Monday, April 29, 2019

Finding Old Magic on Kyoto’s Tominokōji

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

On the turntable:  The Doobie Brothers, "Livin' on the Fault Line"

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sunday Papers: Isabel Allende

“Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one's own circumstance and to clarify the confusion of existence, including insecurities that do not torment normal people, only chronic nonconformists, many of whom end up as writers after having failed in other undertakings."

On the turntable:  John Coltrane, "Coltrane Plays the Blues"

Friday, April 19, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #70

                       Forbidden Journey by Ella K. Maillart
 Yalaso Chang, Shangri-La Brewery

On the turntable:  Wayne Shorter, "Native Dancer"

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


Under a blanket of Springtime haze,
The dreams of emperors
Remain etched in stone.

On the turntable: Nana Vasconcelos, "Africadeus"

Monday, April 15, 2019

Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji

My buddy Wes has just released his hiking guide to Japan, a beauty of a book that was written by foot before being written by hand.  I know how much effort he put into this project, and it shows, resulting in the finest book on hiking Japan.

On the turntable:  Brian Eno & David Byrne, "Everything Will Happen Today"

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Imbibing Bibliophile #69

The Silk Road by Jonathan Tucker
 Tsingtao Beer, Tsingtao Brewery Co
On the turntable:  John Cage, "Ligeti, Pintscher, Cage & Xenakis"
On the nighttable:  W. Somerset Maugham, "A Writer's Notebook"

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Imbibing Bibliophile #68

  Ultimate Journal by Richard Bernstein
Sakura Arashi IPA, Iwate Kura Beer

On the turntable:  Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, "No Pussyfooting"

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Scrambles Amongst the Alps

It was only 8:30 am, and the election trucks were already caterwauling outside.  The weather hadn't been any less oppressive, nearly a week of wind and clouds and intermittent rain.  You had to feel sorry for those who'd spent big on flying in for the sakura and were getting lousy photos.  (But based on how I feel about the current overtourism here, I don't feel that sorry.)

So we'd done well, planning a hike that happened to fall under perfect blue skies.  Multiple hikes I should say, as this was technically Plan C.  We'd originally planned on a hike in the hills up north, but the rains in town had dumped unseasonal snow up there.  So Wes and I had shifted, then Will had reappeared a few days early, turned back by similar weather up in Nagano. We shifted again.

And due to my fumbling through the morning, I almost backed out myself.  I'm pretty superstitious about these things, and my comedy of errors since awakening had me worried.  I'd once given up on post-work climbing plans back in my Santa Barbara days, after a restaurant shift where I seemed to be constantly spilling or dropping things.  The Universe and myself were out of alignment that day, and climbing a cliff face didn't seem the best idea. 

So poor Wes and Will were kept waiting 30 minutes.  Then we all circled through the backroads of Shiga for awhile, while my car GPS and Google Maps on my phone found it impossible to form a consensus.  We finally found the trailhead, past a trio of old-timers walking along a shaded road that followed a stream up a narrow valley.  

Despite our climbing a lesser peak not found on most maps, the trail was pretty easy to follow, beginning with a rock crossing over a limpid river that in most countries would house crocs.  It was a quick and steep climb along a set of lazy falls to a tableland of sorts, created by one of Japan's earliest dams, built in 1889, using Dutch technology.  The dam was a pretty little thing, formed of perfectly symmetrical, hand-hewn stones. A far cry from the concrete addiction later to come.  

We followed a broad sand bed through dwarf pines.  Their resemblance to juniper brought to mind New Mexico.  Wherever we were, it didn't feel like Japan.  The landscape continued to baffle as we began to climb again, through a natural forest of low-growth, not often seen in this country. Only the snowdrop asebi and the new budding azaleas reminded us where we were. 

We climbed out of the trees and into a sandy ridge punctuated by scrub trees.  Pillars of rock rose to form seats with a perfect angle for sitting with the view.  After a bit of scrambling down sandy sections that had eroded away any hope of a foothold, we sat awhile atop one isolated rise, trying to identify our surroundings, the higher peaks to the south, the villages and hills out toward the lake.  

