Monday, December 31, 2012

'Round about 2000

I've been in self-imposed solitary confinement for the past few days, working on a book translation.  I couldn't handle yet another day at the computer, and decided that I needed to do one more walk, in a year of some big time walking.  

And what a year it was.  As my daughter began to take those tentative steps that will lead her toward the rest of her life, I began to get paid for something I truly love doing.

While on the clock, I figure that I logged over 1,350km. 

My solo travels along the Nakasendo added another 320km or so.  

In addition, there were walks and hikes with friends.  In and above Kyoto.  Up and down the Kamogawa.  The streets of Tokyo.  The hills and quiet neighborhoods of Hiroshima.  Along the Sea of Japan.  Plus all those Sayonara New Mexico hikes last winter.

And 20km today, to complete a Chōsenjin Kaido walk that I started in May 2009.  

I probably walked more in that particular year, when Miki and I did the Kumano and Shikoku pilgrimages, as well as on my own walks along most of the major roads in Kansai.  

But I'm satisfied.  I expect to cover even greater distances in 2013.  But for now, I'll let James Joyce have the last line of 2012:

"He rests.  He has traveled."

On the turntable:  Sia, "Healing is Difficult"
On the nighttable:  Norman Sherry, "The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. I"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Papers: David Whyte

"You are not leaving you are arriving."

On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Road Trips Vol. 3, No. 3"

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido IX

August 13

Awakened early by the usual campground racket.  I wandered over to the volcanic boulders of the shoreline, eating breakfast and watching men drag kelp from the seabed and into their boats.  Tied alongside were floating black 'megaphones'  through which they'd look under water to locate the plants on the bottom, then pull them up with long wooden oars.  On the placid sea of this particular morning, it looked such a splendid simple life.  

I had a quick coffee in town, then started up a road to the trail head.  About halfway up I thumbed a ride with a park employee to an observation deck.  After admiring the view a bit, I started up the trail, a hard muddy ascent up a narrow path.  I moved along quickly at first, but then time slowed considerably as the weight of my overstuffed pack caused me to slip often, and to take a two-minute rest for every five spent on foot.  This pace continued after the straight track going directly up the mountainside finally reached the ridge, then began to zigzag along a boulder field.  After a short rope assisted descent, the trail cut sharply across the scar of a recent landslide.  I slowly worked myself across the loose shale,  terrified at the sight of rocks shifting above me, the whole mountain seeming to move under my rapidly shuffling feet.  I found relief on reaching the other side, but I still faced a steep climb to the top of the ridge.  I dumped my pack, and used the ropes to pull myself up more loose shale to the summit.  On top was a small shrine and a few boy scouts resting nearby, including one with long blonde hair.  Off to the side, the mountain dropped away completely, certain death to anyone who misplaced a step. 

I descended quickly, grabbing my pack, and rushed down a trail of wet rocks that turned under every step.  This was punishing work and I fell often, cutting both of my palms and my wrists.  More troubling, I found my frequent urinations short and painful.  I later realized that this was due to the pressure of my heavy pack on my kidneys.  But I was lucky in comparison.  As I made my way down, a helicopter began circling the peak, signifying the obvious.  (On the radio the next day I heard that a college student from Saitama had fallen 300 meters and was now in the hospital in Wakkanai.)  I had run out of water hours before so was thrilled to find a fresh spring just before a small campsite.  I had been hurrying to catch the last ferry of the day, and at this point realized that I'd need a ride to catch it.  Two cars passed me by, and with fifteen minutes left I gave up.  As I sat in the road looking at the ferry schedule, a truck offered me a lift and I made my boat with minutes to spare.  

Back in Wakkanai, I set up my tent under the pitched roof which offered shelter for literally dozens of campers, away from wind and rain.  There was a bathroom, fresh water, and public baths nearby.  Unfortunately there was also a skate ramp, but thankfully the boys let up around ten...

On the turntable:   Laurie Anderson, "United States Live"

Friday, December 28, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido VIII

August 12, 1997

I awoke this morning to the incessant loudspeaker going off every five minutes.  It was as if the girl at reception had gotten only 4 hours of sleep a night, and decided bitterly that no one else should get any sleep either.  Getting up early allowed for a leisurely morning.  I talked over breakfast with a guy who is half French, but couldn't speak that language, as his father had disappeared back to Europe while he was an infant. Before catching my boat, I went with him and a few others to the pier, where they bought me some 30 cm tall soft cream.  As my boat pulled out, I stayed on deck waving, trying to see how long I could keep them waving in return.  But then it dawned on me that perhaps they were playing the same trick on me.  

The short trip over to Rishiri was across some incredibly blue water, and the Grateful Dead "took me there."  Near the ferry terminal, I found a campsite just below a lighthouse in a semi-enclosed grass "bowl" that offered views of the sea on three sides.  The island's volcanic peak loomed over all.

My tent was still wet from last week, so I left it and the rain fly to dry in the warm sun. Nearby was a hotel that rented bikes, which enabled me to circumnavigate the island, tracing a 60 km circle around the base of the volcano.  About five minutes down the road, I got a flat tire.   After exchanging it for another, was goin' down the road feeling good.  I sang as I rode, changing the lyrics of known songs to suit my mood.  I also came up with ridiculous 'aphorisms,'  like when I hit a patch of wind, I thought, "The wind can't blow both ways." Or all with all the dead insects on the roads:  "A dragonfly can't fly faster than a car." 

