Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Watching the Rivers Flow

For two months this winter, I subbed a biweekly yoga class in Osaka. This gave me the perfect opportunity to get to know that city better. Osaka has always been a merchant city, with it's wealth built on the goods flowing in and out along its many rivers. A river walk would be the place to start....

One very rainy afternoon, I decided to follow the Ogawa from where I'd left it at Tenmabashi. Nearly the entire waterfront was under construction and off limits. Most of Nakanoshima was closed to pedestrians as well. I followed instead the alleys running between the water and the large warehouses with their open-mawed garage doors. Considering the weather, this was hardly inspiring. The wall between the river and I grew higher until it cut off my view entirely, and I found myself surrounded by dull grey on all four sides. I went over one street, finding that the faces of the warehouses were even uglier than their backsides. A major disappointment, this. Until recently, I'd always thought Osaka to be perhaps the worst-looking of any city I'd ever seen, but this was based mainly on the ride from the airport into Namba. Unfortunately, this walk was helping to reconfirm my original belief. I carried on though, deeper and deeper through the industrial rain, into a landscape that was almost a parody of a Tom Waits song: Old Dogs and Warehouses.

I finally arrived at the end, and circled back to the Aquarium nearby. Inside I found relief from the rain, in the form of a cafe du Monde coffee and beignet. Ironically, the real highlight was found on the walk back, crossing under the river toward Nishikujo Station. There was a 60s sci-fi film feel here, with the long stairs spiraling around the elevator shaft, and the single bulb lighting up a bored looking guard standing in the middle of the long, narrow, tiled hall.

I had much better luck a month later in walking the Yodogawa. I returned to where Miki and I had peeled off our Kumano Kodo course (same link as above). The riverbed was flat and wide here, and nearly covered in water due to recent rain. I wandered an hour under bridges crossed by trains moving quickly in and out of Umeda, before feeling the need to attend to my stomach. I climbed over a bank and walked into Juso's seedy bar area. A van with a CO2 sticker was parked on a quite street, its driver sitting behind the wheel, creating a different sort of energy in reading a porn mag, I walked below the Love Hotels and Cabarets before finding a place doing Chinese food. Had an interesting physics lesson here, finding that wet soles won't grip on a floor perpetually coated in grease.

Back on the river, to watch a waterskiier go past. The grass of parks gave way to higher reeds, partially hiding the homeless dwellings down here. In following the north bank of the Yodo, I had a fine view of the towers and skyline of Umeda stretching along the water. Osaka's not the most beautiful of cities, but parts of that view certainly impress. Should the city choose to light up those towers with colored neon, it might actually approach the beauty of the waterfront skylines of San Diego or Miami at night. Once beyond the last trainline, I found I was also past the last homeless tents. There was little out here but graffiti and rocks and weeds. Somebody had built a small cairn out of some of the larger rocks, hollowed them out and apparently used it for a fire. The tide was gently lapping, lapping, proving that I was getting closer to the sea. As I was moving steadily west, toward a ridiculously high bridge, the square shapes of trucks moving across silhouetted from behind. Beyond the bridge were the larger shapes of huge freighters and ferries heading out to sea, fading in color as they neared distant Awajijima, curling away to the south. The rocks finally dropped away and nothing but dirt remained. Above it was a long narrow concrete wall, which I walked along, thinking all the while of that Iwai film, "Picnic." The ground started to drop further and further away on the left, and it eventually become too dangerous to continue. I jumped down and looked over at the hellish tangle of the industrial sites on the other side of the river, with their fantastic arachnoidal shapes. Above them stood a pair of towers, with rounded blue caps looking like minarets. Finally, I reached the end, Off to the right was the higher Rokko chain of mountains that define the well-groomed backside of Kobe. I lingered a while, then turn away from the water. I dropped down to a road running along a line of warehouses, the air tasting metallic. This eventually led to a long park which I followed, thinking half heartedly about hitching. But I had some trees over me, there was a bit of green. Besides, a walk ain't complete until you walk back....

On the turntable: Akiyoshi Toshiko, "Four Seasons"

On the nighttable: Zeami, "The Flowering Spirit"

Monday, April 27, 2009

Thirty-three Thumbs

The guy on the train had a T-shirt which read, "Drink and Powders and Pills." Whatever it takes to keep you standing on a train this early on a weekend morning. It was just before seven, and all the passengers were in differing states of sleepiness. Most were starting their day, but for a some, it was just ending. A couple hosts had hair sticking out in that perpetual bed-head look, in spite of having not slept.

I was heading south to continue the Saikoku Kannon Pilgimage. Back in June 2002, I'd spent about 10 days hitching around the Kansai countryside visiting temples. A true pilgrimage deserves some hardship, so I chose to do some on foot, and the rest by thumb, bypassing public transportation except when going to and from the pilgrimage route itself. At that time, I'd visited 24 of the 33 on the pilgrimage (plus the 3 extra "bangai" temples), and today I hoped to visit the three that were clustered around Wakayama city. Unfortunately they were well spread out across the prefecture.

In Osaka, I boarded a train heading out toward Kansai airport. About a half dozen skaters were lounging in the priority seat at one end of my car, two of them sleeping and sprawled across the benches with their shoes off, another was busy texting. One guy in headphones was doing some sort of hip hop neck exercises. (Not far removed, I thought, from the old timers I'd seen earlier, doing radio taiso under a massive tree in some suburban park). These guys were young but must have been really dedicated, to be up this early. Two of the boys looked like they were still in elementary school.

