Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Papers: Lian Hearn

"I was happy enough to pray to any god, knowing that they were simply different faces, created by men, of one indivisible truth."

On the turntable:  Loudon Wainwright III, "The BBC Sessions"

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Kyushu expedition III

My luck with the weather apparently had a shelf life.  Looking from my hotel window, I didn't see the rain, but I saw the umbrellas. The windshield wipers of taxis waved back in forth in the way that the Japanese themselves wave their hands before their faces, body language that tells you that something is not possible.  

What looked impossible was an ascent of Yahazu-dake, a mountain down at the furthest reaches of Kyushu.  The advice of a colleague told me that neighboring Kaiman-dake was a better choice in this type of weather, which appealed more as it too was Hyakumeizan.  I decided to head south, and have a look at things. 

I needed to go to Chiran anyway, so hopped a bus, the foggy windows preventing any sort of view.  So I allowed Jeff Buckley to give me his take on things, as the bus rolled though the semi-tropical hills.  An hour or so later I got out in Chiran, pleased that the weather had cleared some.  I strolled the old samurai quarter, between low stone walls more reminiscent of Okinawa, or Cheju Island in Korea, a solid construction that withstands typhoons.  The tropical feel permeated here, with the humidity, and the scent of the plants, and the lazy shape of the languid trees.  The gardens of these old Satsuma samurai too favored stone, the design of many anchored by a tall flat stone that looked like a waterwall, or perhaps a simple outline of Fudo-myo, in either case a representation of the esoteric Buddhism that is the true heart of the old time martial ethics, not the Zen as falsely sold to the West.  Misty mountains and dozing cats completed the scene.

I walked out into, and through town, up a hill lined with stone lanterns, each bearing the figure of a kamikaze pilot, whose features were unmistakably that of Jizo.  The kamikaze, nay, the peace museum is on the grounds of the old airfield, converted now to a park where young men of this particular era play baseball.  Amidst the hilly slopes of the park were a few sakura trees, one bearing the first buds of the new spring.  How ironic that the planes of the kamikaze pilots themselves were known as sakura, and how ironic the see-saw in the children's park shaped like a propeller. 

There were more sakura near the museum, a handful of them shading one of the eponymous planes.  I walked over to the shrine and bowed my head, then again next door to the temple.  Upon approach, I saw a man doing some strange hand gestures in front of the main altar as he chanted the heart sutra.  Based on his build and the gestures themselves I assumed that he was some sort of right-wing karate man, paying his respects here.  I paid my own, which is about the time that he noticed me.  The man had a familiar look to him, and as he bagn to spoke, one of the first words that he passionately emoted was "Stallone," and it was there that the resemblance was effixed.  He had the same hair, the same build, even the same slightly drooping eyes of the young Rocky era superstar.  The words poured out of him, telling me of how when Universal Studios first opened, he went to Osaka in order to meet his hero, to give him a message, which went undelivered as Stallone never appeared at the opening.  But here, in a bewildering moment of fortuitous timing, I was instead the recipient of a message delivered so passionately that it could only be told with eyes closed, and in the position of a prostrate bow. It began with how Admiral Yamamoto felt that the Soviets were a better target than the Americans, who were far too strong. Yamamoto's caution about the futility of such an action went unheeded, yet he went on to devise the Pearl Harbor attack plans anyway, which led to the inevitable, and the great spirit of Nihon was irrevocably lost.  In pontificting on this spirit he slipped in his birthday and that of Stallone (apparently), as well as a recitation of the heart sutra at high speed.  The emotion was wrenched out of him for a good five minutes, which ended only with with a near tearful apology, his head slipping closer and closer to earth.   He next prompted me to tell him my own birth date.  Upon hearing it, he gave me a broad smile and took my hand with his bandaged own.  It was then I got it.  The bandage, and the strength of forearm and shoulder which gave power to the strength in his grip, revealed to me the boxer that this man was, and his bizarre demeanor was easily explained as a few too many punches delivered to his poor sweet head.    

I made my eventual escape, through the former barracks and to the museum, itself housing an array of planes and parts of planes, letters and photographs of boys who died for the wrong cause at an age too young.  There were others in the museum, including groups of high school students. I watched the boys in particular, as they wandered about in their usual frivolous schoolboy ways, joking and carrying on, and thought sadly that in a different age, it would be their photographs on the walls.  

I knew that there would be tears, and it was one photograph that brought them, of a four year old girl whose father had lovingly sent her drawings of life on the base, up until the day when he had forfeited his own.  I had to quickly move outside then, past all the twisted metal and the kids straight-jacketed into uniforms of their own, unable to recognize themselves as the beneficiaries of the sacrifice of their grandfathers.

The weather which had been bearing its teeth all day arrived finally with full snarl.  I tried to work out a way to take public transport down toward the mountains, but nothing would get me there in time to get a hike in before dark.  Nor was hitching an option in this weather.  So it was that I made a return to Kagoshima, saving me from an outer and inner weather most turbulent...

On the turntable:  The Waterboys, "Windmill Lane Sessions"
On the nighttable:  Scott Berry, "A Stranger in Tibet"

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Kyushu Expedition II

I dined alone in a massive open room that could feed a couple hundred.  Then was swept away by a taxi and taken to the old tram station that used to run up the eastern flank of Mt. Aso. But poison gases tend to drift that way from the nearby crater and since killing tourists is never good for repeat business, it has been closed for what looks like a long while.  There is still an information center there, but it was still shuttered this side of eight a.m.  There was an easy route that climbed directly below the now defunct tramway, but I chose to take the harder Sensuikyo route that climbed an old lava flow, all jagged and steep.  As I approached the trail, there was a rope across the steps.  Nearby was a sign with a telephone number, which connected me to someone in the town office.  He told me that contrarily, the easy route is closed, but this tough route was open.  With these blessings, and those of a handful of Jizo standing quietly nearby, I started to make my way up. 

The map showed a 90 minute ascent, which the posted signs contradicted with 120.  It was as steep as it looked.  As the flow of water finds the most direct route down, so apparently does lava.  The rocks looked like they had been set in concrete, not an unusual sight in Japan, but they were actually hardened into what had once been liquid.  Looking out at Kuju which I'd climbed yesterday, and the grassy covered bluffs and cliffs at the edge of the valley.  Somewhere below me, I heard a hawk's cry, but as I hadn't seen any traces of animal life, I wondered what it was looking to eat. 

