Friday, February 25, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 36

This will be the last post of the Shikoku series. The fuller, more fleshed out tale of the journey will hopefully be available in book form sometime in the future. Stay tuned...

I had probably the worst sleep of the entire pilgrimage. The stoically hard zen futon gave little comfort, and my aching knees and shoulders kept me awake. We rose with the bell calling the residents to zazen. To have taken part would've prevented us from leaving until well after 7. Too late for us. So we'd agreed beforehand that we'd go before the 5:15 sitting. It was stil full dark as we made our way up the road. The moon was full and bright enough to guide us without any other lighting. But I didn't think it was safe yet to enter the forest. After 30 minutes we came to a small coffee shop I'd noticed the previous day. Here we sat, with our meager breakfast, watching a cat play and waiting for light. Finally, the sun came up, once again bringing definition to the world.

We entered the trail, and minutes later, heard something very large move through the forest above us. Unmistakably, a bear. We moved quickly now, making an incredible racket, whistling and hitting our staffs on rocks and trees. Past the Taishi statue at the trail confluence, we began our descent toward Temple 80, the trail getting steeper and steeper. This would've been a rough climb, and I knew we'd chosen our route well. Before I could congratulate myself too much, I was startled by the sound of another animal, a boar this time, moving through the grass just off trail. We rushed even faster toward the valley floor. Beneath us, the low mountains of Kagawa were like gumdrops.

Midway down, we began to pass henro. Weeks ago, Monoshiri had told us that in doing this pilgrimage counterclockwise, you encounter far more people, and it was true. We passed about 8 people in less than 20 minutes. They'd all stayed in minshuku at the bottom, and this being early morning, were still clustered up in parade formation. We'd been keeping pace with our own group of a half dozen or so, and these folks were now a day behind. Some nodded hello, others stopped to ask conditions ahead, or to ask what day we were on. This latter question had begun to appear around Temple 66. We were all nearing the end, and rather than a feeling of competition, it was more like we were brothers-in-arms, encouraging one another while sharing something profound, something with obvious, yet still undetermined repercussions. Miki and I often did this amongst ourselves, wondering how far a certain henro had gotten, or noting that someone semed to be having a particularly hard time today.

Unsure of the trail, we weaved around irrigation ponds and olive groves to Temple 80. Another Kokubunji, and like the others (besides the one in Ehime), didn't have dramatice scenery or dazzling structures, but had something undefinable that resonates longer and deeper anyway. Amidst the trees and subtle beauty, we met a foreign henro couple, the first for us. She'd started from the beginning, with her boyfriend later coming over to Japan to join her. We didn't talk long, as the four of us felt that nagging internal voice that said, "Get going."

As we still moving out of the traditional order, the path was poorly marked. The actual path down from 82 dropped down the other side of the mountain. We instead moved along its foot, through the outskirts of Takamatsu, a city we'd seen begin to awake earlier from our pre-dawn aerie.

At temple 83, we ran into Confused Henro again. We dubbed him this since every time we'd seen him, he was off the path and looking around frantically for it. A man in his 70s, he'd intended to do it by bicycle. However, his bike had broken down, so he was finishing it on foot. While most walkers had been at this for a month by this point, he was still in the early learning stages of walking, which explained the pained and bewildered look on his face most of the time. He gave us a bag of 8 mikan as settai, which I believe was less a gift than a means of reducing weight carried. As this was settai, we felt obliged to accept, eating most of them on the spot in order to reduce our own burden.

From here, we followed a canal diagonally across the entire face of Takamatsu. I'm sure the city has spots of beauty, but they weren't revealed to us. The canal fed the sea, and above it all rose Yashima. It is a famous battle site of the Gempei War, and a place I'd long wanted to see, though I hadn't known of the connection with the Henro until that moment.

All day we'd been looking forward to a dirt trail, but the path up was concrete switchback all the way. The feet said, "Groan!" At the top was a large grassy park with the temple at the center. As a tourist site, they'd used the museum's proceeds to concrete absolutely everything. But again, temple's with the ugliest faces often contain the nicest personalities within. The man in the nokyo-jo chatted with us about the history. He gave us cakes as settai as we left.

