Friday, January 31, 2014

Backdoor to the Bakumatsu

There's a common misconception that the Meiji Restoration was bloodless. In fact, there was a great deal of blood shed, most of it spilled upon the streets of Kyoto.  There was a walk that I wanted to do that took me through the heart of the city, hitting sites bearing scars 150 years old.  My route would miss the most famous site, Ikedaya, perhaps better visited at night as it is now an izakaya.  A few dozen meters up the street, beams on the south side of Sanjo Bridge still bear scars from the battle.   As it was, I was joined by Joel Stewart and Deep Michael to stroll the back streets of town, on a day so warm and sunny it may as well have been April. 

We set off from Kyoto station, and after a few ill-advised detours turned north on Aburakoji Street, with its weathered lanterns signifying the old shops of oil merchants.  One appears to still be in business.  Along the way, we passed Honkōji, where Itō Kashitarō was assassinated by the Shisengumi for being an Imperial turncoat.  This action proved to be in vain, for Japan's last Shogun was stripped of his power literally weeks later.  The rapid westernization which followed is exemplified a few blocks later in the tall, cathedral-like building made of brick and tiled dome, constructed in 1912 and now utilized by the Jodo Shinshu. 

We'll stay under that sects influence as we head along the north wall of Nishi Honganji,which itself is bordered to the south by Ryukoku University, whose campus still maintains its beautiful Meiji period form. 

We arrive soon at the gate to Shimabara, the old red light district.  It's been said that when the old district was moved from across town to its current location, the uproar was so great that it rivalled the Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu just a few years before.  Only two former tea houses remain, though it is rumored that a few oiran still exist.  At the district's far end, the road suddenly becomes an abrupt right angle, a defensive demarcation of what in feudal times had been Kyoto's western limit. Michael quips that if  this bend in the road didn't slow an invading army,  the services rendered a dozen meters further on certainly would.   

We follow Senbondori for a kilometer or so.  The section that I'd walked a month ago as the Toba Kaidō led directly to the site of the old Rashomon Gate, beyond which the road is immediately disrupted by Umekoji Park.  Here at the park's northern edge, we've picked it up again.  In Heian times, Senbon was known as Suzaku Dori, the broad avenue leading to the site of the old Imperial Palace.  The road's current incarnation got its name from the tall trees that once offered shade to those visiting the palace.  

We follow it to Mibu-dera, the former headquarters of the Shinsengumi.   Now a quiet neighborhood, it's hard to imagine that they had once used these grounds for practicing with the new western import of cannon.   In one corner is a tall pyramid covered with Jizo statues transplanted from elsewhere.   Dozens of pigeons warm themselves on the tiled roof of the main hall beside it.  As the three of us stand between the Benten Hall and  hexagonal Jizo Hall, these birds suddenly fly toward us on masse.  Bizarrely, at that very moment we had been discussing Benten as the muse of artists, and thus the action of the unbeckoned birds creates an impetus for me to write this very line.  

Beside these two halls is a newer structure built of criss-crossed wooden beams.  Beneath lies small museum, the floor of which is an incongruous mishmash of tile.  This is one of the most unorthodox temple buildings I've ever seen, yet not at all unattractive.  Amongst the treasures is a Heian period statue that somehow survived a millennium of fire and warfare. There is also a pair of photos of two Shinsengumi leaders, one in western garb and a strikingly contemporary haircut.   The main statue of this structure is the medicine Buddha, though this one specializes in teeth.  A reminder that it's almost lunchtime.

Out on the street again, Joel is suddenly called away on an errand, but Michael and I continue to zigzag north, on and off Omiya-dori.  Crossing the grounds of Shinsen-en, the sight of a wheelbarrow standing behind the main shrine building launches a long conversation about William Carlos Williams, which stays with us as we wrap ourselves around Nijo-jo and into the arms of La Jolla restaurant.  Burritos and beers help to change the subject.  

This visit to a little slice of California has also created a type of time warp, as we suddenly leave the late Edo Period for the Heian.  We continue sleepily up to the corner of Marutamachi and Senbon where we find the site of the old palace.  In the vicinity are dozens of stones and signs marking where the structures had once stood.   We spend a long time at the Heian Museum, time mostly spent looking down at the 3-D map of a city long gone.  A reminder that the sense of wonder is timeless...

