Thursday, January 29, 2009

Song of the Water God

Tuesday night, Barna Ghita was in town, playing a gig up at Ei-U-In. The room looked different with the shoji shut, fortified against the cold. I'd been a fan of the band for nearly a decade but was absolutely stunned that one of the members was Jimi Miyashita, who I've gotten to know lately, without ever realizing that I'd long been swept away by the sounds of his strings. It was funny to watch him play something other than the traditional Indian ragas that he's famous for. With the Western time signature, his entire body language changed. As he bobbed and weaved to drummer Mabos' inticate rhythms, busily plucking at the ridiculously complicated santoor, he'd frequently look up and grin from behind his big butterfly sunglasses. Next to him, Uchida Bob stood on his small patch of carpet, kicking his leg up now and again as he made folk magic on his well-traveled guitar, the faded wooden body covered in stickers like the beams of a temple. He was the man I really came to see. Along with Soul Flower's Nakagawa Takashi, Bob's singing voice is the one I most covet. The highlight of the night for me was when Jimi was meticulously tuning his santoor between songs, with Bob and Mabo playing a low and soft blues, then the three of them immediately segued into the next song when Jimi was ready. Unbelievable talent, these three.

For years their music was in major rotation in my truck, as I tooled the back roads of Tottori, listening to Bob's rich, deep voice as it told me tales of trees and water. Back in 2001, a few weeks after the U.S. began its systematic revenge on Afghanistan, Bob came to the 'Nog and gave a concert in which he talked as much as sang, raging against war, that most natural of unnatural things. That night he stayed at my house. We awoke to a sunny day, filling up on pancakes and coffee as he reminisced about Nanao Sakaki and Gary Snyder. It was an tremendous moment for me, since Gary was my primary motivation in coming to Japan, and here was one of his best friends sitting in my living room, playing with my son, Ken. Later 3-year old Ken amazed me when, hearing Barna Ghita's latest CD a day or so later, said, "It's Bob, Daddy!" Incredible what kids notice.

So this week, I finally had the chance to meet Bob again, though I didn't want to bring him down by telling him that his playmate Ken is over 6 years gone. He mentioned his own dead, Nanao, saying that he was sad at his passing, but that hey, every day's a birthday, every day's a funeral. Both Nanao and Ken were close as he sang out the waning lines of "雨の小りす," repeating "Yurei, Yurei." Spirits, spirits.

On the turntable: Bharna Ghita, "Water Island"

On the nighttable: Steven Heighton, "Flight Paths of the Emperor"

On the reel table: "Wild Strawberries" (Bergman, 1957)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown X (Yama-no-be II)

Awoke Saturday to snow gently falling. If there's snow, it must be a day for tramping. We had intended to walk from Yagyu into Nara in time for the burning of Wakakusa-yama at dusk. There are only a few buses a day heading out there, leaving from Nara. As we made our way south, we nearly missed our connection since I hadn't noticed that my train pass had expired. Made the train in seconds flat, and later in Nara, walked up to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare, even more so when we saw that our 10:20 bus had left around 9:30, the next one leaving after lunch. Shit. As a friendly bus company employee led us through our alternatives, I thought that we could walk back to town from Tenri instead, if we could catch a train due to leave in three minutes. We sprinted through the station, me hurdling one of those wheeled suitcases as if in tribute to an old OJ Simpson Avis commercial. Ran up the platform in time to notice that the waiting train was finished for the morning. Huh? Are we not supposed to hike today?

The next train got us to Tenri. The rest of the day was a slow, pleasant walk along the Yama-no-be, darting in and out of the foothills. We once again passed through the arcade that time forgot (quite bustling today), bowed to Tenri Temple, where the metal on which banners wave groaned like the Sho pipes of Gagaku. Ate rice balls amongst the chickens at Isonokami Jingu. The northbound Yama-no-be wasn't as nice as the path we'd followed south of here, but it did keep us in the forest more. Unfortunately, we also spent nearly as much time on roads, though none particularly busy. Deeper in the hills behind Isonokami Jingu, a beautiful set of stone steps flaked and crumbled with age, leading to a shrine nearly invisible in the shadows. We'd pass many shrines, all small and well cared for like prized antiques, their histories going back to times inconceivable. I love Nara for this, the resonant history, not heavy with the veneer of Kyoto, but light and weathered, with a quiet dignity that is eternal. The forests and fields that surrounded these beauties were even quieter in the snow, falling with the consistency of powder, as if in our presence the shrines were throwing off their long accumulated dust.

