Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa IV

February 26, 2003

Started the morning once again at Starbucks, filling in blank journal pages and waiting for Keiko.  We met up at 1 pm,  and she took me onto one of the US military bases.  We signed in and then went to an area that looked like the foodcourt at the mall:  Taco Bell, Burger King, Pizza Hut.  All in US prices and sizes.  This experience felt the opposite of my usual life in rural Japan, avoiding the American eyes looking at my hair, my earring, my clothes.  I felt conspicuous, but not uncomfortable.  In the Px I looked at books, vitamins, food, all of it cheap.  Keiko had kept her Px card from when her ex-husband had been stationed here, and she shopped here often to save money.  

Considering her and the band's political stance, she told me that she felt a sense of guilt about her slight appreciation for the bases on Okinawa, since they helped preserve the natural environment, albeit in a bizarre, backward way.  In the past, when a base was decommisioned, the usual Japanese companies would move in and put up all the usual shit that clutters the mainland:  Pachinko, chain shops, fast food.  The bases are wide expanses of green grass and forest, a reminder of how the island used to look.  But she doesn't condone what the bases stand for, and worries about the chemicals buried beneath. 

She motioned to the dozens of troops doing maneuvers here and there, saying that the base is usually quiet, and this recently activity was leading to all sorts of rumors.  It was strange the familiarity, comfort, and nostalgia I felt, yet it was hard to ignore the macho posturing of the GIs, and the propaganda posters.  On the main road facing the front gate was a poster "reminding" us of the Ten Commandments.

We had picked up pizza and beer for Keiko's ex-husband, and headed to his house.  He was bare-chested on the lawn when we arrived, beer in hand.  My first impression admittedly wasn't great, but literally minutes into our conversation, we connected quite easily.  As expected, his first question was, "Why did you come to Okinawa?"

We sat and talked for a couple of hours, drinking beer and eating the pizza.  He'd been in Okinawa for 18 years, and had been captured by the spirits and subsequently found it impossible to leave.  We went through the usual list of power spots, by now coming familiar.  He told me of his many experiences and dreams, which even now he's beginning to figure out.  He'd followed the urge to climb a hill and found a tomb that even the nuru (shamaness)  didn't know about.  He'd seen a white horse in a vision, a symbol common to the Celts, his own people. Stranger still was a vision had with open eyes, of Stonehenge with Chinese zodiac animals dancing in the air and Shokichi playing in the middle.  Shokichi has a saying that when Heaven and Earth meet, there will be a great festival.  Paul figures that if he were to stand in the middle of Stonehenge, a portal would open to some place he'd want to go.  

Though English by birth, he was former US military (hence Keiko's base connections), and had strong opinions on Iraq.  Ten years ago he'd predicted that we would be there again today.  He had done a lot of research on Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, the father of religions. The split of Abraham's sons had formed the Christian and Muslim worlds.  Paul felt that this war could be a chance to reunite them.  When this began, the face of the true devil would appear, starting a chain of events that would not be about politics or oil.  It seemed to be the will of Heaven...

On the turntable:  The Greyboy Allstars, "Live"
On the nighttable:  Norman Sherry, "The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 3"

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


A drop
In the puddle of time.
One-thousandth post.

On the turntable:  James Galway, "The Chieftains in Ireland"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Papers: Donald Ritchie

"People say, 'When did you fall in love with Japan?'  I never did; Japan is not lovable, but it's supremely interesting."

On the turntable:  Jerry Garcia, "All Good Things"

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #60

The mountains my chapel.
Dropping with reverence,
Into knee-deep snow.

On the turntable:  Black Dub, "Black Dub"


Friday, February 22, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #59

No kiss of lovers beneath,
No embrace of leaves above.
Next year's mistletoe.

On the turntable:  Four Tet, "Rounds"

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #58

Bodies at rest
Bodies in motion
Biding time 'til spring.

On the turntable:  Marianne Faithfull, "A Collection of her Best.
On the nighttable:  Lian Hearn, "Brilliance of the Moon"

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa III

February 25, 2003

I wiled away my morning at Starbucks, reading and writing along to Sinatra's croon.  I was picked up at 11:00 for a whirlwind day.  We first headed out to an utaki on the outskirts of Naha.   We were the first to arrive, so we cleaned it a little before the others arrived.   The area below us was fed by a stream, and there a homeless guy was washing his clothes.  This place was dedicated to the male gods. 