The final push to the top was up a steep set of rocks, the short lengths of rope here and there adding very little assistance.  Devoid of the usual markers, it turned out to be a false peak, the true summit being the next hillock over.  A lone hiker was enjoying his lunch there, so deciding to give him his solace, we settled in.  It proved a long rest, filled with lunch and stories.  The laws of inertia were doing their thing, and this long pleasant rest seemed the only thing we had in mind.  Any of our original plots -- to do an extended loop from this peak, followed by another climb a short drive away -- all eroded away.  The three of us are notorious for racing through hikes, and this plodding pace felt just right, on the first true day of spring.         

There was one order of business, that of Wes ceremoniously passing his new guidebook to me. (Fitting for a peak named after a ceremonial hall.) I'd watched him work through the book's full gestation, and it was nice to finally feel its full weight in my hands. Then it was our own weight that we were carrying, lunch-laden stomachs assisting a little too much during the steep scramble down the face of our lunchspot.  It was much easier going up the opposite side to the proper summit, where we took the obligatory photographic "proof" before another rapid descent down the other side. The trail finally leveled out, then took us in the shadow of another dam, which Will dubbed the "vomiting koala."   

The next section I would place high on the list of Japan's most beautiful hikes.  Though again, it was barely Japan at all.  The scenery seemed to shape-shift -- from Borneo, then Australia, then the California Sierra.  Another stream fell with a certain lethargy as we passed beneath large ferns and cubelar walls of black stone.  It was a wonderous place, somehow out of time, which got Wes and I started on Land of the Lost references.  

We once again found the lazy river at the bottom.  A trail opposite brought us to the road, and a walk of a kilometer or so back to the car.  But we decided to stay with the river, following a faint trail through the sand, then eventually rock hopping as the walls steepened.  Wes and I followed the opposite banks, as if a competition to see which course was better.  It turned out we were both right, as we zigzagged back and forth over the water further on.  We saw no life on the river, save for a lone beachball that had been the life of someone's party the summer before.  Amazing that it had survived the winter.  And we set it adrift again, watching it follow its own unhurried course toward spring, as if in emulation of our own bucolic passage toward the same.    

On the turntable:  Brian Eno, "Curiosities Vol. 1"

Monday, April 08, 2019



On the turntable: Thelonious Monk, "The Complete Riverside Recordings"

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Sunday Papers: Jorge Luis Borges

"Revenge does not alter what was done to you. Neither does forgiveness. Revenge and forgiveness are irrelevant."

 On the turntable: Cornelius Cardew & The Scratch Orchestra, "The Great Learning"  

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Kumano Kōdō XVIII: Hongudō

After Shiomi-toge, I walked the Nakahechi and Kogumotori-goe sections of the Kōdō, camping in the cold nights of mid-March.  Sleep came poorly, compounded by bad food and no baths, so at the end I treated myself with a night at the Azumaya in Yunomine Onsen, an inn whose centuries-old history is dwarfed by the 1800 years of the hot springs themselves.  I felt warm for the first time in days, in black pine baths that are among the most beautiful in Japan.  

My friend Daniel and I would walk the little trafficked Hongudō, a section of the Iseji which ran for two days through the hills to connect the Kogumotori-goe with the sea.  My feet found familiar footholds in the Kogumotori, which I'd just climbed one day before.  Not long after leveling out it dropped sharply down the initial stages of the Hongudō route, before climbing again to Banze-toge, whose characters were of a familiar but unusual reading.  Dropping once again down the far side, the path split into five directions, and it took a little bit of connoitering to get things right.  

We should have appreciated that extra time in the forest, for there would be little more for the next  two days.  A road led us through the first of many farm villages, before dropping us onto the busy Route 168.  We'd eventually leave it to cross a wide bridge over the Shingu-gawa, but the bitumen underfoot would be a near constant until late afternoon.  It was a sunny and pleasant day, and we chatted as we went, the scenery of little but trees.  There was the odd jizo statue, a group of equally chatty monkeys, and a brook that ran ever to our right. 

