Friday, August 30, 2013


Eyes down, breath labored;
But enough awareness remains,
To spot salmonberries.

On the turntable:  Andy Partridge & Harold Budd, "Through the Hill"
On the nighttable:  Donald Richie, "Viewed Sideways"

Saturday, August 24, 2013

BC Sketches

I smile each time the flight attendant makes her announcements in French.  I'd forgotten that Canada is bilingual.  Interesting how it, and the American accented English, and the language of the country from which we ascended, form a tryptich of the continents of the Northern Hemisphere...

...interesting too to be descending into a city with unknown geographical landmarks and without any recognizable features.  Upon takeoff a week later, that would no longer be the case....

...walking through the forests of the Kootenays, seeing impossible Japanese features in the landscape -- shittake growing beneath pyramids of oak; jizo statues masquerading as mere stones...

...sitting in the bar of the Ainsworthy Hot Springs, looking down upon the faces sliding by, trying to envision the lives that animate them...

...creating an entire life as lived in Nelson, a life that exists nowhere but in my imagination... isn't the chill in the air, but the shape that the clouds take that remind one that autumn is drawing in...
...from the air, bare patches visible in the highest reaches of the hills.  I had thought that this was a courtesy of the logging companies, doing their dirty work high above the eyes of man.  I am later reminded that this is actually because that's the only place where the valuable old growth forests remain.   In another decade or so, they too will be gone...

...the voice of the seagull a reminder that the sea is nearby. The gulls take no notice, pecking at the sand...

...on Vancouver's waterfront, a gay couple walks by hand in hand, one wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the US  flag.  A man climbs from the sloop that is his home, moored just offshore.  He climbs into a rowboat and makes his way toward shore, to run errands, do the shopping, or perhaps this is his commute.  The aquabus putt-putts past, looking like a bathtoy.  Further along, the shore opens to become seaside, complete with the usual bicyclists and rollerbladers, most of the women in bikinis, the men bare chested. Out on the horizon the tankers are lined up, carrying their black gold down from ports further north.  An attracted women kayaks along the shore, slowing to investigate a sunbathing sea-lion...  

...I cut inland again at Stanley Park, along the chainshops and tourists of Robson. Along its length are seven Starbucks.  Here too are the hoods and the homeless.  One Asian girl walks a wide berth over a man sleeping on the curb...

...and I'm aloft again, eyes following the chain of islands stretching north, beckoning...

On the turntable:  X, "More Fun in the New World"
On the nighttable:  Robert MacFarlane, "The Old Ways"

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Shikoku... Four Years (and a day) Later

...I awake with the headache I expected.  It never fails with these smoking rooms.  I'm out the door quickly, the sun not yet above the high mountain walls.  Heading south I find a lone convenience store, beside a Montbell shop, the latter a testament to how lucrative the rafting is in this area.  I buy my coffee, listening to a young know-it-all with an earring tell a story to impress the young girl who hands me back my change.  A third woman, in her 50's moves her mop as if she's heard this kind of thing countless times.

A bit later in the morning now, I stop for a second coffee at a michi-no-eki.  A man talks through a bullhorn to a group of bicyclists who are kitted out in spandex.  I pass more of their machines over the next ten minutes, happy that I'll be gone before the race begins.  Miles and miles earlier, I'd passed a lone bicycle pilgrim, racing only against whatever he's brought on pilgrimage with him.  That's where I'd put my money. 

A valley or two later, I begin to recognize certain things, and at one bend in the river, I find the village where I helped Yayoi and Seiichi work on their house five years before.  I park beside the school where I had once slept and walk up the hill toward their house.  I can't find it immediately, and as the houses here are built pretty close, I decide not to panic the locals with the sight of a lone foreigner wandering around.

