Thursday, December 31, 2015

A year in reads: 2015

On the turntable:  Deep Purple, "Made in Japan"
On the nighttable:  J.G. Farrell, "The Singapore Grip"

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Notes from the Agog

One afternoon a few years ago, I was telling John Einarsen how my walks around the Kansai region have created for me a unique mental map.  I don't see the connection between places as defined by train or car, but by the ancient roads or mountain paths between.  Not long afterward he gave me a copy of Rebecca Solnit's wonderful Infinite City, a book that plays with this very theme.

Recently, another friend mentioned on Facebook that she happened to be spending some time with Rebecca Solnit, and I think I gushed something about her being a fantastic writer.   Then I was embarassed. I rarely gush.

I know I sounded a bit like a fanboy, but in my own defense, I only get fanboyish around writers. After all, reading a book is like having a conversation with that writer. I often want to continue that conversation.

I don't get that with film stars because they are simply paraphrasing someone else's conversation.  And directors therefore are just deciding where in the room those conversations are meant to take place.   

On the turntable:  Phish, "06/22/94, set ii"

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Empire's New Clothes


Watching the first Star Wars back in 1977, was revelatory.  Like many of my generation, it was a high water mark in our childhood.   The film launched in us hundreds of games, where we ran around the woods or housing construction sites, having shootouts with invisible stormtroopers.   I was probably a little too old to play with the subsequent toys and action figures, but I did anyway. Later I would be disheartened to find that these product tie-ins marked the first shift in American film going from an art form to a product, and by the beginning of the next decade, the quality began to free fall, from which in my opinion it has never recovered (exemplified most aptly by the poor standard of Star Wars episodes I-III).  Hollywood cinema is critically ill and George Lucas is responsible for the initial infection.

I was greatly optimistic about the latest installment, particularly because Lucas had so little to do with it.  Nostalgia washed over me as the opening scroll began to roll away from me, in IMAX 3D.  Despite a somewhat slow start, I found myself quickly enthused with the story.  I really enjoyed the in-jokes and the familiar tropes...until the tropes began to look a little too familiar.  By the end of the film, I felt that I was back in 1977 watching A New Hope again, but with the names changed and the roles and genres all mixed around.  Driving home afterward, I wasn't sure if I'd seen a sequel or a remake.  

That said, I truly enjoyed the film.  I don't usually go for big budget popcorn movies anymore, but this one won me over.  I quite look forward to seeing the follow up films, and more than that, to introducing my daughter to the franchise, once she is a bit older.  

Truth be told, I didn't open my laptop this morning in order to write a review.  Instead, I wanted to write what a wonderfully Singaporean experience I had.  I watched the film in a theater belonging to Shaw Brothers, who had an influence equal to Star Wars in my upbringing, in their chop-socky films that I watched every Saturday on the Just for Kicks program on New York's WWOR.   While living in Hong Kong in 1997, I went to Shaw Studios on a pilgrimage of sorts, hoping to see the full scale Qing dynasty town they'd built on their back lot.   Overdressed in a suit and taking the guise of a foreign exec, I failed to convince the security guard to let me pass, though I did have better luck talking myself into Jackie Chan's offices a short walk away at Golden Harvest.   

But I wasn't thinking about that here in Singapore.  Instead I was delighting in the fact that the movie hot dogs are chicken rather than pork (beaks and feet rather than snouts and tails?), in respect of the country's large Muslim population, including the girl at the concessions stand who handed it across the counter to me, along with hot sauce rather than ketchup.  Compared to the New Jersey suburbs of 1977, it truly is a galaxy far far away...

On the turntable:  "Fusion from India"
On the nighttable:  J. G. Farrell, "The Singapore Grip"

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday Papers: Paul Theroux

"History happens to other people."

On the turntable:  Dr. Hook, "Sloppy Seconds"

Friday, December 25, 2015

Car Isthmus

You know you're in Japan when the first voice that wishes you a Merry Christmas is your car.

On the turntable:  "India My Love."

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Does a Body Good

A real beauty, she comes proudly walking up the street, head high, dressed well and warm against the cold, sipping from a 1000 ml carton of milk with a straw.