After two hours of trains, I had another hour to go by bus, leaving from some town I'd never heard of. There were a few people aboard with backpacks, obviously heading into the same hills as I was. The bus let me out at the busy end of a small country road which weaved between small shops and large country homes. Quite a number of cars were heading my way and almost without thinking I thumbed one. They were only going part way up the mountain, planning to pick wild veggies beside the river. I asked about all the fallen trees, thinking it must have been one hard winter. No, there was a new dam going up. Here in such a lovely valley with little apparent need for one.

At the trailhead, I said goodbye, and made my way up. I guess a tour bus had just arrived, since I soon became part of a group of twenty or so people moving up the cobblestones. I strode past them pretty quickly to regain solitude. It was beautiful here, the stone trail following a creek up the considerably steep steps. There were a number of small subtemples along way, where I'd stop and pray. One roof had high flowering weeds growing from the thatch. Another was in terrible shape, covered with a tarp and looking like a white and brown mushroom. (It was called the Yamato Hall, and I'll let you come up with your own cynical subtext.) Finally I arrived at the main hall of Makinoodera. A priest with very bushy eyebrows brushed kanji in my nōkyō, the book that serves as a record of the pilgrimage. There was a group who I decided were bus pilgrims, based on their loud voices and poor choice of shoes. The sheer racket they were making at first annoyed me, but in looking over at them, I noticed a part of the temple grounds I otherwise would have missed. There was a set of "Buddha's footprints" in front of a tall stele, surrounded by a series of 33 stones, which if trod upon, allowed one to do this entire Kannon Pilgrimage in symbolic miniature. How convenient for the bus tourists, I thought.

I lingered up top awhile, looking across a series of hills just coming into their spring colors. Then I headed down toward the road again. Hitched back to the bus stop, then sat to think a while. There was a temple due south of me, just on the other side of this range of mountains. I knew a road headed through them, but didn't know how well trafficked it was. I could easily get stuck out there somewhere. Finally I decided that there was no real risk of danger and that I'd let fate dictate the rules of the day. I set off in the that direction. A few cars passed me as I moved through the village, though none stopped. I turned onto a busier road and moved up a steep hill. A van stopped. I told him that he could let me off a couple km ahead, at the junction of the road heading south. He knew this area well and was pretty sure I'd get stuck, but respected my choice. Alternately, he was heading into Wakayama city, where the third of today's prospective temples was. He thought I'd be better off going there first, then hitching back into the countryside again. I accepted. So we spent the next hour together, this man and I and his 4 year old son. They'd spent the night at the father's ancestral home in the country, and were now heading to a park near their Wakayama. I had a nice chat with the dad about those things you come up with in your role as guest. The boy sang a song for most of the drive, making it up as we rolled along. He later caught me up on Ultraman's latest foes. As we neared Wakayama Station, the dad asked the boy if he'd mind taking me all the way to the temple before going on to the park. The boy said he wanted to go to the park right away. Fair enough. Let fate dictate the rules of the day

So I found myself in the center of the city, nine km from my destination. Figuring I had no choice, I checked on train times, but they only ran every half hour. I decided to try to hitch, though pretty certain from past experiences that no one stops in the middle of a city. I'd walk in the direction of the next station and if I couldn't get a ride, I'd take the train. Unbelievably a car pulled out of traffic and stopped immediately. He wasn't going my way, but I became inspired. A minute later, a woman stopped. She turned off the main road so as to avoid the traffic. She also wanted to drop off some cakes at home. (When buying cakes in Japan, they always ask if you'll eat them within a half hour.) This complete stranger left me alone in her car for a few minutes, engine running, then came back to weave through the backstreets toward Kimiidera.

There was a lot more activity here, and despite being on the outskirts of the city, it had all the feel of a temple village, with hotels and restaurants lining a single wide street. It looked more like China than Japan. I climbed yet another flight of stairs, though not nearly as high as the mountainous Makinoodera. This had probably been a beautiful place prior to the arrival of concrete. At the main hall was another group of pilgrims, though this time dressed in identical white and chanting sutras. This is how it should be done. Approaching a monk with my nōkyō, my face fell when I saw that he had a stack of around 50 in front of him, all belonging to the sutra-chanters. Luckily, he quickly dashed off mine. I wandered up to a small hall higher on the hill. Over the entrance was a carved wooden pigeon, and just below it, the floor was littered with bits of broken seeds and scat. Strangley, I saw no real birds. I moved across the grounds toward a massive concrete tower. Inside was a three story high Kannon statue, all done up in fake-looking gaudy gold. I could see no real purpose for this, other than as a way to use untaxed revenue. The real value was in the view from the top deck. It would've been a fantastic view were it not for the line of high buildings in the foreground. So I raised my eyes to take in the fields stretching away toward the sea, and the jagged line of mountains beyond. The color of the sky and of the bleached out buildings gave everything a real sea-side feel. I made my way down the steps again, thinking that the next time a person asks me why I'm doing this pilgrimage, I'll answer that it's because I love stairs.

I thought about hitching toward the next temple, but it was well out in the countryside and I had no idea which road or direction to take. I hoped to get picked up by someone else doing this pilgrimage, as it came next in the traditional order. It took some effort but I caught a ride. Ironically, this driver, and the cake woman earlier, were both the wives of priests. This ride too stopped along the way, to pick up her son at cram school. Beside me in the backseat was a friendly young woman who'd just started dental school. (In more irony, the very next ride I'd hitch, albeit a week later, would himself be a dentist.) Like the two earlier rides, they asked me if I had food. Very kind, the people around here. They were bound for Wakayama Station, so I went along, compromising on my rule by taking a slow train out toward Kokawadera.

