Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ohara, After Scarlet Leaves

Ohara had been calling my name awhile. I have long wanted to walk its narrow lanes through the fields in falling snow, the increasing white purifying this valley, called by some the Buddhist Pure Land. We settled on a day which brought the season's first feel of winter, all crisp and cold. It felt it would snow, so we set off. We started up at Jakko-in, snugly nestled up in the corner of the forest. The buildings had been rebuilt recently, after the devastating fires which gave a terrible lesson in impermanence. There had always been a strong feeling of melancholy up here, but the new wood and burnt back vegetation suggested openness and light. The pond in the shape of the 'shin' kanji remains, though not the large oak which had shaded it for a thousand years. The jizo statue inside was horribly painted, and although I later heard it was decorated in the exact Kamakura design as its former incarnation, it hardly excused the gaudiness. I chose to turn my back on it, facing instead toward the dead tree, all the while hoping that the light rain would turn to flakes.

We moved down through the valley, beside a stream which led between houses of gorgeous eaves and that rusted benigara hue. At the far end of the village was a grove of three enormous trees, hiding a small shrine that marks the spot where the head of Otsu had been buried centuries before. Once a renowned beauty, she was found to actually be a massive snake and was cut into pieces. Nearby, a group of people were working in a field, the women in long Indian skirts, their children clinging to their backs, or running between the rows, bare blue legs extending from shorts and pumping furiously. We were surprised to run into a few friends, and so after a squat and a chat, we left a bit richer, in hand a bag full of fresh adzuki beans still podded. At the opposite side of the valley, above a another small stream and some old shops, we sat in a park looking across the striated rice fields extending toward striated clouds. Above us were some autumn cherry trees, their few remaining blossoms white and fluffy like the impending flurries the weather seemed to promise. We moved along, past the shops and below a simple pulley system which brought ice cream and other goodies up to people who picnic beneath the cherries on warmer days.

Near the top of the road we turned to enter Sanzen-in. It was pretty quiet today, and we had most of the large tatami rooms to ourselves. A few of the hanging scrolls drew us in, and we'd sit and study them awhile. Moving across squeaky nightingale floors took us further into the temple building, eventually arriving at a small room with a raised dais, colored something like a Tibetan mandala. The wall beside was painted with a single soft stripe, a remarkable control of hues and textures which became a rainbow when the sunlight hit it in a certain way. A friendly monk came up and sat with us awhile, rewarding himself some conversation during a break in the year-end cleaning. We moved out into an area of small forest, between two massive beds of moss, from which small jizo sprouted like mushrooms. The small dark Hondo sat in the middle of the moss, its Buddhist triptych within serenely staring out toward the cedars. One of these giant trees had a trunk like a whale's tail. Another monk sat nearby, nodding off, his head coming precariously close to his desk as he drooped. Not wanting to disturb him, we crept back out in the plush world of moss, moving toward another garden above. In other seasons, this is all all hydrangeas. One can imagine a world of bursting blue, contrasting dramatically with a series of orange bridges over the streams rushing down from Hiei above. Tiny black statues filled the halls and small shelves here, many erected out in the courtyard itself due to the overflow. Due to their size and the way they're displayed, it all looks like the spice rack of the gods.

Moving back down the hill toward the bus stop, stopping for a cup of tea and a look at the sky. The sunlight was contorting itself through the breaks in the clouds, beaming like the halo of the large Amida we'd just left behind. The weather today looked like it would hold. The only swirls we'd see overhead would be the painted maidens gliding gracefully across pale blue ceilings, the notes from their lyres taking shape as the Nembutsu. Merrily we'd dance toward the Pure Land...

On the turntable: Ootaka Shizuru, "Sizzle"

On the nighttable: Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Idiot"

On the reel table: "Down by Law" (Jarmusch, 1986)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Kumano Prologue III

We picked up the Kumano Kodo, (here still called the Kyo Kaido) at the base of Otokoyama. Leaving the road, we followed a quiet trail through the forest toward Iwashimizu Taisha, above a series of inns which once housed the pilgrims who once stopped here to worship. Today, the inns look well past their expiration dates, rotting slowly back into the damp hillsides. The final ascent before the shrine was up a series of moss-covered stone steps, looking warped in the middle due to generations of footfalls of pilgrims. The main hall had a unique construction, stacked up like one of those Heian period hats that nobles once wore. The slatted box into which worshipper's toss money had chipped paint from a million striking coins. It was colorful place, some of the outer buildings with ornately painted eaves like Korean Buddhist temples. Nearby, a calendar hung, painted the red black and green of the Rasta, and marking this years inauspicious birthyears. This was a unusual place, with interesting statuary, the figures looking more Asian than Japanese. Bare earthen walls ringed the whole site, and in one corner squatted a beautiful storehouse built of stacked logs, protecting the treasures within. The trees overhead were treasures themselves, dwarfing this courtyard with their proud and incredible height. The whole top of this mountain was shaded by tree of sizes rarely seen in Japan anymore. The forests in this country can be breathtaking if left alone. In fact, such beauty goes a long way in restoring my faith in this place. Reading back over my posts of the past-half year, it's apparent that I've lost a lot of faith in my adopted home. Yet in my recent walks, I have been reminded how much beauty still remains, and those feelings of peace that overcome me at such moments are far more powerful, more resonant, than fleeting moments of crankiness which are essentially reactionary. I do indeed love it here, and will long for this beauty once I've gone.

We found a trail and followed it down again through the forest, unsure of our direction but hardly caring. Our feet somehow brought us back to the Kyo Kaido, running here as the main street of a small village, presumably a buraku area due to the predominance of butcher's shops. At the next signal, we reentered the current century. Pressing on now, through apartment block ghettos, a shopping mall, a train station, and a golf course, before finally meeting the Yodogawa again. Turning left, we were a full days walk from Osaka...

On the turntable: Dexter Gordon, "Bouncing with Dex"

On the nighttable: Bert Cardullo, ed., "Akira Kurosawa Interviews"

On the reel table: "An Inn at Tokyo" (Ozu, 1935)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Nanao Sakaki 1923-2008

Time to rest those weary feet.

