Friday, October 30, 2020

Three Shapes, Five Lakes...



Throughout the world, a mention of the name "Obama" brings to mind one thing, or person that is, and reactions will vary based on your postal code.  For the Japanese, Obama can only mean saba.  We started the day more or less at the source, the seafront fish market.  The morning auction was in full swing, with a young barker calling out prices, the buyers making little gestures with their fingers like in a Chinese drinking game.  They were very subtle in this, half -hiding their hands as they did.  (I'm told that with the fugu auction, both parties place their hands in a bag, ensuring the utmost secrecy.)  Things ground to a halt occasionally when there was a discrepancy, but I suppose today's loser is tomorrow's winner. Generally speaking the action was fast, and the group moved steadily down the rows of styrofoam boxes piled high.  



Today, one type of fish was being sold in mass quantities, and I'm told that it wasn't sold too often.  Being autumn, I presumed it will be ground up to fertilize the now bare rice paddies, rather than wind up on a plate somewhere.  Once the fish had been bought it was moved off to the side, before being loaded up on small pickups and carted off.  The remaining buyers continued to move as one, except for one character who drifted around confidently, a sly smirk ever on his face.  I secretly thought of him as The Godfather. He was all pro.


We visited his shop not long afterward, down at the end of the nearby Fish Center, and I recognized a number of men I'd just seen buying at the market.  People moved through, buying fish to take home, or settling into one of the small eateries to sample seafood as fresh as it gets.  We'd limited our own visit as we would enjoy our breakfast at nearby Sushi Tomi, a small shop with a friendly and engaging itamae.  Many sushi chefs can be dour, but Shimakawa-san never failed to return our banter, even as he shaped the fish in quick movements with his hands.  It was a wonderful performance, each piece of fish a treasure.  I tend not to like ikura, but here it delighted as the roe literally popped between the teeth.  I could easily have stayed here the rest of the morning. 


But we had appointments to keep.  The first was with a farmer who led us along the terraced rice fields of Tanada, which stepped up gradually from the sea below.  It was an impressive enough place today, and I could imagine its beauty when in the full green of pre-harvest.  The hundred plots were collectively farmed, and in May the fields were lit by 2000 candles to emulate the lights of the squid boats out to sea.  A stele near the water's edge marked the site of a medieval garden called Okino Ishi, where people once gazed upon the rock formations towering from the water. Renowned Heian-period poet Lady Sanuki composed her famous waka about one of them, collected in the Hyakunin Isshu:

My sleeves are like
the rock in the offing that
can’t be seen even at low tide,
unknown to anyone, but
there’s not a moment they are dry.

-trans. Joshua S. Mostow. 

As we continued along the coast, I thought about how Japanese sentimentality inspires a large part of their poetic canon. And this coastline brought the same out in me, for I lived on it for a dozen years, a hundred kilometers or so to the west.  There was familiarity then in the fishing villages we passed through, in the weathered wooden houses huddled together along little lanes.  In one we ran into a friend of our driver, who was generous in offering us a taste of naresushi, or pickled mackerel.  This is the original sushi, dating to the 7th Century, and far removed from the tidy little hand-pressed delights that make up Jiro's dreams.  Fermented over a few months in wooden buckets, naresushi looks like bark, has the texture of jerky, and with a flavor that doesn't fully hit the palate until a few seconds after swallowing.  


While one may revel in the thought of trying a delicacy 1300 years old, that timeline is nothing when compared with our next destination.  The world's first Varve museum was in a long, squat A-frame structure stretching between the Sanjusangenzan mountain range and the Mikata Five Lakes.  One of these lakes, Suigetsu is unusual in that it has no marine life.  As such, the sediment on the bottom lies undisturbed, which has allowed scientists to take a 45-meter cylindrical sample of the lake bed.  This is the varve, a sample composed of alternating light and dark layers, each pair representing a single year.  To walk past the 45-meter long striped wall was to walk 70,000 years back in time.  The stripes revealed changes in climate and environment, the ice ages and volcanic eruptions. Most startling of all was just how small a portion of the varve dealt with human time.  