On the turntable:  Moe, "Bonnaroo, 06/22/02"

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Just Another Highway

One problem of writing on the internet is that you are restricted by the arbitrary confines of the Zeros and the Ones.  How do I label the walk I did today?  Nijo-zan (or at least its shoulder)?  The Takenouchi Kaidō?  Imai-cho?  In fact it was all of those.  But I'll settle on Takenouchi Kaidō, as I continued along that route for the better part of the day.

My second problem was getting a taxi.  I disembarked a small train platform in the middle of little, with no real desire to walk back up the pass that I'd crossed six years ago.  That problem cleared itself rather quickly with the appearance of a sleek black cab, driven by a youngish woman with dyed brown hair.  She took me to a small car park just over the Takenouchi pass, which contained a number of cars belonging presumably to hikers now somewhere on the flanks of Nijo-zan looming above.  I made for a trail at the back of the carpark and was on my own way.  

Problems as we know often come in threes. (Nay, scratch that, for the minuscule part of me that tends toward bravado says that there are no problems, only challenges.)   It wasn't long before I found myself up a path that wasn't on my map.  Served me right.  The roads of Japan themselves could be covered by all the flimsy little pamphlets and maps that you can pick up at railway stations and tourist offices, detailing hand-drawn walking courses with happy looking hikers and dancing mascots.  Sadly they are absolutely devoid of scale.  It reminded me of a quip I had read just the day before in Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Sun-burnt Country."  When asked peevishly by a local, "Can you not read a simple map?" Bryson replied, "I cannot read a simple map.  I can read a good map."  

As it was I found myself well-up the wrong trail, having been thrown off by an unexpected fork.  A nice bit of irony there since it was a series of forks that had contributed to a rather surprising amount of weight gain on a recent trip abroad, and as such, I suppose I didn't much mind the sweaty slog up a very steep pitch.   When I reached the top of something called Mukai-yama, and knew instantly that I was mukai-ing the wrong damn way.

I found the descent about as steep as the ascent.  When I met the main trail again, I turned left in the direction of where the wild boars had been digging.   On the taxi ride up here, I had been thinking about how apprehensive I have become when heading into the hills alone.  I'm not sure just why that is, considering I spend so much time up there, though that is usually in the company of others, and while on the job, fear tends to escape me.  Perhaps it is because of the night Wes and I spent on that snowy peak, or too many encounters with bears and venomous snakes.  But something gets stirred up inside me when I think about solo hikes in the hills.  My years of teaching yoga have taught me that there is indeed such a thing as muscle memory, and I am starting to believe that there is adrenal memory as well. 

I found the correct trail in minutes, which led me up to Shikaya-dera ato.  From the name I had anticipated a few remnants of an old temple, but what I found was of such antiquity that I gasped.  A tall weather-worn stone spire stood atop a col, directly before a small cave at the back of which was the figure of Amida Buddha scratched into its back wall.  I love Nara for things like this; the countryside is simply littered with them.  After a good fun scramble up a steep rocky trail I came to another set of Buddhist relics called Iwaya.  These were in the mouth of a cave, and holes bored into its upper lip hinted at a wooden structure that had once housed them.  They were now long gone.  Another impressive wooden structure had also once stood here, a massive cedar which had fallen somewhere around its 600th birthday.  The sound must have been impressive, for the tree still lay where it fell, a truly massive specimen under whose prostrate form the trail now passes.    

I made my way over the pass, and descended into what was a surprisingly lovely cedar grove.  Another surprise was the number of other hikers I met, close to a dozen over the hour I'd been hiking.  Most were past retirement age, enjoying a late season sunny day on the cusp of when the chills of winter would begin.  As I was passing a pair of women busy in conversation, one of them suddenly asked me, "Are you in Love?"

"Pardon?" I thought I had misunderstood.

"Renai is an old expression for love," her friend explained.

I had understood after all.  I didn't give an answer, but merely laughed at how her question had thrown me off-guard.  I continued in their company as we passed a small temple on the edge of the wood, then a couple of man-made ponds where men of their same generation were fishing.  As we went, we got to discussing the current political situation and I was quite brazen in expressing my opinion.  It had been a while since I'd talked to a Japanese person about anything, and my building frustration at the administration simply spilled out.  One of the women was quite engaged in the topic, but the one who had asked me about love seemed completely shut-down, her face now dour and closed.  When we reached their motorbikes parked beside a shrine, I tried to make amends by saying that all of these problem could be solved if we all chose to focus on the love in our life.  Not sure if it helped. 

