Thursday, December 03, 2009

So Much Water So Close To Home

My last day in Yonago, I went to see a Doctor of Chinese Medicine about my knee. He told me that my body has too much liquid, and gave me some herbs to remedy that. But how can I escape all this water?

It is beside my train, in the form of a river along which a tug pulls a barge loaded with dirt from what was once a mountain. This train stops at Kinosaki, its passengers disembarking for a three day weekend soaking in hot baths. My next train follows the Sea of Japan, whose rocky shoreline is carved by more water, both serving as natural defenses against ancient enemies.

In Yonago, I spend a few days feeding on crab and other things that this water offers, as if trying to instantaneously recoup the 7 kilograms lost during a 10 week walk.

Another train struts along other water, trapped in rice paddies now plowed into hourglass shapes. At Gotsu I follow the Ko no Kawa south to spend a couple days with Jake. On one of these we watch the water leap and rush through the narrow Senjokei. A month ago, Kagura performers mimicked this movement as they danced in the surrounding shrines now quiet on this warm autumn afternoon.

Thumb south to Tomo no Ura and Sensuijima floating in the Seto-Naikai. I hike around what the locals call `kemono no michi,` or trail of beasts. Where there are views, I sit and squint at the words on a page in the glare of sunlight reflecting brightly on water. I`ve always had a great attraction to these waters, love to walk the desert-like hills high over the waves. I often escaped down here with friends long returned to their homes, far away where water merges with other water. And I too will be soon gone, and the sentimentality I feel is a weight heavy, like the Bizen cup from which I drink my beer. I toast these ghosts, and then again. There is always the feeling of aware in off-season beach towns, yet mine is compounded and I often feel near tears. Leaving this country is like a breakup with someone I`m still deeply in love with.

There is other water too: at the end of the narrow alleys of Tomo no Ura; along the waterfront of Onomichi, above which I wander the hills between old temples; forming the spread fingers of the Hiroshima delta; at the southern edge of an overly built-up town facing Miyajima, where I spend my final days.

And the sentimentality lasts, though it could be that I have far too many minor chords on my iPod, making up the nostalgic songs that themselves flowed through all the different lives I`ve lived here. As an English teacher well-enthused at an expat life. As the husband and father. As a hollow shadow, trying to pull myself from the wreckage of a life destroyed. As a person in reconstruction, rebuilding myself in a new city.

Escape from the water. Tough to do on an island. Today I will cross over it, to see where the flow goes once beyond its limits...

On the turntable: Beatles, "Rubber Soul"
On the nighttable: Robert Stone, "Damascus Gate"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Feet Up

Off the road for a few days. We traced the distended belly of the Kinki Region, where it juts proudly into the Pacific, walking 300+ km along the Kii-ji, Nakahechi, and Ōhechi sections of the Kumano Kodo. Like the Japanese expression, "Hara Hachi-bunme," we pushed back from the table and saved the Ise-ji for leftovers.

Then a couple nights at Koya, which has become perhaps my favorite place in country, this almost alpine town with Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. Oku-no-in at dawn is pure magic. It was here that we bowed to Kobo Daishi and asked him to watch over us as we walked his footsteps.

Shikoku 88. The guidebooks differ, but we walked somewhere between 1200 and 1400 km in 39 days. Maybe 90 percent of it over asphalt. Lots and lots of asphalt. A week finished and my feet still wake me with their complaining. Yet I can't think of a better way to see this country, on foot and sleeping out, fully susceptible to both the kind hospitality and the hostile looks.

In an attempt to disprove the laws of inertia, we will now arrest this motion and take part in a Vipassana retreat north of Kyoto, looking for a remedy for restless minds and aching feet.

(And for grateful stomachs, here is an article that I published over at Deep Kyoto in September. Bon Appetit!)

On the turntable: Jeff Buckley, "Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk"
On the nighttable: E. Annie Proulx, "Postcards"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cafe Millet


"Ted Taylor writes…

On a warm autumn afternoon, during a north Kyoto hike from Ohara over to Kurama, we came across a group of young people building a wood burning oven out of stone. Standing in front of this ishigama, we made small talk with the young couple in charge of the project. The young woman told us that the bread that this oven would bake would be a centerpiece of the cafe that had just opened here, her hand gesturing at a comfortable looking building made of wood and glass. We promised to come back again.oven

A month or so later we ran into them again in Ohara, this time as part of a larger group busy harvesting adzuki and soy, some of which would wind up that night on the table of Cafe Millet.

What at first seems like a throwback scene to the old hippie days is actually a large and growing trend in Japan. Driven by both environmental and economic concerns, many young Japanese are shunning a life in the cities for one in the soil.bread

The idea of returning to the countryside is hardly a new one. Masanobu Fukuoka’s classic work, “The One-Straw Revolution” has for over 30 years lured people back to a traditional life of farming. What is different this time is that the movement is not simply at the personal or grass roots level. In March of this year, Prime Minister Taro Aso created the Rural Labor Squad, as a way to give employment to the young while simultaneously revitalizing rural communities and their dwindling labor pool. Local farmers are for the most part grateful for the help, though some feel that the young will once again return to the city when the economy picks up.