Just beyond a strange art installation masquerading as a greenhouse, we came to a lake, where a few die-hard fishermen were braving the intense cold of the day. Just down the hill was a baseball field. As I walked by, about two dozen kids turned to me in surprise, the brims of their baseball caps the bright yellow bills of young duckings. They quacked out a greeting as I passed. Further off we could hear the singing of their older siblings as they began a game of their own. A valley away was Kōninji, the ancient path passing between buildings over a millenia old. The snow was doing some fantastic tricks in the light, so we sat awhile in admiration. This temple has some shugendo ancestry, with many esoteric symbols and statues dotting the grounds. We enjoyed the weather and the quiet, until a group of old timers came and broke it.

We walked on, past farms and villages. The entire walk was a love affair with Nara, in deep infatuation with her proud silence and faded beauty. In the Japanese language, few phrases are as misunderstood as mono-no-aware and wabi-sabi. These are concepts better felt than defined, and Nara is an excellent teacher. We wandered into the park, the deer napping and grazing while watching us with hopeful eyes. The sun ducked behind the ridges to entice the cold, which began to play with our cheeks and noses. We escaped into an Italian place to warm up with an uninspired meal of pasta and wine, then climbed back up to Kōfuku-ji, a good vantage point from which to see Wakakusa burn. Back in '96, I'd followed the Takisaka-no-michi into town in order to watch this annual event, but sudden rains called it off that year. Long awaited, it didn't disappoint; plus I hadn't expected fireworks. They went off with dull thuds, nowhere near the chest thumping bursts of warmer, thinner summertime air. After they were done, atop the mountain we saw a few flashes of light, and after a minute or so, flames began to reach up here and there, finally becoming a ring that burned up the hillside like a monk's tonsure. Miki and I hugged against the intense cold, watching the roof of the temple's main hall glow, backlit as if it too were ablaze, and the iron bell just behind us ringing and ringing...

...after the flames, we boarded a train home. A few stops on, a young mom pushed a pram onto the train, then gets busy with her keitai. Her baby looks at me, at her, then me, then her. Then bursts out crying. I nearly apologized for my face...

On the turntable: Double Famous, "Souvenir"

On the nighttable: Richard Rosen, "The Yoga of Breath"

On the reel table: Little Big Man (Penn, 1970)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Those who can't do...

Maybe it's an American trait, or perhaps everyone below a certain age does it , that attempt at self-perfection. I single out Americans because no other society invests so much money in shrinks and self-help books to help them deal with their consistently falling short. Being in the spiritual world is worse, checking your every thought and action against a checklist made up in a foreign culture thousands of years ago. As a teacher in said world, you are not only hard on yourself, but hard on your students as well. Every breath is a lesson.

So it is that I often take my teachering out onto the streets, as a deputized member of some non-existent morals police. I personally despise rudeness, and despite my strong belief in cultural relativism, I expect everyone to behave within certain guidelines. I'm not the only person who does this. I have friends in Tokyo who can't abide by pushing and shoving onto trains, to the extent that every commute becomes a Greek epic. As a bicycle commuter, what peeves my pet most is people who don't look where they are walking. Some folks simply dart straight out of a shop, some dawdle, others turn corners blindly. (When I become king of this land, my first decree will be that all feet and eyes must point in the same direction.) Cell phones and iPods have made the situation worse in that they've cut off an additional couple senses. When I encounter one of these ambulatory offenders, I will often give their arm a light brush as I pass by on my bike. I realize this is childish. This admittedly seems un-Buddhist, un-Yoga, but my roots stretch back into the deeper soil of the punk ethic of my youth. Besides, I am simply hoping that the person will wake up to the fact that they need to be a little more careful, a little more aware. And who better to teach awareness than a yoga teacher?