At the top of town, two huge trees marked the main gate. Beyond them, subtemples spread out along a creek, with a few Buddhas and graves along the path. It was wide and open here, like an old West town, all dust and sun. There was a merciful lack of steps. One small hall looked abandoned, the earthen wall challenging the roof tiles in a race toward complete decay. In the main courtyard was an unusual dry rock garden, climbing up a small rise toward the Hondo. In true Western movie fashion, the wind picked up some, causing a rack of wooden ema to clack together beside the main altar. The floor before the principle carved Buddha was worn away and warping due to centuries of praying pilgrims. To the side was a trail leading up to an ascetic's hut. On my way up, a large bee circled me three times, then flew off. The hut is closed but for a small slit in which to slide food and offerings. Beyond it, a path leads away through the forest, the floor worn smooth but veined with tree roots. I followed a different trail to a small subtemple hidden above the Hondo's right shoulder. It looked abandoned, but surprisingly, I was allowed to enter and was given a brief tour by a very old woman. I sat for a while overlooking the garden, and at the borrowed scenery that the woman had told me was slowly disappearing behind high bamboo growing in the valley below. What had once been pines had now been replaced by a grove of fruit trees. In a decade, the peaks of the Izumi Range themselves will no longer be seen. I walked back into the temple and headed toward a couple of attached halls. One contained a beautiful ancient Kannon, and it was difficult to turn away from a face radiating such peace. Above, a tapestry of a once-colorful lotus was peeling off the ceiling. I continued walking along the old crumbling decrepit hallways, the wood complaining under my feet. I've never seen a temple in such an obvious state of disarray. But it was gorgeous, the textbook definition of mono-no-aware.

Walking back down through town, toward a mountainscape of houses climbing the hills, partial hidden by forests dotted pink with yamazakura. The foreground too was an almost alpine scene, between two rows of buildings of equal height. At the bottom, I came to my last destination of the day, the Yamato Kaido. Originating as the Nara kaido back in the 6th Century, this route had taken on many names and had been much extended over the centuries. The section I'd follow would shadow the Kiinokawa for 11 km. It was well marked and easy to find. I spend the remaining few hours of daylight walking though quiet villages and fields mostly barren. There were many shrines along this way, synonomous with very early settlement. One shrine had a set of unswept, leaf strewn steps. There were many farmers finishing their work of the day, prodding the earth back to action. One village smelled strongly of citrus. Somewhere past the mikan, I had this exchange:

A group of boys are playing and one yells "Are wa gaijin da!" I check to make sure my horns aren't showing, then respond with, "Are wa nihonjin da!" One of the kids says, "Doko?" The boy who originally yelled says, "Ore wa, Nihonjin da yo." Didn't detract from my day, but things like this help justify my leaving Japan. (One blogger I read cynically calls this type of soft racism, "Death by a thousand cuts.)

The spaces between the homes began to fill with other homes. Just over the river, I walked down a one-street town, many people chatting outside and enjoying the last heat of the day. Over the broad Kiinokawa next, and to the train platform, open and facing the yellowing sky. This had been one long day, zigzagging around the Izumi region of Wakayama and I was weary. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the hours and trains I'd need to get home...

On the turntable: John Coltrane, "Live Trane Underground"

On the nighttable: Brad warner, "Sit Down and Shut Up"

On the reel table: "Kill!" (Okamoto, 1968)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Circles and Squares

This is apparently the weekend when Shiga floods the paddies. There is water everywhere, laid out and arranged in perfect squares across the landscape. There is water in the air too; the rain falls yet again. I begin to wish I could stay on the bus. It lets me off at one of those random bus shelters that appear occasionally on the side of the highway. I descend some stairs and turn right, trying to find a way under the expressway. After 15 minutes, I decide that was the wrong choice. Retracing my steps, I see that a car is parked perfectly in front of a sign telling the way to Hyakusaiji, the first of the three temples I plan to visit today. These aren't part of the Kannon Pilgrimage, but are linked by what's know as the Koto Sanzan Shizen Hodo, running midway up Biwa's eastern shore.

Making my way toward the hills, I'm happy that it isn't raining as hard as I had thought. Just after I reach the tree line at the mountain's foot, I come across my first monkeys of the season. One of them, who I take to be female, is running across the road on her hind legs, holding some unidentifiable white veggie in her hands. The rest of the group is making a boisterous raid on the field just above me. A few minutes later I meet an old woman walking down the hill, who tells me that last fall there'd been a raid by a group of around 30. I climb onward. With all the rain of yesterday, the hillsides are a brilliant collection of green. The young maples seem especially proud, eager to show of the results of their primping. I arrive at the temple and make my way up the stairs to the Hondo, happy to have the place to myself. It's always a delight to find one of these mountains temples, to rest in its stillness. I decide to break it by ringing the large iron bell housed in the corner of the courtyard. The vibration shakes some buds off a nearby mountain cherry tree, and they flutter around me as I pass. I drop back down to the lower temple and become part of the shakkei in my stroll though the carefully groomed garden. In the higher reaches are a few large rocks that look ideal as places to meditate. The biggest stone of all sits amidst the stream, bearing the monicker, "The Unmovable Stone." The view from the top of the garden is of those newly flooded rice fields stacked up toward Biwa, their water taking on the gray of the sky.

