Monday, November 30, 2015

The Sacred and the Cows (Ise Sangu Kaidō III)

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 Sangu 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 continued 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"