So yesterday, I ride up behind two men walking side by side, rudely blocking all but a small part of sidewalk. I pass to the left, brushing my shoulder against one of them, who is startled.

It is only then that I notice he's holding a white and red striped cane.

Today, I am the one who doesn't see.

Clarity. Awareness...

On the turntable: Cicala Mvta, "Deko Boko"

On the nighttable: Leigh Norrie, "Japan: 6000 miles on a Bicycle"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Play by Play

Missed the inauguration completely.  I figure that history will still happen even if I sleep.  Our correspondent was on hand with this account:

Loud cheers when "Departure of Pres. George W. Bush" flashes on CNN. Loud booing when Cheney wheeled out to limo. Loud laughter when Michelle Obama waves at Cheney rolling by. Cheering when limo door closes on Cheney. Cheering as George and Laura head toward the waiting helicopter. Booing as Bush attempts to kiss Michelle Obama on the lips. Michelle deflects kiss with last-second turn of head. Cheers. Louder cheers as Bush steps into helicopter. Still louder cheers as Obama and Michelle turn and walk away. "Close it tight," someone shouts as door pulled to helicopter pulls shut. More cheering as blades begin to turn. Faster, faster...

We have lift off. AND THE CROWD GOES WILD! Cheering, toasts. Not as loud as when Obama was sworn in, but loud enough for George to hear us from here, if he's listening, which he's not—because when did he ever listen?

On the turntable:  Petty Booka, "Fuijiyama Mama" 

On the nighttable:  Swami Rama, "The Science of Breath"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Times They Are a Changin'

Watching the archival footage of a civil rights era Dylan singing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." (Seen in Scorcese's "No Direction Home" or more recently recreated by Todd Haynes in "I'm Not There" (with John Coltrane's doppelganger over Christian Bale's left shoulder.)) I'm completely overwhelmed by the thought that that moment back in 1964 has a direct link with what will occur in Washington later today.

God is now on our side. Don't believe yet? Here's a refresher.

On the turntable: Bob Dylan, "Don't Look Back"

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sattvic Life

On Sunday night, the 18th, I'll again be doing a lecture on yogic philosophy.  The theme this week is morality, namely, "Yamas and Niyamas"  At Green E Books, Kyoto.  
(Future talks may include Tibetan fashion:  "Lamas and Pajamas")

On the turntable:  Caetano Veloso, "Circulado ao Vivo"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kumano Kōdō I

It's snowing when we awake. At least it's not rain. A little later we get off the train in Tenmabashi, and quickly find the stone that marks this, the true start of the Kumano Kodo. We have a lot of walking ahead of us this year. We move south down streets lined with curry shops and old Taisho buildings now empty, yet still proudly bearing the names of businesses decades gone. The street ends at a tree shrine, reaching up from asphalt. A faded wooden board tells of yet another snake legend. On the slope behind it is the birthplace of Naoki Sanjugo, whose name is now best remembered as a literary award. We find another tree shrine, this one next to where Chikamatsu is buried. We continue on, past an old school, and more buildings aging like ancient film stars, their beauty timeless but somehow anachronistic. We arrive eventually at Shitennoji temple, much bigger than expected. Here too, the structures that most dazzle are the old, unkept ones. The temple is busy on this three-day weekend. A few pre-teens are spinning the prayer wheels faster and faster, but I doubt they know what they're for. Before the temple's Southern Gate is a long stone marking the way to Kumano. There is an indentation at one end, carved out by centuries of prostrating foreheads. We pass through, and stop a few blocks away to buy a 551 butaman, famous down here. We step out into the wind again and find some relief in the bright sun atop the overpass, eating quickly with the view of Tsutenkaku
towering just over there. We eat again soon after, along the counter of a nondescript Chinese place partly hidden down an alley. There are many Chinese looking houses down here, and the faces we see are broader, more Asian. On again pointing south, through neighborhoods growing smaller, yet still keeping that unique Osaka character. We enter an area that is the birthplace of (organized) divination. At Abe Jinja, a spooky woman is lurking about, near a board where ema hang. On one, someone has written a prayer about wanting a girlfriend, with a beautiful amine style drawing of his apparent type. At another shrine nearby, a woman is pressing her hands hard against a tree. The stones on the lid of a well here are shaped like Egyptian mummies. I hear what I think is chanting then realize that it is someone's ringtone. Further on still, Sumiyoshi Taisha is much bigger, and in full festival mode. We follow the sound of flutes and drums to find the last throes of a miko dance. Food stalls line the main path, behind which, a pair of yamabushi are building their goma fire. A few more are throwing mochi to the crowd. My ridiculous height advantage allows me to quickly snare one, stamped with the character for luck. Little did we suspect it would soon change for the worse. We cross the Yamato River. This is Sakai now, a sprawling cluster of suburbs. The amount of metal factories seem endless. The walk is really growing bleak now, alongside these reeking hulks. At least there is life, creation, going on inside, moreso than in the suburbs in which we weave lost. Unlike Osaka, there are no trail markers here, and we begin to spend more time looking at the map and second guessing ourselves than actual walking. The only real bright spots are the burial mounds scattered around these plastic homes. Without these, this area would have no character at all. The granddaddy of all mounds is just ahead, that of old Nintoku, dating from the early 5th century and bigger than the pyramids of Egypt. We traverse the park, watching the crows hover over the grounds. It's truly a Hitchcockian sight, as there must be hundreds of them swirling around. It's getting colder now and our enthusiasm decreases with each wrong turn. We decide to call it a day. We're not too far from home, so we hop a train. Back in the Kyo, we bike home, in snow lightly falling across the face of the moon.

