Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Heading east on Imadegawa, I look up at the Higashiyama hills and think, "Okuribi is coming soon.  Daimonji sure can use a shave. "

Later in the day, heading east on Oike, I see that a group of someones have already accomplished the task.  The hill is now bald, with the slight bluish hue of a monk newly shorn, ready to take on his austerities. 

An hour further on, I've dropped the car with Miki down at Shichijo, and I'm walking upriver home.  Another hot day, so I cool myself with a scone and iced coffee at efish cafe.  Sitting beside the window with Ivan Morris' translation of Sarashina Nikki.  (To my mind, history exists in shadow, and the reading of it creates a cooling effect.)  I look down from time to time at the water moving steady and low.  Yet on one occasion I look up, to see smoke rising gently from the mountain, rising from the dried locks of the previous year. 

On the turntable:  Traffic,  "Welcome to the Canteen"
On the nighttable:  Lady Sarashina, "As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams"

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Paper: Anonymous

"Talk does not cook the rice."

--Old Zen Saying

On the turntable:  Muddy Waters, "Folk Singer"

Friday, July 27, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #36

Even Nagano's mountains
Hold 34 degrees. 
Twenty km over hot roads.

On the turntable:  Morrissey, "Viva Hate" 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #35

Above the frenzied white water,
And a riot of birdsong, 
Kamoshika lopes on by.

On the turntable:  Utopia,  "Adventures in Utopia"

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #34

Wisps of cloud
Hang between branches. 
Cobwebs in rain.

On the turntable:  REM, "Reckoning"


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday papers: Dion Workman

"To refuse a gift is to proclaim that we do not want to be in relationship with the giver."

On the turntable:  World Party, "Dumbing Up"

Friday, July 20, 2012

Taking the High Road

Ikoma's shape is easy to admire from afar.  It rises out on the plain that separates Osaka from Nara.  The low rise of hills rolls south, pointing toward the higher peaks of Katsuragi and Nijo.  Like those latter peaks, Ikoma too was a spiritual center from long ago.  With the trains came the tourists, and later still the maidens of the red-light districts in the towns below.  

We saw more of the former I suppose, a testament to the hiking boom of the last few years.  The mountain's trails weren't necessarily crowded, and brought to mind the numbers seen more often on a weekend day of a few years back.  The numbers are far greater today, Wes assured me.

We'd started our walk from the northern edge of hills intending to walk along the ridge for the better part of the day.  Trains are never fun on an early weekday morning, but at least we weren't heading to an overchilled office.  Cool biz was very much in effect, the legions of men descending the stairs in their white shirts looking like the quick moving water spilling over falls and over black rocks.  In their midst, a group of boys in their school uniforms seemed headed to the back nine. We left them in the bus queue of other students as our own bus pulled away.  

Like many walks down that way, ours started on a busy road.  After about ten minutes we found the first of the parks.  This particular trail, the Ikoma Nature Trail  (生駒縦走)  serves to intersect the many parks up on the ridges of Ikoma.  Most of the parks remained unseen, but the trail took us through the heart of this first one, past the parking lots, vending machines, and toilets that were the habitat of some weird, stick-like insects.  The trail then stayed in the forest, around a few ponds and across a dam.  We descended through a riot of mosquitos, to the farm of a poultry lover, his pens filled with edible birds of various sizes.  We met a highway here, and crossing it, found a quartet of men setting a trap.  When we asked them what they were after, one old-timer mischievously said in English, "Rascal."  I followed with my own joke, asking if they made good eating, which caused all four of the men to turn and look at me simultanously in a chorus of "eeeeh!"   There was another trap not far away, and closer inspection revealed the two 'araiguma' they'd said they'd caught.  Translated directly as "red-bear," we were surprised to find ourselves looking at a pair of American style raccoons.   We wondered if they'd once been somebody's pets, for they seemed unafraid and almost affectionate, as they pressed noses and paws through the cage toward us.  But the gestures of the old man cured us of this notion, as his curled fingers made like the gnashing of fangs.

Wes and continued on through the growing heat, to a soundtrack of baseball players warming-up somewhere beyond the trees.  Along the way was "Ueda Constructions" (sic), whose company logo was painted in a style more often seen on a '60s bungalow of some So.Cal beach town.  The trail finally brought us away from civilization, past a husband-wife farmer team resting in the shade near a surprisingly waterless lotus paddy.  We skirted a golf course through a tunnel of bear-grass, which opened again at a massive stone marked as the god of the Dragon King.  Previously trips to Ikoma have revealed multiple variations of reptilian gods, including those white serpents up on Shigisan.  But despite the hundreds of frogs jumping absolutely everywhere, we didn't see a single snake all day. 