While some people are able to make this I-turn to the countryside, others are taking on the more modest task of planting crops atop buildings in some of Japan’s urban centers. The focus here is more environmental, with growing concerns about food safety after a recent chain of tainted food scandals. This movement too is encouraged by the municipal governments, as a means in which to lower the summer heat index, as temperatures soar due to an overabundance of heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt. This heat in turn increases air-conditioner use, leading to higher carbon emissions. As a previous generation had found inspiration in Fukuoka’s book, these current farmers (both in the city and the country) have found a spokesman in Naoki Shiomi, with his series of books espousing a practical life style of “Half-Farmer and Half-X.”

outside play

For Juri Sumioka, Cafe Millet’s owner, the transition was no real transition at all. “When I was a kid, I used to enjoy making things with my friends. Since high school, I’ve had more opportunity to cook for people. It was only natural that I’d open a cafe.” Her husband Atsushi agrees that it had come naturally. “I one day noticed that I’d already been living this way. I was into growing food long before I was into cooking. Growing rice led me to an interest in growing wheat. That led of course to my bread making.”

The organic food movement in Japan is by no means new. The current interest originated a decade ago with middle aged women who, watching many men of their generation succumb to cancer and heart disease, began to take a greater interest in the source of their food. What makes Cafe Millet special is that everything served is grown in the surrounding fields and gardens. This has greater benefits than simple delicious ingredients. “I feel great happiness in reaping the blessings of a life lived naturally, and not being occupied with doing business but instead, simply living. Around food we can create a community out of all sorts of people, of any age or occupation,” Juri says. “With money, we can quickly accomplish just about anything. But I find much more value in time spent in the present, with family and neighbors. Plus being able to live according to the rhythms of nature, amidst food growing all around you, it is easy to pass the time in an valuable way.”

work in fields

On her philosophy of cooking: “We hope that people who come to eat here feel that our food is similar to their own mother’s cooking, and find that ‘The heart of all is connected by food,’ which is our motto, of sorts” She adds, “People also can feel that we put our hearts into producing the ingredients. Even with so called high cuisine that uses very expensive ingredients, if it was prepared without love and care, it doesn’t resonate in the soul. Eating is a natural act for animals and people, but I think that it has a very important role in the formation of our body and spirit.”

Working together as a couple has many benefits. While Juri is responsible for what appears on the table, Atsushi provides the materials. “How vegetables are grown is important, of course, but the fact that they are organic vegetables made without pesticides is not the only important information. We also need to consider the manner in which they are sold, the environment where the vegetables grow, the methods of the farmers. We must ask questions like, ‘What nutrients are there?’ ‘What is most effective?’ ‘Where was it produced?’ ‘At what cost?’ And for us, the most important question is, “Does the food have soul?”


His own approach to agriculture borders on the spiritual. “Vegetables and grains have a characteristic flavour and shape. Yet beyond the shape, we ask ‘Is there ki?’, ‘Is there consciousness?’ You can easily see this from the state of the produce. There are veggies that are entirely eaten by insects, and some that aren’t at all. If you take a look, you can see that those not eaten by bugs are vibrant and brimming with vitality. Those that are partially eaten are limp and weak. It’s the same as how when our immunity and energy are weak, we slip into disease. All produce is made from sun, water, earth, and human labor. It reflects the environment in which it was made. Science can give insight into proteins, carbohydrates and the composition of food, but the form a vegetable takes is determined only by its molecular structure. Vegetables are nourished by sun, energized by the power of innumerable microorganisms, and take form by the farmer’s labour. Eating the vegetable makes us one with the place.”

meal in airy room

The quality of food served isn’t the only thing soulful about a meal at Cafe Millet. You dine in an airy room full of natural light, surrounded by photographs and implements of a country lifestyle, many no longer used and relegated to the status of ‘antique.’ The kitchen, visible from the table, is spacious and open, all stone and wood like the kitchens of southern Europe. There is a great sense of peace in the cafe’s location too. It is located at the head of the Shizuhara valley, with views across rice paddies stretching away to the mountains that mark the border of Kurama. “When we have our meals, we can feel the wind come down from the mountains and across the fields, and see the next generation of ingredients from the window. This helps us to enjoy the food more. It is part of the food’s essence,” Juri explains.

The cafe also has regular events, mostly based around the theme, “Agriculture and Food.” These events usually take shape as vegetarian cooking classes, yoga workshops, and live music sessions, events that are always stimulating and inspiring.


“Shizuhara is located between the sightseeing centers of Ohara and Kurama, but actually there is very little to see here, tourist-wise. Seemingly there is nothing, but there is quiet, and the slow passing of time. We try to plan events and projects by thinking about making the best use of this environment as we can.” Atsushi adds, “We think it is important to experience things for yourself. By hosting workshops, we can continue to pursue things we enjoy. I think that if we actively pursue those things that greatly interest us, we can easily have the type of life that we desire.’


He feels that this is one of the catalysts for the recent migration of young people. “Many people these days don’t have any drive or ambition, and are lost as how to live. But by simply living in the present, in following their bliss, they’ll eventually find their own way to live.” Juri too feels it important to continue chasing what you like. “You’ll meet people and have experiences that you’d never expected.”

Atsushi feels that “there is growing doubt in the lifestyle of cities, living in apartment houses where you can’t see the ground, doubt in the ideas of our parents’ generation with its mass production and mindless consumption. They are beginning to seek life in a natural, rich environment. These young people are attracted to the idea of working with the soil in heavy labor. The number who relocate to the countryside and assume organic farming as work has increased every year.” Juri adds, “I truly believe we are in an age of change, and more and more people will actively seek a new lifestyle.”

