Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kumano Prologue II

Another Sunday.  We took the train down to Uji, picking up the trail where we last left it.  This second day's stretch is known as the Kyo Kaido.  It took us along a busy road which ran above the river.  It was a shame to be this close to water and not be able to see it.  Once in a while we'd notice a path below and would drop down onto it, but before long, we'd end up back in the high grass again.  Back up to the road.  We did this scramble up and down the steep concrete embankment a half dozen times before giving up and sticking with the road.  It was hard to look down at the view with all the cars rushing at us.  Many people seemed to be out for a leisurely drive, but it was hard to tell with all the blank expressions looking back at us.  Granted the first hour of this walk was little fun with the traffic, but we seemed to be the ones having the best time.  

We stopped for lunch under the drooping trees beside the river. A man and his grandson were standing in the flow, casting a net into the current.  Off the road, time moved much slower, and for a moment it felt like we were beside the Mississippi.  I mentioned this to Miki, who professed her love for Tom Sawyer.  Moving along, the resumption of concrete brought us firmly back to good old Japan.  At least we were off the road.  We talked and walked, talked and walked, trying to ignore the full heat of August midday.  One man didn't seem to mind, tanning in his bikini briefs beside his bike.  An hour later, the river began to narrow and more trees appeared.  A few people were fishing in their shade.  A woman dozed in a van nearby.  A bit further on, the sound of dirtbikes lured us down to a path at the water's edge.  Again, we were sucked in, only to wind up back in the weeds.  On the road again...   A horse-racing track loomed up.  The field was empty at the moment, but shadow figures dotted the stands.  Among them was the man who'd sat across from us on the train down, studying racing forms all the way.   Judging by his new suit and shoes, he was good at it.  Judging by all the construction going on around here, the track's owners were better.  

The day got hotter still.  We took some shade under a tree in front of a new temple.  It was a strange setup, literally a temple facade welded onto a mobile home.  Buddha for the trailer park set.  A tent was nearby, and there seemed to be some kind of open house for burial plots.  A man in uniform stood up on the hot dusty road, deftly handing the cars which pulled up by the... ones?  I only saw a couple myself.  As we sat drinking cold tea, we got to witness the famed changing of the guard ritual.  One man pedalled up on his bike (no need to cause unnecessary work for his cohort), walked up to the other and saluted.  Then the first man got on the same bike and pedalled away.  Strange things were afoot on this stretch of river in the middle of nowhere.  David Lynch couldn't have choreographed it better.

We finally entered a housing area and began to see the signs cautioning us against vipers.  My heart stopped.  All morning we'd been walking in and out of high reeds, oblivious.  Each footfall now became mindful.  The trail stopped abruptly at the Keihan train line.  I thought we could jump the fence and dash to the trail on the other side, which lay in plain view.  But Miki felt that with the increase in train-assisted suicides lately, there was probably a camera on us.  And heavy fines thereafter.  We took the long way around, down onto another busy highway.  Somewhere near the confluence of three rivers, I felt I'd had enough concrete for the day.  My knee had been acting up for most of August, and these 14 kms across hard surfaces were starting to bring about complaints.  Just over there was a train station.  And trains always lead to places with red wine and films and ice cream...

On the turntable:  James Brown, "Black Caesar"

On the reel table:  "Into the Wild"  (Penn, 07)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday papers: Sam Keen

"We begin to end warfare not when we have better weapons, but when we have truer words."

--Faces of the Enemy

On the turntable: Sarah Vaughan, "Gold"

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Kumano Prologue

Jump back to rainy season June. Ishiyama-dera again. This time, it serves as the starting point for a walk to Uji. Our route would be the first of a three day traverse along the Yodogawa toward Osaka. Midway is the starting point of the Kumano Kodo, albeit it was traditionally done by boat. It was soon apparent that this wouldn't be the most beautiful of walks, a 25km trudge along asphalt. The beginning was pleasant enough, following the narrow tail of Lake Biwa, home to crew teams and oversized bridges. (Somewhere along the way, we rescued a bullfrog the size of a catcher's mitt. It had been trapped in the road and had dried out too much to move. Miki has written of this part of the adventure on her own blog.) We stopped in at a few shrines on the way and followed the water until it entered a canyon. It was beautiful to walk along the high cliffs, the color of the water changing with the weather. Less pleasant was that we were walking on a narrow, shoulder-less, sidewalk-less road busy with Sunday joyriders driving much too fast.