Not ten minutes later I arrive at my destination, the home of my friend Blaine.  He and I have been in contact for a number of years via our respective blogs, but this was the first time we'd met in the flesh.  We chat for a while, gather some supplies, then drive further west.  He drives these twisty, narrow mountains roads with a special ease, and I, a bit cautious, have trouble keeping up.  I shouldn't be surprised at this familiarity, considering the remote and unknown places he's introduced me to on his blog.

We wind up at the trailhead for Ishizuchi-san, where I'll leave my car for the night.  We've left his own below, near where we will stay.  Earlier in the day, I was telling him that I'd never been troubled by horseflies, but as we transfer gear to my car, we were swarmed by a plague of the little bastards, one of which bites me on the head nearly immediately.  Consider myself acquainted.  I have a further moment of frustration when I realize that I've left my socks down the mountain.  Luckily, the hut had some for sale.  Off we go.

 I've heard enough things over the years to be somewhat wary of Ishizuchi-san, but the trail to the peak is surprisingly mild considering.  I might have changed my tune had we taken the infamous chain route on the final stretch, but the recent rains and damp conditions call for prudence.  Along that safer trail, we meet with a trio of yamabushi, leading a group of schoolkids to the summit.  One yamabushi has brought his own son, the pair of them dressed identically in their shugendo garb.  I'm saddened slightly by the fact that this too is something I can never share with my daughter.

The peak is busy, but we find some quiet behind the shrine.  The rain breaks out hard now, having threatened through the day.  We move over to the hut for lunch.  Another thing I knew about Blaine from his blog was his love of cooking, and it is to my delight that he has brought along some of the pork that he'd smoked for 11 hours the previous day. 

Thus sated, we move onward the final few dozen meters over to Tengu-dake, the true summit of Ishizuchi-san.  It is a knife-edge ridge, with a sheer and high drop just to our left.  Blaine strides confidently across, but I've pressed myself as far to the right as I can, moving slowly over the wet rocks.  We sit on the summit awhile, as the clouds part and offer glimpses of a view.  When they close in again, we figure we've gotten all that we're gonna get.  Midway back, it begins to pour.  This route is frightening enough in the best conditions, but the heavy rain makes the footing unsure, and I hug certain rocks, using my arms to pull myself upward.  Back to the safety of the hut, we wait out the rain.

When it clears, we head downward , along a different route toward where we'd left Blaine's car.  It is a gentle, lateral traverse along the face of the mountain, the sasa grass brushing our legs as we go.  Blaine is in front, and startles a couple times at snakes on the path.  We cross a few waterfalls, the trail falling away at our feet as we do.  Wooden bridges have been built here and there, but most are in pretty bad shape.  This trail is obviously not used much.  At its halfway point, we sit at a well-stocked mountain hut, listening to the thunder playing over the peak upon which we'd just sat not a hour before.  We've chosen out timing well. 

The trail begins to descend quickly now as it enters forest.  There are obstacles aplenty, in the form of rock slides and massive fallen trees.  Finally we arrive at the river, and the Omogo Valley.  I like the name, like a place named after an Indian tribe in the American South.  We follow the river north, along a series of wooden ladders built where the land has fallen away.  It brings us to a boulder the size of a three story house, which offers the perfect perch from which to launch one's self into the perfect swimming hole below.  If only it were an hour earlier.

But it isn't.  The flies too are getting to be a bother, biting often and leaving itchy welts that'll last a week.  So we walk back downstream until coming to our inn.  I wonder how much business they do as the valley looks like it doesn't get much traffic anymore.  It is a basic, but comfortable place.  The beer, baths, and dinner work their usual post-hike magic.  Then the sound of the river outside my window quickly brings sleep...

...we leave early, having breakfast back at the mountain hut near my car.  We drive the short way to the trailhead, passing along the way a runner absolutely besieged by flies.  We're luckier, out of the trees, moving along the sasa-lined trails to the twin peaks of Kamegamori.  The day is relatively clear, but the views are closer in.  Somehow it is enough.  I'd like to see the sea from here, but that can wait for next time.  Perhaps I'll come back and walk the ridges along all the high peaks of Shikoku.  Perhaps.

