Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Year in Reads: 2013

On the turntable:  "Woodstock"  (Sdtk)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Journey to the West

The chill hit my cheeks the moment I left the subway station.  I was retracing the steps I'd taken the previous day, though now I was walking on the opposite side of the street, where the sun was striking.  And today the rhythm of my footfalls along the Saigoku Kaidō was echoed by those of Joel Stewart, friend, local artist and wearer of good hats.  While I tend to prefer walking these old roads alone, I appreciated Joel's company, and his perspective.  Where I've often walked with mountaineers, or history buffs, or those versed in indigenous spirituality, I had yet to walk with an artist, and Joel's eye helped shape a different type of day.

It began nearly immediately, at Tōji.  I noticed the way the fresh morning light was playing upon the wall along the temple moat, but Joel noticed what the light was doing to the color.  I envied him then his medium of expression, as he can do in paint what I've tried and failed for a decade to do with words, in trying to capture my obsession for light and the form it takes.

Yet Joel's interest today was less visual and more temporal, and as we walked we discuss the history of our adopted city, not just on what happened say, a thousand years ago, but touching on the fact that so many others have walked these streets since.  And traces of this overlap of time were ever present through the day.  The ruins of the Rashomon gate brought up of course Kurosawa and his famous eponymous work.  Nearby Saiji exists merely as a small mound in a park, where the rays of this new morning were imprinted upon the trunks of the massive enoki trees atop, as a reflected heat that warmed the hand.   Leading away were the row houses now empty but for the vines growing up behind window panes still intact.  The banks of the Katsura river carry the scars of recent typhoon damage.  Upon one remaining tree sat a shrike, looking down into the water with a predator's gaze, in that identical way Miyamoto Musashi captured his own bird with a deft stroke of the brush.   
Across the Katsuragawa, the Saigoku Kaidō took on the familiar look of an old highway, winding its way out of Kyoto's outer suburbs.  Close to the river it assumed the form of old homes that had once served as the inns that housed travels stuck on one bank or the other when the river ran too high to safely be ferried across.  Throughout the day these old houses appeared frequently enough to grab our attention.

Just over the tracks in Mukō, we ducked into a small cafe that seemed to be referencing a Showa era Francophilia in its film posters and lo-fi chanson R&B.  Like many of these places, it was overstaffed, but each of the waitresses was a real looker.  I was certainly not the only one to notice, filled as it was with older men dining alone.  As Joel and I girded ourselves against the impending cold with God Mountain coffee, our discussion turned to art and writing and the challenges of the creative process.

From that point, conversation ruled the day, as the landscape through which we passed became more and more suburban and mundane.  Our talk meandered through art, relationships, parenting, mutual friends, death and loss, sustainability, and the importance of good deeds.   As I'd recently watched the third film in Linklater's "Before..." trilogy, I began to feel like we were speaking his cinematic language, in our own movie entitled perhaps, "Before New Years." 

Our attention was drawn back to the aesthetic of the old highway as it moved through Nagakakyo, attractively paved in stone and busy with residents heading off on pre-holiday errands.  Yet under the expressway into Yamazaki, it once again lost its appeal, and the final hour was dictated less by the direction of the eye, and more by the drift of the mind.

The final steps up to the Hachiman shrine were accompanied by the strong scent of sesame oil, which had once been processed in this area and is now being used as an prominent ingredient in the whiskey produced in the hills above.  We faced in that direction, completing our day with four claps that resounded into one of the last days of the year.  With the shadows falling over us, this day too began to wane.

On the turntable;  Robert Plant, "The Principle of Moments'

Saturday, December 28, 2013


Back in the days when Miki and I were walking the Kansai sections of the Tōkai Shizen Hōdō, we'd often find ourselves heading south on the Keihan line.  Inevitably it would be a Sunday, and we'd be sharing the car with dozens of old men who would be laboriously studying their racing forms.   When the train reached Yodo Station, they'd all shuffle off toward the adjacent racetrack, taking the sour smell of sake and cigarettes with them.  

Today for the first time I too disembarked at Yodo, though I headed in the opposite direction from the track.  A few minutes up the road brought me to the Toba Kaidō.  Known today as Senbon-dori, I would follow its narrow form which gradually broadened as it moved toward town.  In these remote reaches, it had the look of an old highway, though most of its flanking houses were of a more modern vintage.  A few sections were  referred to in my guidebook with an excited "古い町並みが残る," which I'll loosely translate as having that ole-timey feel.  Yet most often what was being touted was perhaps two or three houses of more than a century in age, ignoring the fact that they were flanked by some of the 20th Century's worst architectural abuses. 

A couple times I chose the riverside berm and strolled along its cycling course, looking down upon the road as it ran parallel below.  Kyoto was ahead of me in the distance, watched over by the frosted mounts of Atago and Hiei, with the snow capped peaks of Kitayama further on.  I'd started the walk just above the confluence of the Katsura and Uji rivers, and after an hour I found myself at the foot of the Kamo.  Dozens of trees on either side of the river were still combed down after the lashing of Typhoon 18 last September.   I found a sign on which two photos had been affixed, taken from where I now stood and showing how incredibly high the waters got.  The berm itself was still lined with blue sand bags, beneath a row of sakura that were coming bizarrely into bloom.  