Thanks for the footprints...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Under the Light

A Korean looking woman with a heavily painted face describes some of the history of this shrine. She tells us that the worship here has been slightly corrupted by Christianity, and that to pray here is a means of alleviating guilt. She is enthusiastic as she prosteletizes, and then just as abruptly as she approached, she moves on. I see her later, leading a group of worshippers that can only belong to one of Japan's New Religions. They stand before Iwabune Jinja's main hall, bowing so deeply that they're nearly 90 degrees. Coming up again, they clapped 4 times, then began to chant a sutra, one hand held out waist high, palm down, as if indicating some kind of measure. Their leader chants on powerfully, and with her Korean features and heavy make-up, she looks shamanistic, ritualistically linking us with the older, wilder beliefs of the Asia mainland, back to a time when the supernatural was the natural. Iwabune gives just that impression, of a harkening back to a spiritual realm, in the days when Asian spirituality was beginning to extend its legs to these islands.

Our own group of five descended into the 'cave', though it was less a cave than a jumble of huge rocks which had come to rest atop one another. Near the entrance, candles burned from small altars and nooks in the stone. It felt like a tomb, all heavy stones and earth, and moving through required us to nimbly balance on wooden slats laid high above quick streams. We had now crossed over to the other realm. Ducking under a large opening, we entered the main chamber, bisected by fast-moving water. This was fed by a small waterfall, and above it was a small shelf, upon which was a stone wrapped in white cloth, representing the main deity. It was dim and hard to make out, but it reminded me of a lingam, which would be a surprise considering that this cave was considered to be the lair of the Sun Goddess, during her days as Japan's first hikikomori. We stayed in here awhile, admiring the quiet and the collection of massive stones perched above us at random and precarious angles. It was easy to get caught up into the magic of this place, with its rich fertility for the creation of folk beliefs. Here on the winter solstice, we too had entered the realm without light. It was just shy of noon, and despite the overcast day, the stone beside the deity was warm with light. Later, at this day's apex, she would fully bask.

To leave the chamber we had to slide legs first through a series of slippery stone openings, representing the onward trip through the birth canal. We joined a stream bed here, moving toward another series of stones upon which we'd have to climb in order to reach the series of altars tucked into the upper reaches barely visible by candle light. Upon these spiritual heights, we alternated sitting quietly and puzzling out some of the deities represented here. Serpents of white and gold were well represented, and someone had symbollically broken an egg on a rock nearby. We stayed until all the candles had burned down. And in the waning light, just an instant before being engulfed by full darkness, we found one last unlit candle, which accepted the flame in a profound rebirth of light. This light guided us toward an exit into the afternoon sun, itself to be reborn tomorrow, beginning the new cycle in the new harvest year.

A light rain was indiscriminately falling, reshaping the ancient stones while shuffling the leaves newly strewn atop them. A group of old men were near the shrine's office, pounding dried straw to later be twisted into next year's Shimenawa. As one of our group remarked, the true folklore lies not in these caves but in these men. We left then to make the short trip to a small hut popular with day-hikers. On the adjacent side of this narrow valley was a sheer rock face, and below it, someone had constructed a synthetic, artificial wall for climbers. (We'd definitely arrived back in modern Japan.) We had a quick bento lunch, surprised by another of our group turning up suddenly, then set to work. As this was an official Hailstones Haiku event, we spent some time putting words to impressions. Back in February and the symbolic end of winter, Moya had visited Ireland's sacred Newgrange with some poets who had composed a couple dozen poems on site. Our job was to answer these with two additional lines, turning haiku into tanka at this, the subsequent winter's birth. Three of us finished early to walk up the valley and across the suspension bridge 180 meters above. We continued on, back down the valley and along the river to the village proper. In the warmth of a cafe, we critiqued one another's work, until the sun actually did set, bringing about a definitive conclusion to the event, the day, the year.

On the turntable: "Victrola Favorites"

On the reel table: "Mystery Train" (Jarmusch, 1989)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And Also the Trees...

Twice this week, I was witness to the hasty amputation of Gingko limbs.  Standing in the middle of the street, to the west was still autumn,  bright yellow leaves an exclamation point to a bright beautiful day.  To the east was winter, gnarled limbs splayed like contorted fingers, reaching up as if screaming,  "Why!?"

On the turntable:  Mannheim Steamroller, "Christmas"

On the reel table:  "Bicycle Thieves"  (De Sica, 1947) 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Layers at the Western Edge

A woman had been singing since a few stations back. It was low, unobtrusive, yet added a sweet subtle melody to accompany the rhythm of a rocking train on a sunny day. As we pulled into Oyamazaki, I brought full focus to her voice, wondering if she'd continue, becoming more conspicuous without the cover of the throbbing of the rails. As we came to a full halt, I distinctly heard it, then quickly realized that what I was hearing was not her voice but the train at the next platform pulling away, humming toward Kyoto in the exact same pitch.

Miki and walked out into this small town, up leaf strewn streets past well-groomed homes. At the top of this meandering road was the Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art. It was housed in a lovely Tudor style home set against the hillside. We wandered the rooms, looking more at the details in the architecture than the works hanging on the walls. There were a few huge fireplaces, fine woodwork on the ceiling and eaves, plus massive windows, many of yellow stained glass making the interior forever 'magic hour.' Much of the furniture equally impressed, in particular one gravity-assisted clock hanging on the staircase. From the upper balcony we could see across to Iwashimizu Tenmangu, and below that the confluence of the Yodo, Uji, and Katsura rivers, where we'd left our Kumano Kodo Prequel walk a couple months ago. Behind the house was a small traditional pond garden, the surface completely littered with fallen maple leaves. This is acclaimed to be one of the best (hidden) places to see autumn colors, but the heavy winds and rain of the past couple days had abruptly closed out the season. We moved next into the large concrete Habitrail tube as designed by Tadao Ando. (I find the man's theory and philosophy to be incredibly inspiring, but I find his work to be pretty redundant. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, "There is none more grey.") Inside was Monet's Water Lillies, the definitive prize of this collection. There was also a Picasso, along with a few others. The theme of the exhibition was "Blue," and I soon found myself humming Joni Mitchell, though not as well as the woman on the train. I sat awhile in a funky right handed chair, looking over at Monet's genius. The frames of all these paintings were masterpieces in their own right, though nowhere was written the names of the people who laboriously carved them.

