Friday, May 29, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown XII

I've mentioned before how difficult it is to focus fully on a hike when deep in conversation. Miki had just returned from her month away a few days before, so much of this walk was spent in other places and times. What I do remember is cedars. A whole lot of cedars.

We picked up the Yamanobe in Miwa. On the train in I noticed a high set of torii, supposedly the tallest in Japan. I'd been here before, back in 1994, when a friend and I wanted to pay a visit to this Ōgami Jinja, which enshrines the god of alcohol. We arrived at dusk and couldn't figure out where the shrine was, so we merely sat at the base of the torii, drinking cheap sake bought from a vending machine. Today, Miki and I had a bit more focus. Just off the train, we powered up with a bowl of this town's famous somen. In a warehouse nearby, drying somen noodles hung in bunches like mop heads. We then spent the next half hour retracing our steps from our previous walk here back in July. An abrupt left took us along the Ise Kaido, shadowing a small river through villages alive with farmers doing their thing. We did our obligatory head bobs at the many temples and shrines we saw, though ironically decided to skip the large and famous Hasedera, the both of us having been out here a couple of times already.

After some onigiri and ice cream beside the river, we climbed up to a large dam, then into the forest itself. The middle part of the day was along high mountain trails, which took us up and over two 800 meter peaks. Below them was a small park with a small lake whose surface was covered with new lotus flowers. It was a scene inspired by Monet. Or vice versa. The higher trails were overgrown somewhat, it being still early in the season. (This section hadn't been in our book, and may either be a newer, more challenging section for more seasoned hikers. Or we may simply have lost the trail in the confusion of the park, then rejoined it later. In either case, our legs were certainly surprised.) We chased a fox off the trail, and later, a strange bird soared over the pass, looking slim and sleek. For a moment, I actually thought it was a flying snake. Quite the disturbing sight.

The final descent is still in my knees as I write this. And through it all, I don't recall seeing any trees that weren't cedar. Many of them were strewn about the floor as if by a child throwing a tantrum. This approach to forestry resembled the thought given to city zoning. No sense of order that I could see. Our shadows lengthening now, walking into villages and over the low passes between them. We talked awhile with an old woman having tea beside her field. Nearby, the sudden sound of gunshots surprised us, the blue smoke visible just inside the trees. The road from these high villages led us straight down to Kuzu Jinja, where we were able to quickly hitch a ride to the station. Our luck held as we made a series of good train connections back home.

On the turntable: The Kinks, "The Great Lost Kinks Album"

On the nighttable: Green/Svinth, "Martial Arts in the Modern World"

On the reel table: "Phantom India" (Malle, 1969)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book of Wind

As I leave Yonago Station, I see Vanilla Man. The Japanese call him Waito Ojisan, or White Uncle. He is a man in his fifties, who wears all white and takes great delight in flirting with schoolgirls. He appears to be completely nuts, but has a brilliant mind and speaks near perfect English. He also has fantastic control over his body, and can often be seen doing tough yoga poses or high kung fu kicks to impress the girls. Seeing this bizarre character somehow brings closure to my Yonago visit.

I follow the coast toward Tottori, where I'll hang a right and move south toward the Inaba Kaido, a portion of which I hope to hike today. On the way, Daisen reveals some late snow on her northern face. Over the Miho Bay, three planes are moving in unison toward the airport. A fighter jet and a big troop carrier escort a passenger plane carrying some VIP. This explains all the cops around the station earlier.

It's late morning now as I get off the train at Ohara. I follow a stretch of road here that is lined with Edo period buildings, including the obligatory sake seller. (No irony in that these shops always seem to have been cherished and protected.) The road gives way to fields, which lead to a large concrete structure that wears what looks like those old hats by the Shogun's police force. The place is an eyesore, this giant pile of grey amidst the beauty of the hills and rice. It is the Musashi Budokan, dedicated to a man most certainly anti-establishment, who would have scoffed at such cops, these hollow men with no real strength but what was delegated them. Yet again, this country's rebels are brought into the fold by those who write history. Heading toward the Budokan, I pass under a new road that will bring in more tourists to this village, the birthplace of Miyamoto Musashi and his clan. I don't remember any of this concrete on my last visit here in 1996. Any character that this place had has been bludgeoned to death by the tourist industry. As if on cue, I hear what I think is a temple bell, but it is merely a worker dropping a wrench on a sheet of metal.

I come to the village of Mimasaka proper now. At least this part is as I remember it, except for the signs that I might have found useful back in those days when I didn't read kanji. I go into the museum building. The lobby is filled with photos and memorabilia for the 2003 NHK drama that is mostly responsible for this tourism. The museum used to be a small humble building in the shade of the large trees of the shrine across the road. Now it has had a park built around it. (I think someone should build a restaurant here and call it the "Gorin Shokudo.") A narrow road takes me to Musashi's birthplace, closed, with the unmistakable kanji stating that a death has occurred recently and they are in mourning. I notice a middle-aged man building a roof to shade the benches beside the road. I ask him about the Budokan, and want to ask what the locals think about having such a massive structure in their midst, but he launches into a long tale about all the kendo groups who come through here. He even knows a few local foreign martial artists that I happen to know. I ask him if he does kendo as well, and he says 'just a little.' Obviously the modesty of a high ranking practitioner.

I move farther up the road to the shaded hill where Musashi is buried. I sit in the shade of the shrine and have lunch, as a huge black crow rests near the grave of his father. I remember that the previous headmaster of the sword style Musashi started died a few years back, but can't remember his name. The names on the few newer graves don't resonate. I move up toward the trees and here beside a spring, the road becomes trail. It is quiet and pleasant. At the pass, a farm house lies in ruin, beside a cage large enough to hold, what? Bear, boars, a few dogs? It is lonely up here, and I try to image what life must've been like. I'm startled from my revery by the song of frogs which, in chorus, sound like the panting of a large dog.

The trail brings me to pavement once again. The highway I'd passed earlier pops out of the forest to run above a small village. I feel sad for the residents here, their landscape suddenly altered after unchanged centuries. Not only will the road bring a constant hum, but many of the homes now abut high concrete walls where forest once stood. Again, I want to talk to the locals, but the only person I see is a woman out walking in her rice field, moving through the water with the high steps of a heron.