This route forced me to scramble a little, and I wound up giving up on my trekking poles and reattaching them to my pack, wanting to keep my hands free to pull me up in places.  I had made a promise to my wife that I wouldn't do anything dangerous after the events of a few months back, and of course there is the obligatory unspoken pact with my mother that essentially says the same.  

Both the taxi driver and the man in the town office had mentioned that many people are rescued off this ridge, which didn't do much for my confidence.  But they did a pretty good job keeping the route safe by having it flip flop back and forth over the spine of the ridge, and keep hikers away from the steeper drops.  The problem is, you'd go from the sunny eastern side, where you were hot and sweaty, and over to the shady western side, where the winds howled and forced the chill deeper within.  

Things got a little more interesting near the top, but the chains and ropes helped, then without warning, I found myself on the gentle trail which ran along the higher col which led to Taka-dake, and the peak.  It wasn't far off, and I sat awhile with the views, until the winds encouraged me to move along.  By the time I'd descended a little to Naka-dake, I had on all the clothing that I was carrying.  I began to meet a few people on this more touristed peak, which looked down toward the steaming crater of the volcano.  One guy, severely underdressed for the season, told me that he'd come up the forbidden route.  I worried a little as I watched him descend that way, as he looked woefully underprepared for even this easy hike.  

I was moving toward Minami-dake as I continued along the ridge, and unable to pass up a welcoming peak, I dropped my bag and detoured up there.  I found three park rangers standing on top, spray cans in hand.  We talked a good long while, all of us expressing concern about the current "mountain boom" in Japan, and the danger that that entails.  To cope with it, they were in the midst of repainting the markers showing the route, but one ranger said that they tried not to make too many, as this was a National Park.  I suppressed a snicker, having already passed yellow paint on every third rock.  The ranger seemed to notice my eyes straying over to Neko-dake, which looked wild and ferocious, like a handful of ravines and ridges had been shaken out of a box and had fallen atop one another.  Every route on the map showed the dotted lines of a challenging trail. The ranger said it was a mountain to avoid, as the storms come in quickly, and there are no easy routes down. 

The descent was crumbling and rocky and presented its own challenges.  Then I found myself at the bottom, walking across an empty sand plain beneath buttes like back home. As I walked along, I found myself singing a line from Bowie, "Is there life on Mars?" while watching for the sidewinders that I half expected to slide across at any moment.   A boardwalk came up at some point, and as I walked toward its triangular tip stretching away, I could've been on any beach in New England. 

I paid a quick trip to the crater, and looked down on the steaming liquid, white hot.  The prudent part of me made me pop my head into the surveyor's hut at the crater's edge, to get a cell phone number to call in order to check the conditions on the mornings when I return with clients. In this particular case, I do need a weather man to tell me which way the wind blows.   

I dodged the Chinese tourists and walked down to the lower ropeway station, but couldn't find a pleasant place to eat my lunch due to all the buses and concrete.  My taxi showed up about then and saved me.  Whereas I'd been hiking in a barren wasteland all morning, the western edge of the park was all alpine lakes and grassy meadows.  I'm looking forward to coming back to explore more fully.  Once you move away from all the tourist nonsense, Aso presents her fiery self as one of the most beautiful places in the country.

A train took me through the 19th Century to Kumamoto, then a Shinkansen whisked me through the 21st.  I immediately liked the feel of Kagoshima, on this my first visit.  The day was warm and on this weekday evening the streets around the station were bustling.  I've mentioned that this hiking boom worries me some, but contrarily, I'm quite pleased about the current boom in craft beer.  With a little forehand research, I found a small joint that specializes in Belgian Beers.  It was a bizarre hybrid of a place, the interior self consciously English pub, but with izakaya food, and of course, the main event in a glass.  I tend to shy away from Belgian beers, a bit put off by the fruity taste and the high alcohol content.  As I was the only customer, the owner had plenty of time to talk beers with me, and steered me toward things he thought I'd like.  When I mentioned my love of hops, he brought me a glass of his hoppiest, but to my palate, it tasted like the hand soap back at my hotel.  I intend to further my research in this area, but I think that it'll take a lot to evict me from the craft beer camp.  

On the turntable:  Lefties Soul Connection, "Skimming the Scum"

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Papers: Walt Whitman

"Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not about God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or any number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all that you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul and your very flesh shall be a great poem."

On the turntable: Severa Nazarkhan, "Yol Bolsin"


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kyushu Expedition I

The bus left early, and was empty but for me on it, winding up the hills and past that log cabin cafe that I'd seen on the day that it had had a chimney fire.  Forest and trees were the common denominator for awhile, then the land grew wilder and opened up, looking significantly like the American West with massive peaks dwarfing the odd settlements or lone homesteads.  I am liking this Kyushu more and more.

The obvious difference here is that many of those peaks are spewing sulfurous white plumes.  One hotel expressed the dictionary definition of optimism, perched as close as it was to the crater emitting the most steam.  

The bus terminated at the trailhead, where a small shop sold me rice balls for the climb.  In the sun out front, it took me a good half an hour to extend my collapsible trekking poles, bent as they were from supporting the weight, and the lives, of Wes and I back in the unforgiving snows of the New Year.  But winter had moved on here in the higher reaches of Kyushu, and it was with the warmth on my face that I began the initial trudge up what looked like a concrete wheelchair ramp stretching straight up the first 500 meters of the mountain.  

Before long, I came to a small saddle, where the trail showed a little gumption in climbing over and around boulder fields, chains and ladders there for added excitement.  Beyond this, all was mud, another reminder of New Mexico.  The track was wider and reasonably flat, but there had been snow here until about a week before, and the saturation was complete, offering no real choice but to tramp through the mud until boots and trouser legs were caked in light brown.  I had smirked a little at the old guy in the parking lot wearing gaiters on such a sunny day, but looking down now at my own two-tone pant legs, I got it.    