We moved up through the forest to Houshakuji Temple, where the Kamakura era statues sit in perpetual meditation. Up into the trees again, to a clearing where Hideyoshi celebrated his victory over Akechi Mitsuhide, shortly after the latter had cornered Nobunaga, forcing the latter to perform some impromptu soul searching at dagger's end. We had our lunch here, sitting in the sun amongst the ghosts of long fallen samurai. At the top of the ridge was Sakatoke Shrine, dusty and old, with unusual structures open to the elements. Standing here, I looked into the forest to see a warlord riding up on a white horse. A half second later I realized that it was simply a man in a loud jacket and his wife in a white hat, mimicking exactly the colors of the murals I'd just turned away from. The backdrop and the real forest matched up perfectly, all well disciplined rows of bamboo, mottled with light. Miki and I carried on down the trail. Needing to pee, I stepped a few feet into the forest, but immediately heard voices. Zipping up, I decided to wait, only to find a group of 200(!) hikers coming along the ridge. Miki and I moved on, against the stream, taking quite a few minutes before we were free of them all. We made our decent then, past a mountain biker carrying his machine on his shoulder, working his way up slowly. He was the first biker I've ever seen on trails in Japan.

We reached the road, crossed, and moved through stubbled rice fields. Ice puddles lay untouched by the low winter sun. We soon reached Youkokuji , a lovely complex of buildings standing as the focal point to a well-preserved village. The extent to which things were left untouched shows the pride in tradition that the locals here must have. We spent some time walking up and down the stairs between the buildings, giving ourselves to the atmosphere that flourishes so well in esoteric Buddhist temples. We took some of this magic back into the woods, moving as ever through bamboo. These mountains were alive with--well, simply alive, embodying legends long forgotten. Another, smaller village marked the opposite end of this realm. I can imagine the festivals this place must hold, and the mystical experiences of their centuries-dead residents which gave birth to such rituals. A half dozen houses stood around a tiny temple of a simple structure. Inside was a tremendous wooden Buddha nearly the size of the room itself. Miki and I sat a long while, taken in, taken in. When we were able to move again, we made our way back through more bamboo, slowly reentering the current century, where trains awaited to take us into hyper-modern Osaka and my reading for Four Stories.

On the turntable; Junko Onishi, "Live at the Village Vanguard"

On the reel table: "Go" (Yukisada, 2001)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday papers: J.D. Salinger

"The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."
"Catcher in the Rye"

On the turntable: Cecil Taylor, "Looking Ahead"

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Out of the Past

A woman striding into the room, moving slowly but purposely in her long black coat, with long black stockings tucked into thigh-high black boots, makes me feel...

On the turntable:  "Black Mirror"
On the nighttable:  Charles Baudelaire, "Les Fleurs du Mal"

Friday, December 19, 2008

Awalk in Beauty

When I lived in Hong Kong, crossing the harbor on the Star Ferry was the greatest of delights, moving over rough water toward one of the world's greatest skylines. I loved the Lippo Centre, with its pandas climbing straight out of an old Atari game. And I loved I.M. Pei's Bank of China Tower, all those odd angles throwing out some wicked feng shui mojo to its neighboring rivals. I had long heard that Pei's Miho Museum over in Shiga is equally amazing, though softer. It took me a decade, but I finally got there, stumbling on filmatic metaphor the entire way.

It took Markuz, and his sister-in-law, Mie, to make it happen. We climbed into her car for the long and winding drive into a landscape well into autumn, rice fields cropped like 50s haircuts. We left the car and jumped forward 20 years, climbing a gentle rise into a 1970s vision of the future. The walk was made of some synthetic type of brick, over which elongated electric golf carts soundlessly ferried lazier visitors. A handful of gardeners were picking up falling leaves, eerily disappearing behind trees and into shadow like Noh stagehands (or Disneyland workers, if you prefer a more postmodern simile). We entered the tunnel I'd long heard about, my own impression in keeping with the 70s pop cultural theme, remembering Steve Austin moving through a similar spinning passage on his way to meet Bigfoot. Watching other people passing from the tunnel brought to mind the final scene of Close Encounters, small figures passing dazzled into the light. (As this museum is owned by the Shumei religious sect, I think that this too, is a fair simile.) Leaving the tunnel we catch our first glimpse of the museum, like a squat temple of brilliant glass and steel, gorgeous against the hills and forest. From inside, the sound of the wind moving through the valley sounded like a Theramin. Occasionally a young woman who would moved about with a small bell and a placard with the single word, "Silence." Was this a request, or some kind of ironic Dadaist performance?

The exhibition we can to see was of a series of objects owned by Kawabata Yasunari, Nobel Prize winner of Literature. (His Nobel medal itself was here on display.) This man 's life purpose seemed to have been full immersion in beauty. Likewise, all the art and objects around him appeared to have nestled themselves in the deepest corners of his soul, to continually pop up in his writing. Symbiosis complete. Noting all this, I thought him the antithesis of the antihero of Mishima's Kinkakuji, who was so overtaken by the temple's beauty that he had to destroy it. Kawabata instead tried to synthesize with beauty, and his canon is a continual meditation on aesthetics. I found myself inspired, finding love once again in a culture whose blemishes are all I seem able to see these days. Truer, deeper beauty is all around me still, the choice is mine whether or not to see it. To quote Takamura Kotaro:

"Once beauty manifests itself in the world, it never perishes."

On the turntable: The Beta Band, "Best of..."

On the reel table: "Kill Your Idols" (Crary, 2004)

Thursday, December 18, 2008


(A comment by cjw on this post reminded me of a story.)

Had an interesting moment in Qanat when the escalator stopped suddenly.  The people on the escalator looked around confused, unsure of what to do.  
They're now called stairs folks,  your grandparents loved them.  

On the turntable:  Paul Butterfield Blues Band, "East West"
On the reel table:  "Repo Man"  (Cox, 1983)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Night Out

I'd spent the afternoon with Roger, watching him edit his latest film. I return home to find that no one had made a reservation for my yoga class that night. This was bizarre. A band I'd long wanted to see--Asakusa Jinta--was playing at Taku Taku in little over an hour. (Why are the gigs I hope to see always on Thursday night?) I hadn't wanted to cancel my class, but I suppose that I had put out a negative vibe which everyone picked up on, hence the free evening. I dress for the cold wet night and get on my Vespa. Not surprisingly, it won't start, since I haven't ridden it in four or five months. Just as I'm about to give up, it starts, and I'm off through the rainy streets.

