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"