Saturday, June 28, 2008

I Coulda Had a G8!

Gone are the sirens and flashes of light

Gone are the helicopters, chopping noise through the muggy sky

Gone is the cell phone's fractured reception

Gone is the cluster of armored buses before a fortified city hall,

soon to be reclaimed by the breakdancers and para-para drones

Gone are the solitary cops, walking beneath the bridges like Victorian-era whores,

making you want to look but not be seen looking

Gone are the farrowed cops, a Baker's dozen in every neighborhood

Gone are the streets barricaded with your tax money

Gone are the trash bins sealed like dirty secrets

Gone is the fear of being stopped for being whitey on a bike

Gone, gone, because gone too are Condi and her seven friends.

On the turntable: Thelonious Monk, "The Complete Riverside Recordings"

On the nighttable: Edith Shiffert, "Kyoto Dwelling'

On the reel table: "Jean de Florette" ( Berri, 1986)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Going Down the Country (Pt.2: Omine-san)

On the map, I notice I can follow a road due north from here to reach Yoshino. I think about hitching but I'm anxious about being late for my 5pm appointed arrival time. I instead take a roundabout journey by train back up the coast. On the trip down, I hadn't noticed all the hotel construction around Tanabe, the jumping off point for Kumano Kodo's western edge. Towering high over the sea, these will serve as temples to the new Gods. At Tanabe, I don't have to look up from my book to register that someone has finally taken the seat beside mine. When I do turn my head, I see a young guy grinning creepily at me. His repetoir expands as he begins to chew the skin flaking and peeling at the end of his thumb. He continues this for another 90 minutes. When I disembark at Wakayama, I half expect to see him gnawing the stump of a wrist.

I take a local train that drags itself across the waist of the Kii-Sanchi. Kids in track suits begin to load us up, until everyone funnels out somewhere. With a bit more space, I turn away from my book and crane my neck toward the window. While Wakayama has some beautiful spots, I think neighboring Nara the more beautiful of the two, maintaining a bit more self-respect. At Yoshino station, I take the cable car to the village which covers the mountain. It's a summer Saturday, but there is almost no one around. I have some time to kill, so I talk awhile with a couple of shop keepers. One guy teaches me the proper way to blow the Horagai, that giant conch shell heard bellowing throughout the mountains around here. There is only a single other customer here, trying out these shells as well. He shows some accomplishment in his chops by creating a series of notes; far more impressive than my own bovine imitation. The owner tells me how during the war an American bomber crashed near here on its way back from bombing Kobe. One crew member survived, only to be tossed off a precipice higher up the mountain. Tomorrow, I'll be dangled by my legs over the same precipice, confessing my sins and hoping for a kinder fate.

At 5, I go up the step of Kimpusen temple. It's a massive structure, the roof supported by tree trunks the size of redwoods. I am joined by 22 other men, to be led by five yamabushi in a couple days training particular to their sect. I've done some of this before, with their brethren up north in Dewa Sanzan. While the hiking doesn't faze me too much, I'm immediately confronted by something I'd should've seen coming but didn't: seiza. The chanting begins, tempered by the clash of bells and pounding of drums, and for some reason, I start thinking about Han Shan. The fervor of the chanting builds up steadily, paced exactly by the loss of feeling in my legs. With seiza, I'm usually good for twenty, twenty-five minutes, but this goes on for twice that. When it's done, I will some blood into my feet in order to stand. Another guy literally has to be propped up by his armpits like the wounded in some war film.

More seiza quickly follows, as we eat dinner silently, oryoki style. After which we're finally allowed to stretch our legs as we go through the usual round of self introductions. The temple's head priest comes down to give us a pep talk, emphasizing that one of the main goals of this training is to come together as a group and become one. (This same point comes up every time I do any kind of shugyo, no matter what type.) We all go off to the baths then. They are small and accommodate only two at a time. My neighbor speaks exceptional English, and is currently doing post-grad work for SOAS. He'd been doing research in Lhasa, until the current round of troubles got him deported. He's basically just killing time in Osaka, waiting for Tibet to cool down enough to return. The conversation is good, but we both seem preoccupied with the next day. I'm in bed before 9.