And on their own changes, what are their more long-term plans for Cafe Millet?
“We are in the process of building a tree house in the big zelkova tree down by the stream. Later, we hope to keep a donkey nearby. In the old days of Kyoto, people used to sell bread from donkey-drawn carts that would circle throughout the city. We are toying with the idea of starting that up again. In addition, many people are beginning to bring their kids to Millet, and it is becoming something of a natural daycare center. I want it to be a place where kids can come learn and play. An environment where people can raise food and be around animals. And meet the local people, who also can benefit from this exchange.”

Juri says, “Most of our inspiration comes from people, from friends and the older farmers in this village. The traditions of this region shaped its vegetables and in eating them it makes us part of this place. Since we can never predict the ways of nature, we never know how a harvest will turn out. There is always great excitement at seeing the bounty we get.”

big picture

A sample of this bounty is available by reservation only. Call 075-741-3303

For directions and workshop information check their website (Japanese only). Here is a map.

Text by Ted Taylor.
Pictures courtesy of Cafe Millet."


On the turntable:  U2, "Songs of Innocence"



Friday, September 04, 2009

Ted Talks




"When you describe Kyoto, you couldn’t skip them; pure water, old wooden house in a row, and food culture. This is beer whose mother is the honorable tradition in Kyoto, and whose father is beer boasted of by Germany. A new historical chapter is recorded in our culture.
From the KANBAIKAN craft beer label.

A few months ago there was a big conference in England where all kinds of impressive people got together, and talked about impressive and inspiring things. If you go to the website TED TALKS you can take a look at some videos from the conference. They really are very impressive, but oddly there doesn’t seem to be anyone there whose name is actually Ted. Here on Deep Kyoto we can go one better, with our very own (and impressive) Ted Taylor. As I knew he was leaving at the end of summer (today actually), I decided to interview him before he left. So, one afternoon in July we took the JR line from Karasuma/Shijo up to Imadegawa, got out at exit 2 and there we were at Doshisha University’s Kanbaikan building.


We’d been talking about coming here for some time because on the 7th floor of the Kanbaikan, there is a French restaurant called Second House Will that serves Doshisha’s very own craft beer; also called Kanbaikan. The Kanbaikan (寒梅館 which means Cold Plum Inn I guess) is an impressive red brick building with gorgeous views over the city and we enjoyed its namesake beer, also reddish brown in color, along with some crunchy French bread and a plate of tasty hors d’oeuvres. It was a very pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon and you can find a map here if you want to try it for yourself. However, as I knew Ted was leaving at the end of summer, I figured this was a good opportunity to chat with him about not just beer, but about zen, and hiking and writing and about his life in Japan and so on. You know; all things Ted.

Ted: I don’t know if you’ve read Alan Booth’s Roads to Sata but I was reading his books again. It’s funny when I read it two or three months after coming to Japan, I read it and I thought this guy is just a grumpy old dude who is just an alcoholic. But now I read it with hindsight and I’m like: this guy has Japan nailed. [laughs] At the time, you know, you’re new here and you don’t want to look at the bad stuff. But he nails it. He gets right to the heart of what’s wrong, or not what’s wrong, but what is somewhat… annoying.
Michael: Irksome.
T: Yeah, irksome. But I read it now and I was so inspired, because I’ve been saying for a decade “I don’t drink yellow beer. I don’t drink yellow beer.” I like heavier beers. I like more of a rich taste. I like malts…The best time, the only time I would choose to drink yellow beer is for sushi because for some reason the temperature of beer in sushi shops is absolutely perfect. It’s like the right amount of cold. From an American point of view. I know you guys drink it warmer but… But I always prefer these kind of things. [taps his glass]