Perhaps due to the fact that Michael and I made that detour to the Heian Period, the Meiji wouldn't leave me alone.  The upper right corner of my map scolded me for my neglect.  So on another sunny afternoon a few days later, I decided to complete the walk with my daughter, hitting those final sites all lying within the confines of the current grounds of the Imperial Palace.  

We entered through the Hamaguri gate, on the palace's west side.  A century and half of rubbing fingers have smoothed the bullet holes in the gate's wooden door, where Tokugawa-backed samurai from the Aizu domain were held off by the men from Choshu who were protecting the Emperor.  In times of fire, his particular gate was the only one open to the citizens of Kyoto who sought shelter from the conflagration.  Otherwise it was close as tight as a calm, hence the name hamaguri.  Just this month I read that in the case of major disaster, the city had designated this place as an evacuation shelter .  Looking around, I wondered if there was enough room here for 1.5 million people to pitch their tents.

Just to the south is Munagata Shrine, serving as an oasis within an oasis.  Towering above it all is a 600 year old camphor tree, on whose leaves the imperials once wrote sutras, mimicking those ancient Indians who once did (and continue to do) the same in sanskrit.  This writing (書) on leaves (葉) is the origin of the word for postcard (葉書).  Looking for history and spirit, I get a lesson in linguistics.

My daughter and I walk back to our bicycle along the Demizu Stream (which was once connected by canal to Lake Biwa).  Along the way, we note that the plum blossoms are already coming into their bloom, despite it being only the first day of the second month.  Each little burst of yellow is another reminder of time continuing to cycle us forward.  

On the turntable:  Steely Dan, "Alive in America"
On the nighttable:  Yoshiro Tamura, "Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History"

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Under Crooked Pine

My stripped down interview with Mark Dodds is up and running.
(Super-sized version coming out in book form sometime in the future...)

On the turntable:  Harold Budd & hector Zazou, "Glyph Remixes"
On the nighttable:  Yoshiro Tamura, "Japanese Buddhism"

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sunday Papers: Joel Weishaus

"Odysseus of the Open Road has morphed into Polyphemus of the Rush Hour. Now even poets usually stay home and phone, text, or Skype a distant friend."

On the turntable:  The Band, "Rock of Ages"
On the nighttable:  John Einarsen, "Zen and Kyoto' 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sentimental Journey

I've spent far too many of these January days at my desk, clearing out over six months of writing projects.  The weather has been another factor, being wetter than on most years, albeit warmer.  Today we were rewarded with sunny skies and a high of 12 degrees.  Mishima proved the clincher, as I came across a quote of his saying something about needing to leave his study in order to feel the sun on his body.  Thus I followed suit, though not quite to extreme that Mishima himself took it.

I bike southwest, through the warren-like streets of Nishijin.  I pass the house that we nearly moved into in December, before we vetoed the west side altogether.  I round the south of Myoshinji, and leave my bicycle at an Imamiya Jinja under the wraps of construction.

I pass one of my favorite temples in the city, Hōkongō-in, the one with the beautiful lotus garden that blooms in August.  One summer a decade ago, I spent a long period cooling off in the museum here, staring at statuary which kept me as rooted in place as the air-con did. 

Just beyond the temple, I begin to trace the base of Narabi-ga-oka burial mounds.  Miki and I walked this many years ago, in the days before she was my wife.  In the forest we had found a ninja throwing star made from tin foil, and I shot a photo of Miki pretending to throw it at me, a photo that for years stood as her profile pic on my mobile phone.   Sometimes in marriage's darker moments, I think of that throwing star as a harbinger. 

I keep moving along a shaded path that follows the canal below.  Somewhere near here was a house that used to belong to the mistress of a famous film actor back in the 1920s.  I attended a party here one spring afternoon when the sakura were in bloom, their petals blowing like confetti through the bamboo trees outside the house's upper deck.  As we sipped our wine, we listened to William Burroughs singing The Egyptian Book of the Dead,  with Bill Laswell on bass behind him.  I heard recently that the house is gone, despite being one of the most beautiful I've seen in this city.

The hill drops away and I come to the main gate of Ninna-ji, framing as it does a mountainscape of subdued green.  A mounted guide map shows a cluster of temples just to the west.  I'm tempted, but they can wait until another sunny day.  Instead, I follow a diagonal street toward Myoshin-ji.  