The park surrounding the temple had been our intended camp spot for the night. But our early start left us with more daylight for walking, so we decided to carry on an extra hour to the base of the mountain upon which Temple 85 sat. But we had to get off this particular mountain first. The trail down was the steepest of the whole pilgrimage, and with my heavy pack, made for some rather tough going. With every step, I felt like someone was pushing me from behind.

Along the final stretch were plenty of jizo. I felt especially bad for those who died after coming so far. Most pitiful of all were those who'd died at the many stones marking significant places in the Yashima battle. The majority were for warriors who'd fallen there. I could picture a henro reclining in the shade of one of these for a little rest, then never getting up, joined eternally with history.

We pitched our tent at dusk, in a bicycle shed next to the cable car station. It was a good spot, offering good protection against the cold, and near the toilets. From this height, we could see the river below, with Yashima looking like Diamond Head on the other side, all backlit by the lights of Takamatsu. After setting up, we walked back down aways to an Udon restaurant. To Miki's chagrin, it was a chain shop rather than the mom and pop Sanuki place that she'd longed for. We stayed here for a couple of hours, keeping warm and trying to catch up on our journals, which seemed to be perpetually 4 days behind. Back at camp to settle into what would become a good solid sleep, on this, our last night spent in the tent.

On the turntable: Tomita, "Music for Living Sound"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 34

We'd wanted to stay in a shukubō once during the Henro but preferably one on a mountain. Last night we discovered that most have closed, and the rest only offer rooms to groups. This final piece of information clinches it for me: this whole thing has deteriorated to the pursuit of money. My experiences here have led me to see a pattern in the way religion is going in this country--priced and packaged for tourist consumption. But maybe I'm simply a skeptic about religion in general.

Yet Temple 71 was the type of place to renew my faith. These mountain temples built in and around forbidding rock formations and cliffs. The stairs alone were enought to drive away those without strong intent; it is nice to see the car henro work for a change. One of them was a 91 year old pilgrim who had made it to the top on rickety legs and a cane. He stubbornly refused help from anyone. That for me defines true shugyo.

Those willing to make the effort were rewarded with statues and altars built into the caves, lit with candles, which caused their features to flicker from fierce to loving. This, like Muroto, was the place where the dead return to linger amongst the living. And my own dead returned to me in a powerful way. After we dropped back down between lakes and bamboo groves, we stopped for a break. I held a mikan in my hand and started to think about how few fruits and veggies I ate prior to coming to Japan. This led me to think about my vegetarian days, and I couldn't remember when I had started to eat everything again. Was it during those days after Ken's death? I suddenly had powerful memories of evenings in my dark kitchen, cooking for two people instead of three, as I always had. The sobs suddenly came, and I found myself crying in a way that I hadn't in years. I kept it up for a good 20 minutes, walking down the road, with tears coming down.

Temple 72, a quiet spot of peace, helped calm me. Temple 73 had the opposite effect. A famous site on the pilgrimage, its small confines were packed with about 200 people. There was also a photo exhibition in one of the halls, including a picture of the Dancer Henro we'd met a month ago at Temple 18. We moved away, back down to Temple 72 where we'd left our bags. We searched the shaded grounds for the famous pine but found that it, like most of the other trees associated with the pilgrimage, had died a number of years ago. As we left, a woman sat on a bench wiggling her achy feet. Just beyond the gate, a couple in a car kindly slowed to let us pass on the narrow path, but a moment later, a priest came roaring past in his luxury car without a care.

At Temple 74 we had a surprise in Miki's brother and his wife. As today was a national holiday, they decided to spend the day walking with us. This particular temple wasn't much to speak of, the grounds hardly distinguishable from the parking lot that surrounded it. The hill that backed it, where the child Taishi had spent so much of his time, was being carried away piecemeal by those who put profit before prophet. Nearby, we found a grassy spot beside a school and had lunch. Miki sister-in-law made rice balls and baked yam. The latter were wrapped in newspaper, and unwrapping one, I was surprised to see that Patrick Swayze had died.

