Thursday, April 30, 2020


Heading toward a typhoon
Of which I see no sign,
Be it rain or wind.

On the turntable:  Meat Beat Manifesto, "Live at Camden Palace"

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

On the Set

 Notes from the set of the 2008 Swiss/Japanese co-production of Tengu:

Filming one of the flashback scenes at Temple 36 on the course behind Ninnaji, which corresponds to Shoryu-ji in Tosa.  The sky changes from sunny to hail and back again, repeatedly.  The skyline of Kyoto in waning sunlight looks like a mouth full of broken teeth. Due to the rapidly changing light, there are many takes, and I eat pork until I nearly puke, knock back one half a bottle of red wine.  

Werner Herzog writes that 'acting is physical.'  My memories will be of running and running through the reeds, the lakeside, the Kurama forest.  I go through kata with a tree branch as a bo, and somewhere along the line I cut my finger badly on a nail, and worry about tetanus. The blood flows heavily. 

Laying in the waters of Biwa in February.   The crew offers me towels between takes, but I don't want to go from warm to cold too often. I choose to stay wet, but at least the sun is out.  It was fun to set dress the trees and hide signage, amusing to attract gawkers. 

During the shoot at the rural Shiga train station, I forget to tuck my shirt in.  In checking my watch, I lift the arm that is carrying my suitcase, making it obvious it is empty.  I must look suspicious, wandering around with this empty case, in terror-stricken Japan. 

The ridiculousness of filming the love scene.  I block how I'm going to kiss the leading lady, going from seated at a low table to reclining on the floor, all while kissing and keeping our faces in the frame.  After the actual love scene, I look up to see the gaffer leaning over us, a big grin on his face.    

The DP sitting on the floor cross-legged, his knees about an inch off the floor.  A testament to a career spent shooting at Ozu's camera level.  

Learning to pace myself during the many meal scenes.  I feel heavy and full too quickly, so simple sip lukewarm tea as the retakes grind on.  I'm playing a newbie in Japan, and find it difficult to misuse chopsticks

The problems:  
-The argument between the director who wants to avoid the tedious process of getting permission from the railway company and film guerrilla-style on the train.  The DP is nationally famous and doesn't want to put his career at risk.  Shooting is held up as they argue it out;  
-The inevitable trouble with microphones;  I belch and fart and forget to turn off when I pee;
-A few weeks after the shoot wraps and the crew leaves, the director wants to get a shot of me silhouetted against the mountains.  The woman selling tickets at Kuramadera somehow notes the camera in the handbag and refuses us entry.  We instead film up on Hieizan.

I'm exhausted at the end of each day, but sleep is odd, filled with dreams.  Perhaps acting brings the subconscious closer to the surface.   These psychological states take form in many ways:  seeing the shapes of foxes everywhere; getting a slight crush on the female lead with whom I have love scenes; conning myself into feeling I'm special since I am the lead in this thing.     

But it was the scenes with the Geiko who put it all back into perspective.  It didn't matter if I were the most famous actor in the world, or the Prime Minister, or a clerk from the Lawson's around the corner.  If I were paying the bill, I'd be one thing: the customer.  There is ultimately nothing special about simply being a prop, and taking up space.  

On the turntable: "Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt (Various)" 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Stuff from an Old Notebook #3

Africa's immensity dwarfs the individual, therefore co-operation is crucial.  The Ashanti greeting is big and boisterous, a symbol of bonding against the elements, a humanizing gesture.  Perhaps the High-five is an offshoot?

On the turntable:  The Mission UK, "God's Own Medicine"

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sunday Papers: David Lebedoff

"1984 foretold what it would be like if Russia won the cold war; Brave New World described the future if the West did."

On the turntable:  Joe Jackson, "Afterlife"

Thursday, April 23, 2020


Parasol hat and long sleeves;
Like watching a jellyfish
Waving in slow motion.

 On the Mount Eerie: "Dawn"

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Buddy Dharma, Reincarnated...

I recently came across a series of notes I made during a Buddhist lecture I attended back in 2007

Self-awareness doesn’t mean to be aware of our thoughts etc. It means that experience comes moment to moment. What is in your mind at the present moment equals awareness. If we don’t notice something, then we can’t say we truly experienced it. Thoughts are created by me, but the ability to have thoughts is beyond me and can’t be destroyed. Thoughts are based on ego and self-centeredness. If we aren’t aware of our thoughts, they can follow the conditioning of our past lives.   

Attachment is instinct. When threatened, our natural instinct is to act hostile. (Isn’t the volition to change conditioning also driven by ego?)  There’s no peace or happiness without a developed mind. Negative emotions are symptoms of the disease of self-centeredness.

Bodaishin/ Bodhicitta:
Putting all sentiment beings at the center is lovingkindness. Suffering is caused by excessive self protection., which leads to a sort of paranoia. We create artificial joy out of pride: feeling proud of positive qualities leads to feeling of uniqueness. These days, most people focus on this type of happiness. Practice of equanimity: making the happiness of all sentiment beings your own.

