Saturday, January 31, 2015


A fine cold morning.
The snow outside my window
Mocks the white of this page.

On the turntable:  "Radio Thailand"

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Walking in the Land of the Gods

Many thanks to Paul Crouse for inviting me to appear on his radio program.  Our hour-long interview went live this morning, but a downloadable podcast can be found here:

(Scroll down...)

And as an introduction:

“Walking in the Land of the Gods”
Ted is an American writer, traveler and a long time Japan resident. Ted shares his experiences  studying Zen Buddhism and yoga, as well as his extensive walking journeys in the Japanese countryside.
In this wide ranging conversation, Ted and Paul discuss the old indigenous Japanese spirituality and how it can be applied in daily life.

On the turntable:  "Weekend Sessions"

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Papers: Bill Emmott

"[T]he vital thing to understand about Japanese people is their very normality and their humility.  At the heart of Japan’s traditional religion, Shinto, is exactly that humility: it is not like the monotheistic religions that postulate an all-powerful deity or an ordering principle for life and the universe. It is an animist religion that emphasizes ignorance in the face of the world’s mysteries and natural forces. It is an admission of what we don’t know, not a call to faith."

On the nighttable:  Haruki Murakami, "A Wild Sheep's Chase"
On the turntable:  Funkadelic, "Standing on the Verge of Getting It On"

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Hang your Head no More...

On January 23, 1905,  three men entered an inn in what is now Higashi Yoshino-cho and sold the carcass of a male wolf to an American traveler.  It would prove to be the last animal of its kind.

I'd come across this tale in Brett L. Walker's The Lost Wolves of Japan.  I first read it two summers ago, as I led a group of Singaporeans through the snow covered high peaks of Hokkaido.  It was a fitting location for my reading, for it was there that a Ohio rancher offered his expertise on raising livestock, and one of his teachings was the importance of exterminating the local wolf population with extreme prejudice.   As I penetrated deeper into the Hokkaido hills I similarly penetrated into the heart of the book,  an exploration of how the Japanese went from a culture that saw the natural world as a sacred land of the gods (including most definitively the wolf), to a society who quickly and widely accepted the western view that this same natural world was a bountiful font ripe for exploitation.  Within a single generation the howls of the wolves were silenced forever.

I eventually passed the book on to my friend Wes, who readily agreed that we visit the site where the last wolf has been memorialized in a bronze statue alongside a narrow stretch of river.  But our mission wouldn't begin there.  In the vicinity were a pair of peaks that find themselves on the bucket list of many Japanese mountaineers, the Kinki 100 famous mountains.  There were a handful of other, more attractive mountains closer by, but as they were all over 1400 meters and covered in snow, we opted to approach two that were half that height.

So it was that we found ourselves walking up a steep pitch in a light rain.  The day was reasonably warm, the warmth increasing as we pressed back against the stubborn might of gravity.  The Dainichi Nyorai statue we passed midway betrayed no emotion as we went by; nor for that matter did the lone hiker we saw that day.  And that's about all we saw, as this Horizaka-san was socked in, and a metallic map on the top taunted us with its display of what we couldn't see, including Mt. Fuji far far to the east.  There were however a couple of corrugated tin lean-to's for those staying overnight.  Soft mats and bottles of water were provided either for those stuck on the mountain unintentionally, or for the yamabushi who saw this mount as a playground.   We descended along one of their trails, wild and slick as it shot us downward, now allied to that same gravity that had bullied us earlier. 

After a quick refuel at a roadside Chinese joint, we drove part way up the flank of Shirai-zan, bisecting rice paddies bordered in stone, until a gate prevented my car from going any further.   The mountain's name translates as 'White Boar,' which I'd love to believe refers to some mythological beast.  More likely it is simply the covering of snow during the winter months.  Not this day however, though it could have been a welcome method of covering up the evidence of man's abuse of the natural world which has spiraled out of control since that Ohioan stepped off a ship in Hokkaido over a century ago.   Whereas the peak earlier today had been for the holymen, this one was for the villagers.  And the condition in which they'd left it could only be described as blasphemous.  There had once been major forestry here, and though no recent cuts were to be seen, hundreds of trees spilled down the hillsides dead where they lay.  A concrete road had once brought the loggers in, passing a farm now similarly abandoned.  Ours wasn't the toughest of hikes, as the trail meandered in and out and above a few ravines.  Except for a trio of giants said to be a millennium old, all was new growth cedar, sodden pollen pouring from their trunks in the form of white foam, perhaps in biochemical confusion on a day far too warm for January.  We found the peak just beyond a junked scooter that had somehow made its way up to 800 meters.  The rain and the devastated landscape did little to inspire a long visit here.  It wasn't too long before we were back at my car.