Around 10a.m. the next day, we're back in Sakai again, walking into a gusty wind. Some of the crows from yesterday are making a meal of a run-over tanuki. In death it almost looks embarrassed, its entrails out for all to see. We come across the Nanshūji temple we're looking for, but can't find any apparent way in. There are no signs whatsoever. Why is Sakai so neglectful of its history? After a few wrong turns and some vague directions by unfriendly locals, we eventually find our way in. It is a massive place, of smaller subtemples enclosed by earthen walls. These, along with the unkept gardens and uneven paths give the place a mournful atmosphere, which is perfect somehow. It's like we're on the set of Rashomon. We linger a long while, our first (and only) moment of happiness this morning. We exit through crumbling gates, then along a claustrophobic Nagaya neighborhood. This time the film reference is Yamanaka Sadao. The Kōdō here, though unscripted, is straight and easier to follow. We duck into a shrine dudded up for this weekend's Seijin-no-hi festival. I start to get a bad feeling about the place when I see a food stall just in front of the well for washing hands. I'm "Gaijin da'd" by a few middle-aged men huddled around a fire, which I ignore. What I can't ignore is the rude racist woman in the office. I was about to step into an apparent public toilet when she yells, "No no no!" as if to a child, and tells me to find a coffee shop somewhere instead. After nearly 15 years here, I have developed a pretty thick skin, and am not usually quick to play the racism card. But the way she used rude Japanese to my face, then switched to the politer form when she spotted Miki, leads to an obvious conclusion. I'd had enough of Sakai, with it's bad smells, rude people, and complete lack of character. What had started out as a walk on the Kumano Kōdō has now become a faster march to get out of town. Viewed from the train to Kansai airport, I'd always considered Osaka to be one of the ugliest cities in the world. But yesterday had proven the place to be charming, and I realize now what I'd been scorning all these years was in fact Sakai. So I have nothing more to say about this town, other than it is the obvious "afterbirth of Osaka." (The Chamber of Commerce is hereafter free to use that as their tourist slogan.) Hours later, inside Ōtori's covered shopping arcade, we stop for lunch at an old coffee shop. The owner stands proudly behind the counter in his tie, while his smiling wife serves us the food merrily, despite her hunched back. The shop has an old-timey charm, and Miki proclaims her nostalgia about a dozen times. The only other customer sits at the counter, he nearly as old as time itself. We are much happier now and warm, but we have to move on. This is Izumi city, and the road has the course stamped into the concrete beneath our feet. We climb up to Hijiri Jinja, the only shrine that we'd visit this weekend that wasn't dudded up in the festival spirit. Its remote hilltop location gives fantastic views of far off Kobe and Shikoku, and the planes banking in over the Bay to land at Kansai airport. The gods up here were old, their altars lurking in the dark forest. The two koma-inu flanking the torii were old too, syllables no longer emanating from faces long worn away by the wind and rain. We hardly fared better, the gusts increasing through the day. We'd left the spiritual world behind, spending the last couple hours moving along a busy road which links the bedroom communities out here. At Kishiwada, we decided to call it a day. Through the dark sky, we looked for the telltale neon of a love hotel. I spotted a motorcycle cop at an intersection, and asked him about one. It was pretty funny, him giving directions in such hushed tones. We headed to the area he described, toward a moon huge and full and orange. A few blocks over we spotted our cop again, him now with his buddies, quickly and conspiratorially pointing us toward the hotel without their notice. Pretty funny. The hotel was three times what we wanted to pay, so with the help of a phone book, we found the only vacancy in town, at a business hotel a twenty minute bus ride further off. It's pretty hard to travel on the fly in Japan.