Near temple 75 was an old shop selling katapan, something I'd never heard of before. It was as if, 200 years ago, somebody had accidentally overcooked a batch, and decided to market it. The lines out front attested to its popularity. Also popular was the temple itself. This, the childhood home of Taishi, was probably the most important temple on the whole pilgrimage, its structures and grounds reflecting this. But we hadn't known that this was the day of their annual festival. I first thought this auspicious, but quickly changed my mind due to the crowd and to the circus atmosphere. While it was interesting to see people other than henro at a temple, the hundreds of people here was s bit much. Plus the flea market took it even further, and the karaoke competition pushed it over the edge. The caterwauling from behind us caused Miki and I to have a tough time keeping our chanting in sync. (I think that this was a message from Taishi that I use my aforementioned gift of cynicism to write on how ridiculously commercial it has all become.) We put on a game face for the sake of Miki's brother and his wife, but they sensed our discomfort and encouraged us to move on. Before doing so, we said goodbye to a couple of henro who'd been keeping pace with, one we called the No no no Henro, for what he'd said when I accidentally started to walk off with his staff at Temple 66. The other we called Smoking Henro, for obvious reasons.

We said our goodbyes to Miki's brother at Temple 76, beneath the temple's old and unusual bell tower. Miki and I moved away as a couple again to Temple 77, through rice fields and past a couple of lovely shrines.
Shorinji Hombu was on a hillside to my left, a familiar icon from previous visits back when I'd studied the art. Temple 77 itself was much more modest. Rice covered the walkways. The woman in the nokyo office let us camp in a shed behind the Taishi-do, plus gave us a bag of bread for breakfast. As always, when we are most jaded by the pilgrimage, someone does something to restore our faith. Out of courtesy, we waited for the nokyo-jo to close before putting up the tent. The sunset was turning the buildings a darker brown, stretching the shadows of some girls playing catch between them.

We escaped the cold in a nearby Joyfull, remembering that the Fleet Foot Henro had spent the night in one, to be told off by a waitress for sleeping. Back at the temple, I was overcome by the silhouettes of the buildings in the dark, by their dignity. Later too, stepping out of the tent for a midnight pee, they, backlit by the full moon above, made me linger a long while...

On the turntable: Miles Davis, "The Complete Miles Davis at Montreaux"
On the nighttable: Joe Ambrose, "Chelsea Hotel Manhattan"

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Poetry Ed Ted

Recently, I applied for the position of poetry editor for the famed Mountain Gazette, a position that, alas, I didn't get. The application called for a creatively written essay stating why you were suited for the position. Here is mine, hyperbole intact...

When I saw the guidelines for applying for the Poetry Editor position, my first reaction was that it is set up in a similar way to the “Cool Things I Have Done” series that continues to play out in the letters section every issue. We Americans, especially those of us in the West sure love our bragging and boasting. How then to approach it the context of a job app?

My first instinct is to follow the example of the samurai from my adopted home of 15 years, yelling out his breeding and heroic exploits to his enemy before galloping headlong to engage them. This approach only goes so far, and is a sure to get an arrow in the chest from those lesser cultured Mongolian hordes.

A more American approach perhaps? Taking a cue from the hip-hip generation and simultaneously dissing my rivals while boasting of the skills of my Samuel Johnson, all done in rhyme? This is a little closer to the spirit of poetry I guess, but isn’t quite me.

Why not step away from poetry entirely for a moment, and simply let the narrative flow, as if told to friends over beers?

Let it start in New Mexico, where I grew up, in a small town south of Albuquerque. We weren’t a mountain town per se, but the mountains weren’t too far off, with the La Drones out west and the Manzanos just to the east. We’d often do the short drive to the latter, though more often it was not so much for the wild we’d find but for the wild we’d create.

The mountains would intersect with writing for the first time in Tucson, where I did a degree in Creative Writing. On weekdays we’d craft the words inspired by our weekend muse of Mt. Lemmon, Sabino Canyon, or those other nameless desert washes lined with crosses marking those who’d been swept away by the flash floods of summer. During my senior year the outdoors trumped the indoors entirely, me being less taken with Dead European males and more with the writing of Lopez and Abbey, McCarthy and McGuane, Kerouac and Snyder.