I follow the Hodo as it weaves back down under the expressway, up again to a dam, back down and up yet again. It's bizarrely laid out, the path takes me past many small shrines sitting at the edge of the forest. Most of them have small stone altars in front of the bigger trees, looking very pagan. There are also large stones piled like cairns beside many of the rice paddies. The juvenile frogs love all the new water, and they pop and click merrily like those weird forest sprites in Mononokehime. The watery surface has muddy swirls like sumi-e. There is a collection of small burial mounds out here amidst the fields, protecting the pots buried underneath. They were made by the Koreans who originally settled here, back in the 5th Century. Again, the prevailance of shrines gives the area's age away. In the center of all the fields is a grove of trees that doesn't contain a shrine or temple, but there are some graves visible through the trees. The trail carefully avoids it, and there are a few signs warning us against trespassing. There must a good reason this has never been converted to fields, why it is honored by the locals. I walk on and ponder the mystery of it. Luckily, this trail is well marked, the way it zigzags about. But that's no real comfort. Japan is so visually cluttered, if the eye is pulled away by something, it's easy to miss the signs. I move along the concrete, my ears perking at the sound of every oncoming car. My recent return to hitching has brought back my Pavlovian response to engines. Overhead, the wires stretched between towering aerials crackle in the rain. Far across the fields, a pack of schoolkids on bikes look like migrating birds. In the next village, an old granny rides by on her Supercub moped in mompe and bonnet. Like most people who commute a short way to their fields, she doesn't have a helmet. With her advanced age, I am worried about her ability to balance, and she soon afterward demonstrates by using the bike's forward momentum to curl slowly around the next corner.

I come to the next temple, Kongorinji. It's a ten minute walk from the gate to the Hondo. The cobblestone path is outlined by the white of fallen cherries. I detour into the garden and warm myself with tea, then wander out a long path to find some old graves standing in the rain. I follow another trail into the forest, meet the flight of stone again, and climb toward the Hondo. On each and every step is a small Jizo, each with a bib and a small pinwheel before it as an offering. In addition to the ones on the steps, there are other Jizo in clusters and grids at random places in the forest. Each of these is in memory of a dead child. And there are so many. In a lonely section of woods, a single pinwheel turns. I go over to it and pray to the soul of this child. Then continue to climb the hill. The Hondo is big and impressive, with a well- kept pagoda off to the side. I poke around awhile looking at the statues. They don't move me half as much as the Jizo outside, so I go back out. On the way down, the occasional pinwheels turns. I bow each time. Finally toward the bottom, they all begin to turn, as if acknowledging my prayers. My heart is breaking now, tears welling up. I'm not ready for this sudden message, this reminder of the place where my son now is. I quickly hurry out.

I'm back out in the fields, beside a solar powered fence that keeps the boars out. The road I've been on narrows and becomes a forest path. I hadn't expect a trail; I'd have worn different shoes. I walk up steps made from tree limbs laid horizontally in the earth. Each is the thickness of Popeye's forearm. I don't think much of these, as they don't aid the hiker much, and erosion will eventually make each step a bit higher than a comfortable stride. Someone has made some playful signs, encouraging hikers to introduce ourselves to the trees, and to give them a name. They all seem to be done up with blue tape, so I call them the zebra trees. Amidst them , it dawns on me that this is the first time all day I'm not hearing the buzz of the expressway. The final temple, Saimyoji is smaller than the others, but the statuary is incredible. An elderly man takes it upon himself to acquaint me with their features. It is time well spent. I think of how quickly I sometimes move through temples, giving their treasures a mere glance. As with people, when introduced, they become much richer, more magical in their details. These ones in particular had been hidden during Nobunaga's decimation of Tendai temples around Hiei, which attests to their advanced age. I knew old Oda had some issues with Hiei-zan, but never realized his wrath spread so far. I'm grateful this handful of carved beauty survives to impress 400 years on.

It's only mid-afternoon but I'm satisfied. Down at the road again, I notice that the guardrail has been torn away for dozens of meters. There must have been a horrific crash recently, here in the shadow of a shrine. I walk in a steady rain, and thumb a ride from a dentist making his rounds of the villages on this increasingly wet Sunday. I doubt he'd approve the chocolate and sugary coffee I warm myself with as I wait for the train...

On the turntable: Magestic Circus, "Strange Trip on the Train"
On the nighttable: Walter Weston, "Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Things Learned in the Kyo

Never eat ice cream while walking thorough Nishiki Fish Market.  Unless that's your favorite flavour...

On the turntable:  Cassandra Wilson, "Blue Light 'til Dawn""
On the nighttable:  Brad Warner, "Hardcore Zen"
On the reel table:  "The Silent Spring"  (Bergman, 1960)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Yoga in Kyoto

"Michael was kind enough to introduce me on Deep Kyoto a few weeks back, so it’s about time I introduce myself and Kyoto yoga.  I ran my own studio up in deep Tottori before moving to Kyoto about four years ago in order to teach. The scene here is somewhat new, but is growing quickly.  The Yoga Boom of a few years back went a long way in bringing awareness of yoga to the Japanese people.  This was the third such boom here,  and unlike the first two which introduced a more traditional Indian-style yoga, this one seemed to have originated with American yoga, including all its flash and fashion and celebrity teachers.  Studios began to pop up monthly , many of which have already gone.  The passing of the boom is actually a good thing, with the better teachers and dedicated students having stuck it out.    Vinyasa-style flow yoga (AKA Power Yoga)  represents the majority of what is being taught here, although other types are starting to make themselves known.  Internationally known ‘master teachers’ are beginning to include Kansai as a regular stop, introducing their own individual perspectives, and bringing a much needed infusion to this still-young scene.  In addition, the yogic lifestyle is definitely catching on, with associated trends such as diet, body work, and eco-friendly living getting much attention recently.