We'd slept long and solid. We needed that rest to fight a long cold day, the most extreme yet. Snow teases us on and off. We are quiet most of the morning, having gotten off to a lousy start due to a bus driver's misdirections. It takes us a half hour to find the road again, only after hopping multiple fences beside a small pond and between apartment buildings. I am soon tired of the suburbs, how they'd draw you in, then wear away at your sense of direction with their meandering but altogether purposeless uniformity. Soon after this, I nearly fall over in hilarity at the sight of a cheap love hotel that we would've passed had we walked a mere ten minutes further last night. The morning leads us out of the bedroom towns, into a chain of villages linked by vegetable fields and small country train platforms. Many of the homes are still hanging on from late Edo, having served as lodgings along this Kumano Kōdō. Now and again we find markers commemorating the generals who'd fallen in the siege of Osaka in the summer of 1615. Amazing to imagine the tens of thousands of troops bivouaking here, marching on Osaka castle, way back near Tenmabashi and the start of this walk -- how long ago? The day is wearing on but we haven't found a place to eat and escape the cold's reach. When we find a shrine, we'll break out the trail mix, but we didn't bring our usual warm tea, much missed on this cold day. At one shrine a few miko huddle in the dark. Out in the snow, a mom and her young son play catch. I've seen this repeated many times during this walk, and wonder at the whereabouts of the dads. It makes me think of how back in the 90's, I'd often see working age men at afternoon film matinees, laid off and hiding out from their wives by pretending to be at work. At another shrine, we see three girls in kimono, officially women now on this coming-of-age day. Behind them is a broad patch of lawn from which the stubble of beams protrudes. Centuries before this holiday, a tremendous temple once stood here, the center of life for a farm community where girls became women much earlier. The day goes on, and in my hunger and fatigue I notice little but the mountains getting heavy snow off to our left. Each step brings them closer. We finally find noodles, in a town that has traditionally housed travellers on this route. It's nice to be out of the cold finally, but we're close to the end. Just after setting out again, the sun breaks free of the clouds, which takes some of the edge off the wind. We come to farm villages now, the lanes narrower, the residents more friendly. Rinshōji stands on a hill above one. We climb to the Atago shrine atop the hill behind. Most of the village is up here, chanting along with the purple clad priests sitting before a handful of yamabushi who are preparing a goma at the center. Most of the villagers have their heads bowed as they chant, but a few eyeball me as I step from the forest. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansai anymore. Miki and I are close now. We find a few hand-painted signs showing a route not on our map. We follow them into the forest to a spot where a famous Biwa player fell to his death, his instrument hanging from the tree out of reach. As the legend recounts it, spray from the waterfall just behind supernaturally strummed the strings for years. We carefully cross this treacherous hillside, then climb to the pass. The last kilometer is along the narrow lane of an ancient mountain village. Here, at Yamanakadani, we stop. The Kumano Kōdō has changed names many times since we left Kyoto -- Kyō Kaidō, Ōgura Kaidō, Kii Kaidō, -- but we have arrived at what feels like the real spiritual source. We'll leave the path for awhile, until August, when we'll pick it up again, to trace the perimeter of the mandala that is the Kii region, taking a few weeks to traverse its trails, before finishing at the Shrines of Ise. I hope the gods favor us.