Buddhist Contemplative Psychology identifies the root cause of suffering and clarifies symptoms of that cause. Explains Dukha and the cause of Dukha.

In our confusion, we can’t see our potential. Without thought of enlightenment, you cannot 'be.' The wish for enlightenment is altruistic, you want to bring everyone else over. The Bodhisattva vow is not as a means of gathering all the pieces of the puzzle. It is more the recognition that the puzzle's completion requires the proper placement of the first piece, to which all others relate.

One cannot be enlightened through karmic good deeds; only in the recognition of one's true nature.

On the turntable:  Moby,  "Mobility"  

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Stuff from an Old Notebook #2

Hawaii Notes 2003

-Pearl Harbor memorial --- security man quiet and respectful, the exhibits low-key. On the recording, "contemplation" is repeated twice.   But the boat speakers are a bit much, and detract from the serenity and contemplation. The Missouri is docked along Battleship Row.   Beautiful homes beyond the trees.  Fish and coral are life arising from death.  Remember Pearl Harbor-- what about remember peace?  Sailors checking out girls.  Overwhelmed by emotion as a lei is tossed into the water.   

Oil rises up like thought balloons from beyond, 
floating away like purple jellyfish, 
morphing with the waves.  

-Upulo ---  streams flow through this rock structure, overlooking the fields.  A grove of banyan trees and discarded rubbish.  Meiko with a flower behind her ear.  Rain falls soft then hard. A well filled with crayfish.  

-Why are the highways in Oahu called interstates?

-The heavy rains of winter make one feel claustrophobic. 

-Aloha Aina --  Cheerful, lots of green, under a large banana tree mural, with great coffee and ceiling fans, sitting on the big lanai, watching the rain fall.  Flotilla of leaves like boats approaching Troy.  

On the turntable:  Jack Dangers, "Variaciones Espectrales"

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sunday Papers: Ai Chaobang

"Pandemics are political."

 On the turntable: Art Taylor, "Taylor's Wailers"

Thursday, April 16, 2020


Bamboo grounded;
Sound of wind in upper reaches,
Its base unfazed.

On the turntable:  Micheal Franti, "Stay Human"

Monday, April 13, 2020

Imbibling Bibliophile #100

Moving Zen by C.W. Nicol
Sabre-Toothed Squirrel Amber Ale, Smog City Brewing
On the turntable: Muddy Waters,  "Folk Singer" 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

After the Kohechi II: Shirahama & Yuasa

I step out of the taxi and enter my hotel.  Their webpage said they serve dinner until 9 pm, but upon check-in I'm told it's actually at 8:30, forty-five minutes from now.  I rush to my room, gather a few things and head down to the baths.  I enter the dining room just after 8 and attack the buffet, trying not to think about surface-based contagions.  I order my usually on-the-road dinner drinks, a draft beer and a bottle of local sake, and have them brought at the same time.  A few minutes later one of the cooking crew brings me a glass of the local beer, also on draft.  I'm grateful, for I'd wanted to check out their brewery which is a few minutes up the street, but of course there wasn't time.  So I tear into the four plates before me, piled with one of each item from the expansive buffet.  Within half an hour, I've finished, plus the three drinks.  I drift with bloated belly up to my room, where sleep doesn't come too easily. 

The morning too is a similar dash.  I get to the outdoor baths just before they open at six, but at this hotel they actually lock the doors.  A guy comes a few minutes later with the key, and I have a soak, overlooking the surf crashing into the cliffs just below me.  I pay my bill on the way to breakfast (amazed that the young guy at the front shrugs off the fact that they'd forgotten to charge for any of my drinks last night, a rarity in Japan), gulp down a few plates from the buffet, then am out the door within fifteen minutes.  

I have a taxi pickup arranged for me in 90 minutes at Minakata Kumagusu Museum and I predict I'll need every minute to cover the 5 km to get there.  It's a quiet morning, no one about.  I find a small temple hall and small pilgrimage course above Sandanbeki cliff, a series of tall rock spires that fall away into the sea.  The top of these cliffs are composed of overlapping plates that suggest a former seabed.  A trail follows them, with occasional openings that allows one to get closer to the edge.  Near one entrance a local church has erected a sign pleading with possible suicides to reconsider.  One section of trail is closed until 9 am, but I skirt through a small traditional rock garden to continue on my way.  I do eventually leave the shore-hugging trail to move onto the narrow streets above, most lined with hotels, some closed, others abandoned.  I love beach towns out of season.  For me, this pathos is the most profound expression on mono no aware.