At the southern tip of the island, two seals swam in an enclosed man-made pool.  They seemed happy enough, swimming upside down, apparently easier as their eyes are on top of their heads.  Every time a tourist took out his camera, they'd swim to the other end of the pool in an almost cynical response.  

The road followed the coast, lined mostly by houses or small shops, like one elongated village.  Of course, most of the structures looked abandoned.  On the complete opposite side of the island from where I rented the bike, I got my second puncture.  I found a shop a short distance away, and a man there led me down the street to his house where I could use his bike pump.  When this failed, I called the hotel so that they could bring me my third bike.  The helpful man's mumbly way of talking, as well as the lisping guy at the other end of the phone, made me realize that there are situations that language books can't possible prepare you for.  

The bike arrived after a thirty minute wait, and I headed down a cycling course.  Near its start was a statue of Ranald McDonald, Japan's first English teacher.  When I saw his name on the map, I naturally expected something quite different. The cycling course was a narrow road running up into the tree line, then out along the flatlands, cutting back and forth repeatedly from the shore.  They must have spent an incredible amount of money putting it together, especially the high suspension bridges that spanned the mountain streams.  Along the ride, I incidentally met a girl from the hike the previous day.   All in all, it was an excellent ride.

Back in camp, I shared some lamb with a biker who had toured the States seven times.  Overhead, the sunset was making the sky do incredible things with its palette.  Incredibly, the wind of the previous few days had stopped.  At seven o'clock, the campsite resembled a pod city, bustling at suppertime.  An hour later, all was silent.  The lighthouse kept streaking the night sky above.  Later, this would be recreated naturally by a meteor shower: 

The clouds are splayed like fingers, and through them, I can see few stars but for one that speeds crazily towards the sea.  Beyond the horizon, the light from a squid boat shines brightly.  The moon makes an attempt to come out from behind the clouds, and the sea writhes and undulates in its light.  A brilliant sight, God and Gaia collaborative attempt to make me feel at peace.  With the world music on my headphones, I think of all the people everywhere who are looking up at the same stars, and with the meteors, it's a sight that old legends are built upon.  And looking at them makes me feel so small, nature drowning all thought except for enchantment on her beauty.  Drugs are superfluous when nature herself can make you feel this relaxed, this centered.  It's ironic that a mere week before I had been cursing her power.  Such beauty and strength, that ability to create or destroy, is in the moon, the stars, the sea -- all of it.  It's in the hardness of the rocks beneath me, and in the softness of the clouds above.  I think that my recently deceased grandfather is part of it now, and that he's out there somewhere.  It is ironic that my thoughts turn to him just as a Dead Can Dance song comes on, but of course the dead do dance.  They dance in our memory... 

On the turntable:  Bela Fleck, "Fiddle Tunes for Banjo"

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido VII

August 11, 1997

Last night before going to bed, everyone in the hostel had a meeting about the following day's hike. It was kind of funny how the Japanese plan everything to death, even telling us to wear long sleeves and pants against poisonous plants.

The next morning, the bus picked us up at 6:10, and for the entire trip, the two appointed group leaders had their maps out.  We were let out at Cape Sukoton, with its famed musical toilet.  The cape was the official starting point for the 'Hachijikan (Eight hour) Hiking Course."  I walked down to the edge of the cape, where old men and women were dragging seaweed onto shore.  The waves broke in two directions off the point, crashing into one another with great force, lifting great walls of spray into the air to be carried away by the strong winds.

I usually like to hike alone, but this time thought it might be fun to go with the other young Japanese staying at the hostel.  This also allowed me to store my bags and to slow me down, forcing me to match my pace with the others.  Because there were so many people going on this hike, we were split into two groups.  It was kind of silly how we were broken into equal numbers of men and women.  Our group leaders, appointed at random the night before, were taking their positions quite seriously.  After some obligatory taking of photos, we were off, and walking down the road leading away from the cape, I couldn't help but feel like I was on an elementary school field trip.  

After leaving the road, the trail led over a series of grassy peaks whose bases had been carved away by the waves.  I pushed on ahead slightly, temporarily leaving the conversation behind in order to have the scenery to myself.  All around was the gorgeous sea.  The clear skies were being purged by strong winds.  From the first and highest hill, I could see Sakhalin Island, about 100 km to the north.  The descents in particular were pretty treacherous in this wind, which let up somewhat in the fishing villages below.  In one village, I came across two small boys who had caught an octopus, which slithered and rolled its body across the concrete.  When the rest of our group caught up, the boys caught a sea-urchin, and a sea cucumber, which the boys cut open and fed us raw from their knives.   At the village's south end were huge molds, which finally solved for me the mystery of the birthplace of all those tetrapods that litter the perimeter of Japan.  

In another village was a shop whose master was crafting beautiful sculptures from driftwood.  I admired his work and asked a few questions before rejoining the group.  We climbed back up into the hills, past a small cemetery, then along a long path through grasslands that served as the canvas for a riot of colorful wildflowers.  This eventually gave way to forest, the trail lined with dwarf bamboo that hid the approach to quite a few difficult water crossings.

We wearily stopped for lunch, atop a high bluff that offered no respite from the wind that threatened to blow the food off the ends of our chopsticks.  We continued along a dangerous, crumbling route along the cliff's edge, then the final descent down a long sand dune, which most of the group walked gingerly in small steps, but a few of us ran at full speed down to the black sand beach below.  