On the turntable: The Pleasure Barons, "Live in Las Vegas"

On the nighttable: Anais Nin, "Henry and June"

On the reel table: "Drowning by Numbers" (Greenaway, 1988)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown V

We walked out of Uji on concrete. Yet it was a pleasant walk, upstream along the Uji River rushing past toward the sea. This was a familiar route leading toward many of Uji's historic sites, and as such, there were more pedestrians than cars. We came to a fishing bridge suspended over the water, which we crossed then took the advice of a sign pointing us up a small trail, allowing us to forgo the busier road nearby. It was a lovely walk through the trees, between high narrow walls, a stream moving just below us. We eventually found the grave marker of an important but long forgotten princess, and the village of Shirakawa at her back. There was a small gate here, flecked with small holes that I at first took for the marks of bullets, though I know of no battles fought here. Miki corrected me in pointing out that the holes were the work of termites. The wild will eventually take this structure, no matter how old or historic. To emphasize this, a long stalk of weed had pushed itself through the wall of an abandoned house standing nearby. The gate gave us a clue as to the location of Hakusan Jinja, fortified somewhat by a deep circular moat and tall encircling trees. Atop the stairs was a unique structure, hexagonal, and covered in thatch but for an open cut at the top to let out cooking smoke. One of the biggest delights of tramping in Japan is coming across shrines like this one, remote yet well-kept. So well kept that it could stand here for 900 years. In front of one of the small shrines here were a couple of huge shells like those fired from a battleship. There was no indication of why they;'d been deified. Up the trail a bit we found a small crop of jizo, decorated with rice cakes and some slender strands of bamboo. This too is another highlight, these somewhat pagan rites known only to the locals and reaching back through time.

We came out of the forest to a huge cluster of tea bushes. A few small plants had a tripod-like covering of old rice stalks as protection from snow. We met the road again at the top of the filed, and here we stayed for the rest of the morning, but for a small trail taking us past a forestry station seemingly abandoned for the winter. A really old man rode his bike at incredible speed up a steep hill. We were amazed by this, then again as he raced back down. Past a chicken factory, the cacophony from within like an excited impatient audience before the symphony. A skittish dog foraged around the now abandoned "Green Village." The next town was of a decent size, but luckily the Hodō took us along its outskirts, bisecting older homes of some character. Two friends sat talking on the steps of a wooded shrine, signs at the perimeters warning of vipers. Huge tree trunks had been stacked in the lot of a large factory that makes Torii arches for shrines. Outside town, we spotted another grove, obviously a shrine. A group of young motorcyclists politely rode off as we approached. One of the ceders here was simply massive, wrapped with paper and straw to signify its status as a diety. How long had it been here, and what has it overlooked? The shrine below it was a youngster in comparison, erected in 1202.

The fields narrowed to become forest, and we made our way up a long, straight rise into the dark. The afternoon was getting on, and it began to appear that our maps were wrong. The Hodō is well marked these days, and easy to follow except in certain cases, so a map isn't really necessary. The book we were using was now 9 years old, and showed we were to bypass this mountain. The markers on the other hand looked to be only a few years old, and someone had decided to include this peak on the course. Jūbuzan was at 607 meters, not as big as some of the giants of the Nihon Alps, but Kyoto's Hiei was now covered in snow and is only slightly higher, I'd thought. (I checked. At 848m, it towers.) I worried at what we would find, and whether we'd get down before dark. I had a torch, but remembered only now that the batteries had died. We slogged on silently, spending 90 minutes moving at an angle across the mountain's face. Then the trail suddenly switch-backed and we were at a clearing near the top. I had been afraid to check the time, but it was just 3pm. No worries at all. We soon reached Kontaiji temple, the base for the Yamabushi who lie down in these mountains. A couple of them were enjoying a day off in a small room which was warm, but seemingly devoid of a heat source. One of the men was restlessly pacing in his shorts(!), and the other man, slightly older, was clacking away at his computer. They were both really friendly, the older one having just retired from his career in the Self Defense Forces. His humility and obvious intelligence suggested that he'd been an officer of high rank. He called his wife to make us tea and zoni, which warmed us as much as the conversation. Afterwards, we went up to the peak itself, standing above a cluster of buildings aging beautifully in the elements. Shugendo temples are always the most aesthetically pleasing: wordlessly expressing impermanence. From the peak we could see Biwa, Hiei, and even Kyoto, peeking up from beyond the Higashiyama range. In fact, from this vantage point, we could see the entire route we'd walked thus far, a nice auspicious start to 2009, this being our first tramp of the new year.