It's a terrible sleep. One man's snores soon had me dub him, "The Fourth Tenor." He single-handedly keep the rest of us awake, allowing us to quickly become one in our shared loathing of him. Naturally, this guy, the only one to get a sound sleep, turns out to be the slowest on the mountain.

We awake at dawn to board a bus, then drive an hour to a point far up a mountain road. It's a steep ascent to the ridge and it takes the group a good while to get there. At the top, we meet the main trail, which I recognize as the one that Nate and Tatsuhiko and I walked back in '96. We had some pretty scary weather that day. It's not too bad this morning, the clouds diffusing the soft, warm light, in which we sit and eat our breakfast rice balls. I look at some of the others and wonder about what brought them to the mountain. One old guy in particular intrigues me, he having told me that he's recently retired and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his days. A few men seem his junior, both in years and in attitude, sneaking of for a smoke under the pretext of having a piss. There are a few younger, more seasoned hikers, and a few that look like they work as civil servants. And of course there are a couple of wild cards in the group, but there always seems to be. Anything that poses extreme physical or emotional challenges tends to draw people who don't quite fit in polite society. Quite often, these people can be the most interesting. But on this day, the previous week's killings in Akihabara are a fresh reminder that there are other precipices to topple over if one isn't careful with his balance.

In front of us was a tall gate: the entrance to Omine-san itself. Beyond these gates there may be no dragons (none that I noticed anyway), but there were certainly no damsels. This is the last mountain in Japan that women are forbidden to climb. Apparently, some aren't so happy with this, judging from the defacing of the large sign upon which said rule is writ. We pass through, and make our way toward the top. Throughout the day, we'll take part in certain rituals that are plenty scary and some, outright dangerous. (I still laugh at the fact that no one was made to sign a waiver beforehand.) Like Basho before me, I am forbidden to disclose details of this mountain to other people. And again like Basho, "I will therefore lay down my pen and write no more." Not due to poetic pretense or fear of litigation. I simply don't need any wrathful deities coming down on my ass.

On the turntable: Jackie McClean, "Rites of Passage"
On the reel table: "The Naked Island" (Shindo, 1960)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Going Down the Country (Pt.1: Kumano)

I'm down in Kii Katsuura, a town having far too many vowels. I'm on a boat going across a bay ringed by islands resembling karst. Beyond these, is the village of Taiji, being for one, the pinyin romanization for the Chinese concept of Grand Ultimate, referred to by us yogis in the sound of "Om." In this country, however, Taiji is know as the place where whales are brought to die. I look away, toward the north. Dark clouds loom ominously above the high peaks that I'll attempt to go over the next day.

I'd been in town for less than a half hour. After dropping my bags, I wandered a little, trying to get the bearings of the place. To call this town sleepy is an exaggeration. It's only 4 pm, but nothing was moving. It had been a relatively fine day for this season, but the weather is growing bolder, making it seem later than it is. Through my headphones, John Prine tells me that "the night comes early on rainy days." So, I got on this boat.

I'm headed to Urashima Onsen, a name that lends itself to the sleepy atmosphere. In the legend, a fisherman named Urashima Taro goes to a kingdom at the bottom of the seas for what appears to be a few days, but turns out to have been 300 years. Hot Springs do have a way of making time seem slower. The hotel lobby itself seems dated, glittery and brashy like in a 60's Bond film. Beyond is a series of rocky passageways and steaming hot pools reeking of sulphur. It's all made more surreal by everyone wandering around in long robes. I find a pool in a cave which overlooks the sea. It's getting on dinnertime so I have the place to myself, except for a few crabs and those weird armored bugs climbing the wall over my shoulder. The sea crashes a few meters below me. There's a fence now, but I doubt it's been there long. Some drunken folks acting like children have led to means which treat us all likewise. Bath over, I wander the long corridors of maroon carpet. There are quite a few Chinese here, many greeting me with smiles which I at first think is shared camaraderie at being an "honorable guest," until I look down to notice I'm wearing my Bruce Lee t shirt. My face suddenly goes redder than those of the drunks going off to their next bath.