I walked into sunshine again, through the back gate to Taima-dera, famed for its peonies. Their season was over, and thus so was their glory, but the sight of two or three flowers defiantly braving the cold had more impact than the sight of hundreds would have.  Beyond, a large statue of Amida meditated at the side of a pond, his face turned toward the sun.    

Below the garden were a trio of temple halls, one of which containing some of the most incredible statues I've ever seen.  The weathered and cracked face of the main Buddha simply stunned me, reminding me of why I am so enamored with the Nara period.  Buddhism was new then, and only deep and profound devotion can get to the heart of the intrinsic beauty that lies within wood or stone.  I stood fixed there for awhile, then remembered that I still had a long walk ahead.

I walked the narrow lane that led to the temple, then moved south to reconnect with the Takenouchi Kaidō.  It was chillier here on the plains, windy,  driven by the clouds laying like a shroud atop the peaks of Mt. Katsuragi.  In the half dozen times I've walked at her feet, the weather has always been like this, sun overhead, clouds on the peaks.  Little wonder that those heights are the birthplace of esoteric mountain Buddhism., and little wonder that the founder En-no-Gyoja is always represented with such a severe visage. 
I walked into the wind, colder than I had been up in the hills.  The road too had little to interest me, as I trudged along for the next two hours.  At one point the road left behind the chain stores and narrowed to the width of an old post road.  Yet even then, the houses were mostly of a new construction, the few older ones abandoned and in disrepair.  It all lacked charm, but I knew where that charm remained. 

On the outskirts of Yamoto-Yagi I detoured slightly to the south.  I had done so 20 years before, hopping off a train to visit its Imai-cho, which a guidebook had told me was composed mainly of old Edo-period structures.  On that day I had only had an hour or so between trains, so I literally ran to the town and back, getting only a quick glimpse.  Today I could take my time with the place, but was concerned with what two decades may have brought.   

They brought delight.  Imai-cho's tightly packed grids of narrow lanes had hardly been touched at all.  It was the Japan that we all long to see, the Japan that we all come here for.  The town had been one of the wealthiest during the Edo-period, which could account for the compact look of the town, making it easier to defend. Remnants of that wealth survived in the luxury cars parked here and there. 

It is incredible the lengths they have gone to keep the beauty, and preserve what they once had.  It was refreshing to see the workmen painstakingly rebuild some of the houses, taking great care to preserve the original look.  There were a few amenities to the modern world of course, like one house where they were putting in double-glazed panes.  I wish I could say that all the houses had retained the old look.  The single striking exception was the Yamada house on 4-chome, which looked nothing more than the worst European gingerbread delusion.  I can only imagine how Yamada's neighbors felt about the structure, no doubt with a fair bit of vehemence.  But what worries me more is that this is probably how it begins.  As one house goes, so does another, and another, and within a generation, this town will be filled with the least-common-denominator characterless boxes that Japanese all too often call home.  There were also a couple of places where houses were completely gone, converted to carparks.  But with the grassy surfaces, they were softer here, looking part of the town rather than as a conspicuous absence, as carparks usually do in Kyoto. 
The wind was blowing down the narrow lanes, under a sky gone grey.  The only true color in view was in the bobbing yellow hats of schoolkids going home.  Back on the Takenouchi Kaidō (from here called the Yokōji road), I found their older counterparts pouring out of the city train station after a long day in Osakan office buildings.  It was late now, later than I usually walk, the clock hitting 5:30 just as I found the intersection with the Shimotsumichi that I had walked past a year and a half before.  I said a quick hello to the caretaker I'd met on that day, then turned right and toward the south.  

Kashima Jingu, and its train station were a half an hour away.  Walking these last steps upon ever darkening streets was right out of my greatest samurai film fantasies, where the lone swordsman is walking down a quiet Edo lane, about to be ambushed by a dozen enemies.  I truly was walking back into the past, but the past I was walking into was my own.

On the turntable:  "Soulive and Jon Scofield, "Live" 
On the nighttable:  Sean Condon, "Sean and David's Long Drive"

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sunday Papers: The Beatles

"The farther one travels
The less one knows."

