Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Mitsuhide's Road to Infamy, Part III



Not far beyond Kami-Katsura station is Goryo-Jinja.  There are a number of these shrines around Japan, usually dedicated to appeasing restless spirits.  The most famous of course is in the north of Kyoto, where the Onin War broke out.  There is no telling if Mitsuhide stopped here to pray to his ancestors for guidance, as he was now only about 90 minutes away from his target.  And perhaps his spirit too has now been added to the pantheon of those who died in misery in this world.  

This little spur of road was lined with old houses dating back to the Edō Period, low and squat and with the tell-tale false second floor.  I hit Gōjō Boulevard at an angle, which outside the city takes another form as the Sanin-dō, stretching along the Sea of Japan to the grand Izumo Shrine, and beyond. 

Before long I cross the Katsura river.  There had probably been a bridge here in Mitsuhide's day, for ferry crossings would have very time consuming, if not impossible in the pre-dawn hour. The river now is a shadow of what it must've once been.  Dozens of old farmers have staked out grids on which to grow vegetables, at the moment winter grow: Chinese cabbage, daikon.  The snowy head of Mt. Atago promises a steady supply of water.     

My own passage across is accompanied by the consistant hiss of traffic. One landmark Mitsuhide certainly didn't have was the rail line, which allowed me to cut diagonally across the city on a small lane that shadowed it.  That begs the question:  How did Nobunaga's guard not notice an army marching into the city?  These troops had been ordered to assist Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the siege of Takamatsu, but Mitsuhide's men were marching the wrong direction.  Did they enter in dribs and drabs so as to avoid suspicion? Knowing the mindset of the day, they probably came in as a single body, with all the accompanying pomp and circumstance.  This would have been spurred on by Mitsuhide's pronouncement while crossing the Katsura, "The enemy awaits at Honnō-ji!"




On the turntable:  Ahmad Jamal, "The Best of Ahmad Jamal"

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday Papers: Richard Holmes

"What's it all about then?  Is man merely what he appears to be to the astronomer, a puny piece of impure carbon and water, an impotent insect inhabiting an insignificant planet?  Or is he what he appears to be to Hamlet: noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals?  Or is he both? Is there really a way of life that is noble and another that is vile, or are all ways of living merely futile?  And must what is good also be eternal in order to be considered worthwhile, or is it worth striving for even if the universe is expanding inexorably towards its own extinction?"

On the turntable:  Miles Davis, " Theater Street St. Denis 1983-07-07"

Friday, March 26, 2021

Mitsuhide's Road to Infamy, Part II



A later look at the map shows something called the Akechi-goe passing through the hills north of the Hozo-kyo gorge.  Could this have been Akechi Mitsuhide's route?  It makes some sense, as it travels along the foothills of Atago-san, and Mitsuhide may have detoured to the summit in order to pray at the shrine there. I decide to follow this route to see if I can find any other clues.     

It is a month after my previous hike, the snows long gone, but the wind still blowing cold.  I'd allowed myself to get distracted by a few things as I left the house, and thus forgot to bring a jacket.  But I was wearing a few layers, the forecast was for warmth, and I figured that I'd heat up on the climb anyway.  What I hadn't counted on are the icy blasts that are my sole focus as I shiver across the wide flyover crossing the Hozugawa. The eastern skies have a long thick duvet of cirrocumulus clouds.  Early warning of the rain to come tomorrow. 

I find some relief in the old village on the opposite side whose narrow lanes acted as a windbreak. It is a beautiful morning, the sky completely clear, and the sakura buds mere days from opening. Some of the larger homes have rather expansive grounds, framed by earthen walls.  A handful of thatched roofs stand steadfast, towering above the rest. 

I begin to climb.  The trail is well trod, carved from the forest floor by centuries of sandals, be they worn by pilgrim or samurai. I come across a number of information signs, which when scanned by QR reader, offer some of the very hints I've been looking for.  A low stone wall is all that remains of the Mine-no-dō hermitage, where the 9th century Emperor Seiwa spent the remainder of his short life, taking tonsure after ceding the throne to his 5 year-old son.  In later years this hall took on the moniker, "The Hall of Remorse," as it was a popular spot for Mitsuhide to survey his domain, and perhaps his spirit lingers, in atonement for his lofty ambitions.   Further on, the Doyō no Reisen spring is said to provide cold water in even the hottest months. 