We dropped back to the temple and said our goodbyes. There is a big event here late summer, and hopefully we'll be back. Then we followed the trail down, running steep and wet, through the cedars. It levelled out pleasantly, and we came to a rise, the entire valley before us lined with tea plantations, their curved bushes running parallel up and down every hill like frantic caterpillars. It were struck by the beauty and lingered awhile, the sun backlighting all in yellow hues. As it dimmed, we worked our way down through the bushes to the village at the base of the mountain. It was near dark when we got to the bus stop, but with just enough light to hitch a ride to the train station a half hour away.

On the turntable: Tori Amos, "Higher Learning"

On the nighttable: Bruce Roscoe, "Windows on Japan"

On the reel table: "The Seventh Seal" (Bergman, 1956)

Monday, January 05, 2009

Kumano Prologue IV

It was a surprisingly warm day for December. The sky was cloudless, but the wind stayed in our faces for the entire 6 hours it took to reach Osaka. We left the overheated train at Makino, continuing southwest beside the Yodogawa. The walk took us along those thick strips of green that flank any major river in Japan. A person most often sees these spaces from a train as it passes over long iron bridges. What is missed when seen from above is that these spaces have an entire culture of their own. The dark shapes of walkers moving on the berm above us, silhouetted facelessly before the distant city skyline. Some people had cleverly erected a tennis court, using as a net one of those metal barriers which prevents cars from further entering the concrete. Others were playing baseball, having dug out bases and a pitcher's mound with their cleats. There were also a couple soccer matches, plus a rugby squad practicing in front of some university. Kids flew kites as spandex-clad adults raced by on racing bikes. A homeless man had overloaded his bicycle with boxes stacked up a couple meters, and was scratching his head trying to figure a way to get on. A lone boy kicked the ball up the grassy berm, to have it roll back down to him. There were the obligatory dog-walkers, nearly everyone of these poor pampered pooches dressed better than most children. One spastic dog zigzagged unleashed like a squirrel. A construction site broke the peace with the usual aural havoc. Many middle-aged men were fishing at the end of simple makeshift piers. But most constant of all were the hundreds of makeshift homes covered over with blue tarps. There was an entire city of homeless down here. Some of these were really impressive, with doors and windows and little gardens. One garden was massive, extending well down the river. A critic had spray painted, "No gardens!" on one of the walls, which seemed more a comment of his own programmed and uninspired soul, protesting at the creative freedom of another. This made me curious about the more physical attacks on the occupants of these riverfront "homes." One small cluster of families had about a dozen dogs, possibly as defense, possibly as food. The dogs had no clothes whatsoever.

We broke for lunch, sitting beside some wetlands hosting a vast species of waterfowl, in spite of the filthy water. The call of one type of bird sounded like the squeal of an excited prom queen. Hearing the unseasonal cry of a nightingale, I looked up to see a man blowing a bird whistle. As we sat on the concrete riverside, I found myself in an Ozu moment, looking across the water at chimneys billowing smoke above identical houses with clothes blowing from backyard lines. We continued on into this wind, into near identical scenery. It eventually grew monotonous, following the concrete line between the green. This had been an odd idea from the start. Years ago, Miki had biked this route, in a return trip from Kyoto to Osaka. She'd mentioned how dull it was. But I insisted, wanted to protect the purity of the walk, in that bizarre way that I have. The ancients bound for Kumano's shrines had ridden palanquin to the foot of Otokoyama, then boarded boats to follow the river to what is now Tenmabashi. I had insisted we do it on foot, though despite the good weather and reasonably interesting sights, a bike may have been preferable after all. Fifteen km over concrete and the feet begin to whine; over twenty, their complaints are deafening. Still, we pushed on, the both of us defiant and stubborn as always.