After a pleasant seafood lunch at a lakeside inn, we continued by car to the Rainbow Line that cut over the hilltops between the five lakes and the sea.  From a viewpoint up top, a chairlift whisked us up to the interconnected terraces above.  We were ever on the go today, so I envied the people here in varying states of recline, in hammocks, loungers, swings, all enjoying a day whose weather was as perfect as autumn gets.  There were a number of cafes, a rose garden, and of course the view of the lakes, the sea, and the shoreline, all given definition by an array of mountains.  On a day like today, one could spend an entire afternoon doing little but admiring the changes in the light.

But what awaited became the pinnacle of the day.  We hired a large boat to cruise the perimeter of Lake Suigetsu, past the villages, the charming hot springs inn, and the narrow channel that led underground through the hills to the sea.  On board was a modest sample of Mikata Umeshu, the region's renowned plum wine that can be found even in chic restaurants in Manhattan.  We'd earlier visited their brewery, but could now finally sample their finest, including a few that were only available at special events such as this.  I'm used to plum wine being smooth, but the grades as high as 19% and 38% gave quite a kick.  


So it was that we sipped as the shoreline drifted by, much of it lined with trees of the same plum as that in our glasses.  And as the day came toward an end, and the light began to shimmer off the water, our boat delivered us once again to shore.  Heading south then toward Kyoto, in the footsteps of so many others over the centuries, already anticipating another visit in order to further explore these distant shores not at all far from home.  


On the turntable:  Jimi Hendrix, "The Cry of Love"

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Not Wholly Mackerel

The car headed north, at a pace so fast as if to go back in time.  Our driver deftly avoided the busier main road, and we moved along a country road lined on both sides with rice fields, long since harvested on this mid-October day.  Low clouds hung over the high peaks that gave definition to this broad valley, and late season dragonflies buzzed the forest of sheared stalks lined neatly in the now-dry paddies.

Obama isn't so much a place remote as a place far-off though well connected.  This small city on the Sea of Japan is indelibly tied to Kyoto by the famed Saba Kaidō, the feudal-period highway along which men would travel back to the old capital, carrying mackerel packed in brine for preservation.  A former staple of the Imperial Family, the fish eventually became a popular addition to the usual vegetarian fare of the land-locked city.  Like the Silk Road, the Saba Kaidō was never a single path, but the name refers to any of the five roads that extended southward through the mountains. The Wakasa Kaido was the most reliable, and enabled men and horses to reach Kyoto by the following morning, to ensure freshness. The brine also seasoned the fish along the journey, enhancing its flavor.


For the final few kilometers into Obama, the old road overlapped with another highway, the Tango Kaidō which ran along the sea.  It was here that we'd begin our visit, where that road ran through the center of Obama's old merchant quarter.  On the corner of a small street leading down from a Hachiman Shrine was an old Edo-period Suiyasu merchant house, specialists in papermaking.  A carpenter in charge of the restoration of the old house led us around its interconnected structures, one with an impressive two-story wooden facade lined with windows sunk into wooden frames.  The Edo-period kura storehouse had a unusual stepped doorway, once quite common to the Tango area. Traditionally, each region had its own unique architectural features, though the cultural streamlining that followed the feudal period sought a more universal style, as defined by legal codes. Today, most kura look the same.


Thankfully here, the old traditions still hold. A short walk away was Sanchome, Obama's former red-light district that has maintained a look centuries old.  A few accommodations to the modern age have been allowed, namely the small sprinklers laid into the tarmac which in winter will emit running water as a means of preventing the surface from icing over. Migawarizaru hung from the eaves along both
sides, these little cloth monkeys meant to deflect illness or bad luck. A small Buddhist hall housed a statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, unusual for its bright gold headdress.  (I would have loved to ponder the meaning at the quaint Imaarashi cafe nearby.)    