We eventually came across Tachigi Kannon Temple, which offered a respite from our worrying about traffic. A 15 minute climb up the stairs was the only true altitude gain that day. This temple's layout is a testament to the wonders of Esoteric Buddhism, with windy paths leading around the mountain, and long rambling buildings dark except for fire. We stayed up here a long awhile, decompressing. (Walking alongside speeding cars takes some toll on the nervous system.) Besides the two of us, there were about a dozen young women doing light cleaning and weeding. Oddly, they were all really beautiful. It was as we had come to the lair of some Bond villain, all dark and atmospheric and staffed by absolute babes. But rather than finding a bald, monocle wearing, cat stroking evil genius, we instead met with a kind old woman speaking in a thick dialect. And the only plot we stumbled across was her plan to serve us tea.

Back down on the road, the rain came on heavy. Thick sheets of atmospheric Kurosawa rain would drench you in minutes, despite wearing good gear. Unlike the brief squalls of this tropical summer, this rain stayed over and around us for the rest of the day. Miki and were both pretty miserable for about a half hour, then it became comical and ridiculous, and before long, I found myself having the best time I can't explain it, but the discomfort made us both giddy. So we walked on, above a rushing river stained brown with runoff, past the usual dregs of inaka--closed restaurants, decaying love hotels, and parking lots built... Just in case? Despite a few conversations about hitching out, we pushed on toward Uji, arriving just as the rain stopped.

On the turntable: Dizzy Gillespie, "Groovin' High"

On the nighttable: Sawako Ariyoshi, "The River Ki"

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I'll Be Your Mirror

I answer my cellphone. The reception in my house isn't the best, so I go and stand near the window, where the reception is better. It's someone I haven't talked with for a couple years, so we chat awhile, catching up. As we talk, I begin to hear the hysterical cries of child. I'm thinking that a misbehaving child has been locked out of the house by its parents. This ostracizing from the group is a common form of punishment in Japan, and one that I loathe. Then I hear the child cry out "Mommy" in English. It at once hits me that the song issuing from the speakers behind me is Lou Reed's, "The Kids." For the album, the producer had recorded the sound of his son crying when he hadn't wanted to go to bed.

How wonderful are those moments when reality and imagination greet one another.

On the turntable: Lou Reed, "Berlin"

On the nighttable: Klaus Kinski, "Kinski Uncut"

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tokai Shizen Hoedown III

Near Nagara Koen is a small temple dedicated to Fudo-myo. It has a bizarre layout, with a covered path that leads behind a waterfall to a small cave where a few statues of the deity stand. I crane my neck out to wet my head, already sweaty from the heat of a sun shining in the flawless blue of a post-typhoon sky. Thus purified, Miki and I rejoin the Shizen Hodo. Our gentle climb to ridge is accompanied by the rhythm of a taiko being played somewhere through the trees. The contours of Lake Biwa's eastern shore are easy to make out in this clear air. We descend again, to find a small shrine. We sit here awhile, the taste of our trail mix sullied somewhat by the smell of burning meat wafting up from a restaurant somewhere below us. We cross a skybridge high above a well-trafficked Rte 1. Then the stairs begin. I've mentioned before how lucky we've been not to have had to ascend some of the steeper sets we've come across, mere coincidence based on our choice of direction. Today our luck runs out. Each step is spaced a little wider than a normal stride, which means wearily lifting the thigh to a height where we're nearly goosestepping. Yet they give an alternative to a long climb up trails made wet and slippery after heavy rain. The stairs seem to have been built relatively recently, and the smell of cedar accompanys each step. Unfortunately, they seem to cover each of Otowa-san's 593 meters and over an hour later we're still climbing them. Near the top, the trail levels out to cut through kumagusa, and our fatigue immediately vanishes with the worry of an accidental encounter with a bear foraging before a long nap. On the peak, there is a clearing which offers fine views of Kyoto in the distance, but it lies under a series of electrical towers crackling and buzzing high above. A den of boy scouts has already taken up most of this clearing, and none of the adult scoutmasters seems prepared to return a polite greeting. After a quick look at the scenery, we move off the peak, to find a quiet lunch spot just off the trail further down. The descent is far gentler than the climb, taking us through sections of forest unique in that they aren't choked with the usual monoculture of sugi. At one point, I could actually be back in New Mexico, walking over reddish clay beneath short pines. Other places are of a more Alaskan tinge, the forest floor lush with ferns. The trail takes us alongside a creek for awhile, before passing between a series of small ponds. Wires cross-cross some of them in order to protect the carp from scavenging kites. It isn't too long before we reach a village, where a couple of old men rest beside cameras that have been aimed at the ridges above. A month ago, somebody built a small park here, all ropes and logs. We linger awhile to swing and climb, then doze a bit in a hammock, under a tree canopy high above, the tall boughs stealing kisses as they waltz in the breeze. Moving on through houses growing more consistent. A long flight of steps leads up to Basho's hermitage of Genju-an, where we sit and pen hasty haiku.