An array of washing machines stands covered near the entrance to the wonderfully named Grampus Inn. (And I continued to think of it as just a name, until it popped up again in the book Nan'yo: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese in Micronesia, 1885-1945, revealing the true meaning.)  I'm stuck on the main road for a while, detouring briefly to Senjojiki cliffs that lie closer to the sea, offering fisherman a perfect perch.  I climb a small rise to examine a historical marker, and see the crescent of Shirahama beach arcing away before me, which I arrive at not long after.  A long couple plays a game of rambunctious tag near the shore, away from a bulldozer that pushes the snow-like sand into some kind of unseen order.  

Beyond the beach I cut through Kumano-sansho Jinja, a shrine not old but spread across a set of lovely shaded grounds.  A pair of temples further on aren't quite as charming.  I'm really picking up my pace now as I tread the last kilometer under high rocky cliffs, and past fisherman casting lines from concrete embankments.  I can see my driver in the distance, staring off to sea, channeling the occupation of his ancestors.

The train ride takes only an hour, but I wash my hands twice.  The mess of construction at Yuasa Station makes it tough to get my bearings at first, but before long I cross beneath the train line into a quiet rural landscape.  I'd passed through in 2009, but today the town is better known to me as one of the first cluster outbreaks of the virus.  I find myself backtracking on my footsteps of a decade ago, moving along for about ten minutes before arriving at Shoraku-ji temple dwarfed by a pair of ancient trees at whose base stands a huddle of Jizo statues.  Then I turn and retrace my steps once again into town proper. 

This walk seems themed around a mid-19th century tsunami. In 1854, a local man named Hamaguchi Goryo had lit fires to guide people to high ground and thus safety from the wave.  In its aftermath, he called for the erection of a high berm that proved effective against another tsunami in 1946.  The town holds an annual festival in his honor on the anniversary of that later date, as a way to give thanks.  

I walk along the wall, beneath the array of tall pine trees that stand shoulder to shoulder.  Where roads break the berm stand massive steel gates intended to close in times of disaster.  Beyond these I cross a tall bridge, looking eastward to the hillsides shorn for their mikan and yuzu orchards.  A few of these have been encroached upon by the shiny black plantations of solar panels.  

Going up the town's main street, I pass an ancient woman easily 100 years old, old enough to remember both the 1946 wave and tales from those who'd ran toward Goryo's signal fires nearly a century before.  I turn down a lane not long afterward, where a handful of soy sauce factories still stand, an array of lovely Meiji period wooden structures.  Yuasa claims that it was here that Japan's first soy sauce was produced, 750 years before.  It is a pleasant stroll through time, where I pop my head in to a museum packed with artifacts of traditional production.  A young boy accompanies me for part of it as he goes to mail a letter, surprising me in his use of English to answer my questions in Japanese.  

My map takes me along a zigzag course along some temples, and back to the town's older high street.  This is part of the Kumano Kodo, so again I've met myself of a decade ago.  I've allowed myself an easy stroll as my train isn't until much later in the day.  But around this point I realize that I can catch an earlier one, so pick up my pace.  The walk is nearly finished anyway and I like the idea of getting home by mid-afternoon.  I walk briskly out of town again, up to the shadow of a castle that multitasks as an onsen.  As I'm not planning to bathe here today, so turn and move back toward town, intending to return here for a soak in the summer, having already decided to take my daughter down to Shirahama for a beach holiday.  

I pass through some fields and reservoirs, and arrive back at the train station.  The old structure is a nice presentation of historic wood, in the process of being replaced by a concrete beast.  Contrarily a very attractive junior high school is being put up next door.  Upon entering, I beeline immediately to wash my hands.  No soap.  A station employee has the misfortune to be standing just outside, and though I preface things with an understanding that it isn't necessarily his fault, I berate his superiors for not stocking soap this late in the health crisis, when the national government seems days away from calling a state of emergency, especially here in the town that had the first outbreak.  He doesn't reply, doesn't look at me.  Oh well, I guess sticking your head in the sand is more effective than face masks anyway.  

My train pulls in, and I move off to self-isolate awhile.

On the turntable:  Blood, Sweat & Tears, "Child is Father to the Man"

Friday, April 10, 2020

After the Kohechi: Akagi-goe & Kumano-gawa

I'd sweet-talked (cajoled/bullied) our hotel into picking us up an hour early, playing the pity card about us being cold and wet.  Watarase Onsen was a cluster of hotels, seemingly owned by a single organization.  Daniel was booked into one hotel, myself into another, but due to the low number of guests, we were all consolidated into a third.  So it was that I had to go back out into the still heavy rain in order to use the baths, across another old suspension bridge lit up with shooting stars after dark.  

Dinner was heavy, breakfast even more so.  And as we are driven out to the start of our walk, the sun shines for the first time in a week.  I've tried to walk the Akagi-goe at least four times while I was down here guiding assignments, but the trail crews can't seem to get on top of the typhoon damage from summer 2018.  This time I clamber over the ropes blocking the trail, saying fuck it, I'll deal with whatever comes. 