The remainder of the hike was a slow, four-hour meander over large porous volcanic boulders.  We passed below a few high waterfalls that dropped into tide pools garnished with seaweed.  In one spot, the hills were striped with green of grass and black of rock, a dazzling effect. At the base of this stood a single house, still occupied, judging by the long strands of seaweed laid to dry on the beach in front.  I marveled at the life these people must have, living amidst such power and beauty, so far from roads or towns.  Winter must be especially rough, trips made by small boat traversing ice flows and partially submerged, snow covered boulders.  Further along the beach was another house, half-collapsed with the other half still occupied.

Where the ridge dropped to the sea ledges had formed.  They were difficult to cross, so much of the going was aided by ropes.  With good shoes and porous rock, it wasn't too tough, but many in the group couldn't grasp this, and the going became slow, made worse by frequent rest breaks.  I was beginning to grow a little impatient and tired by the time we finished at the base of a large tower of stone that is the favorite of the postcards back in town.  

Throughout the day, I was happy at the instant friendships created by our shared toil.  This feeling continued throughout dinner at the hostel, and through the simultaneous fireworks displays we witnessed over both islands.  We sat up late talking,  until one by one started to fade and sought out the comfort of bed...

On the turntable:  Yulara, "All is One"
On the nighttable:  Lian Hearn, "Across the Nightingale Floor"

Monday, December 24, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido VI

August 10, 1997

The day started with intermittent rain, but after a bath and a shower, it cleared enough that I decided to take off.  A family with a young daughter took me about 50 km, and when they let me out, blue sky was pouring through the clouds.  I walked to the far end of town before I was picked up again.  To my surprise, it was a lone older woman.  She babbled the entire way to Wakkanai, laughing and talking to herself occasionally, and often making bizarre comments.  When she couldn't finish her lunch, she said that she hoped it wouldn't anger the North Koreans.  She seemed nice, if not a bit loony, but her Japanese had me baffled.  I don't know if it was her dialect, or that she used more archaic terms, but I could understand surprisingly little.  After awhile, I began to get tired and wished she'd turn the words off.  To her benefit, she did drive me close to 200 km.  

Heading to the north end of the world felt nothing short of monumental.  The houses spaced themselves further and further apart until the remaining farms looked dilapidated and abandoned.  Somewhere along the way, the mountains had disappeared, replaced by low hills which looked in the process of being rolled up and scattered about in large bales.  

In Wakkanai, I found that I was able to catch the last ferry of the day, so I jumped aboard.  In harbor, the deck was cold and windy, but once underway, the clouds parted enough to let through the sun which warmed up everything.  Through the ride, I pondered whether I could live with myself if I cheated on my fiancee with the girl from Asahi-dake.  Dozens of times I talked myself in and out of this one last premarital fling, until, in a gesture most cinematic, I let the paper with the girl's phone number fly from my fingers and into the wind. 

Seagulls followed the ship, skimming and diving in the wind's wake. I was mesmerized by the vast numbers, and by their grace, as they literally danced in the air to the music of my walkman.  A month before, a friend had made me a mix tape of traditional world music for my thirtieth birthday, and at this particular moment, rousing Chinese music started up at the moment that Rishirito's volcanic peak appeared, serving as some ominous soundtrack for an unmade kung fu film.  Next on the horizon came Rebunto, whose scattered wooden houses looked like any shoreline in the Northeastern U.S.  The typhoon had left behind strong gusty winds, which coupled with the fact that the late arrival of the ferry had made me miss the last bus, forced me to check into the nearby hostel.  A good choice.  In my bed, I could drift off to the sound of the high winds, and the surf...

On the turntable:  Santana, "Mystical Spirits
On the nighttable:  Ivan Morris, "The World of the Shining Prince"

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Papers: Joseph Campbell

"Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided, schizophrenic worldview, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious -- that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth -- that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbors, in our enemies, in all of us"
On the turntable:  Hossam Ramzy, "Bedouin Tribal Dance"  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Where does one go to see out the End of the World?

Eight-eleven p.m., Japan time, they said.  My day started with a missing glove nearly twelve hours before. 

I had taken my daughter to school, and dropped the glove somewhere on the ride back.  It didn't take so long to find it, but inertia led me through the grounds of Daitokuji to Imamiya Jinja.   I stood awhile in the quiet confines of the shrine, where two massive arrows had been plonked into the earth on either side of the central offering box.  Suddenly the space began to fill with dozens of kindergarden kids, who lined up in groups determined by the color of their caps.  Their principal led them through a prayer and the obligatory bows.  Then they all filed out in a stream of color resembling a NFL halftime show.  In silence once again, I walked up the small hill to a shrine for the Earth god.  Not long to go, I thought.

Across town next for a Nepal curry under photos of their homeland, a geography that reveals the true meaning of "Long Count."  Then over to Keibunsha, one of my favorite bookstores in Japan.  Here I browsed examples of time finitely bound, yet the wisdom and knowledge encased within being of course, boundless.

Onward to the foot of the eastern hills and Sekizan Zenin, one of Kyoto's hidden gems.  I wandered the path between shrines and temples, and beneath trees long gone to winter, lighting incense sticks as I went.  Smoke curled upward from these traditional linear manifestations of fixed time.   

Beyond rice and vegetable fields stripped and without color, then following the steps up to Tanukidani Temple to repeat my Shikoku 88 pilgrimage, yet on this occasion the temporal parameters had been condensed and folded into a miniaturized version.   Wandered next amongst the esoteric figures above.  The seemingly eternal flow of a waterfall nevertheless fails to extinguish Fudo's flame.  Nearby Jizo as Womb of the Earth, ready to perform good deeds until the end of a different Long Count, one that ceases with the return of the future Buddha, 5.6 billion years hence.  