Not even autumn winds
Can lift heavy legs
Up Genju-an's steep steps

Walking back down the hill over damp mossy concrete is like walking on ice. Below, we encounter heavier suburbs, and soon the trail markers peter out. We are directed across the grounds of a high school, and eventually find Ishiyama-dera's train station past flimsy trophies of newly acquired wealth.

On the turntable: Lou Reed, "Street Hassle"
On the reel table: "Thank You for Smoking" (Reitman, 2005)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tokai Shizen Hoedown II

A couple weeks later, Sunday's forecast was for cooler, overcast skies, promising nicer walking conditions. But the closer we got to Hiei's eastern face, the less I liked the look of the sky. Those carved valleys were holding onto clouds, letting loose precipitation which would eventually precipitate cuts deeper still. Mere minutes off the train, the rain found us and the cuts most quickly noticeable were those in my mood. The squall moved on soon enough but my mood remained dark. We'd had a black cat run out in front of our bikes today, and those old wives tales were proving their staying power. Yet can I default to superstition what had truthfully been my own absent-mindedness? In less than 15 minutes, I'd forgotten my camera, habitually stepped into flimsy sandals rather than decent hiking shoes, and boarded the wrong train. When I'd noticed my empty camera case, Miki and I had been deep into a conversation about a lecture she'd heard the day before. The speaker had mentioned that two of the major crises facing Japan are its falling birthrate and the lack of self-sustainable food sources. It's as if people today, overwhelmed with the conveniences of modern technological society, have forgotten two of the most fundamental parts of human survival- making food and having babies. Ironically, having forgotten my camera--the technological extension of the eye--I'd have to rely on my own sight and memory.

We found the place where we'd left the trail a couple weeks back. It led us to Omi Jingu, whose beautiful roofs matched the line of hills behind it. The word "Omi," used as a prefix for many of the towns and train stations in this area, denotes the region's wealthy merchant background. This massive shrine, comparatively ornate for the simplistic nature of Shinto, was a testament to that wealth. After a few claps and a bow of the head we moved on. And got lost. It took us some time to find the trail marker, behind a fence and facing in the direction that it was least likely to be seen. About a hundred yards or so, we found another marker at the edge of a new-ish bedroom community. The trail markers earlier on in Sakamoto had had arrows showing the direction of the path. These new posts had replaced those single arrows with a kind of slogan or brand, of multiple arrows extending in various directions like a hydra's head. I assume that the trail markers of a particular area is the responsibility of the municipality. Otsu-shi, into which we'd just stepped, had no doubt decided that in order to be different from their neighbor city, it would design a unique, yet counter intuitive, sign. This decision, encapsulated in a single simple wooden post, led us first about twenty minutes up a steep mountain road to a lonely shrine, then later, coupled with some helpful, yet incorrect advice of a local old-timer, further into the mountains along a different road, into the waiting arms of those storm clouds occupying this valley. We sat a while under the gate of a Jodo temple. (I smell a metaphor here. The major tenet of that sect's belief is that in times of trouble, one can find refuge in the Sutras. Which to them seems be sufficient since their closed-off temples definitely won't offer refuge from the elements.) The sky cleared as we backtracked, and we were directed to yet a third route, which proved correct. We quickly grew lost again, and by a series of frustrated guesswork, made it through a lush city park, past a few posh condos and into the woods where those previous, useful signs resumed. This traverse through the 'burbs should've taken 15 minutes at most, but it took us over two hours, all due to a single sign. I fumed the whole while. Why erect signs at all, if you plan to space them so far apart that they're impossible to follow? Apparently somebody agreed with me, since the only other marker we saw had had most of that confusing hydra symbol torn away to reveal at least the correct cardinal direction, if not the path itself. (This loss of direction is metaphor number two. The scenery below and around us was of monoliths of wealth, in the forms of rec facilities, stadiums, and towering apartment blocks. Yet the town chose not to fund a few yen for decent signs. And the three local people who we asked directions didn't have any idea what we were talking about. Again, those trappings of modern society serving as disconnect from things on a human scale and our more localized 'place in space.' But isn't a map or trail marker also technology? Am I being a hypocrite to rely on these rather than in the intuitive skills which define me as human?) All I know is that once back in the woods, on a well-marked path, my shoulders fell away from my shoulders, and I was again taken over by the enjoyment that a good walk can bring.

