Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Walking on Water with Jesus

I can't remember where the initial idea came from, but I do know that it was three years old.  I thought it would be interesting to walk the Kamogawa in Kyoto.  By that I mean literally walk the river, straight down the middle of its bed.  During the drier days of August, the water looks to be only about shin deep, and would be a refreshing distraction from the heat.  And as a companion, it could only be Chris Irwin, who with his hair wild and beard tidy, bears a passing resemblance to Eric Idle's Jesus.  He seemed the perfect co-conspirator in foolish ideas.

I wanted to walk on an incredibly hot day, when the rain hadn't fallen for a week or more.  The more sensible of Kyoto's foreign expats tend to avoid the heat of August by going abroad, and Chris and I were no exception, which narrowed our window of opportunity to just a week or two each year.  Dates would be chosen, and without fail, it would rain heavily the night before.  But both of us were in town for much of this summer, one whose weather was taking on the disaster-like proportions of another Irwin, Irwin Allen.  And the day finally came.  

Japan was currently suffering under a murderous heat wave, and on the day we chose, Kyoto set the national high of 39.8℃.  In the spirit of pilgrimage, the section of river between the Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines seemed a good choice, and the bike ride up to the northern part of the city encased the body in a sweat that would be a delight to rinse off.  

We bowed to the deities, under the watchful guise of a shrine worker who I assume carries a protractor to aid the pagan foreign tourist in showing the proper degree of respect.  The next angling was down the adjacent riverbank and onto the stony banks beneath the bridge leading to the shrine.   Those initial few steps quickly brought with them a welcome respite from the heat.

For a while the river was shallow, well below knee-height.  One facet I hadn't thought too much about was the concrete waterfalls that help control the flow.  They are placed at intervals of about two or three hundred meters, and though only a meter or so in height, you could never be sure of the depth at the far side.  For the first couple, we found breaks in the stone work from the recent floods, where the water poured through like a waterslide.  But we grew more confident as we went, looking down for a moment or so for a rock to step down onto, and then a second step that was a leap of faith into churning white water.  

We had companions along the way: blue herons, white egrets, and black cormorants.  Mandarin ducks floated at the edge of the waterfalls, eyeing an ease of entry in a way similar to what we'd been doing.  A suppon turtle showed itself against the muddy bottom, moving quickly away when it felt the falling over of our shadows.   Turtles move pretty quickly in the water, and it when it turned toward us again, we made certain to stay clear of the suppon's sharp teeth.  One thing we didn't see were the nutria that once hunted the banks down near Demachiyanagi.  An invasion species sure, but it was always interesting to see their furry shapes dart from the reeds to the water and back. Sadly the city of Kyoto seems to have deported them once and for all. 

It was a joyful walk, Chris and I catching up after a long separation, our tales of recent events broken now and again by film quotes, fragments of song lyrics, or simply comments of overall silliness. We tried to bring some of the locals into the fun, as many on the banks looked incredulously at our undertaking. We waved to absolutely everyone.  One old fellow trailed us with his expensive camera, snapping more furiously than the suppon earlier. 

As we went along, the water took on a varying degree of depth.  While it looked a uniform level from the bicycle path on the river bank, it varied quite dramatically.  The fast moving water betrayed the shallows, but the narrow channels were of surprising depth.  In a couple of spots we were up to our chests, forcing us to raise our bags and mobile phones over our heads.  It was here that Chris broke into his Kate Hepburn imitation:  "Is that a leech, Mr. Allnut?"    

I imagine that the week of raging waters earlier in July had scoured the riverbed clean of debris and dangerous objects.  It was much more stone laden than expected, and every so often I'd lurch to one side as an unseen rock would turn underfoot.  I'd opted at the last minute for an old pair of Vibram Five Fingers for this particular mission, and by the time we were at Kuramaguchi Bridge both soles had peeled back like bananas.  They separated completely not long afterward, so I stuck them into my pockets and continued along.

Beyond the concrete fish ladders above Demachiyanagi, the water took on a somewhat foul smell, and bits of debris appeared: a tire upon a broken axle; a long section of bamboo fence.  I was moving slowly now, every step agony, like the most painful reflexology session in the world.  Finally, hand in hand, Chris and I stepped up the actually confluence of the Kamogawa and Takasegawa, as around us college-age students splashed and frolicked and giggled.  Only the gods now awaited, as my gait once again returned to its usual stride, and the soft, groomed sand of Shimogamo's forested approach led us to our final ablutions of thanks.

On the turntable: Jimi Hendrix, "Jimi Jams"
On the nighttable: Ted Rall, "Silk Road to Ruin"   

Monday, July 23, 2018

White Lightning 'stead of Mountain Dew

 Wes and I thought it would be a clever idea to continue our traverse of Ikoma-San on a 38° day. We'd begun this seemingly endless trek six summers ago, suffering a heat that felt bad at the time, but was nowhere near as murderous as that of this current two-week heat wave.  The heat bothered me less than my current bureaucratic wrangling to get a Indian visa for an upcoming trip, and after two consecutive mornings wasted in over air-conditioned offices in downtown Osaka, I was ready for some forest sauna bathing.