It's a lovely day for walking and I'm in no hurry. I figure I have a good couple hours until I reach a train station again, so decide to try my chances with my thumb, hoping for a opportunity to talk to someone. There are very few cars passing by, and none seem to want to stop. This is strange, since it is in the countryside that rides come easily. Again, I'm in no hurry and am enjoying the day. I 'm finally given a ride much much later, and only for the last couple of km. I finish my walk down another single road bisecting Edo period buildings, sitting beneath the ruins of a mountaintop castle. At the town's far end is a shaded area where six jizo stand. I wonder if they watched Musashi kill his first man here, at the age of 13.

The train pulls up just as I do. I'm the only passenger, so I sit up front and talk with the conductor as he pilots this single car south. The busier Sanyo line is next, and once moving at greater speed toward Kyoto, I get a clue as to why I had had trouble with rides. At least eighty percent of the passengers on this train wear masks. While I was out of news-shot, swine flu hit Kansai hard. But I still don't know this yet, and feel like an extra in a bizarre sci-fi film. The train moves me faster and faster away from the ghosts of my past, and toward a future uncertain...

On the turntable: Howling Wolf, "The London Howling Wolf Sessions"

Monday, May 25, 2009

Meanwhile, Back in the 'Nog...

Days that are multi-segmented tend to go on and on. Today, I've already played drums for a set of Indian devotional music, had lunch with a handful of yoginis, and met with Roger to discuss the next film that we hope to make. Now I'm moving along the Yonago Expressway toward my former home. It has been raining all day, but there's a different quality to the rain up here. The mountains across whose tops we touch wear heavier shrouds than do those in Kansai. These clouds, along with the fallibility of memory, blur somewhat the landmarks recognizable from a dozen years of following this route.

It's past dark when I arrive. Tim meets me at the station and we drive out to a bar out under the trees of Yumigahama. There's an open mike thing going on, where musicians can revolve on and off the stage. Entering, it looks like a Denny's that has a stage at one end of the room. Most of the regulars have guitar cases, and have a distinctive working class look. Rather than Denny's, it now feels more like a roadhouse, this big open room in a concrete building that sits alone on a quiet highway. There are many posters for the Air Self Defense Force, which isn't too shocking since the base is just up the road. I get a beer and start to talk with a couple of middle-aged men in baseball caps. I quickly find that they, like most of the other men in here, are all in the Air Force. As they're all in their 40s and 50s, I'd guess they're career military. I'm talking to a guy they call "Cherry" who spent much of last year in Iraq. We chat for awhile, then go sit by the stage. Tim's brother-in-law is up, looking very John Doe-like in his slicked hair, demin shirt, and jeans. He's really hammering out some hard blues, on an acoustic guitar that's as thick as Texas Toast. I'm surprised that his fingers aren't shredded, with the force that he's striking the strings. After a few songs, he's done, and this cycle repeats again and again, as each musician goes through a short set of 15 minutes or so. Tim and I go up last, well past 11. I'm on drums, he alternates between guitar and bass, and it soon becomes understood that we've become the house band. Other musicians come up and join us for a song or two. We tend to stick to 60s rock and blues -- Jimi, CCR, Clapton, and lots of Beatles. Tim wants me to sing, but I'm happy on drums tonight, though I take a phrase or two of lyrics when he gets stuck, then making it up when I'm stuck. Finally at the end I take the mike for "Don't Let Me Down," which I belt out 'til I'm hoarse. We stretch it out for about 20 minutes, and basically everyone in the bar comes onstage to solo, including the owner, screaming away on his sax. Then, after three hours, we're done. I haven't gotten behind a drum kit for a few years and my arms ache. Yet sessions like this are the greatest fun, much better than the monotonous drone work with a band that regularly gigs. The quality of musicianship here is very high, and with no rock 'n' roll pretense whatsoever. As we walk out the door it is close to 2 am, and it suddenly dawns on me that back in the States, it is Armed Forces Day.

Sunday starts late with breakfast at (Dis)Gusto. And what follows is a typical day in the 'Nog, of just hanging around and seeing who comes by. We have a three hour lunch at a small cafe that overlooks a small canal called Kamogawa, ironically. I used to look out at herons in this canal when I lived beside it back in the mid-90s. As always happens when I go back there, I run into people I know. It's a small city, and I during my 12 years there, I was one of only about 20 western expats. Stephen comes over from Matsue, and we gossip awhile about old friends, including one who died last year in India. Which gets me thinking about ghosts. Tim and I drive around. For him, we are running errands, but for me, every square kilometer holds a memory. The majority revolve around my late son. We eventually go see my ex-wife and see her new baby. She's moving to Vietnam next month and this may be the last time we meet for a long time. We visit her mother as well and it is a warm visit, the three of us like old war buddies, sharing memories of our dead and what we've been doing to keep on going. Later too, at my old fave Kashmir for a curry, I feel a dark feeling, of people who once belonged to this place but are no longer around.

The next morning I'm taking a train back toward Kansai. I follow the sea toward Tottori City, passing places that still have an air of familiarity but have now aged to become strangers. Along the way stand many of the schools where friends once worked. And it hits me. Last night I was talking how there is a certain heaviness in Kyoto, which I attribute to the ghosts of that city's long and violent history. Yet my own ghosts still reside up here in San-in, ghosts of people now removed from the context in which I've ever placed them. They exist only memory now, where I still hear their footfalls and the rattle of their chains.

On the turntable: "We're A Happy Family"

On the nighttable: Lesley Downer, "On the Narrow Road"

On the reel table: "Calcutta" (Malle, 1969)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Danger on Peaks

Just upon entering the forest, I pass an old wizard with long wispy white beard and a guitar case on his back. A good omen, I think. Today's hike will be a good one. A few minutes later, I come across an large inoshishi that looks to be about my weight. A bad omen. Thankfully, he's in a cage. I realize that these boars are the scourge of farmers everywhere, but it's more than a little pathetic to see him in this small cage, with no room to stand up or turn around; nothing to do but lie half in sunlight, panting and fluttering long eyelashes. I wonder now if the wizard hadn't been a hunter, his weapons wisely hidden away in that guitar case. The next bend in the trail seems to confirm this. I stand looking down into a bamboo forest, where a half dozen cage traps are placed at random intervals. I don't like the fact that I'm walking in a place where the boars are purposely lured. From that moment on, every sound in the forest sends my mind moving in interesting ways.