At the border here of new and old, we found a small temple with uneven stone stairs and a weathered gate whose thatch was peeling in the corners. The garden beyond was overgrown, and behind it were a series of grave stones dotting the forest floor. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon the final resting place of Ernest Fenollosa. I'd known he was buried somewhere in Shiga, but I hardly expected to find him here behind a seemingly forgotten temple. Next to him were the graves of Tendai convert William Sturges and of James Woods, an early American scholar of the Yoga Sutras. Nearby was a bench offering views of the buildings of Otsu city stacked below. We watched dark storm clouds coming over from the direction of Hiei. When the thunder and lightning began, we rushed through high grass to a small shelter I had spotted through the trees. It turned out to be a bell tower, but oddly, the bell had been removed. The long wooden striker still hung from a rusted chain, but the platform on which we sat was cracked and uneven . The bell seemed to have been taken quite a long time ago. I pictured Nobunaga, in his rush up to burn out the Sohei of Enryaku-ji, had melted the bell down as iron for his guns. The elderly woman in the temple itself later provided the answer. During the Second World War, the bell had indeed been taken to be melted down for munitions, but had never been used. After the war it was to be returned, but as the workmen had not wanted to carry it further up the steep hill, it was taken only as far as neighboring Enman-in temple, who refused to give it back to the proper owner. I thought it amazing that one temple would steal the bell of another (not too surprising if you remember the enmity between the Tendai sects around here), but upon arriving at Enman-in twenty minutes later I quickly understood. It was the gaudiest temple I've ever seen, with a massive concrete design under a bright neon sign. Money and profit seems to be the driving force of faith here; even the kanji can be read as "Full of money." They had a Soba shop on the grounds, plus offered services for Mizuko Jiko, these services for aborted fetuses being big business. Hundreds of flags dotted the courtyard, the names of the business donors flapping in the wind. It was if an old samurai army were camped in this concrete fortress. And of course there was the bell. Rather than being housed in the usual simple platform of wood and stone, it instead hung from three massive steel rods fashioned into a curved pyramid. The insult was complete. Miki and I expressed our disgust at the well where worshippers purified their hands and mouths. Being a follower of Buddhism, I have great respect for those rituals which give the sect definition. Yet today, I redefined the form by using these ladles to wash off my muddy feet and sandals.

Cleansed, we soon came to nearby Mii-dera, one of my favorite places in Japan. The rest of the day was spent wandering these temples, admiring the simple beauty of the wooden Buddhas, and trying to coax the caged peacocks to open their tails. Later, up at Kannon-do, we meditated before the many armed statue of the god(dess), noting how it would look right at home in India, the land of this diety's birth. All the while the fluorescent lights above droned like a tamboura, an instrument from that far-off land, out of whose seemingly monotonous tones melodies are born, much as how thoughts, and the moods that accompany them, come out of the unceasing constant of Reality.

On the turntable: Chick Corea and Bela Fleck, "The Enchantment"

On the nighttable: Murial Barbery, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

On the reel table: "The Face of Another" (Teshigahara, 1966)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tokai Shizen Hoedown I

Having climbed most of the mountains in this region, and having completed the 60km Kyoto circuit trail, Miki and I have recently begun to walk some of Japan's ancient roads. Part of them have been paved over with busy thoroughfares, but quite often the simple act of taking the next street over will magically slide you centuries back in time. Much of their charm still remains in the form of small villages and old mountain trails dotted by statues and stone. These excursions have overlapped on occasion with the Tokai Shizen Hodo, a more modern trail that starts at Takao in west Kanto, meandering through the hills above its more famous ancestor the Tokaido, until finally coming to a sudden stop in Hyogo-ken. On weekend days of generous weather we can be found ambulating the loop that wends around southern Kansai. A far more ambitious plan is to walk from our home in the Kyo's eastern hills and down the true Kumano Kodo, following the 1000 year-old course which starts not from modern Tanabe in Wakayama but from Kyoto proper. Where the nobles used to take a boat from Heian's south end, riding the Yodogawa to Tenmabashi, we've decided to do this all by foot, taking the ten day route through Osaka and down the Kii peninsula's western coast into the mountains, before eventually ending up at the shrines of Ise.