This was an interesting ascent in that you'd climb, then level off, climb, and level off.  I continued up the ridge, as if traversing an iguana's back.  What should be a reasonably easy climb had been made difficult by the mud, and it was with relief that I was moving across flat ground now, sticking to the edge in the trail where there was the least mud.  The mud had frozen into the shape of a mold around older footprints, and the tips of the mud were still frosted, looking like whitecaps.  When I passed one old guy, he returned my greeting with a "ひどいな!” which I hope was a reference to the mud and not to my Japanese pronunciation. As the ground thawed, the entire landscape sounded like a giant skillet, just sizzling away. 

 I was alone then, when a roar sounded as a Self Defense Airforce plane buzzed the top of the ridge.  I waved my arms up at him in greeting as he flew over.  He then made another pass, and another, and I suddenly realized that he may have thought that I was signaling him because I needed help.  I'm good today dude, but where were you back in January

The mud continued all the way to an open space upon which was built a mountain hut, with a beat up look more commonly seen in the States.  The vista too opened up,  all the major peaks of north Kyushu visible, but looking more like islands with their tops popping out above the layer of pollen and exported Chinese smog.  Yufu-dake's familiar form looked a bit like a dusty Stetson. The trail was finally dry as I moved up to the next level, though what was underfoot was volcanic rock rather than earth.  A vent gushed steam just below me to the right, making the air reek of sulfur for the next twenty minutes or so.  

Kuju-dake, on whose flanks I was currently on, has four peaks that ring the collapse crater, and I spent the next few hours going up and over all of them.  I'd imagine that the four ascents and descents brought my total vertical altitude gain to over 1600 meters, which is like I'd started at sea-level and walked to the height of my mother's house in New Mexico.  

There was another reminder of that state in the sight of a lone hut far below me as I sat atop Naka-dake, the true peak, the sight of which reminded me of the Navajo hogans I'd seen sitting lonely and forlorn across the territory of that people.  I sat longest atop Kuju-dake itself, looking over at Aso-dake, which I'd go up the next day.  There were more trees on this eastern side, the landscape more Colorado there.  An old couple joined me after awhile, and after leaving them behind, I realized how late it was in the day, and worried about them getting down by sunset.      

I followed my tracks back down, cutting awhile through the drier earth beside the trail, amidst vegetation high enough to make me thankful that the vipers were still sleeping.  A crow found me near the bottom, an odd sight at this altitude.  As I was back in the boulder fields, no doubt common playground for local yamabushi,  I counted the crow's legs to make sure there weren't three.

I had a coffee in the sun while waiting for the bus.  It took me across the open plains, mostly treeless as here the lava once flowed. My hotel was big and spacious and near empty, as usual.  There was another gent in the bath, or should I say outside it.  I saw him through the glass door, which made me assume there was a open air tub out there until I saw that the door was locked.  I'm not sure how, or why, but this guy was standing there on the deck in full view of the large open grassy area below, happy to share with the world all that he'd been endowed with. 

Bathed and fed, I read awhile in my room with Mt. Aso looming just outside my window, throwing winks my way to remind me of our date tomorrow... 

On the nighttable:  "Buddha Bar, Living Theater"

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kyushu Expedition Prologue

It really started with the plum blossoms, seen from the window of the farmhouse-cum-office of Walk Japan.  This was the first color I'd seen on the landscape for months, though the reality was that I'd spent most of this particular winter chained to a desk.  Those little buds on that skinny insignificant branch held all the significance in the world.  Spring was here, and I was about to walk out into it.

The company was sending me out on my own to learn the Kyushu Expedition tour, as I'll be leading clients along it in about a month's time. But it took me a few days to get out on my own.  A potential new guide had come over from Nagasaki to climb a few of the ridges in Kunisaki, and to visit the office.  He and I later wound up back in a familiar Bungo Takada eatery, finding connections on many levels, including a shared love for walking in some of this country's wilder places, and the utilization of aikido and shakuhachi as a means of making contact with those inner places wilder still.  

A slightly surreal taxi ride brought us to candle-lit Momokusa, where a group of about twenty grassroots activists were getting inspiration from famed thinkers, Abe Yoshihiro and Tomita Takafumi, discussing the struggle against TPP and nuclear power.  It was refreshing to see the audience after this heated talk, the sparks of discussion having spread themselves throughout the room.  How refreshing to see discourse in Japan, the lack of which I frequently bemoan.  Ironic then, that I left it, feeling pretty exhausted after a long day's journey, thus choosing instead to go outside to stare into the embers in the firepit bringing glow to the night.

I awoke early as I do, and walked up the hill to pay my respects at the shrine.  Though now a cafe, Momokusa was once the home of the priest of the shrine, but having moved to more modern digs somewhere else, he has allowed my friend Mario to look after it.  After walking awhile beneath the tall cedars which towered over the shrine, I walked back down to watch the sun rise between plum branches, bringing orange to a sky thick with pollen and Chinese smog.  Mario showed us around the property, with a glimpse at the work that will fill his next few months.  I found work of my own, and sat awhile with my laptop at a table out in the warm sun.  Later, we drove around the peninsula, past a split boulder the size of an office building, eventually winding up at a Beppu Project event at a beach, where I ran into a few people I'd met on previous visits.  I've been down to Kunisaki five times now in the past year, and am beginning to feel like I make guest appearances in their community there.  

The next morning I was supposed to have gone to Yufuin to climb Mt. Yufu, but the winds that had rattled the windows of Momokusa all night were now blustery and dangerous and I was warned against going near the mountain.  So I rode down to Oita city with Mario to a 3/11 event that he'd helped put together.  Part market, part peace march, part candlelight memorial service.  I walked the booths and ran into a few other Kunisaki acquaintances, as well as meeting new ones here and there.  I had a brief chat with former Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi, then joined the protest march against nuclear power. It was the first march I've joined, and assume that the government has now added my photograph to their ever-widening collection.  I ran into one of the Walk Japan staff at the event, and carried her preschool aged son through the city as we marched and sang.  The memorial service for the victims of the triple disaster followed, but the winds were too high to get the candles lit.  After the minute of silence, I walked quietly away, toward the station, and the train that would take me to Yufuin and the start of the tour.  

On the turntable:  XTC, "Black Sea"
On the nighttable:  Julia Llewellyn Smith, "Travels Without My Aunt: In The Footsteps Of Graham Greene"

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Papers: Graham Greene

"Any word one uses from habit means nothing at all."