The bamboo forest suddenly becomes cedar, as if someone changed the channel. The climb tops out near a new cemetery. The earth here is completely torn up and imprinted with the marks of snout and hoof. Signs warn me to beware the large poisonous bees that I can hear just offtrail. There's a small cabin up here, with a couple canoes out back. Across the valley is a sunken depression that must be the first of a series of small lakes that I remember from my map. But moving closer I see that the water is gone, and the entire lake bed is planted with young cedars that barely reach my chest. Good news for you allergy sufferers. Above this, the trail hits road, and weaves down past a field of strawberries to a pair of villages. I cross a high suspension bridge over a lake, then again. I'm at the foot of Chogosonshiji, a temple complex that runs like a maze up and down the mountain. I love these places, love following the paths that weave in and around halls of all sizes, freckled with shrines, everything lined with stone and wood. There is a tiger theme here prevails. In the 7th century, Shotoku-taishi dedicated this temple to Bishamonten, who appeared at the hour of the tiger on the day of the tiger in the year of the tiger. There are paper tigers everywhere, which much make Mao smile a bit. I wander around awhile, then climb back into the forest toward the top of Shigi-san. The entire peak is covered with shrines dedicated to a different serpent god. The altars have stone representations of coiled serpents with cold eyes, looking to strike. There is a sort of black magic up here. I'm startled by one woman with crazy hair and a blank look who circumambulates these shrines again and again, all the while muttering prayers. I'm curious about this snake god, this Hakuryu. When writing earlier about seeing the Shinkansen moving below Kannonshoji, I had tried to come up with a metaphor linking this new representation of serpent power to the old snake gods, but I couldn't pull it off. Now, I want to linger and figure out what this is all about but it's getting dark and I need to get down.

I'm losing light quickly as I reenter the forest, which doesn't comfort me much, this being the lair of boars and bees, tigers and serpent gods...

On the turntable: Tin Hat Trio, "Book of Silk"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Noto's Broad Shoulder

I start way up in Fukui today, just out of view of the sea. The last of this morning's multiple trains lets me out at Imajo, a small village above a river. I make my way south from here along a highway that is heavily trafficked by huge black caterpillars and their brown haired yanki cousins. Easily the size of my pinkie, many have been crushed flat, so I dub this the "Caterpillar Trail of Tears."

It's a hot day walking this asphalt highway that calls itself the Hokkoku Kaido, one of the minor Edo period routes that connected this region to the Shogun's capital. I check my map, which shows that I'll be on this shoulderless road for the next 5km, before eventually turning off and being rewarded with a few highlights. My thumb wins the argument with my feet. I'm soon picked up by an old farmer in his 80s, who, after I tell him what I'm up to, drives the route slowly, explaining things as we go along. He shows where traces of the original Kaido remain, snaking in and out of the forest, covered with high weeds and barely passable. I think of all the other roads I've walked, and wonder how many of my footfalls have been compromises, falling upon newer roads running adjacent to the actual ancient paths themselves. Doesn't matter really. The farmer points out old landmarks that used to line the route. One of the newer ones is his own home, and he seems especially proud to have a drink vending machine out front. He doesn't know my destination of Hakusan Jinja, and stops to ask somebody working in a field. Old friends, they talk awhile. As we pull away, he points out another man nearby, and in a bit of local gossip, tells me that he is living in a kura.

My guide eventually brings me to the shrine, just a simple weathered building in the forest. There used to be a temple next door but it has been torn down by the locals due to lack of use. I walk up the road, my eyes now easily picking out bits of the old trail. One section is cobblestone and leads me between some incredible three-story kayabuki homes. Smoke pours out of one, the owners going about the traditional method of killing insects up in the thatch. I move above them onto a narrow paved road leading up to the ski area. It is very steep and switchbacked and as a car comes I see no point in using my own power. (I'm getting good at this 'kiseru' approach to pilgrimage.) The driver is a guy I'd seen out in front of the thatch-roofed farmhouses. A piano tuner, he says he spends most of his days travelling around the surrounding countryside doing his trade. He tells me that he is merely a caretaker of one of the houses, all of them owned by the local Board of Education. It's a good simple life he says, in spite of the fact that the winters here see two meters of snow.

He drops me off just above the ski lifts and goes about his business of picking mountains veggies. I continue up a small path and see a bearded man who doesn't appear happy that I'm here. I smile and ask politely if I can pass. He nods, still not speaking. His three dogs wait for me out in front of his home, a large teahouse at the pass. They all bark, and one of them is unchained. I talk to him softly but firmly in English as I continue up toward the peak. The path is narrow and overflown by the occasional bee. The whole forest is literally humming with them, like the disembodied ghost voices from a horror film. Beyond this, the trail becomes a narrow concrete strip that leads to a small lodge sitting near the top of the higher ski lifts. I walk across their boards and look across at Hakusan to the northeast. The last stretch of trail is wide and must accommodate skiers who come to the open clearing beyond, for the gorgeous views of Tsuruga Bay. It is hot and clear today, the sky nearly the color of the sea. Two massive oil tankers are anchored near a nuclear plant at the mouth of the bay. There is a large board with a marked photo explaining the landmarks, though it is about two meters up and hard to see from flat ground. I imagine that skiers would look down to read it. I sit and have lunch here, my eyes rarely leaving the sea. But the wind is picking up a little, making the high grasses move. More than once I'm tricked into thinking a big animal is coming up behind me. Spooked, I make my way back into the humming forest.

I pass the tea house again, and find a small well topped with wood carvings. The surly guy must be an artist, so he can't be all bad. I move down into kumazasa, which doesn't help with the uneasiness I had felt up at the top. I'm dropping fast down a narrow and steep canyon, lined with this bear grass and intersecting the many small streams which run into a river that I can hear somewhere below me. I can't shake the feeling that I'm going to run into a bear in here. For the first time in years, I pull out my bear bell. I'm about halfway down when I notice a large stone wall up a side canyon to my right. Based on the shape, I'm sure to find an altar there. I do, and I also find three woman out searching for warabi for tempura. I chat with them for a few minutes. I ask about bears and one of them mentions that there had been a sighting near here recently. Her friend smiles as she lifts up her pack to reveal a literal windchime that hangs down about 6 inches from the bottom. A bear that hears that thing would probably become too chilled out to attack, because it would be, like, too big a hassle man.