--"The Inner Light"

On the turntable:   Boz Scaggs, "Silk Degrees"

Friday, December 18, 2015


Nara's ancient delights,
Revealed beneath
Wind-swept autumn leaves.

On the turntable:  Faith No More, "Songs To Make Love To"

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Retained in Memory

It was a cold snowy night when Lord Kira's head left its body.  That tale is one oft-told, in puppet plays, kabuki, thirty-four TV presentations, and numerous films (I lost count at fifty).    I will start my own tale as it began during the hot summer of 2003, a time when I was just emerging from a shell of grief, and thought it would be a nice distraction to spend a summer in Kyoto interning for Kyoto Journal.  Little did I understand that the magazine was put together remotely, a collaboration by like-minded individuals spread across dozens of postal codes.  The work I was given for the special Streets issue involved little more than internet research, leaving me free to pass my days bicycling the city and visiting its sights.  Off the bike, I prepared myself for my third-degree blackbelt examination in iaido by practicing cuts behind the trees of Yoshida Jinja, the Imperial Palace grounds, or the forest of Shimogamo.

I based myself in a small subtemple of Daitoku-ji, which disappointed somewhat in not offering daily zazen meditation.  For most of the summer I had a small six mat room to myself, but as the heat of August built up, so did the visitors to the city, and for one week I was asked to share a room with a quiet, unassuming man from Tokyo.  It turned out that he was staying at Daitoku-ji for the same reason as I.  Gary Snyder, a hero of his, and of mine, had studied at a nearby sub-temple for a time.  (We found to our dismay the following morning was that there would be no zazen in August, as the internationally renowned priest was busy giving teachings in Europe.)  So that left us time to discuss other things, the most memorable being that he was the caretaker for the graves of the 47 Ronin.  I had visited these graves a number of years before, probably on one of my first visits to Tokyo.  I don't recall what time of year it was, but I do remember a thick haze of incense burning from the offerings of those moved by their sacrifice.  And like the dissipating nature of that smoke, the caretaker too drifted away and I never saw him again.  

I moved to Kyoto full time a few years later, and did eventually make it to zazen.   And being based here, I began further explorations, but never seemed to make it to Ako for December 14th's Gishisai, held on the day when the 47 loyal retainers finally got their revenge.  (I did however pass through Ako itself one afternoon, and found myself on the receiving end of a road-rage incident with a flash-car-driving yakuza whose low status seemed to correspond to his stature.  If you know your Chushingura, you'll be amused by the fact that what he was most upset about was that I didn't show him the proper respect.)   

This year, the weather and my schedule collaborated to allow me to attend.  I mentioned above that the night that Lord Kira's head rolled was a cold and snowy one, which offers great dramatic tension to the story,  the weather acting almost as ronin number 48.  In contrast, I stepped into a warm morning, under bright blue skies and leaves reluctant to do their duty by falling from the trees. 

And the samurai were nearly upon me before I even left the station.  A half dozen were shouting threats at one another before slashing and whirling within the narrow confines of the station hallway.  After the long train ride out here, I really needed to pee, but unfortunately the samurai were between the toilets and I.  I was reluctant to pass as they were obviously mere actors, with little of the tight control of the well-trained martial artist.  When the flailing temporarily ceased to allow for more swearing and snarls, I scooted past to go about my business.  

I only saw one more group of samurai that day, posing for photos and unable to defend themselves from the onslaught of off-key enka coming over the hedge.  What I did see was a Japanese festival at its most relaxed best.  The broad high-street of town had been closed to traffic, allowing a modest sized crowd to stroll along merrily on an unseasonably warm day free of work or school.  Food stalls of an incredible variety lined the street for the full kilometer to the castle ruins.  Access to the castle itself was barred due to the preparations for the procession about the begin.  I liked the idea of of a group of blue-pated men hunkered down within the walls of the castle, plotting something unknown to the rest of us.  So I walked the perimeter of the castle's walls, around to Oishi Jinja which eponymously commemorates the leader of the 47.  The narrow confines were busy but uncrowded, with people queuing to pray for the fallen men.   