The pillars of the temple hall were covered with small strips of wood that served as talismans for those stricken with illness.  I thought of my sister, who had lost her husband to cancer only this morning.  From afar, I'd been watching him die over a series of months.  But these months had a different meaning to me sitting safe and healthy a half a world away, and to a man watching his life force slowly ebbing away as cell after cell was ravaged by cancer.  Poor dear Paul, your world truly did end today. 

The skies were as dark as my thoughts.  The light was completely gone by the time I got home.  I watched my daughter as she ate dinner, day by day growing to fit into a world that had been woven around her.   After she went to bed, I sat alone in the front room in the dark, straightening my back and tucking in my chin.  I hadn't meditated for some time, but the body slipped quickly into the abyss, and the usual feeling of weightlessness.  And the sounds of the world began to drop away, last of all the rain that fell in a steady patter onto the roof.  And disappearing too was the ticking of seconds, replaced instead by the falling away of breaths that marched one by one toward the end of the world.

On the turntable:  Jerry Garcia Band, "Shining Star"

Friday, December 21, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido V

August 8, 1997

Awoke to good weather for a change.  Jordan and I rented bicycles and rode out through Sounkyo, under waterfalls which cut the rocks into large squared pillars.  The trail ended at the overlook for an unidentifiable rock formation where J. and I sat and talked, two streams running on either side merged as one, not unlike our minds.  

Back in Sounkyo, we caught a bus back to Asahikawa.  We had time to kill and sought out a place to eat, but moments before our Asahi-dake bound bus was to arrive, the rain began again, breaking the back of Jordan's camel.  He suddenly decided to head back to Sapporo.  

On the bus back out to the mountains, I was a bit sad and frustrated.  It was strange knowing that this would be one of the last times I'd get to see J. before he left Japan the following winter.  Yet I was a little angry too, with the way he'd overplanned the unplannable, and couldn't face up to the hardships that he hadn't foreseen.  I did give him credit for setting off on a hitching jaunt back to his home in Himeji, an odyssey that is of course impossible to plan.  I wrote him a poem.

Hitch Bhikku
--for Jordan

Inspired by compassion,
You set out by thumb,
Hoping to find and return kindness,
In a brief merging of paths
Where everyone takes someone home.

As I left the bus, it began to pour, and during the incredibly long time it took me to put up my tent, it, my bedroll, and my pack got soaked.  The campsite was well constructed but was unfortunately built upon nothing more than sand, which has the penchant for creating large puddles.  I dug a trench around the tent to create a channel for run-off, but these too eventually flooded, and a large pool formed beneath the tent floor.  In the end, I was unsuccessful with my irrigation, and by now my clothes too were drenched.   The night was further complicated when I couldn't find a crucial part of the stove that J. had left with me.  (He had donated all of his dried camping food too.)  Embarrassed, I walked to an adjacent campsite and meekly asked them if they would boil some of my water for me.  Back in my tent, I ate instant enchiladas and hot chocolate, then called it a day around 8:30.  The rain was incessant, but the sound of a nearby stream lulled me into what proved to be an unsound sleep...

August 9, 1997

...the next morning I was up at 6:30 to make instant pancakes.  I discovered too late that I needed a skillet to fry them, so I basically drank a bag of watery flour for breakfast.  The rain had stopped briefly, but the fog was rolling in, so I quickly broke camp, stashed my wet gear at the nearby visitor's center, and headed up the Asahi-dake ropeway after balking briefly at the 2700 yen price.

The trail started in clear weather above the clouds, and amidst a beautiful alpen meadow, a lone cuckoo singing from somewhere.  The collapsed cone of the volcano rose before me.  Within the crater, steam poured from yellowing, blistered rocks which looked like open sores.  The ascent wasn't particularly difficult, a straight narrow path over shale, and amidst disfigured volcanic boulders, offering great views of nearby snow fields.  Then I entered the fog.  Walking in this atmosphere and treading over this terrain was like walking the road to hell.  Near the summit, the trail cut to the left over an exposed face, the wind tearing right through clothes damp with rain and sweat.  I shivered on the summit only long enough to read a couple of Snyder poems, then hurried back down, the rain and fog following.  The cold, along with a strange silliness, carried me on to a round trip time shorter than the time usually given for the ascent itself. 

Back at the visitor center, I had a two hour wait at the bus stop, but the time passed quickly while in conversation with a California guy now studying in Tokyo.  On the bus back to Asahikawa, I chatted with a cute college student from Yokohama who I had seen repeatedly throughout the day, frequently exchanging smiles and random bits of conversation.  Her good nature beckoned out my own.   Goodness of nature tends to be the first thing to retreat during a week of lousy weather.  And I was happy to be leaving Daisetsuzan and its strange inclement weather behind.   Where we couldn't find adventure, we can make legend. 

Hokkaido, the one part of Japan which rarely sees typhoons, had one on the way.  I decided to stay out of it in the comfort of a hostel, so I rode the train a bit north of Asahikawa.  On the train, a young Japanese guy fresh from England tried to start a conversation.  His constant use of idioms and asinine questions seemed more an attempt to show off his english ability, and I quickly grew bored.  (So much for good nature.)  The train let me off at an unmanned train platform in the middle of the wild, so I stood confused in the rain awhile with a similarly puzzled Japanese girl, but eventually we figured out our way.  