Most exciting for me personally is the local Indian music scene, composed of a handful of very active musicians.   The majority pass the Winter in India, enjoying the mild weather while sitting and learning at the feet of their teachers.   With the return of Spring they too have returned, eager to show their new chops.  Flyers announcing upcoming gigs are everywhere.   One large event in particular will be held over two days in June, at Myorenji on the 6th and at Kurodani’s wonderfully named Ei-u-in on the 7th.    Most of this city’s local talent will be performing.  Details can be found here.

As for my yoga, I teach an Iyengar-inspired style, after studying with Tias Little in my native New Mexico.  Besides being licensed in his Prajna Yoga, I also hold licenses in the more spiritual and energy-based Sivananda system, as well as in Phoenix Rising Yoga, a style that attempts to bring awareness to the use of the body in everyday life.  These styles, my associated training in Ashtanga and Thai Yoga Therapy, and years of Japanese meditation practices, all inspire my teaching.  I do quite a number of workshops or events each month, including occasion collaborations with my wife Miki, a local Shiatsu practitioner.  For information, please check my homepage.

I look forward to the growth of Kyoto yoga.  A couple of teacher trainings have begun in Kansai this month, promising to give voice to a new generation of teachers who are sure to translate this ancient practice into their own, unique vernacular."


On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "1969-06-08, Fillmore West" 


Friday, April 17, 2009

Blossom Dearie's muse

There was this hipster on the train, all baggy jeans, Kangol cap, shades, dark jacket.  Despite the crowded car, he's blowing big bubbles with his gum, which expand perilously close to the pomaded hair of the salaryman to his right.  He flicks his phone open with a backhanded flick of the wrist--Nope, no messages, too cool for that--and flicks it closed again.  He steps off the train, this picture of loose-limbed lanky coolness, a picture cheapened somewhat by the dainty little tartan backpack cinched tightly to his shoulders...

On the turntable:  Mr. Scruff, "Keep it Unreal"
On the nighttable: Tony Henderson, "Yamabushi, The Third Force'
On the reel table:  "Floating Clouds"  (Naruse, 1955)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easter with the Flying Dugong Band

...fresh from the temples of Nishiyama, I shifted gears and headed back to Kyoto, to meet up with Michael and catch Donal Lunny's gig at TakuTaku (now non-smoking!). I only knew Donal as the husband of Soul Flower's Itami Hideko (and ex- of Sinead O'Conner), he having appeared with that group on a smoking live CD. (Soul Flower's Nakagawa Takashi was also in the house tonight.) Now living in Okinawa, he had some wonderful musicians in tow. The incredible Umezu Kazutoki shifted from clarinet to tin whistle to a bass clarinet that growled underneath everything like a didge. Umezu is a brilliant entertainer, his wit and talent far greater than the diminutive packaging. In probably the highlight of the night, he wandered through the crowd blasting away on alto sax, eventually returning to the stage where he stuck his clarinet in his mouth, playing both in perfect harmony. Throughout the trad Irish pieces, he'd pull out these perfect, light flourishes. Kaneko Aska's violin playing was top notch, and had a voice suitable to both singing and scat. Donal himself seemed happy to just sit back on rhythm, letting Aska's fiddle and Umezu's reeds do all the work. These two kept up a wonderful musical conversation, riffing back and forth, two top players birthing some marvelous sounds. It's rare to see such communication outside of after-hours jam sessions. The dead weight to me was the percussion player, sitting there with her perpetual hangdog expression under floppy Huck Finn hat. She alternated between a djembe that didn't quite fit, and a bohdrain that did fit, though she didn't seem comfortable on it, playing quietly and nearly indistinct. From my seated perspective, she was on the opposite side of a wide beam than the others, and at times I felt like I was watching two different gigs. Through it all Donal was Donal, playing his bouzouki as if teaching it a lesson, staring down at the fretboard while thwacking out the chords. The encore was the shortest I've ever seen, a quick two minute Irish reel, to which some codger in the front row danced katcharsee-style, with all the usual free-form arm waving. That summed it up for me, a nice blend of Okinawan and Irish, not difficult since both styles share a certain energy and structure, as well as a somewhat parallel history as colonies to larger island nations which in turn look insecurely toward the mainland. Some may have found the set a little slow (with a few numbers going on far too long), but it suited my mood perfectly, wanting simply to sip a beer and chill, with the obligatory moments of foot-tapping. Cheers to Michael for turning me on to this gig (he double dips here and here).

At the end of the day though, it ain't quite an Irish gig without Guinness.

On the turntable: Lambchop, "Aw C'Mon"

On the nighttable: Badiner/Grey, "Zig Zag Zen"

On the reel table: "Okaasan" (Naruse, 1951)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Below the exact same ridge that we hiked last week are a series of temples that intrigue me. They are scattered along the foothills of Ponpon-yama, interlacing the villages there. I'm solo today, Miki preparing for a month abroad. I'll miss my usual hiking companion, but am admittedly a little excited to have some time to say farewell to Japan on my own terms. I follow the same route as last week, riding the train with the gamblers and heading toward our own buses. I find I have a ridiculously long wait for mine, so decide to hitch. I walk through town thumb out, in the direction of the far-off hills. It's a tough place to get a ride and I'm not sure whether this is the right road. So I turn back to the station.

