Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ohara, After Scarlet Leaves


Ohara had been calling my name awhile. I have long wanted to walk its narrow lanes through the fields in falling snow, the increasing white purifying this valley, called by some the Buddhist Pure Land. We settled on a day which brought the season's first feel of winter, all crisp and cold. It felt it would snow, so we set off. We started up at Jakko-in, snugly nestled up in the corner of the forest. The buildings had been rebuilt recently, after the devastating fires which gave a terrible lesson in impermanence. There had always been a strong feeling of melancholy up here, but the new wood and burnt back vegetation suggested openness and light. The pond in the shape of the 'shin' kanji remains, though not the large oak which had shaded it for a thousand years. The jizo statue inside was horribly painted, and although I later heard it was decorated in the exact Kamakura design as its former incarnation, it hardly excused the gaudiness. I chose to turn my back on it, facing instead toward the dead tree, all the while hoping that the light rain would turn to flakes.


We moved down through the valley, beside a stream which led between houses of gorgeous eaves and that rusted benigara hue. At the far end of the village was a grove of three enormous trees, hiding a small shrine that marks the spot where the head of Otsu had been buried centuries before. Once a renowned beauty, she was found to actually be a massive snake and was cut into pieces. Nearby, a group of people were working in a field, the women in long Indian skirts, their children clinging to their backs, or running between the rows, bare blue legs extending from shorts and pumping furiously. We were surprised to run into a few friends, and so after a squat and a chat, we left a bit richer, in hand a bag full of fresh adzuki beans still podded. At the opposite side of the valley, above a another small stream and some old shops, we sat in a park looking across the striated rice fields extending toward striated clouds. Above us were some autumn cherry trees, their few remaining blossoms white and fluffy like the impending flurries the weather seemed to promise. We moved along, past the shops and below a simple pulley system which brought ice cream and other goodies up to people who picnic beneath the cherries on warmer days.


Near the top of the road we turned to enter Sanzen-in. It was pretty quiet today, and we had most of the large tatami rooms to ourselves. A few of the hanging scrolls drew us in, and we'd sit and study them awhile. Moving across squeaky nightingale floors took us further into the temple building, eventually arriving at a small room with a raised dais, colored something like a Tibetan mandala. The wall beside was painted with a single soft stripe, a remarkable control of hues and textures which became a rainbow when the sunlight hit it in a certain way. A friendly monk came up and sat with us awhile, rewarding himself some conversation during a break in the year-end cleaning. We moved out into an area of small forest, between two massive beds of moss, from which small jizo sprouted like mushrooms. The small dark Hondo sat in the middle of the moss, its Buddhist triptych within serenely staring out toward the cedars. One of these giant trees had a trunk like a whale's tail. Another monk sat nearby, nodding off, his head coming precariously close to his desk as he drooped. Not wanting to disturb him, we crept back out in the plush world of moss, moving toward another garden above. In other seasons, this is all all hydrangeas. One can imagine a world of bursting blue, contrasting dramatically with a series of orange bridges over the streams rushing down from Hiei above. Tiny black statues filled the halls and small shelves here, many erected out in the courtyard itself due to the overflow. Due to their size and the way they're displayed, it all looks like the spice rack of the gods.


Moving back down the hill toward the bus stop, stopping for a cup of tea and a look at the sky. The sunlight was contorting itself through the breaks in the clouds, beaming like the halo of the large Amida we'd just left behind. The weather today looked like it would hold. The only swirls we'd see overhead would be the painted maidens gliding gracefully across pale blue ceilings, the notes from their lyres taking shape as the Nembutsu. Merrily we'd dance toward the Pure Land...



On the turntable: Ootaka Shizuru, "Sizzle"

On the nighttable: Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Idiot"

On the reel table: "Down by Law" (Jarmusch, 1986)


