for my second piece of sushi.  Her face and makeup were perfectly sculpted, but I found her dense Kyoto dialect impenetrable, so I politely moved on toward other, easier conversations.

On the turntable:  Eels, "Beautiful Freak"

On the nighttable:  Donald Richie, "A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics"

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Year-end in Review 5

Any warm sunny day this time of year should be considered a gift, even if that gift will eventually come with a heavy pricetag. And December had warm sunny days aplenty.

On one Saturday, Miki and I decided to do part of the Kansai 33 Temple Kannon pilgrimage. I'd done 24 of the 33 temples in June, 2002, a time that I consider to be amongst my most memorable in Japan. During the day, I'd wander the countryside, hitching from temple to temple, then head back into one of the three major Kansai cities to watch a World Cup soccer match with friends over beers. I'd also found time to visit a few aikido dojos and for some Zen training in my favorite temple. That summer, there was one segment I didn't do, the long haul over the mountains from Daigo to Ishiyama dera.

We got to Daigo early. Due to the ongoing construction, we forewent the temple's lower gardens and structures, and went straight up the mountain. The leaves were still in color, and the long flights of stone were littered with the first of their suicidal numbers. We eventually came to Daigo-ji's upper reaches, with fantastic wooden statuary and incense smoke hovering in the cold shadows. It had been a long ascent, so we sat in the sun drinking lukewarm tea and eating bread. The trail dropped straight down the opposite side of the mountain, but we got sidetracked by a smaller trail leading to Daigo-ji's deepest reaches. At its end, we found a narrow cave with small pools of water around the altars. I shined my torch into the darkness beyond, but mysteriously, the battery gave out just then. After a brief prayer, we followed another side trail which led to a pile of boulders offering views of the valley below. I gazed over the mountains beyond, slightly uneasy. We had no maps and didn't know the direction or the distance involved. But a pilgrimage is all about trusting in the local gods. Our feet would do the rest.

The forest below was a patch of land beautiful and unmolested. A rickety old bridge crossed a brook which led us into the valley. It was warm and sunny again down here. An old woman was selling vegetables from a roadside stand. Miki chatted with her awhile as I moved some boxes she'd been struggling with. My reward was two mikan big as softballs. The valley was wide and pleasant, close to Kyoto yet feeling remote. At the far end, a path took us again into the hills, beneath low hanging bamboo trees and signs warning of poisonous vipers. We had lunch atop the ridge, washed our hands at a small shrine, asked directions of a couple of young potters who dressed and talked like gangsters.

The path led us into the afternoon. At its end we arrived at Ishiyama Temple. A woman noticed us in the courtyard and gasped. She'd seen us from a bus full of old women that had passed us hours ago. We wandered the temple grounds, up the hills to the hidden parts beyond. It was a wonderful place, but we slightly cheated it in being tired. We'd been amazed already today by Daigo-ji, and had walked 23km since then, up and down over four ridgelines. Exiting, we saw the sign saying the train station was yet another kilometer walk away. Groaning, we pushed on toward the train which would take us home.

On the turntable: Philip Glass, "Satyagraha"

On the nighttable: Jan Blensdorf, "My Name is Sei Shonagon"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sunday Papers: Andre Gide

"One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

On the turntable: Van Morrison, et al., "The Skiffle Sessions"
On the nighttable: Garrison Keilor, "We Are Still Married"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

With apologies to Sei Shonagon...

Hateful Things in Autumn:

Lazy monks with leaf blowers

(Surely there's a koan here somewhere, relating, no doubt, to dust alighting).

On the turntable: Roland Kirk, "Live in Paris, 1970"
On the nighttable: Bruce Chatwin, "In Patagonia"

Friday, December 14, 2007


I realize that didn't post much in November. When I returned to the Kyo in late October, I'd made a pact with myself not to leave the country for a year. It was time to hunker down and get to work. For the first time since I moved down here, I felt I could finally commit to this city. So it was that I began to be more proactive about finding yoga students, began to set up yoga workshops for next spring, began to hang out with friends more, began to take my personal yoga and budo training more seriously. Plus the resumption of essay hell, and a few other pleasant surprises, about which I'll write when and if they arise.

There was of course time for fun. One afternoon, while having tea with Big Paul C, we saw Adam strolling up the Kamogawa. He joined us, and the nature of the conversation turned to things more historical. I immediately likened him to a modern day Bruce Chatwin, for his breadth of knowledge and infectious zeal for life. He spoke of a sword hidden in the deep mountains of Tokushima, unconsciously pulling his shawl around him like a wizard's cloak. The next day, he invited Miki and I to come out to Chiiori, in the deep Iya wilds of Shikoku. We rented a car and crossed Awaji, passed Tokushima city, and went over three high passes, bisecting the three Iya valleys. Our route followed that of the Heike as they fled in defeat 800 years before. The beauty of the area required many photo stops, and its danger had us take a long detour around where the land had slid, covering the road. We arrived at Chiiori long after dark. It was mellow and peaceful up there, eating and staying warm around the fire as the frozen rain fell outside. When the sun was out, we braved short walks, or sitting on the hillside looking at a somewhat Himalayan landscape with Tsurugi-zan looming over all.