I enter Taku Taku to find the opening band is still on, wrapping up their set. They're a local band, young and handsome and obviously popular with ladies. I find I'm one of the few guys in here. The girls are standing mostly, swaying back and forth to the beat. The way they move is like seagrass, immobile at the roots. On stage the trio is still rockin' on. They've been well honed on their craft, busting out all the classic rock 'n' roll poses and facial expressions. They're dressed like the early Who, the guitarist whaling away on Angus Young's Gibson SG guitar, the bass player keeping time on a loaner from Paul McCartney. For their encore, an older, seemingly more seasoned musician joins them, blatently ignoring the dancing co-eds as he strums his massive bodied ES335. It was like a display of the instruments of 1970s rock gods.

Asakusa Jinta kept up the theme, their guitarist on his double necked Jimmy Page special. He and the rest of the band really ripped, living well up to their hype. Jinta music is a post WWII version of chindon, which musicians played as a means to advertise local shops. In addition to Jimmy Page, the band had a loco tuba player, a hot girl on soprano sax, and a hipster trumpeter, plus what seemed like Les Claypool on bass, furiously slapping and smacking his clear-bodied, stand-up bass. The drummer though was the true engine of the band, keeping a frenetic pace for this ska-punk-klezmer madness. Brilliant!

The show over, I stepped outside, smiling to find the rain had stopped. And so had my Vespa...

(There is a second part to this story, for with the ending of the gig, the night truly began. And I attempted to write it, but a straight narrative can't capture the surrealistic magic feel of the city streets on that cold autumn night. So, I rework it and rework it, thinking it now as a short story. Will post it later if I can get it into a satisfactory form.)

On the turntable: "Celtic Christmas"

On the reel table: "There Will Be Blood" (Andersen, 2008)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Poking Zyra

Joined facebook today.  Boy oh boy are worlds colliding now...

My Morning Jacket, "Z"

Don DeLillo, "The Body Artist"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tokai Shizen Hoedown VIII and IV: Twice Walkin' & Twice Rockin'

Flying in over the mountainous spine of the Chugoku region had made me long to get walking again. It took only a few days for me to lace up my boots and head upward. Miki and I picked up the TSH at Kasagi following the road through the village, then climbing the path to Kasagi Temple. There were quite a few folks about, braving the chill wind while picnicking under momiji full blown with color. We walked past the ancient temple buildings, beneath tremendous rocks cut with Buddhist deities. You had to feel a little sorry for the men--presumably men, in those days-- who had carved these figures, since their labours inevitably go unrewarded. As if often the case in Asia, such incredible feats are often labelled with mythological hyperbole. "Kobo Daishi rested here for a meal, then using his toothpick, carved these Buddhas in a single afternoon" and the like. Miki and I too rested for a meal, sitting on a boulder at the highest point of the trail. But the only feats we did were to take somebodies photo.

We headed on along the ridge to Yagyu Village. I hadn't been out here for years, since the summer of 2003 when NHK was showing that "Musashi" program in which the Yagyu family played a prominent part. We poked around the old manor awhile. I was especially taken with the old wooden bokken and kenjutsu gear, the ancestors of today's kendo bogu. In one room were a series of photos of the village, comparing shots of certain locations taken both recently and back in the day. As usual, the newer came off the poorer. We walked up to the old dojo next, and sat on the steps to have tea and rice crackers. The Yagyu graves looked much as I remembered them, though I hadn't then noticed that Munenori's grave marker (teacher to the Shogun) was bigger than his father's (founder of the school of swordsmanship ). Typical how people with political clout are often more rewarded than those who create. We followed the trail past the tea fields to the mysterious grove where I'd had my bizarre encounter with a serpent. This time too I was mesmerized, at the stones and the trees and the silence. This is a magic place still. And a magic still place. Miki pointed out a carved Tengu on the hillside which I hadn't noticed before. This is easily one of the most amazing places in this country.

We wanted to follow the mountains back to Kasagi station, but found that the trail was closed. We went anyway, with the agreement that if we encountered any true peril we'd immediately double back. It was a mere twenty minutes until we met open trail again, but my mind reeled the entire duration. From the practical (a landslide) to the impractical (this is a forest thick with bears or boars) to the supernatural (this is the realm of ghosts or other beings of which the villagers know but we don't). We crossed a small area that looked to have had a landslide a few years ago, but was passable today. That was probably the reason for the closure. Not long after, near a thicket of high grass, we heard the sound of some animal moving just off trail, which gave Miki and I a good spook, both of us repeatedly looking back over our shoulders. Basically, this was a lovely stretch of mountain that seemed untouched and pure somehow. Back onto the road, which we followed alongside a stream which fed a few small yet impressive waterfalls. In fear of missing our train (A modern fear of the lack of control over that man-made construct, time), we hitched a ride with a surly middle-aged couple smelling strongly of the hot springs they'd just taken, though had apparently not enjoyed.

The train took us one stop backward to Kamo, where Roman Rhodes and Tim were playing a gig. It was in a tempura restaurant, small but with a nice family vibe. I hadn't seen Roman play in a few years, and I liked how at peace he is on stage, his confidence endowed by being a damn fine musician. Tim clowned about as usual, pulling absurd rock star poses whenever I aimed my camera. During the show, at one point I looked up to see a poster announcing this very gig. On the bottom, unmistakable, was my name, though misspelled. Oh man... I had been expected to play percussion at some point, but my train was leaving in less than an hour. Next time fellas...

