Thursday, December 31, 2020

A year in reads: 2020



On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1976-07-18, Orpheum Theater" 


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Journal of the Plague Year

It begins during a hike on January 23, with a call from my wife.  She mentions that something seems to be brewing in Wuhan, and that we ought to call off our late spring trip to Shanghai.  I of course suggest we wait a bit, as it is still months before the trip.  But she, having lived in exile in Europe during the SARS spring of 2003, wants to emotionally commit to postponing, as it is a DIY trip that we can take anytime.  Moments after hanging up, she begins to cancel our bookings.

Two days later I fly to join my wife for Chinese New Year.  Before I leave Kyoto, Lai Yong asks me to buy masks for her and her parents, as they have already run out in Singapore.  At the local shop, all the pegs and shelves are full.  By the time I return in two weeks, there isn't a mask to be found, and won't be for months. 

Singaporeans are going about their business for the holiday.  But each morning brings worse and worse news out of China.   I go for a walk along the river one morning, and the Merlion is teeming with tourists.  These will be among the last selfies taken of a bare face.  In a shop a day later, the newspaper is calling on people to mask up, and the government will send two to each citizen.    

We fly to Taipei to stay a night at the airport hotel, before flying on to Palau.  Hardly anyone wears masks on this journey, but on the return a week later, everyone is.  Taipei airport is near deserted, and my flight back to Osaka is only 10 percent full.  Mine is the only caucasian face, and the only one, predictably, unmasked. 
As the stores have run out, Lai Yong orders 100 masks online, just to keep around to be safe.  I laugh how I actually have to sign for the package with a trace of my finger across the thing.  And I joke with her later, what if I get sick from that act despite her best efforts?  Or to get infected from handling books delivered from the US or UK, the virus passed through the post. 
 Japan as we now remember didn't move on things for a couple more months, and things carried on nearly as normal, but a heightened normal.  I had hoped to finish the last couple of neighborhood walks for a intended book on Kyoto, but after the first one in mid-March, I gave up.  The intention was to write as things are at the current time, but to write about the virus would ground it too firmly in the specific  present.  Plus it just felt scary out there.  Even masked, I held my breathe anytime I passed anyone on the street.   Kyoto Station shops were all shuttered, the public toilets closed, with only a handful of people walking about.  The trains too, fewer, and with no more than 10 people per carriage, everyone sitting comfortably far apart.  Convenience stores seemed unbelievably tidy;  fewer customers meant the staff had nothing else to do.  JTB was of course shuttered.  Pedestrians would stop to allow others to pass, with enhanced sensory awareness.  And there was good spacing in the queue in front of a pachinko parlor.  But how about when it opened?
Things were still new then, and uncertain.  I have memories of the air of spring being dim and smoky. though I know that was not the case.

On social media. instead of food photos in restaurants, people shot things that they were cooking.  It was nice to see that with the free time, people could take more care and time with things.  Even in my neighborhood, once the windows were thrown open with the warm weather of May, in would waft wonderful scents I'd never smelt around here before.  On one day the scent of Indian curry caused me to order takeout. 
But more than the cooking on social media, was the mix of angry politics and fear.  And half-baked theories and misinformation. I could sense which friends were having a hard time with it all, as their posts were always dark and fear-inducing.  I tended not to get too emotionally invested in what I read, as the following morning the world would be new all over again.  And in those early days, I awake thinking, "it" is still here.  Reading the news about the new world reminded me of Kirk on Star Trek:  "Mr. Sulu,  damage report."   
My guide work went flat-line,and my usual writing gigs were on hold, as no one really wanted to publish travel pieces at this time, some feeling that to do so was irresponsible.  Grounded in Kyoto as I was, I took up the hikes I'd long hoped to do.  In recent years, my walks gravitated to old roads and little towns, but with so much off-limits and closed down, the mountains made better sense. I'd long been after mountains on the Kansai Hyakumeizan  and Kinki Hyakumeizan, which do to the overlap on the two lists, a couple of friends had dubbed the Kinkan 132.   Over the course of the year, I knocked off 27 peaks.  
One of these was just north of the city, and on the hike I was shocked at the state of Kitayama in general.  Huge swathes of forest had come down in the September 2018 typhoon, and in the act of prevention, other sections had been badly mismanaged by the forestry industry, large sections completely denuded in what can only be called ecocide.  I hiked a dozen more peaks up there, wanting to do it before typhoon season hit.  Bizarrely, we had none, something I haven't experienced in 26 summers in Japan.  But rainy season dragged on and on, closing off the wilderness which created in me almost a sense of claustrophobia.  And as predicted, more forest fell, including over the popular rail line up to Kurama.