Back on the main street, the procession had begun, kicked off by a series of elderly women clad in bright blue yukata, spinning parasols as they went.  The next few groups were also dance teams, and a glimpse of other groups further awaiting their turn revealed more flashily dressed elderly female participants, or young kids whose heights would be temporarily stunted by the weight of mikoshi.  I knew that the samurai procession would come much later, climaxing in each retainer having his name announced as the crowd roared.  

That would have to wait.  I enjoyed myself to the extent that I'd like to return for the festival in the future, and would certainly time my return to later in the afternoon in order to see that final ronin roll callBut this day had felt just about right, and as I was weary from a recent trip abroad, thought I'd rather read of the exploits of others than to actually experience them.  So what followed was a slow and leisurely amble back to the train station, with plenty of food stops, beneath the character 'Aka' (for Ako, 赤穂) carved into the hills above.

On the turntable:  "Roots of Reggae II"

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sketches of Oz

I have a quite enviable position as a travel writer, in being able to take numerous trips per year.  The flip side is when the rate of travel is so great that I am left with little time to write it up.  I took a series of trips from late 2015 to late 2016, yet found myself reading about the places I visited, rather than writing about them.  I will post a number of sketches direct from my travel notes.  First up, a brief look at Australia, December '15...

The plane curls in over the Blue Mountains...

...the land below is all dry earth, parched trees.  No wonder my Australia clients gush about all the rushing water in Japan...  

...airport security is quite elaborate for a former penal colony...

...Nicole Kidman stands ten meters high on a billboard for Emirates... argue in a Volvo in Rush Hour traffic. My own taxi driver pops his gum...

...the beautiful Georgians lining Argyle Drive, hung with posters petitioning their survival...

...watching the red sails in the sunset of the Opera House over dinner...

...James Bond henchmen moonlight as crew on the ferry out to Hobart's MONA.  Bouncing on the trampoline set at the edge of the cliffs, feeling dizzy at the thought of pitching over the nets.  Finding more inspiration in a glass of wine out in the garden than in the art within...

...driving clockwise around Tasmania.  A living forest literally teeming with life, but for the road kill.  I've never seen so many dead animals before.  At least they break the monotony of trees, eucalyptus a perpetual grey corridor.  To reach a town brings relief...

...Strahan a small and quaint village built on a large cove.  Sadly the boats aren't running due to the cold weather.  The chill stays with us up to Cradle Mountain, creeping into the corners of our cabin, defeated once and for all in the fireplace.  We keep our hike the following day low, amongst the scrub, upper torsos perpetually in sunlight.  Above, the landscape is ruled by lingering snow...

...a series of good meals in Launceston, burned off with walks amongst her Victorian finery...

...the wild scenery of the east coast:  Bay of Fires, Wineglass Bay.  Encountering dozens of kangaroos on the hiks to the latter...

...after pints at Iron Horse Brewery, spying a kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree...

...Bicheno quiet and shuttered on an low season Sunday.  Finding the only restaurant to be Chinese.  Outside, a Singaporean family bickers in a mix and match of two dialects...

...Port Arthur like a cathedral, despite tragic history new and old.  Peace walks across wide expanses of lawn, darting in and out of ruined buildings...

...having a devil of a time at the Tasmanian animal rescue and rehabilitation center.  Amongst all the soft cuddlies, a Tiger snake lazes fat and bloated beside a log...

...a handful of days in Melbourne, walking, sipping, eating.  Having a chance meet with a friend on the rooftop of a bustling Siglo bar, then running into another friend at the very restaurant he had recommended a year before...

...the long queues outside every coffee shop at 9:10 every weekday morning.  It's as if Melbourne punches their time cards, then ducks back out for their first cuppa...

On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Stollin'"

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sunday Papers: Robert Hughes

"Paper outlives stone and brick."

On the turntable:  The Ramones, "Too Tough to Die"

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Sacred and the Cows

I took the first train of the day so as to beat the rain.  It also enabled me to beat the rain that had just ceased, after falling all night, after falling for two days.  