Which is nothing.  We descend into a narrow valley split by a small stream.  I well remember this as being one of the more attractive parts of the Nakahechi when I walking it 2009.  A large digger rests in the water, and we walk briskly and quietly to the site, expecting to be told off by repair crews.  But no one is around.  We cross a low, temporary bridge made of logs, which adds a nice new feature to the trail.  But we never once have to detour or scramble over anything.  Why is this section still closed?

A nice set of toilets marks the start of the Akagi-goe proper, which climbs stiffly from there.  We're doing the route in the reverse of how it is usually approached, and after a mere 10 minutes or so reach the highest point of the trail.  From here it is a ridge walk, offering near constant views of a breathtaking number of mountains that fold and fold and fold again upon themselves.  The wind is beginning to pick up as we reach first a massive (UNESCO World Heritage) clear-cut, then a crumbling old homestead that had been occupied until about 1970.  Teapots, furniture, and farm equipment still litters the place, and the sight of the graves of at least three children in the family plot out back is a testament to the hard life in the remote country.  

After a final knee-killing descent, we reach Yunomine Onsen.  I have another walk in mind from here, through the hills to Kawayu Onsen, then along the river to the main road where there is a country store and a bus stop.  It takes a few minutes to find this minor trail, and even then we get it wrong.  My GPS drifts to make it appear that we are going right, but what we're scrambling along can't be more than a deer trail.  But I'm enjoying the slippery bushwhack around a waterfall to get to the actual trail, which when looking back toward the source, seems to start where we'd been standing ten minutes before.  

The track is paved and leads through a quiet valley to a small hamlet where we meet proper road.  As we wend down toward Watarase, we pass a house that we presume is half-abandoned, and a few minutes later its apparent resident confirms it, this half-mad homeless type who looks to be squatting there.  

The climb out of Watarase is steep, so we rest a few minutes with the sakura trees and the view.  Kawayu is not long off, quiet today, its riverbed still scarred from the horrendous flooding it suffered in 2018.  The final slog is over concrete, and we finally meet the highway.  

 We're well ahead of our bus, so have our lunch in the bus shelter, out of the wind.  The bus finally sweeps us up, and traverses a meandering route on and off Route 311.  I'm happy for this, since I've never seen these side valleys during my dozen or so visits down here.  Finally we disembark at the Kumano-gawa boat dock, met by a woman in a conical hat and white happi who greets me by name.  

Our booking had taken some doing.  I'd called a week before, to be told that the boat only went with a minimum of three.  Daniel had changed his initial plans so was easy to sway into participating, but when I called the woman again and asked if I could pay two people's fare, thus a total of three, she resisted somewhat.  I thought that I'd try again a day or too later, offering to pay the rate for four (still cheaper than transport back down there), but before I had a chance she called to say that an actual third party had booked and the trip was on.  

The third party is also a Kohechi walker, or should I say runner, as he'd amazingly done our four day journey in two. The bulge of his calves under spandex confirms this.  The conical hats atop all out heads make us look like a box of pencils, as we make our way to the river's edge.  Traditionally pilgrims to Hongu had similarly boarded boats for the ride down to Hayatama Jinja in Shingu.  I'd walked that route last August, but still felt the need to do the journey properly.    

Due to the high winds and the river swollen with rain, the usual 90-minute trip took about an hour.  The happi-clad woman narrated much of the trip, most of them tales of a mystical land, of pilgrims and wandering nuns and hermit monks.  When she fell silent it was a pleasure to see her easy smile.  I'm sure she's done this trip dozens of times, but still seemed to be enjoying herself.  Not hard to do, on this the first fine after a week of bad weather.  I too knew the route well, having done it by pace of shanks mare, and my eyes rarely left the east bank, seeking familiar features. Nearly every boat trip in Japan seems to have a rock formation shaped like an elephant, but this one is called a dolphin.  I instead see a carp.   Near the end, we twice circle Mishima, a small rock cropping where the gods of Kumano gather, and is thus of limits to man.    

We say goodbye on the bank adjacent, which is mere steps from the shrine.  Daniel and I offer a quick prayer, then walk through Shingu's shuttered arcade back toward the station.  I've just missed my train, and have about two hours to kill.  Daniel plans to take a bus back into Kumano and do the high mountain traverse to Nachi the following day, thus completing the triptych.  We buy beers and head toward a small park to kill time, but when he checks the bus schedule along the way, finds one leaving in 10 minutes.  Then he's gone.

I walk over to the park that celebrates Jofuku, known by his native Chinese name as Xu Fu.  This wanderer arrived in Shingu 2200 years ago, seeking immortality.  The Green Shinto blog has a recent series of posts which speculate that Xu Fu was actually the emperor Jimmu, who according to legend was guided by the yatagarasu three-legged crow to the Kumano area, which he then consecrated as sacred.  But I'm not thinking about this as I crack my beer.  I'm thinking about how good it feels to sit with the final rays of the day's sun striking my face, and while immortality may or may not be attainable, it certain feels good not to be in a rush, to have all the time in the world.           