The following morning, Miki and I trained it to Ishiyamadera, to continue another section of the TSH there. Just off the train, I opened my mouth to say something, only to take a full blast of smoke from some guy walking a few steps ahead of me. I appreciated neither the tobacco, nor the other bits of black sludge that he'd just expelled from his lungs. Truly foul. Today's walk, and the day itself, offered little to better my spirits. It was a long 22km over paved roads. Aside from the pleasant Iwamadera, where Basho supposedly heard the

Old pond's frog splash

(Voila! Revisionist minimalist haiku!)

and the subsequent long steep descent over slippery leaves, we rarely left the hard stuff. Not many cars, but the feet do ache after awhile. Plus curve after curve of garbage laden hillsides. Having recently taken part in the clean-up of a similar hillside, I know how much work it will take to restore this area. Really depressing. We quickly and nervously went past a gun range, and the only real open space we found, where we'd hoped to rest and lunch, was being used as a landing zone by a gang of remote-controlled helicopter pilot otaku. At the very end of the walk we were rewarded with another short bit of forest, but it was the verge of dusk and we lost the light quickly. This is the first time this has happened to us. On two occasions we passed a single lone man walking without a torch, both acting shady. At the end, we were rewarded by a beautiful night view of Uji from atop the mountain behind Ujigami Shrine. Overall, it hardly seemed worth, as we'd done most of this walk already a year ago, though in reverse. If we'd known this this morning, we wouldn't have bothered. Multiple experiences have shown that any hike in or out of Uji involves long stretches of asphalt. I recommend the train...

Later on at Hill of Tara, some Guinness and Trad restored our spirits. Tim and the Welsh fiddle-player from Matsue were in town, and the session was rounded out by that amazing Uilleann pipe player's group, plus myself on bodhran. The gig was good, though I was tired from the walk, and my stamina flagged a little on some of the faster reels. Quite a few times, we really got cookin'. As we were finishing, just bringing the last song in for a landing, I went through the head of my drum. Luck of the Irish...

On the turntable: Dylan and the Band, "Tree with Roots"
On the night table: Greil Marcus, "Invisible Republic"
On the reel table: "I'm Not There" (Haynes, 2007)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I'm Yours, You're Mine

Upon my return to Japan,  I realize that the time remaining in my stay here has dwindled down to the length of human gestation.  Beyond that is a year on the road, a journey that has a certain metaphoric symbolism:  an expression of the freedom of the young man which, at 41, I no longer am.  Recently, what I really long for is the step following, of pitching my yurt with steel cables and settling into the routine of work and grad school and children.  What drives this feeling is, ironically enough, partly material.  I seem to think that once I gather all those internationally scattered possessions of mine,  rejoining them as if they're parts of my self, I will be more complete somehow.  My brother laughs at how when I visit friends, I tend to leave things behind, as if parts of me want to remain in the States.  He is correct in all but scale, since these 'parts of me' are now spread across three continents.  

The Buddhists say that our possessions eventually own us.  I agree, but must rebut using the example of T'ang poet Ou-yang Hsiu,  Confucian minimalist in all but books, the bound evidence of one's memory and intellect.

On the turntable:  Mogwai, "Ten Rapid"

On the reel table:  "The Lower Depths"  (Kurosawa, 1957)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Rampant Pluggery

If you've had your fill of the leaf hunting masses and are looking to avoid the seasonal chill, I present two options.  

Tonite, I'll be giving a lecture (in English) on yoga and the yogic lifestyle.  It will be the first of a four lecture series through the winter.  Details here.

Next Sunday, I'll once again take part in the Four Stories reading series, this time in Osaka.  Details here.

Hope you can make it...

On the turntable:  Bob Dylan,  "Tell Tale Signs"
On the reeltable:  "The Last Waltz"  (Scorsese, 1978)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Up Above California

After a poor night's sleep, I walk under the shade of that huge sprawling Fig Tree near the train station, moving toward a brunch with Sheryl. It's fantastic to see her, and we have a good time catching up, though it's hard to cover 14 years in a couple hours. As we talk, a group of four hippie boomers hold a small impromptu parade, smiling their stoned smiles and flashing peace signs and holding placards saying, "Impeach." My reaction was the same as when I saw Oliver Stone's latest film, "W." Why now? Where were you 4 years, no, 6 years ago? Don't let your egos fool you into thinking you still matter. They are later replaced by a real parade of camouflaged ROTC clones and old jeeps driven by aging vets. Is this Armed Forces Day? Veteran's Day? Boy, I've been away from America a long long time...

After brunch, I take a taxi up to San Marcos Pass and the White Lotus Foundation. Here I'd spend the week, studying Thai Yoga Therapy. While I developed new skills, I would be living a porous schedule, with ample time to hike, read, meditate on and around big rocks and trees, and take brisk, exhilarating swims in local watering holes. The weather favored the latter, staying up in the high 80s (F) most of the time. Night brought on the winds. The first night they were especially strong, making sleep scarce. (Poor sleep being the theme of the trip, actually.) I could hear the wind coming from the valley below, roaring up the ridge where my yurt stood. Through the glass nipple roof, I would watch a tree bough thick as a Volkswagon bob and weave only a few feet above my bed. The constant gusts sounded like a dozen bears tearing through the canvas. A few BIG gusts shook the floor like an earthquake. With these Santa Ana winds often come fires. A few days into the week, moneyed Montecito was alight. Daylight hours were marked by the near constant thump of helicopters flying over, huge monsters filling up with water at nearby Lake Cachuma, which they'd then drop onto the flames. Looking up was like being an amateur entomologist; the various aircraft an intriguing variety of insect shapes. From my mountain perch, the sky over the sea was smoky, hiding the Channel Islands entirely. Ironically, the sky up here is a flawless blue everyday. Nights are even more starting, the moon highlighting the landscape in Day for Night clarity, everything shot through a gauze filter like those old films. Every cloud, every rock is visible. Animals take advantage of this light, and when the winds finally cease, I can hear them creeping around my yurt throughout the night. I look for tracks in the morning, but the ground is too dry from lack of rain. One afternoon, while hiking on the ridge above the yurt village, I find a variety of tracks in a soft patch of sand. There are an intermingling of deer and skunk prints, plus the huge paw shape of either a bobcat or mountain lion. My sleep is even worse after finding these, though I eventually drift off to the sound of crickets singing in time to Miles Davis on my computer.