The road began to move away from the river, and I followed.  A rack of buns was stacked in front of a sweet shop, drying in the sun as they collected a hint of exhaust fumes.  Near the site of the final battle between the Shogun's forces and the new Imperial army, was a house built like a castle, which I assumed could belong to no one but a mobster.  The Imperial forces had been encamped at the nearby Jonangu Shrine, which today was being tarted up for New Years. Inside, a priest was blessing an infant, as a shrine maiden stood outside, smiling at me beneath an unusual headdress that looked more Central Asian than Japanese.  I was intrigued by the gardens in back, until it dawned on me that I'd already been here, at the poetry event that they hold every May, when people in period dress float sake cups down river and attempt to pen a poem prior to the cup reaching them.  But I was more intrigued by the exchange of bullets rather than verse.  Where the road crosses the Kamogawa is the sight of where those first bullets began to fly in 1868, starting off the war that ended the Shogunate forever.  

However, what came next wasn't always pleasant, the road now serving as metaphor for that fact, as it stretched through the southern reaches of the city, which is certainly Kyoto's least attractive face.  I was surrounded now by factories, train lines, and elevated highways, so pushed on in order to get the walk finished.  The ruins of the Rashomon gate brought the road to an end, but I wasn't quite done.  I moved down Kujo-dori toward the subway, passing a shop that sold motorcycle clothing, including an armor-like "back-protector."  I wondered if it also protects the wearer from the current government and their back-stabbing ways.  

Past Toji, and the Kyoto Minami Cinema.  Plenty of memories for me at both.  But sadly, posters outside the latter indicated that they don't show as many art films as they once did.  Time certainly hath wrought changes, a point I was reminded of with every footfall. 

On the turntable:  Helmet, "Born Annoying"

Friday, December 27, 2013

Linking the 8th Century (Ise Hon-kaido III)

A number of my hiking guidebooks show that I had left some unfinished paths.  What I mean by this is that I'd previously walked part of a walking course featured within, as sections that overlapped the Tokai Shizen Hōdō which I had walked in 2008-9.  Two such partially finished courses were to the south of Nara, so I decided to complete them in a single walk from Hasedera to Murōji. 

I stepped off the train at Hasedera Station and into a fierce cold.  The station is built atop a rise, and at its bottom is what is known both as the Ise Kaido and the Hase Kaido, though the latter is written with a different kanji (初瀬) than that used for the temple (長谷).  I was retracing my steps from four years ago, but then I diverged by crossing an old bridge shadowed by a massive tree that was literally thrusting itself from the hillside.  Its season-shorn limbs and branches gave it a look of despair that was almost violent.  

I climbed a steep set of stone stairs to a Tenjin Shrine, allegedly the first in the country (which I find somewhat hard to believe, for reasons that are too protracted and dull to write here). The trail markers and signage were new and easy to follow, reminding me of why I love hiking in Nara.  One of the signs revealed this place as a power spot, seemingly defined as any weathered religious edifice that requires a modicum of effort to reach.  The trail led me down, then up again, the path paved and coated with leaves in a soggy state of decomposition.  At the pass, a massive buna burst through a pile of stones at it base.  The trees up here certainly were dramatic.

From the pass, the trail hugged the hillside above a village, before rejoining the busy Route 165.  I traversed this for the next hour, on a sidewalk covered with untrod moss.  Few seem to undertake this particular walk.  I passed a small pottery workshop as well as a trio of vending machines hidden away in a corrogated iron shack as an attempt to shield the eyes of those offended by the porn that they sell.  This high brow/low brow pairing was further emphasized by an ancient jizo statue, its face worn by the elements despite the stonehenge like shelter, standing across the road from a similar bunker made of concrete that served as the local rubbish dump.  Further on still was a long closed pachinko place, betraying the hope in it's name -- Heisei.  

I arrived in Haibara, a town whose name always reminds me of an ashtray.  It was a pleasant place, with a trail marker for the Ise Kaido that pointed me down a groomed hillside behind a row of suburban homes.  I arrived eventually at an arcade with a similar monicker, leading me as it did along a road with classic post town features.  An Edo period and Meiji period building proudly flanked the road, beside a modern upstart being throw up in defiance of history or good taste.  Living here can be so depressing sometimes.     

Like many of my walks, it is a game that moves as I play, if I may paraphrase Exene Cervenka.  I had intended to walk the entire way, but along the way I'd suddenly decided on a future attempt at the entire Ise Kaidō, all the way to the grand shrines at the end, so put off this next section until another time.  It was a 45 minute wait for the bus, one of only four on the day.  I instead walked up the road, thumb out.  In less than 10 minutes I was picked up, but not before I started to wonder how long I'd be able to keep up hitching, heading as I am into middle-age.  Will my aging foreign face soon become a source of amusement for the locals, as they make their merry Sunday way along these old highways?

My driver was also a hiker.  She told me that she and her husband were a day away from walking the Ise Kaidō themselves, timing it for an arrival on New Years Day.  I would have loved to talk longer with her, but I had my own walk to do.  

The snow was falling now as I moved steadily beside rice fields and toward the hills.  Up until then I'd been walking in sunshine, but the weather over the peaks was dark and grey.  I was on to my second uncompleted walk now, under far different conditions than last time.    Above these hamlets was the beautiful old Butsuryūji temple, standing proudly atop a long flight of 900 stone steps.  In spring, the sakura here must be magnificent.  The old hall stood anachronistically beside an old shrine.  Behind the latter was a tiny stone pyramid that protected a 8th Century stupa.   Another reason to love Nara, these dignified old stoneworks lining every country path. 

As I moved now into the forest, the stonework of the path itself was a millennium younger, being mainly an Edo period invention.  I made my way slowly across these ishi-tatami, slick as they were under the fresh coat of snow.  They brought me quickly to the pass, and a paved road.  En-no-gyoja sat beneath his own stone hut, gazing eternally over the valley I'd just walked.  The surface of the road betrayed the presence of figures more mobile;  the prints of deer, of boar, like musical notes on a fresh score.  I followed the tracks of a fox as it wended its way toward Muroji.  