Friday, March 15, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa XI (Miyako)

March 5, 2003

Ohhhh....  Horrid hangover on the champuru of beer, chardonnay, and awamori. (Even now in 2013, it still ranks as the worst I've ever had.)   The hotel owner rang me at 8:30 to come down for breakfast, but I could only muster up the strength to eat a little rice, the kiwi, and a few bites of oily fish.  But after the cold rice and that dead fish eye looking up at me, I went back upstairs and lay down for a couple more hours.

I met Anzei at 11 o'clock, and we headed out into the sticks, sugar cane fields absolutely everywhere, a few of them with terraced walls like a Japanese castle.  We wandered out to the end of the Higashihenzaki,  the China Sea to the left, Pacific to the right, both different in color.  Just offshore was a perfectly circular reef, a few jagged teeth sticking out of the water.  Porous stones dotted the brilliant green grass, soft and smooth as a putting green.  I went to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the crags below before I was driven back by the vertigo that has accompanied me since my son's death.  

A few kilometers away was Yoshino Beach, with supposedly the best snorkeling in Japan.  The reef here is shallow, close in, and the fish come up quickly.  I wanted to swim badly, but even watching the swells made me feel nauseous.  On the beach was a large rock perfectly shaped like a chair, so I sat there awhile allowing the wind and the sun (which had finally made an appearance) work on my hangover.  The sea here was glorious.

At the edge of the beach was a tarp-covered shelter built of driftwood. Oji-san had been living there for a couple of years.  Born Take-san, he was more artist than homeless,  making things from the coral, glass, and wood that the sea had given him.  He had amazing sense, able to visualize a use for the shapes that he saw in the sand. His hut was lined with these things, bordering the books and photos laying around.   A single pitch-black kettle hung over an open fire, one of his "students" boiling water by blowing through a bamboo tube.  His feet were as black as the kettle.  There were a few people living with him, including one girl from Sapporo who was staying for a few days, sitting there polishing a piece of wood in order to make a self-massager.   

As we sat on styrofoam floaters, he put the two of us to work, mixing straps of string and coral, looping one end around our big toe, left hand pulling taut, the right hand working the string around and around.  His left hand shook violently as he worked.  (Jeff later told me that he was pretty sick with Minamata disease.  The city suggested that he enter the hospital, but he felt that he could relax better out here.)  He gave me some noodles, but with my bad stomach I couldn't really manage it.  He finished them for me, not wanting to waste anything.  Looking around, that point was obvious.  Some people might see junk.  I saw a man living his bliss.

Anzei and I spent the rest of the day driving toward places but never really arriving.  The day sort of flowed by.  There were an incredible amount of roads for such a small island.  Judging by the many construction projects I saw, I think that the local government had an inflated sense of the value of this island's attractions.  Forget the tourists, let the locals live their way, and most people would come simply to appreciate this.  

As Anzei and I drove around, we talked about her life on Miyako.  She had lived in the States for five or six years, studying various kinds of dance, before coming back last fall in order to work on some choreography, and to focus on belly dancing.  She, like most I've met in the Ryukyus, was a very spiritual person.  We talked a lot on spiritual matters, but I got little insight into local beliefs.  She smiled as I clapped my hands at random utaki.  But I didn't feel the power of the gods here like I had on Okinawa.  This flat island, though incredibly beautiful with its cane fields and clean beaches, didn't offer much to me.

We drove over to Kurima Island, the third I'd been on in two days.  Anzei told me the story of a woman visited at night by a handsome man.  She put a needle in his kimono and later followed the thread to find a large snake, but she had already already impregnated by him with triplets.  Hence the three islands.  (So do the recently built bridges represent the snake?) 

We stopped off at Maebara, called the best beach in Japan, the water emerald green, the sand soft as flour.  It was the first time all day that my hangover had subsided enough for me to swim, but by then the clouds had come back over, so we merely stayed on the beach and ate ice cream.  The only person in the water was a guy with what looked like a reverse parasail.  Standing on the water with short skis, he'd be pulled along by his small, crescent-shaped parachute, rising and spinning in the air before being slapped back down on the water.  I watched a long time, trying to figure out how he was controlling the thing. 

Back in my room, I slept from four to six, then met Jeff at seven.  He had ditched work, and wore a disguise as we went to a restaurant at the center of town.  Both tired and hungover, we ate quietly.  It was the first food I'd been able to get down today.  I had tried my usual strategy of eating to get on top of the hangover, but nothing seemed appealing.  Even after eating a fair amount of really good food, I went back to my room by nine, and was in bed by ten...

March 6, 2003 there was a little sun, I went to the beach.  This close to the harbor, the water though clear wasn't as inviting as the other places I'd seen.  After about thirty minutes, it clouded over again, so I gave up.  

At the airport, I ate my last goya champuru for awhile.  Due to the heavy rain,  we were two hours late taking off.  When my plane arrived, people coming from Ishigaki disembarked, and I was amazed at the beauty of their faces, looking almost nothing like Japanese and more like the Islanders further to the south, but with the big eyes and hooked noses of the European, perhaps Portuguese.   We lifted off through one layer of cloud into a patch of clear air, then into more cloud.  It was like an empty sandwich.  Far below us, another plane matched out speed, cutting the tops off clouds...

On the turntable:  Sneaker Pimps, "Splinter Instrumentals"

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa X (Miyako)

March 4, 2003

I had hoped the waves would make us late, but we were awoken at 3:50a.m., twenty-five minutes ahead of schedule.  None of the disembarking passengers were young, so all the college students I'd seen would get to sleep until Ishigaki.

I walked away from the ship, following a few people into the darkness, backlit by the headlights of huge forklifts moving containers around.  It was a little like Close Encounters.   When I hit the island proper, I walked up the main street in a drizzle, thinking about where to catch some more sleep.  Somehow I found myself right next to my hotel.  There was a man in the genkan getting ready to board the ship I just left.  The door opened, and I dropped onto a sofa in the lobby...  Around six, I surprised the owner.  She kindly let me check in early, and I was able to sleep in my own room until nine.