The trail widens out to become a track layered with soft pine needles. I finally hit asphalt again and weigh my options. The trail becomes unmarked as it nears Tsuruga, but I can pick it up again farther south at Kinomoto. My choices are to hitch down to Tsuruga station and take a series of trains. Or I can thumb through this big tunnel right beside me to a junction on the other side, and try to flag another ride south from there, which should take far less time. I'm lucky to catch a lift with an old couple who are, amazingly, going all the way to Kinomoto. This ride is the antithesis of the first. The driver didn't engage me much in conversation, except to complain about things he saw along the road. The woman beside him never said a word. As we head south on a smaller mountain road I realize the difficulty I'd have had trying to thumb it, there not being much traffic. It's a pleasant half hour, not having to entertain and make conversation. I'm free to admire the view of the blue steep-pitched tin roofs that protect the old thatch beneath. The flooded rice fields are green-flecked glass tabletops.

I get out at the station and head up a street stuck in a time soon after the war. At the top is Jizoin, which has an interesting maze that runs beneath the floor of the Hondo. It is a fun diversion to spend a few minutes in complete darkness, my hands running along the walls which curve at the corners in a way that protects noses and eyeglasses. I pop back out to follow the main street lined which a dozen old-timey sake shops. Must be big drinkers up here, with good rice and clean water. A trail marker at the far end of the street helps the drunks to stumble toward right toward Edo, or left to Kyo and Ise beyond.

I choose Edo, and spend the rest of the day walking quiet paths between rice fields that connect a series of villages that are famous for their waterwheels. The first, Amemori, is the most impressive. A dozen wheels dot the moats that run in front of all the houses. Planters in the shape of boats wear flowers that rival the color of the carp that swim around them. This is all overshadowed by the huge tree groves which hide shrines and old stone markers. The village is right out of the last section of Kurosawa's "Dreams," that penultimate Japanese scene which helped inspire not only my moving to this country, but the wandering ways I've acquired since. Yet ironically, there is a distinctive Korean flavor here. I find out that a major Korean statesman had made his home in this village, and the history is strongly Korean. At a small museum, I find out that the Korean diplomatic contingent made its way down both the Chosenjin kaido (of last week's walk) and along this Hokkoku Kaido, going beyond Edo to their terminus in Nikko. This goes a long way in explaining the distinct continental look of Toshoji, which I had also visited this Golden Week, along with a few thousand of my closest friends. Somehow, I've unwittingly chosen a Korean theme to pervaded my holiday, all the way down to the choice of restaurant the night before.

While pondering this, I suddenly notice a long snake swimming up one of the moats. It can't climb the steep stone wall, and lashes itself to the wheel, trying to climb to the top. Yet every time it does, it quickly finds itself back under water. The body twists and grasps one of the spokes, going up and around, up and around until it looks as if the snake might actually tie itself in a knot. (Is that even possible?) If it could move across the shaft at the center of the wheel it would be fine, but it never quite figures that out. I watch for probably 10 minutes, breathless with anticipation at how it'll turn out. Finally, it lets go, and swims down river again, slowly, as if trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

I move out toward the river, overhung with trees. This is an area right out of the American South, with the birdsong, the kids on bikes, and the shop keepers napping in chairs in front of their stores. I finally finish the day at Otani temple, a haunted place that sits below Otani Castle, which fell in one of the more vicious battles of the Warring States period. Another snake greets me as I enter, just above a field known as the Plain of Blood. I catch my final ride of the day with a French guy and his friendly Japanese wife. Along the way, I pester the girl's poor mom with questions about kanji I saw during my walk, trying to figure out even more of the multitude of elements that made up one very rich day.

On the turntable: Muse, "Hullabaloo"

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Obscured by Clouds

I seriously think I've been bewitched by a fox. I've been stumbling around this pass engulfed by clouds, trying to find my way down. There are supposed to be inspiring views of Osaka from up here, but I can't even find the trail. As I search, I think of a quote from Weston's "Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps:" 'We viewed the mist but missed the view.'

Earlier on, I'd rested at a shrine which has been standing sentinel over a bend in the river for 600 years. It was deserted and a little broken down. On the way in, I'd startled a rabbit that was the size of a small dog. The foundation of the shrine was rotting away in a few places and some of the shoji was torn. To add to the haunted feel of the place were all the jizo stacked up the base of the steps, gray-faced reminders of pilgrims who'd died here. I sat under the eaves to keep the rain off. Above me were carvings of a Warring States Period battle that had been fought near here. Across the yard was a small cave in the cliff face, where a Jizo that had apparently been buried in a land slide and was now dug out. The rain kept up but I wasn't in a hurry. Yet I suddenly became aware of strange cracks and bangs coming from the shrine's adjoining house, despite it's obvious emptiness. I hurried then through the gate, toward the pass growing more and more lost in the clouds.

The trail markers on the way up were prevalent, but at the top they let me down. The pass is overmarked with too many signs marking too many trails, and I couldn't figure out mine. I pick one, a narrow paved path overhung with trees. I can't see a reason for the concrete other than as a way to make it convenient for those who want to dump all their trash down the hillsides. I finally shake off the spell and confirm that this is the right path. But as the rain keeps up, there is little to see but for the odd Jizo, a few hamlets huddled on hillsides, and the graves that give the dead a better view than the living...

On the turntable: Rory Gallagher, "Studio L"

On the nighttable: William Scott Wilson, "Yojokun"

On the reeltable: "Once Upon a Time in the West" (Leone, 1968)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Whinging in the Rain

There is a three meter high fence below me, and beyond it is what I take to be a grove of young plum trees. Looking closer, I notice that the trees are instead steel stakes affixing some undefinable green material to the hillside in order to keep it in place. A recent slide has created the need for this cosmetic surgery. Near where the real trees began is a large white dog just sitting there obediently and looking at me. I whistle, but he turns and walks deliberately toward the forest. It seems as if he wants me to follow. But he's probably wild, and his overall look reminded me of the wolves in Mononokehime. Is this some kind of omen? I realize later that this is the death anniversary of Tenjin, and here I am at one of his shrines. Down at the shrine office below, I attempt to share my story with a woman working here, thinking she'll find it auspicious or intriguing. Instead, she seems to be humoring me. Whatever.