When the others arrived, including all the members of Champloose, we knelt or sat behind the old shamaness, who prayed awhile.  Suddenly one of them began to sing, the phrasing familiar to me from Okinawan music, but the words were a direst message to Shokichi about how next to proceed on his path to peace.  (Apparently this event today was related to his safe return from Iraq.)  As the message went on, many people were crying, including the main shamaness, who shook violently.

A similar scene was repeated at the next utaki, for the gods of women and the earth.  Here, they said prayers for my son, Ken.  As this went on, I sat with eyes closed, yet even without realizing that I was crying, tears poured out.  Whatever was going on moved me, significantly, even if I didn't speak the language.  Later, the shamanes said something about Georgia, which Shokichi related to Martin Luther King, Jr.  I am still unsure about the connection with Ken.

Next was an utaki at the base of a large volcanic rock standing beside a Shinto shrine.  Below us ran a system of caves.  Shells and bits of coral were spread amongst the gravel.   Here, at a place for the god of the world (society?) the message from the gods was again about peace.  When we finished, we all ate cup raman with waribashi, while sitting in the Buddha's area.  (I'll keep my cynical comments to myself.)  Shokichi asked me a few questions about Ken's death.  Earlier, when he first saw me, he looked suspicious.  I suppose that all famous people are leery of strangers and their needs, and here I was intruding on something very personal.  He wanted to know why I had come to Okinawa, and I said something about wanting to find a bit of Okinawa's heart.  Though completely casual and unthreatening, it felt like a mild challenge, and no doubt all anthropologists are challenged when encountering a people and their rituals. At this particular moment,  I definitely felt out of place.   

Everyone left, but Keiko, Hiromi, and I carried on with the shamanesses.  First, to a small grove between apartment buildings, the roots of the trees smashing through concrete, and their branches sheltering cats.  Next, to a small room in a small house in the city's former red light district, which contained three altars, three cats, and three very skittish dogs.  In both places,  the gods remained silent.

Last, we did three "services" back at Chakra.  The first was surprisingly at a small shrine in the parking lot.   Next up was in the band's offices, kneeling on a small, raised tatami platform placed between a small garden filled with birds, and a huge book collection composed primarily of spiritual works.  These time, we seemed mainly to be chanting sutras.  Last up was in the bar itself.  Here the god's message was for me, but before I knew that fact, I had felt a major power surge in my chest.  The words, "New Jersey" came out,  a place unknown to the shamaness, but the place where I'd grown up.  She said that my being here today had a serious significance. She also told me a little about Ken's death.  Christianity today is concerned mostly with heaven, and Ken (middle name, Gaia) falling from above was a way of reconnecting with Earth.  She told me that his zodiac sign of Tiger represented water, yet she didn't know the details of how he died.  All of this is really strange and mysterious and wonderful, and I really wish that I could figure it all out.

After a quick meal of yakisoba, Keiko and I headed up to Okinawa City to see some live music.  There were a lot of military bases up that way, and I spotted a number of GI's.  The roads up here were wide and lined with foreign shops, Indian tailors, US fast food.  Keiko told me that twenty years ago this area had been hopping, but had since lost its spark, a fact apparent by the quiet streets at 10 pm.  We went to Nantahama, a livehouse featuring Yohen Aiko.  We were the only customers, so rather than play, she chatted with us for awhile, mainly about the slow death of Okinawan music, the few young hopefuls, and how media support and coverage is weak.  We also discussed the Okinawans underlying fear of terrorism against all these military bases they 'hosted,' once the Iraq war inevitably began.  

Next, we were able to catch the end of a set by Ganeko Yoriko over at her club, Hime.  Afterward she came to greet us, asking Keiko, "Is this your son?  Boyfriend?"  Keiko by now had a set intro, saying that I was American but had been living in Yonago for eight years.  A quick disclaimer.  Yoriko was incredibly friendly and funny, years of performing had made her movements flamboyant and graceful, the perfect image of a geisha.  We talked about the relationships between men and women and how Okinawan women generally take good care of their husbands,  Both she and Keiko desparately wanted boyfirends, and I was fascinated to listen to two famous women talk about mundane things such as men, looks, and illnesses. The woman behind the bar was having a conversation with a couple of customers about her being used to Americans and not being afraid.  When I chimed in, she was surprised that I could speak Japanese.  It is funny that I've heard America and its politics mentioned more in three days in Okinawa than I'd heard it in eight years in mainland Japan...