The cobbled lanes shone in the faint light of dawn.  Tall hedges rose on either side, framing perfectly an old man riding toward the castle ruins.  Walking toward him, I did what most feudal period travelers would have been hesitant to do;  that is visit the castle.  In those days, the average man on the road would have wanted to get through these administrative centers as quickly as possible, since they were hotbeds of authority.  Far better to carry on up the road to the next town, and a small quiet inn somewhere with its sake and its gambling and its women.  Climbing up to the ramparts I found where the keep had once stood was a wide open space now cleared for a city-center park.  All along the perimeter of the walls the grass had been tramped down by the footfalls of walkers, though it is not hard to imagine that they too have been walking in the same footsteps as the feudal era sentries now long gone.  

I found that I had no beef with this Matsuzaka, with its large decorative cowbells and statues of horse-headed Kannon.  It is an attractive little city along a rather ugly industrial corridor that extends southward from Nagoya's distended belly.  This was my third single-day walk along what had once been the Ise Betsu Kaidō, and I'd seen very little but bland suburban homes and massive structures looking almost abstract objet.   In fact I don't believe that I found myself in the midst of any sort of open space since leaving Yokkaichi on a hot August day now a year past.  No wonder really since this was the primary road connecting the well-visited Ise Shrines with the Tokaidō and thus Edo.  Inns and tea houses would have lined this route, free as it was from any significant hills.  

Matsuzaka's folk museum had many artifacts from this time, and delighted even more in being free on this national holiday morning.  I continued along the rough hewn stones to pop my head into an old samurai house or two, then got on with the walk at hand.  

Arriving at the river's edge, I retraced my own steps of yesteryear.  The day turned out to be warmer than what people were dressed for.  The recent rains had brought with them chill, and the train ride down was accompanied by the scent of musty clothes pulled out for a new and premature season.  One exception however was an old woman bent at a perpetual 45 degrees, sweeping the path to a shrine with a broom twice as tall (now) as she.  

The suburban corridor led me over a couple of rivers.  Beside one, an eda-mame field looked parched despite the recent weather.  What was coming in didn't look too promising either, and as the first drops began to potsu-potsu off the road ahead, I pleaded with the sky to hold off just a bit longer.  It seemed to heed, and besides the odd drizzle here and there, I was left unmolested to finish my walk.  

Over the last river, paralleling a bridge I'd crossed back in March when I wrapped up the Ise Hon-kaidō.  This bridge had far less traffic, and I walked in the center of its low white rails toward the zigzags that fed me onto the intersection where I met with my previous route.  Seeing no real need to go to the shrine again, I bee-lined for the station, and onto a platform abuzz with people returning from a long soggy holiday weekend.  And while I was pleased to finish a route that I had seemed destined to never complete, a glance at my map reminded me that I still have one more Ise route to do, one that stretches away from the Kumano shrines out there beyond the hills...


On the turntable:  "Frank Zappa, "Zappa"
On the nighttable:  Victoria Glendinning, "Raffles and the Golden Opportunity"

Monday, November 23, 2015

Beneath Another Sky

The most difficult part of the walk began the moment I turned on my computer.  I mean, what is one to write about if nothing much happened?  It was the kind of day where nothing really appealed to the eye; nothing inspired words; nothing brought the feet to a halt to take a photograph...

I debarked the train in Matto,  my attention pulled immediately by the yellowing ginkgo trees of the old castle grounds which were attempting to bring some beauty to an otherwise drab day.  This set the mood for the entire walk, the odd splash of color on a dark grey canvas.

Grey above, grey below.  Little on the immediate landscape but cookie-cutter suburban sprawl, their squared irregularity broken only by the larger masses of industrial blight.  I was thankful then for the odd shrine which seemed to pop up every twenty minutes or so.  Above each was a single tree at the height of its tinctured spectacularity, the ground below littered with the leaves of those with less longevity.  But even with these, the metaphor for a fading and near deceased beauty was a bit too close.   Many of these shrines were tributes to Hachiman, god of war.  No surprise really since  remote farm communities like this were prime recruiting grounds for tough and hearty young men who went overseas to die in droves.  Same as every country I suppose.

Where the suburbs broke the land opened up.  The kites and crows were having a significant aerial battle above the dull colored stubble of newly harvested rice fields.  There must have been hundreds of birds, swooping and dodging and swirling in impossible geometric shapes.  It brought to mind an old dog fight of the First World War, and in an instant I remembered that the previous day had been Remembrance Day.