In fact it was The Beats who informed my next phase, as an aspiring young poet who most found inspiration in actual physical landscapes bearing strong resemblance to those literary ones in which he’d spent so much time getting lost. Long afternoons spent up at Sandia Crest, and later in the Santa Ynez above Santa Barbara, always with a book in a pocket and dreams in my head.

By then, The Beats had really marked the path. Heavily inspired by Snyder and Nanao Sakaki, Japan became the obvious next step. My final American summer was spent in the company of urban poets at Naropa. When not discussing the work of Kerouac, I was talking about the man himself over pizza lunches with Ginsberg, or out searching for his muse in the Flatirons of Boulder.

The next twelve years were spent in the shadow of Mt Daisen, the highest peak in western Japan. It was here that I first encountered “Mountain Gazette,” in the form of “Go Higher.” The words contained within were a pleasant return to Western landscapes vastly different from the low Asian hills that I climbed and skied on weekends. Rural Japan was a pleasant place to live, within biking distance of the beach and a half hour drive to the lifts. The small community there was similarly nourishing. We few foreigners were close and well traveled, the drudgery of our teaching jobs funding frequent trips into Asia. My own boots bear the dust of the Bhutanese Himalaya, the Taoist Peaks of China, the Shamanistic Mountains of Korea; their soles caked with the mud of jungles that stretch from Okinawa to Sri Lanka.

I moved next to an urban setting, at a million-five the biggest I’d ever lived in, yet one still ringed by hills. I moved into a small house ‘in the hills back of Northern-White-Water' ala “Dharma Bums.” This Kyoto was a tough fit, and in hindsight I realize that I spent most of my time in the mountains outside the city. A new partner shared my joy of walking the old roads that connect the villages and temples out there. Over my three years in Kyoto, I figure I walked the majority of the remaining sections of these lines stamped into being by pilgrims, merchants, and samurai. (One road in particular inspired the creation of the first English guide to tramping its western portion:

Kyoto is the place that I cut my teeth as a writer. The ramblings of feet and mind were documented in “Notes From the ‘Nog,” (, and by the time I left the city in the summer of 2009, I’d begun to make a decent living as a translator and writer whose work appeared frequently in ‘Kansai Time Out,’ ‘Deep Kyoto,’ ‘Hailstones Haiku,’ and most of all in ‘Kyoto Journal’ for whom I’d also served as PR director and am currently a Contributing Editor.

Before leaving Japan, a couple big walks remained. Over 10 weeks, my wife and I walked the entire Kumano Kodo and Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimages, sleeping out on most nights. I watched the passing of winter from Southeast Asia, before returning to my native New Mexico after 20 years away.

I landed in a small Zen center in Santa Fe, finding it the perfect halfway house, blending Japanese and New Mexican culture and design. After being released again into the wild, I found a small casita north of town, living not so much off the grid as beside it. From the window behind my desk, I can see the peaks of the Jemez. Here I continue to shape words, when not selling backpacks at the REI over in town. (A disclaimer: despite working for a big chain [though one with excellent business and environmental practices] I choose to spend my paycheck locally.)

On those walks during my latter years in Japan, I gradually became a student of wild culture, tempered somewhat by the deep-ecology of Snyder (obviously) but more so by the human culture that arises from its mythology, ala Joseph Campbell. It was an obvious next step, what with my being so at home both alone in the wild, as well as in beer and music-fuelled comraderie. I love it that Mountain Gazette covers both.

As summer moved into autumn, I read nearly every book on New Mexico that the library has, trying to better acquaint myself with my new/old home. I pored over writing that, while interesting, is as dry as the land itself. Which brought the thought: “I need more poetry in my life.” It was exactly then that I saw that you’re looking for an editor of poetry.

You’re up to speed now, and it looks like my round. Over the next beer, I hope to hear your story.

As for mine, references are of course available on request.