We began our true circuit this summer. I've been long curious about the lights that are atop the mountains above my house, always beckoning me during my nighttime bicycle rides. They seem to be just out of reach, an hour's walking tops, I thought. We climbed our usual route up to Uryu-zan, then followed the Hiei-bound trail until it drops into a beautiful valley where a small stream curves away from Kyoto and begins to head south. The best picnic spot in the city. From here, the path shoots straight up with far too much enthusiasm. Our single-hour hike, doubled, then doubled again. At the top we found a hotel belonging to Seika University, whose caretaker had proven to be a rude shite when I'd tried to chat him up about hiking routes back in March. Across the road at L'hotel Hiei, we picked up the Tokai Shizen Hodo (TSH) Here the trail drops again, down the steepest staircase in the world. At the bottom, we were congratulating ourselves on not having to ascend them, until we saw an equally daunting set of switchbacks immediately ahead. Over this ridge then, and down a kinder slope, though one where a concrete fetishist had littered the narrow valley with about a dozen huge and pointless dams. Does it really snow that much up here? The ghosts of the ruined temples dotted about probably aren't amused. The stream we followed led us eventually to Biwa. Long lateral traverses are always much more difficult than relatively easy ridge walks, and although we hadn't covered a lot of space relative to the map, we'd exhausted much energy in crossing three ranges in a few hours. Tired, the train swept us in.

On the turntable: Fleetwood Mac, "Carousel Ballroom, June 1968"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

EC '08: A Cranky Reinterpretation

Despite the respite I found during Obon and later in Kochi, I still found a slight disconnect between perception and reality. This fact was driven home after arriving in Naoetsu. I'd made this trek to Sado six times and knew my route quite well. Yet it was only after I'd bought my ticket and some food before I thought to ask myself, "Where the hell is everybody?" A quick check of the ferry times told me that the departure times had changed in April. (In my own defense, Kodo's English page still listed the old schedule.) I'd rushed off at dawn's proverbial crack in order to sit and wait for three hours. For the expensive jetfoil. This service, while convenient, took away all the joy of the slower, lumbering approach toward the island, time spent laughing it up with punters just as happy as yourself. Upon arriving, I broke my own speed record in setting up my tent, grabbed my tickets and food, then joined JesusChris and pals to climb the trail to the mountain stage, under the shrieks of sex-crazed cicadas.

Unlike last year, we found a spot halfway back on the right. This farther vantage point gives a good overview of the choreography, yet missing is the subtle details of what the individual drummer is actually up to. It was good fun though, cracking jokes with J.C. about, well, everything really. Yet my eyes rarely left the stage. Each of the few dozen times I've seen Kodo is always a little different, a testament to their ever-evolving nature. This past year saw the group split into many smaller subunits, touring to express a more personal interpretation of the group's music. A few years ago, Marcin expressed how he felt that the cookie-cutter nature of Kodo's apprentice program, while admittedly producing fantastic drummers, has the unfortunate side effect of leaching out much of the personal attributes and talents of the individual. (Though this is the nature of any Japanese apprenticeship, shu ha ri and all that.) Tonight, on stage before us, we could see brief instances of reclaimed self-expression, for better or worse. The trio of P.P.C. made their usual appearance, but to be frank I'm getting a little tired of their one joke act. Nothing to see here, move along. More impressive were the ladies of Cocon, with their demonstrations of strength and delicacy. In fact, the theme of this show seemed to be "Grrrl Power." After the usual thunder of "Yatai Bayashi," Chieko came out to play solo, the first time I've ever seen her drum onstage. The boys would do a heavy drum piece, then were followed by something light, like the almost Celtic strains of flute and bowed shamisen. For these more mellow, choreographed pieces, I appreciated my position further back. Maybe I've been watching too much Kurosawa, but from back here everything looked surprisingly flat, as if seen through telephoto lens. Yet having worked on that stage, I know how deep it is. Bizarre. (Speaking of filmmakers, one thing audible that I noticed is how each drummer has a particular tuning, similar to how John Woo has a different sound for each of his character's guns.) As usual, there was the obligatory Odaiko, with it's rippling muscles and flexing cheeks. And every year, without fail, somebody in the crowd would actually be dancing to it. Always brings to mind a lyric by the late great Dead Milkmen. But the girls held their own, taking nearly all the premier drum parts. It almost felt like Tsubasa was the lead drummer tonight. (Although she was outplayed on the final piece by Natsumi. I mentioned this later to a Kodo insider and he said, "You better not let Tsubabsa hear you say that." ) Overall, while this show of grace and skill was beautiful to watch, it never got the crowd going. The key to Friday's show is usual an energetic, "Irrashai!" But this year we never got lift off.