M: Yeah… but I like a nama, a cold nama.
T: But this is the thing. Reading Roads to Sata; every day he’s walking and every night he’s drinking somewhere local with the local folk. And this is 1976, so foreigners in the middle of nowhere were really rare, but it got me switching back to Japanese beers again. Now I love to have… like tonight when I go home, I’ll have Asahi with dinner. And it’s great because it’s so light and it’s summer.
M: Yeah… I suppose I should interview you now.
T: OK. If you’ve got any good questions I’d be happy to answer them or avoid them.
M: What do you think of this beer?
T: I’m kind of happy with it. It’s got a nice color to it… It is the perfect example of a Japanese attempt to make a dark beer; where it’s dark in color but not in taste. But it’s still very palatable. It washes down the crab quite nicely I must say.
M: Now summarize your life in ten easy words.
T: Summarize my life?
M: In ten easy words!
T: I don’t know. “Follow your bliss” man. I mean, I’m stealing that from Joseph Campbell. “Follow your bliss” is an academic way of saying follow the path of least resistance…
M: What brought you to Japan in the first place?
T: I wanted to do zen and aikido.
M: Had you been doing that before?
T: Yeah. And the beautiful irony of the whole story is that all those years I lived in Tottori, I was doing zazen, going to the temple twice a week for years, coming to Kyoto every other month, sitting, going for a few days in a temple… I’ve been in Kyoto for almost three years now. I’ve been to zen sittings maybe three times in three years. I think that’s completely crazy.
M: Why did that happen?
T: It’s my sort of protest in a way. All those years I was coming down to do meditation here I could sit anywhere for free and suddenly in the last three or four years when you want to sit somewhere: 500 yen, a 1000 yen. I feel like it’s become a touristy thing, it’s become a museum piece, there’s no reality, although I could introduce you to someone that’s on Horikawa that’s amazing. Basically every day there’s a zazen session. No money. Totally pure.
M: Where is that?
T: It’s on Horikawa, one or two lights below Kuramaguchi. A little bit hidden behind trees but there is a temple there. And I went and sat there once and he’s amazing, because he’s super nice and super friendly but when you’re actually in the meditation, he’s quite strict…
M: Does he whack you with a stick?
T: Well, if you want him to. It depends on your proclivities.
M: Yeah, I said “easy words”! Never mind your proclivities!
T: When I lived on the west side. I lived literally next door to Kinkakuji and then just up the road at Daitokuji there was a temple that I’d been interested in for years because Gary Snyder who was a catalyst for me coming to Japan, he trained there and lived there for a long time.
M: Who’s Gary Snyder?
T: He’s a famous poet from sort of the beat period so like the 50’s into the 60’s. But he lived in Kyoto, if I’m not mistaken, I think he was here 9 years…?
M: And he was one of your formative influences in getting into zen?
T: Yeah, I think it was reading about him and getting to know a little bit more about his life that got me interested in coming to Japan.
M: But how long were you in Tottori?
T: 12 years.
M: 12 years in Tottori. You liked it?
T: Tottori? Yeah. Tottori was a good time. I mean I’m not a city person, so as much as I love Kyoto for many reasons, when I go back to Tottori I realize that what I had there was really special and unique. I mean you were one of twenty foreigners there and I was one of the few people in town, (and this isn’t pride in saying this it’s a lot more longevity than my own effort), but I spoke Japanese pretty well up there, so I was able to open a lot of doors and do a lot of things up there that I obviously could not have if I hadn’t spoken Japanese. And you know the fact that I could bike to the beach in ten minutes, and I could drive up to the ski slopes in twenty minutes. It was a good place to be. But the thing is ironically the whole time I was up there I was longing to be in Kyoto and I was coming down here every couple of months!
M: What finally made you move?
T: I got a chance to study a quite rare style of jujitsu that’s based here. My teacher is up on a mountain north of Kyoto. And I was invited to start training and so for a year I commuted once a week down to Kyoto to train and then it was just a place I wanted to be. I felt I graduated from inaka. I felt I graduated and it was time to go up to the city.
M: When you were in Tottori you were teaching English originally?
T: For a while, I’d say the first eight years or so I did that and then I started doing more translation work but there wasn’t a lot of work up there and that’s when I started doing yoga.
M: How did you study that in Tottori?
T: There was one teacher I found later around ’98 but originally I started about ’95. In the States, there’s an incredible amount of stretching before practice in martial arts study and I was doing martial arts then and you know teachers don’t want to get sued if someone gets hurt. You know the liability culture that we have. But when I was in Japan, there was almost no stretching at all. So I wanted to take better care of myself and a friend of mine, he introduced me to a book; a yoga book. And I was using that for while to study from and then I ended up finding a teacher later. Again, the language allows you to find things so I found this person…
M: And now you have some kind of qualification to teach, right? How did you get that?
T: I went to the States and I trained over three subsequent trips. But I have three licenses. One is from my teacher in New Mexico, And another one, I spent a month in India at a different system and I got a license there. And I spent about a month in Vermont at yet another different system. I got a license there as well.
M: Twelve years in Tottori and three years in Kyoto so…
T: There was about a year when I was actually living in both cities. I was in Kyoto about two or three days of the week and I was in Tottori the rest of the time. I’d come down for training one night a week. I’d have some yoga classes the following day. And I’d go back to Tottori. I was also for a while playing drums for a few different bands up in Tokyo so there was actually a three month period where I was actually living in three cities. But that got a little too crazy. I mean it was just too much.
M: But Kyoto has been something of a disappointment for you?
T: At the time I moved to Kyoto I was ready to move to the States. I was ready to go back to Western civilization really, and western culture. And I came back from a long trip to the States so that was like planting seeds. I had some offers to teach yoga over there. But I thought Kyoto made good sense because from the countryside, Kyoto is a step in a western direction. I mean look where we are now; in a French restaurant drinking microbrews. So we have this, we have all the student culture, we have the interesting music, but also we have Shoukokuji just right over there [points out the window]. So it was a step in the right direction and I thought I’d do more of my zen studies here as well but that didn’t…
M: …didn’t pan out?
T: Yeah.
M: How come?
T: Um. Kyoto has a lot of good riches but at the same time it’s just not for me. It doesn’t fit me if you know what I mean. I found a lot of the time I’ve been in Kyoto I was in the countryside, doing these walks. That’s more me. The country is more for me. Ideally, my wife and I are talking about coming back but living close to Kyoto – living in the countryside but being within a commute from the town and being able to come in and continue our respective studies and see our friends but also having more of a countryside farm life. That’s what she wants as well. So Kyoto is fine but …
M: … you’re just country people.
T: Yeah. But I find a lot of the Japanese stuff that’s here is almost like museum pieces. I don’t see that Kyoto has a whole lot of life. And I’m shocked by that because I thought there’s all these universities, all this amazing, amazing creative energy here, but I just don’t see it. There’s some great music going on but I don’t see a lot of those bands having a creative spark. They’re sort of emulating what other people are doing. I mean what I’m going to miss about Japan when I leave is that on any given night I can see music from almost any continent in the world; Indian stuff, African stuff, European stuff… And I won’t be able to get that back home. But at the same time how much of that is really fresh? That’s the thing. So as much as I love Kyoto, and it’s a wonderful place to live, I love having all the mountains around and all the water and everything but…I just feel there’s not a lot of creative energy here. There’s not a lot of stuff that inspires me here. And that’s why I’m in the country all the time because I find a lot of inspiration in the country…
M: What about Kyoto Journal? You’ve been involved in that. Is it a museum piece or is it fresh?
T: I would think it’s fresh but, I know people who would disagree. Kyoto Journal is writing about elements and aspects of Japanese culture that I’m interested in, so for me it’s interesting. It’s fresh for me because I’m getting new insights and new ideas from it but there are other people who feel that it’s somewhat limited in scope at times and it’s dealing with older almost stereotypical Japanese issues. You know traditional Japanese culture. There are other people who are trying to deal with the more contemporary side of Japan; you know things like media in Asia, or gender in Asia. And it seems like there are some people involved in the magazine who felt that that was more interesting and more compelling to talk about versus like yet another article on tea ceremony, or yet another article on zen. But for me I’m interested in zen. I’m interested in tea ceremony. So I appreciate those articles. I like it. I appreciate the magazine a lot actually.