We were climbing some now, so stopped for elevenses at a picnic table in the shade.  We were joined briefly by a cheerful couple who'd just returned from a visit to the States, with obligatory Vegas trip and Grand Canyon helicopter tour.  They stayed close by as we made our way higher, but left us to continue to the top of Ikoma itself.  We kept to the ridge trail, which led us through a park rife with Hibiscus in full bloom.  After dropping down a very warm hillside, we ascended again slightly to a temple that serves as the perfect lunch spot.  Under the shade of rafters, we dined, the scent of green chile in Wes's burrito serving as the madeline to my Proust, prompting me to launch into a long monologue about where I come from.  Wes in turn spun his own like tale.  It was a peaceful place.  I could have happily sat there all day, but the noise of a power weeder started up, prompting us on.

We arrived at a hilltop park just below Ikoma's peak proper.  A dozen or so people were here in post lunch repose, including one guy completely zonked out despite the hot sun.  Wes and I sat atop a rock overlooking Osaka and deciphered landmarks. It was a bit hazy down there in the true heat, but the views were pretty good.  We stopped briefly in a resthouse to buy a cold drink from a surly guy in a bad uniform.  I thought that I'd left him behind, but seemed to be carrying him still, as the encounter prompted a new theory that similar jobs in the States are (generally speaking) usually held by people with a love for the outdoors.  In Japan, many seem to be mere bureaucrats.  Wes told me a few stories about troubles he's had with mountain hut staff up the Alps, a couple in times of bad and dangerous weather.  These instances, and my own, reaffirm another theory I have about attitudes and behaviors following age lines.  The youngest and greenest staff seem paralyzed by rules and aren't able to go beyond them.  The middle-aged are worse, in their mid-level positions and jaded attitudes.  They're more able to think for themselves, yet often chose not to be of assistance in extreme circumstances.  It is old-timers that are the most flexible, humanity reasserting itself over time.   

Our own weather was getting extreme, with the heat rising dramatically as we paralleled the ridgetop skyline road.  We rested in the shade of a lookout, where I cleverly dumped out about a quarter of my remaining water.  The lookout had a set of unsupported stairs that extended diagonally out over the parking lot like a diving board.  I ignored the tingling in the perineum to enjoy the view of Osaka emerging from the haze.  I raised my camera and all lined up for a pic: the city, the bridges of Awaji, the mountains beyond Rokko.   A couple drove up at some point, on an obvious early date, and laughed at the padlocks clasped onto a pair of metal rings placed here by other couples in a significant affirmation of a relationship far further down the line.

We followed the ridgeline, the heat slowing us some.  A few large mushrooms rose from the forest,  their presence alone making me wonder if we'd earlier ingested their party-friendly brethren.  Seven-foot high toadstools, hollowed out, for some unknown purpose?  Yep, the heat was getting to us.  

Past the Jizo of Jūsan-toge, familiar from an earlier hike.  One of the main reason's I'd wanted to do this ridge hike was to see the layout of numerous side trails that ran up from every train station.  We followed one familiar path, over a valley awash with wild hydrangea.  Past a couple picnicking on a bridge.  Past the cult headquarters with it's cool logo. Past another mushroom that is the radar station, then finally to the funicular station and its welcoming cold drinks.

The cablecar was nearly empty, so we sat at the front, looking straight down the tracks, waiting for the ride to begin.  I surely hoped there'd be no rolling blackouts as we made our way down.  Then a series of trains, each growing in length the nearer to Osaka.  The trains grew crowded as we spilled over into rush hour.  Our final ride, seated across from a grumpy old git who kept shouting "Silence please!" despite our conversation being in quiet tones.  Far quieter than him anyway.   He seemed to be placed here as some sort of challenge to the day's theorizing. Challenging Wes believing Osakans are among the friendliest people in Japan.  Challenging me believing old men are more humane.  

But the old man has ridden on now, as have I.  Kyoto bound, emerging from underground just beside the gaudy glitter of Osaka castle.  Far more subtle are the familiar shape of Ikoma rising behind.  Brown and green, moving toward blue as the light goes.