Down off the hill again, that lack of energy was still apparent. There was nothing at all going on, no drumming, no fire-spinning hippies. J.C. and the girls and I grabbed some beers and sat down by the water. All the while, increasing winds whipped up waves which would cause the sailboat moored in front of us to rock violently, its ropes slapping out a ringing Morse-code on the mast with every roll. Bad weather on the way...

After a surprisingly good sleep, I did some yoga in front of my tent, then met up with J.C. to watch Cocon go on in a light rain. The worsening weather was fitting for the next act, a group of deer dancers, whose eerie movements perfectly mimicked the animal. Like shamanistic beasts moving through the mist. Soon after, I was off to my Odaiko workshop. It is the only Taiko that I'd never trained on, and with its relatively simple rhythms, it seems to be about stamina rather than skill. There were about forty of us, and only two drums, so we only got to play in short increments. But this was enough, since the shoulders begin to scream after a couple minutes. (Much respect to those who play it onstage, lasting for about 13 minutes or so.) I later mentioned to Yoshikazu how happy I was to be able to play the new Odaiko that I'd seen in construction while with KASA Mix back in 2005.

The rain stopped in time for the night's concert. J.C. had gone back home, but I was found by a group of fellow yoga teachers from the Kyo. The five of us all work together, but never seem to meet. We scored good seat up close to the stage, but it didn't matter. Within minutes of taking the stage, the lead singer of Olodum yelled out for everyone to dance, and immediately, hundreds of people rushed to dance down in front. Usually dancing is reserved to the areas of to the side, but tonight it was totally chaotic. Kodo's security team tried to get the crowd to sit back down but were completely ignored. When something if over planned, there is a certain feeling of schadenfrede in watching things fall apart within minutes. After all, the theme was Brazil night. Unlike most years, when the majority of the audience is Kodo fans, here it seemed that half had come for Olodum. And these fans wouldn't be budged for two hours. During the melee, I looked over to see poor Joe, holding his arms up as a barrier between two big Brazilians practically giving him a lap dance. He looked at me and rolled his eyes. In response, I mouthed the words in time to the Bob Marley cover currently being played on stage: "Everything's gonna be alright." Directly in front of me, a small group of people was bouncing and pogo-ing. One girl, incredibly drunk, would take a few steps backward and then run to shove her friends, who, well into their own cups, would fall all over the people around them. Normally I'm pretty subdued about things. Plus, most of the dancing I did in high school had the prefix, "Slam-" attached. But this was outright dangerous. As she stumbled in my direction, I grabbed her by the shoulder, spinning her around to shout in her face, "Cut that shit out right now!" She did, and luckily, not one her super-sized friends seemed to mind my buzzkill. On stage, Olodum powered on. I'd really been looking forward to seeing them, but it got old for me after about 15 minutes. Their rhythms were redundant, their technique limited. One giant, all done up in neon dreads, would repeatedly throw his stick waaaay up in the rafters, only to miss catching it half the time. He seemed to be the Flava Flav of the group. I laughed at the religious rites of large concerts, where the audience mimics the gestures of the singer, both sides collaborating on a large amount of call-and-response. The monorhythm finally finished two hours later. (At least for this night. Throughout the weekend, samba teams from all over Japan would occasionally march around, playing their single memorized rhythm. Again. I used to love Brazilian music, but up close, I feel that it's more about performance and spirit rather than technique. And that's fine. But likewise I prefer actually talented musicians to DJs. Not much of a party person anymore, I'm afraid.) Usually during the Saturday night show, Kodo will come on to perform a few songs with the guest, but tonight they only played one. And, boy did they look small standing amidst these massive Bahians. The skies too seemed to protest, letting loose as we all lumbered past the cattle shoots the cops had erected, creating more of a hazard in the rain. (But a music festival isn't a music festival unless there's some mud.) Tired and grumpy, I lurched toward my tent, drenched and dripping with rain.