The boat brings me back to town. It's full dark now, and I'm looking over the view from the garden of a small temple. Though there's not much here, I'm bemoaning my late start today. Being a creature of habit, I frittered away the morning reading blogs, when I could've instead spent the afternoon walking the low hills ringing the bay. Growing hungry, I walk out the temple gate, passing a sign which tells how a 14 meter tsunami sent water up to this height. Down at the level of the sea itself, I look for a place for dinner. Prine's voice on my iPod really fits the scene, both with his lonely man on the road vibe, and the whole stranger in town thing, my form drawing looks with every passing step. I look at the menus outside the few shops open on a weeknight, bristling every time I misread ikura (salmon roe) as iruka (dolphin). One spot looks especially friendly, and I duck inside. The place is warm and friendly, the owner's wife flirtatious to a point just short of bawdy. She gives me a couple complimentary mackerel that she'd caught herself. And the maguro sashimi is so fresh it's like butter.

The TV in the room below mine wakes me at 6. With time to kill before the first bus, fuelled on sugary bread and canned coffee, I make my way over to the fish market. The fishermen are already back with the days catch, literally hundreds of tuna now lying on the warehouse floor in various stages of decapitation. The men with hoses wash the red back into the sea. Not long after, I leave the bay behind and head up into the hills.

This is my fifth trip to the Kumano area. After I learned that the region was going to get UNESCO's special status, I began to walk the parts that weren't protected, figuring that the World Heritage area would remain unchanged, but the surroundings would get ruined by the new hotels, restaurants, and roads made friendly to tourist buses. Cannon fodder for the Construction industry. It didn't take long to see my predictions had come true. In the three years since I'd last come here, they'd built a new highway and a whole section of forest had been converted to a parking lot. Most bizarre was a new handicapped toilet, complete with a ramp built midway up a set of ancient stone steps. (Here was Japanese political kata in action, obeying the letter of the law yet all but neutering the spirit.) I walk these steps to the temple at the top. There are are surprising number of tourists at this early hour, Koreans lingering in front of the unopened souvenir stands, Chinese taking photos with Buddhas. I find the old trail at the back of the complex and begin my walk up the Ogumotorigoe, (romanized menacingly as "Big Cloud-Catcher Pass").

The Kumano Kodo here is a stone trail with the earth pushing through. The rocks are slick with lichen, due to all the moisture trapped below the high sugi. I reckon I'm the first to have walked it in a few days, due to the spiderwebs I keep breaking with my chest. It's a beautiful day, the trail dappled with sunshine. I frequently see snakes warming themselves in these spots, looking for the same feeling I got from last night's baths. It's a nice trail, with markers every half kilometer. These markers are small and made of stone, nicely unobtrusive against the bushes and trees. (Many trail markers have the subtlety of vending machines.) Heading for the first pass, I scare up some quail. At the top, I reward myself with some rice balls and the view . Dropping down the other side, I'm startled by the yelp of a young fox. This descent is spooky, a place notorious as the haunt of the spirits of deceased pilgrims, whose souls are looking for new bodies to inhabit. The valley at the bottom is beautiful yet forlorn. In front of one large tree is a makeshift shrine, with a small sword lying across the stones and moss. It seems to have been there for centuries. Rushing streams overflow onto the trail at many places and the finding footing is a challenge. Atop the next ridge I find a road which follows the trail, both leading down to a small shrine and hut. I climb out onto a large stone in the river, soaking my feet as I eat lunch. The final ascent is quick, and there are many man made signs at the pass, pride in achieving the tough climb from the other side. I'm simply descending, but before long I find this the hardest part of the day; literally a long, slippery 2 hour, 4 km drop to the next valley. Climbing this must be like the Stairmaster from Hell. Ruins of old teashops and stone walls tell me I'm coming close to Oguchi. Near the 500 meter mark, I begin to relax and a minute later I fall on my ass. Not quite there, buddy.