We passed under an old iron bridge shared by trains and pedestrians, finally arriving at a large stone marking the childhood home of the poet Buson. We followed the narrower Ogawa river south into the heart of the city. Planes bound for Itami extended their landing gear toward us as if giving an encouraging thumbs up (or down). The spectacle of the sun setting through the clouds took our minds off our feet somewhat, then the lights began to come on, their neon shapes go-go dancing across the water's surface. We arrived in full darkness at Tenmabashi, where warm coffee helped to rebut the cold, and the passing whiff of Indian curry gave a hint at what's for dinner.

On the turntable: Dave Brubeck, "Time Out'

On the nighttable: Kenji Miyazawa, "The Milky Way Railroad"

Saturday, January 03, 2009

'Round Midnight

We pass through the main gate of Shinnyodo near 11:30. The pagoda looms out of the dark, offset by the thin, darker tree twigs in front and grey-ish green sky behind, like some 30's German Expressionistic chiaroscuro. We find our place at the top of the steps of the temple's massive iron bell. We are standing below the log that is used to strike it. A few minutes later some monks come up, do a few chants, and grab hold of the rope attached to the log. They hit it on three, the arc of the swings going further and further past my head. The first peal of the bell hits me mid chest. It is hardly a peal. For a minute or more, the sound vibrates out of the dark, low and violent. The beams of wood holding the bell and the striker creak and groan above my head. I choose the wrong moment to remember that this structure is traditionally built, without nails. This is all repeated, again and again, as other monks take their turn. It is long before we too hold the rope, pull it back, and again, and again, building up the momentum. There is a strange machismo at work, not wanting the tone to be any softer than those of the people who came before. That's OK. This work of the ego will be washed away as the wood hits iron, along with 107 more of last year's well-earned sins.

We walk over to the statue of the crying Amida, which looks more upset in this low light. Then go stand by the fire, drinking some kind of tea, and trying to make out the faces of friends in the flickering dark. We find a few, and count down the new year. I feel post modern as I stare at the face of my cell phone. My count is a second behind everybody else's, my cell provider having already thoughtfully added a second to the old year. Miki and I kiss, then wander through the cemetery to Kurodana, our footfalls accompanied by the sound of bells ringing out all along the Higashiyama hills.

We awake early and bike over to Yoshida in order to catch the year's first sunrise. There is a small moon viewing deck behind a teahouse, facing east toward Daimonji. Luckily, there is no one else here, and we quietly sip our tea in the cold. The sky begins to lighten, revealing many familiar landmarks, including JesusChris coming out of the forest still dark. Unlike us, he's yet to go home. We wait on the sun's appearance. It's a cloudy morning. Giving up, the three of us wander amidst the old haunted stones of Takenaka Inarisha. Many of these stones have holes near the base, where the gods can freely come and go. Among them, we find a stone ox, an omen of good things.

JesusChris eventually heads toward his bed, but Miki and I move over to Nanzenji. Inside we find a couple dozen monks chanting, the depth of their voices filling the hall all the way up to the wide-eyed dragon painted on the ceiling. A priest of incredible years is bowing, his acolyte beside him, spinning a tray in his hands. The monks all then sit and begin to yell in wild loud voices, flicking their accordion-like sutra books back and forth in the way that a Vegas dealer shuffles cards. Some of these guys do it so quickly and adroitly that it looks like they have a waterfall between their hands.

We bike over to Nyaku-oji Shrine. A three-legged crow near the entrance hints at a connection with my beloved Kumano region down south. A few older timers are just getting the fire going. With every bow to the shrine, I get a touch of warmth on my bottom. We warm the top half with some sake and move along.

Partway down the Path of Philosophy the suns finally pops over the ridge, so we stop and pray again. Then on to KitaShirakawa Tenjingu, our local. Atop the high steps we find the wacky resident priest, his white robes matching the color of his long hair and wizard's beard. As he cleans up, he tells us he'd been awake most of the night. Hands joined together once again, hoping for some good tidings in this, our final year in Kyoto...

On the turntable: Portishead, "Three"

On the reel table: "Mon Oncle Antoine" (Jutra, 1971)

Thursday, January 01, 2009