At the beginning of the year, my daughter mentioned that she hoped to climb Fuji during the summer.  To prepare, I took her on weekly hikes, increasing that once her school was shut down.  On one of these, I was amused at at the trail runner at Gorogoro who covered his mouth as he came running past.  And once it was announced that Fuji wouldn;t open for the season, my daughter disappeared into playing with friends. 

With all the hiking, weather becoming an obsession. Having no work, I had the luxury of choosing the finest and warmest days.  On other days, I found comfort in food and films.  When this all begin, I was already in the middle of a marathon deep dive into the works of Godard, but his sledge hammer Marxist pessimism  added to the claustrophobia.  I began to gravitate to road movies set in the American west, and to films I'd loved while in high school and university.  Despite the fact I had no work, and no way to see my Singaporean wife, I felt that life wasn't all that bad.  Yet my choice of films hinted at a deeper psychological stress, trying to escape into wide open spaces, or to a time of life that was relatively carefree.

Most of my days were spent reading in my usual spot, with the view of the street below.  Day after day, I see the same few dozen neighbors, but now there were many new faces out on the street, probably people out for a meandering walk as that felt the safest thing to do. Life felt very European. lived outdoors. And freed from the confines of school, kids running literally everywhere.  It truly was like the world of Logan's Run, as I saw relatively few adults for awhile. 
In the beginning I too thought that this was little more than the flu.  I tempered my skepticism with prudence.  At first I avoided masks for awhile (except in shops or trains), but then I ran into a conflict with one of my dogmas.  I can't understand those who doubt climate change, and often think that if your neighbor called you at work to say that there might be smoke coming out of your house, you wouldn't dismiss it, but would rush to be certain.  Yet I was doing this same kind of denial with the virus;  I was not all that sure if it was serious, but I should at least take precautions.  It didn't take me but a few weeks to take it far more seriously, and anyway, I'd been holed up alone at home since the beginning anyway, only heading out for hikes by car, or a weekly trip to the supermarket.  Most food I ordered online.       
And the year wore on.  And many impressions were born;

-As my life revolves around travel I was relishing the time at home.  For months I didn't want to meet, or even chat online with friends.  The spring and summer felt like an personal retreat.  One benefit of being in the house so much is that I finally learned what all the light switches are. 

-The metaphor that we’re at the end of an age and some people accept it, but those who stand to lose the most are pushing back the hardest.  The virus is a microcosm of this.
-The few times I dashed out to the store to buy something and realized I'd forgotten my mask; while out in public felt like I would if I'd forgotten my trousers.   

-The Japanese were ridiculed for their exclusionist immigration policy.  But this extended domestically as well, as there were reports of people in the countryside throwing rocks at cars with out of prefecture license plates.  Maybe this is not racist after all but simply a case of circling the wagons.  
-Smell are amplified in a mask. The scent of coffee on my fingers long lingers. No sense worrying about the garlic you ate for lunch. 
-In one of the only paid writing gigs I got, I was sent by the city of Obama to to a promotional travel piece for them.  This was the first I'd been spent time with people other my daughter or a few close friends. and a day after returning home, I received word that the guy who'd led me around for two days had been in close contact with three people who'd tested positive for the virus.  He was negative, and of course I was, but I was a little shaken by this close encounter.  It was like the character in a war film who comes unscathed out of intense combat to find to find a bullet hole in his helmet. 

-Waiting for an attractive girl to pull down here mask is like The Dance of the Seven Veils.

-The first time I go out with a group of masked Japanese, it dawns on me just how much of Japanese expression involves the mouth.  The eyes reveal little.

-The new Japanese bow, bending forward to lower the forehead to thermometer guns. 
-These days feel a bit like the early days of AIDS.  Meeting a friend is like doing a pick-up at a singles bar: you don't know where that person has been.
-Feeling like Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, trying to make sure my daughter is happy and maintains a decent quality of life.   Obviously this is of a completely different scale, and let's hope I don't get shot at the end.    

-The Go To Travel campaign may as well be called CoVid Kizuna, harmoniously spreading the virus throughout the entire nation.

