Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tokyo Interlude

As an eco-conscious, card-carrying member of the Green Party, I have to applaud the fact that Tokyo trains are running their A/C at a higher temperature recently. It seems that gone are the days where entering a train was like taking a dip in a Canadian lake.

So can we now do something about all the B.O.? It's a completely different type of environmental hazard...

On the turntable: Radio Paradise

Friday, July 18, 2008

In the Can

Those fine baristas over at Chin Music Press kindly offer a short piece of mine as their weekly special.  While you're over there, poke around a bit and enjoy the joe...

(December 2018 addendum: the piece can be read in its entirety here.)

On the turntable:  Manu Chao, "B Sides"
On the nighttable:  Malcolm Gladwell, "Blink"
On the reel table:  "Megane"  (Ogigami, 2007)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meet the New Gods. Same as the Old Gods. (TSH XI)

I can't remember when I was down in Nara last. Probably two springs back, when I'd watched my mom and Maggie get pulled around by a young rickshaw driver. Today was a very warm July day, with the majority of the deer lounging listlessly in the shade. This time of year, their coats are shabby and their heads untrimmed, and as always, a few were panhandling the tourists for food. The museum had a special exhibit of the treasures of Horyuji, a few of which will never be seen by the public again. Very Japanese idea that, the value of something being based on how few people have actually seen it. What I did see, in spades, were the tops of many, many heads. As usual, it was too crowded to really see the exhibits, and the elbows of old women seem to get sharper every year. (Hadn't I once sworn never to see an exhibition in Japan ever again?) So I went through my usual pattern of being annoyed for about a half hour, until the sheer annoyance of it turned upside down and became comical. Most amusing was how, when a place opened in front of a display, a handful of people would make a quick move to fill it, reminding me of the movement of hungry carp jostling for food. Mostly, I found the whole experience disappointing by the fact that there were so few sculptures on display. The best stuff was in the permanent exhibit, housed over in the beautiful Meiji-era wing. Plus lots of space in which to gaze and dream. Fascinating how the statues began to transform through the centuries, losing their distinct Indian flavor to become more Chinese, then eventually become what we are used to seeing in temples throughout this country.

Miki and I grabbed some food, rudely eating on the train as a subtle form of revenge on the pointy-elbowed brigades seated around us. The end of the line was Tenri, where we planned to start one part of the Yama-no-be trail, the most ancient of Japan's numerous old roads.

Tenri is a small city which rose around the growth of the Tenri sect. (Think Salt Lake City.) The train station was at the open mouth of a long shopping arcade, which seemed to thrive despite similar arcades across the nation dying with a spectacular sucking sound as money is pulled out of the countryside toward the capital. Here were shops selling vegetables, selling robes, selling toys, selling Buddhist paraphernalia. Millions of pilgrims passing through have brought the money back from the capital again. At the opposite end of the long arcade is the main headquarters of the Tenri-kyo. The complex is surrounded on all sides by massive dormitories with pitched, Chinese-style roofs, making me think of housing projects crossed with the hotel in the film "Spirited Away." A massive temple serves as the heart-center of this space, space being the key word here since unlike most other Buddhist temples, there was no alter bearing candles or images, merely a large pit open all four sides. It was if four temples had been fused together, with an entrance at each cardinal direction, facing toward the dormitories beyond. At first I cynically thought that this religion has no center, but Joseph Campbell later informed me that within it is a post that marks the spot from which mankind evolved.

Miki and I entered and knelt awhile, enjoying the cool air and soft tatami. In the short time we were there, dozens of followers came in from each of the four doors, knelt before the open space before them, and did these perfect half bows. Then they'd start in on a chant, their hands tracing out a series of mudras in time to the rhythm. It was beautiful to watch, especially the kids tracing out smaller forms with their tiny fingers. Beside the families, there were also a few young couples, dressed as if this were part of the day's date. Many of the followers wore uniforms similar to judo practice tops, all black, and wrapped with that thick belt coveted by martial artists worldwide. One young guy sitting in front had a powerful and mesmerizing voice. I could've stayed here all afternoon, had we not had a 16km hike before us. I honestly felt really moved by what I saw, at the sheer faith that the followers displayed. I sometimes wish I had a strong unwavering faith in something, but for now I'll have to trust in my cynicism.

We stepped outside, past the shoehorn wallahs armed with the tools of their trade. In front of me, I was surprised to see two foreigners stop their bikes, do a perfunctory bow, then ride off again. Were these two members of this religion, or merely a couple of JET teachers working locally and made to do this as part of their living here? Puzzled, I moved on.