In the far distance, Hakusan had a fresh coat of snow, gradually moving toward the countenance that gives her her name.  She orbited slowly around my left shoulder as I entered a busier road seemingly dedicated to delivering people to the usual chain stores in order to whisk their paychecks away toward Tokyo.  I knew I'd be on this road for a while, and a quick peek at Google Maps said that it would be fifty-one minutes, to be exact.  With a sigh I pulled up a one-hour long comedy set by Bill Hicks on my iPod, and commenced giggling as I went on my way.

I had a quick pee in the toilet of a seemingly empty police box, then surprised a lone officer when I stepped back out again.  Crossing a long bridge, I saw a small amusement park nested against the berm of the river.  On the berm's other side, and nearly lost amidst the high grasses near the water's edge was a single teeter-totter, the world's most forlorn consolation prize.      

My fifty-one minutes having passed, the route began to zigzag again, as it had earlier on.  I was very reliant on my GPS here, and I figured I was in a footrace with the life of its battery.  There was very little else on the landscape to occupy me, until another river crossing brought me to the outskirts of Komatsu, the first place I saw that actually had even a touch of historical flavor.  What had been the old post town's high road was surprisingly lined with temples, each with a small placard detailing its history.  It all had a pleasant look, but one that was being lost in the fading light.  This land may be known by the moniker of Rising Sun, but this time of year, the sun falls all too fast. 


On the turntable:  "Doob Doob O Rama"
On the nighttable:  William Scott Wilson, "Afoot in Japan"

Friday, November 20, 2015

Haute Culture

Even at the early hour, there are plenty of cars in the car park, and I am lucky to have gotten one of the last spots.  I'd assumed as much on a national holiday, just not this early.  After I walk across the bridge I understand why.  Dozens of primary schools kids roughhouse as they wait to undertake an organized assault on Atago-san.  A handful of their teachers ignore them, looking unhappy to be stuck with this duty on a day when they should rightly still be in bed.

The hamlet of Kiyotaki itself still sleeps in shadow.  I move through them and up out of the steep canyon to where the sun is.  Before me is the long thin tunnel that seems more suited to the narrow gauge trains steam trains that ran through the hills nearby over a century ago.  It is still utilized by car traffic, though they are let through one direction at a time.  I've biked through this once, a harrowing ride where side mirrors missed clipping my handle bars by centimeters.  From my own car, I've seen hikers pinning themselves to the grey sooty walls.  There is no way I am going to walk through.      Luckily a little-used bypass road spirals up and over the pass above.  (It is a very unique case where the older road is the one that bores through the mountain.)  At the top, I see a sign pointing up toward a 'Fudo-in' further above.  Both the name and the location intrigue me, so I begin to climb a few hundred stairs to this small temple hidden within the absolute western limits of Kyoto. 

 In a clearing on what could be called the mountain's shoulder is the usual assortment of Kobo Daishi statues and a large open space under the steady gaze of En-no-Gyoja.   I myself see little besides a small goma hall made disappointingly of ferroconcrete.  Alongside is an octagonal path lined with 88-metallic stepping stones; beneath is sand from each of the corresponding temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage. And despite my initial disappointment, the Fudo-myō statue within the small hall is beautiful, holding the usual sword to cut through delusion, which in this case might be emanating from a pair of satellite dishes nearby.  

The path continues a short while more, leading me to a saddle that offers stunning views of Atago just above, and of Kyoto itself spreading away to the east.  The air is as clear as air can be, and it looks as if each peak of the Kitayama mountain range is stretching itself upward like the arched spine of a newly awakened cat.  I stay here for a good long time.  When I finally recede into shadow again, I feel the rush of wind as a crow swoops low over my right shoulder, coming to rest again atop the statue of En-no-gyoja.   This stops me quicker than the view had just previously. 

A three-legged crow know as yatagarasu was said to have lead the Emperor Jimmu to the sacred lands of Kumano, past and current home of aesthetic monks following in the footsteps of none other than En-no-Gyoja himself.  I smile at the symbolism, and don't move on again until I count the legs of this bird perched on the saint's stone head. 