It is sunny along the ridge.  I have an odd moment when I think I hear voices.  Ghosts of Mitsuhide's fallen warriors? A few moments later I overtake another hiker, and ask him if he is with a companion.  He is solo, but when I mention the voices, he says that it was indeed him, talking to himself as is common with his age group.  

Fine views of Atago open to my left.  As I begin the steep descent, a lizard and I startle each other.  Even this early in March, the reptiles are awake.  I bring my eyeline more toward my footing, which shuffle down the V-shaped gully that serves as trail, through the leaves of autumn that never got the snows necessary to decompose.  

The trail finally levels out, first as a logging road, then joins the surfaced tarmac that leads to the valleys and villages just coming alive with spring.  A quick moving stream is my companion all the way to the Hozōkyo.  Minutes after climbing atop the bridge that multitasks as the rail platform, my train pulls in. I'm soon whisked away, as flat bottomed tourist boats trace the S-curves of water below.  

Equally less than straight-forward are any conclusions about Mitsuhide's actual path that May day in 1577.  I'll stick to assumptions that he did indeed visit Atago, but this leads to the bigger question of where did he go from there?  There is a trail climbing into the mountains that eventually meets the Karato-goe, which would in fact connect both routes, proving both theories correct. Or perhaps in the interest of speed he split his forces, sending some along the Karato-goe.   Most likely he would have followed an old trail down at the Hozō river's edge, or perhaps just followed the valley that leads past Saihō-ji, the famous moss temple.  

Japan usually makes things easy for the historically minded, with their copious approach to documentation.  It is somewhat surprising that mystery lingers in such an important event.  Yet another cultural trait is to cover up a bad smell, so the records have probably long ago been destroyed.  

But we do know what happened next...  



On the turntable: Neil Young, "Decade"


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Sunday Papers: Jack Kerouac


“All of life is a foreign country"


On the turntable: The Groundhogs, "Groundhog Night"

Friday, March 19, 2021

Mitsuhide's Road to Infamy, Part I



I wrote last year about the Akechi Mitsuhide's attempted flight after the assassination of Oda Nobunaga.  Since writing that piece, I learned of a hiking trail that supposedly traces the route that he and his men followed into Kyoto.  This fact haunts me through the winter, and the morning after the year's heaviest snowfall, I make my move.     

Leaving the ruins of his Kameyama castle, I trace a straight line through the historical part of Kameoka. Then and now, this was the Sanin Kaidō.  I walked the old highway out of Kyoto thirteen years ago, though I'd mistakenly followed the busy Route 9 rather than the true road through Mitsuhide's old castle town.  Route markers have improved, making it easy to follow. 

The more attractive parts are north and west of the castle, but this section still holds charm. There are plenty of old sake breweries, which makes me wonder if Mitsuhide's hair-brained scheme came up while under the influence.   Traditional Edo Period homes line the way, though the further along I go the greater the colonization by suburb. Stone lanterns bearing the kanji for Atago-san suggest that pilgrims too preferred this route.   Today, the road has a little too much automobile traffic for my liking, so am happy when I cross a small river and move toward the hills.

I am led straight to a familiar friend, Hōsen-ji, where I used to practice Zen back in the previous century.  I always enjoyed the quality and balance of training here, and would drop in for a few days at a time every three months or so, in order to supplement the weekly sittings up in Yonago.  I see they've built a new zendo, and the cabins I remember have grown in number.  Around now would be the work period, but all is quiet on this snowy morn, as I move up into the hills.


The land loses color the higher I climb, the slate grey above preventing any shadow.  I top the ridge rather quickly, warm from the exertion, and so pause to take in the mountains rolling toward the north, each one whiter than the last.  Atago-san dominates entirely.  The sound of frequent trains pull my attention downward as I follow the ridge.  Most stop at that odd station built atop the bridge that spans the Hozu-kyō, before being consumed by the tunnels at either end. Before long I too disappear into a tunnel, dropping beneath the branches of overhanging pine.  

Karato peak gives name to this crossing, though I need to divert slightly to get there.  I keep my lunch break short for the wind is too cold for lingering.  The trail grows darker as I move closer to Kyoto, the snow lesser along here.  I stop often to gaze over the city, and imagine Mitsuhide doing the same, growing more apprehensive each time.  

By the time I descend into the bamboo forest near Jizō-in, the snow is gone.  I enter a quiet suburban neighborhood, most notable for a flower shop called Ran, bringing Kurosawa immediately to mind.  Mitsuhide played no part in the film of the same name, but it reveals that betrayal was a common practice back amongst the warlords of his day.