Our drive to the wolf took longer than our two climbs had.  Along the way I kicked myself for not having prepared an appropriate soundtrack, which would have included the Dead's 'Dire Wolf,' Los Lobo's classic, "How will the Wolf Survive?,'  X's 'Hungry Wolf,' and of course the obligatory 'Hungry Like the Wolf.'   Plus copious amounts of that old bluesman.  But I was forced to settle for the criminally underrated Wolfgang Press, and a track or two by Herr Mozart. Along the way, Wes pointed out peaks he'd scaled, many climbing out of the smallest of hamlets.  These grew further and further apart until we found ourselves moving beside a valley quickly growing dark.

Then the wolf appeared.  It stood still and proud in the shadow of the hillside, its mouth eternally open in an expression of either defiance or surprise.  Wes looked around at the hills that these proud creatures had once proudly roamed.  Both he and I share in that spirit I suppose, having logged countless hours of our own moving along the same trails, though through what is now no longer the same landscape.  

If the nature of the wolf is perhaps within us, then so too is its curse.  And as if bewitched, we yet again took a series of wrong turns, though this time we were protected from the chill by the steel body of my car.   And now as the fog pressed in and the darkness thickened, the forest reminded us that, touched by the hand of man or no, it was still most definitely wild, and had teeth. 

On the turntable:  "Buddha Chillout Lounge"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nakasendo Waypoints #89

Before my eyes
The day ages
From blue to grey.

On the turntable:  Alamedas Riddle, "Granny Riddle's Songs and Ballads"

Monday, January 19, 2015

Nakasendo Waypoints #88

Somewhere beneath
All that fresh fallen snow
Lies today's haiku.

On the turntable: "Asian Groove"

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Papers: Joel Weishaus

"The stuff of paleoarchaeology has been dug up mainly in places that had an era in which stone monuments were raised, or stones in place were painted upon. But the earth itself is creative: rolling, tossing, weathering, building up and eroding down, decorating itself with natural colors and curves. Wherever it hasn't been paved over, a lithic mythology may be seen. All that's needed is a mind that can see what's hidden from ordinary sight."

On the turntable:  "Drumfunk Hoologans 2" 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Nakasendo Waypoints #87

Feet barely touch ground,
As I awake to a world
Soft around the edges

On the turntable:   "Acoustic Brazil"

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Nakasendo Waypoints #86

Under their frayed woven scarf,
A pair of dosojin
Huddle against the cold.

On the turntable:  "AfroCubism"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mitsue Mountain Hop (Ise Hon-kaido V)

When I returned to my room, I noticed that the water had spread across three of the six tatami.  Shit.

The inn hadn't supplied me with any towels, so I quickly stripped the pillow from the pillowcase and used the latter to begin mopping up the spill.  I rubbed and rubbed the faded surface of the mats until they took on a uniform color again, the darkened wet spots now nearly indistinguishable. I then pulled the water reservoir from my pack, thinking I'd not screwed the top on properly,  but found that it was snug and secure.  I must have set the bag itself on top of the mouthpiece, which then leaked while I was out of the room.

I tend to travel an comparatively exorbitant amount, so I'm allowed a certain percentage of culturally stupid fax pas.  But they always seem to happen in the most remote inns, the ones where, due to the seemingly few foreigner guests, I'm thrust into an uncomfortable role of bumbling ambassador.  I am still mortified by the sukiyaki incident of '09.