Taking a bath at the hostel had made me late for dinner.  At my table, three out of five people were from Yokohama.  Why is it that everyone I've met in Hokkaido is from there?  The girl from the train platform talked in a silly obāsan way that started me laughing, and the wacky hostel cook finished the job.  After dinner, I played an old video game that was in the lobby.  Called simply, "1942", it was basically an American bomber that flies along, blowing the shit out of Japanese Zero fighter planes.  Or perhaps in Japan it was vice-versa.  Back in my room, I drank a beer and listened to someone blowing a mournful harmonica somewhere.  I was happy in my decision to find comfort, yet from my bed I could see the dry pavement of the road which I hoped would lead me north the following day...

On the turntable:  Allan Ginsberg,  "Holy Soul Jelly Roll"
On the nighttable:  Melissa Goodwin, "The Christmas Village"

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido (Obligatory Seinfeld Interlude)

George is at Jerry's and announces his idea to have a sales competition between Yankee Stadium vendors where the winner gets a prize.  Kramer is of course interested, saying that it has always been his dream.  

Next scene:  Elaine and Jerry are eating in a trendy Italian restaurant.  The beautiful young owner comes over to chat and tells them the secret of the food's flavor is in a special olive oil grown in Brazil on cleared rainforest land.  Elaine is of course horrified, but Jerry is too smitten to care.  

Next scene:  Kramer is at Jerry's telling him how he's told all his friends to go to Yankee Stadium so that he'll win the contest.  

Cut to:   The Game.  The words, "Hey Cosmo!" bellowed out from everywhere, and Kramer whirling and firing peanut bags right in there.  Unfortunately, one errant toss to George nails Mr. Wilhelm sitting beside him, dumping nacho cheese all over his suit.

After the game:   George and Jerry at the restaurant, Jerry firming up plans for his date.  She hands him a bottle of the olive oil, saying that she wanted him to have an early batch before it hits the stores.  Outside, the guys are surprised to see Elaine leading a protest against the owner's environmental policies.

Entering the apartment:  Jerry is still trying to convince Elaine to give up her protest.  Kramer enters, moving strangely, gingerly.   Jerry asks, "What's the matter with you?"  
Kramer:  You gotta help me Jerry!"  
Jerry:    "Why?  What happened?"
K:  You know it was hot at the game today, and I was walking a lot, and sweating?"
J: "And?"
K:  "I got chafe!  It's terrible!  I can hardly walk!"
J:  "What'dya want me to do ?"  etc.
Elaine finally hands Kramer the bottle of olive oil that is sitting on the kitchen counter.  

Final scene:  Jerry and the owner on the sofa at his place.  Kramer comes in mellow, gliding.  "Oh sorry to bother you.  I just wanted to give you back this oil.  It worked wonders back there."  The owner is disgusted.  "I knew that that woman leading the protest looked familiar.  She's your friend," etc., until she leaves.

On the turntable:  Steve Reich,  "Drumming"


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido IV

August 7, 1997

It is a well-known fact that Hokkaido has no rainy season.  But nobody told this to the rain, which kept up for a further three days.   We passed the first two in the hot springs out in the streambed.  Nights were spent drinking beer, playing cards, and coming up with the synopsis for a Seinfeld episode involving butt chafe, olive oil, and peanuts tossed at Yankee Stadium.  Despite the pleasant surroundings, we were rapidly pushing the envelope of boredom.  

One of the mornings had looked promising,  so we climbed up to the summit of Furano-dake. There, we took a few photos with a couple of woman motorcycle enthusiasts, who had ridden up to Hokkaido from Yokohama.   We left them, and were halfway to Takachi-dake when the rain moved in again, forcing a wet and slippery descent back to the baths.  Along the way, we passed a few small groups of hikers, fully-loaded and moving on into the backcountry, a sight which filled me with envy.  This was no way to spend the summer.  We had originally planned to follow the ridgeline for four days over the top of Daisetsuzan National Park, but instead day after day went by with us staring out the window, wondering when the rains would stop. 

So after our three-day wait, J. and I broke 'base-camp' and thought we'd retry our luck from Daisetsuzan's eastern end.  The usual transportation hassles prevailed, so we didn't arrive at Sounkyo Onsen  until close to 4 p.m.  The hostel at which we stayed was the antithesis of Fukiage Onsen, small, overcrowded, and with no proper cooking facilities.  

Disgruntled and claustrophobic, J. and I took a walk down the town's single street, amidst the overpriced hotels, ramen shops, and vending machines, far more removed from the peaceful setting of our previous few days.  The sun did come out briefly as if to mock us, then disappeared quickly behind grey shades.   We sat and tried to forget with a beer and a sentimental chat, but all the yelling schoolkids, and the roar of the highway directed into parking spaces by the shrillness of whistles pushed us deeper into our foul moods...

On the turntable:  Meat Beat Manifesto, "Acid Again"

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido III

August 5, 1997

Fog rises as a pillar from the trees,
Like the smoke from signal fires
To Ainu warriors long since dead.


Today the rain outlasts the day;
Wind borne waves
Crest horizontally through the air.
We can't go to the mountain,
Rain brings the mountain to us.
Sit naked in outdoor springs and sing,
Watch trees dance about beyond the steam.
Nothing to do but go back to the lodge,
And read Snyder in my bunk.