Along the way I find the "Wonder Cafe" and step inside, to be led to a table in the front window.  The layout of this place is extraordinary, as each table is separated into its own nook which is shaped by high book shelves. Knick-knacks fill every available space.   I look at an old copy of one of my favorite Japanese mags, "Taiyo,"  this one in particular dedicated to walking in Kyoto.  On one page, I see an article on my friend Jack, looking far svelter back in 1999.  Over my left shoulder is an action figure of Taylor from Planet of the Apes.  Over my right is a CD of James Taylor.  The combination of we three Taylors must account for something in the universe.  I am half expecting Duran Duran to come over the sound systems, but instead I get Jane Birkin proving her "Je t'aime" for Serge Gainsbourg.  A far better choice.

I make it to Myoshin-ji eventually.  The layout of low temple walls and stone walks is reminiscent of Daitoku-ji in my own neighborhood, but the abundant green here, along with the accessibility of the sky, makes it appear far less fortified than its slightly older cousin to the east.   As I walk, I realize how many memories I have of Myoshin-ji, despite never having lived nearby.  I remember in particular a KJ release party here one night,  where the art and the music nearly won out against the beauty of the moon rising above a September garden.

The weather today too remains glorious.  The only grey to be seen is in the robes of a group of Korean nuns, wandering around the temple grounds, snapping photographs as if testing the theory of impermanence.  When the descending sun brings the coolness of evening,  I too am gone.

On the turntable:  The Moody Blues, "This Is..."
On the nighttable:  Nicholson Baker, "Room Temperature"

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bob Dylan & Allen Ginsberg Poetry & Song Celebration

Thanks to Deep Kyoto for posting about last Friday's musician/poet night at Tadgs.  I like how my own performance came off though I'm not altogether happy with my voice.  It sounds weak and thin, a testament to not having sung live for about eight years.  Plus I'm not in a comfortable key.  Max however needs no excuses, with his usual subdued wonderfulness...

The videos can be found here.

On the turntable:  The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields Forever"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Papers: Susan Estep

"The industrialization of any wild and scenic place goes against the aesthetic of the West."

On the turntable:  Pete Townsend, "Empty Glass"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Papers: Fred Lowery

"People don't whistle much anymore.  I guess it's a sign of the times.  Whistling is a carefree, happy thing, and these aren't carefree, happy times.  Everybody's uptight about something."

On the turntable:  Joy Division, "Unknown Pleasures"


Sunday, January 05, 2014

Sunday Papers: Ken Nordine

"The truth is right in front of you when your back is turned."

On the turntable:  The Kinks, "Face to Face"

Friday, January 03, 2014

Moving to Stand Still

There was a slowness to the morning.  Something about its nature, as everyone about seemed unhurried.  Many of the people I saw appeared to be heading home after passing the wee hours bringing in the new year.  There is a refreshingly languid feel to Japan at rest.

The train too felt unhurried, as I rode for over an hour to the northern reaches of Lake Biwa.  I made certain to get a seat on the right side, and await the first sunrise of 2014.  It too tarried a bit in arriving, needing a little more time to clear the bank of clouds nestling against the water's surface.

I'd certainly picked the wrong shoes for the day's walk.  There was a good 10 centimeters of snow on the ground.  And even it looked like it was in no hurry to get anywhere. 

The village of Makino was quiet, though occasionally a besuited man or two would cross the road ahead of me, moving toward the local shine with a wooden stick in hand.  One man smiled broadly and wished me a happy new year in my native language. 

On the outskirts of the village, a thatched roof house was working out the pace of its own state of decay.  As the main highway through here was flanked by snow, I walked down the middle, unmolested by cars which seemed to pass by only every ten minutes or so.  Beside the road, one car had a freshly torn left front fender, perhaps skidding on this very road last night.  Its driver may have been amidst the dozen or so people lined up at a small shrine in order to welcome the local deities into 2014.  I looked past them to the mountains on the horizon, a range on which I nearly lost my life in a snowstorm nearly a year ago.  I'd have to do my own praying later on.

I walk only a hour and a half, and come to Omi Imazu Station.  As I'd already walked the next section, I needed to leapfrog ahead 15km.  Hitching would be impossible due to the dearth of cars on the road.  But there was a taxi waiting at the station, so I hopped in.  I asked him to take the road along the water, retracing my steps on a hot August day just before I moved from Kyoto.   The driver moonlighted as the owner of a local inn, and seemed keen on talking me into buying a holiday home up this way.  We had a pleasant chat as my eyes stayed upon the ground over which I had previously trodden.