On the turntable:  Garland Jeffreys: "Matador and More"

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Along the Kohechi IV (Miura-toge & Hatenashi-toge)

For each of the three days on the Kohechi, we'd begin the day with an enormous climb, each day more challenging than the last.  Yamamoto-san drives us to the suspension bridge which will usher us out of town.  The ishitatami stone path begins just the other side, its pitch set at an eye-wincing angle.  As the trail finally levels off, the eyes are in turn treated to the sight of a set of massive cedar trees, their ancient forms twisting ever upward in phantasmagoric shapes.  Where one sees tall trees on ancients trails is an indication of a former settlement, or at least teahouses, protected by the man-made arborial windbreak.   Daniel and I stopped a long while to admire them, and our conversation stays on trees for far up the trail. 

It doesn't take too long before we arrived at Miura Pass, The trail deteriorates rapidly from here, scarred by landslides that adds a bit of excitement to a somewhat uneventful day.  As we have no real views to speak of, we focus on the odd stone statue, the small clearings where teahouses once stood.  

Our pace too is getting faster, and we are back down in the next valley by lunchtime.  A small shrine provides a nice picnic spot, which gives us the energy to trod the nine kilometers of pavement to follow.  This begins with a few pleasant villages, but midway through we come across an immense construction project, where they've graded the entire valley and covered it with concrete and grass.  At the center is a dirt pile of near-mountainous proportions.  When we ask a workman about it, he says that it's a refuse dump of sorts, where debris is brought after landslides and other typhoon damage.  It makes some sense, but not really.

Just beyond the Subaru Hotel we cross another suspension bridge.  This one dances and bounces under our weight.  I'm not great with heights, so stop and wait for Daniel to cross before I continue, trying to make three points of contact where I can.  About 3/4's of the way over, I think, screw it and stride across as quickly as I can.  

Our reward comes with a beer and a foot bath just up the road in the center of Totsukawa Onsen.  Our hotel is around the corner, but it is still not check-in time.  The hotel itself is pleasant and clean if a bit dated, the staff friendly enough, but not as warm as the owners of the inns of the last two nights.  We have come to civilization once again.    

Someone from the inn drives us back to the trailhead in the morning.  We'd wanted an earlier start so as to beat the rain, but they were a bit fussy about the breakfast time.  The driver is about to take us slightly up the hill, but I, ever the purist, ask him to drop us off down at the river.  I'm glad he did, for this initial section is one of the prettiest of the whole Kohechi, with ishitatami climbing at a degree gentle enough that we can admire the wet green after the night's rain, and the mist filling the valley for the rain to come.  

And it does come, though thankfully after we've climbed through the hamlet of Hadenashi.  It is a pleasant little snippet of homes and vegetable plots that clings to the spine of the ridge which peels away toward the roll of dozens of mountains on both sides.  The hamlet's name is almost a synonym of the commonly heard expression sumimasen, it never ends, it never ends. And for awhile, neither does the ascent, and it is apparent why this is the toughest day on the Kohechi.  The rain adds to our misery.  While we'd had light drizzle on and off over the past few days, today it is merciless. I stop at a small Kannon hall to pull on my rain gear.  The weather spurs us to climb more quickly, and before long we reach the pass.  Maps show this route to be a perfect bell curve, and within minutes we're again fighting gravity down the other side, the stonework tricky in the rain.  Along the way we startle no fewer than three huge bullfrogs, one of them taking a near suicide leap out into space.  

We finally reach the road, completely drenched.  I pull out my umbrella for the next stretch, which follows the Kumano-gawa to a michi-no-eki that promises curry rice and a hot bowl of noodles.  Inside is a small exhibit showing the day by day travels of a traditional pilgrim, making a 28-day return journey from Kyoto.

Warm now but still very wet, we return to the tempest, which has lost none of the typhoon-like fury we've experienced all day.  Luckily this is without wind.  We climb again over the next kilometer, to the teahouse that marks the intersecting Nakahechi route.  I've passed this a half dozen times, and never failed to look up the trail we just walked, thinking someday, someday...  But now the Kohechi is fianlly done.  

But we still have a couple of kilometers down to Hongu proper. The trail is more a series of interconnected lakes, waterfalls spilling through the stonework steps on the hill.  We eventually pass that odd housing develop that sits behind Hongu, and a minute later, are praying before the grand shrine itself.        