The drive out is a long one, alongside an elongated lake.  I marvel at what life must be like out here in the few small hamlets we pass.  Finally, we find the highway, and drive off in opposite directions, waving each other into our respective futures. 

I head due north, toward the sea.  My eyes seek out and find places that bring memory from my pilgrimage, memories good and bad.  I hope to eat lunch at the small seaside shop with the cute owner and the TV that played "Baghdad Cafe."  But I can't find it.  Probably further west.

For the next hour, I cross the necklace of bridges leading to Onomichi, then turn left.  A thunderstorm washes the dust of Shikoku off my car as it crosses into Hiroshima...   

 On the turntable: "Unwired From Around the World"

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shikoku... Four Years Later

Rising with the sun, I had envisioned a leisurely drive along the coast of Awaji, marveling at the sparkle of sun off water.  But it seems like Osaka prefers that I sit in traffic instead, extending for 30 km until Kobe.

Once untangled, I cross over Awaji bridge, the waters below busy with boats.  But the opposite side of the island enlists a more emotional response, as the vision of Shikoku brings back plenty of memory. 

I drive down through the drudgery of outer Tokushima, on the same road that I walked between Temples 17 and 18.  Along the way, I have a coffee with David Moreton, whose name popped up multiple times as I waded through the research for my book on the pilgrimage.  He is a pleasant guy, generous with his time and his stories.  Where I've read extensively on the lore of the pilgrimage from a pilgrim's perspective, here I get tales of the researcher, equally interesting.      

I leave him and continue driving west.  I pass Temple 13, noticing first the beautiful shrine that I remembered from across the road.  The valley narrows and mountain begin to grow taller.  Upon one of these stands Shōzanji.  Here far below, a lone walking henro moves along a route different than that which I had taken.  He is young and it is a hot day, and it is only a few minutes later that I should have offered him settai of some sort. 

Whereas I could have followed the quicker northern route, I decided to spend most of the afternoon taking in the rural scenery.  The road continues to cut through the valleys, then begins to twist upward.  Houses hug the slopes far above me.  Rivers have cut deeply into the earth here, forcing the residents to build precarious and high.  Incredible the heights of some of these roads.

As I'm crossing the final pass before Tsurugi-san, I see a hiker walking up the road and offer him a ride.  He had planned a loop hike back to his car, but one crucial trail was closed due to damage over the winter.  His luck rubs itself on me when we find a sign telling us that my road has been taken away by a typhoon last autumn.  We drive an alternative route that takes me well out of my way, and my leisurely drive turns into a race with the sun.

I finally get to the Iya valley, the shadows lengthening, the drops into the river to my right growing more and more precipitous.  I see spider webs here and there, and wonder if the spiders know just how high above the river they perch.  There's a dead monkey lying the road, looking disturbingly like a young child.   I weave and bob and eventually return to the Oboke/Koboke River Valley.  Somewhere along here was the inn where Miki and I stayed the night before we climbed to Temple 66.   I stop for gas and step out of the car, listening to a band play from a stage that has been built far below at the water's edge.   The music surprises in actually being pretty good.

Then, in near darkness, twelve hours after I left, I arrive at my business hotel.  It is more motel in its ramshackle nature, and in being just off the highway.  There is a diner (of sorts) attached.    The waitress comes to my table, and in a charming way that can only be found in the country, takes a long slow look at what I'm reading and then asks if I can speak Japanese.  I'm surprised that it was the book and not my face that inspired the question.    

I sit and look out the window, at the usual views of houses high above, water far below.  This particular stretch is crossed by a steel tsuri-bashi. The window looks like it hasn't been cleaned since glass was invented.  The color has nearly reverted to that of sand, as it hides how brilliant the sky had been today.