The road brought me to a village, then began to slalom around farmhouses bundled up against the cold.  It was truly brisk out, and at one point my iPhone died, its battery no longer able to face the cold.  When I finally reached Murōji, I stepped into a souvenir shop and asked if I could resuscitate my phone by plugging it in.  I bought some somen to make amends.  

Without my phone, I wouldn't have been able to call Togeii, whose blog I'd been following for quite a number of years.  After a number of false starts, we finally met, and drove into Nara city for a nice chat over coffees.   He's an intriguing guy who has been living in rural Nara, working as a potter and an antique dealer, amongst a few other things.  It's always a delight to meet in person someone who you've been long following in print.  In the past, this has led to a number of my closest friendships. 

As the conversation kept my head busy, I wasn't paying attention to what was happening in my body.  But it all became clear as I descended the steps to the train platform.  My legs were heavy with fatigue, far more than usual after a mere 18 km walk.  The day's bitter cold had taken its toll.  More worrisome was the tingle in my fingertips, a souvenir of my snowy night in the mountains of Shiga just about one year ago.  I'd hoped that the nerve damage wasn't permanent but...

No matter.  They apparently can function well enough, as I type out what turns into yet another lengthy blog post.

MAP: http://latlonglab.yahoo.co.jp/route/watch?id=a1b3380854ca35b251629e89901729d1 

On the turntable:  Moby,  "Hotel"
On the nighttable:  V. Vale, "Incredibly Strange Music"


Thursday, December 26, 2013

On a streetcar in Hiroshima

I'm on one of Hiroshima's local streetcars, shepherding a group of Americans through the city.  Like me, they are standing, spread out along the length of the car.  They are quieter than usual, as Americans often are when first arriving in this city, as if pondering the act of their countrymen which put the name of this city in the mouths of the world.

An old man is sitting directly before me, his head turned up toward mine.  He is of that certain age…  I look down to make eye-contact.  "Are you going to the A-bomb Dome?'  he asks me.  "Yes," I answer, squatting down to make my eyes the level of his.   

"I was a soldier when I was seventeen, and that morning, the bomb destroyed the barracks around me."  He presses one his palms to his ribs.  "I still have the scars here.  

I don't say anything, just nod as I continue looking at his warm eyes. 

He smiles.  "That was a long time ago.  I've traveled all over the world, seen many countries.  But I've never been to America."

I was expecting this, but not what he said next.  

"Too many guns there."

On the turntable:  Air, "Virgin Suicides Soundtrack"


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Yoshinaka and Tomoe at Rest

Visiting the graves of Kiso Yoshinaka and Tomoe Gozen, who rest quietly in a small forested hillside just off the Kiso Road. Tokuonji is a quiet temple, offering pleasant views of rice fields and a small river that narrows at it lengthens toward the upper reaches of Koma-ga-take.

There are four ancient graves in back.  Beneath one rests Tomoe, who in later life became a nun after the death and defeat of her warrior lover.  There's a stone for him as well, although his body is buried between Lake Biwa and the famed poet Basho.  Yoshinaka's head is reputed to be buried at Hōkanji in Kyoto, near the tall pagoda that punctuates the hilly streets leading up to Kiyomizudera. 

The graves overlook a small shrine, and a bronze statue of Tomoe on horseback.  It is easy to imagine her racing through a rain of arrows, her naginata twirling behind.  Modern archers practice in the kyūdōjō attached to the temple, shooting through the swirl of dragonflies, the rice stalks beyond bending toward autumn.

On the turntable:  The Yardbirds,  "The Very Best of...
On the nighttable:  John Dougill, "In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians"


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Papers: Robert Louis Stevenson

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.  Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?"

On the turntable:  Bruce Springsteen, "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle"
On the nighttable:  Allen S. Weiss, "Zen Landscapes"

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Life in the Day

The wonder we feel in seeing the opposite end of a train on which we are riding is like a baby discovering its own limbs...

...a husband hobbled by his wife's tongue...

...stone grave markers extending from the earth a monument to the death sentence we receive at birth...

On the turntable:  Smashing Pumpkins, "Siamese Dream"

Monday, December 16, 2013

I Read the News Today Oh Boy...

They paved the last patch of green in Japan today. 
In a ceremony this morning,
The Prime Minister took a pair of scissors
And cut through the last blade of grass
With his gloved hand.  

On the turntable:  Moby, "Destroyed"

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Papers: Kit Nagamura

"When REALLY stressed, I play hooky from my own life." 

On the turntable:  CSN+Y, "Four Way Street" 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Blue and the Grey

I hurried out of town, mainly because I knew weather was coming in later, and I wanted to get as far south as possible.  Breakfast was eaten at the hotel, which consisted of two pieces of bread in a plain white paper bag.  The bags were lined up neatly beside the coffee dispensers, and I imagine their number corresponded exactly to the number of guests.  These were all working men, most in overalls, chewing silently as if in thought about what the day would bring.  Judging from the look of the sky, it would bring cold.

I walk south along a busy road without shoulders.  As if demarcating a boundary, a massive concrete overpass connects the mountains that shaped the valley I was now entering.  Passing beneath I look up at the thing, trying to divine its purpose.  I can understand the need to speed past uninspired cities, but this place wasn't really between anything and anything else.  As I walk, I muse awhile on man's need to keep building, to keep producing.  It is beginning to feel like an end run toward nowhere. Much like, in fact, this overpass.  I will risk sounding naive by saying I wish that man would just finally be satisfied on what he has, and thereafter shift to caring for what he's already got.  Rather than build new useless roads, why not put the same money into repairing the old ones, and the tunnels, and the bridges, and all of those other Bubble Era follies that are beginning to collapse and kill people.  But I also understand that to stop producing means that the world economy will itself collapse and kill people.  Plus that would mean too great a zeitgeist shift in these days of planned obsolescence.   Yet ultimately it will be us that becomes obsolete.  You can plan on it.  