I walk on into the rain. There's a Jain temple down the hill, filled with the sound of devotional singing. I continue through Kitano, remembering the first time I came here. I'd been in Japan a mere month and saw nothing intriguing here. My American girlfriend at the time laughed and said that in six months, we'd think this the most beautiful place in the country.

I keep walking west and come to a large park that climbs up into the mountains. At the entrance is a sign warning that a woman and her dog had been attacked by a boar a few months ago. The fear seems to have done the trick. Under the trees is one of the best kid's play areas I've ever seen, with rope ladders and bridges leading everywhere. But it is abandoned, twigs and leaves strewn over everything. The only life I see in the park is a homeless guy huddled under two umbrellas, and some carp who aren't concerned by the rain. At the base of the park I see the first sign for the trail I'm walking, The Ribbon road that starts near Ashiya and stretches out west to the high Akashi bridge.

Following the road again, I notice that there are more bus stops than I've ever seen, spaced less than 5 minutes walk apart. I move on, growing tired. This is fast becoming yet another day spent on concrete, in the rain, with little to hold my attention but my own boredom. The trail isn't level but a constant zig zag up and down, up and down the slopes which mark where Kobe meets the hills. The calves weren't happy.

I'm trying to find a temple that is supposed be somewhere alongside this creek. I follow the water to where it leaves the hills. Doubling back, I ask a man in his 30s if he knows the place, and after some hemming and hawing, he goes inside to fetch his mother. She too looks at the map awhile, then tells me she doesn't know. I pass through an adjacent alley and within a minute find the temple a street over, less than a hundred meters from their home. How is it possible they don't know this is here, this massive collection of buildings rivalling the size of some of Kyoto's more modest temples. It baffles me how little people notice about what's around them. There a sign in front of the temple for a zazenkai. Naturally it's free. In my experience, only the temples of Kyoto charge for sitting, something they hadn't started doing until maybe 5 years ago. This is one of the reasons I have no interest whatsoever in doing Zen in Kyoto, which has withered into a tourist attraction. The best places I've done zen training have been in modest settings like this. There's a veggie plot in front of the temple, beside which the roof of an old weathered home is imploding inward. There is a quiet atmosphere of study here, made more palpable by the presence of Katsu Kaishu's training school around the corner.

I'm getting into a more wooded area now. Hirano Onsen, tempts me, but despite being really wet I go on. The trail up here is actually quite nice, above a small river dropping heavy with rain over a waterfall. The rain which has been coy up until now starts up again. The further west I look, the darker the shade of grey the clouds take. I start thinking of places I'd rather be, of things I rather be doing. A long shower, a hot cup of coffee, finish my Flashman book, watch a DVD. Plus I there's that article I've been working on. The air is incredibly wet in here, the entire valley rank and dank. What am I doing meandering through these suburbs with their small alleys and steps leading confusingly in random directions, all of them seemingly uphill?

But history keeps prodding me on. I come across a former encampment of the Heike warriors. Then my own present moment pushes back. With the chilly air and the slopes, it feels a little like a city hike in San Francisco, which wouldn't be bad but for the schizophrenic nature of the streets. I am sick of getting turned around and around, sick of being wet. I'd rather return another day, on a day with warmth and a view. I couldn't even see the hilltops just above me, let alone anything beyond the tall buildings below. The harbor view is supposed to be wonderful, but I get nothing. I begin to obsess on my need to see the water.

I pass below a busy highway and then have no idea at all where I am. The book I am using has lousy maps, with a mere tenuous connection to what I see in reality. I begin to joke that my incessant backtracking is a time filler rather than my being lost. If it weren't for the temples and shrines along this course I'd have no way to follow it. Here, the layout of where I stood doesn't coordinate to my map whatsoever. The city planners haven't helped much either, erecting a mere two trail markers over 10km or so. They call this the ribbon trail, and they certainly get a blue one for half-assed planning. I go in what I believe is the right direction, but eventually find a neighborhood map that shows me how far off I am. Nagata station looks to be a few minutes walk downhill. Bugger this, I'm going home...

On the turntable: "The End of Violence"

On the nighttable, "Paulo Cuello, "Eleven Minutes"

Friday, May 15, 2009

Curvet Over Ground and Nikko

I arrived in Akihabara around lunch time, too early for my meet with Zach. I sat in the sun in front of the station for awhile, my mind pulled back and forth from William Weston's descriptions of 19th century Japanese Alps, to the fascinating characters of 21st Century Tokyo. Many of the people were the stereotyped Akiba characters I'd expected. Strangely, nearly all the women I saw had really big breasts, and in their high heels, looked to be in a perpetual state of pitching forward.

Zach showed up, and fueled by a pizza lunch, we set out to follow the Kanda River across the city. Most of it was along or under busy streets, but eventually we found ourselves walking a berm lined with cherry trees. This berm took us away from the river and around the Imperial Palace's western boundary. We discovered our mistake late, but just kept on heading west, past the squatting frog-shaped Canadian Embassy, past Kanze's Sogetsu Hall next door, and on into Aoyama where we caught a train to Shimokitazawa and some fine Microbeers.