When the waitress returns I notice that she's dressed much like a schoolgirl, in a short blue skirt, white blouse, and cream colored sweater vest.  The thickness of her calves however betray decades spent right here, on her feet.  I've ordered a second beer, as I do while on the road, but my fatigue and lack of decent food today stand little chance against the alcohol, and I find myself pleasantly buzzed.  As I leave, I notice that the tray suspended from the ceiling to hold the TV is now empty.  My buzz thinks it looks like a kamidana, with the god suspiciously absent. 

I retire and attempt to sleep, as mold and ancient cigarette smoke have their way with my nostrils...

On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to the Blues"


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hiei-zan, Double Traverse Pt. 2

Something rankled.  I still wanted to explore the northern reaches of Hiei-zan that Wes and I had missed the week before.  My map showed small temple halls and possible hermitage huts which might offer some interesting afternoon diversions. 

I take the first bus to Ohara, along with a couple of unfriendly hikers of retirement age, who aren't too keen on conversation.  I leave them behind as I move quickly past Sanzen-in and into the forest that shaded Raigō-in, famed for the melodic Shōmyō chanting that was born centuries before Gregory.  Just above here is what is called the soundless falls, silent because they can't be heard over the chanting coming from the temple below.  Yet on this muggy August morning, the falls could definitely be heard, drowning out any sound the rivulets of sweat may have made as they flowed beneath my T-shirt.

Up and around them now, I follow the sawa upward, walking in the river itself part of the time, and busy looking for the tape marking the trail.  Most times it is on the left, leading me along crumbly little earthen trails hugging the steep walls of the canyon.  I find myself wishing that I had done this with Wes last week, and as a descent. It would have been an enjoyably refreshing parallel to our ordeal in January. In any event, I'm thankful for my trekking poles.

Along the way, something dislodges a large rock which falls with a clack! from the high rock face and into the stream below.  The are some ladders, beside a few more waterfalls.  Then the stream is gone and I climb the spine-like ridge, through a cedar mono-forest that is quiet as a church (though resembling more a Vegas wedding chapel in its lack of authenticity.)  There are plenty of cicada, at that stage of their development where they launch their frantic kamikaze attacks towards your face.  I wonder if they know that their time is short, and these manic bursts are like a character in an old 1930's gangster movie, a character who grabs the lapels of the lead, yelling "Charlie! Ya gotta help me Charlie!"  Later I 'll see a cicada trapped in a spider web, and think of the cruelty of fate.  Mono no aware. 

I halve the two hour ascent, less a strong confident stride than in frenzied heart-throbbing desperation.  I sit awhile at the top of the ridge, everything on the forest floor sticking to my sweat soaked shorts.  To my left is a trail marked only as "mountain trail," with a tree branch stretching across it, waist high.  I'm pretty sure that there's a temple that way, so I decide to cross the barrier and walk awhile, to see what things look like.  I don't want to trespass, or disturb a hermit at his practice.  But curiosity keeps my legs moving.  There's not much trail here, but there is enough, so I walk through the soft soil until it makes an abrupt right-angled turn straight down the mountain.  No thank you.

Back in bounds again, I nearly immediately coming to the peak, Daibi-san  There is a trail leading to the right which I believe is the trail I want, so I move along, beside a high fence that leads to some tall electrical towers.  As they stand in a clearing there are views, but as I stand there, a number of hornets begin to swarm.  I'm guessing that they are attracted to the humming of the towers, but I choose not to linger there and ask them, and shoot quickly toward the safety of the trees again.

Next comes a long descent down a ridiculous path, and it takes great concentration to stay on my feet.  I follow the tape and survey marks, moving uncertainly.  I scare some deer somewhere on the way which increases the uncertainty since they wouldn't come so near well-trod trails.  The sight of an old 1970's canteen hanging from a branch takes that uncertainty up a notch.  I give the canteen a tap as I pass,  comforted by the familiar slosh within. 