-We refer to hindsight as 2020, but I can't think of a year when I've lived so much in the present, unable as we are were to make any solid plans.
And at year's end, I still haven't seen my wife since February 7, though we've made a few attempts.  And with the rapid rise in cases, guide work in the spring seems less and less likely...
On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1976-07-12, Orpheum Theater" 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Sunday Papers: Yi Sang


"The few who force themselves to walk in this city are the holy philosophers, contemptuously glaring at capitalism and the ending of a century."

 --(on Tokyo, 1936)


On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "1971-11-07, Harding Theater, SF"

Thursday, December 24, 2020




Double-helix of steam
Rises from my coffee,
DNA of the day ahead.
On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "1973-06-24 Portland Memorial Coliseum"

Tuesday, December 22, 2020



Upon an arboreal carpet
Drops listlessly drift.
Can it be snow?
On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1973-09-08 Nassau Coliseum"

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sunday Papers: Steven Soderbergh

"I always speak French around the end of the year because it makes being rude sound so cool!"

On the turntable:  Muddy waters, "28 Great Blues Songs"

Friday, December 18, 2020



                                   Shinadani’s Treasures
                             Lay scattered on the ground
                                      Crimson and gold.

On the turntable: Mudcrutch, "Mudcrutch " 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Die Shizen

Anti-litter signs litter the path...

On the turntable:  Can, "Tago Mago"

Monday, December 14, 2020




Crumbling forest canopy
Softens my footfalls;
 All under the Buddha’s stone gaze.
On the turntable:  Capsule, "Player" 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Sunday Papers: Matsumoto Toshio


Kyoto. A city drenched in the rain of old memories.


On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1972-03-26 Academy of Music, New York, NY"


Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Deep Kyoto Video Walks


Strolling on the Path of Philosophy with Robert Yellin. An excerpt from the Deep Kyoto Walks anthology.

Robert's gallery has since moved to a new location. Details at:

On the turntable:  The Springfields, "Folk Songs from the Hills" 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Sunday Papers: Woody Allen

"Real life is fine for those who can't do any better."

On the turntable: China Crisis, "Diary of a Hollow Horse"

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Deep Kyoto Paperback Release



I'm very pleased to announce that the paperbook version of Deep Kyoto Walks has been released. As Michael Lambe writes:

"I am delighted to announce the release of Deep Kyoto: Walks as a paperback edition. This is a print on demand (POD) edition and has been independently produced via Amazon’s Direct Publishing service. Here are the details:

Deep Kyoto: Walks
Publisher: Deep Kyoto
ISBN: 979-8561499616
Price: $15.99 / ¥1,840
Available from:,, and

Editors: Michael Lambe & Ted Taylor
Authors: Jennifer Louise Teeter, Bridget Scott, Miki Matsumoto, Robert Yellin, Pico Iyer, Chris Rowthorn, John Dougill, John Ashburne, Stephen Henry Gill, Sanborn Brown, Joel Stewart, Izumi Texidor-Hirai, Perrin Lindelauf and Judith Clancy.

Here’s the official blurb:

An anthology of 18 meditative strolls in Japan’s ancient capital, Deep Kyoto: Walks is both a tribute to life in the city of “Purple Hills and Crystal Streams”, and a testament to the art of contemplative city walking. In a series of rambles that express each writer’s intimate relationship with the city, they take you not only to the most famous shrines and temples, but also to those backstreets of memory where personal history and the greater story of the city intersect. Join Pico Iyer, Judith Clancy, Chris Rowthorn, John Dougill, Robert Yellin, John Ashburne and more as they explore markets and mountains, bars and gardens, palaces and pagodas and show us Kyoto afresh through the eyes of those who call it “home”. Included are:

18 walks
17 photographic illustrations
A specially commissioned woodblock print by Richard Steiner
12 detailed maps
Cover Art by internationally acclaimed artist Sarah Brayer

The e-book edition of Deep Kyoto: Walks has been available since 2014 and has received many fine reviews. The text of the new paperback is essentially the same as that of the e-book, but some typos and errors present in the digital text have now been corrected for the print edition. In addition, while the text of the e-book includes color photographs, this was not possible for the paperback which is in black and white. Happily, all the photographs have turned out very well in black and white and the paperback also has one extra image (courtesy of Ted Taylor). Moreover, the glorious cover by Yutaka Nakayama is still in color, and Richard Steiner’s “Abiding” print is also reproduced in color on the back cover.

The completion of this project is due in large part to the tireless work of our designer and technical maestro Rick Elizaga to whom I offer my eternal gratitude. Many thanks also to all the contributors for taking part in this project and making this a very splendid book! Order now to get it on time for Christmas!"
On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1971-04-06 Fillmore East"