The residents of Hikida do show some pride in what they have.  A pretty lane runs alongside a small stream that gurgles merrily before the well-kept houses.  Just beyond the south end of the village I'm led toward the hills along a well-marked trail, the Fukasaka Kōdō.  Despite this, I don't see any sign that anyone has hiked here in a while.  I follow the water upward, until the stream becomes a brook, and then a creek before disappearing completely when a switchback leads me away.  It isn't a particularly hard hike, but I am quickly gaining  elevation.  The views back down the valley are filled with shadow as the storm keeps rolling in.

I'm up and over the pass.  This, the Shiga side is all sunny and warm.  I sit a bit in front of a Jizo hall, itself ringed with smaller stone Jizo that are laden with flowers and offerings.  A waterfall lowers itself over the lip of the forest floor above me.  A trio of dippers here indicate an offering for myself too.  I eat a Snickers bar, washed down by cold snow melt.  One of hiking's finer moments.  


Down the trail,  I meet a lone workman rebuilding a bridge by laying broad slabs of chiseled stone across a gap in the trail.  This whole section since the Pass is pretty wet, the stream beside having been violently thrown from its bed by last month's typhoon.  It now traces the spaces between what had once been cobblestone trail.  Further on still it becomes swamp.  The place seems to be popular with wild boars, for their tracks are simply everywhere.  Kumazasa rises up now, above the ruins of another hamlet, this one only revealing itself by a few stone foundations.  Before entering the forest earlier, I'd passed a few abandoned homes, now just a pile of fallen timber.  Beside one, some of the better pieces of wood have been stacked, reusable perhaps as firewood.  But this place higher up has seen no residents for decades.  The Japanese had always feared the mountains, seen them as the place where the dead reside.  But with the coming of the industrial age, they finally pushed upward.  Now, as the birthrate continues its dramatic fall, the mountains are pushing back.

I pay for my lovely hike by being forced to walk the shoulderless Route 8 again.  An hour on I'll enter the hills again, which rise straight up out of the plain.  It is very hard work ascending to the pass, the switchbacks teasing me with a series of false ridgelines.  Atop one, I startle a clan of deer, perhaps a dozen.  I'm breathless as I watch each of them race by me with magical grace and power.  They remain with me all the way to the top.

It's only noon now, the bulk of my day behind me.  After a short lunch, I'll have an equally steep descent, which I negotiate quickly with trekking poles, mimicking the surety of four feet that the deer demonstrated above.  But what those creatures lack are the thumbs needed to work the latch on the gate at the base of the trail.  Once through it, I find myself on the shore of Lake Yodo.  The sun is very warm here, the water very inviting.  I'll navigate its body clockwise, never far from her glistening surface.  Ducks rise with an incredible roar, as the air around them is displaced by the movement of a hundred wings.  My own footfalls are a sorry substitute as they lead once again onto a busy road for the last few kilometers into Kinomoto.

I find a choice of trains, but decide on a route that follows the way I just came, then along the quieter western shore of Biwa.  There's nothing before me cities, and their trademark bustle.

But the day is brilliant and warm.  No need to hurry.

On the turntable:  Ry Cooder, "The Music of Ry Cooder"
On the nighttable:  Rebecca Otowa, "At Home in Japan"

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Different Kind of Luxury

A deep bow to Andy Couturier for allowing me to guest post on his blog. Please go have a look, and while you're there, keep reading...


On the turntable:  Portishead, "Third"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Solitary Man

Now I'm really confused.  I'm standing in front of a sign for the Saba Kaidō, or old mackerel road, the one along which they carried fish down to the Old Capital.  I had thought that there was only one, but this is the third Saba Kaidō that I've walked in this country. 

The transport of seafood means of course that I'm not far from the Sea of Japan.  I'm passing through Imajo once again, a lovely little town that stands at the bottom of a wide valley.  The structures on both sides of the road stand close together, and walking through this canyon of wood I'm shown all the usual features of a post town.  Through the opening at the end of this canyon I can see snow atop some of the hills before me, and I hope that it isn't deep since I'm wearing low top hiking shoes.   

I follow a road that curves along the hillside that it hugs.  A great many figures are carved into the walls of soft rock.  Fudo gets his own clearing, the small waterfall behind him feeding a canal lined with stone.  There are also the graves of dead samurai whose names mean nothing to me.  I remember that Kiso Yoshinaka's men rode through here nearly a millennium ago, and far more passed through over the centuries of civil war that were birthed in the era of his clan.  

I too have walked here, nearly five years ago when I moved southbound along the Hōkuriku-dō, the ancient road which too ran north from then-capital Nara and along the coast.  Though I'd spend the rest of the afternoon walking in and out of small bucolic hamlets, the height of the mountains and the density of this region's forests seem little changed since the 8th Century when this old road was first trod.  This of course could be my own projection, as I've chosen Robert Macfarlane's ironically apt "The Wild Places" as my reading material for this trip.  Yet I had definitely felt this sense of isolation and loneliness back in 2009.

The road leaves the villages as shoots itself like an arrow toward the hills.  There is little up here but a few persimmon orchards and old graves.  I come across the remains of an old post town, which shares the name with the last settlement I walked through, Futatsuya.  There is none of the usual relics of Japan's abandoned places, none of the broken crockery, or the wood fitted loosely to take on a vaguely familiar shape.  All that remains are the old foundation stones, or at least those that hadn't been salvaged to shape the rice terraces further below.  Especially eerie was the old shrine with the roof fallen in.  Most shrines are kept in good stead, and to allow one to rot back into forest was a definitive statement that the people here really wanted to leave.   