Miserable sleep. The nearby constant dripping upon my body had me dreaming of a Chinese invasion conducted at a time when all eyes were on Olympic Beijing. Everything I had was drenched. Back at EC 2005, I'd had had the same experience, which had permanently damaged a drum and some electronics equipment, yet I hadn't remembered to waterproof the rainfly later. I'd woken sometime in the night to a long coughing jag. While I don't usually mind the lack of creature comforts, I doubted I wanted to sleep out in the rain another night. Luckily, while in line for tickets at the shrine, I met an English guy who would be heading back to Tokyo that day. His room proved to be free. My relief was short lived once I found that I had lost my camera. I spent the better part of the morning retracing my steps of the previous night, when I'd last remembered having it.

Giving up, I set off for a Brazilian percussion workshop, which was extremely dull. Rather than featuring a member of Olodum, it was led by a middle-aged Japanese woman whose main qualification seemed to be her genkiness. The first half consisted of clapping and stomping to a single beat--for an hour. I considered leaving during the break, but didn't wanted her to lose face. A shame that I didn't leave since the second hour also had us focus on a single beat, though at least we got drums this time.

Disappointed, I dragged my stuff through a persistent rain to my new digs. One of my roomies was a guy I'd met (somewhere?) before; the other was the boyfriend of the slam-dance girl I'd put in a Vulcan Death Grip the night before. (Not Death Grip exactly. More like the grip of Faux Authority. ) Check-in time conflicted with my work schedule, but I was allowed to come to work late. When I finally arrived at the Flea Market staff tent, it was impossible to enter due to yet another costumed samba group working their way through their single song repertoire. When I could finally get into the tent, my work shift was half over, so we decided to let me off. With the ferry schedule change, I wouldn't be doing any work Monday either. This year, the festival was mine to "enjoy."

While having a soak in the rotemburo, I reflected on this 'enjoyment.' EC wasn't what it used to be. Last year had just been too big. I know that after the 10th anniversary in '97, Kodo had purposely scheduled the following year's event for May, in order to reduce the numbers. This year too felt strange. Some folks have complained that the security was too much, but I believe that these were measures that had been adopted to handle to increased mobs of last year, measures which were used again. I felt that this year's EC once again had that mellow vibe of years past, sadly missed in 2007. It was the other things, such as the changes in seating arrangements, plus the fact that the evening performance was now "all-or-nothing,' no longer using the smaller venue in the case of rain. The festival didn't feel less peaceful so much as too top heavy. It was as if Kodo again wanted a reduction in the number of fans. Scheduling the event during Obon next year will bring about exactly that. As for me, I sat in the hot water debating if I'll even come next year. If I do, I certainly won't work, or take workshops. Simply 'enjoy.'

I met up with the Kyoto gang and we lounged awhile around the flea market area. Unlike last night when I'd been the first up the mountain, this time we were amongst the last. Mobs of staff were on hand to prevent a repeat of last night's melee. And shortly into Kodo's set, I began to rethink my ideas of not coming again. Sometime during the weekend, they'd refound the magic. As they do, they were sharing it with us, helping us to forget the bad weather, which was miraculously clearing for the first time since Friday. Olodum only joined them for a few numbers, but they weren't a group who showed much versatility. Musical collaborations go somewhat beyond, "Dumdumdum, dadadadadum." Friday's division of labor was present this time too, with the men singing out in front, backed up by the women banging away on the Okedo just beyond. The dancers danced in their area off to the side and the punters sat equally contentedly on their tarps. Five encores later, Kodo had won us back.

Plus, I found my camera.

On the turntable: John Lennon, "The Complete Lost Lennon Tapes"

Saturday, September 13, 2008

An August Settling

I have noticed that I don't usually write much in August. Maybe it's the heat, wearing the brain down to the sharpness of a dull pencil. Or maybe it's the fact that at the height of summer, those long days demand more action and less reflection. Words usually reserved for the written form instead come tumbling out in beer- and excitement-fueled encounters, those planned and those created by fate. But this year, the words themselves , and the thought processeses behind them, were more than a bit off.

