Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Bottles

This return to the US has me staring down the barrel of the gun of aging. In Japan, no one could peg just how old I was, often guessing a decade younger. Here, I am expected to act my age. In Japan, I could constantly reinvent myself, the judgments and perceptions of the locals going no further than my identity as gaijin. Beyond that I had all the room in the world to be who I wanted to be. Now I'm back in my own cultural context, and can't escape the framework.

Yet how AM I defined here? I find myself as Neither/Nor. I'm a native New Mexican who no longer recognizes his state. I'm as much a gaijin here as I was in Japan.

I'm most puzzled how do I fit into all of this as an American. Since the national nervous breakdown year of 2001, I no longer know what that means. The America I see in the 21st Century is not the place I learned about in school (however fictitious that was). I don't remember such a high degree of fear and anger, of distrust and ingratitude. While most of the Japanese I knew tried to harmonize and blend with what was happening around them (manifested at its worst as the dreaded 'shoganai'), Americans try to dominate the space. I see it in the conversations, in the body language, in the government policy. I don't really want to be part of it.

While in Japan, I'd made a conscious attempt to be a big fish, as a yoga teacher , a writer, a musician, a martial artist. It was exhausting. Here I want a quiet and simple life. To do my job and go home. But those around me (God bless 'em) are pushing me to both succeed and exceed. Such an American thing, to fill up and overflow the container that is your life.

On the turntable: Yes, "Tales from Topographic Oceans"
On the nighttable: Stanley Crawford, "The River in Winter"

Friday, August 20, 2010

Over the Line

A decade in Japan created in me the habit of wearing shoes without laces, preferring the whole Mr. Miyagi, slip on-slip off thing. The shame about this is that I lost a creative outlet of artistic self-expression: tying a pair of worn-out shoes together by the laces and throwing them over a power line.

On the turntable: Ricardo Lemvo, "Ay Valeria!"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Izu Dancing

My work situation has finally stopped thrashing about, entitling me to some free evenings. The nightly monsoons have kept me away from the live music down on The Plaza, so films once again present themselves as alternative. After the marathon stretch of Kobayashi's "The Human Condition" (we could only handle one hour doses of this brutal, 10 hour masterpiece), we've settled in with Shimizu Hiroshi. He reminds us some of our beloved Ozu, manipulating actors as props as a means of diminishing the subjectivity of role, and creating a story that speaks to the universal in us all. If Ozu was a maker of tofu (as he famously claimed), then Shimizu is a master of okayū. He shares Ozu's slow pace of storytelling, yet utilizes camera techniques seemingly cribbed from European Surrealist films of a decade earlier. These effects weren't commonly seen in Hollywood until being 'pioneered' in Citizen Kane in 1941.

Shimizu was one of the first directors to commonly use location rather than sets. To view the dirt roads of 1930's rural Japan is to see the contemporary Laos roads over which I traveled this winter. It also shares a lot with the deep-country Shikoku pilgrimage trails I walked last autumn, minus the power lines and vending machines. Shot on a bus actually traversing the Izu countryside, "ありがとうさん” ("Mr. Thank You") features scenes of a long gone country life rolling behind the characters ,
showing it such deference that the landscape itself eventually becomes more important than the actors themselves. It is one of the earliest road movies that I can think of. As I watched it, I surprised myself in that the film reminded me somewhat of John Ford's 'Stagecoach' (filmed three years later), where archetypes are thrown together, then bound by the landscape through which they pass. But rather than solidifying that bond through the drama of an Indian attack, Shimizu's film stays true to the fact that most of our human encounters stay light and impersonal, in our sharing moments with strangers who will remain just that. His films offer glimpses of life that, while possibly thought mundane at the time of release, bask in a beauty that is both bittersweet and enchanting, made more so by their fleeting nature.

On the turntable: Drive-by Truckers, "The Big To-Do"
On the nighttable: Hammett, et al., "The Essence of Santa Fe"

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

'Round Shikoku Day 2

I'm in the process of transferring my Shikoku journals to digital, though I hope to see the final result revert back to a piece of analog technology, bound in cardboard. In the meantime, I will post occasional tidbits, about once a week, as the yoga teacher in me pounds and twist the words into proper alignment.
(As always, more recent lifestuff over at Bentos...)

The stars over Tokushima have proven to shine bright and clear. Under them I sleep better than expected, considering I'm sleeping in a small three mat room with two others. The late arriving pilgrim, a 20 year old student from Toyama, was on the couch, his legs extended up the wall, poor guy.

I get up at 6:30 and have my breakfast out in the sun. The owner of this 'office' where we slept pulls up on his fancy Italian bicycle. Like last night, he had a small watermelon in one hand, a knife in the other. I suppose I've been reading too many tales about the Taishi, because ordinary people are beginning to take on fantastic properties. It all feels like the Wizard of Oz somewhat. I dub the owner 'The Watermelon-Bearing Boddhisattva.'

It takes an hour to get to Temple 6. We pass many jizo, their faces lit by sunlight. I figure that most have been standing here long before any of these houses were. Along the way, we three pick up another walker, who'd been resting in a bus shelter. We eventually spread out along the roadside, a proper henro parade. I'm in the lead, humping my huge pack like that guy in any Vietnam War film, the one who totes the heavy M60, and who, when the firefight breaks out, merely shifts his weight to his back leg, bellowing, as the shells cartwheel around him in slo-mo. Why am I the one on point anyway, when I'm the only one who can't even read the signs well? Probably at the exact moment as I was having this thought, I accidentally stray from the walkers' trail and follow instead the one meant for cars. But I'm too busy singing Blues songs in time to the rhythm of my feet. I make up a new pilgrimage precept: Don't Play Air Guitar on the Pilgrim's Walking Staff.