The road continues to struggle uphill, switchbacking now as it crosses from one side of the watershed to another.  At one bend a crow shouted down at me, as if warning me away from the Jizo under a stone roof.   Further on, I find two samurai graves beside a tall stele carved with the Lotus sutra.  A wooden sign written with "The Valley of the Slit Neck," goes some length to tell me why those men now lie there.  

And the valley itself continues to cut.  Twice I'm forced up and over the trunks of tree that have come down in landslides.  The latter slide seems only days old, the needles on the cedars moist and green. 

Then the road ends at a broad open space filled with grass cut into perfectly shaped rectangles that directly climb the hillsides.  The ski lifts which bisect these rectangles are silent now, but it is only a matter of weeks before they'll start humming again.  On the way up, I'd mistaken snow for what I thought was some sort of detergent dumped down the shadowy slopes.  The snow is a bit thicker here, but not yet enough for a good run.  I sit on one of the lift chairs and have lunch, but the sky is threatening again.  A light rain has fallen twice today, for only a few minutes each time, but the clouds here at 600 meters look like they mean business.  I eat quickly, then move on.

I walk a concrete path straight up the hillside, until a sign indicates a trail off to my right.  I'd never have found it myself, buried as it is under a few inches of snow.  Atop the ridge, the snow is thicker, less wet.  A sign tells me that Dogen too had walked this trail, back and forth to Eiheiji, which lies a full day's walk to the north.  I have better footwear than he, but still I struggle to the actual top of the ridge.  The trail levels off as it hugs the ridgeline, apparently a busy thoroughfare due to all the deer and bear tracks here. 

I take a short break out of the rain at the Jizo Hall here, the deity within carved into a rock wall behind, looking as if it predates the Hokurikudō itself.  As I sit and write notes, I think of the hands of the man who carved this figure, both of us passing one another on the path to immortality.

Ten minutes up trail, I pass my own self, the one who walked through here previously.  I see the same lovely tea house, the same trio of white dogs, including the aggressive one off his chain.  I again speak to it firmly in English, trusting that it can't be that aggressive precisely because it is unchained.  I forego the climb to the top of Mt. Hachibuse this time and instead plunge down the other side of the pass.

The kumazasa isn't as high this time, probably pressed back by a summersful of hikers.  I arrive at the spot from which I hitched before, but today I carry on downhill into the next village.  The houses here, like those on the other side of the pass, have new glass porches around the older wooden facades, to protect the entrances from the heavy snows here.  There's a small bus shelter standing in the shade of a massive camphor which serves too as protection from the elements. 

From here I'll be the one that needs protection, mainly from myself.  I read the written directions on my map and eager to stay off the busy road, plunge down into the forest.  The trail leads me to a rickety bridge, then stops.  I push onward, along what could be trails, but may simply be the spaces between rows of planted arbors.  The odd footprint beckons me on, but eventually the ever thickening vegetation reveals my error.  Despite having been lost in the snows not a year before, I stubbornly refuse to turn back.  The terrain underfoot is near invisible due to fallen leaves and other debris, and in warmer months I'd never traverse something this snake-y.  I push and pull myself through the thicket, at one time taking a firm grasp of a thorny trunk, which does a fine job of perforating my palms.  I carry this stigma onward until I finally see a concrete bridge that spans the gap that has been ever to my right.  The ground I've fought for over the past thirty minutes would've taken me less than ten by road.  As I sit on a concrete berm and rest, I realize that the direction I'd followed, to stay to the left of the stream, had been written from the perspective of walking from the opposite direction.

I stick to the road from here on.  I'll go through another bigger village that has a stele commemorating the Meiji emperor having a had a "short rest here" (the dude got around more than George Washington),  but also a larger stone for an elementary school, now closed.  The stone has the usual school song, sung from its opening during the first decade of the Meiji period  (whose eponymous emperor may have even heard it sung), until its final students put down their pencils for the last time seven years before.  It strikes me that the oldest of these would have graduated high school just this spring.  I'm further struck by the sight of a school zone sign, its message rusting in the elements.

The rest of the day is spent with one eye on the sky, but the weather holds off.  A pass takes me from one hamlet to another, then a second pass drops me on the outskirts of Tsuruga's suburbs.  It is an unattractive town, in the shared way that all industrial port towns are unattractive.  It doesn't get much more attractive, the closer I get to its heart.  Yet I wonder more at the hearts of its residents, who would allow not only the factories, smokestacks, and oil refineries, but also the nuke plant out at the end of the peninsula.  The sight of all these smothers the excitement I'd felt at the thought of eating local seafood here.

I do like the sidewalks covered as protection against heavy snow, yet these end too soon, as does my enthusiasm.  I walk in and through town, before finding my hotel at its southern edge.  Lodged as I am on the seventh floor, I've got a good view of the city, and unlike most hotels in Japan, the windows aren't locked to protect me if said view makes me want to forlornly toss myself out one of them.  

This cheerful thought in mind, I grab a least common denominator meal at a budget Chinese franchise across the road, rewarding myself with two beers:  one for the walk, and one to distract me from thinking about what may be in the ingredients. 


On the turntable:  Johnny Cash, "American III" 

Monday, December 09, 2013

Musings on Kodo's "Mystery"

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see "Mystery,"  the newest performance by Kodo.  The experience was made doubly enjoyable since I went with a friend who was a former Kodo apprentice.  It has been five years since I last saw Kodo live,  and was quite looking forward to it. 