Through June and July, the taking of short trips alternated with the hosting of guests, becoming like baubles on a string. The more they built up, the thinner that strand became, until it threatened to snap. At the same time, I was struck by the first real bout of homesickness in the 14 years I've lived here. I felt completely detached from the present, drifting back and forth between memories of last year's pleasant summer spent in Vermont's kinder climate, and escape plans made for next year. Where the mind goes, the emotions follow, until both completely slipped their tether. By the time August rolled around, this was all playing out in small mysterious injuries, general grumpiness, outright loathing for my adopted land, and a bizarre nervous energy that was apparent to anyone who had the misfortune to cross my path during those dog days of Kyoto summertime.

So I decided to take a small retreat. Miki headed home to Hiroshima for Obon, leaving me with four days for and with myself. I stocked up on food and didn't step outside the whole time, committing myself to silence, yet allowing myself to follow every whim. Meditation, books, music, and films. (It wasn't all silence I suppose, since one of the latter was Jimi's 90 minute Woodstock set, watched on the anniversary of the festival.)

On the fifth day, I found myself riding a bus through the dead countryside of north Shikoku, past bastard children of the moneyed bubble years now in decay. Our friends Yayoi and Seiichi are in the midst of building a house further south in the far more beautiful rural Kochi, hoping to eventually replace their Osaka artist basecamp. It is a remote place, with a half dozen farmhouses and an early Meiji-era schoolhouse, all stretched along a small but fast-moving river. The school has since been converted to a shared community space for the villagers. When I arrived, Seiichi and other members of Rustic Pans (who I raved about here) were leading a workshop on building and playing steel drums. These workshops are held every month, attended by people coming from all over Shikoku and West Japan. After the workshop, the four of us began to make dinner. Shortly after getting picked up at the centipede-like structure of Kochi station, we had bought supplies for the next few days. But they turned out to be unnecessary. Our quiet dinner sooned turned into a party. Within an hour about twenty people turned up, including most of the village, plus a couple of artists doing a circumnavigation of Shikoku's beaches and hot springs. The locals brought down veggies, booze, and ayu which been obliviously swimming not an hour before. The main highlight was the homemade sake that went down like springwater. Not once was I treated as 'other', which went a long way toward restoring some of the love I have for things Japan.

Since Yayoi and Seiichi's house was as yet uninhabitable, the plan had been to camp out front. But the village headman was kind enough to let us lay out our sleeping bags inside the school itself. It was lovely to walk the halls and classrooms early the next morning, the traces of childhood energy still there. I had expected to face a day filled with light carpentry and lugging stuff around, but after a mere hour of work, we were off to a nearby town for a curry in a minka restored into a cafe by a artist/musician. Turns out he and Miki had met in Kyoto years ago when he had come to visit her roommate. After our meal, he showed us around his art space in a massive converted factory, while white-water rafters floating down the river just behind.

Back in the village, we worked on the house for maybe a hour more, then broke for the day. (I can now see why they're still working on this place after three years. I look forward to coming back here again and again to continue this pace of the grasshopper.) After our respective baths, Seiichi was earnest in his wish to hide somewhere while having dinner. Every night for a week, the villagers had turned up to drink, and by now he was exhausted. Yet ironically, no one else turned up this last night. Mercifully, we all slept and rose early to make the long drive back to Kansai. I especially was pleased to get home long before dark, since I was setting off to Sado early the next morning...

On the turntable: Jefferson Airplane, "Takes Off"

On the nighttable: Alistair MacLeod, "No Great Mischief"

On the reel table: "Pitfall" (Teshigahara, 1962)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Learned in the Garden Today

Try sweeping with the iPod on. Something heavy coming through. Maybe The Mr. T Experience, for example. And the body begins to follow certain movements. Nothing like the classic Townsend windmill, or anything else that would startle the neighbors. No, it's more subtle, the move of a bass player perhaps, more fitting to the slim body and long handle of the instrument in hand. The move starts small, with a splay of the legs, back slightly arched, knees pointing outward in the way that the Japanese might call, Ron-Pari. Thus supported, the hips begin to sway back and forth, shifting balance taken up by the broom, busy waltzing with the leaves and the twigs and the dust.

On the turntable: Mr. T Experience, "Making Things with Light"
On the nighttable: Idries Shah, "The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin"
On the reel table: "I was Born, But..." (Ozu, 1932)

Saturday, September 06, 2008


Autumn skies.
Summer heat.
How many seasons?

On the turntable: Willie Nelson, "Broken Promises"
On the nighttable: Jim DeRogatis, "Let it Blurt"
On the reel table: "Woman in the Dunes" (Teshigahara, 1964)