I wonder how far the forest continued when Mitsuhide's came through.  Being the western edge of the Katsuragawa flood plain, all that remained was a simple march into town.





On the turntable: Modest Mussorgsky, "Pictures at an Exhibition"


Sunday, March 14, 2021

Sunday Papers: Roger Deakin

"The great antidote to racism is travel.  If only people would travel more adventurously, they would soon learn the deep respect for other peoples and cultures of the true traveller.  I don't mean tourist but traveller: one who finds himself depending on the goodwill and hospitality of other people--the natural human civility of other people in other countries--and who knows what it is to be a foreigner."

On the turntable:    Miles Davis,  "The Essential"

Friday, March 12, 2021

Scenes along the Road to the Far West


 The town of Yamazaki an interesting mix of Edo, Taisho, and Showa.  The latter is condensed in a shop called Showa TV, well stocked with the obsolete, like a Japanese version of Radio Shack.  In the window of an antique shop stands a trophy, covered in cobwebs. Crossing into the suburbs of the next town, and all charm and signage is lost.

Through the clear morning light, I note snow on Atago.  The bamboo in the hills has more green than it did a week ago.  There's a beauty in my eyes today, awareness drawn to small details.  It is a cinematic way of seeing, perhaps due to viewing Herzog's documentary on Bruce Chatwin before setting out.  

I've done this stretch so many times by train, always finding it ugly.  It's in slowing things down, getting closer to the details, that the beauty comes out.  Eyes also capture fragments, overlapping textures, corners rather than solids.  The way Yamazaki Distillery's "Established 1923" sign hovers over a small stub of a neighborhood.  The way the pink plum blossoms accentuate the grey concrete wall beyond.   

Trains that do roll by are lightly peopled.  The State of Emergency ended days ago, but caution lingers.  

Ancient and enormous kusunoki, ringed in straw, honored as a god.  There's irony in it towering over a temple hall built of beautiful new wood.  Curious the preponderance along here of Nichiren temples, and the abundance of wooden structures.  A kindergarten looks to be a forest lodge; a car dealer ship like a man-cave bungalow. 

Tidy lawn and wrought iron gate before a squat and boxy Showa era nightmare.  Across the road a former kayabuki has been cleverly converted to a windowed loft.  

The road broadens through a post town albeit with the sterility of white bitumin passing underfoot.  The town's shrine tucked away up the hill, its roofs coated with pine needles and debris.    

The sudden sci-fi appearance of the monorail station, life lived high above ground.  

The caretaker of the Kayano Sanpei unwilling to engage.  I sit awhile in the sunshine on the quiet grassy grounds

The surprise in coming across the Minoh Beer brewery, followed by the delight in finding it open.  Then I subsequently float the remaining 30 minutes to the station through a pleasant little bed town. 


Return a week later to Ishibashi Handai-mae Station, only to come out the wrong exit, and thus waste 10 minutes navigating the labyrinthian 'gyoza town' which surrounds it.  I can only imagine the way aroma of garlic must hang in the air during the evening.  

The scents continue, this time of a New York Italian deli lingering over the street of a newish suburb.

Rough and poor looking nagaya.  Two smiley chimpira types dump into their blue truck an tremendous number of bottles from the recycling bins stacked at the head of the lane.   

Detouring into a park that overlooks the runway at Itami.  The airport looks small, and I'm amazed that it once handled all international flights into Osaka.  Rather than orderly Japan, in this scaled down Covid reality, unused planes are spread across the runway as if the airfield of a third world country.  A few old men have cameras primed, massive lenses like tank barrels pointed toward the runway.  I too watch a few planes take off over the proscenium of the city, then with my feet follow their vapor trails west, and south.

Near the old water crossing still stands a shack, the abode of the tinkerer; loads of metal, small appliances litter the grounds.  I imagine his ancestors living in a similar set up, waiting for walkers to come along in need of ferrying.  In the river bed itself are a pair of small dilapidated shrines, as well as an incongruous altar to En-no Gyoza, and a low trio of small statues that may function as graves.  A twin row of deutzia bushes lead me to the water.  A man stands out in the middle of the Muko River, like Jesus when he's off his game.  The day may be unseasonably warm, but I instead detour and take the bridge.  

I guess I'm in Hyogo now, and its bland suburbs do little to focus the mind.  My thoughts traverse time and space, until I regain focus again with a pair of claps before Nishinomiya Shrine, and road's end.


On the turntable:  Neil Young, "Weld"