I had read that "Mystery" would be a counterpart of sorts to Kodo's previous "Amaterasu,"  which I saw back in 2006.   Besides my love of taiko, I was especially intrigued with the show since it would be dealing with themes that have long interested me, namely the ancient spirituality of Japan.  (That said, the next section is simply my own interpretation, and may be miles away from what Artistic Director Bando Tomasaburo had intended.) 

The show opens with a darkened stage, in the days before there was a "Japan."  A handful of figures come out with lights on their heads, bending occasionally to plant rice.  From this first piece, the female members of Kodo would be featured prominently throughout the first half, perhaps as a nod to a time when the archipelago consisted of little more than loosely connected clans, a time when shamanesses held a pivotal role.  This would become more explicit in the piece "Namahage," in which three women make reverent offerings to the wild deities whom they encounter in the wild.  Up until now the stage had been lit only by other performers carrying had-held lamps.  At some point, a spotlight begins to light the action, perhaps the coming of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu herself.  Then we get more conventional overhead lighting, as the Shinto cult brightens and comes to the fore.  Many of the pieces in this first act have tints of the music of Southeast Asian, a region which may have been the cultural source of these early shamanistic clans of that time. 

The second act begins a similar vein, in dim lighting, with a handful of women at the center of the action.  Suddenly, they encounter a Chinese lion, which begins to shake and dance.  At first, the lion chases the women, but then eventually they begin to run after it, perhaps a reference to the coming of culture from the Asian mainland, embraced to such an extreme that the older ways were eventually subsumed within.  From here, it is all a show of strength, the male Kodo members coming to the fore, blowing us away with their power.  And thus it builds into what my aforementioned friend laughingly refers to as "The Man Show." And due to this power,  Japan's championing of society and culture over darkness is complete. 

Musically, the show is incredible.  The speed on which the performers play Katsugi-Okedo, especially on the closing piece of the first act, is ridiculously fast.  (I've seen my share of taiko performances, but have never seen such rapid stick work.)  The movement and dance choreography has similar perfection.  The performers never cease moving.  Even on the more static numbers, there are a lot of flourishes, a lot of twirling sticks.  I was intrigued too by how much of a foreign element there were to the more recent compositions.  Some of the vocals in the first act sounds almost medieval European.        

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how few of the performers I recognized. (The members of Kodo that I actually know personally were nowhere to be seen, with the exception of Uchida Eri, who happily has grown into a central role in the group.)    Perhaps Bando had hoped to utilize this youth as a means of accentuating a time when the culture and beliefs of this country were still developing.  But the young performers are beyond the development stage, and demonstrate already an air of mastery with every strike of the drum.  Which in itself cuts both ways.  This perfection of both playing and movement demonstrates the strength of Kodo's apprentice program, yet it is dangerously close to creating almost cookie-cutter performers.  Nearly everyone looks the same,  no one member is particularly distinctive.  While Kodo has always been an ensemble, a collective, right down to living communally,  previous members brought something individual to the performances.  Many of those older members are now teaching workshops, or are performing collectively with non-Kodo performers across various cultures and performance styles.  I feel somewhat doubtful that this young generation has the ability to exude enough unique and individual creativity that will help them stand out from the others, and hence go on to pass that creativity to others, as their elders are currently doing.  I hope time proves me wrong.

Kodo's magical "Mystery" tour with continue through the spring, including dates at Kyoto's Minamiza on May 30, 31, and June 1. 

On the turntable: Jefferson Airplane, "Ignition"

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sunday Papers: Charles Bukowski

"There's nothing to mourn about death any more than there is to mourn about the growing of a flower. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don't live up until their death. They don't honor their own lives ... their minds are full of cotton. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow country without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them.... Most people's deaths are a sham. There's nothing left to die."

On the turntable:  X, "Under the Big Black Sun"

Friday, December 06, 2013

All Together...Now

The mustachioed man puffs out cigarette smoke like a steam locomotive, the stripes of the crosswalk serving as railroad ties.  I sit before him, on the other side of the glass, in a hip little place I found as I walked through Jingu-mae.  I had three hours to kill, so it had been a day spent moving slow, quite a luxury in a city of Tokyo's size, particularly as it was a weekday. 

From this window of San Francisco Peaks,  I spy berets and beards,  Van Dykes and VW Beetles.  A T-shirt bearing the words, "United Arrows" reminds me for a moment of the PM, and I remind myself that sloganeering generally indicates a lack of ideas.  There's more depth in the pop song coming through the speakers.  Despite that, there's definitely an increase in men in uniforms these days.  And I do hope that some of these hipsters I see passing by notice it too.     

I sip IPA from a plastic glass, which rests soundly on a denim coaster perfectly squared.  There are no other customers in here, so the waitress throws a glance every so often as she moves a cloth over metal utensils.  Waitstaff in Japan certainly polish a lot of silverware.  Every sip of my beer adds another ring to the smooth inner curve of the glass, and before long it begins to look like the banded atmosphere of Jupiter. 

Before ordering another pint, I climb the stairs to the toilet.  Along the wall are posters of San Francisco in its hippie heyday, one in particular of a crowd taken from the stage of some outdoor concert.  Psychedelic lettering above their shaggy heads reads, "All Together...Now."   And I'm together with them, the owners downstairs, with the whole chilled out vibe here.  They certainly have created a nice space.  But what they may not realize is that San Francisco Peaks is the name of a mountain range outside Flagstaff.  Unless of course it's an acid reference.  San Francisco peaking.  All together.  Now.

Out on the street, a guy in a beanie bobs his head deferently as he speaks with a tall man in a leather jacket and black pork pie hat.  I imagine them to be a struggling musician talking to a famous record producer, in a casual meeting here on the street.  In Japan, even the hipsters bow...