We eventually arrived at a small hamlet, and in our discussion of what sort of people might live out here we missed our trail off to our left somewhere.  But we continued on as we weren't far off, stopping for lunch at a strange single switchback that curled through a sole patch of clear-cut wood.  The boulders and open view made for a good lunch spot.  

Nearing the top of the rise we noted where our missed trail popped out, which allowed us to bisect the curling switchbacks of road along the more amenable surface of forest path.  An old abandoned school at the pass had been converted into a small park, but the swimming pool remained to acquire a thick green sludge.  The trails continued on and off, passing a handful of hidden hamlets and even a Bouldering course of a recent vintage.  But we'd lose the paths again at the bottom of the hills, the forest it passed through being too dense and overgrown to decipher.        

We joined a busy road again, this one also defined by the contours of the stream that it paralleled.  The maps I carried were poor, and contradicted the equally poor signage along the way, so it was with an uneasy feeling we came to the end of the day's journey.  The inn proved amenable in picking us up, and not long afterward we were enjoying a beer and a bag of kakipi on the sofa of the lobby, a ritual common to those who walk Japan.  

It was a good night's sleep in an odd hotel, one that might have been built along the design of an old age home, and one certainly constructed with local government money.  The dawn brought a steady rain, and our driver from the day before was kind in driving us partly up the hillside roads that gave definition to the ricefields of Maruyama Senmaida.  I love this country for these types of places, grand and breathtaking and nearly unknown.   Coming across such places is one of the true treasures of country walking in Japan.  

The rain let up as we climbed to the pass, which allowed for fantastic views over the terraced fields.  Another pass soon followed, and by the time we arrived in the village at the other side, the sun was high and confident.  Sadly, our sense of orientation didn't follow suit.  We'd follow a set of signs that seemed to cheat, to follow the spirit of the Kōdō, without being the actually contours of the path itself.  We began to sense that the signage was orientated to walkers coming from Ise, as a number of times we'd see signs pointing back into the forest we just passed.  A woman at a roadside shop seemed to confirm this when I asked for directions, repeatedly pointing us in the direction from which we came.  I'd correct her each time yet she'd do it again, and I eventually gave up, resigned to my role in a sort of Monty Python skit.     

In a sort of accident we stumbled across the trail over the Yokogaki Pass, after bushwhacking above the narrow logging road we'd ascended.  At the top, the sea opened before us, even more so at a wide area of landslide that required an extensive detour.  Time was running against Daniel by now, as he needed to take a 90 bus ride back to Yunomine to get his car, then drive on to Osaka.  So we parted ways on the highway below, which he followed into town while I ascended once more. 

The road didn't take me far from Daniel's course below, as I traced the contours of a hillside on a small paved road.  I eventually found flat ground again near where some high schoolers practiced baseball moves, doing what the Japanese call "image training," scooping and fielding and throwing invisible balls.  I took a long break in a shrine nearby, having almost three full hours to my train, then finished the Hongudō with the pop of broken blisters, after nearly 60km of hard surface over the two days.  

I met the Iseji proper under the cliff face of Inaoiwa Shrine.  The flat sand of the beaches flanking the Iseji beckoned, offering ease to the feet for the final few kilometers to Kumanoshi and the train station.  After eating half the menu at MosBurger, I killed time visiting the tallest set of hananingyo dolls I've ever seen, towering at least 6 meters.  Then there was little to do but lay in the grass outside the station, listening to a mysterious woman sing a traditional ballad, as the clack of her wooden clackers counted time until my train was ready to go. 

On the turntable:  Jimmy Smith, "Lonesome Road"

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Kumano Kōdō XVII: Shiomi-toge

In completely the Kumano Kodo back in 2009, I realized that there were a few spur routes left to walk, not to mention the entire Ise-ji.  Over the subsequent decade, a number of routes have been opened up, with each new guidebook fattened by a dozen new pages.  One section, the Shiomi-toge, paralleled the road route I'd taken back in 2004.  I had hoped to walk it while I was in Kumano last autumn, but a typhoon had closed to the trail for repairs.  Finally, having a free morning before a week-long tour leading a school group, I race out of my campsite at dawn to catch a bus, scaring a tribe of deer whose snowy white bottoms bobbed as they vault across the hillside.  