I hopped a boat through choppy, rainy waters over to Irabu.  The fifteen minute ride was quite fun, like something in an amusement park. Until my coffee dropped into my lap.  On the far side, no one seemed to know where Senningama was, so after a free cuppa, I went back to Miyako.  Over and back within the hour.  With the lousy weather, there was nothing to do but the laundry.

I found an utaki right across from my hotel.  A temple nearby had a wonderfully technicolor garden, or at least the remains of one.  Below the adjacent shrine, a pretty girl petting a dog didn't return my greeting.  Despite my better judgment, I lunched at A&W, then strolled around, looking into shops, but nothing in Hirara interested me.  I did find an utaki, completely overgrown with busy birds.  Here, as before, was evidence of recent activity, probably a day earlier.  There were dozens more nearer the water, around graves and below the overhang of cliffs.  I followed them out of town, clapping and bowing every couple of minutes.  The last one was in a park, next to three hollowed-out, colorfully painted canoes.  A boat called Nirai Kanai was moored nearby.

I walked through the sugar cane fields past the occasional house.  An old farmer saved me from the light rain, driving me the last kilometer or so to Sunayama Beach.  On sunny days this beach would be breathtaking, but today the surf was angry, not inviting.  A cove lined up beautifully with the north point of Irabu.  A few utaki pointed out caves in the rocks and vice versa.  I wondered how pro climbers would do on these sharp, porous walls with their great overhangs above the swells.  A sign warned me of the possibility of sharks and jellyfish.  I later found out a surfer had been killed here the previous year.

I headed further on up the road and through an immense area torn up by construction.  Whatever was going up would be huge.  I passed through a small village and was picked up at its far end.  The driver was going all the way to the north end of the island.  It turned out that he knew Yuki and probably Jeff, two friends who years ago had lived in Yonago. The country got wilder heading north, mostly overgrown jungle.  We crossed a long four kilometer bridge to Ikema-jima.  Even in this cloudy weather, I could see down to the sea floor.  The darker reefs and long blue channel looked like patchwork, bordered by small farms cultivating seagrapes.  

I was let off in the middle of a village, but had no idea where I was going.  I asked a couple of people, then finally at the post office.  I wandered through the village's narrow lanes, the stormy seas banging off the reef beyond.  I walked along a sea wall, passing two old men and an inquisitive dog. The former were smacking balls back and forth across a field in a sport that looked nothing like gateball.  (Does an elderly person smile slightly when asked to join a game for the first time?  The youth of this country make fun of the game. When does it become cool?)  

As I approached Raza Cosmica, I saw a bearded guy drive out of the driveway and wave as he passed.  The house was a huge adobe structure with turrets, sitting on a hill high above the sea.  The backyard was walled in with a few chairs for lounging.  There looked to be no place to get coffee and when I asked the woman if I could have a look at the inside, she refused.  Twice today I had traveled long distances to see nothing.  I sulked back to the bus stop and climbed aboard.  

We took a roundabout route down the east coast, a few of the villages containing many old buildings.  I also didn't really mind the one story concrete boxes with verandas on top.  This has become my image of an island house.  People were finishing work in the cane fields this late in the afternoon.  Crushed and broken stalks littered the roads, and each one we passed tricked me into thinking it was a dreaded habu.  Off the coast a bit was Ogamijima, with its 20 residents.  I wanted to go, but found out that only women can enter the island's utaki.

Back in Hirara, I chilled out a bit, then met up with Jeff at 7 o'clock.  He lived in a former dive shop, very wide with two raised platforms, the one on the right contained his bed, and the other had a long wooden sofa along the perimeter, with a book shelf above.  To one side was a small alcove with CDs and a stereo, like a DJ's booth.  It all looked made from a single piece of wood.  Everywhere was decorated with batik.  I had met Jeff in Yonago about 9 years before.  His girlfriend Yuki had lived there, and Jeff would come up for frequent visits from Kobe.  I was dating an America woman who had also been living there, and after the earthquake both she and Jeff had been made refugees, so they both spent a lot of time in Yonago that winter, and the four of us hung out a fair bit.  I hadn't seen Jeff since about that time, but he welcomed me without hesitation when I'd called a week before.  

We ate at an izakaya, then as we were leaving, heard music coming from a small bar up a nearby alley. The bar was closed, but a few of Jeffs's friend were inside, rehearsing for an anti-war rally in Naha.  The singer's Dylan imitation was dead on.  We had a beer as they worked through a few tunes.   
Back at Jeff's, a few people had gathered for their weekly poker night.  I merely watched, choosing to instead play a small djembe in time to the music.  Tired after a long day, I started to make my way back to my hotel just before midnight, but was intercepted at the door by Anzei, a local girl who had the look of a hippie.  Just then her friend arrived, another hippie girl just back from Jamaica.  Thus started an adventure of being dragged around town for three blurry hours.  I do remember doing karaoke somewhere.  I also remember playing congas on stage with a local band somewhere else, as Anzei a trained dancer, spun and gyrated around the floor....

On the turntable:  Steve Reich,  "City Life"


Monday, March 11, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa IX

March 3, 2003

On this, my last day on Okinawa, Keiko showed up early, with Paul in tow.  We headed south in Paul's van, listening to a Ryukyu Underground CD that I had.  Keiko seemed to hate it.  She said that the vocals were merely used as instrumentation and were fragmented.  All Okinawa songs tell a story, but here it wasn't allowed to unfold.  The soul had been removed.

Our first stop was Seifa Utaki, an immense system of trails cross-crossing one another and deeper into the jungle.  The first part was drone-lined and befitting its World Heritage status, but after a large grove, the trails began to spider web outward. I felt like I was walking in the Land of the Lost.  At any moment, I expected a dinosaur to pop out.  I followed my instincts, coming to a few places I "felt," including a small grove overhung by a tree like a weeping willow.  A little beyond this, over a small ridge was an old castle.  Before it were three small altars, on each for river, woman, and fire.  A little further along was man, and further still, river again.  I took another fork and came to a tomb, a cave walled shut with large stones.  