We arrived at Hōtōrō, a traditional restaurant once used exclusively by geisha.  A guide took us through this labyrinthian structure, past elaborately decorated screens, and allowed us time to peer through the intricately carved lattice windows to catch a view of the overlapped roof lines and their patchwork of grey tile.  

As Hōtōrō was closed for the day, we headed to the nearby  restaurant Miyabi, which served up a generous portion of saba, grilled beautifully.  An accompaniment of other local seafood delicacies filled out a sumptuous kaiseki lunch.  Above us hung photos of celebrities enjoying similar fare, and a large aquarium filled with the still-swimming dinner course wrapped itself around the open kitchen beyond. 

A visit to the local museum helped stave off the sleepiness that usually follows such large meals.  I was astounded to find that Obama was founded around the same time as Kyoto, though its roots go back 1300 years as a center for salt production.  From here the town grew into an important harbor for the trade ships that traced the shores of the Japanese archipelago, exchanging regional goods during the time that Japan was closed to foreign influences.  Yet its earliest role as an open port led it to become one of the doorways for the influx of ideas and technologies brought from mainland Asia.  These flowed down the Wakasa Kaidō to the old capitals and Nara and Kyoto, which grew in significance due to those very same imports.


Some of that culture stayed local.  Two Shinto shrines just out of town date to a time when Japan's spiritual traditions found a foothold as the Japanese were settling into a sedentary culture.  We reached these shrines by bicycle, riding past old farm houses and along quiet rural roads.  You can always tell a shrine's age by the size of its shade trees, and these of the paired Wakasahime and Wakasahiko Shrines certainly towered, one of them supposedly 1000 years old.  Smaller trees at Wakasahiko were brought here a saplings from Kyoto's Imperial Palace, now tall enough to shade a modest Noh stage in one corner of the grounds.  Dating from the early 8th Century, the shrines still look after the safety of the local fishermen.


Buddhism here could be found at a pair of temples further up the valley, both dating to a time not long after the introduction of the religion to Japan. (Similarly, two of the Zen temples that arrived in Obama later would take on important roles in exporting Zen to the West.)  Upon arriving at Jingu-ji, I realized I'd been here before, for the Omizu Okuri event that takes place every March, serving as a prelude of sorts to Nara's famous Omizu Tori event held 10 days later.  An old path culminated in a set of stone steps leading to the temple grounds, which included one thatch-covered teahouse of a rustic beauty that blended perfectly with leaves just beginning to take on their autumn hues.  The priest here led us to the main hall, where we sat and heard a lecture that reached the similar esoteric heights of the statuary that we looked upon.  Fitting for a temple 1300 years old, a time when Shinto and Buddhism were fused as one. 


One valley over, Myotsu-ji is 100 years older, but with a similar legacy.  The path up was far steeper, and by the time the visitor arrived one felt ready to settle into the silence beneath the trees that dwarfed even the 22 meter pagoda and its 800 year history.  The young priest here too gave us a lecture, but one that stayed pragmatically upon the temple itself.  

The afternoon exercise for body, mind, and spirit made more welcome the meal to cap the day.  While expecting another saba feast, I was surprised to find us pulling into La Verita, whose enthusiastic chef prepares Italian meals prepared from local produce and treasures from the sea.  The wine list was of course a wonderful addition, but his handmade cheese is the true delight of any meal here.  Many many courses later, we wandered back along the beach toward our traditional accommodation, to dreams awash with the tide of history and time.    

On the turntable:  Laibach, "An Introduction to Laibach"   


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sunday Papers: Ethan Hawke


"Human creativity is nature manifest in us."


