Thursday, January 27, 2011


Could it really have been 8 years since I've last skied? The last time I remember is up at Daisen, on a crowded Saturday where I achieved legendary status in coercing homebound skiers to give their lift tickets to myself and 7 friends. The following winter was spent traveling around the States, and the one that followed I spent in Europe. My last winter living under the shadow of Daisen, I was newly enamored with someone, and so focused more on indoor activities. Living later in Kyoto, my skis went into storage under my house, until pulled out dusty, and given to a snowboarder friend when I left the country.

My current employment situation offers me a chance at some cheap, yet high quality gear, as well as a nice break on lift tickets. So it was that I headed up to Pajarito last Friday as a sort of gear test. This ski area, at the edge of the Jemez and above Los Alamos, is only open three days a week. Choosing a Friday made the best sense, and I doubt that I saw twenty other people on the mountain. I also didn't see my new boots, which I'd left in the back of my truck down in Santa Fe. Rentals would have to do. I didn't want to make my friend Derek wait for me, so we made plans to meet in an hour, after I'd had a chance to break in my new skis down on the bunny slopes. A few minutes after he left, keys in pocket, I realized I'd left my goggles in his car.

Not that I needed them. The day wasn't too bright, despite the sun being warm and strong. Many people are bemoaning the lack of snow in northern New Mexico this year, but these 40 degree days offer a pleasant day. Besides my goggles, I didn't need a hat either, and after a few runs, I regretted the sweater. The snow itself wasn't much, long tracks of icy snow with grass and rocks poking through. These offered some fun obstacles to slalom, but the ice and a poor boot fit made right turns difficult. There was a lot of play in my right heel, and I often had to lift my leg from the hip to make a turn. The first hour on these beginner slopes was accompanied by an avant-garde soundtrack, like an LP at the edge of its grooves, as my new boards scraped over ice. And it was tough going at first, the missing gear made it more of a body test than anything. Legs, shoulders, and hips took some time in finding their old rhythm.

I eventually met up with Derek and we took the lift to the top of the mountain. The view from the lift was of all the northern part of the state, with perhaps a bit of Colorado thrown in. The foreboding peaks of Truchas looked less so with their jagged tops covered in white. Everything below was all brown, but for Black Mesa squatting proud in the center of it all. The view mesmerized me with each ride, one time so much so that I forgot to get off the lift, finally jumping off from about three feet up, narrowly missing an orange cone enema. My pride took a hit, but it was my only fall of the day. Conditions were better up here, and finally I could get a decent ride. With each subsequent descent, my muscle memory began to kick in more and more. For the final few runs, I felt in control. There was a bit of powder, a borealis of snow visible from the corner of the eye. But the rocks up here were bigger and less avoidable as I clack-clacked out a morse-code all the way down. Derek was a delight to watch on his telemark skis, the lift of heel and bend of knee like some graceful crane with its weight balanced atop a narrow support. I'd like to graduate to telemarks in a few years.

As we neared the end of the day, a soft white glow appeared just over the top of the ridge. The shadows maintained their timeshare control of the hill, and the hat finally came out. Though we'd skied less than three hours, Derek and I were both happy. Not only had the body remembered its chops, but my soul was reminded of how I love this sport. It won't be long before I return to the top of the mountain, if these springlike days of January allow it.

On the turntable: Mark Knoplfer and Emmylou Harris, "All the Roadrunning"
On the nighttable: Gary Snyder and Tom Killion, "Tamalpais Walking"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 24

In the morning, I saw my breath for the first time this autumn. We moved along a road paralleling Rte 56. A handicapped man in a yellow cap was leading a group of kids to school, like a biped schoolbus. We met up with an older henro who matched our pace awhile. He was a nice guy, and we made small talk until Miki and I stopped for coffee. From here, we went up and over a small pass, then moved through farmland until arriving at Uchiko. There was an old kabuki-jo here, big and strutting its muscles against the smaller buildings in town. These too were impressive, a couple parallel streets of old shops and trad ambiance. Just outside town was a farmers market in the woods beside a fast river. We took a long rest here, eating bread straight from the oven, warming our bellies as we headed into higher altitudes.