On the turntable:  Husker Du, "Candy Apple Gray"
On the nighttable:  Tim O'Brian, "July, July"

Monday, July 16, 2012


Fourteen syllables
Are good enough
On such a hot day.

On the turntable:  REM, "And I Feel Fine"

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Papers: Herman Hesse

"Those who are too lazy and comfortable to think for themselves and be their own judges obey the laws. Others sense their own laws within them; things are forbidden to them that every honorable man will do any day in the year and other things are allowed to them that are generally despised. Each person must stand on his own feet." 

On the turntable:  John Lennon, Live in New York City"

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #33

Two Grannies
Stop for a chat
In the rice field.

On the turntable:  UB40, "The Best of..."
On the nighttable:  Daniel Wallace, "Big Fish"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #32

Proud Norikura
Doesn't care
That it's summer.

On the turntable:  Bryan Sutton, "Bluegrass Guitar" 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #31

Fresh-faced Summer,
Called onto stage 
To the pulse of cicadas.

Toots and the Maytals, "Time Tough" 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #30

Hot springs Benzaiten
Rides white marble clouds 
Beneath the grey of monsoon

On the turntable:  Grand Funk Railroad, "Grand Funk Hits"

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Sunday Papers: The Courier

"Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no." 
 --Percy Bysshe Shelley obituary in the Courier, a leading Tory newspaper in London, 1822

On the turntable:  Tori Amos,  "A Piano"
On the nighttable: Joseph Campbell, "Creative Mythology"

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoint #29

Dance of seven veils.
Seven ranges 
Draped in cloud.

On the turntable: Willie and the Poor Boys
On the nighttable:  Banana Yoshimoto, "Amrita"

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Nakasendo, solo

And as soon as I looked into the deity's eyes, the shrieking began...

I found myself awake on the nighttime side of five, so I roused myself out of bed, jumped on the bicycle and rode down river.  Our Walk Japan Nakasendō tours ostensibly begin in Kyoto, but aside from an obligatory stop at Sanjo Bridge--the western terminus--we take a train east, through all the built up concrete bed towns of Shiga.  The real walk begins where the mountains start in Gifu.  I found myself curious with what we roar past, and decided to walk those sections of the Nakasendō not on the tour.  I know that it won't be pleasant, over unforgiving asphalt and through ugly scenery, but curiosity oft trumps common sense.  This first twenty-some kilometers was not only the Nakasendō but also that road's more renowned sibling, the Tōkaidō.  I'd follow them both until they part ways in Kusatsu.

So I found myself heading up Sanjo just after 6 a.m.   The usually busy road was quiet, and I left it before long, along a diagonal road heading beneath the hills that lower themselves eventually into Misasagi.  Occasionally there'd be a set of steps leading up to some temple, and I'd climb up and have a look.  Historically, this must have been a flourishing center of Buddhist practice, today watched over by the massive Agon-shu temple atop the mountain itself.  It was along this stretch that I saw the cave, just the other side of the parking lot.  It is very unusual in Japan to see a roadside shrine without direct access, but these people meant business, with their double set of chains and a third strand of barbed wire.  There was a elderly man before the shrine altar, finishing up his prayers.  I asked him if I too could pray there, and he said sure, and gestured me in.  A small waterfall fell across the entrance to the cave, where esoteric austerities are performed.  Further back was a large stone turtle and riding his back was one of the most beautiful statues of Fudo-myo, with eyes of a brilliant emerald green.  And as soon as I looked into the deity's eyes, the shrieking began.  Startled, I turned to see a woman in the street, screaming at me, asking what I was doing there.  I told her about the old man, who at that moment was riding away on his motorcycle.  The woman's husband now came outside, and started yelling at the old man's back.  I repeatedly  apologized, but they said that I wasn't doing any harm, that the old guy was trouble.  He'd been repeatedly told not to enter the shrine, but he did.  Apparently a lawyer had already been contacted, and the matter was heading to court.  Things calmed down now, and I started to ask about this mysterious place, but the couple stayed focused on the old man.  At one point the woman went into the house, returning with a pencil and paper.  She then asked me if I'd give my name and address.  I started to walk backwards, hands up, saying wait a minute, I just wanted to say a quick prayer.  The woman said that was fine, but that she'd want the police to get a report on the incident.  I quickly turned and headed down hill, saying sorry but no, over my shoulder, leaving behind this protective deitess, shrieking for me to come back.