Today was a far more pleasant day for walking, the sun indifferent about keeping a consistent temperature as it popped in and out of the clouds.  It shone miraculous beams down upon the lake, the water gently lapped the snowy shore as if tasting ice cream.  I wandered into an neighborhood of beach homes with their free-form approach to architecture.   I left the road to walk atop the carpet of pine needles that coated the beach,  and followed it all the way into town.

Takashima had yet to awake this morning, which felt about right.  I moved past the shuttered galleries and cafes to the station, catching a train that got me home before lunch.  Over five days, I'd finished all the unfinished walks in my guidebooks, and looked forward to just sitting still awhile, easing myself into the laconic canter of this New Year of the Horse

On the turntable:  Yonder Mountain String Band, "Old Hands"
On the nighttable:  Richard Russell, "Dancing over Kyoto"

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Beyond Spiders and Wizards

I'm on a very early train, trying to catch glimpses of the final sunrise of the year, as it rises between the edifices of south Kyoto.  After a number of failed attempts, I had finally been able to find a coffee at a shop near the Kintetsu line, a line I rarely use.  Why, oh why is it so hard to find an open coffee place before 7:30?  I sip and I ponder and look out the window at the mist rising off the shorn rice fields.  The view from these trains as they edge past the suburbs is like looking at the back of a film set. 

On this last day of the year, the trains are pretty empty.  The few passengers all have their eyes closed, and I envy yet again the ability of the Japanese to fall comatose on a train lurching through morning. 

It is raining slightly as I disembark and hail a taxi.  But luck is with me and the skies clear by the time I get dropped off at Kuhonji, where Ojisan Jake and I finished the southern half of the Katsuragi Kaidō five summers ago.   As we did last time, I follow the path as it zigs and zags up and down Mount Katsuragi's lower slopes, leading to small shrines that sit quietly at the edge of the forest.  None of the shrines share the patina of age of those ancient shrines a few kilometers to the south.  Perhaps these arose as the spiritual hearts for the hamlets that developed over the next millennium.  One of the bigger shrines has a large cannon in the courtyard, a self-congratulatory relic from the Russo-Japanese war over a century ago.  Here and there I've seen at shrines the tall stones that commemorate the dead of this particular war, but I've never seen something so blatantly militaristic. Perhaps the name of this shrine,  Fuefuki Jinja, or "Shrine of the Whistling Flute," is referring to the sounds that shells made as they were fired at Russian positions in 1905.  The ema here are similarly decorated with this cannon, and when I ask if I could purchase one, I'm told that they are only sold to 'special persons.'  So I go back and have a look at some of those hanging on the rack, and see nothing special whatsoever.  I'm tempted to play the race card here, but I'm in the holiday spirit.  

As I continue north, I connect the dots with small hamlets.  One of them has a tall, three story tower where you can swing in a hammock as you admire the view.  In the next village, I count at least five labrador retrievers tied up in front of four different houses, and wonder if they are from the same litter.  There are the ubiquitous jokey signs about these pets, "Labrador Crossing."  The children however, don't seem to get the same pampered treatment, for a massive pile of earth has been piled up beside an elementary school.  That said, I remember the fun we used to have playing boyhood games amidst similar construction sites. 

The day has turned warm, and I pass a wonderful morning being a part of the rural landscape.  There are few people about, everyone probably enjoying family as they wait out the old year.  I do spy an incredibly old woman walking away after making a flower offering at a small graveyard beside a pond.  Near another pond, a farmer comes out to chat with me, mainly about his village's history as traditional dyers.  Similar ponds line the path as it moves along.  I'm intrigued by this man-made landscape.  The ancient kings of this region must've held incredible power as they could command not only these massive aqueduct projects but also the construction of the mounds under which they were eventually buried.    

Mount Nijo looms above me now, the villages below housing some large and ornate temples.  Most are closed in order to prepare for the midnight ringing of the bells.  I feel the need for yet another journey down here in the future.   It's just as well, as I hope to get back up to Kyoto before the day gets late, and the trains begin to fill with those intending to revel in the new year.  But as usual, I am far more interested in the past, and the only countdown I take part in will be measured in the number of steps I'll take in order to seek it out...

On the turntable:  Curtis Mayfield, "The Anthology"
On the nighttable: Dan K. Charkoski, "The Drop"

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy New Year!

Candor, gallop, or trot.

Saddle up...