The next morning was an early start to Nikko. Just off the train, Zach and I moved through the forest, past lone Jizo under the high trees, and past rows of devas guarding cliffs. There is such a solid grounding energy there, with the mountains and water and very tall trees. We found a small temple dedicated to En-no-Gyoja, which led to us a trail head we would have missed otherwise. This was the path to Nyoho-zan, a climb that is a whole lot of up. It never really levels off at all, and is pretty punishing for the calves. Most of my recent hikes have been along roads and paths and were therefore pretty low. Getting up high was a reminder of different trees and vegetation, especially the birches, stunning white against all the new green. The vegetation in Kanto is different than in Kansai, and I spent most of the walk marveling at new shapes and colors. A long trench led us far below the mountain floor, the high grass that lined it waving as we passed. Some of this had been smoothed out and used by deer for their naps. We followed suit, flattening out a good lunch spot, with the views of lakes and other peaks further out. Moving on, we passed the only other two hikers we'd see, though later we'd find reminders that others had come before. Close to the top, the mountain's vegetation fell away to become tall spires of rock. A small plague had been hammered into one high formation, telling of a climber (or climbers) who's died here in October 1958. It was an ominious introduction to the rock field to follow, which required a sideways walk against the steep side, shoes succumbing to gravity and sliding every few steps. Once across, we were rewarded with a view of hell itself, down into an immense valley which was hundreds of feet directly below. Looking over into he abyss, I could feel my own nether parts trying to retreat into my body, and taking that first step away from the edge was to move feet suddenly heavy and firmly fixed to the ground. The dark earth and black rocks gave this place the name Kuroiwa, a col that seemed as if it would just break off and fall into space at any moment. The sound of falling rocks and landslides was constant through the fifteen minutes or so that we'd been up there, adding to the ominous feel. Across from us, long slabs of snow were melting into the valley, dropping as waterfalls for hundreds of feet. There also appeared to be a cave sealed in ice. The peak still rose well above, but the remaining snow and the late afternnoon conspired from letting us summit. We turned and went across the rock field again, a little more quickly now. Upon reaching the other side, I could finally exhale. At 2295m, I'd climbed higher than I'd been in years. And though I'm no stranger to walking over 20 km, I really paid for those first 10. But while the feet soon forget, the mind retains: the feel of the air, the smell of trees, that peaceful feeling of gratitude. I need to get up high again soon.

The remaining time in Nikko entailed lots of good food, hot baths, and sadistic massage chairs. Five year old Eli enjoyed the latter most of all, his face a mix of wonder and joy, with just a dash of fear. One morning he and Zach and I hiked smooth boulders along a fast moving river, under the watchful eye of a hundred Jizo covered in moss. Leaving the river, we'd marvel at the height of trees, at stones with just the right heft for throwing, at shrines acting as portals to those places where kami dwell. The final morning, I did yoga in a weathered Tendai temple hundreds of years old, planting my feet firmly and twisting up like all those wonderful trees outside.

Back in rainy Tokyo Tuesday night to meet up with Taiko Tari. The next morning was clear and offered promise. After a breakfast of pancakes on her balcony, we headed west, about halfway to Takao, where we'd planned to walk an old village and enjoy an onsen. But we arrived at the station to heavy rains and a 45 minute wait for the bus. Plan B was an Italian lunch in Shinjuku at Fungo, though I saw no one playing baseball at all.

Rain accompanied me all the way back to Kyoto. Surprisingly, I got a clear view of Fuji when the clouds parted, to reveal a hint of high mountains to come...

On the turntable: Southside Johnny, "Grapefruit Moon"

On the nighttable: Eric Rohmer, "Six Moral Tales"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pilgrims Excess

And here is where the Kannon Pilgrimage ends, at Kegonji, where the country's wide midriff expands away from her mountainous spine. It was an easy walk up here, along a wide shaded lane lined with souvenir shops. The temple buildings are spread out along the hillside. One small hall is filled with pilgrim's paraphernalia. Abandoned nokyo, staffs, shirts, and conical hats are stacked up from floor to rafter. There is a distinctive sense of finality here, though not for me. I am three temples short: two on the Sea of Japan (which I'll combine with a summertime swim) and the third located on Chikubushima at the center of Lake Biwa. The adjacent hall is filled with Jizo and prayers for healthy children. Behind the Hondo is another stone Jizo covered with little strips of paper affixed to the ailing part of the petitioner's body. Among the buildings higher up are a set of especially well-endowed tanuki, beyond which is a waterfall. Coming back around the pond that this water feeds, I'm surprised to come across the Tokai Shizen Hodo. This is the branch that heads over to Mt. Takao in Saitama, different from the section that Miki and I are doing at the moment. I imagine I'll follow my own footsteps here sometime. Back to the Hondo to watch people finish their pilgrimage. I'm overwhelmed by a feeling of not having graduated, with summer school still ahead. I see a group of these women 'graduates' fondle a metal fish affixed to a post. One of these laughing women then hugs a tree in the courtyard.

I move back along the main street that marks the temple's easy approach. It was a long way up here and will be a long way back. I think about hitching but decide instead to honor my unofficial non-finish to the pilgrimage by taking it slow. I sit in the sun, enjoy the country, wait for the bus. On the way back I learn that rice balls eaten on a rattly old bus will literally be shaken apart. I next ride a slow single car train along a straight line of track. It hits me that I've come full circle here. During my first Golden Week in 1995, I rode a train like this to the swordmaking town of Seki, also here in Gifu. Today there are only four of us aboard. I watch an old woman apply makeup as the train shakes and rattles. This is funny since it is women of her generation who tend to complain about young girls doing this exact same thing, in apparent disregard for the social distinction between what is public and what is private. At the other end of a car a man flosses his teeth with great exuberance. I smile, until I remember that I've just finished a bag of Oreos, and suddenly want to borrow a strand. (I bought the cookies at a small shop near the station which had near empty shelves. There was no one around, and when I called out to the back, a dog trotted out to sit behind the register.)

I'm getting close to home and notice that it's not yet 2pm. I see the familiar shape of Mikami-san, which I've often noticed from the west side of Lake Biwa. It is known locally as Omi Fuji, though I think it looks more like a breast, lifting impressively from Shiga's flat belly. Deciding suddenly to climb, I jump off the train and try to hitch to the trailhead. It again takes awhile, but I get a lift from a woman in a white uniform. I ask if she's a nurse but she tells me that no, she's ------- some word I don't know in Japanese. She next mentions that she'd seen me earlier while at the bank. This being the last business day before the long holidays, I assume she'd made a withdrawal. I want to tell her that she probably shouldn't tell a complete stranger that she's flush with cash. Turning my head, I now notice that her white uniform, whatever it is, is flecked with blood. Maybe I'm the one who should be worried. Is there the body of another hitcher in her trunk?