The rest of the day, we wandered in the shadows of the mountains, without actually entering them. At Isonokami Shrine, we watched the sacred long-tailed chickens, flitting from branch to branch like kids on a jungle gym. The trail took us past quiet ponds shaded by lily pads, between ancient burial mounds, and along waterways which fed the many fields and rice paddies. It was like walking through the Kojiki, but for the stones inscribed with passages from Basho who walked here a couple millenia later. These served as a reminder that time plods ever on, and is constantly being marked by bright minds attempting to make sense of our brief place in it. The day was growing hotter, so we took refuge in the shade of a house in one of the many villages we were to pass through. Someone had laid out some complimentary tea and sold veggies on the honor system. The reading material on a shelf nearby was very, very nationalistic, somewhat contradicting the open approach to strangers. Later in the afternoon, a squall broke overhead, but we sat happily on the steps of a small temple, enjoying the rhythms the rain played on the surface of a pond. An hour later, the rain caught us again, the two of us running to the shelter of somebodies makeshift barn. Further on we climbed up to a small shrine atop a tomb. Littered about were the bodies of about a half-dozen freshly killed crows. Well spooked, we quickly moved on. We entered the forest then and the shrines and temples began to take on a thicker concentration. This slowed our pace significantly, and we arrived eventually at Sakurai Station well past dark. Riding the train north, we sat tired but happy, out footfalls having taken us along one of the nicest hikes in the Kansai...

On the turntable: Bob Marley, "African Herbsman"
On the nighttable: Malcolm Gladwell, "Blink"
On the reel table: "Fort Apache (Ford, 1948)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Extra Innings

Been watching Ken Burns again, his "Baseball" doc this time around.  In the opening minutes of the first disc, where they're talking about the spirit of the game, I found myself suddenly overcome with great nostalgia.  In 14 years, it's the first time I've ever felt homesick.  Maybe it was my spending most of last summer in the States, where the days are long and life is meant to be lived out of doors.  And what defines summer better than Baseball? 

Jump to the series' seventh disc, this one opening with a Billy Crystal interview where he's talking about a childhood memory of going to Yankee Stadium.  And I begin to waver in my decision to convert to a Boston fan.  Until the end of his anecdote, where he begins to use words like history and tradition, and I know that I made the right choice.  It's best to leave those teams in the past, for that is the only place I can still see the lineup whose names I still remember.  Chambliss, Randolph, Dent, Nettles (my man!), Jackson, Rivers, Pinella.  Thurman Munson behind the plate, Guidry and Goose Gossage  standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.  And Billy Martin on the dugout steps, one eye on the field, the other to the owner's box, both eyes filled with fire.

Yet ironically, my greatest memories of the game are of the Sox.  Sitting on the front porch with my grandfather, he working his pipe with his teeth, me drinking my iced tea, both of us in absent-minded concentration on every word coming out of Fenway Park and straight into our transistor radio.  In that shared space, in that silence, was the birth of my meditation practice.

On the turntable:  Jakob Dylan, "Seeing Things"

On the nighttable:  Ian F. Svenonius, "The Psychic Soviet"  (Brilliant! Hilarious!...Brillarious!)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hippo Birdy Two Gnus

'Twas my birthday today. With every passing year, I strongly believe that I didn't grow up, just grew taller...

Cheers to the Tokyo gang who helped me celebrate. More like y'all celebrated, and I sat with my 50 yard samadhi stare, the latest victim of a yogic overdose.

Thanks especially for not singing that goddamn song...

On the turntable: Bob Marley, "Babylon by Bus"

On the nighttable: Paul Auster, "Leviathon"

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wednesday Morning, 4 A.M.

Dawn's coming light awakens me.

Hear the season's first cicada,

As I pee.

On the turntable: Fela Kuti, "Roforo Fight"

On the nighttable: David Mitchell, "Black Swan Green"

On the reel table: "The State of Things" (Wenders, 1982)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Between the Sheets

I think I've  figured out why the old Chinese euphemism for sex was "clouds and rain."   Here in the Kyo we've just passed a torturous series of muggy days where the temperature hovered around the number at which LP records used to lazily spin.  

A storm had been flirting with us all week, driving up the barometric pressure, causing any movement to become clumsy and awkward, any thought thick and slow.  So this morning, when the storm finally made her move, tearing open her bodice, thrashing about, and writhing in violent and boisterous passion, it brought a release that was almost sexual.

On the turntable:  Ry Cooder, "My Name is Buddy"

On the nighttable:  Amy Willard Cross,  "The Summer House"

On the reel table:  "Onibaba"  (Shindo, 1964)