On the turntable:  Muddy Waters, "Floyd's Guitar Blues"

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Papers: Anonymous

"The only way to be loyal to the heritage of the pioneers is to pioneer, rather than to go one standing where the pioneers once stood."

On the turntable:  Jeff Buckley, "Liquid Room, Tokyo, 01-30-95"

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa II

February 24, 2003

I awoke late the next day having slept badly.  The bar next door to my hotel went on until the early morning hours. I taxied over to Shuri castle, wandering its circular paths beneath low arches.  The remnants of the walls wound all along the hillside.  The castle itself was quite impressive from the outside, with a huge Chinese style courtyard fronting a massive structure that was multicolored against the grey stormy sky. Inside, however, was a let-down, with narrow hallways leading in a maze, obviously rebuilt, and filled with tourists moving much too slowly.  

At the base of the hill was a single temple building sitting on an island in a small pond. This well weathered building was in drab contrast to the sakura just beginning to bloom into bright pink.  The tree was a welcome reminder that spring would come, punctuating the end of what had been a particularly hard winter.

Down the road was Tama Udun, the ancient burial site of the Ryukyu kings.  I had the place to myself, this crescent of stone in a quiet forest clearing.  Two frightening statues stood on either end, overlooking the gloom that hung about.

I headed downhill along Madamamichi, a series of cobblestone roads webbing out between old tiled houses.  Cats lay around everywhere, adding to the already Mediterranean feel.  Completely accidentally, I came across my first utaki, a large grove in which stood six 20-meter high trees, their branches crisscrossing high above to form a natural aviary.  Near the base of a few of the trees were small stone arches, serving as Torii.  

I taxied over to Tsudoya, the pottery area, with its old workshops and ivy-covered lanes.  Shishi were everywhere.  Next to the oldest kiln, 400 years old and collapsing, was a tea shop.  I sat in the shade and drank goya juice (noxiously bitter, like grapefruit gone bad) and watched a cat stalk around, pouncing on a black friend.

After lunch, I met up with Keiko.  She had to run a few errands, so I accompanied her to a shoe store where we happened to find a newspaper article about Shokichi's recent trip to Iraq.  While there, we ran into an old sanshin master from Kudaka, and his apprentice, with whom we were to meet later in the week.

Afterwards, we went to a dance studio to watch a man work through a waltz with a woman in her '50s. With unusual grace, so poised were her movements that she completely spun her heavyset partner around the room.  Books on zen and martial arts speak of holding the head like a string of pearls.  Here I was seeing it put into practice, supported by strong back muscles and perhaps 40 years of dancing.  Next, Keiko took a turn, giggling as she slipped again and again.  

We moved down the street to the market, filled with an array of very colorful and very dead fish.  Parts of pigs I never thought edible.  Huge lobsters, crabs, and pufferfish.  We moved through a series of smaller alleys to a used record shop.  When does a musician get used to seeing their own face, or to hearing their own music everywhere?  

Walking through town, Keiko knew just about everyone, greeting the old men with "Haisai!"  I am used to traveling by thumb, but today it was by her finger.  Yet I was happy to be here in the first place.  And I almost shouldn't have been due to a language misunderstanding.  When Keiko had asked me the night before why I had come to Okinawa, I told it that I had wanted to see live Okinawan music, and to visit power spots.  She told me later that she had at first thought that I was some weird foreigner, touring around the island's power factories.  Eventually, she caught onto my meaning.  (Funny how as I now type this ten years later, 'power spot' is well-recognized part of the Japanese lexicon.)  

We picked up her car, then drove to Nami-No-Uegu Shrine, sitting high above the harbor on a hill.  It looked and felt like a typical Shinto Shrine, but Keiko assured me that Okinawa is a bit different.  Next door was Koshi-byo, my first Confucian Temple in Japan.  It consisted of an enclosed grassy area with three small buildings each housing only a table and small altar.  