We followed a lovely river for the rest of the day. The road out of town must be well traveled by school kids on bikes, for there were signs placed at random intervals, explaining the finer points of a safe commute. Burma Shave for the shortpants set. Each village had stands selling the persimmons that grew everywhere. At midday we came to a small village beside the river that had many henro amenities, with plentiful toilets and rest huts. Miki stretched out in one and pulled out her bento that she’d bought down in Uchiko. I hadn’t been too satisfied by the selection there, so set off to try my luck here. Entering a small sake shop, a woman told me she’d make me some coffee and asked me to sit. When she returned a few minutes later, she was carrying a tray with an entire lunch laid out. Settai. As I ate, we talked about the pilgrimage. She’d done it by bus years ago, and thought that walkers were ‘erai,’ (A word often applied to walkers and loosely translated as ‘remarkable’). She told me that the character of the Henro had changed, and not for the better. Most young henro did it for sport. She said that in the old days there had been more settai given, but that it is fast disappearing. As a result, the pilgrimage was dying. I told that the most amazing walkers were those folks in their retirement years. All the boundless energy that was responsible for the period of tremendous economic growth between the Olympics and the Bubble Years has to be channeled somehow, and many were channeling it through their feet. She also asked me what I thought of Ehime people. I tried to be diplomatic, and said that I noticed a bigger difference from village to village, some friendly, others cold. I didn’t want to tell her that I found Ehime people less than sparkly, but Ehime’s henro path had taken me closer to the center of big cities than in Tokushima or Kochi, and that could be a factor.

In the afternoon, the valley narrowed, as did the road we walked. Had this been a forest path, clinging to the river, it could’ve been beautiful. Paved, it was tough going, choking on exhaust from the trucks that passed frighteningly close. Even the weather was conspiratory. After all these lovely autumn afternoons, the humidity was up and we were suddenly returned to August. As we knew that today would be a short day, plus that we only had two more days walking before our break, there was a certain lack of inspiration today, senioritis.

Along the way we were overtaken by an old henro on a bicycle who was unmistakably homeless. It turned out that he’d be staying in the same Taishi-do as us. We’d heard from HayaAshi Henro that a homeless guy was living there and thought we’d take our chances. We walked with heavy hearts, worried about our stuff and worried about a loss of privacy on a day when we’d deliberately finish early and wanted to simply chill out. For the next hour, the social stigma against homeless was at work in me, and I wasn’t very comfortable with it.

In the next village we met another funky character. A crooked little man was leaning against a bridge railing beside his wheelchair, fishing. He yelled to me something and held up two fingers, the digits turned toward me in a way that would provoke most Brits. It turned out he was telling me that there were two paths toward the mountains and to Temples 44 and 45. We took the right fork and a minute later, yet another character turned up, stopping beside me in his car. He said something in a difficult dialect, something about ‘fast’ and pointed to his left. I thought at first that he was telling me the other way was quicker (despite the higher pass), but it turned out he was offering a ride up to #44, saying he’d get us there in an hour, and to #45 a half hour after that. Miki and I talked it over briefly, then she gently refused the settai, saying that his offer resonated in her heart, but that we needed to walk. He looked a little sad as he drove off, which brought our spirits even lower. Minutes later I got my first look at the peaks we’d be going over the following day, and my back began to ache in anticipation.

We finally got to Oda. Just outside town, we passed a man wearing a wetsuit for some reason. There seemed to insects everywhere. Praying mantises strolled the road with a certain poise, and if by contrast, the frenzied grasshoppers smacked their heads against something with every leap. Some farmers were finishing the rice harvest in this, the middle of October.

We arrived at the Taishi-do and saw a familiar bicycle leaning against the front. Entering, we saw that besides the usual small tatamied area before the altar, there was a second room behind. Here we found the bicycle henro and another, even older man who looked like he hadn’t moved in years. They were barely visible through all the cigarette smoke. I said that since we didn’t smoke we’d sleep in the front room and grabbed a handful of grubby looking futons. Despite our earlier trepidation, they were both very nice men, and completely respectful of our privacy. The only thing that made me nervous was when they asked our dinner plans. I had visions of them rifling through our bags while we were gone. But later, we had another clue. Beside the altar was a hand-written sign asking anyone who stayed to leave some food as settai. This sign MAY have been made by the resident henro here, as a means of soliciting food. Their question may simply have been a fishing for us to bring something back for them. We quickly said goodbye, leaving the two of them to watch TV and smoke cigarettes, much like a good percentage of residents of this country.

As we had futons, plus lodging booked for the next two nights, we decided to mail our camp gear to Miki’s Mom, in order to lighten the load for the mountains. Later, I stopped in a shop to buy a snack, and ended up getting it for settai, my second of the day. I passed the rest of the day reading on the front steeps of the temple, until the cold at this high altitude drove me inside. Udon at a nearby restaurant helped with the chill, but it didn’t last. Thin futons laid beside torn shoji made for a very cold night. At least there was no wind. I can’t imagine being in a typhoon here.

On the turntable: "Echo and the Bunnymen, "Echo and the Bunnymen"
On the nighttable: Chungliang Al Huang, Quantum Soup"

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Coming Home in Winter

A light atop the mountain guides my eye to the ski area.
The thought of people wintering up there
takes me back to an ancient bus
sitting halfway up the slope of Daisen,
where old men sit drinking tea to keep warm
as they wait to put chains on the tires of the city buses
that bring tourists up to the lifts.

Celestial light too,
bathes blue the path through the trees up to my home.
I remember how a woman told me
of bears awakening from their slumber
by the unseasonable warmth.