Arriving in the hills finally. I walk over to Shoboji, a collection of small buildings on a hill above a creek. Each of the buildings houses a single figure of Fudo, which surprises me despite being a temple of the esoteric Shingon sect. Only after poking around awhile do I find a less wrathful Buddha. Most of these buildings are old, but one newer hall stands out, with it's blond wood and fusuma panels painted with the surrounding landscape as it probably looked a couple hundred years back. There's also a stone garden here, each of the rocks chosen by its resemblance to an animal from the Chinese zodiac. There's a weeping sakura tree overhead, which drops petals onto the carefully raked gravel and even across the tatami inside. The surface of the pond beside us is covered in white flakes. This whole area is famous for sakura, which has of course brought out the daytrippers. Walking beneath the shedding trees is like having your own ticket tape parade.

The trees eventually give way to bamboo. I am looking for a small trail that looks to be a shortcut over to Yoshiminedera. I of course take the wrong trail, which descends quickly to a creek, then climbs into high grass beyond. Bamboo forests are the favorite habitat of vipers, and this winter wasn't cold enough to decompose all the fallen leaves, which offer abundant camouflage for them. I grab a piece of fallen bamboo and smack the ground with it as I walk, hoping to scare off any snakes that may be enjoying the fine weather. The trail climbs and I find it bisected by electric fencing designed to keep out the boars. Dead end. There are two fences side by side, with enough space to walk between easily. The problem is that one of them is nearly as tall as I am. I follow it awhile, looking for a tree that I can climb in order to jump over. No luck. There is about 50cm of space between two of the wires, just enough to pass through safely, yet there is of course the chance that a body part might make contact. I think a long while. This fence can't carry enough current to kill, can it? I lightly touch my bamboo staff to the wire. No shock. I flick it with my hand. Again, same result. Then, I touch it and decide it's safe. I push through the gap and make my way to the road just beyond the pillars of bamboo rising from the well-excavated forest floor.

It takes me a moment to figure out where I am, and I climb again, up a long series of switchbacks. A really old man is resting on his cane part way up. We exchange greetings, then I keep on, up to the rear gate of Sanko-ji. I sit winded and break out lunch. This temple is unusual in that it is shared by four different sects of Buddhism. It is small place, of four altars housed in a single structure. The view is spectacular, of a single purple line of mountains, stretching from the north of Hiei and nearly all the way to Osaka. I am told this is the best place in the city to see the moonrise. I eat my sandwiches and take in the silence and the view. I seem to have finally escaped the crowds.

Unfortunately I find them again next door at Yoshiminedera, after passing through their ridiculously fortified iron gate. Stepping off trail to look at a fallen tree, I lose my balance and grab hold of a fence to stop my fall, slamming my palm onto a piece of rusty metal that is sticking up for some reason. There's a nice red hole in the center of my palm. Multiple layers of irony here. It's Easter, and earlier this morning, I posted an obnoxious, evocative comment about it on Facebook. Here, a few hours later, I've given myself my own stigmata. I walk into the crowds, trying not to think about tetanus. This temple simply sprawls all over the mountain, and all the crowds and superfluous signage create too much a carnival atmosphere for me. I don't get any sense of peace here and wish to flee quickly. Making my way down, I'm impressed by one section, with a couple of usually shaped halls and nearby, a really long extension of pine, supposedly the longest in Japan. It is genetic freak science at its worst; the trunk of the tree purposefully stunted and dwarfed, with this massive appendage arrogantly jutting out. The adjoining photo shows that there were once two limbs, looking to me like a pair of bat's wings. There's no explanation as to why or when the other was lopped off. It's only as I'm making my way down the front steps that I realize that I've been here before, during my 33 Kannon Temple pilgrimage back in 2002.

I am alone again soon once past the parking area. I arrive next at Jurinji, a beautiful little place that I have to myself. The woman at the front office talks with me a long while about the history of the place. This is one of the best reasons to travel alone as a foreigner in Japan, the ease with which people strike up conversations. She tells me that a monk here used smoke signals to send messages of love to a woman who was cloistered at nearly Oharano Jinja. The roof of the main hall is curved like an elephant's back, and a pair of Buddhist statues look remarkably Thai. The way things were displayed here also remind me more of Southeast Asia, the odd diaramas and skinny gold statuary. Entering the next wing I soon figure it out. The priest here had trained for two years in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He is unmistakable in the photos here, being larger and whiter than the rest of his Sangha. I climb the hill in back to see where the smoke signals had come from, sitting peacefully by the stones in this quite patch of grove.

I follow the road again. A circular house on stilts overlooks the creek. A motorcyclist sits next to a lonely vending machine, having a private moment with coffee and a smoke. Four surprisingly well-dressed young women stand in a field. After passing through a few more villages, signs of suburb begin to push in. I make my way up the broad path to Komyoji. There is much going on here, with dozens of men in suits breaking down what had been some kind of conference. A long red carpet covers the stone path leading to the Hondo. I remove my shoes and go inside to ogle all the gold bling that is typical to Jodo temples. A wooden corridor leads me to a series of steps extending down the hill toward more buildings. Beside the steps is a motion-activated escalator, which makes me assume this place must have good liability insuance if they allow people to ride it without shoes. At the bottom is a rock garden, and one suited guy staring at it with a sad expression. Beyond him comes the distinctive sounds of a party. So far no one has questioned why I'm here, but I decide not to linger. I wander toward the main gate again, below all those signs for "JCI." I want to ask somebody what it stands for, but decide not to, preferring to think it means, "Jesus Christ, Inc." in keeping with my post of last Sunday.