August 6

Fog swirls about like transparent witches
Rushing to the mountain wizard's coven.
Above the onsen,
An old birch tree
Raises gnarled arms
And directs the traffic.

Sunshine winks on lavender flowers,
White eyelid closing quickly, slyly.
Large rocks pushed down trail,
By yesterday's furious runoff.
Muddy tracks, 
Soon to be filled
By the next rain.
Across the lava fields,
Rock pillars lay as if discarded;
Stones piled toward the heavens
For the lost children,
Ever traveling,
Climbing to the land of endless bliss.
But as we ascend,
The eyelid again blinks,
And we find ourselves
Washed back toward the sea.

On the turntable:  Wynton Marsalis, "Live at the House of Tribes"

Monday, December 17, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido II

August 4, 1997

...late start out of Sapporo.  Jordan and I took a bus out to Furano, where we found that we'd gone to the wrong place and had to wait an hour for the next train.  We ate lunch to kill time, but our orders took so damn long that we nearly missed that train too.  Once in KamiFurano, we found that we had another long wait, this time two hours for the bus.  We decided to walk part of the way, trying to hitch as we headed up the main road out of town.  After about thirty minutes,  we had had no luck and it was starting to sprinkle.  The roof of a 7-11 offered us shelter, and since the bus stop was just in front, we could stand here and thumb as we waited for the bus.

After another hour of this, we finally resigned ourselves to taking the bus.  We saw it coming up the hill, and just as it was upon us, a car pulled up, the driver saying that if we going as far as Tokachi-dake Onsen, we could ride with him.  The bus was literally honking for us to get out of the way as we piled into the car and drove off.

Our driver was a really nice guy, a former resident of Yokohama who had dreams of being an elementary school teacher, but was now working close-by in a pachinko parlor.  We had an interesting talk with as he went well out of his way to find us a good spot for camping.  We asked him what he was doing with his day, and he said that he was planning a quiet weekend with his girlfriend and was trying to find a good place to stay.  He mentioned that he had heard of a new lodge that had opened nearby, and thought that we should all go together to check it out.  If we didn't like it, he'd take us to Tokachi-dake, as we'd originally planned.

When we arrived at Fukiage Onsen, Jordan and I eyeballed the tent sites, beautifully groomed like a football field.  But our driver had other ideas.  Ten years ago he'd taken six months to bike the length of Japan, and after encountering some minor trouble, a stranger had shown him great kindness.  In this spirit, he paid for a rented room for us, then handed each of us a 10,000 yen note, saying that it was now up to us to help someone in the future.  Both J. and I were amazed, later joking that this guy had been carrying this burden for ten long years, and was now free to once more be a complete asshole, shouting out "Hey, Fuck You!" at hitchers that he'd pass on the drive home.  Naturally J. and I expounded a great deal on karma and Buddhist compassion.

The lodge itself was beautiful, very rustic with bunk beds, a full kitchen, and outdoor onsen.  We walked down the road a bit to some outdoor baths cut into the side of a rocky streambed.  Hot water pouring from the earth was cooled slightly by the waterfalls alongside.  The majority of the people bathed nude, but since there were a few old women about, we remained in our skivvies, unlike the rest of the men there.  The upper pool was kettle hot, holding only a couple of old men who no doubt had a half century's worth of callus-building hot spring training.  J. and I took instead the lower pool, sitting until well after dark, then walked back in awe of the purity of the silence.

Back at the lodge, we ate dinner on the outer patio and looked at the glowing red and blue pyramids out in the tent site.  Going to the onsen, I made a quick succession of gaijin faux pas: walking out of the bathroom in toilet slippers, nearly forgetting to wash before bathing, and almost walking naked into the mixed bathing area.  It was incredibly pleasant to drink beer in the rotemburo, as the moths buzzed around our heads like flurries of snow.

Before turning in, I stood out on the balcony, watching a fox scurry around below, feeding the superstitious fears of the Japanese around me...

On the turntable:  Gerry Mulligan, "Mulligan meets Mulligan"
On the nighttable:  Daniel Pinchbeck, "2012:  The Return of Quetzalcoatl"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Papers: Lakota Proverb

“Take courage, the earth is all that lasts.”

On the turntable:  Box of Frogs, "Box of Frogs"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido I

During two and a half years conjugating verbs under fake lights in a packaged climate, visions of afternoons spent working outdoors of pastoral Hokkaido had looked like the ultimate  reward.   So it was a great disappointment to find that there would be no farming at all during that summer of 1997.   I had also hoped to live moneyless all summer, but no work meant no food, and I quickly found myself spending up to 1000 yen a day.    But most frustrating was the almost deliberate destruction of peace by a probable psychotic and a definite neurotic.  One dark morning, I decided to run away and leave the circus...  

August 2, 1997

...early start hitching.  I awoke to find all the bread gone (A Seinfeld-like "William!").  Just out of Tsurui, I quickly caught a ride with a long logging truck.   It was the first time I've been in a big-rig, and I found myself amazed at the whiplash effect of bumps where the trailer would wag the cab.  The driver dropped me off at a truck stop on the far side of Kushiro, even attempting to ask other drivers where they were headed.  Having no luck, I stood out on the highway, shivering in my T-shirt and shorts, staring at an angry coastline straight out of Kurosawa's "Dreams"  as car after car passed me by.