On the turntable: Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond, "The Complete Storyville Broadcasts"

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Along the Kohechi III (Mizugamine & Obako-toge)

As I've made multiple trips to Kōya-san, I try to choose a different temple each time.  Eko-in is still my first go-to choice with clients (though their prices have gone way up over the years). Or Fukuchi-in for those with deeper pockets, A third I won't mention prompted the only review I've ever written on TripAdvisor, and a scathingly negative one at that.  Tonight's temple, Sekisho-in is my seventh, out of the fifty offering accommodation on the mountain, a deliberate choice due to the controversy it stirred up a couple of years ago.  Despite this, I find the staff friendly if somewhat perfunctory, the gardens and grounds lovely, the rooms surprisingly large and comfortable.  

I find Daniel at dinner.  As the Kohechi had always made me a little apprehensive somehow, I casually asked a couple of friends to join me.  All had other commitments, though as Daniel too saw his guiding work fall victim to the coronavirus, he popped up a week ago and said he would come along.  When we meet again at breakfast, we decide to wait out the rain, then set off.

The morning is cold, and the rain returns soon enough, in the form of snow.  The views to the south that I'd admired here while guiding are lost to mist.  After skirting Koya's face we drop steeply into the small hamlet of Otaki, where we have a mid-morning snack in a covered shelter pointed out by a villager of considerable years.  The food gives us the strength the push on up to the Skyline road, quiet for the most part, though every ten minutes or so we're buzzed by a cluster of vehicles, no doubt released by a traffic signal somewhere.  The road takes us in and out of Nara prefecture three or four times in about 15 minutes.  Finally, a slight climb leads us to a forest path and Mizugamine, the high point of the day.  Not far along is shelter, where we have lunch before an unseen sea of sugi trees that I know are out there.  Then the road leads us down to the town of Omata and our lodgings.  

The day has been surprisingly easy, and as we arrive early, we walk another 20 minutes to our inn.  The words "onsen" are barely out of the owners mouth before Daniel and I mount bicycles for the ride over to the baths at Hotel Nosegawa.  Daniel draws the short straw, and is forced to ride a bike the size that an 8th grader would use for his paper route.  It always feels good to ride after a long walk, and it is an enjoyable few kilometers out along a river that shows some previous flood damage, including one tremendous piece of concrete than may have once "coaxed" the river's flow.  

After a quick visit to a small shrine that honors some local gods, we soak awhile, looking out over the river and cherry trees not yet into bloom.  It is still hours to dinner, so we enjoy beer and fried octopus before riding back.  As we are the only guests, we talk through dinner with the owner and his delightfully ancient mother, the flow of conversation dictated by the bad news coming from the TV screen.  

I awake beneath my now dry clothes, hung along a rope like signal flags.  Rain again threatens as we face the quick and steep climb out of the village.  We rest when it levels off at Kayagoya-ato, a beautiful cabin stocked with wood and bedding for the benefit of travelers. Beyond this we climb and climb, up and over the peak of Obako-san, one of the Kansai Hyakumeizan.  Its open summit is supposed to offer the best views of the whole Kohechi, but all we see is white.  The trail down a perpendicular trail is even less inspiring, a veritable mudbog impossible to navigate even with poles. At the base of this slalom course is another hut, stocked bizarrely with ample rolls of toilet paper, which I suppose could be used as pillows if you should overnight here.  

We opt instead for lunch, before heading back into the mist.  The trail is narrow as it hugs the forest wall, moving along big drops and over rickety bridges.  Moss covers all, the ferns thick like tempura.   The mist adds some mystery to a clearing where once stood tea houses, and supposedly even an old hag who used to frighten off travelers.  The ishitatami stonework down proves scarier, gravity conspiring with the unsure footing.  

Once down safely, we again laugh at the early hour, and decide to move along the road to the inn.  We've chosen the wrong bank of the river as a half hour later, we find the entire hillside has given way.  My eyes scout a route across, but any attempt promises to be fatal.  In the end we call Yamamoto-san, who graciously picks us up. After a long quiet afternoon in a small bungalow built adjacent to the main house, we join the Yamamoto family for dinner, our running commentary accompanying the news, until we all fall silent at the tribute to legendary comedian Shimura Ken, who the virus has taken that day.

On the turntable:  The Birdland Stars,  "The Birdland Stars On Tour Vol. 2"

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Along the Kohechi II (Chōishi-michi)

As I've done all too often with this region lately, I play a staring game with the rain. It blinks first.  The tell-tale drops in the hotel car park cease, and I make my way toward the door, energized and with a full belly.   While most business hotels are of the cookie-cutter variety, I tend to go for Route Inn, partly because the name always reminds me of Luton, which the Pythons got so much comedic mileage from, but more so because they generally have hot baths and an izakaya pub on site.  Oddly, the latter was across the car park rather than attached.  So it was that at dinner last night, I found myself sitting at a counter seat in a pair of rubber room slippers and those loony-bin pajamas that these types of hotels always provide.  In these days of corona, there weren't many other punters besides myself, but I did get a few stares.  From a distance.  