I walk deeper into suburbia, past all the usual paraphanalia. The station seems far off, and i try to thumb again. I nearly always have good and quick success at hitchhiking, though it has become a little more difficult in these days of media terrorism. Kyoto in particular is a tough place to get rides. It's doubtful there'd be enough space in the car for me anyway, what with the hearts of Kyotoites so overflowing with love and goodwill. But it doesn't bring me down, and I walk on, doing that thing I do when traveling solo, singing aloud and making up lyrics about what is in eyeshot, today trying to come up with rhymes for words like "Pseudo" and "America" and "Faux" and "Middle-class." Finally, quite near the station, a woman in her 50s picks me up. It is almost always an older woman who will stop, never these young hipsters and their tricked out sci-fi cars. Turns out she's from rural Hyogo and has a daughter teaching Japanese in Australia. I say farewell and make my way to the train that will take me to an Irish music gig, by which I'll celebrate my Easter...

On the turntable: Jim O'Roarke, "Hagyou"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Westbound III

Took a morning train west, to catch a bus for the next part of the trail. Detraining with us were dozens of men, all heading to the free shuttles that would take them to the Bicycle Races. They shared the same frumpled and unhealthy look, as if gambling with their health was part of the package. Our own bus was full of old timers heading to view the sakura at Hananotera, its stone walls enclosing 400 trees. We headed the other way, through a series of villages. One beautiful house has a wrap-around creek How pleasant (I thought) to sit with your feet hanging over the garden, the water below gurgling away hot and starry summer nights. Up and up toward Kanzoji, a shaded cluster of buildings stacked up the steep mountainside. A small dilapidated hut stood on the east side of a clearing. I image a monk living here for decades, looking out over a view that becomes gradually unrecognizable, the view creeping toward him as more and more homes pop up on this long plain that connects Kyoto with Osaka.

The trail levels off, through a forest with many mamushi warning signs. The lizards play hide and seek with us, so I imagine the vipers are up too, giving me the chance to worry about something besides boars. I wonder if their distant Ursine relatives have finished their own hibernation. Sure enough, they have signs of their own. We soon come to a clearing with a truly bizarre sight. The valley is literally paved with granite, grave markers fitted together in a way reminiscent of Tetris. There must be thousands of them here, old grave markers relocated and abandoned. In front of them all is a single brazier for incense; to pray for one is to pray for all. Very Buddhist. I head over to the older graves, some of which must be centuries old. The small jizo statues also stretch back in time, marking the deaths of children who never grew old enough to contribute their genes to the more recent generations of dead whose own stone markers are nearer the front. Under the trees were some larger stones of animals or mythological figures. I wander away, wondering where all these graves came from, and what has been built on the site where they once stood.

The next village rests in a very high valley. We pass an old man and his young grandkids readying the fields for irrigation. The trail suddenly shoots straight up toward

Ponpon-yama. The name comes from the sound that feet make as they walk toward the crest. I'm guessing the name has an older and now forgotten source. Besides don't all footfalls sound like that? Earlier, Miki and I had a conversation about how we rarely meet anyone on these trails. Not so this one. Today, we pass dozens of hikers in organized groups. They are uniformly clad, and well-kitted out. One woman looks Miki over, her face showing her scorn at my wife's lack of gear. At the top of Ponpon is a small clearing. Lunchtime! It's hard to find peace up here, with that group and their loud stove, not to mention that joker over there with the radio. We turn our backs on their racket and look to the peaks stretching north.

The descent is as steep and fast as the climb. Partway down we spy what I call a tengu tree, an unusually shaped trunk marked with a small shrine. They're usually gnarled and spooky, but this one is stunning, simply a pair of high cypress whose limbs stretch toward each other in anticipation of an embrace. One has a hollow knot at the base, and inside this yoni is a small orange torii. Beautiful. We soon come to a large Tendai temple where we ring the large bell, the echoes of iron throbbing outward into the forest. The trail turns concrete now, racing toward the valley. Where the land levels off is another temple, spread out along a creek. The entrances to both of these temples are marked with the bizarre looking kanjogake-style gate, like a Shinto Torii but intertwined with vines from which bound branches hang down. It looks more European than Asian, as if they marked the domain of the pagan Green Man, who serves as the local deity. But we stayed on our own human side, passing between shops and noodle joints, toward the bus that will lead us back to Kyoto. Other human friends are waiting there, celebrating the return of Spring in the own way, upon a throne of rainbow-colored sheets overlooking the river...

On the turntable: Thomas Dolby, "Retrospectacle"

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday papers: Mark Walsh

Happy Easter!

On the turntable: I Monster, "Neveroddoreven"

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Deep Kyoto

Michael Lambe has asked to be be an irregular contributor to his fantastic Deep Kyoto.  Today's post can be found there

Not much posting here lately due to pink flowers.  Off to the river again!

On the turntable:  Mount Eerie, "Live in Copenhagen"
On the nightable:  Hamish Beaton, "Under the Osakan Sun"
On the reel table:  Ong Bak  (2003, Pinkaew)

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sunday papers: Christopher Isherwood

"It's much easier to turn hate into love than to turn fear into love."