M: What does the future hold for Ted Taylor?
T: Well, a lot of these walks that we have been doing have inspired a lot of interest in the old roads of Japan so when we leave here in September we are going to walk for a while. For about six weeks. And then after that start slowly moving back towards the States, through Asia. Wrong direction but we’ll get there eventually.
M: And then you’ve got this long study plan…
T: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I want to study more the shamanistic roots of Shinto and esoteric Buddhism…
M: Related to music?
T: Parts of it yeah. The original idea was that, but then walking the old roads I’m getting more interested in what’s actually on the ground. And that’s why I think that when I say Kyoto is like a museum, it’s because I see much more life out there. Kyoto is more contained, it’s top-heavy. The Emperor lived here forever. The Shoguns controlled this place so strongly because they wanted to keep the Emperor from getting too much power, and they wanted to keep the Buddhists from getting too much power, so there’s just so much top heavy control here. It’s a bonsai approach to culture really, it’s just trimmed and pruned to the way it’s supposed to be rather than the way it naturally becomes. But the country’s not like that. In the countryside that stuff is still around. That stuff still lives. For me the most beautiful temples I see are on mountain tops and out in the country because they’re beyond that kind of top-heavy control, that civilized control. I want to get to the roots of that stuff. Where did some of these matsuri come from? About how some farmer coming home from the fields one night sees something really bizarre, and they don’t know how to explain it by their more limited ideas of science 500 years ago so they create a kami, some sort of icon, some sort of deity. And then they base an entire shrine around that, and there’s a matsuri around that, and there’s a type of dance around that. So that’s where the music comes in. The original idea was: where did this spiritual music come from? I realized that a lot of that was created by the supernatural beliefs of the local people and these folk beliefs and I think that’s really interesting. And I was lucky. You know living in the countryside in Tottori, I was near Izumo, that’s where the source of all this was coming in.
M: Izumo?
T: Izumo Taisha is technically the oldest shrine and back in the day, had one of the more shamanistic and wilder versions of Shinto. So I was around that for twelve years and now I’m down in Kansai but half the time I’m out in the countryside. I’m walking round all these old Shinto shrines that are also wild.
M: So why is a nice Catholic boy like you attracted to all these pagan heathenisms?
T: I don’t know. It’s just interesting. But again what is Catholicism all about but in seeing God is everywhere and in everything? In the more shamanistic elements of Shinto, there is God in everywhere and everything. So I don’t think it’s that dissimilar really.
M: Basically the plan is to come back here when you are old?
T: Yeah, but not that long you know..
M: And the whole writing the blog thing is that because you are … well you just enjoy it I guess, but you said something once about “I want to practice my writing” so you intend to write a book at some point or…?
T: I don’t know. We’ll see. I’d like to. About a year ago I started getting inspired by people that were writing hiking blogs and walking blogs. Mine little by little became that and I didn’t intend that to happen. But to be honest that’s what I was doing, that’s what I was doing with my weekends. The things that were most inspiring to me were those blogs and that’s what started me.  I still only read blogs about Japan, but I find I’m not interested at all in the typical Tokyo experiences anymore. Where these guys talk about oh I went out, I went to this party and…
M: …it was wacky!
T: Yeah. And this is so weird and look how quirky this is.  I found myself really bored with that. And I found that I was getting more interested in these foreigners who were going back to the country, either hiking or… there’s a whole handful of blogs of people who are married to a Japanese woman and they’ve bought a farmhouse and they are basically trying to create a life out there in the country. And for me that’s the most interesting thing.
M: What you want to do yourself.
T: Exactly.
M: So if you ever wrote that book: The Book of Ted. What would it be?
T: The Book of Ted?
M: Yeah. Would it be fiction or just a collection of rambling thoughts on your rambles?
T: Probably like that yeah. I kind of fancy myself as a travel writer because I think travel is where we meet the world but it’s where we also meet ourselves. Because when you’re travelling, especially when you’re on your own, you’re out there. You’re away from your comfort zone so basically, you are allowing yourself to be in a place where anything can happen to you. And it makes life a lot more raw. When things become raw you really can get a clearer view of who you actually are and what is really going on. And I notice for me, in my last year, especially the month that Miki was gone, and I was doing all these mountain walks on my own, I found that there’s a lot of fear that’s come up in me that hasn’t been there before. A lot of it is being in a very safe contained community here. And I feel that life has gotten really safe and easy here and therefore when I’m in the mountains and I’m in areas of a certain unpredictability, there’s a certain amount of fear that’s there.
M: Fear of…?
T: The unknown.
M: Having an accident?
T: Yeah, or having an animal encounter or something like that. And I realize that’s because my life here has gotten so safe and so easy and so secure. And I’m out of that security. And I told Miki that’s why I want to walk for six weeks. That’s why I want to spend all this time going to India and all these dirty dangerous countries because I want to get outside my comfort zone again. Because I’ve gotten too spoiled here. And I don’t like it. I don’t like having this fear. I don’t like this sense of oh this is too hard…
M: Life should be an adventure.
T: Life should be an adventure. Absolutely. And it’s also perfectly ok to sit down and relax, and kick your feet up and have a nice comfy afternoon. I have no problem with that.
M: And a nice beer. What’s it called again?
T: Kanbaikan.