I read a lot, do plenty of yoga, and learn how to give a Thai massage. The last night, I play my shakuhachi awhile in the underground kiva (formerly a bomb shelter), and take part in a ceremony led by a Yanqi Shaman. The next day I'm off to LA. Near Ventura, there is a spot where I always seem to see dolphins. On this beautiful day, there is dolphin activity all along the southbound PCH. I get dropped off at Urth Cafe in Beverly Hills, where I reconfirm stereotypes as I wait for Gordo. I haven't seen him in 5 years, a significant period of time during which I got divorced, changed careers, moved cities, and married again. An hour-long monologue fueled by strong coffee just about covers it all. Gordo's own life jelled during this same five-year period, and he fills me in as we drive toward a setting sun whose patented beauty could only be created by this city's smog. LA drivers obviously spend loads of time in their cars, and seem so at home in them, in the way that their eyes are off the road and hands are off the wheel more than half the time. We have a surreal dinner in a fairly lowbrow Italian place, where the Chianti is bad and the waiters sing Happy Birthday. I love Gordo for taking me here, to a place so obnoxious and bustling and completely at odds with the peaceful quiet I'd had for the previous 9 days. Even after years without contact, a truly good friend will still fuck with your mind.

One last night of bad sleep in a hotel across from LAX, under the white noise of incoming planes. I hop an early flight for San Francisco, flying in an hour over what had taken many days to drive. We pass over Santa Barbara, which shows no apparent fire damage from 30,000 feet. I look at all those central coast mountains, and for the first time in years I remember the word, "Wilderness." I don't usually think of myself as separate from nature or mountains or the forest. But what is spread below me looks rough and wild, its beauty hiding perils like forest fires and big deadly cats. It's like a thick wrinkly comforter on an unmade bed. Somewhere along the way it dawns on me how much like an American I now feel, how these three long trips over eighteen months have made the place seem like home again. Mentally, I'm prepared for the impending return. (Emotionally? Who knows...) As we near SF, I look down on the water of the Bay. Lacking landmarks, I have no real perspective. I could be hundreds of feet up or merely standing at the edge of a small pond lightly tousled by wind. This lack of perspective continues until the plane's shadow appears, rising and rising until it touches our belly.

An hour later it's wheels up again, and a bigger shadow now speeds across the tarmac. My seatmate is Japanese, who demonstrates that uncanny ability to sleep anywhere, a trait seemingly shared by most Asians. Within minutes of takeoff he's out, and for the next 11 hours he does a lovely impression of an angler fish, head back, mouth open. When this entertainment grows thin, I keep busy with my books and videos, breaking away from the mono-view of seascape that begins immediately upon leaving the fatherland. We pass half a day in tracing a high arc above Alaskan islands toward the little happy land where the mono-views are in the politics...

On the turntable: Velvet Underground, "Live at End Cole Avenue"

On the nighttable; Donald Richie, "The Films of Akira Kurosawa"

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sunday papers: Bill Bryson

Geologists are never at a loss for paperweights.

On the turntable: Beth Orton, "Daybreaker"

On the nighttable: Michael Pollan, "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

Saturday, November 08, 2008

For Esby...

On the way to the airport, I thought about how it is a new dawn for this country. The coming of the new Obama administration could finally morally justify a return home for me. I wondered what was going on in the heads of each African American I saw. I could imagine the incredible amount of pride they must be feeling. Yet will there truly be an improvement in racial relations in this country?

In the airport, an excited New Yorker shows me the cover of today's New York Times, telling me that the font used as the headline for the election is one he hasn't seen since the first moonwalk back in 1969. Apparently the font is used only for historic occasions. My plane takes me up out of Denver and over Boulder. Just beyond, the Rockies are getting their first heavy snow of the season. Further on in Utah, the mountains are lined up neatly in rows.

I deplane in San Jose, in an airport whose layout defies logic. I don't find any logic out on the road either, where I join the insanity that is the California Highway system. We spend 15 minutes going 80mph, then 15mph for 10 minutes, then back to 80 again. The traffic and the speed give out eventually, in an area where flannel-shirted workers bend over rows of bushes that stretch out toward the sea. Big grilled pickups and muscle cars rush past, predictably piloted by Navy men stationed nearby.

I meet with Ben, and we walk up into the hills above his house. It becomes full dark quickly, and it isn't long before we see deer coming down to graze from the hedges surrounding the massive estates up here. I spend a couple days here, walking the Monterey streets, beside white buildings red-headed with Spanish tile. It is a lovely town, with fine weather, but there isn't much life here; many shops are closed, the streets relatively empty of people. Life seems to have gone elsewhere. Ben and I follow suit, driving south to Point Lobos. We wander the forests and cliffs, going through our usually walk and talk rituals to dispel angst.

A day later I pass the same stretch of shoreline, solo this time. I follow the twisty mountain road with the views that define Big Sur. Many stretches through here are black and burned from recent fires. The charred hillsides seem indiscriminatory. More than a few sections of these, having lost their topsoil are following gravity's path, across the road and into the sea below. More than once I have to stop for quite a while in order for workers to clear the roads of the night's rockfall. I hardly mind since it's a lovely day. I get out of the car and walk to the edge of the cliffs, smelling the pines and looking at the sea hundreds of feet below.

The mountains eventually drop toward the sea, giving way to long stretches of flatland. The signs here say "Whale Watching." It isn't long before I notice the flecks of silver light that are the arching backs of dolphins. Dozens of elephant seals lay on the beach, using their flippers to flick up sand in order to keep the heat off. I overhear a ranger talking about the losses this colony suffered during recent storms. Two bulls begin to fight, but apparently the spirit isn't with them, and they both retreat to different parts of the beach. On a hillside nearby, Hearst Castle stands lonely and forlorn.

I pull into Cambria for lunch, sitting at a rail a few meters from the sea. The weather is warm and beautiful, so I sit awhile here watching the surfers exercising their patience in the low rolling swells. Other figures are on the beach, silhouetted in twos. When I lived in Santa Barbara, I used to escape up here sometimes. My favorite place was this old cemetary somewhere up in the pines, filled with the graves of the English and the Scottish who settled this part of the coast. As I drive south out of town, I look for it, but of course there are no signs. No surprise. Americans are a people in a constant battle with aging, and hate to be reminded of nuisances like death.