On the turntable:  Beck, "Mellow Gold"
On the nighttable: "The Ise Stories"

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Fuji, Once Around (The Roads)

I leave the comfort of my inn only to be lashed in the face by the cold.  I'm wearing every piece of clothing I've been carrying, yet the cold still find a way through.  The sun isn't yet up, but every step through the dark brings warmth into my body. 

When walking roads, I tend to leave early, so as to get a good two or three hours under my feet before the traffic builds.  But already, the accompaniment of headlights sweeps my front and back, escorting me out of town like a lynch mob.  The road, Rte 469, eventually winds up a hill past a golf club, then becomes a long straightaway which bisects a section of military base.  Olive trucks continue to make up the bulk of the traffic, and here and again a lone soldier stands by the roadside.  They look like actors playing GI's in some WWII film, lean and lanky in a uniform two sizes too big. 

Both sides of the road are low grass, mowed and kept trim by one of these low ranking soldiers probably.  The tips of the grass are white with frost, and as I move along the sun finds me, popping up behind the Hakone range to the south and stretching my shadow toward the great volcano.  

It had been a bitterly cold night, yet despite this Fuji seems to have lost some of her snowy cap.  Nevertheless, it extends well down her shapely shoulders.  I sit awhile on a concrete berm watching her.  She watches me drink coffee.  To my left, Mt. Ashitaka who tries to tempt me away from the road.  I long for another day like yesterday, moving along the peace of mountain trails, and nearly talk myself into temporarily leaving the highway and meeting it again on the other side.  But to do so means adding additional kilometers and I'm facing 37 already.  I'd never make it Shiraito today.  Which means returning to complete the journey sometime in the future.  I stay with the bitumen. 

I leave 469 for another road that looks smaller on my map, yet I find it more heavily trafficked.  Worse, it leads straight uphill.   There are no shoulders here, so I hug the sides, tightrope walking above the gutter beneath high concrete walls.  The exertion brings on sweat beneath all the layers, tempting me to shed one or two, but each passing truck splashes me in its cold wake.  Morning rush hour is the worst time of day to walk, drivers speeding late to work, little expecting the walker coming out of the sun.  More than half are certain to be further distracted by mobile phones.  I dread most the blind curves, anticipating the moment when my body gets its final lesson in physics.  As if a reminder, a surprisingly large deer lies newly dead on the side of the road, light still in its eyes and foam bubbling from slightly parted lips. 

But I make it finally to the top of the low hill, to an open area that looked like pasture.  The Suyama route to the summit is somewhere in the trees behind me.  I warm myself in the sun awhile, then walked past the safari park to take a longer rest at the trail head to Ashitaka.  As I remove a couple layers,  a group of hikers stretches in the parking lot.   

I've swung to the south of Fuji now.  Restaurants, B&B's, and tourist shops have replaced the bases here.  Plus the traffic is much, much lighter.  I walk an actual sidewalk, along a sunny stretch of road.  It's still Rte 469, yet in my mind, I am in the northern limits of New Mexico.  The trees are different, but they frame a distant landscape filled with the snow-capped towering peaks of south Colorado.  I feast on this view until the eyes are overruled by the cravings of the stomach.  Climbing wearily up to a shrine to the yama no kami, I gaze out at Suruga Bay, just visible from this height.  It reminds me of something I once read about the yamabushi, about how their sacred sites are in the mountains because that is where they found the best views of the water.  The Japanese are a seafaring people, and so are their gods.    

Body and mind thus sated, I press on.  I'm quite pleased at my pace, 25 km before noon.  I had many such days in Shikoku, but only after a three week build-up of daily walking.  Today however is only day two.  I take a final rest at an outdoor BBQ place called Jumbo, across the road from a half dozen railway cars converted into karaoke boxes, yet now rusting and sprouting weeds.  The BBQ pits too look unused, if only  since the end of summer.  Yet I am still able to find a working outlet to charge my GPS.   The whinnying of the ponies in the adjacent corral serves as lullaby as I take a quick catnap on a bench in the sun.

I move toward a grove of high ceders to find Murayama Sengen Jinja. Shinto in name, the shrine is filled with Buddhist deities.  Again, the roots of Fuji worship go far back in time.  

But I move forward.  Up Rte 72, a dull walk ever lined by monocultural forest on both sides.  For the first time in two days, I can no longer see Fuji beyond my right shoulder.  With so little here to attract the eyes, I allow my music to take me to other places.  Before long, I'm coming into Shiraito town.  A couple more kilometers to the falls. Just as I'm hoping that there is a craft beer on sale in one of the shops, I notice a small cafe that claims to sell German brew.  In the parking lot is a European man loading crates into the bed of a pickup.  He tells me that he'll be closed until 4 pm, but he can sell me a bottle to go.  As he rings me up, I tell him that I'm planning to toast my walking 7 albeit nonconsecutive days around Mt.  Fuji.  Not only does he not seem at all interested, but he acts as if he hears this kind of thing from every customer.  With a similar lack of chalance, I drift out the door and up the road.

Then I'm standing at the overlook to the falls.  The water is indeed a white thread stretching effortlessly down the face of the rock wall.   Just as they were the first time I'd stood here a year ago, workmen and machines tear into the floor of the river bed, making the future passage easier for high heels and pampered pedigrees pooches.  I think that I'll probably never return, then turn and walk back past the old shops and their perpetual Showa era goods, out to the road in order to follow where my thumb will take me. 