Meeting Paul and Keiko again down below, they led me to a triangle cut through the rock.  Paul told me to pray, then look left and see what I could do. I passed through, bowing right, center, and left, looking up and across at Kudaka.  This altar was for people who couldn't make the trip, as at Nakagusuku. I think Paul's priming made me look hard, but I didn't see anything. However, my attention kept focusing upward, to the rocks and ridge above.  When I looked at Paul and Keiko, they were smiling and Paul said, "Let's go."  We made the short climb, past a habu warning sign.  On top was a small area nestled between two higher crops.  One had an altar facing Kudaka, and behind it was a small mirror to catch the sun rising over the island.  Paul felt they had once started fires from the reflection in order to cook the morning meal.  Again, his asking what I saw ensured I saw nothing.  I was thinking, rather than intuiting.  However, two stone formations on the beach far below seemed to suggest a road.  Paul said that some people saw a road go all the way out to Kudaka.  All I saw were cloud reflections moving across the water.

We drove along the coast and down to the shore at Ukinzu Hainzu, a small grove containing two springs.  Someone had cordoned off a section of stream leading from one of the springs and had planted rice.  The color and features were different than on Honshu.  Near the spring on the right were two large stones where the mythical horse god landed when he leapt from Kudaka.  Again, my attention was drawn upward.  And again Paul asked,  "Do you want to go?"  We followed the trail up, and where it forked I went left, going up to the main road.  It was my first miss of the day, but I wan't getting much of a "read" here.  We returned to the fork and went right, leading to another sealed off cave tomb.  Paul told me that he'd once seen a white horse here, and another time, Ebisu.  For him, the power was strong.  While we were talking, I noticed that what I had thought was part of a conch shell, just as there had been at the tomb in Seifa Utaki.  Looking closer, I saw the cracks and coloration of cremated bone, obviously a hip.  A rock had been removed from the wall, and looking through the opening, we saw a box richly decorated with shisa and Chinese figures.  A large pot stood broken to one side, and behind a small wall was a skull.  According to the sign, this was the grave of a warrior, no doubt the top local guy.  I suddenly went cold, terrified to be near a desecrated grave, so we fled.         

We had a quick lunch at Hanabe Chaya, a cafe set on the beach, all tables facing the sea.  At high tide, the water must come right up to the tables on the lowest deck.  Today at low tide, I walked out on the stones, finding two utaki below the cliffs.

We got doused on the drive back to Naha, watching the storm come in like a wave to break atop us.  Two bicycle riders who we passed earlier would be drenched soon.  Our last stop of the day was Okinogu, where we found dozens of kaminchu finishing their rituals for the first new lunar month.  Since they were delayed by the rain, we were able to join them.  

First, we prayed inside the shrine.  It was a long prayer, during which it felt like someone was stroking my head on the right side like a cat.  As the prayer finished, it felt like the floor bounced slightly below me.  Keiki, Paul, and I got up to give an offering.  Downstairs we prayed twice, once inside, once out.  I was scolded for having my foot on a grate, and I never learned why.  There were four nuru here, one of which was a bit gimpy and incredibly old, but moved unbelievably quickly with her cane.  The three that I'd met the other day all wished me a good trip, one of them then asked me to translate a book about this very shrine.

I said farewell to Paul, then Keiko took me to the ferry terminal, losing her way, of course.  I asked her if her father (one of the top Okinawan musicians of all time) liked Champloose's music.  She told me that he hadn't at first, but it had grown on him.  She said that musicians who start with an Okinawa background can create successful musical hybrids, but those from outside the islands, such as Ryukyu Underground, or a pair of Ainu who we'd heard on another of my CDs, sounded fake or disjunct.  Keiko had often put down Hirayasu Takashi's voice, but he really had the feel for the music, she conceded. 

We ate soba at the ferry terminal, both of us tired and not talking much.  She'd gotten a lot of sun this week, and I'd begun to notice that she'd been wearing more makeup on stage in order to hide it.  We said a quick goodbye, and off she went.

I took a shuttle about two hundred meters to the ship.  Most of the passengers were college students on spring break.  The two drunkest shared my room, naturally.  Later the snores of at least three of them made a riotous symphony.  I stood out on deck, watching Naha recede.  A plane took off directly over us.  The winds crushed me against the rail and when we cleared port, I went in.  As I wrote in my journal, an old man gave me two cans of beer then walked off without expecting any conversation in return.  Almost everyone on board was drinking, and could barely walk on the violently pitching ship.  I imagined what their stomachs were doing.  As it was, the ship had already reeked of vomit when we boarded, and one room near mine was suspiciously sealed shut.  Back in my room, a single guy watched TV with everyone else slept.  A noisy show blared six feet from my head.  Unable to sleep due to this, I lay there fuming, until a half-hour later I noticed that he'd gone to sleep without switching it off.  I decided that if the ship's rolling got so bad that I had to vomit, I knew along which trajectory it would fly.  I scolded another guy for smoking.  When I'm tired...

Not like I could sleep anyway.  Before going to bed, I went back on deck to stare into the piching darkness.  I thought I saw another plane taking off, but it was the light of another boat out on the horizon, rising high in the air, then down below the rail.   We must've looked the same to him.  Lying in my bunk was less nauseating than siting up.  But here too, all was in motion.  It it been a simple side to side, it would've been like lying in a hammock.  But we seemed to be moving in all direction, at irregular intervals.  Sometimes we'd be teetering at a precarious angle, other times we'd smack into a trough. I could hear the captain working the engines, accelerating and decelerating us through the angry water.  Twice I was slammed into the wall.  Somewhere off, I heard the sound of someone puking.  Somehow though, I found sleep.

On the turntable:  Natalie Merchant, "The House Carpenter's Daughter"


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Papers: Kamo Suetaka (1751-1841)

"The weeping cherry / fills not just Tohoku / but resounds in all directions."
On the turntable: Sevara Nazarkhan, "Yol Bolsin"

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa VIII

March 2, 2003

I awoke far too early, so I trod the well-worn path to Starbucks, where I talked with a heavy-set man jumpy from too much coffee.  Then I killed time at Rainbow Tree until Keiko showed up.  We headed south for the first time, through countryside that looked much like I expected, of low grassy mountains sweeping down to tropical vegetation that led to clear water.  Houses of two stories with concrete verandas.  Along the way, I was happy to spot a center dedicated to I-ching study.  