Finally at the bottom, I grab a canned coffee and chat awhile with the manager of the camping hut here. Three years ago I camped in the grass out front after having come over the Kogumotorigoe (Small Cloud-Catcher). That day, a night-long conversation with my left hip scuttled any thoughts of going over the hills I have now just came over. Making that first ascent on that hip with a full pack would've been seriously grievous.

I walk upsteam, out of sight of any houses. Stripping down, I join the cold river, washing the day off my body. Later, it takes me 2 buses and a train to get back to where I started. The sea looks inviting, so I swim awhile. Then I walk in the shadows of abandoned, crumbling hotels until I find a good place for dinner. It's a Chinese joint, and they're quite creative with the local catch. I have maguro spring rolls, maguro gyoza, maguro with chili sauce. I've loaded myself with enough mercury to fill a thermometer. The oolong ice cream helps ease my pain...

On the turntable: John Coltrane, Meditations"

On the nighttable: Jan Morris, "Pleasures of a Tangled Life"

On the reel table: "Two Days in Paris," (Delpy, 2007)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Going Up the Country

Late May saw Miki's birthday, and my present to her was a weekend away. She chose the Tango Peninsula, a beautiful area of gorgeous ocean, high mountains, and a feeling that is very very old. We spent a few days driving around, walking the beaches, checking out tombs and shrines named for myths, and eating way too much seafood.

Taiza is a small village squeezed between large rock formations that are carved into bizarre shapes by waves whipped huge by frequent storms. Men fish in the shadows of shrines built into rock overhanging the sea. The gods within are the deified ancestors lost further out on these same waters. The shrines are weathered both by the salt air and their extreme age. The sheer number of these sacred places attests to the local folk trying to make sense of extreme natural phenomena brought by harsh weather. Primitive science as formulated by religious ritual. And the men--presumably men--who held these ceremonies are buried in the hilly tombs further inland.

Further south still the high mountains begin. Among them is Oe yama. Besides its fine views of Amanohasidate, it is well know as a source for various Oni myths. Trails lead through high scrub to bizarre rock formations that were once these demons' fortresses, but are probably now the lair of bears, who move through this dense cover, out of sight just off trail.

The human realm lies closer to the sea. Ine is a small, one lane village stretching between the hills and the waters of the enclosed bay. An island at the bay's narrow mouth protects the village from the storms, and as such it is considered sacred, the grounds off limits to all but a few fishermen. The catch here must be plentiful, for the houses here are all large and sprawling. Swallows flit above the front doors, bringing food to their newly hatched young. Across the road from the houses are small structures like garages, with large openings facing the sea, to take in the fishing boats when typhoons come. On the second floor are small, simple rooms, where the younger generations sleeps when they return home from the new lives in the cities.

Like a koi that takes on the size proportional to the body of water containing it, the bigger communities lie where the mountains stop. In Miyazu, there is an old church, built of wood and tile, a perfect hybrid of Japanese and European architectural styles. Inside there is tatami rather than pews. Miki says that she wants to use the toilet before we go, and begins to step inside a confessional. The twain still haven't met.

Where religion goes, commerce follows, and the moneyed class now fill the old sabbath days with leisure. Kotobiki Beach is packed with surfers. Around the cove is a small beach, where weekend warriors up from Osaka carve the waters with their jet skis. One of these drivers sits astride one of the bigger machines, his belly resting heavily on the seat. A small child of four or five sits behind him. The man, either through drink or inexperience or simple stupidity seems unable to handle this machine. He tries to pass through the surf break diagonally, and one large wave tips him and the boy and the machine sideways and over. The boy, without a grotesque belly of his own, is able to keep afloat with his life vest, through just barely. He's struggling, eyes huge with fear. But his elder, his protector, swims to the overturned jet ski rather than to him. The boy's mom shrieks at the man from the beach. I nearly join her.