Inspiring! Ted called me as he was leaving the Kyo today and he sounded very happy and excited to be finally back on the road. I wish him well! However, his contribution to Deep Kyoto is not over yet. He sent me one last article which I shall be posting soon and still to come are two follow up talks we had over microbrews in Kyoto University and at the Fushimi Kizakura brewery. You can of course keep up with his wanderings on his own superb blog Notes from the ‘Nog."


On the turntable:  Dusty Springfield, "A Girl Called Dusty"


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Steps from the Kyo

And that road home is long and winding. I will leave Kyoto this morning, fifteen years to the day after arriving in Japan. Our plan at the moment is to walk into autumn, through Kumano, across Shikoku. Winter in Southeast Asia, India. Back to New Mexico by spring. We'll see how it goes.

I'll write here when I find time and the muse and an internet connection. Once a week I hope, but probably less. Do drop by from time to time...

On the turntable: Andre Previn, "Messiah Highlights"

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Road Home

There's a subtemple in the grounds of Kenninji whose kanji could be liberally translated as "The Temple of Both Feet." Miki taught the odd workshop here and I played a kirtan in the main hall last May. The temple was holding a special exhibition of the pottery of three generations, the oldest being a National Treasure, the youngest, Shiro, being a friend. We arrived at this zen temple and knelt in front of the main altar to pray. However before we had a chance, a woman began to explain the history of the artifacts up there. I frowned at how she seemed to hardly expect people of the younger generations to be interested in the spiritual wealth that such places represent, launching so quickly into her rap about the material. We moved over to an adjoining room overlooking the well-groomed garden. This being a fine summer afternoon, the garden presented a face far different than that I'd seen on that rainy morning of two months ago. There were a few of the temple's treasured scrolls hanging on display, brought out on only special occasions. I was surprised to find a map I'd seen up on the Chosenjin Kaido, of the route that the Korean contingent once took from Seoul to Edo. The temple's head priest was busy examining this, so I knelt beside him in order to ask questions. He was happy to see me, though everytime I tried to engage him about the map and the history, he'd bring the conversation around to the far more important topic of my language ability and my length of stay here. Sighing, I turned to stare out at the garden, the stones and hedges and carp fulfilling their predicted roles.

Miki and I went next to see the pottery, the prices escalating up the generations. Miki has been studying tea recently, so she spent some fair time in close examination. I stood out on the wooden boards overlooking the tsuboniwa they enclosed. The priest's wife, noting my stare, came to explain the symbolic religious significance of the rocks and the trees and design of sand. These past two months, I've been well esconsed in a difficult translation of a interview I did with a famous garden designer who happens top be my martial arts teacher. (To be published in the upcoming Kyoto Journal, #73.) In it he explains that gardens are meant to be observed in a non-intellectual way. I recognized now how deeply I'd entered my teacher's world. Though I appreciated the philosophy and religious lesson I was getting, what had mesmerized me was merely the movement of the leaves in the wind of an approaching storm.

We spent the second half of our visit in the tea house on the opposite side of the garden's pond. We partook of the tea ceremony, under the eyes of a high ranking teacher. Even after 15 years I am still incredibly hyper aware of performing the proper form and desperately afraid of sticking in both feet, finding no comfort in a eponymous connection with the temple. I relaxed some when joined by our friend the potter and we passed a pleasant afternoon. The tea sensei was the glamourous model of a Japanese beauty unmoving in her kimono. She possessed the perfect balance between strict teacher and gracious hostess. It was wonderful to see the facade begin to crack when she talked about her trip to see her daughter married away to London, and to watch it fall to pieces as she giggled about how much she loves McDonalds and Coca Cola.

I thought of my own transformation as we walked through the form fitted trees above the pond to the exit. I had once been enthralled by the subtle grace of Japanese beauty, and my own study of zen and various forms of traditional arts had been an attempt to place myself in that context, to make some of this exquisiteness my own. Yet how much more interested I've become in a different kind of dignity, that of the old and the weathered. The refined space of the zen temple and the dojo had once been controlling yet comfortable spaces for me; I knew how much I was allowed to fill. Now I find more peace in a mountain temple nearly abandoned to time and the weather. It represents a reflection of the wild spaces still within. I feel that leaving this land is a way of honoring that. Is this how I relate to what I've become, whatever that is? Do I see myself as the bonsai, pruned to where it can no longer express itself fully? Or is it in this pruning that full expression is revealed? Or do I see myself as those wild spaces, coming as I do from New Mexico, whose deserts are raw and unrefined and threatening?

All I do know is that the Japan that I carefully constructed in my brain changed after I moved to the museum that is Kyoto. The old roads through the villages and toward the mountains are leading me toward universal truths that will be fully revealed with time and distance. In seeking that authenticity, a return to my own roots is in order. I need that perspective. How bizarre that I feel I need to return to America in order to get past the American varnish of this place.