And my hosts had been incredibly nice.  Not only had they accepted me as the sole guest during the New Year's holidays, but they spent a great deal of time talking with me about my walk and giving me pointers for what lay ahead.  They joined me for dinner, where the television served as an additional companion,  the conversation turning into questions about topics seen on screen.  Again, my foreign background seemed to make me an expert on such diverse topics as mountain rescues in both Nepal and Niigata; the growing economic cold war between Russia and the Balkans (China's relative quiet of late has forced Japan to join the growing international criticism of Putin.  Helps to build support for a pumped-up SDF, especially when you remember that the two countries are still technically at war); and drunken English revelers passing out or otherwise behaving badly on New Year's Eve.  (Quoth the Pot:  "Kettle, there none more black.")

When staying at inns I tend to decline breakfast, since that allows me to leave when I like, usually just after first light.  My hosts graciousness had extended to making me breakfast at six, then bowing me out the door when the day's first rays topped the hills lining this long broad valley. 

I made my way gingerly over the sheets of black ice. Nothing moved but myself, passing beneath a massive camphor tree and the humble shrine visible between its bare branches.  A little further on, a pair of fireman carried out the first rubbish of the year.  I entered the hills, moving over the crunch of snow beneath my feet, toward a large oval structure seen through the trees, which proved to be a rather unorthodox primary school.  A man was sweeping out front, making me wonder if school was in session on this first Monday of 2015.  After passing beyond the frozen swimming pool and pitch-white athletic grounds I had my answer in the sight of a young boy waiting beside the road with his father, the pair of them turning their heads in unison toward the small bus tottering up the hill.

It was yet another hour and two more villages before I got my coffee.  Surprised I made it that far.    As I sat on a low concrete wall I thought how I had seen no vending machines nor shops since leaving Haibara.  Whereas the day before I had only encountered hamlets of a dozen homes or so, this morning I found myself walking through what could be properly termed villages, expanding spatially rather than temporally, as many of the trappings of the second half of the last century had yet to enter their orbit.  And this is precisely why I love these old roads and the places they take me.  Here, it is still definitely 1958, and my surroundings are right out of that golden age of Japanese cinema of which I am so enamored.    

And further beyond were views from even further back in time.  To my left I was leaving behind the tell-tale peaks of Soni Kōgen, and up ahead was the saddleback shape of Ōborayama (which only later I realized I had climbed in 2009.)   The mountains out here were truly magnificent, and I really needed a return visit to give them the attention they deserve.

But luckily not this day.  My hostess of the night before had mentioned that this would be an easier day than the last, in terms of topography.  I would be therefore able to move at a greater clip, which would enable me to cover the 25 km to my intended accommodation by noon.  Far too early to stop, but it was unthinkable to push on another thirty km to a train station before the darkness fell at five pm.   Even without the heavy pack, my age bracket takes that out of the realm of possibility.  Fifty five kilometer days are a decade or more behind me.

So I decided to simply walk as far as I could until four pm, then find a bus, or hitch to a rail line.  The weather and my high spirits were in my favor.  Upon reaching a train station at Ise-Okitsu, I stripped down to a T-shirt and sat eating my lunch in the sunshine.  This town literally was the end of the line, perhaps due to the very steep mountain wall on the edge of town, where an hour before I had needed my poles to manage its steep descent.  I had at first thought the station to be closed, but found that it had been reduced to one third its previous size.  The rest of the structure was divided between a civic hall of some sort, whose bored-looking employees giggled when I came in and spoke Japanese at them.  (And that was just the men.) The other half was a small folk museum, emphasizing mainly that the town had the previous year been the principle location for a film that had received quite good reviews, yet one whose title always brought giggles to the part of my brain that is perpetually thirteen year old.  Wood Job.

As I moved away I noted that this town, like Mitsue where I had spent the night, finally had the marks of a post town.  Every community in between had been too small. The houses here were built broad and squat, with lower roofs to keep off the accumulated weight of snow.  There were also quite a number of Tenri-kyo signs, no real surprise considering that the sect's founder had been born not far away. The locals seemed to delight in their history, and each home along the way had a plaque bearing the name of the inn it had once been.  I imagined the bustle of porters, hustling up business to assist with the pass up ahead.  Despite the town's charm, I knew what was to come.