Our destination was a home in a small village below a couple of triangular peaks.  There were about a dozen people milling about, across a span of four generations.  The men and the older women had just finished the sugar cane harvest for the morning.  After lunch, they'd head back out there.  We were going out to Kudaka-jima, taking along two little girls and a young woman.  After her mother, Keiko's classmate, had killed herself, Keiko essentially adopted her.  Though they spoke Japanese, the word 'mommy' punctuated sentences occasionally.    

We made the quick crossing to Kudaka in about 30 minutes.  I stood at the rail, wind and spray splashing my face.  I watched the coral pass beneath the churning wake, before the water color darkened with depth.  We passed around a reef, then went over.  The island was rocky, the coral cliffs nearest the shore scooped out by millions of waves.  We drove up through a village of old, weather-worn homes, the wood and roof tiles bleached nearly white.  The yards themselves were lined by walls made of porous volcanic rock.  Beyond the village was a single road that led out into the jungle.  After only about five minutes, we reached Kudaka's far end.  Here the beach was rocky, waves breaking right below us.  I jumped down onto the smooth white stones, the water slightly cold, running up to my calves.  Some of the rock formations behind me were stunning, one having been hollowed out with a small window showing the blue sky above. 

 I frolicked around awhile, then we drove to the island's eastern side.  Getting out, we followed a path leading through the forest to the beach.  Here the sand was round, with a very unusual texture.  It was smoother and felt cold.  I walked along what must've once been the sides of coral reefs, but were now blackened and highlighted by the green of lichen and fern.  Back on the road, we passed a farmer in his bean fields, someone who Keiko had known. Long ago, Shokichi had spent a few years living out here, which made obvious the fact that he'd been touched by the gods. Keiko too often came out here to pray, and every New Year she'd go house to house playing sanshin.  No doubt she knew everyone.  

We walked out a jungle trail to Ishiki Beach. A small utaki was off to the right.  This island is considered Okinawa's garden of Eden, and it was here at Ishiki Beach that the gods enter.  An utaki on the beach was in line with a large flat stone midway out the reef.  Beyond that, Keiko told me, was Nirai Kanai, Okinawa's paradise, a place that people can't see, but some can feel.  I knelt on the beach in front of the utaki and did kokyu meditations for heaven, earth, and man.  When I finished, turning around, I found a small piece of coral resembling a bear claw, which I took as a connection with my meeting the Ainu bear god.  I asked Keiko if it was okay to take it from here, and she said it was if I felt it was.  To be safe, we asked the farmer again, who was one of the few male shamen.  He said that only round stones were taboo, since they were used for rituals at the main shrine in the village. 

It was to here that we returned, a place where only women are allowed to worship.  We drove around, through the incredibly narrow rock lined lanes. (I noticed that all the cars had scratches down both sides.)  Keiko pointed out Shokichi's house among the others.  After a bowl of soba that we wolfed down in three minutes, we crossed back to Okinawa.  

 I learned another valuable lesson there.  Ishiki Beach was probably the place that I had most wanted to visit, to sense its power.  However Kaberu Beach, the first place we stopped, was also sacred, yet I hadn't known. Keiko said that I behaved as if I had known.  It seemed to me that it didn't matter if someone before us had drawn inspration from a certain place.  While it was important to pay our respects, it should be or own hearts which led us, finding places with meaning to ourselves as we go along though life.  While guides were important, it was only ourselves who could walk the path.  Nonetheless, the kaminchu hadn't felt the presence of the gods for a couple of years, causing major concern about what calamities might be in store. 

We stopped again at Keiko's "daughter's" house, where one by one the men filled in, having finished the day's work.  They cleaned up and sat down with a beer.  The women cooked, the children studied and played, the old women sat and cackled.  The conversation flowed on its own, then as is common, the TV came on and guided it for us.  I had seen this scene played out dozens of times, in Kumano, Daito, Oki.  However, here it happens every Sunday, not only on holidays.  And the faces too were different, almost Native American, in this house in a sun-bleached village between the mountains and the sea.

Back on Kokusai-dori, I went to a diner whose motif was America in the 50's.  Movie posters and star's photos lined the walls, including Ernie Pyle, who had been killed on a beach so far away from here.   After a cheeseburger and a beer, I was back at Rainbow Tree, talking again to Paul and a couple of others.  They had had a rough night apparently , and were starting in again, well ahead of me.  They complained about US foreign policy, and how it could be argued that it had contributed to up to 8 million deaths during the '90's.   Other nations were lining up against us,  carrion to feed on the empire in decline.

I was late to Chakra, and for Champloose.  Shokichi was missing, so we were in for an different show altogther, with the three women members of the band on vocals, "Hana" with Keiko on the lead, and the guitarist on piano.  It just didn't have the same power, but it was nice to experience a different vibe.  SHokichi showed up later to play a stripped down set, punctuated by talks about his daytrip to Hiroshima.  Next, Keiko played drums as Takao ripped on sanshin.  Keiko claimed that he was the best sanshin player in the world, her father's candle having passed Shokichi by.  

We went upstairs once again, and I met Jeff, an Oceanographer who had been working with the Navy for over 35 years.  He made a perpetual loop around Asia , nine months a year away from his disintegrating family.  We were joined by Chika and Hiromi, the latter surprising me with her English.  After awhile I began translating for Jeff, carefully editing out his stereotyping of Asian women, and his rants against the English.  He seemed like a nice guy, but his views were long dated.  His light touching of cultures, while enviable, was never intense enough to teach him anything.  I felt like I was talking to a character in a pre-war novel.  I did learn one interesting thing from him.  Near Yonaguni there is a pyramid beneath the sea.  No one knows whether or not it is man-made, but it seems too perfect to be natural.  It is now a prime dive spot.

I talked a while with Sachiko, who up until now I'd seen as the bad sister, and who intimidated me a little. In reality, she was a little shy and not so comfortable with conversation.  And once again, Tomoko tried to get me drunk on Awamori.

Keiko and I left around 1:30, but she was intercepted by a woman who wanted to talk business.  We followed her to her shop, a new karaoke place just opened that night.  I declined food and drink and grew more and more irritable and sleepy.  The woman who I had at first taken for 30, in better light showed her age as a weathered beauty.  She was the first Okinawan I'd met who seemed fake in her politeness, and just wouldn't shut up.  I finally got home after 3:00, again kicking myself for not having gone back an hour earlier.  While I'd always loved playing and watching live music, I'd never really liked this nocturnal world and its unnaturalness, and I felt strongly that I didn't want to get used to it.