On the turntable: Ry Cooder, "I, Flathead"

Friday, April 03, 2009

Nara on a Winter's Day

Deer laying in the damp grass,
looking like embarrassed eunuchs
with their antlers shorn.

On the turntable: Velvet Underground, "Fully Loaded"

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


I'm on the train again, bound at a ridiculous pace for Tokyo. The Shink always feels like we're on a jet that is in a perpetual state of take off. Strong G's push me into my seat. Out the window are the mountains of Kyoto and Shiga. I look over peaks and ridges now familiar, eyes tracing the lines where the trails are, calves remembering the pitches of the slopes. Further on, into Aichi and Shizuoka. Looking toward prefectures north, I notice the snow covered shapes of the big muthas beyond, lying in wait for the hikers to return.

In Tokyo now, I do my business, then meet up with Leza. The wine and chat is always tasty here. Recently, I've been really feeling the pull to be a dad again, so a few hours playing with Yuto is just what I need. Exhausted, I go sleep in the teahouse, trying to read but lulled into sleep by the wind in the bamboo outside.

The next morning I head over to Meguro early. I walk down the hill to Gajoen, a ridiculous structure of Heisei gaudy opulence superimposed on early Showa ornateness. The murals of the earlier era are still here, of 3D geisha and bushi, and ceiling 'fans' decorated with images out of a 1930s beer ad. It all feels more Taisho than Showa, and I almost expect to see Tanizaki in a smoking jacket sipping coffee beside the fake waterfall. (His hair is perfect!) Besides the garden, there is a mock up of a farmhouse built inside the far end. Jumping metaphors again, it is like a Vegas Casino with a pre-war Japanese theme, when the country looked more toward Europe than the States. Secondhand nostalgia. The number of staff here is massive, dressed in identical uniforms and strolling the long carpeted corridors like extras in a SciFi flick. (Metaphor quota thereby reached.)

I drop down to the concrete canal and walk beneath sakura moments away from blooming. The chilly wind seems to be against them. A single blossom of a single tree takes initiative, a fleck of spectacular pink against the dingy grey background. Further down the hill stands the Parasite Museum. I'd long wanted to go to this place, its reputation established both in print and by the word of friends. But I wasn't too impressed. OK, so I'd heard about the 8.8 meter intestinal worm; I'd heard of the photo of the guy whose scrotum would make a tanuki blush. Beside this, there was little more than dozens of small specimen jars containing a small fleck of white floating in deep dark blue, reminding me of those Jacques Cousteau shows of my youth. None of this really captured my attention, though it did make me rethink that raw deer and undercooked boar meat of a few days before. What made the trip worth it was the fact that, despite all the posters showing how to avoid getting a parasite, the toilets had no soap or towels.

I make my way to Ebisu next, and the photography museum. The current exhibit is early Meiji photography, not too extensive but just enough to keep me out of the wind for a hour. More than half of the exhibits are of Kyoto in the 1860s and 70s, so I stay awhile to look for familiar spots that are hardly familiar at all. Most startling is a panorama view of a Kobe twice gone, with avenues incredibly broad despite being decades away from the first automobiles. Stepping back out into my own century again, to walk Yebisu Garden Palace, that faux-European Meiji dreamland. I linger on a bench awhile, here in a city with few places to sit, a city made more for movement.

I eventually head toward the train station. In the past, I'd loved Tokyo, but this time I'm quickly agitated by all the people rushing about. I've spent a lot of time in Osaka this winter, but in that city there seems space to move. Here in the capital, I'm jostled and bumped near any train station I pass. Zach mentions that Tokyo people move deliberately, in straighter lines on weekdays, whereas on weekends the movement is more random. The reason why is obvious. This Tuesday, I find myself in commuter hell, faces pouring out of a mass, each becoming distinct on approach. I just can't go with everyone else's flow. I'm finding that my stay in Japan has begun to take on a parabolic shape, and recently I'm making a lot of the same 'rookie mistakes' as I did my first year here. I wonder if this is due to a subconscious emotional and psychological weaning away from my adopted home, in this, my last year here. Being so out of rhythm is probably related to this. In any case, I arrive in Yoyogi safely for my lunch with Taiko Tari, then walk toward Shinjuku. Near the station's West Exit, I see one hipster with a bleached mustache carrying a small dog of the same shade. The smoking area, marked with a Smokin' Clean! sign, has the population of a small village, all subliminally simulated by the large Coccoon Gerkin behind. I wander down nearby Shonben Alley, its no peeing signs an ironic historical deconstructionist critique. Toward Shin-Ogikubo, continuing the hike of the Yamanote Line that I started with Zach a number of years ago. Around me are signs of lingering hay fever, the sniffles of a few weeks ago blossomed now into full blown coughs.

I have a class this evening in Osaka, so board the Shink mid-afternoon. On these trips, we can often see those young women in uniform who stroll the aisles like beauty queens. I'd always assumed that they are security in disguise. Today, one is subtly kitted out in body-armor, an apparent new addition to this year's pageant. (I give her an 8.3.) This, plus the sight of a helicopter flying above us somewhere near Izu, worries me briefly, in these days of terrorism and bad action films. By Shiga, it's all long forgotten. Out the window, amidst the still-barren fields stands a single sign for the Shizen Hodo, a portent for another trip toward Kanto, sometime in my future.

On the turntable: Silver Jews, "Tanglewood Numbers"

On the nighttable: Tim Moore, "Continental Drifter"