Another weekend, Miki and I hiked from Kurama to Takao, climbing two passes and staying high in the mountains north of the Kyo. Along the way we came across a hunter and his dog out looking for deer or wild boar. It was the first time I'd seen a gun in this country, but it brought on thoughts about greater dangers: Were bears, usually in their winter dens this late in the year, still foraging on these unseasonable warm days? Shortly after, another sign confirmed our fears. As we approach a trail marker, we jumped backward when we noticed a poisonous viber enjoying the sun at the marker's base. Our walk took us through a beautiful remote village high in the hills, and to the shores of a small lake, unspoiled by concrete. It was encouraging to see a place with no traces of development, and we weren't the only ones to think so. Nearby, a film crew cranked out the latest episode of the samurai drama, Mito Komon. The cast and crew had lunch in their trucks while the lighting crew faced the challenge of filming under a sky constantly changing.

Back in the city, there were parties. We attended the Kyoto premeire of Gaia Symphony 6. Afterward, there were drinks. I talked a while with Jin Tatsumura, the film's director. There were also lots of people in the alternative health field, and quite a few scholars. One professor jittered and twitched as we talked with him, and if this were a different country, and a different decade, I'd have guessed he was pretty coked up.

During the last week of the month, there was a wine tasting party at @Cafe, and a couple farewell bashes for friends seeking other alternatives. At one of these, Sam was tap-dancing along to a jazz band. Each of his footfalls seemed to mock me, as if counting down the days until my own eventual departure.

Autumn was warm this year, and the koyo hunters were no doubt disappointed. We too followed the leaves through their changes. Each day was like watching a striptease in extreme slow motion. The Path of Philosophy gets a lot of traffic this time of year, and two temples were open for only a few days. Reikanji with its surprisingly large garden and lovely screens. Anrakuji, with the gorgeous moss covered gate, and the trimmed shrubs out back, marching toward the borrowed scenery like an army of helmeted warriors. Further North, Sekizan Zenin hid away from the crowds, the late afternoon sun pulling details of highly elaborate craftwork out of the shadows. The trails behind our place lead up to Uryu-zan, then around to Tanuki-dani. The ridges leading south mocking the technicolor neon of downtown. And gosho itself, with fewer trees, but whose gingko stand high and proud and with undeniable majesty....

On the turntable: Xymox, "Phoenix"

On the nighttable: George Leonard, "Mastery"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Anger Begets Disgust

Your friends back in the States are jaded.  They tell you how lucky you are to be far overseas, away from the madness.  You laugh and tell them of raised airfares due to fuel prices, and of the increasing xenophobic paranoia of your host country.

Then winter comes.  And you read of the elderly freezing to death up north, unable to afford the kerosene which costs twice what it did last year.  And you read of elementary schools cutting lunch programs, since it costs too much to ship food in.

And you think of the men in charge back home, and how satisfied they seem with their Middle Eastern Follies..

On the turntable: Nine Inch Nails, "The Fragile"
On the turntable:  Vikram Seth,  "Golden Gate"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Slouching toward Shakadani

I don't write about it much, but the main reason I moved to the Kyo was so that I could study Takeuchi Bujutsu, the oldest extant jujutsu style in Japan. This nearly 500-year old system was born in the deep mountains, so it's fitting that my dojo sits on a mountaintop above the Northwest corner of the city. It is a mysterious, and quite often, a spooky place. A few weeks back, my sempai Tony and I were talking out front of the dojo after practice. Up above us, something large was moving steadily but stealthily down the slope toward us. "A tengu?" Tony asked. I yelled into the dark, "Teach us some sweet swordsmanship!"

It's getting cold in the Kyo now that it has hit December, far too cold to ride my Vespa up there. I prefer an hour of reading in the warmth of a bus. I'd noticed that there is a set of stone steps leading from near the bus stop, and wondered if they were a shortcut to the top of the zigzag of streets leading up to the dojo. Last Saturday night, I took a torch with me and decided to explore. The steps leave civilization quickly, entering a dark and dense bamboo forest. Midway up this trail is a small pond. I'd had my iPod going, but above it I thought I heard something. I took off the headphones to hear something enter the water. Not a loud sudden splash of a startled animal, but the slow deliberate movement of something trying not to be heard. Like something hunting. I shined my light over the surface of the pond, but it was glassy, without a single ripple. I usually feel quite at ease in the wild, but on this occasion, my blood turned icier than the winter air. I hurried up the hill, shining my light wildly behind me every few steps until I entered the safety of the dojo.

And then I asked myself, quite seriously. Are kappa real?

On the turntable; David Byrne, "Rei Momo"

On the nighttable: Gary Katzenstein, "Funny Business"

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday papers: Ogden Nash

“Translations are like mistresses: the beautiful ones aren’t faithful, and the faithful ones aren’t beautiful.”

On the turntable: Timbuk 3, "Eden Alley"
On the nighttable: Paul Auster, "Oracle Night"