I finally got a lift from a woman traveling with her two children, the girl teenaged, the boy younger.  Where the trucker had been a bit retentive and difficult to talk with, these two were easy, chatting briefly with me, then returning to their own conversation, or alternately singing along to CD after CD.  They played the latest by "The Globe," a band that I actually like, finding the singer's voice somewhat sexy, but after about an hour, even she became grating, sounding more and more like the usual inane J-pop.  

The mother-daughter team dropped me in the center of Obihiro, and I faced the dilemma of trying to hitch out.  I decided to tackle a more immediate problem, and sought out lunch.  I used this replenished energy to walk two or three km toward the outskirts of town, trying to flag a ride along the wayI was finally picked up by a young couple who were going all the way to Sapporo.  The driver got so engaged in our conversation that he missed our intended turn.  Rather than backtrack, he took a road over the top of a mountain, then reconnected with the highway into Sapporo.   

I was supposed to meet Jordan (the friend with whom I first came to Japan in 1994) for the 4:40 brewery tour, and arrived two minutes late.  The tour was in Japanese, so we joked around like Beavis and Butthead until it was time for the free samples.  Night was falling as we left, and we moved over toward the bar area of town, beautiful and neon and packed with stunning girls.  A group of young dyed-haired hoods stood in a circle on the sidewalk, chanting like it was some sort of yanki-bosozoku self affirmation ritual.  

After eating Indian food, we popped into a bar called 'Blues Alley,' falsely named as it blared shitty pop music.  We left quickly, having had our fill of Guinness and smoke, our exhaustion outweighing the aesthetics of cuteness and the good time feel of a summer night. 

August 3

 Sunday, the empty Sapporo felt eerie, the only sign of life being a band practicing in a basement bar despite the early hour.  A little later, we found that the city's main drag was closed to car traffic and had come alive: all the Namie Amuro-wannabes tan in their spaghetti strap dresses; all the couples hand-in-hand. Jordan and I strolled amidst the power shoppers, watching bad bands playing in front of a big screen TV,  with a gaijin acrobat and daredevil in-line skaters serving as side acts.   

Around dusk, we took the train to Otaru and walked around that city's famed canal, lit up with gaslamps and framed with western-style warehouses, a legacy of its contacts with European traders.  The cyrillic alphabet was everywhere.  It being a beautiful summer night, we wanted to sit at an outdoor table and drink beer, but sadly the microbrewery was packed.  So we took the train back to Sapporo and found a Cuban restaurant with great food, great music, and a laid-back atmosphere that was the perfect setting to watch the lightning weave itself between the city's highrises...

 On the turntable:  McDonald and Giles, "McDonald and Giles"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido (Prologue)

Another from the archive series.  After four months wandering remote stretches of rural China, I had intended to spend the summer of my 30th year at Shin Shizen Juku (SSJ), an old Leftist commune created by 1960's Tokyo student dropouts, which had since converted into a working farm.  But I arrived to find the owner, Hiroshi Mine, heading up the driveway on his way to a three month stint studying Organic Farming in Australia.   Hence, there would be no farming that summer.  So I passed the time studying kanji, trying to make sound from the shakuhachi I'd bought shortly before boarding the ship in Tokyo, and doing yoga with Ali MacGraw on the only video in the place, played on a TV that had no reception.   After I week of this, I hit the road...

July 23, 1997

I'm deliberately violating my own rule on never reading travel books while traveling myself.  But in this case, it's Paul Theroux's Old Patagonia Express, almost appropriate as we're both encased for a great length of time in our own means of transport.  Where he began his trip looking out into whirling snow, I find my views enshrouded in fog.  Throughout the ship are televisions that stream what is captured by the video cameras on the bow.  Previously, that had been the flight of seabirds and the white tussle of waves, but as the fog thickened, the screens went from grey to a sudden black, and these turned off screens make me feel uncomfortable for some silly reason.

I'm probably the only one who notices, for there's a definitively relaxed atmosphere on board the Sabrina, this ship named for an Audrey Hepburn film.  Young kids run past the salaryman types who are dressed down in tees and shorts, all bound for summer vacation in Hokkaido. This ship is probably the nicest I've ever been on, the closest to an actual cruise liner.  I can merrily while away my time sleeping, reading, or eating.  I especially like my curtained bunk, which offers me a place to escape.  I hardly need it here like I had needed it during my six weeks in  China, where the act of going about my own business had been less a natural default, and more of an intentional effort to avoid stares. 

So I happily wander.  The ship's spiral staircase seems built strictly for aesthetics as they are impossible to negotiate when the ship rolls.  I'm slightly alarmed at not being able to see lifeboats, but the escape chutes look pretty cool.  People sit alongside the windows, feet propped up on a handrail.  I find myself unable to avoid looking at a particularly beautiful pair of legs stretching from a chair nearby.  One bearded guy sits doing storyboards for a film, or possibly for manga...

July 24  

In the morning, I'm late disembarking, and thus miss a good chance to hitch a ride with one of the cars coming off the ship.  I make a late desperate attempt, but after the last vehicle passes I realize that I've stood there so long that I've also missed the bus.  A waiting taxi takes me into Kushiro, and from there I ride up to Tsurui-mura on a bus filled with mentally handicapped adults... 

 ...the cool wind of late afternoon brings with it fog.  It makes the woodchip pile outside my room smell like gin.   Spiders construct an Indra's web of glistening water beads, each reflecting one another.  The highway stretches away into the fog, defining the cliche, "lonely road."  Riverside paths are lined with fronds the size of truck tires.  I watch Henrika (German poetess) walk into the fog, hoodie up, arms folded into her sleeves like a medieval monk, with the Velvet Underground playing somewhere deeper within the house..