On the turntable:  Ennio Morricone, "Complete Sergio Leone Movies"


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Mitsuhide's Wild Ride

Shōryūji Castle stands near the confluence of three rivers, which run through a narrow gap in low mountains between Kyoto and Osaka.  For two centuries this castle guarded this gap, but it could do nothing to withstand the encroach of suburbia.  Little surprise, as it fell in the Battle of Yamazaki in less than two hours.  Its defender, Akechi Mitsuhide could do little to hold
back the forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who sought Mitsuhide's's head for the murder of Oda Nobunaga less than two weeks before.  In panic, the thirteen-day shogun ran.

As I stand atop the rebuilt ramparts I too think about attackers, though in 2020 this means coronavirus.  I'd wanted to follow Mitsuhide's path when I first read an article about it back in the winter, but then, like most people, I sought refuge rather than flight.  By October the situation in Japan seemed to be calming a little (or the lack of transparency deluded us into believing so), and it felt I could brave the short train ride to do the walk.  

I have a quick look at the exhibit inside the rebuilt castle keep, which in a PC-style sleight of hand veers away from Mitsuhide's historic betrayal and focuses more on his Hosokawa family relatives, whose tutelary temple now houses the world-famous rock garden of Ryozan-ji.  Yet the Hosogawa too aren't above criticism since it was their family feud that started the Onin Wars, abetting in the complete destruction of Kyoto and 150 years of civil war that followed.  Those wars were coming to an end in 1582 when Mitsuhide did his runner.  I'd forgotten though that his wife was a Hosokawa daughter, Gracia, Japan's most beloved Christian convert.  Many times I'd noticed her grave in Kōtō-in, but what I never realized was that her "assisted suicide" on the eve of the Battle of Sekigahara had turned the tide of sentiment in favor of Tokugawa Ieyasu and had perhaps contributed to his clan becoming the Shogunate.     

I am not thinking of any of this as I walk toward Shōryū-ji temple, along a tarmac colored differently than the others that cut through this otherwise nondescript suburb.  And located in suburb, the temple itself is equally non-distinct, but for a worn statue of indiscriminate age.  It is a short walk from here to the the 1600 year-old Igenoyama burial mound, its unknown occupant no doubt a powerful ruler during a time when Japan was just beginning to settle into a sedentary society. 

And suburbs are the ultimate sedentary legacy.  The mound too has been hemmed in, so I descend to follow the rivers northeast.  I am not sure the exact path Mitsuhide took, but I am sure he was spared the bland chain stores bisected by Sunday traffic, spared the towering concrete migratory path of the Shinkansen, spared the factories whose commonality was concrete, sheet metal, and bizarre smells.  We may have shared the view of weekend farmers busy with a late rice harvest.  One massive field has been sheared at the edges, with the middle left to resemble a bright green mohawk.  

Fushimi brings a bit of traditional respite.  I've both visited and guided here many times, and inevitably seem to come across something new.  My path today is deliberate, in order to visit Yamorido, a new craft beer brewery I'd heard about.  I sit safely at a table that is as much outdoors as in, taking a long break over lunch and a flight of beer.  Tokyo has just been added to the infamous Go To Travel campaign, and the street outside feels somewhat busy.  I haven't been out in public at all over the last eight months, and it reminds me of the old days of domestic tourism, with nary a language besides Japanese heard anywhere.

Following the narrow lanes out of town, I am nearly run down by a guy who has obviously not been looking out the windshield of his car, his eyes probably pointed down at his phone.  I give him a burst of Japanese of my own, all blunt verb endings mixed with some colorful English thrown in for good measure. 

I crest the hill that bisects the tombs of the Meiji Emperor and Russo-Japanese hero Nogi Maresuke, then descend into suburb again.  It is dull going for the next hour until arriving at Honkyo-ji.  The temple is of a modern construction, the oldest thing about it being the memorial stone to Mitsuhide beside the main hall.  The famed bamboo thicket behind has been severely shorn, cut back at least a hundred meters from the hall.  A broad earthen avenue remains, for the convenience of the machinery to harvest more in the future.  I see a handful of blue flags waving above a sparse patch of thicket down the hill.  This is Mitsuhide Yabu, the site were Akechi was speared to death, allegedly by bandits in Hideyoshi's employ.  It is truly hard to find much romance of the old here, with the dearth of forest and suburbs ringing all.  There are no bandits today either, but one old farmer working nearby directs me down a narrow path that drops me into the midst of the housing below.   