Next up was Okunogu, an unusual temple on a hill in a nearby park.  The upper part of the structure was a shrine, the lower building filled with varied Buddhist deities.  On a clearing above all was a small series of stones, symbolic of the shamanesses in the area.  Keiko knelt in the grass and prayed.  Around back was a pond with a couple gods, including Kannon surrounded by multiple Jizo.  After I ladled water over the goddess, Keiko seemed curious why.  So I told her that I'd lost my son only a few months before.  She immediately sprang into action and within minutes we held a short Shinto service upstairs, followed by a similar Buddhist one down in the building below.  Afterward, the shamaness who had conducted it explained to me that Shinto represents heaven, and Buddhism, earth.  In old times, this was the usual state of spirituality everywhere throughout Japan, but during Meiji, this link had been severed, leaving the gods disembodied and the soul of the Japanese people sacrificed for wealth and power. Only at this shrine did this link continue.

Back on Kokusai-dori, we went into a shop specializing in Okinawan instruments, one long associated with the Kina family.  Behind the counter was a young woman from Kyoto, now married to a local.  As she played sanshin, Keiko taught me some basic chappa techniques.  Keiko's mother came in at one point and they talked about me in the Okinawan language.  The mother, hearing of my interest in spirituality, took to me quickly, bemoaning the fact that Japan has lost its soul.  Nationality isn't as important as heart, she told me.  

Later, Keiko and I went up the street to Jin Jin, a local restaurant run by a guy who looked like a wizard in his long white beard.  I tried a variety of Okinawa dishes, including pig's ears.  Keiko and I kept our conversation in the realm of the spiritual, including the oddity of our meeting and our obvious connection.  She told me that she had noticed me from the stage, and had felt that there was something different about me, that I seemed to be carrying something inside.   She told me that with most people, you can't talk about spirit, but with me it was easy.  We also talked about strange experiences.  She told me that while on Yonaguni, an island supposedly without snakes, a habu had come out and had wrapped itself around the incense holder while the shamanesses were reciting prayers.  A similar thing had happened on Miyako.  Strange stuff.  

After dinner, I walked her a little ways up the road, until I popped into Helios for a couple of beers, and a conversation with an American guy living in Aomori...  

On the turntable:  Bruce Springsteen, "American Madness"

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sitting Zen, Swatting Zen

Watching the mind

*           *            *

Time flies.
Mind flies.
Mind flies?
Shoo fly shoo!

On the turntable:  Clarence Gatemouth Brown, "Texas Swing"

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Papers: Chuck Simmons

"The Southwestern environment can't easily be tamed by haiku or zen."

On the turntable:  Billy Cobham, "Inner Conflicts"

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa I

"There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

--Leonard Cohen

 February 23, 2003

Early flight south, camera affixed to the nose of the plane, which filmed a two-hour long establishing shot of water and clouds far below.   Coming from the perspective of a frigid San-in winter, how wonderful it was to land in heat and humidity.  American military bases flexed their muscles at my bus as I rode in from the airport.  I checked into my box of a hotel room with its bamboo furniture, then hit Kokusai-dori, following it up and down for hours, ducking down alleys and exploring arcades.  I probably did about 15 km in all.  This was still Japan, but more exotic in my eyes.  By the end of the day, I was starting to distinguish who was "Yamato" from who wasn't.   Those with more 'purity of blood' ironically look more Asian.  The feel of the place reminded me of Korea's Cheju-do.

My first stop was a taco stand, deep fried of all things, then dropped in at every shop selling music or sanshin.  I wandered toward a park and found a series of ruins of something, multi-leveled and burgeoning with stone steps.  Nearby was a small shop filled with instruments from all over the world.  I chatted awhile with the owner, an attractive, and incredibly fit woman in her 60's.  What I had been admiring was the leftovers from her husband's vast collection, with all the really good stuff in a New York museum.  She and her husband had lived in the city for eight years, time enough for her to have picked up a degree at NYU.  Very interesting person.  She showed me a flute made from a human femur, and told me that the bones of criminals have the most power.  Meaning, I guess, that to blow through this thing is to open the door to some pretty unpleasant mojo.  

A little later, I came across a peace protest in a small park.   My first live music on the island.  One woman, singing alone with a sanshin, had unbelievable power.  Her second song was to the accompaniment of a tape, which continued even after she had stopped playing for a moment in order to tune.  A trio played next, followed by a group of kids led by a dyed-haired young woman with a walker.  A couple of mentally handicapped guys and clapped, while the rest of the crowd, all passersby, waved their arms and sang along.  A very hip crowd. I talked awhile with one of the organizers about this event, its message being that war hurts kids most of all.    