She drops me at the trailhead and I begin. As this breast is rather pert, the ascent is swift and steep. Partway up is an old temple, decaying into the weeds. Further on I find a narrow gap through some large rocks, a significant hint that this mountain is used by yamabushi in their training. I squeeze through, then use chains to pull myself up a steep exposed face. One root sticks straight up, the end brown and lacquered with oil from the hands of hikers looking for a grip. There are nice views from the top, ringed with the shapes of mountains now familiar. A couple of men sit at the top, drinking beer. We talk awhile, about other climbs in the area. Then I make my way down a very fast descent. Where it levels out some, I try to overtake a guy moving slowly, but he doesn't seem to want me to pass. I've never experienced this kind of bad hiking etiquette before. Matching his pace, I'm forced to take small steps, which doesn't go over well with my knees. I finally pass him, then hitch a quick lift to the station.

Back in Kyoto, I meet up with Michael at Sarasa Kayukoji, to watch Sweet Strings play. (His review, and subsequent video, is here.) The food is good, the beer forthcoming. The band is fun and very talented. There is a lego affect at work, adding a new member to the ensemble with each subsequent song. They play this great Hawaiian Dixieland bluegrass pre-war jazz. Sometimes it sounds like music from old Warner Bros. cartoons. The crowd is into it, bobbing their heads in various rhythms. The energy of the room builds with their collective drunkenness. It makes a great start to the long holiday period, though I get home far later than expected. I've got an early train to Tokyo tomorrow...

On the turntable: Hugh Masekela, "The African Connection"

On the nighttable: Issai Chozanshi, "The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts"

On the reel table: "My Night at Mauds" (Rohmer, 1969)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Drum Rollin' on the River

The heat of last Saturday was ideal for ice cream and boat travel. So Marcin, Hideo and I went up river in search of taiko. The sound of the drums echoing off the canyon walls was magic, punctuated by the beauty of the flute that cut though the roar, unmiked.

Marcin's write-up of this event in 2006 can be found in the second half of this post. Scroll down until you see boats.

On the turntable: Quantic, "Apricot Morning"

Monday, May 11, 2009

Road of the Hungry Ghosts (Wakasa-kaido III )

I had planned to climb Ibuki-san today, but apparently my legs didn't agree. After the 30-some kilometers of yesterday, they were like heavy cord wood in my bed. I turned off the alarm and awoke a few hours later. Needed that I suppose.

The train pulls out at the luxurious hour of 10 a.m. It runs quickly up Biwa's western waist, beneath high mountains looking majestic and boastful against the brilliant clear sky. To counter some of this bravado, a team of workers lays concrete in a crease of Hira-san's flank, for no apparent reason other than "Deru kui wa utareru." Some other protruding nails ride their motorcycles up a nearby highway. They all have jackets proclaiming themselves as the "Yellow Corn Magnum Highway Pack." Closet Simpsons fans perhaps?

I take a bus out to Kutsuki, which is where I'll walk a section of the old Saba Kaido. It's a different branch than what Miki and I hope to walk this summer. This one starts down in Ohara and finishes up in Obama. Near the bus stop are a row old homes against the ubiquitous rice fields, now flooded and cacophonous with frog. In the middle stands a home that looks like a cross between a 1760s farm house and 1960s Brady architecture; a hybrid that somehow works. A temple stands up on a hill above them. It is a quiet wooded space, upon which a Kannon statue sits and watches.

I move out of town and into the hills. I've been at it only an hour but its already lunchtime! The Loft is a welcome sight at a bend in the river. The proprietress is very friendly, though I don't get a laugh when I offer to give her a photo of my shoes to hang alongside the hundreds of pictures of customer's cars which cover all the walls. The ample shelves are filled with knick-knacks and doo-dads, over which an '80's soundtrack allows me to mine my college-age memories for annoyingly catchy tunes to hum for the rest of the day. I like this place and my good hearty lunch, which satisfies far more than the riceballs in my pack.

I climb into a lovely cedar forest, which is pollen free and filled with bird song. There is something else that I can't figure out for awhile, then get it: There's no trash strewn down the hillsides here. I do come upon a ripped up valley, the trees looking as if massacred. Angers starts to rise, until I see a sign saying that this is where local school kids come to learn some of this region's forestry legacy. I come to one hill where the temperature reads 22 degrees, then a 100 meters later it is somehow only 19. There's an 'environmental' center out here, which in Japan translates to "a place that comes up with creative ways to incinerate trash." Atop the highest pass I'm surprised to see a small crab. I drop down to a busier road, but decide to stay on the old highway that runs just above. Unused for decades, it's now strewn with moss, with trees and shrubs that overhang the trail lower and lower to eventually become a mere deertrail. When it peters out, I make my way down an embankment and find the distinctive print of a bear's foot.

I come to a small village with a particular haunted look, of kayabuki and demon masks, decaying buildings and an unkept shrine with slippery steps. Above a clean, fast river is a kiln built of cinder blocks. Still off the busy new road, I rejoin the old highway, which becomes more and more post-apocalyptic. One section hangs and crumbles into the river far below, swept clean by a recent landslide. I carefully pick my way across, near a car that has been pummeled by vandals. Another small row of buildings comes up soon. Ahead of me, I see the figure of an old bowlegged man moving along with his cane. We exchange greetings. He is against a background of rock graves overgrown with weeds that literally explode with white flowers. I'm moved by the simultaneous literal and metaphoric beauty of it. As I walk away I catch a quiet melody under his breath.

The name of the next village, Kumagawa, has already been given clarity by the bear print of an hour ago. It is a one lane film set, basically. This has to be one of the best preserved towns I've ever seen. Seriously, it belongs more to cinema than to reality. It is pure joy to walk through. The only accommodation to the calendar are the political posters that hang in front of the town hall. This being just outside Obama city limits, they show a group of politicos shaking hands under the slogan, "Yes, We Are!" I allow them to continue their search for the proper grammatical object as I thumb a ride back to where the trains are.

All aboard, I look across the lake at Ibuki-san, which has an accusing look that says, "Hey! Where were you?"