We'd wrapped up the southbound traverse last September, so taxied up to where we began in 2012, though facing north this time.  The first section was a pleasant descent down into a near-dry watershed, which eventually opened up into a broad meadow beside a man-made lake.  Recent rains had brought down a good section of hillside, one section literally flowing to join the lake in the form of mud.  The earth here literally looked liquified, and as we cautiously made our way across, quicksand was very much in mind.  

We crossed the dam and descended further, to a small waterfall that had been spurred on by a concrete pipe.  On other days, Shugenja would train here, hidden from the adjacent road by a small cypress-roofed shack.  An old couple was squatting at the water's edge, rinsing white garments that I presume they had worn during their unseen ablutions. 
Not far off was Iwabune Jinja, slightly uphill but Wes insisted on visiting as we were so close. A trio of structures had been integrated into a mass of boulders that in their awesomeness, would of course be the primary object of worship here.  One of the boulders had Buddhist carvings of a certain antiquarian vintage, adding a flavor of the Asian heartland.  We examined the padlocked entrance to the labyrinthian passage through the boulders, and it suddenly dawned on me that not only had I been here before a decade ago, but I'd published a piece on it.  Mysteries begat mysteries. 

Descending again across the front of a massive drainage that was the spillway for the river that ran past Wes's house further down in the valley.  The fact that this gaping maw in the hillside had saved his entire neighborhood during the terrible flooding a week or so before was mimicked in Wes's open-mouthed look of astonishment.

Returning to our route, we had two choices.  My map showed an attractive trail that went through one of the parks that this long trail bisects.  Knowing my anxiety about heights, Wes warned me that we'd have to cross an incredibly high suspension bridge.  Wanting to forego vertigo and the accompanying sensation of the scrotum trying to crawl up into the body cavity (what is that sensation all about anyway?), we chose the paved, yet shorter option. 

What goes down must come up. The trail now climbed, in the form of a paved driveway through a golf-course.  The midsection had a grassy strip in the middle which helped sooth aching feet, and protect us from the luxury cars zipping down.  There was a surprising number of people golfing in the heat, and our own upward climb wore me out, so we stopped in the shade of a large oak near the top.  As so often happens in Japan, we quickly had company, despite the vast space spreading away in all directions.  Of the entire golf course, Groundskeeper Willie happened to park his ridemower a dozen meters from where we ourselves were sprawled.  Time to get moving. 

Trails signs reappeared near the clubhouse, no doubt to keep the riff-raff away from the carpark and its flash German automobiles.  Wes preferred a side path that paralleled the main nature trail, which quickly brought reward in the form of drinks machines.  I followed up a restorative sports drink with my usual summertime go-to Fanta Grape, then we paralleled a pleasant stream that had unusual steps cut into the rocky bank.  The stream was easily crossed, over metal planks laid out by workmen who had been doing some sort of maintenance here.  Throughout the day, we'd noted damage from the June earthquake or the recent floods, but this section seemed an odd priority, as we'd already crossed a half-dozen sections that were far more beat up.  

It was quickly growing cool, though no rain was in the forecast.  But a trickle of drops did make the effort, falling upon a wetland decorated with skunk cabbage, before being scared off by a magnificent cacophony of thunder ripping through the clouds.  I love the sound of summer thunderstorms, like the sky being zipped open.  Less pleasant is the lightning, which began to flash around us.  We'd earlier mocked a storm shelter that was shaped like a large mushroom (and solving perhaps that particular mystery from our 2012 hike), it was no longer a joke.  I'd been in worse storms in the American Rockies and felt no reason to worry, until a bolt burst so close by that it was as if the entire landscape began to vibrate and buzz.  Luckily there was a large kusunoki at a shrine a few meters away, planted specifically to protect the structure.  While taking shelter beneath tall trees in a storm is a questionable idea, we felt secure that the electric lines running along the road would draw a strike instead.  It was only later, as the storm abated and we walked down toward a nearby train station that we saw the ten meter electrical tower rising just above where we'd been perched. Another close call. 

And yet again, the conclusion to what should have been a simple walk still remains elusive...

On the turntable: Jim O'Rourke, "Hagyou"
On the nighttable:  W. Somerset Maugham, "The Magician"

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Shinmachi and the Giants of Gion

The next installment of the Kyoto Streets series, at Deep Kyoto: 

On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Europe '72: The Complete Recordings"

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Le Fútbol

Writers in Kyoto has published a quickie I wrote while in France last week.

A timely piece by roving correspondent Edward J Taylor about World Cup watching now up on the Writers in Kyoto website. It's been an engrossing tournament so far, and even as I type these words, Brazil have just scored against plucky Mexico. To get a feel about how it feels to be in France when the French play, please take a look here
On the turntable:  John Lennon, "Studio Tracks"