The Santa Ynez Valley still proves to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I pass beneath hills and mountains I once hiked, drive around the lake where I saw my first Pow-Wow. I cut my teeth in this place. Coming over San Marcos pass I see the familar shapes of the Mesa, Isla Vista, the Channel Islands beyond. Once in town, I head up State Street, amazed at how much has changed in 14 years. There are many new chains here, the old chains too still hanging on. The local shops, the ones that gave this town so much character, are no longer here. The travel bookstore where I spent hours researching my Asian travels, where I had had a long conversation with Pico Iyer, is now a Starbucks. Earthling Bookshop, where you could choose from some of the best stock on the planet and read it in front of huge fireplace, is a neo-bleached Old Navy. My favorite cafe, Cafe Roma, is still there, though now a chain. Another of my haunts,Video Schmido, (DVD Schmeeveedee ?) is thankfully there, as are both my old places of employment. I spend most of the evening in Lost Horizon bookshop talking with my former boss Jerry. For three years I worked here, minding the store so that he could surf. He tells me he's more partial to softball these days. Enterprise Fish Co. is also still around, though both the interior and the menu have been drastically revamped. The bar area is completely different, with lots of neon and a new wall that takes in a now obsolete smoking section. Friday night is bustling, as usual, and the waitstaff is larger and much cuter than in my day. A staff photo still hangs near the men's room, reminding me of days and friends long past. After my meal I walk back to my hotel that lies below the cliffs upon which City College stands. Santa Barbara has always been a strange place, hyper-rich people living in the homes in the surrounding hills, with a ever-changing supply of college kids to serve them at their favorite shops and eateries. The people I used to hang out with 15 years ago have no doubt long ago moved on. New college kids remain a constant, displaying a fair share of fake boobs, more than I've seen in previous trips to the States. A new generation of punk skaters are keeping it real, serving as the missing link to my day, along with the usual assortment of homeless eking out a reasonably comfortable existence in these temperate climes.

On the turntable: Gomez, "How We Operate"

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Moving On

In the rapidly fading light, I head north, following the Rio Chama flowing yellow with Cottonwoods. The moon is up, a slim crescent flanked by two stars. I keep a close eye out for elk, who move through this area in great numbers. Near the Colorado border stands a low mountain, looking grassy and beautiful. I'd hoped to get here before dark in order to ogle its shape, which had so impressed me last year. I honk my horn as I leave New Mexico, most likely the next time I go back it'll be to live there. It's full dark now, so I grab a bed near the terminus for the Toltec Railroad. The motel owner asks me if I'm in town for the hunt. Next door is a combination Bar and Diner, where I sit and order. The other customers all appear to be hunters, wearing clothes of camouflage or bright orange. A local politician moves amidst the tables, but doesn't approach mine. Somewhat self-consciously, I pull out a book to read. My food arrives, and after a few bites, I begin to gag and hiccup. This happens to me about once or twice a year, if I eat too fast. By getting up and walking around, it usually goes away quickly. I walk to the toilet, and upon a large hiccup, my mouth fills with foam, which I spit into the toilet. I begin to feel better and return to my table. But it happens again, and then again. I apologize to the server, pay my check and go back to my room. The next hour is a comic scene of me sitting on the edge of the tub, reading my book, and spitting foam into the toilet. Finally, I vomit the entire contents of my stomach, tasting again the pesto I had at lunch. My body had really wanted to reject something. Previously, I'd had bizarre hallucinations or intense emotional reactions while doing intensive yogic breathing sessions, especially those related to my throat. The same may have happened here, after all the weekend's pranayama. Or maybe it was being surrounded by the hunters, taking sport in taking life. Who knows? I slept well and quickly, my body exhausted after all the spasms.

The next morning I woke early and continued on through the San Luis Valley. I was surprised to see the Rio Grande running up here. If I grabbed an inner-tube and got on the water, after a few really cold days, I'd pass near my mom's house. High snow coated peaks rose to my right, and eventually the road ran right into them. Clouds sit on these peaks like a cap. I pass old schools and crumbling homesteads. The newer ones surprise me in how remote they are. With such gorgeous views from the picture windows, who needs TV? I'm driving along at 8000 feet, with 14ers right over...there. But from this altitude they look climbable in an hour or so. Up around 10000 feet, patches of snow begin to appear, hiding themselves in the shadows of tall pines. Through the mountain communities now, along a stream running fast and cold. Cord wood is stacked in front of many homes; winter must be coming soon.

I'm in Boulder by lunchtime. My brother is working, so I walk up to the Hill, grab a sandwich at Half Fast, a coffee at Buchanans. The sky over the Flatirons is starting to striate, but much of the street traffic is wearing t-shirts or shorts. I grow tired quickly of watching the Greek posturing here, so I head over to campus and grab a spot of grass. I try to make headway with my book, but I'm too enthralled by the trees, who have already removed their tops, but have modestly retained their flowing yellow skirts.

The next day, election day, I chose to ride a bike along the foothills, dropping down onto quiet streets strewn with leaves. Autumn, which hasn't yet gotten to New Mexico yet, has nearly finished here. The look of everything is pastoral, warm and homey. I wind up on Pearl Street, where I walk and eat and read. Kurt will finish work soon, and we'll get to the business of watching the returns come in...


On the turntable: Amos Lee

On the nighttable: Dieter Dengler, "Escape from Laos"

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Stopped over in Santa Fe...

I'm up in Santa Fe for about 10 days, finishing up my yoga teacher training with Tias Little. This is the first session they've held at the new studio that they built behind their house. It is a pleasant little space, in the desert outside town. There are no guest facilities out here, so we all commute into town to stay at the Sage Inn. I feel that this breaks up the feeling of peace that usually accompanies spiritual retreats, and I wish we could've stayed at Upaya Zen Center again, with its remote feel and clothing-optional sauna. Don't miss Upaya food at all, which always messes with my digestion. My stomach is funky anyway, air moves howling through my belly during lectures.

The days begin somewhat late, with meditation followed by a 3 hour yoga practice. After the first few days, I feel like someone has taken a crowbar and yanked open my stiff shoulders and closed clavicles. I have a migrane that lasts for three days, and I'm not sleeping well; could be altitude, could be grief trauma being systematically wrenched from my body.

In the afternoons, we all eat lunch in the sun. Afterward, we listen to Tias give talks in front of the moon window, clusters of birds occasionally bisecting the flawless sky behind his head. Inevitably, we'll do another hour or two of asana in the midst of it. This training is billed as "The Subtle Body," delving into psychology, spiritual states, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The most amazing thing about Tias is how he goes into areas well beyond yoga, covering things I'd learned in my vastly different training in India and Vermont. One amazing teacher.