The tape continues despite the trail coming into an absurdly steep drop.  Even with poles, I can't negotiate it.  I backtrack, and after another short detour down a connecting ridge, I notice what looks like a little used trail to my left.  Moving closer, I see that someone has untied all the trail tape from the trees.  Here and there are beer and soft drink cans with logos that predate my time in Japan.  There is a further pile of them where I reach the old forest road down beside a stream.  The road is overgrown and in bad shape, but could still be negotiated by 4WD I suppose.  There are supposed to be waterfalls and a temple hall down here, but all I find is a tumbled down shack and more beer cans.   

I reascend slightly and find a more obvious trail, which is probably the one I initially wanted.  I follow it, still hoping for the temple, but it begins to climb.  I decide to go with fate, but the uncertainty grows stronger still until I see the divots that my poles made in the trail on the way down.  It is steep going, so I make many stops.  During one, I brush something from my sock and find that it's a leech.  At half the size of my pinky, it has had itself quite a feast.   Then that final insanely steep climb to contend with, and I slump against the hand-marked trail sign that led me down here in the first place.  I've not only wasted two hours, but I've drained most of my energy, and will spend the rest of the day in a futile attempt to regain it. 

I return to the peak, then follow the ridge back toward Yokogawa.  I pass some tall rocks that bring with them the thought that in New Mexico, I'd be watching for snakes here.  On cue, a mamushi moves off trail toward them.  A few minutes on, I'm looking at a stick in the path, thinking how much it looks like a snake.  It moves its head as my foot steps just beside it.  It is a harmless Aodaisho, but of a weird hue, so white it is nearly blue.  

Undeterred, I move along the ridge, then come suddenly to the clear cut.  What the map said would take 120 minutes actually took 40, without any real effort.  More than ever, I was disappointed that Wes and I hadn't finished this walk last week.

I return to that grueling slog across the valley, then slump against a stone lantern at the parking lot at Yokokawa.  I guzzle two bottles of sports drinks that I buy from a machine.  I'm not sure how the trail I want will move through the temple complex, so I ask at the ticket window.  The surly guy there gives me so much attitude that he forgets to ask for my ticket.  Cheered slightly, I visit the temple halls here, cooling myself in the shadows and the silence.  The statue of Amida here is a particularly good one, and the gold mock up miniatures ringing the main altar bring to mind the Academy Awards.

The trail down is rough, rarely used.  It brings me finally to a Fudo hall and some chairs.  I  small talk with the priest here, who walks with me to the main hall and points out the trail I want.  We don't discuss much, mainly that I take care crossing the wooden bridge that doesn't have too many seasons left. 

The trail throws one more climb at me, then levels off.  There's a heavy presence of inoshishi here, both in the recently torn up ground and in the distinct sounds coming from the streams below.

The latter is soon drowned our by the roar of leaf blowers and weed whackers coming from the direction of the temple nearby.  This too rankles, as I bemoan that even the Buddhists have gone for convenience over mindful training.  They're hurrying through their work to do what now?

Shame too on the monks for allowing Governnment to do such horrible things to this holy mountain.  I've spent the entire day in an artificial forest, but soon transport myself to the natural cedar forests of Yakushima, losing myself in its shadows as soon as the Mononoke DVD begins its revolution.

On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Ethiopia"

Friday, August 09, 2013

Hiei-zan, Double Traverse Pt. 1

On the day that I created the blog about the Shizen Hōdō, I realized that I hadn't actually finished the walk.  I'd assumed that I had, in also walking the Kyoto Isshū Trail, which traces the Hōdō as they both wrap around the ancient capital. But one section, a mere hour's worth, still remained untrod.

It took me over three years, but I finally made it up there.  Wes came along on this simple little stroll in the hills, ironic in that he has cheerfully taken on most of the hardest mountaineering that Japan can offer. 

So it was that we got off a bus near the Hotel L'Hiei, our means of transport having done most of the work for us that day.  After ducking into this clean, posh, and empty resort hotel to use the toilet, we quickly find the trail, arrows pointing down that long flight of steps toward Biwa-ko on which I had first made the Hōdō's acquaintance. 