On the nighttable: Suzuki Bokushi, "Snow Country Tales"
On the nighttable: They Might Be Giants, "Lincoln"

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

'Round Shikoku Day 29

I awoke in a pissy mood for some reason. This wasn’t helped when, stepping down from ringing Temple 57’s bell, I was nearly run down by a car henro who insisted on pulling right up to the nokyo-jo, rather than park in the designated lot just below.

The climb up to Temple 58 helped to improve my mood, walking through the trees on a clear morning. We found a small gazebo beside a pond where we could stash our bags, grateful not to have to lug them the last 500m up a narrow flight of stairs. It was quite atmospheric, with a few old buildings around a shady courtyard. The Hondo itself was gorgeous, with a curved multi-level roof. Beside it, just out of view, was a massive box that looked like a 70’s film conception of a futuristic house, all right angles with obligatory glassed-in room hanging over into space. There was a sign nearby with a picture of the same structure, along with some pithy expression about living the spiritual life. I agreed with them all, but still found it a justification for spending temple donations on someone’s personal folly. The monk in the nokyo-jo was friendly, and addressed me in English. Beside him was a poster announcing temple events—children’s karate classes, Buddhist symposiums. This place seems closely connected to its danka and looks like it has an eye on the future indeed.

I was looking forward to the next temple, Kokubunji, since the previous two had been among my favorites. I was let down by the squat concrete structure in the treeless gravel yard. When I made a joke to the nokyo woman, she looked as if I just slapped her. The bus henro arriving at that point chose to ignore my greeting, and my mood slid downhill yet again. Not even the sight of a shop selling a puzzling combo of bagels and handmade guitars could resuscitate it.

The rest of the afternoon was through a landscape of blurry features, the same scenes of narrow streets with cars driving too fast. Schoolkids biking home greeted me not with the usual, “Harro!,” that foreigners are so accustomed to, but with the puzzling, “Goodbye!” as if they wanted me the hell out of town. The Henro path followed the expressway over a series of hills that served no apparent purpose but to get that extra little bit of concrete onto the ground.

The scenery at sunset did inspire, of high mountains fading away for the day. One of these was the mysterious Ishizuchi, and another hid the next temple, #60. We arrived at Ikiki Jizo, which supposedly had Tsuyado. I got there first and rang the bell. I asked the priest about it, and he merely crossed his arms and said ‘No!” in English. I followed up with a couple of questions about alternatives, but he continued with the crossed arm gesture, continued with the ‘No.” I finally said, “Look, I’m talking to you in Japanese, please speak Japanese.” And he did, saying nothing more than “Nai,” without any trace of explanations or politeness. I finally lost my temper, shooting him an incredibly angry look and a “Thanks for your indelible kindness.” Miki came up just then, trying in her usual calm, mild way. Though his language softened, his stubborn resolve didn’t. I went away furious. The animosity and hostility I’d sensed in the locals had been put directly out there by this man, a priest in charge of one of the temples associated with the pilgrimage. For weeks I’d been chewing on the idea of the Henro being dead, and this man had blood on his hands.

It turned out to be for the best. Well after dark, we eventually found lodging between Temple 63 and 63, to which we’d hitch. They’d mind our bags as we went over the mountain to temple 60, which we’d then pick up the next day. The universe certainly is interesting in the way it spins. It took only a few minutes to get a lift with a man who raced motorcycles for a living. In courting death, he’d gotten an association with it. Before races, he claimed he could tell which rider would die by the look on his face. He also told a story about his trip up Ishizuchi. He’d met three figures in white, and assuming they were henro, took a photo with them. Later, the only thing he saw in the photo besides himself was three glowing orbs. A shaman later told him that it was the god of the mountain.

I was interested in hearing more, but we soon arrived at our inn. They were full, but we were given a small apartment over a butcher’s shop just around the corner. Certainly ironic, considering the traditional Henro prohibition against meat. I went to bed still smarting over my encounter with the priest. It was a shame to both start and end a day in a foul mood. Besides which, this was probably the most exhausted I’d felt on any given day. Sleep came easily…

On the turntable: Dead Can Dance, Memento"
On the nighttable: Gary Snyder and Tom Killion, "The High Sierra of California"