The train takes me a brief way to Kudoyama, an old castle town associated with the Saneda samurai clan. I detour along the town's main street, past a funky little coffee shop that sits at the edge of town, and whose views of the spreading rice fields make me envy the location.  All is quiet at the early hour, as I bisect the low earthen walls with a live album by The Decemberists in my ears. 

Sakura are in full bloom at Jison-in Temple.  I remove my earbuds upon entering, and am about the engage the friendly priest in conversation, but my attention is pulled to all the breasts on display, affixed to the ema prayer boards, as this temple looks after the spiritual needs of women, affiliated as it is with Kobo Daishi's mother.  Women were traditionally forbidden to climb Koya-san, so she reputedly visited her son here nine times a month, hence Kudoyama, "nine times mountain." 

A long staircase takes me past the first of the Chōishi route's 180 stone markers, many going back to the 13th century.  They accompany me up yet another paved path, which meanders up through another orchard. The clouds are beginning to hem in, and before I reach the relative safety of the trees, the rain gets its final say.  Verbose it proves to be, keeping up its chatter for a good hour or so.  

Forms of Koya culture appear now and again, many with good English explanation about the amazing exploits of Kobo Daishi.  And of course, there are ever present stone markers, ever marching out of the mist.  Somewhere around the 150 mark, two trail runners come past.  I hear their voices looming up from behind, and after a quick greeting, they disappear again into cloud.  Not long after arriving at the Ropponsugi clearing, I catch the jingle of a bear bell rising from below.  A college aged guy greets me from beneath an umbrella, a greeting I return, but before he can overtake me I am off again, not wanting to hear that incessant ringing for the next three hours. 

I have my lunch at Futatsu Torii, under the same shelter as yesterday.  I shiver as I eat, and decide to pull on all my rain gear.  Of course it is then that the rain stops for the day.  But even after it lifts, the mist remains.  Things loom out: tall broken trees, massive bullfrogs.  I rewatched Apocalypse Now a few days before, and I'm reminded of those sections near the middle of the film, when things get mysterious and foggy, north of the Do Lung bridge.  Frogs and insects creak just out of sight off trail.    
I'm getting close to the top, way ahead of the estimated course time.  This is the advantage I guess to walking in the rain, that you just put your head down and power on.  While I've had absolutely no views as promised by the guide book, I know that there is a shelter ahead, and I need another snack break for the final push.  When I arrive, the picnic table is crowded with a hiking group, all over 60, as usual.  They offer me a place to squeeze in, but as I'm carrying a bit of coronoia, I say thanks and go to sit on the ground. As I begin to lower myself, my hand slips on the damp concrete floor, and I come down hard on my right knee.  Not a good thing as I still have a week of hiking ahead. One of the women drops a handful of chocolate into my outstretched hand, which crawls with virus in my mind's eye.  

I only have an hour left to Koya's main gate.  This section of trail seems to have gotten the brunt of the 2018 typhoon that devastated the mountain's southern flank.  Enormous trees have been toppled, some resting atop the canopies of their younger brothers.  It feels like walking through a mine field.  Then, the trail suddenly and steeply switchbacks upward, and I find myself at the edge of town.  

Stone marker Number One is a little further down the road, and then I'm in town, familiar from many visits.  It looks like rain at any moment, not that it matters, as I've been wet all day.  I'm relieved to find Bon On open, one of my favorite cafes in Japan.  There are only two customers, an Italian researcher busy at his computer, and an older local playing classical guitar in the corner.  I chat with the owner a little, then he joins the music on his cello.  The Italian and I talk softly from our respective tables, and distance.  At a time when it feels like the whole world is shifting, we are already making the necessary adjustments.

On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Chet"

Monday, April 06, 2020

Along the Kohechi I (Koya Kaidō & Mitanizaka)

A man on the train has what I first think is a shinai in a cloth case, but as I step closer I realize that it is a wooden staff.  As we walk away from Myōji Station I ask him where he's going, and he tells me that he's going to take the Chōishi-michi up to Koya.  He smiles as he says this, his eyes bright over his white Van dyke beard, giving him a stereotypical wizened look. I'm a little surprised, as it is just about noon and he's got a good seven hours of climbing ahead.  He'll have a long day.  

My own day was half complete.  It started with a taxi driver taking me to a place he knew, not the place I wanted to go. But in fact it started well before that, back on January 20, when my wife saw something brewing in Wuhan, and talked me into cancelling our mid-April trip to China.  What went next was all my guide work for the spring, followed by the inevitable school closures.   My daughter went to visit granny in Hiroshima for 10 days, and with no work or daughter in town, and my wife in self-isolation down in Singapore, I decided to head for the mountains.

I stepped out of the taxi at Eisan-ji, nestled between the Yoshino river and a low bank of hills.  It all smelt of spring.  In the car park there were a number of kayaks stacked beside a Montbell shop.  This must be a popular stretch of river.   The temple was founded in 719, five hundred years before the adjacent shrine that brought the place favor with the gods.  Both held their age, particularly the hexagon prayer hall at one end of the compound.  I truly love this part of the world. 