As usual there was good company. The caretaker of the Shaker Museum in New York state. A young woman currently training at Tara Mandala in southern Colorado. An alumnus of Upaya. Plus writers, yoga teachers, body workers. On the final night, as we eat curry and drink wine around a campfire, a comet passes by, so huge and bright and flaming that I momentarily think a plane is crashing down into Santa Fe. We've been blessed.

I go down to my mom's place for a couple days, then am back in town for the weekend. Richard Rosen is doing a workshop on pranayama. I'm a big Tias fan, of course, but Richard is one of the best teachers I've ever seen, weaving history (both Indian and American), sanskrit lessons, anatomical knowledge, jokes, film references, and song lyrics into the mix. This is technically a 12 hour weekend of breathing, but we do our share of asana as well.

On Friday, Halloween, as I go over to get a slice of pizza during a dinner break, I'm held up by a passing train, packed with costumed kids and adults, the former waving, the hands of the latter too busy holding onto long-stemmed glasses. The train blasts its air-horn, filling my body with sound which resonates through my core, hollowed out by an afternoon of deep breathing. The sky above mimics my revved-up brain, first the color of brushfire, later a duller grey like a fogbank rolling in.

The next night, Gino drives up from Albuquerque. We spend far too much time trying to find REI, driving round and around a train station built for trains which don't yet exist. This town is constantly evolving, and a short walk proves that little is where it used to be. Some things hardly change at all. As Gino and I have pints and food up on the Ore House balcony, a couple guys we knew from high school turn up, suddenly and surprisingly. The talk turns to old parties and girlfriends, mixed martial arts bouts and elk hunting. Worlds are definitely colliding here, an atmospheric book end to the comet of a few nights before. Later Gino and I tear ourselves away for coffee at Borders. He's long quit his position as regional manager for the chain, thought the staff doesn't know that. We sit laughing at a staff in frenzy, rushing about to straighten shelves. They'll sweat a few days, waiting for a memo that'll never arrive.

Sunday, the last day, I do 5 hours pranayama and asana with Richard, plus another couple hours in a Tias class packed with 58 people, many of them the being this town's wealthy "painted ladies." By the time I get in the car for the drive up toward Boulder, I'm spent...

On the turntable: Death Cab for Cutie, "Narrow Stairs"

On the nighttable: Barbara Kingsolver, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sunday papers: Andre Dubus

"A cliche is an out, it just sort of hangs around and waits for someone to use it, and when you do use one, it saves you from having to think."

On the turntable: The Black Keys, "Attack and Release:
On the nighttable: Anne Cushman, "Enlightenment for Idiots"
On the reel table: "Zen Noir" (Rosenbush, 2004)

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Silent Stars Go By...

Where even the most mundane things in San Francisco inevitably seem "hip," my home state has the tendency to dazzle you with her beauty. It is best to keep in mind Joel Weishaus's words that "New Mexico's emptiness tempts the imagination to overdose on scenery and clichés."

But clichés aren't all that easy to avoid.

As my plane swoops in, I look down at ancient volcanoes rising like areolae from the brown earth, which curves away toward the edges of horizon. The desert here is a fuller color than it was last summer. And the sky so blue, not as dark as the High Sierran lakes we'd flown over, but much more dramatic. There is so much space here that thoughts come out in fragments, with little to hold them together.

A day or two later, I get up early to help my mom clean her church. I sweep the courtyard, pushing the broom over land than had once been sacred to the native people now long pushed out by the Mexican farmers who've for centuries plowed the nearby fields. There are a few spaces carved like caves into the adobe walls, hiding a handful of this county's long forgotten war dead. As I sweep, I think how the zen monks in my adopted land pull their brooms toward them, where here at home I am pushing it away. A metaphor lies here somewhere, maybe in how zen is about moving inward toward one's true face, while the Catholics expand outward to meet God. As I amuse myself with these useless thoughts, I try to ignore the Right to Life posters on the wall. Apparently the parish priest himself isn't so extreme in his ideas, and in a brief conversation, I find him a delight. He literally howls when I tell him how Miki once mistook a confessional for a bathroom.

Afterward, I indulge myself in that other American past time, politics. From abroad, the election seems like a sporting event, but here at home it is more like a battle. It's depressing how easily the news networks throw around war metaphors. This is the first day of early voting and here in New Mexico, a swing state, it takes me almost a hour to do my civic duty. It's always fun to listen to the opinionated conversations of these small town folk around me. I happened to be here four years ago, and I'll never forget hearing one old guy saying, "Well that Bush just looks a whole lot tougher." That 2004 election had been really tight here, taking on a reddish hue by a mere 11 votes. How I'd prayed for a tie, which according to state law would've been decided by a hand of poker. I eventually get my pencil and darken the circles on my ballot, taking the multiple choice test that is democracy.

I spend long afternoons out in the back yard. The space here is not only in the physical landscape. It's all too easy to sink into the silence. The ring of the phone feels especially offensive. One afternoon, two Apache helicopters fly over, so low that I can see the door gunners, leaning into the space. I read and watch the birds feed. Two sparrows have built a nest over the front door, and the daylight hours are marked by the near constant tapping of their beaks on their own reflections in the mirrored glass just below. One night I step outside, accidentally scaring dozens of migratory birds from the trees out front where they'd chosen to pass the night. Another night, I surprise a coyote.

As usual, I watch films. The sub woofer of the home theatre setup more than once tricks me into thinking that we're having a quake.

My sister and her family fly over from North Carolina. I hike along Sandia Crest with my nephew. The wind is strong, my ears aching with the altitude. We climb onto the roof of the Kiwanis Cabin, (the place where I proposed to Miki last year), with its 270 degree views of the desert floor a mile down. On the road home, three elk run across the road and escape into the scrub, the white bulls-eyes of their asses moving toward the ridge above. The setting sun makes the sky a tapestry of yellow, throwing gold bars across the striated rocks of the valley's mesas.

Throughout it all, the sky keeps its constant blue, broken only by planes plowing vapor trails high above...

On the turntable: Bonnie Prince Billy, "Blue Lotus Feet"

On the nighttable: Ivan Morris, et al., "Madly Walking in the Mountains"

On the reel table: "Amongst White Clouds" (Burger, 2007)