I walk more north than east now, angling toward a gap in the mountains to my right.  I remember that Daigo-ji's impressive Kami-Daigo temple hall is up there somewhere, and I feel happy that I'd visited before the 2008 fire that damaged a number of its structures.  For the next hour I move through a comparatively bland landscape of suburban sameness.  

My own fire of enthusiasm is beginning to die down.  I'd planned to walk all the way to Mitsuhide's Sakamoto Castle, the intended destination of his flight, but I'm fast losing interest.  I'm meant to veer east again soon, but I have an escape route in Yamashina station not far ahead.  On long walks such as these, I never look at how many kilometers I've done until I finish.  Otherwise, to realize you've done more than expected leads to a psychological fatigue.  But today I check the mileage, and am surprised that I've done 23 km already.  With 12 more to go.  I'd estimated the total walk at 27 kilometers, which I am prepared to do, but I'm not at all prepared to do 35.  Minutes later I'm sitting out front of the station, iced coffee in hand, killing time until the train.


It is at that same station that I detrain a week later, the chill in the air a far cry from the muggy heat that accompanied what's written above.  Cars pass too closely and too frequently as I walk the Tokaidō awhile.  Eventually I enter suburb again, accompanied by the feeling that I've seen all this before.  Beyond an expressway-shaded temple, a narrow trail leads me to Kozeki-koe, which I know I passed when doing a parallel journey in reverse 7 years ago.  And rereading that particular post I find the same sentiment I feel today: the highs of the quiet shaded neighborhood around Mii-dera; the annoyance at being denied views of Lake Biwa by the military base, the chain stores, and the towering apartment blocks that colonize the shoreline.  

Isn't until I'm Karasaki that I can truly enjoy the waterfront, beneath the trees that shade narrow patches of park. I get a surprise in the signs warning of vipers.  A trio of men fish from beneath an unusual torii with pitched cross-beams, and families enjoy the fading of light beside the gently lapping waters.  

Akechi is here too, standing bronzed and proud, looking in the direction where he lost his life.  This was all part of his castle, and I spend the next half-hour playing connect the dots with the historical markers that denote it perimeters.  Under the final fading light of the day, I find his grave (or perhaps one of many, as the bodies of warlords tend to be spread around a bit).  It is a nondescript site, just a small grassy mound tucked between houses, a resting place cramped for a man of vision vast.

On the turntable: Jacques Brel, "L'intégrale-- La boite à bonbons : 25ème anniversaire"     


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sunday Papers: Sebastiao Salgado

"With each dying person a piece of everyone else dies."

On the turntable: The Groundhogs, "Hog's in Wolf's Clothing"

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sunday Papers: Paul Salopek

"Why is impatience signaled by the tapping of a toe: a gesture that telegraphs walking away— hoofing it, laying tracks, leaving, shoving off lickety-split?  Why is movement the default solution of our species? What’s wrong with standing still? Why even ask such questions? Because we are restless. Because we always ask."

On the turntable: The McCrells, "The McCrells Live"

Wednesday, October 07, 2020


Drinking beer
Alone on the grass
Is the highest barometer of freedom

On the turntable:  Mount Eerie, "Live in Copenhagen"

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Sunday Papers: Fisher Unwin

"It's very hard to earn a living by writing.  Writing is a very good staff, but a very bad crutch."
       --(Quoted by W. Somerset Maugham in introduction to Liza of Lambeth)

On the turntable:  Miles Davis, "Milestones"

Thursday, October 01, 2020

The Moon in a Sake Cup


My piece on the autumn moon...

On the turntable:  Jimi Hendrix, "Blue Wild Angel"