A little further up the road, I met an artist selling his stuff.  At first I thought that he was copying the work of Aida Mitsuo.  I asked, "Is he still alive?" then he looked surprised and said, "These are mine!"  By this time, I had already told him that a former girlfriend had given me a book of these prints six years ago.  He probably thought me insane. 

I dropped into a Indonesian restaurant for some nashigoren, which I'd always wanted to try.  Across the street for a quick cappucino, then a few doors up to Chakra, Kina Shokichi's bar.  I admired the photos on the wall of he and other famous celebrities.  I was tired for my flight and had dropped in mainly to find out when the band would be playing this week, intending to go back to the hotel early.  But the woman at the front said that I may as well watch the show since I was already here, and a minute later I was sitting at a table directly in front of the stage.  

While waiting for the show to start, we were shown a video biography.  First on stage were a couple of old women doing a traditional dance with various props like a folding fan, clappers, and finally, a scroll.  The footwork was amazing for their age, the movements revealing elements from martial arts and farming.  Next up a a four piece band composed of three generations of musicians, doing famous bushi.  The two women had their hair piled on top, swept around, then pulled through again.  It looked a bit like a yarmulke pierced by a letter opener. Then finally, the main event.

When Shokichi came on stage, I could've touched his shoes I was so close.   The show absolutely ripped.  During the opening song, I couldn't decide whether to look at Shokichi wailing away on his sanshin, or at his sister Keiko beating the hell out of the sanba clappers.  He would spice up the music by talking politics, especially about what he had learned on his visit to Baghdad a week before. (This was a few weeks before the 2003 US invasion.)  Here I was, a citizen of the country of his obvious ire,  sitting directly in front of him.  I dreaded that he might turn his notice to me, but the only attention I got from him was an "OK!" sign after I danced my ass off to "Haisai Ojisan."  

After the show, I milled around a bit, looking at the CDs.  Throughout the show, I had had a hard time taking my eyes off Keiko, and suddenly she was here talking with me.  She had to play another set, but insisted I stick around. Afterwards, we and a few others went to another bar one floor up.  She and I had a long conversation, connecting on one level or another.  Later, I was to find that something had drawn her eyes to me, sitting in the front row. When she found out that I was interested in Okinawan power spots, she began to change my plans for the week...

On the turntable:  Steve Reich, "The Cave"
On the nighttable:  Norman Sherry, "The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 2"

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Preppiness is a Warm Gun

My contribution to January's "The Flame" storytelling event.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Biking with Blake

Biking downriver with Allen Ginsberg playing through my iPod.  It's the "Nurses Song", by Blake, and he's on that latter, children's chorus section. 
And all the hills echo-ed.
It's Allan Ginsberg's voice singing the children's part, but he's singing it through effects so it's actually twenty Allan Ginsbergs singing the children's part, in this smooth kind of harmony. 
And all the hills echo-ed.
Heading up river are these kids.  They belong to a school somewhere, and they're running. I'm passing these clusters of kids in twos and threes and fours, and they're running north.   
And all the hills echo-ed.
I'm biking past them, literally a flow of kids, heading against the current. 
 And all the hills echo-ed.

As I'm going along, with the voices of the children singing Blake in my ears, and visions of these kids running upriver past me, it creates an image that's cinematic.  
And all the hills echo-ed.
I can almost envision a camera on the other side of the river, following my movement in one long slow fluid take, of this bicyclist going downriver to the sounds of Blake, swimming against this stream of kids. 

On the turntable:  Banco de Gaia, "Pro.File 1"
On the nighttable:  Lian Hearn  "Grass for his Pillow"

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sunday Papers: Rebecca Solnit

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are called Efficiency, Convenience, Profitability, and Security, and in their names, crimes against poetry, pleasure, sociability, and the very largeness of the world are daily, hourly, constantly carried out. These marauding horsemen are deployed by technophiles, advertisers, and profiteers to assault the nameless pleasures and meanings that knit together our lives and expand our horizons."

On the turntable:  Jeff Buckley, "The Grace EP"