I arrived at the top soaked and winded.  My choice of lunch location had been less about the aesthetics of a pretty place, and more about the timing of refueling.  But the weight in my belly had been a hindrance, and I sat a long while on a bench that marked the location of a tea house long gone.

The descent made me feel worse, upon finding the beautiful valley where I had intended to stay the night.  I had visions of sitting in the chairs out on front of the inn Nakaya, alternating between my reading books and engaging in sake-laden conversation with the owner.  I felt quite guilty as I slinked past.  This inn and my previous one Matsuya are the only ones that remain along this section of the old road.  Once they are gone, it will be impossible to do a through-hike without a tent.  In fact, my host from the previous night had told me that that was the reason he kept in business, despite being close to the age of eighty.  His son wasn't interested in taking over (the old story), so it was up to him and his wife.  The walkers relied on them, he said.

What came next could almost be seen as a sign of karmic retribution.  The beauty of the valley was short lived, for I was pitched once and for all upon the wide modern highway I'd been paralleling since the day before.  It was mercifully free of traffic, but its asphalt form was devoid of any charm as it climbed and climbed and climbed.  And as I made my weary ascent, I kicked myself for believing the old woman and her words that this day would be easier than the last.  No matter the good intentions, I know better than to listen to the advice of those who haven't themselves walked.

Upon reaching the pass, I found that the previously ample signage was now gone.  What was there was conflicting, matching neither the terrain nor the maps.  I carried on in what I was the right direction, but another sign quickly tempted me in yet another.  Gullible as a schoolboy with a crush, I moved into the dark of the unknown.  Another sign further on directed me over a stream, but I was soon thwarted by a dead end. A side road here seemed to head the right way...

From the pass, the trail was supposed to drop an incredible 300 vertical meters in less than a kilometer.  And for now the road beneath me was straight, but at least wasn't climbing.   I had another look at my guidebook, which told me "by all means follow the stream."  And the sunny spots just around the bend could be the pass, right?  Oh, well, then maybe the next one.  It was late afternoon, the shadows beginning to fall over the road.  It just didn't seem right.  The altimeter on my watch told me I was now 150 meters above the height of the pass.  Another look at my other guidebook.  At the pass, make a right turn after the bridge.  Had I crossed a bridge?  Shit.

I whirled around and moved quickly back down the hill, beneath shorn hillsides, in a demonstration of what passes for forestry in this country.  Eventually, I found myself at the spot where I had been an hour before.  No bridge.  I moved along the main road again, found the trail proper, and raced along the decline, poles swinging from my wrists, my four limbs a flurry of motion.  (At the bottom I found that local school children had left cheerfully-painted wooden sticks in a box to be used to aid walkers on this section.)   The guidebook told me I had two walking hours until the nearest bus stop, and I had a mere 45 minutes of daylight left.  If I missed the bus, I'd never get a lift since the Japanese tend not to stop after dark.

So I raced on, feet aching, mind tense and clenched.  I barely noticed the shrines and old farm houses fading into shadow.  The final approach took me along a small stream, but mercifully kept me out of the forest.   From above, a pair of crows heckled and jeckled my rushing, shuffling form.  A mother and son were a bit kinder as they rode their bicycles past, a New Year's greeting coming from their receding silhouettes.  And I made the main road at exactly five.

I turned and walked toward the bus stop, thumb out just in case.  Across the road, a voice asked where I was going.  A workman on his way home had pulled in to buy a coffee at a vending machine beside a shuttered factory.  "Any train station will do."  "Okay, I'm going to Matsuzaka."  Perfect.  A station that had express trains back to Kyoto.

My driver was my age, and had remained single in order to maintain his lifestyle as a surfer.  We talked of world famous surf breaks that we'd both visited, until the lights of the city welled up and I hobbled toward my train.  Along the way I noted that I had covered just over 40 km on the day, a distance I rarely do anymore, and never in heavy boots better used for snowshoeing.  And later still, as I peeled off my socks to climb into a hot bath, did I see the bruises around my ankles, the blackened toenail, and most of all, the holes in my feet, stigmata perhaps for my sin of refusing hospitality, a complicit act of betrayal against the spirit of pilgrimage, which in this particular case, may be beyond the hope of resurrection.