We do our thing at Temple 6, then Miki and I decide to leave the others behind for the short walk over to Temple 7. We find a Kumano Shrine here, the passage between the gate and the kami being a long narrow corridor. A Hong Kong couple at Temple 7 laugh as I approach, and I later realize that I'm wearing my Bruce Lee T-shirt under my pilgrim robe.

It's another hour before we reach Temple 8. We had stopped midway for a break, gnawing on a day old sweet potato beneath the freeway. Temple Eight stands at the end of a valley, and we hear it before we ever see it. We've dropped our bags behind some stone jizo at the base of the hill, since we once again need to pass by here on our way to Temple 9. As we admire the Benten Shrine on the pond, we hear a beautiful voice chanting near the pagoda. We are saddened to find that it is a mere recording. Up at the Taishi Hall, I find an old man with the outfit of a seasoned henro, chanting powerfully and devoutly. When he finished, he seemed taken with us, offering seasoned advice and kind words. Miki had been suffering quite badly today, and he was talking about how you have to shoulder your burden and do the best you can, asking Taishi's help if needed. He was yet another character in our growing tale, the sage who shows up to deliver the exact wisdom we need at the time. I find that a trend in these people is a growing devotion to Taishi. This is considered a pilgrimage of personality, yet to follow such a person is in itself an act of great faith. When we leave our own aged sage, I notice that he is wearing a sash written with Dai Sendachi. He then gives us his fuda, the red color of one who has done the pilgrimage 50 times or more. I'm smirking and thinking of soccer, but Miki is beaming like she's clutching one of Willy Wonka's gold tickets. She tells me it is incredibly auspicious to get one at all, and we've been out here for less than 24 hours.

It is another long walk to Temple 9. The houses drop away and the fields lengthen toward a grove of tell-tale trees. Across from the main gate is a small shop selling udon noodles. Its two seats are occupied, but we are led to a bench out front. I'm happy here, feeling like an extra in a period film. We eat tarai udon, which is firm and tasty, preceded by sweet potato as settai. As we eat we encounter the smiling Dai Sendachi again, his demeanor changed from sage to grandfather, as he walks in the main gate with a couple two generations younger. We also see the two guys from our parade this morning. There are quite a few people coming and going, this still being the long Silver week of holiday. After our meal, we finally enter the temple. There is a rare Japanese reclining Buddha here, but it isn't on display today. I want to use the restroom, but the only one I see is for the handicapped. I find it locked. After waiting at least 5 minutes, I try the door again, and again, then finally ask the woman at the nokyo-jo if it is purposely locked. She says yes and asks me if I want to use it. Of course I do, and why did you choose to ignore my rattling of the door as you are sitting a mere five feet away? And why would you lock it in the first place, making it laborious for the handicapped to use at all? Is this beautifully built chamber built for their benefit, or for yours?

My mind is growing sour. All of these temples look too built up and modern, funded by our offerings as pilgrims. Entering a nokyo-jo is like entering a comfy, air-conditioned office, our paperwork deftly processed before we are whisked away. It has the feel of a stamp rally, and I'm not getting much of a spiritual vibe at all due to all the concrete, electric doors, fully automated toilets, etc. When we do feel like lingering, the crowds elbow one another, sending us screaming outside to the path once again. This is where I'm beginning to feel that spirit lies, personified in last night's caretaker, in the Watermelon Bearer, in the Dai Sendachi, and in whoever owned the shop that left some sugary sweets and barley tea out front, for us to enjoy during the long walk to temple 10 on a day growing hot.

But arriving there presented new challenges. We still hadn't seen any buses yet today, but the number of cars created the identical result, with the van drivers aggressively honking, and the drivers of the two luxury cars who had the audacity to park directly in front of the main gate. I found myself trying very hard to find acceptance at anything that arose on the pilgrimage, but I was continually amazed at what people accept as acceptable.

The 333 rough stone steps were enough to humble anyone, but the crowd here was still too big, too pushy. For the first time, we had to queue at the nokyo-jo, processed like an assembly line. These mountain temples are where we usually find the most spirit, but the numbers here stamped it out. On the way back down, I told Miki that we might find more spirit if we forego the material nokyo collecting in order to make it more pure. She asked, "Do you really want to?" I laughed as I said no.

We'd left our bags at a shop at the bottom of the hill, where we sat out back and ate ice cream. This five minute break set up a chain reaction. Thirty minutes later, as we waited for a stoplight to change, a couple waiting at the same intersection offered us a lift. Surprisingly, it was an independent taxi, which confused us a little. As the ride was offered as settai, we accepted, having agreed before the trip not to actively hitch, but to take those rides freely offered. The couple was from Sakai, and did a section of the pilgrimage each month. Today, they had started their second go-round. Another mythical figure, The Taxi Henro.

Having saved us a 7 kilometer walk, they dropped us at Kamo-no-yu Onsen, which offered free huts for walkers. I relished the bath after a couple of hot days. It was late afternoon on a holiday, so the baths were busy, mostly with rough-looking laborer types. At one point the rotemburo was filled tough men talking tough, like I'd stumbled onto a yakuza meet. After the bath, I climbed into a massage chair. It was a high tech modern type, which did everything but knead my shoulders as I'd so desperately hoped.

The onsen also had free bicycles, which we rode up to town in order to buy food for the long stretch of mountainous section tomorrow. It was a delight to ride bikes for the first time in weeks, our legs having their own holiday in tracing a pattern not used for walking. Our stomachs too had a treat in a long meal at Joyful, me downing beer and pasta in a pathetic attempt at carbo loading. Stuffed and happy, we made our way back to our shabby two-mat shack, perfect for the pair of us.

On the turntable: "Harry Nilsson, "The Point"