Naturally we head in the opposite direction, along trails that hug the hillside, wrapping around landslides and fallen trees, and thankfully not climbing or falling too dramatically.  It's an easy morning:  cooling our heads in the mouth of a dragon that emits a cool stream of snowmelt; praying before the myriad gods in a cluster of shrines at Myō-dō.

Just beyond is the main temple hall of Enryakuji itself, dark and perfumed by centuries of incense.  But it is the trees up here that most impress.  Due to the devastation wrought by Nobunaga and his men, I date the tallest to just over 400 years old.

The trail leads on, easy and flat as it follows the ridge.  Conversation flows easy as the trail fails to wind us.  There is one particular drop into, then a tough climb out of, a narrow valley at the top of which we pause and snack.  Before us is an area open to the sunlight, brutally clear cut and devoid of nothing but mud, and some surveyor's stakes left behind like sarcastic exclamation points. We stand awhile and look down, our view unobstructed into Shiga-ken.  

The trail I'd hoped to follow continues north along the ridge, but my map shows a climbing time that would extend well past sunset.  Thus resigned, we follow a side trail past a tree trunk with a remarkably well-shaped ass, then shoot down amidst the frogs into the valley and to Ohara.  Here I'm further surprised to find that I hadn't walked this section of the Hōdō either, which we rectify by walking those final few hundred meters past the large homes of suburban farmers who'd found money, and bubble-era coffee shops that had subsequently lost it.  One of the latter attempts to cool us with ice coffee and fresh plucked cherry tomatoes, until the bus finishes the job, double doors pushing air-conditioned air into our faces before taking us in.

On the turntable:   "The Rough Guide to Okinawa"

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Hokkaido, Twice Return

In the seventeen years since I'd last been to Hokkaido, I've learned a lot about this nation Japan's forests.  I've grown accustomed to the monoculture of Honshu, to that of Kansai in particular.  Here the trees stand straight and lined up as if waiting for a train.   How wonderful then the natural forests of the northern island, anarchically dense and lush and filled with life. 

I co-led two tours there in June and July, falling in love with the both this density and the lack of it, in the spreading farms that recalled the equally beloved spaces of New Mexico and the American West.

So it was that just off the plane on my second visit,  I found myself cursing the residents of the small towns stretching south from Memombetsu, the hillsides above planted thick with cedar.  It was the most Japanese vision of both trips. 

I've often talked about how one can truly feel the gods in the forests and mountains of Japan.  But Hokkaido wasn't the palpable land of the kami. This was something else, something more intimidating.  Here the kami have sharper teeth. 

I revisited many of the same mountains that I'd hiked sixteen years ago.  And I further stretched my legs into some of the deeper, more remote reaches, namely into Daisetsuzan National Park, whose week-long traverse still beckons after the rains of 1997.  

On the first day, under skies bright with sun despite the falling rain, atmospheric conditions most suitable for foxen nuptuals, I watched one of these creatures appear as if on cue, as a group of tourists nearly tipped their bus over as they rushed to one side to snap photos. 

I met many more foxes, and birds, and wildflowers.  I became enamored with the red hues of Ezo pines, a love that nearly rivals that of my beloved buna. 

And on the last day, my plane traces the west coast of Honshu as it heads south, offering me an overhead view of my 1997 marathon route along the Sea of Japan, and those remote places -- Sado, Dewa Sanzan, Noto Peninsula -- that have shared their magic and joy many times since.   

The teeth of the kami can also be revealed in a welcoming smile.

On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Boogaloo"
On the nighttable:  Donald Richie, "The Inland Sea"

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sunday Papers: Robert Brady

"We spend our early lives asking upward, looking to our elders for such answers as we can find there, and when at last we have no elders but are the elders, we keep on asking upward, though now we ask of the height in ourselves, of the spirit that embodies us, that in every living person reaches directly back to beyond the start of time."

--Pure Land Mountain

On the turntable: Max Dodds, "Songs from Crooked Pine"