July 25

...holding yogic breath silences the world... flute competes with the squeal of pigs being murdered beyond the trees...

July 27

...every night here, the features of the landscape are bleached out by fog, significant details gradually lost according to the order of the color spectrum.  I sit out back and play my flute.  The landscape is familiar here -- it could be Oregon, Indiana, or Pennsylvania -- and every now and then the notes conjure up a scant shadow against the ever-fading wet blue light.  Closer in, the shadows appear more clearly as foxes, masters of shape-shifting and trickery, who with one last look over their shoulders, disappear again into the trees.

We had passed quite a few foxes on our way to a party last night.  A former student of SSJ had called and said that she and her boyfriend were staying at his lakeside cabin, and that they were bored and wanted company.  What passed next was a surreal David Lynchian ride out there, speeding through tight turns in the fog, all the while listening to some cheesy soundtrack tape, complete with faux American coked-up DJ patter.  In the tightest turn, Jan and Dean sang the opening chorus of their ominous hit.

What followed was great hospitality Japanese-style -- free booze and barbeque.  Along the way, William had become drunker and drunker, at first asking silly questions, eventually becoming quite ugly, the skeleton of a broken relationship causing him to attack Daniella for setting him up, then going after Marc (Aussie surfer stoner) for not being more sympathetic.  Our hosts had grown quite uncomfortable.  Suddenly, he, Marc, and Henrika had decided to hitch into Kushiro for a party and were off.  Daniella, Ann Marie, and I had been driven home by our drunken hosts who argued in the front seat over his driving. Back at SSJ, we had found that some animal had gotten into the kitchen and had eaten all our bread for the week.  I turned in then for a fifteen-hour sleep, broken for a single hour to eat cereal.

I awoke at four p.m. to another gloomy misty day.  Marc told me that they'd tried hitching, but rather than being taken south to Kushiro, then had been driven north, and eventually went to sleep in a bus shelter.  In the early morning they had hitched down to Kushiro, then were forced to backtrack home.  William appeared around six p.m., and kept saying that he wants a normal life, supposedly meaning marriage and steady work.  Every travel story he has involves moving to this country or that, meeting a woman, then deciding he isn't ready for marriage after all.  Inevitably, he finishes each story by saying so-and-so is angry with him, as if he himself is free from fault.  I don't doubt that his anger and unsociability is fed by this, which manifests itself once again, alienating whomever he happens to be involved with, in an ongoing vicious circle.  He is the classic example of a man trying desperately to fit in somewhere, yet his own personality keeps him from fitting in anywhere.  Sadly, he seems to see marriage as the ultimate acceptance, but he willfully pushes the woman away, then turns around and claims that he isn't ready to get married.  Yet, when approached, he is willing to talk for quite a long time, a sure sign of his loneliness.  His monologues and opinions are so far from truth that it's apparent that his is a skewed reality, not seeing anything clearly, least of all himself.  And this anger he feels has no room at a place like SSJ, and his presence is a serious detriment to its peace.  He is planning to depart this week, and I gladly count the hours...

July 29

Clouds, hills, fields, and rain.
How can such a poetic moment
Produce no poetry?

July 30

...from Robert Barclay, writing on the creative silence of the Quakers, of going beyond words to silence thoughts and desires, resulting in "a flood of refreshment."  Shades of zen?  Later, reading on Quaker marriages, old style, preacher-free, a mere commitment to each other, without old "tinned food"...

...wandering Kushiro in the fog, through Moo, and Egg, amidst Picasso's swirls, internal base jump.  Jazz adds spice to my coffee...

August 1

...the weather remains cool so the kettle boils.  William has been playing ninja, hiding out from Ryoko (SSJ person-in-charge).   thinking him gone, she'd been buying food for three, yet he's eating for two: seven eggs for breakfast, and earlier this week, four out of the remaining seven slices of bread.  It's bad enough that he's freeloading off us, but he's showing absolutely no respect by hiding bicycles and hoarding noodles and laundry detergent in his room.  And he's making no attempt to work or help out.  His presence is so loud and large that three other people have no hope to drown him out.

Ryoko on the other hand.  As we aren't farming this year, she'll only buy us staples, which she insists consist merely of bread, rice, butter, and milk.  Last week her interrupting my class in order to make asinine comments was bad enough, but to ask me to change classes in the midst of teaching was was obnoxious.  Her loud voice and frantic rushing about make her nearly as cacophonous as William.   As I read Mine-san's books on ideal communes and kibbutzes, I almost laugh at how fucked up SSJ is...

...yet today we actually did some work, cleaning the splattered cowshit caked on the windows and the milk lines of a barn.  I was a little wary of the cows at first, but eventually realized that they were more scared of me.  Plus they were fascinating to watch, almost smart, despite the reputation.  They seemed to instinctively know when it was lunch time, coming over to the fence and mooing to be let in.  They then moved to their usual stalls to be harnessed in, and began to eat.  To get water they'd press a lever with their noses.  Being harnessed in, they couldn't get at the flies on their backs (despite having incredibly flexible necks), so one smart cow would toss dry hay onto her back as cooling relief.  Working felt great, though my only reward came from a cow who sprayed my legs with her warm shit...

(To be continued...)

On the turntable:  Vic Chestnutt, "West of Rome"  
On the nighttable:  John Dougill, "Kyoto:  A Cultural History"