At the bottom of the steps are a couple of dozen VW Beetles resting and rusting behind a structure that must house the priest here.  Further along is a monument to those who died in Siberian POW camps at the end of WWII, many of the survivors unable to return to Japan for a full decade after the peace treaty had been signed.  I offer a quick prayer to their tragedy, on this early November day that marks the birthday of the Emperor in whose reign the roots of that tragedy were born. 

Happier faces can be seen a short walk up the road at Otagi Nembutsu-ji, hundreds etched in stone slowly going green with moss. Beyond the temple grounds, raucous young baseball players race up the hill that I just descended.  Continuing in my own direction, I come to Otagi's somber counterpoint of Adashino Nembutsu-ji, where all the graves that once lined the old pilgimage path to Atago were collected in order to make room for the wider automobile road that replaced it.  I had planned to visit, but the temple is closed today for some unknown ceremony, as somber chants emanating from inside pass over the heads of the black-clad figures silently standing on the steep stone steps.    

The outside world holds greater appeal anyway.  This particular stretch before me is as nice as anything I've seen in Japan, all thatch roofs beneath a colorful zenith of maple.  It is exactly the type of landscape that I seek out on my longer walks, and it is a mere 20 minutes from home.  I slow my step to relish it, and the delight moves with me as I continue through the semi-rural suburbs of Sagano, past Daikaku-ji and to the shores of a Hirosawa pond, now filled with water as is normal for the season.

But the modern centuries eventually intrude as I follow a canal system due south to the built-up banks of the upper Katsura-gawa.  This is all familiar ground, so I see no reason to linger, though I do take a quick coffee at a new shop whose bright white box of an exterior stands somewhat at odds with the dark wood of the ryokan and tofu restaurants surrounding it.  Still, it is respectful in its simplicity.  More importantly, the quality of its product is quickly acquiring an international reputation, a fact made obvious by the dozen or so Asian tourists in the queue.

Thus fueled, I continue pushing south, over the bridge of Togetsukyo  and around the bend that traces the Arashiyama foothills.  Matsuo-Taisha marks the next directional change, east now, but not for long, as I quickly reach the quiet semi-urban shrine of Umenomiya.   That feels right for today.  Above, clouds have invaded what had earlier been an empty sky, and they now threaten rain.  Below, my feet tell me that my 12 km have been just enough, and are ready to mark off only a few more steps until the clock crosses noon. 

On the turntable:  "Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, Best of '83"
On the nighttable:  Micheal Scott Moore, "Sweetness and Blood"

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Tiny hands
Lose their annual fight
To gravity and rain.

On the turntable: Sly and the Family Stone, "Anthology"

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Papers: William M. Kunstler

"All tyrants learn that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality than to do it without that pretext.”

On the turntable: "Karma Collection Sunrise"

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Japan's autumnal belly.
Tightening the obi,
With every mile.

On the turntable: Sweetwater, "Sweetwater"

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Sunday Papers: Louis Aragon

“Why should we spend our time manufacturing synthetic nightmares and call them art? All we have to do is pick up the daily paper to find real, factual events far more fantastic than the wildest dreams of surrealism.”

On the turntable:  "Sacred Spirit II"

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Things once green
Tend towards grey.
A spectrum between.

On the turntable: Charlie Parker, "Early Bird"

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Papers: Dalai Lama

"Happiness is not really made.  It comes from your own actions."

On the turntable:  "Tun Dun" (Sdtk) 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sunday papers: Donald Richie

“Travel hopefully broadens those who travel. It usually narrows those who have to deal with the travelers”   

On the turntable:  "Unwired from Around the World"

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


The clouds at Daisen's crown
Conjure up arboreal fashions,
To the envy of green waters.

On the turntable: The Beatles, "Revolver"

Friday, October 02, 2015


Storm-brought autumn morn.
Looking forward,
Looking back.

On the turntable: Boz Scaggs, "The Essential Boz Scaggs"

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


"Japan has great regard for itself, and unfortunately less for the rest of the earth."
--Gary Snyder

With the rising sun,
The river flows on
Cutting through concrete banks.

On the turntable: "We're a Happy Family; Tribute to the Ramones"

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday Papers: Henri Michaux

"The cinema, the phonograph, and the train are the real missionaries from the West."  (1930)

On the turntable: "Bondi Beach New Year's Party"
On the nighttable:  Henri Michaux, "A Barbarian in Asia"