I begin to whistle as I ascend the steps.

On the turntable: The Byrds, "Untitled"

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 20

At dawn, I walked down to the old-timey kissaten where I’d eaten yesterday. It was just after 6, with a few surfers eyeing the water, and a young henro heading north. The waves were much calmer, and the water under the bridge where we got caught is a meter lower. It looked to be a fine day.

Back in Shimonokae, we pick up our bags at Anshuku. Next door at the combini, we found the son behind the counter. He was in employee-robot mode and pretended not to know us.

We spent the entire day following the Shimonokae River up and over the mountains. It was a narrow track, wide enough for a single car. The trees overhung the trail. It had grown overcast by now and the shade was chilly. But it was the first time since beginning the walk, (well over than a month now) that I hadn’t been wet, either with sweat or rain. We ran into the old couple we met on the runny mountainside path down the peninsula. They are on day 45 of their 7th walking henro. (Amazed they are still together considering how often Miki and I have bickered on this, our first.) They have also done it another 60 times by car. They were very friendly and spiritually driven, talking a lot about Taishi. And they were quick. Miki and I stopped an hour later to have a snack before a shrine when they came strolling up.

Faster still was a young girl who passed us. We stayed the same pace awhile and chat, but she seemed to prefer her own company and moves on. Her speed was the greatest I’d seen in any henro, moving deliberately like she’s late for a meeting. We caught up with her again in Mihara Village, where we all ate on the grass before a shrine. Off her feet, she was friendly and warm, but didn’t offer much about herself. She eventually moved on and we don’t see her again.

Mihara is a cute town with friendly people and a few funky cafes and inns. It, like a lot of Kochi, is a place I’d like to linger, but not on this trip. Despite the rain, this had become one of my favorite prefectures. The people have long been thought to be hard and cold, but overall I found them friendly and open. For example, as we were heading out of Mihara, an old man drove up and handed me a ‘settai bag’ of various fruit and snacks, a bag that he’d obviously prepared at home. I can imagine him leaving a few of these bags in his car daily, handing them over every time he spots a figure in white. After handing me mine, he drove up and handed one to Miki. Then he drove on to hand yet another to a third henro walking a couple hundred meters ahead of her. I wonder how often this kind old farmer does this, handing out his goodies like Halloween.

The road out of town led to a park built in the shadow of a great dam. Along the way, we passed still another henro, lying prone in the dirt behind a truck painted up like BJ McCabe’s. Half the time you see a henro at rest, he’ll be sprawled across whatever it is that’s supporting his tired body. After the dam was a long tunnel. Midway through I felt a strange shift in balance, and when exiting the opposite end, noticed that I was on a decline of nearly 45 degrees.. This odd loss of equilibrium is something I’d never have noticed in a car. This steep descent continued for a good half hour until leveling out on the valley floor. We’d apparently been climbing all day onto the high plateau of Mihara, though I hadn’t been aware of it, until looking at a topo map later.

We stopped at a supermarket for our dinner. When we came out, the other two henro had caught up, and we all moved on in yet another henro parade, under the watchful eyes of cows, and beneath the vines of wild squash dangling themselves over porous concrete embankments. The parade continued right up to the gates of Temple 39. For the last couple hundred meters or so, we’d all chosen to take different paths through the rice fields, following directions known only to us. It was like a game show, with the winner being the exhausted henro last seen lying behind the truck.

There was supposed to be a tsuyado here but it was closed due to some event. As we were asking for a place to put up our tent, Tired Henro overheard and said he’d ask at his inn. The owner was a friendly guy who offered us a room without food for 1000 yen. We of course accepted. After a long hot bath, the two of us lounged in our room, which could’ve slept 20. A karaoke machine stood in one corner., untouched by us Instead, I went in search of beer for both myself and Tired Henro. In the dining room I found him eating with Gentleman Henro, who insisted Miki and I join them. It was interesting evening, the talk being about the pilgrimage of course, a conversation that alternated between heavy and light. Tired Henro was a pretty philosophical guy, whose inner process was going through a pretty tough workout. Gentleman Henro was adept at keeping the talk from growing too serious, but he did allow himself to talk about his walk down the peninsula during the typhoon. He found himself thinking about the kanji for the Heart Sutra, chock full of “mu’s’ and” ku’s.” “Ku” can mean both emptiness as well as sky, and Kukai supposedly took his name while meditating in the Murodo cave, his seat giving view to sea and sky. But during the typhoon, the horizon line had disappeared, the sea and the sky growing indistinct, without separation. Life too is like this, differences being created only by human judgment. A profound experience he had and I felt myself a little envious by it…

On the turntable: "Buddha Bar Krishna Beats"
On the nighttable: Christopher Robbins, "Air America"

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Feliz Akemashite!

Wishing a prosperous and rewarding New Year to friends East,

And West.