The day nearly takes a tragic turn due to the driver of the mini-bus I hop onto an hour later in Tanabe proper.  As I board, he immediately tells me that this is the wrong bus, innocent enough, but he next tells me to get down, a rudeness I find shocking.  I am stepping out when I spot the kanji for my destination written on a chart behind his seat.  I fume through the 20-minute ride, finding fault once again in a tourist industry run rampant, compounded by the driver's bluntness. My mind turns through the script of polite expressions I might use to tell the driver that it is best not to assume that every foreigner he meets has an identical agenda.  The majority of tourists may indeed be heading to the same place (Takajiri), but he nearly made me miss the ride, and therefore would have prevented me from doing my walk altogether, timewise.  In the end, I just decide to let it ride, figuring that if the guy has issues with foreigners, my plea to him will just add to whatever it is he is carrying. 

The road leads through the dwindling suburbs, where the white of plum blossoms are beginning to assert themselves.  I climb steadily, finally entering forest an hour later.  The trail steepens into ishitatami cobblestone, and rock openings reveal old statuary rarely seen on a section of the Kōdō nearly forgotten.  One small Buddha is camouflaged in a small groove in the cliff face, and as I climb for a better look I'm wary about snakes that might be sleeping beneath the remaining leaves of autumn, under the curled hands of maple, or the spear heads of bamboo.  

The trail is fickle and I return again to tarmac too soon.  This road climbs through small villages whose economy was once the orchards that hug the ever steepening mountain face.  Shades of the old ways linger.  An ancient man steps of out a ramshackle old house which sprawls and decades in need of repair.  From the unkept look of things, I sense the wife has died long ago, and the old timer is simultaneously withering away at the same time as his kingdom.  

In fact the only people I meet are over eighty, a fact that hardly surprises anymore.  A number of them are preparing their trees for the coming of spring and the cessation of morning frost.  One spry woman keeps pace with me on a steep climb, concerned about my hiking alone, warning me of wild boar.  I lose her at the remains of the old barrier gate, when the angle of the pitch climbs sharply.  

Midway up is the Hirune-oji, a rest spot that offers coffee, a tree swing, and ocean views.  A sign tells me that travelers often rested here, but the jovial name is of course more recent.  The waters far off broaden as I climb.  A logging road weaves me along for a while, before I arrive at the massive Nejiki-no-sugi, a cedar whose twisting, multi-pronged trunk points at the pass not too far away.  

The forest just below the pass has been horribly clear-cut, whose scale has been compounded by a recent storm that fell a few dozen other trees just below.  They've all snapped in half like pencils, and I wonder what that sounded like.

 The pass is a flat clearing offering some of the best views on the entire Kumano Kōdō, the peninsula's entire southern coast spread at my feet, and the higher jagged peaks of the Ōmine mountains behind me.  I have a quick lunch at begin to descend in the latter's direction.  This proves to be the worst part of the walk, a full hour down a steep, paved logging road made slippery from last night's rain.  As this route is technically part of the popular Nakahechi, the signage is good, but it is a small hand-written sign that points down a narrow trail to Takajiri.  I stick to my original route toward my campsite at Kōdō-ga-ōka, but I muse that the Takajiri trail would make for a nice extension to the usual route.  My own isn't much fun, and by the time I've passed the ruined hulks marking an old farm village, my feet make me wish I'd listened to the bus driver this morning, and gone home early...

On the turntable:  Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros, "Global a Go Go"
On the nighttable:  Ernest Hemingway, "In our Time"

Monday, April 01, 2019

A Detour Through the Quiet Life on Kuromon & Koromonodana Streets

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

On the turntable: Echo & The Bunnymen, "Crystal Days 1979-1999"