On the turntable:  Santana, "Salsa, Samba, and Santana"

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Okinawa VII

March 1, 2003

Up a little early, I wandered over to Sōgen-ji temple ruins, a single wall with three arches, the middle one leading up stone steps to a grassy knoll where the Hondo had once stood.  Now there was a magnificent tree, twisted and gnarled, a tropical manifestation of Indra's net.  I moved on toward Rainbow Tree Cafe, where I met up with a local English teacher who had been teaching here about four months, fresh off a few years on the road.  He and I shared many ideas, bouncing the conversation ball around for a couple of hours.  Keiko arrived around 2 pm.

We had a quick lunch at A&W, finding yet again that my affinity for eating greasy American fast food garbage is only in my head, as my body violently opposes every time.  Heavy heavy rain, huge drops visible in the air, rivers flowing down the windshield. 

 When we arrived at Nakagusuku, it stopped, leaving us unmolested as we walked the grounds.  It was built up on four levels, and due to its state of ruin, it was one of the more interesting castles I'd seen.  Cracks were in all the corners, with the roots of trees finding their inspiration in besiegers centuries dead.  The tops of the walls too were battered and uneven.  Below, a group of nuru prayed to a spot beyond the broken walls.  I asked Keiko to what specifically were they praying, and she said that it is the individual's particular sense that guides them to a spot where the kami dwell.  She pointed at the ruins of a hotel standing on adjacent grounds.  After raising the public ire at a Japanese company for attempting to build on this sacred land, the company went under before the hotel had even been completed.  As always, the gods get the last word. 

We wandered around awhile, stopping at a half dozen utaki along the way.  One was for Kudaka, for the people who couldn't actually make it to the island itself.  Keiko was happy to find places she'd never seen since, again seeming glad to have met me.  As we walked past the hotel, I had a revelation about Japan.  During the Meiji period, with the rise of state Shinto, the gods had fled.  Early successes against Russia and China were fueled by the remaining energy. The war years and the blind run toward materialism were acts of a godless people.  The current economic decline was proof that the gods are back, leading the wise to seek new (old) ways of living.  After eight years in Japan, it took a  trip to Okinawa to discover this.     

Next, we went to Nakamura-ke, an old house in a traditional style.  Keiko narrated things to me based on her own experience growing up in a similar (though poorer) place.  I like the idea of living on Okinawa, but walking through the house I felt sad that there weren't more like it.  Most buildings I'd seen were new, Japan having down little to preserve local tradition.  Mountains and beaches aside, I found the towns and cities to be visually unappealing.  But perhaps I've been looking with Japanese eyes.

Back in Naha, I went over to Earthnik, a shop that was part of a project focused on simple and natural living.  Over a local curry, I again chatted with a beautiful older woman.  What's was going on with me this week?

Then to Chakra yet again, sitting toward the back with family and friends.  I was sitting with two older women,who tried to get me drunk on awamori, but I resisted as much as possible.  Unlike a couple of nights before, Shokichi had once again found his mojo, and the band was grooving with a different energy, really pumping.  "Haisai" brought the Saturday night crowd to its feet, and seemed extended. The drummer in particular was on fire.  Tonight's crowd seemed different too, more tourists, plus a few business types looking uptight during Shokichi's monologues.

Keiko played a solo set next, and the two old women and I got up to dance.  One of them, a dance teacher, taught me simple hand movements to the kacharsee.  Back at our table, we were joined by Shokichi's best friend.  He was drunk, but had some amazing English.  Being old friends, they thoroughly ribbed each other, one of the old women saying that this guy Y-san was a burden on Shokichi.  I quickly replied that being burdened was a measure of true friendship, and they all quietly agreed.  

We moved upstairs for some live jazz, a piano and bass duo were joined occasionally by a buxom singer.  I sat in one drums on one song, extremely self-conscious about where to put the fills.  Despite this, I got a solo (more like a half-solo), nodding back to the pianist when I finished. The whole thing was pretty embarassing, an amateur playing with pros in front of other pros.  

Later, Keiko taught me samba dancing on a couple of songs.  The evening came to an abrupt close when  Y-san drank too much of T-san's sake, and they got in a fight, which Keiko said happened every time.  Shokichi came out, and they went back to a private room.  Shokichi, ever the peacemaker.  It was amazing to see the subset of casualty figures that surround celebrity.

As a last stop, Keiko and I went to a small bar next door to my hotel, run by a John Lennon fan.  A Clapton DVD was on the television, so we watched, talking quietly about drugs and music, occasionally singing a handful of lyrics here and there though both of us sober.  But Keiko kept singing when 'Beautiful Tonight' came on, both us looking into one another's eyes.  It was an incredibly romantic moment, getting a personal serenade from a beautiful singer of some fame.  And I could feel myself getting drawn in, my reserve beginning to waver.  I wasn't even completely sure that Keiko was interested in me that way, but the way this entire week had been constructed felt like a kind of courtship.  I wanted to kiss her.  Everything in me wanted that.  But I couldn't bring myself to, it wasn't right.  It was only a few months before that my life had dropped out from under me.  My marriage was in free-fall.  A tryst with Keiko wasn't going to stop that.  I had to return to my wife and brace myself for the inevitable impact. 

As Clapton bowed out of his second encore, I walked alone back to my hotel.  

On the turntable:  Shirley Bassey, "Old Friends and Lovers"


Tuesday, March 05, 2013


Biking in fickle weather, the rain teased into snow, then back again, as the temperature dances with zero.  I pass an old woman, who must be close to one hundred, listing into the wind.  The shape her body takes due to her age works well to protect her face from the wet. This snowy day, and every other snowy day, is given great importance.   I smile at her as I pass and wonder, Grandmother, will you be around to welcome the snows next year? 

Later, the wind is still high and I hear it clash against the tops of bamboo in a sound like waves breaking.  I can hear the clacks and groans from where I sit, but their trunks are unmoving as seen through the low window.  Nearly a century old themselves, they hold their ground unwavering, faces turned proudly toward the gale.  They ain't goin' nowhere.

On the turntable:  I Muvrini, "Imagina"