On the turntable:  Wings, "Wings Greatest"
On the nighttable:  Robert Macfarlane, "The Wild Places"

Monday, December 02, 2013

Fuji, Once Around (The Hills)

The bear prints in the mud betray what may be lurking in the  kumazasa that lines both sides of the trail, grown as tall as I am this late in autumn.  But I don't scan the bushes for any dark, black shadows, as the act of holding up my head takes too much effort.  I'm tired.

This morning at 6:30, when I walked toward my bus, I was still a little drunk.  I don't usually drink to the point of drunkenness, but it is no surprise that I love good beer, and my friend Patrick had introduced me to a brewhouse that served loads of it.  As we downed our pints, I could feel them conspiring against me.  I hadn't eaten much that day, and was quite fatigued from a week long tour.  As fun as guiding can be, I usually don't sleep well.  Going for one last pint had seemed like a good idea at the time, but it proved to be a beer too far.  I found an empty seat in the reserved compartment of an express out of Tokyo, and later, rode as far as Fujiyama Station, my inebriated head bobbing along with those of the handful of men who seem to do this long journey every day.  

A bit of bread and coffee had helped ground me by the time I got off the bus at Hirano.  A year ago, I'd hitched a ride from this intersection, after a 6-day tour over the low peaks that frame Fuji's five lakes.  In fact I'd started not far from a sixth, Tanuki-ko, which lies a short flight away from Shiraito Falls by crow, yet what had proven three tough vertical hours on foot for me.  With Fuji serving the center of a clock's face, Shiraito would be at eight, and Hirano at two.  Sixty-five clockwise kilometers lay between, a distance I'd try to cover in two long days.

It was still quiet this early, Lake Yamanaka visible between B&B's and tennis courts.  I found my trailhead after 20 minutes or so, and began to ascend up a narrow ravine carved out by the feet of pilgrims and hikers.  The trail was covered in leaves ankle deep, and in warmer seasons I'd be thinking of snakes.  But the temps this morning had yet to pass zero, so I figured I was safe until March.  

Before long, I came to a viewpoint, to find a film crew setting up.  A couple of black vans parked nearby had "Patagonia" written on their sides.  The day was incredibly clear.  I considered this a reward for my head start.  Fuji loomed majestically on the left, and the crisp blue of Lake Yamanaka offset the brilliance of the snow capped South Alps further out.  The moon too lingered in the sky as if wanting a little more time with this million dollar view.  Myself similarly sated, I pushed upward into the kumazasa.

The top of this mound, Mt. Myojin, is completely bald and a good place for a long rest.  The sign pointing south tells me it is only 20 minutes to Mt. Mikuni, but nearly an hour passes before I arrive at the top, puffing and sweat drenched. As I attempt to catch my breath, I am beset upon by a handful of elderly hikers who ask their usual questions.  We have a pleasant chat before they leave me to my chocolate and the quiet.

I pass them not long after, as I make good time along this flat part of the ridge.  A bit too quick perhaps, as I surprise something large and grey which races through my eyeline and down the ridge.  A deer, based on the way it moved, but the coloring and size suggest a frighteningly large boar.  Yet the day is too nice to ruin with worry, and I move onward beneath the beautiful buna, shorn of all leaf. 

The ridgeline rises and falls over four peaks.  Each climb takes considerable effort, and I wish each time that I had slept more and had drank less.  Atop the last of the peaks I find a sign pointing to an overlook, which I find to be covered by 30 hikers quietly eating their lunch.  They are a friendly hiking club, one member seeming convinced I'm German.  After they leave, I spend a long time here, Fuji sitting just before me.  She tells me stories as I have my lunch.

Then downward, downward.  Toward the bottom, the trail is well cared for, with woodchips lining the earth.  I step from these onto the narrow streets bisecting holiday homes.  Something, the color of the sky perhaps, makes me sing the lyrics to "Tangled Up in Blue" as I follow the hilly roads down to the trailhead for the Subashiri Route.  Here, as at the start of all of Fuji's  trailheads, stands an Asama Shrine.  This one is pretty elaborate, with lots of little stones and stele nestled amidst the cobweb of little paths through the forested grounds.  In one small afterthought of a building, there's even a video about Fuji's World Heritage status.   

When I leave the shrine I find myself in Gotemba's outer suburbs.  As such, the next stretch is not a particularly interesting walk, skirting as it does a military base.  This entire eastern face of Fuji seems to be covered by a chain of bases, on land isolated enough on which to train, yet strategically close to Tokyo.  For the rest of the day, the majority of vehicles that pass are of the same drab shade of green.  As a kind of counterpoint, I find a racetrack, with men wheeling through figure eights and gunning along the straightaways in colorful vehicles not much larger than bumper cars.  I watch them awhile, then leave the main road.  

Gravel crunches beneath my steps as I move quietly through the trees.  The only traffic through here are trucks,  either the military variety, or else dump trucks toting earth somewhere.  I could be in Alaska here.  Midway along I pass a massive works project, which a guardman tells me will be a dam.  But there is simply no water anywhere in sight. 

I make an abrupt left and am back in suburbs, these a little nicer that the last set.  It actually looks a pleasant place to live, with little veggie plots, rustic country architecture, and as always, the mountain looming above.  I'm completely reliant on my GPS through here, zigzagging as I am.  I'm pleased that the plotted course also takes me along dirt paths through sections of forest, rather than sticking simply to the roads.  And I know I'm moving away from the bases when I see traces of the old ways again:   Jizo and stone markers; bamboo groves and tea bushes.  The stones help me imagine centuries of men being drawn toward Fuji like it's a beacon.  

Yet I am different, a man of my own times, being led away from the mountain -- and from the sacred -- by the latest in handheld technology.  

On the turntable:  Rolling Stones, "Let It Bleed"
On the nighttable:  Sarah Bird,  "The Yokota Officer's Club"