I hurried for the next twenty minutes, worried that she'd call the cops who would come question me.   There was no way I could blend, what other foreigner was out walking at this hour?  After a few more zigzags, I began to relax.  I was walking in the opposite direction of a parade of commuters heading toward Yamashina station.   I liked the fact that at this early hour, I'd already walked halfway to Otsu.  

Along with a walk that would be hard on both the feet and the eyes, I was expecting a frustrating day of seeking out signs, of repeatedly doubling back to find the trail.  I was very surprised to see that the path was quite well marked, for the Tōkaidō of course.  I've walked many of this country's old roads which always entails a lot of guess work, for the lack of signage and poor maps in guide books.  I had no real problems all day.  On the far side of Yamashina, I walked into a snarl of highways and railways.  The road was narrow,  morning auto commuters creating a bottleneck at the intersection of the Nara Kaido.  I topped Osaka pass, stopping for a snack at a small shrine, and noting the sparkling clean toilets built onto the site of the old barrier station.  On the descent, I walked beneath an overpass used solely by walkers of the Tōkai Shizen Hodō.  I knew that at the southern end was the start of a very grueling ascent, one of the hardest on the whole Kansai section of the trail.  (In fact, throughout the day, I'd pass a half dozen more places where the day's walk intersected with walks done previously by Miki and I.  Where a modern GPS will show you a map of the region as it looks now, in my head I hold maps of where these arteries once led in the past.)

The road into Ōtsu is marked with shrines.  A few blocks shy of Lake Biwa, the road doglegs sharply to the east.  In the past, I've ragged Ōtsu for its poor marking of trails, of ignoring its past.  But this section is very well loved and cared for.  Maps and signs are plentiful, as are the multiple placards demarkating history.  These will accompanied me for the rest of the morning.  (The most important marks the space where future Czar Nicholas II was stabbed by a Japanese policeman who was part of his security team in 1891.  The Nicholas survived the attack, meeting a worse fate at the hands of the Bolsheviks 27 years later.)  

The monotony of the suburban scenery was beginning to wear on me, so much so that I recall little to reproduce in writing.  Over the line into Kusatsu and the signs began to disappear, though someone made a valiant attempt in their handwritten signs.   The town center was quaint and faux traditional, atop which the two great trunk roads left one another.  The Nakasendō stood alone now, taking me through a brick tunnel and through a shopping arcade before boring me with more uninspired suburbs.  It was a long muggy afternoon, the only relief being a few large wooded shrines.  Moriyama was attempting to capture some of the flavor of the old road, with a museum and a handful of galleries.  I stopped for an iced coffee in a small cafe built inside a renovated storehouse.  I was soon joined by a woman from the historical center next door.  We talked a little about the road, then I continued on, in the rain now lightly falling.  

Outside Yasu I realized that I'd had enough for the day.  It had been 35 kilometers over hard surface and my feet were beginning to complain.  Far better to jump the next train back home, pop into that Nepalese place around the corner for a take-out curry, and accompany it with a craft beer and an old film.  Then wait until the guide book upstairs begins to weave its next spell on me, and spur me on to the road once more.  

On the turntable: Beastie Boys, "The Mix-up"
On the nighttable: Richard Tames, "A Traveller's (sic) History of Japan"

Monday, July 02, 2012


A group of monks going about the their begging rounds startle my daughter from her breakfast.  Her eyes are upon my face, but here ears are pointed completely outside, taking in the 'Hoooooooo!" as it rolls up the street.  

The monks' chant takes me back 12 years to my own begging rounds while I was staying at Hosenji up in Kameoka.  As a country temple, it is pretty self-sufficient in terms of things like rice and veggies and herbs, but the monks needed to beg once a week in order to buy tofu.  Being July, it was a hot torturous afternoon, the conical sedge hats doing little to cool a body wrapped in multiple black robes.  On the way back to the temple, we stopped at the supermarket so that the head monk could buy the tofu.  When he returned, no amount of detachment could've prevented the smiles from crossing our faces when we saw that he'd also bought us all ice cream cones.

On the turntable:  Tim O"Brien, "Traveler'

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Sunday Papers: Mark Twain

"Eschew surplusage."
 --Twain on literary offenses

On the turntable: "Christian Death, Dark Noise 2000"