I was forced to walk the old road out front that brought me back to the present day for a while, despite it being part of the old Kōya Kaidō, the route that brought pilgrims down from Osaka and the old capital. After far too long on a highway running through the busy town of Gōjō, I finally detoured off to the town's older main street, which kept some faith to an older feudal look, but for being spectacularly draped with powerlines.  I popped back onto the highway again at the far end, and after a quick visit to the Inukaisan Tenhorin-ji (itself draped in the spreading canopy of sakura), I wended my way through a quiet rural stretch before arriving at a small unmanned train station.  I sat on the platform with my simple lunch, until a light drizzle relocated me onto the old wooden benches within.  

The rain is going to be a problem.  I'd been fretting about the weeklong forecast of rain, unfortunately timed to fall between long parades of sun marks.  I'd been tempted to push the trip back a week, but then I'd be away after my daughter was back.  More worryingly, Japan appeared ready to go into lockdown any day.  The latter concern would be a steady companion through the entire eight days I was away, the plans formulating and reformulating every twelve hours.  

I leave the wizened old pilgrim and move over a long bridge that spans the Kii river. I remember crossing a similar span ten years ago, as my ex-wife and I began our long ramble into the Kumano region.   Today the rain begins to increase, but I remain optimistic, refusing an umbrella kindly held offered me by a shopkeeper I pass.  By the time I arrive at an old shrine around the corner, the weather clears. Nyusakado Shrine is the "male" in a pair of shrines on this side of the mountain.  I'll spend the next couple of hours getting to its "female" companion.    This climb begins up a narrow concrete slope, slippery with muck.   The steep hillside is covered with orchards, and along the way I'll pass a number of rock formations, including one long staff atop which another rock perches like a propeller.  As expected, this bizarre Kasa-ishi, along with the nearby Hakotate-ishi, are remnants of Kobo Daishi's own pilgrimage up the 

I curse the concrete as I climb.  Who decided it was a good idea to pave mountain paths?  I move along at about half my stride so as not to slip. These little mincing steps are wearing me out.    Though much like as with a headache, it is gone before I realize it. Matō-iwa is just off trail, a stone cube emblazoned with two ancient Buddhas.  I am tempted to sit in its quiet and splendor, but the threat of rain drives me on. I move upward, past stonework suggesting the teahouses that once lined the path.   

Rain falls lightly again just after arriving at the female Niutsuhime Shrine, erected by Kobo Daishi in honor of the female deity of the mountain.  The grounds are quiet, shaded by massive trees and with a tall arched bridge that acts as approach.  Around the side is a quiet grove that has tall stone stele commemorating important shugenja from nearby Ōmine-san, including founder En-no-Gyoja.        

The rain is falling in earnest as I walk over to the old hut that once served as hermitage for Saichō, the founder of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.  Though the hut has been obviously rebuilt, the graves of his wife and daughter just below are most certainly real.  It is a lonely place, and I'll pass another ancient grave as I undergo yet another steep, concrete covered ascent to a pass.

Futatsu-torii is true to its name; the two tall stone gates have been here since 1649, replacing older wooden ones erected by Kobo Daishi 800 years before.  I take a rest in a covered shelter nearly, recharging with chocolate as the clouds close in over the scenery below.  I race on, trying to beat the inevitable rain.  Luckily it is all descent into the adjacent valley.  As I make my way down one of those earthen half-pipe landscapes that define most older mountain routes, I meet the earlier pilgrim from the train, now engarbed in white and striding strongly uphill with his staff.  

I find my trail junction, which drops quickly down a set of steep switchbacks.  Once at the valley floor, I am amazed by a massive wild boar trap.  I've seen many before made of steel, but this one is all thin cedar trucks, open to the air like a corral.  It isn't long before I get to a village, and across the valley, I see a train pulling away from the station.  It'll be an hour until the next one.  The landscape forces me to drop all the way down to the river, then climb steeply to the station.  I'd hate to be a villager here, to do this climb every time.   And I'm hating to be myself at the moment, as the sky completely and definitively opens.  I'm far too close to want to stop to pull out on my rain gear, but the pitch of the path slows me and I'm soon drenched.  Once inside, I sit awhile, my shivering marking cadence until my train pulls out.           

On the turntable:  Horace Silver Trio and Art Blakey, "Sabu"

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Sunday Papers: Gaby Bamana

"It is not nature as such that people worship; rather people worship what nature tells us about the sacred.  Nature is transparent and expresses a reality that overwhelms the human mind. People feel that they are and should be connected to this reality, and they create spaces for communication and connection with the sacred." 

On the turntable: Echo & The Bunnymen, "1984-01-17, Sun Plaza Hall, Tokyo"