On the turntable:  "Daytrotter Session:  SXSW"

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Uda Garden of Eden (Ise Hon-kaido IV)

It wasn't too long before it became apparent that I was carrying too much gear.  It was was weighing me down, and I was still a bit fatigued from fighting off a minor cold that was trying to get me. 

My intentions had been good.  It had snowed over the past three days -- days corresponding to the first three of the new year -- and I wasn't sure what I'd be in for up at 600-plus meters. 

I wasn't alone.  I passed the better part of the day following the footsteps of someone who had walked this path the day before, an assumption based on the fact that the slushy bottoms of the prints had refrozen overnight.  Whoever this person was, his feet were bigger than mine.

But now it was just the snow and I.  The cold had greeted me with a sudden smack in the face the moment I had stepped off the train in Haibara.  It must have terrorized the townspeople, for no one was in sight as I walked the streets back to where I had hitched a lift just over a year ago.  The cold dogged my own footsteps, kept me from dawdling too long as I would greet any passing shrines or stone statuary with a mere glance, rather than my usual thorough look around.  Ponds were frozen into a thick opaque white, hiding the carp beneath that swam slowly, slowly, as if a physical manifestation of the passage of time. History itself can be lifeless and cold to the touch.

What had taken ten minutes by car took an hour on foot, the newly carved wooden signs eventually leading me into forest.  My sudden presence scared off a deer, the bounce of its receding white bottom blending quickly into the white of the hillside beyond.  The signage was remarkably good, thanks to the city of Haibara.  I worried a little that the trails would be tougher to follow once I got beyond the city limits.  But for now, all that troubled me was the weight in my pack, the majority taken up by my twelve-point crampons.  I had nearly brought my snowshoes as well, but at the last minute had decided against it, considering we had gotten a mere third of the seventy centimeters that had been projected to fall upon the region over the holidays.  Even still, it was the most snow to fall upon Kyoto in over fifty years.

I climbed out of the village, and past the thousand year old cedar above.  The trail continued to climb, topping out at a tall stele marking what had once been a barrier station.  Beside it were a pair of picnic tables, frosted like a cake with at least ten centimeters of snow.  It saddened me a little to have to disrupt such symmetrical perfection, but with a sweep of the arm I provided myself with a place to sit.  It had been a long slog, and my body's resources were depleted, so my intended snack break quickly expanded to become lunch.  Each bite of my metallic onigiri was a taunt: "Wouldn't you much rather have brought a thermos of soup?"

I left the villages in the valleys below, their grey right angles standing out against the roundness of the surrounding snow.  Every now and again I'd pop out of the forest and into a small hamlet, a chain of which was strung across this, the highest section of the old road to Ise.  These proved to be more dangerous than the snowy passes, as I would gingerly navigate patches of road slick with ice.  It was little surprise then that I saw very few people, except for an old farmer who stopped his car to ask me if I was walking the Kaidō, and an equally old woman who set me straight when she saw me pondering the trail with a GPS that was beyond a signal.  The old ways are still best.

I climbed over three passes, each one taking a greater toll than the last.  Then I descended, arriving at a small gazebo below a shrine, where I sat and overlooked a valley as the first rays of the day's sun broke through the cloud cover to caress the contours of my face.  It wasn't to long before arriving at my accommodation for the night, where a kind old woman led me into a warm room, and placed a steaming cup of tea before me...


On the turntable:  "Clicks and Cuts"
On the nighttable:  Murakami Haruki, "A Wild Sheep's Chase"

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunday Papers: Murakami Haruki

"Civilization means transmission.  Whatever can't be expressed might as well not exist."

On the turntable:  "Glucklich V"

Monday, January 05, 2015


Like gnawing cold steel:
Eating onigiri
In three day-old snow.

On the turntable:  Madness, "Absolutely"

Thursday, January 01, 2015