On the turntable: Jimmy Smith, "Organ Grinder Swing"
On the nighttable: Robert Twigger, "Angry White Pyjamas"
On the reel table: "Samurai Rebellion" (Kobayashi, 1967)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday papers: Richard P. Feynman

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

On the turntable: Randy Newman, "Guilty"

Friday, May 08, 2009

Mysteries without any Clues

The train takes me to a bus, the bus to some steps. I'm far out of Omi Hachiman now, the bus having let out all the school kids much earlier. I find the steps that lead up to Chomeiji, number 31 on the Kannon circuit.. They're old and weathered, and I wonder how an elderly person makes their way up here. With great faith, no doubt. It's a beautiful morning and I have the steps and the forest to myself. I'm pretty sweaty by the time I reach the top, despite it being 8:30 on an April morning. The temple too is pretty quiet, except for a couple of pilgrims chanting before the main altar. The thatch roofs on all the buildings lend a further organic touch to the scenery. I get my nokyo signed, then wander the paths up and around the boulders that dwarf the buildings standing before them. I climb up one high stone near the temple's furthest reaches and enjoy the morning sun awhile. Biwa stretches away from my feet toward the high jagged mountains marking Nara prefecture. A tourist boat slices a white wake through the Lake's still water.

Back down at the road, I hitch a ride easily, from a young Osaka couple coming back from pre-dawn fishing. I'm not sure where I'm going exactly, so ask them to drop me at 7-11 so I can look at maps. I walk toward the unmistakable shape of a temple roof. Reaching it, I quickly realize it's the wrong one. It looks abandoned, with empty milk bottles stacked at the main gate, trash strewn everywhere. At the entrance, shoes look to have been kicked off, next to a wheelchair that lays on its side. I feel I don't belong here, and move on quickly. The temple I'm looking for is a block over. The doors are closed, but the chanting wafts through, like some ghostly noh chorus. Out back I find a marker for the Chosenjin Kaido, so called because it was the main corridor along which Korean delegations made their way to Edo. My goal is to follow this road for 30 km to Hikone, with a quick detour up to Kannonshoji, temple number 32. At first following this road seems easy, as the street is paved a different color, and there are frequent signs. But just beyond a collection of preserved historic buildings, the signs disappear completely. I move along what I think is the path. A guy in wheelchair passes, shadowed by his friend on a bike. From behind high walls I hear the sound of school kids, the boys playing baseball and the girls practicing some choreographed routine. During this walk, I stop whenever I find a combini, to check maps and confirm where I am. The more obscure I get in my wanderings, the poorer the trails are marked. This path is the worst I've yet encountered. There's a sign merely every 2 or 3 km. You can't just draw a line across a map and call it a trail; you need to mark it. And my book is no help either. I spend too much time trying to read the mind of the mapmaker. I look for jizo and shrines to ensure I'm true.

An old farmer I ask points over at an adjacent road and lets me cross his field to get there. Country people always know the old roads, a far cry from the suburbanites who rarely if ever know what I'm talking about. I come across a row of these moneyed dollhouses, passing a group of young dolls getting into a pair of trendy cars. Sure enough, I'm near a station, Azuchi, which is where I'll peel off toward Kannonshoji, which must be in those mountains over there. I try to hitch. The cars just pour by. One woman comes to a near full stop, looks me over, and tears away. I'm tempted to shout, Get a Life!, but I notice that that's the make of the car she's driving. I seem to have a tough time getting rides in this prefecture, inevitably getting lifts from traveling Osakans. I begin to question the character of Shiga's people, my generalizations getting grander and grander until I'm picked up by a kind woman from just around the corner.

I move up more wild, unevenly spaced steps. This is harder going than I had thought. I stop partway up, thinking how I rarely take breaks when traveling alone. Along the way, the temple has created 33 stages, each one with its own pithy expression. Breathing hard, I arrive at the top, , to a handful of new buildings in a large open space. There had been a fire here a few years back, which explains why nothing matches my guidebook. I find a perch and watch a shinkansen roll across the plain far below, a bizarre white snake moving oddly, quickly along straight lines.

In the parking lot, I hitch a ride back to Azuchi. The outskirts of town are zigzagged by canals. Beside one is a small park marking the site of a former seminary. Black-clad Christians are having some sort of picnic. Further out are some crazy buildings, like a mosque, a church. Azuchi castle ruins are on the hill above me, with wide ruined steps like the ones at the beginning of Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress." Much later, I take a rest beside a single small jizo under some trees. Near temples, there are often clusters of jizo, dedicated to pilgrims who died within the walls. This guy is all alone out here, and I wonder who he was. I watch a waterwheel turning, then continue with my own samsara.

I pass through little towns lined with buildings hundreds of years old. Many of these lose their quaint character with their bizarre looking train stations, shaped like UFOs. One town has annoying cheerful Stepford Wives muzak piped in. This varnish can't hide the town's secrets, betrayed in the form of a tall transvestite making her way toward a train.

I leave the side roads finally and find myself on a busy highway. My map shows nothing of interest for a while, and the traffic and pachinko parlors don't thrill much. I hitch a lift, giving the weird destination of 'that big hill up ahead.' This is the genkiest driver I've ever ridden with. His techno music is an interesting diversion from the snail pace of the day. He didn't seem to want me to go, offering to take me further, further. I eventually escape and walk over to a shrine marked by a limp rope. Silence again. But someone in the next village is playing piano, and ten minutes later, I hear sexy sax music in a greenhouse. The music, and my fatigue, are welcome because I finally get that damned Bob Seger song out of my head, which has been on repeat for about three hours. Ain't it strange how the mind moves, with summer closin' in. I walk beside a field of barley, backlit with gold, softly moving in the wind with such a nice sound that I wanna nap on top of it. But I have more zigzagging to do. After an hour, I eventually come to that long highway again, up which I extend my thumb. My next destination is even more bizarre than the last: "I wanna go to the second signal beyond the big river." The driver is a nice kid who once hitched around the Phillipines. I get out to walk the last half-hour. It's a nice way to finish the day, with the sun setting over the keep of Hikone castle, then later melting into Hira-san's right shoulder. I melt with it, but wonder if today's course was really worth it...

On the turntable: Kraftwerk, "The Mix"

On the nighttable: Brad Warner, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate"

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sunday papers: Joel Weishaus

"From age one, mountains were my summer home. Now I walk forest trails and city streets with joints rubbing together as if trying to raise a youthful spark."

On the turntable: Sleepwalker, "Sleepwalker"
On the nighttable: Craig McLachlan, "Hyakumeizan"