This lack of perspective, the loss of priorities is apparent all across the countryside here. Unlike the koi, money grew to a point of overflowing during the Bubble years. When the money receded, it had washed away the things held dear for generations. Left behind is the detritus: abandoned Swiss Villages, decaying karaoke and pachinko joints, rusting ski lifts, massive empty parking lots. Like in the Arthurian legends, the sickness of the King brings ruin to the land.

Slowly, life is beginning to return. There's a large number of people who have grow hollow in the cities, and are looking to return to a life of meaning. This is not only the retirees seeking out their simpler roots, but young couples look for sustainability. The King is dead. Long live the King.

On the turntable: Sonny Clark, "Cool Struttin'"

On the nighttable: Herbert Ashbury, "The Gangs of New York"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fed up

Food acting as catalyst for a search for better balance.  Party season is revving up, meaning far too many heavy rich meals.  My usual delight in such delicacies has been replaced by the feeling that my usual rhythm has sped up to the point that I can no longer dance.  New patterns in eating mean new patterns in energy,  resulting in lost sleep and daytime lethargy.  This all culminated in a night dining with the Swiss Consul.  It was an unbelievable meal: a series of courses building up to the butter-like texture of Kobe beef, washed down by a escalation of wines, each one more expensive and exquisite than the last, and poured into a far larger glass each time.  To refuse anything led to some playful gastronomical bullying.  This meal was accompanied by talk of Eastern culture and Western art.  The topic would frequently turn to music, then our host would jump up and play said musician on his stereo.   Roger, who was responsible to our being here, was quite astute in his observation that the Counsel was like a 19th Century patron of the arts.  His contribution to art and culture was massive and done with a deft signing of his checkbook.  The night was rich in many ways, but as it went on, I got a sense that I was going under. The waves just wouldn't stop coming.

It took not a little effort to extract ourselves, and when we finally did, we'd missed our train.   This turned out to be lucky, since a half hour later, some poor disenfrancised soul would use its progress to end his life.  As it was, we sat idle in the train behind it, langoring in Shin Osaka for 2 hours.  I looked out the window and fumed, furious at the sight of an ineffectual platform barrier that prevented nothing.  Rather than apply this costly bandaid, it seems far better to use those allocated funds to seek out the social reasons why this seems to happen week after week.    The sight of four (four!) heavily armed cops patrolling a quiet 1 am Kyoto Station further set me off, though not as much as those three JR workers tying up the taxi queue by attending to a handful of folks who'd missed their bus, delaying the far larger majority of us who just wanted to end an already long night.  I raged in the taxi about an inept society as the skies tore open above us.  My own torrent outdone, I quietly biked with an equally sodden Miki, talking about how a rich social life can be uplifting, but such uplift has a way of pulling one away from roots.  While I'm happy to have reclaimed some free time after quitting my course, I've not yet driven deeply the peg to which my current phase of life will be anchored.  Even the lightest of winds has a way of blowing me this way and that.   

On the turntable:  Mingus Big Band, "Gunslinging Bird"

On the reel table:  "8 1/2 Women" (Greenaway, 1999)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two things learned in June...

Never bring a 1500 yen bottle of wine to a diplomat's dinner invite.

One yen coins stick to your fingers during rainy season.

On the turntable: Diana Krall, "All for You"
On the nighttable: Jay Rubin, et al.,   "A Wild Haruki Chase"

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Yama bushed

Ascending the stairs,
Still carrying Omine-san,
In my weary legs.

On the turntable: Wayne Shorter, "Native Dancer"
On the nighttable: David Liss, "The Coffee Trader"
On the reel table: "The Balled of Narayama" (Imamura, 1983)