I came here looking for Basho and Ryokan and Gary Snyder, but found Santoka and Ikkyu and Yamao Sansei. And I can still feel the pull of Kerouac and Henry Miller, Dylan and Harry Smith. I want to roam the soiled urban landscape with Henry Chinaski, sing the open spaces with Edward Abbey. Explore the dusty backroads of America, and the dusty parts of me that are still American.

On the turntable: Badmarsh and Shri, "Dancing Drums"

Monday, August 31, 2009


It takes some time getting to Chikubujima. You first must take a train up to Biwa's narrow northern shoulder, eternally bullied by the brawny peaks of Hirasan above. A boat will then take you to the island. On approach it looks in decay, centuries of guano having stripped many of the trees and eroded the slopes. Just off the boat, a photographer snipes you paparazzi style, then later will try to bilk you of 1000 yen. A flight of very steep steps begin here, leading up to the main grounds. Our group of five detoured first to the shrine. Along the way, a couple of smaller shrines hug the islands ridges, one to the white snake god (which I now know is a manifestation of Benzaiten/Benten) and another to the black dragon god of rain. It is easy to imagine the latter, rolling slowly across the waters of the lake, to wreak fury on the islanders who'd chosen to live in the middle of one of the oldest lakes in the world. No one lives there now, except for a handful of priests. One of them sold religious trinkets in a small structure that seemed to defy gravity. For a couple hundred yen you could buy two small disks, write prayers on them, then fling them sidearm through the torii arch out on a rocky promontory below. 
We wandered down a small path to find a cluster of buildings that offered the required view and place to sit. Lunchtime. Above us, cormorants played gargoyle in the bare trees. Now and again a hawk would cruise by, eyeing our food but acting cool about it. We followed the trail a bit more down to the water, where we found what had probably been an old boat launch. Compared to the busy port on the other side of the island, this was very low tech with a mere two pieces of rope. I wonder how many monks escaped at night, to row over to mainland bars and brothels. 
We walked back through the shrine and up to the Buddhist buildings above. There used to be more of a fusion here, but now the two religions have been sent to their neutral corners. The buildings are amongst the most beautiful I've ever seen, with gorgeous curved roofs, faded wood, and detailed animal carvings. Hōgonji's main hall elicits respect as it climbs skyward above the trees. Among other things, there is a carving of En-no-Gyōja here (though under a different name), a long hall built from the wood of Hideyoshi's boat, and Kannon statues showing her in all her various manifestations, as if it were Oscar night. Plus the obligatory statue of Kobo Daishi standing proudly overlooking all.
I stop by the noykojo and get my last stamp of the Saikoku Kannon 33 Temple pilgrimage. I'm quiet for a while after this, and I'm not sure why. When I started this pilgrimage in June 2002, I did it for my former father-in-law, then diagnosed with stomach cancer. I'm not much of a prayer, but I wanted to dedicate the spirit of my efforts to him and his fight. Little did I know I'd lose my own son four months later, then my father-in-law three months to the day after that. I suppose my quiet today is due to their being with me as I closed this sacred circle. 
As we make our way back down to the boats, dragonflies swirl above us, appropriate to an island where the spirits of the dead are reputed to live. The ride back is cooler, the humidity and clouds of the morning burned off, the sky rich and blue, the details of the surrounding peaks vivid. A short walk off the ferry in Omi Imazu we find a quiet stretch of beach and baptize ourselves in the waters of the lake. Later, back in Kyoto, we'll take sacrament in the form of pizza and beer...
On the turntable: Chet Baker, "Boppin'"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Let Me Get Back to the Sea IV

The train was the first of the day, and it led me west along the coast. One beach lined a crescent shaped cove, but the ends had been lopped off and concreted. A beautiful old wooden station had lost its view of rice fields and forest to a five meter high pile of dirt upon which a questionably necessary bypass will be plonked. Two stations further on, a simply immense television drones on to an empty parking lot. It was fast becoming a depressing morning. I am glad to see a bit of the countryside before the central government completely fucks it up.

I got off the train at a small rural station where the only sign on life was a cat sleeping on the wooden rail where the ticket taker usually is. (Shape shifter?) I walked to the main road and was able to hitch a lift up to Matsunoodera, a lovely old temple with 1300 years of history present in its statuary. It was deserted but for a lone man busy at work on new carvings. The radio at his feet kept him up with the baseball at Koshien.

I got my nokyo stamped, number 31 on my Saikoku Kannon pilgrimage. On the road back down the mountain, I passed a trio of monkeys, the male seemingly upset with me about something. Not a single car passed on this quiet road, and even on the busier highway below it took about 45 minutes to get a ride. A Nagoya family were on their way to the beach, but the weather had other plans. The sea and rivers that we passed were the color of mud, with all sorts of flotsum bobbing along the shore. We passed through Maizuru, such a lovely name, for such an ugly town. Along the way, I dropped quite a few hints to my driver about how nice the view was from above Amanohashidate, which was a short walk from my destination of Nariaiji. They didn't bite, and I eventually found myself at the station. I'd wanted to use a boat, cable car, and bus to get up to the temple, but the rain had caused a landslide and the cable car wasn't running. There was a road up from the other side, but I needed a car to get there. A taxi was my option. For 31 temples, this was the only time on this pilgrimage that I compromised on one. Throughout the ride I was kicking myself because I'd forgotten my nokyo when I came this way last year. An oversight costly in time and money. This road too had seen many slides, with road teams pushing dirt and rocks into the streams below.

At the temple, I paid my third visit to Nariaiji, but was disgusted that they'd started charging admission, which must have helped fund an ugly new pagoda that rose from beside the parking area. Amanohashidate was hardly visible with the mist, which rose to veil the surrounding peaks. I started the long walk down , passing the odd jizo on the way. I stepped over fist-sized stones which had come down during the night, above swift streams running white and brown. Fresh landslides gave my mind something new to ponder. A few cars passed, but none stopped. I thought this ironic as they'd all been returning from a visit to a temple dedicated to the Goddess of Compassion.

A minute after arriving at the main road I was picked up by a man who had seemingly made a U-turn to do so. A retired salesman, he'd driven this region for decades, and now did little more than fish. Seemingly lonely, he was really enthusiastic about me joining him for a visit up to Ine, a lovely little village that I'd visited with Miki last year. He then changed tactics, wanting me to stay here in town and drink with him and his friend. It took some doing, but I finally got him to drop me at the station.

The rain and floods had fouled the train schedules. (Arriving home I found that it had been a typhoon which had killed 13.) I finally made my way south toward home, through valleys so wet and cold that the train windows fogged, and our arrival time grew more and more distant.

On the turntable: The The, "Dusk"

Friday, August 28, 2009

Let Me Get Back to the Sea III

It was raining the next morning, so we didn't set out until 9:30. I lingered out front, looking at at plaque stating that this school, which had opened in 1885, had graduated its last class back in the spring. I was struck by the far -reaching effects of the country's population decline. Each school closure means more kids are educated further away, and therefore become that much more removed from their own local identity. These final pupils had laid their hands in concrete to commemorate the closure. There set in stone were the marks of 10 little hands.

We walked down the valley, rich with spirituality, including Jinguji where we saw the Omizu-okuri last March. I'd stop at every temple and shrine, then hurry to catch up with the group. After Wakasahiko Jinja with its 1000 year old cedar and wonderful Noh stage, the road forked and I lost everybody. The frequent jizo assured me that I was on the right path, but it eventually became highway. I pushed on trying to make it to Obama's Izumi market for the scheduled 12:30 final event. I just made, but the kids took some time to arrive. There were speeches and high fives, then we all sat down to mackerel soup. Afterward, we walked the last 10 minutes to the sea. I, like Gary before me, had made it. The photograph ritual began, so I said a quick goodbye. As I moved away, I overheard a few muttering voices. Most of kids never got my name, and I remained "The American," like some character in a Graham Greene novel.

I found a hotel near the waterfront and dropped my bags. This place was gripping tightly to its former bubblicious glory. Apparently, the Emperor stayed here once, a year before he took the job. I wonder if he partook in any of the services available, including (from the English translation) a geisha girl (12000 yen), and companion (15000 yen, limit of three please.)

My feet continued to ache as I walked the town. Tourist sights were well kept and the signs pointing to them prevalent. This is obviously a town that has respect for its past, but it also has an disturbing interest in my own nation's present. The face of my president is simply EVERYWHERE, to the point that it becomes surreal. I really don't know what to make of the President Obama vending machine. Prior to last year's election, this town was known for its temples. I strolled the outskirts, passing many temples and shrines. I saw an Atago jinja, and another for Kumano, but my feet vetoed the idea of climbing those high steps. I walked over to Hosshinji, the famous zen dojo of the great Harada Roshi. The valley around it was in veiled in clouds. There were quite a few monks about, cleaning and preparing for Obon. A few gassho'ed me, and it hit me that I was dressed somewhat like them, a brother monk. Moving on, I got a one handed gassho from a European monk on a bike, his zafu as bicycle seat. He wheeled around to chat awhile, then rushed off. I followed to his temple, Bukkokuji, another well-established training site. A different European foreigner was sweeping the tatami. I thought it must be tough to be a non-American foreigner in Obama these days. Every local person you'd meet would feel a little let down.

I walked the covered streets, nearly everything closed on the Sunday. Obsequious boy band music was piped in, making me ponder if it is played at the White House too. A shower took such stupid thoughts from my brain, then it was dinner time. I found a small sushi shop that offered mackerel on the menu out front. I went in and ordered, but quickly got vibed out. The sushi chef seemed content to hide behind stereotypes, rather than understand my perfectly good Japanese, which his wife had to 'translate.' The woman next to me asked me if I could eat fish, seconds after she watched me shovel two pieces into my maw. This in a town which is currently basking in the association with an internationally famous name. Next time I'm in Harlem, I'm going to start asking the locals if they only eat fried chicken. We'll see how long the blood stays in my body.

And why is this bothering me? I was perfectly happy to play the role of adopted mascot the night before. And the main reason I ate out tonight was to chat up the locals. And they would only have started that conversation due to my skin color. After all, I've never seen two Japanese strangers strike up a conversation here. Why does this not offend me? I, like every other foreigner in Japan, is happy to play the race card when it benefits them. Why do we think we can have it both ways?

After quickly chugging my beer, I'm gone in minutes. The grilled mackerel and draft beer I'd been seeking is found up the street. Here, I wind up talking to no one since everyone's attention is riveted to the Japanese woman's volleyball team on TV. I go back to my hotel and treat my knees to the bath they've been craving. Coming back to my room, I nearly fall over in laughter. When I'd checked in, I'd requested a bed, so as to give my poor knees some soft respite, a point I'd mentioned to the staff. All the Western Rooms were full, so I took this one. And now, I find that the maid had set out on the tatami four futons, piled half a meter high. I'm really going to miss this silly country. I pass a restful night in my cotton tower, trying and failing to figure out where the pea is......

On the turntable: David Grisman, "Acousticity"