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Kumano Prologue III


We picked up the Kumano Kodo, (here still called the Kyo Kaido) at the base of Otokoyama. Leaving the road, we followed a quiet trail through the forest toward Iwashimizu Taisha, above a series of inns which once housed the pilgrims who once stopped here to worship. Today, the inns look well past their expiration dates, rotting slowly back into the damp hillsides. The final ascent before the shrine was up a series of moss-covered stone steps, looking warped in the middle due to generations of footfalls of pilgrims. The main hall had a unique construction, stacked up like one of those Heian period hats that nobles once wore. The slatted box into which worshipper's toss money had chipped paint from a million striking coins. It was colorful place, some of the outer buildings with ornately painted eaves like Korean Buddhist temples. Nearby, a calendar hung, painted the red black and green of the Rasta, and marking this years inauspicious birthyears. This was a unusual place, with interesting statuary, the figures looking more Asian than Japanese. Bare earthen walls ringed the whole site, and in one corner squatted a beautiful storehouse built of stacked logs, protecting the treasures within. The trees overhead were treasures themselves, dwarfing this courtyard with their proud and incredible height. The whole top of this mountain was shaded by tree of sizes rarely seen in Japan anymore. The forests in this country can be breathtaking if left alone. In fact, such beauty goes a long way in restoring my faith in this place. Reading back over my posts of the past-half year, it's apparent that I've lost a lot of faith in my adopted home. Yet in my recent walks, I have been reminded how much beauty still remains, and those feelings of peace that overcome me at such moments are far more powerful, more resonant, than fleeting moments of crankiness which are essentially reactionary. I do indeed love it here, and will long for this beauty once I've gone.

We found a trail and followed it down again through the forest, unsure of our direction but hardly caring. Our feet somehow brought us back to the Kyo Kaido, running here as the main street of a small village, presumably a buraku area due to the predominance of butcher's shops. At the next signal, we reentered the current century. Pressing on now, through apartment block ghettos, a shopping mall, a train station, and a golf course, before finally meeting the Yodogawa again. Turning left, we were a full days walk from Osaka...



On the turntable: Dexter Gordon, "Bouncing with Dex"

On the nighttable: Bert Cardullo, ed., "Akira Kurosawa Interviews"

On the reel table: "An Inn at Tokyo" (Ozu, 1935)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Nanao Sakaki 1923-2008




Time to rest those weary feet.

Thanks for the footprints...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Under the Light


A Korean looking woman with a heavily painted face describes some of the history of this shrine. She tells us that the worship here has been slightly corrupted by Christianity, and that to pray here is a means of alleviating guilt. She is enthusiastic as she prosteletizes, and then just as abruptly as she approached, she moves on. I see her later, leading a group of worshippers that can only belong to one of Japan's New Religions. They stand before Iwabune Jinja's main hall, bowing so deeply that they're nearly 90 degrees. Coming up again, they clapped 4 times, then began to chant a sutra, one hand held out waist high, palm down, as if indicating some kind of measure. Their leader chants on powerfully, and with her Korean features and heavy make-up, she looks shamanistic, ritualistically linking us with the older, wilder beliefs of the Asia mainland, back to a time when the supernatural was the natural. Iwabune gives just that impression, of a harkening back to a spiritual realm, in the days when Asian spirituality was beginning to extend its legs to these islands.


Our own group of five descended into the 'cave', though it was less a cave than a jumble of huge rocks which had come to rest atop one another. Near the entrance, candles burned from small altars and nooks in the stone. It felt like a tomb, all heavy stones and earth, and moving through required us to nimbly balance on wooden slats laid high above quick streams. We had now crossed over to the other realm. Ducking under a large opening, we entered the main chamber, bisected by fast-moving water. This was fed by a small waterfall, and above it was a small shelf, upon which was a stone wrapped in white cloth, representing the main deity. It was dim and hard to make out, but it reminded me of a lingam, which would be a surprise considering that this cave was considered to be the lair of the Sun Goddess, during her days as Japan's first hikikomori. We stayed in here awhile, admiring the quiet and the collection of massive stones perched above us at random and precarious angles. It was easy to get caught up into the magic of this place, with its rich fertility for the creation of folk beliefs. Here on the winter solstice, we too had entered the realm without light. It was just shy of noon, and despite the overcast day, the stone beside the deity was warm with light. Later, at this day's apex, she would fully bask.


To leave the chamber we had to slide legs first through a series of slippery stone openings, representing the onward trip through the birth canal. We joined a stream bed here, moving toward another series of stones upon which we'd have to climb in order to reach the series of altars tucked into the upper reaches barely visible by candle light. Upon these spiritual heights, we alternated sitting quietly and puzzling out some of the deities represented here. Serpents of white and gold were well represented, and someone had symbollically broken an egg on a rock nearby. We stayed until all the candles had burned down. And in the waning light, just an instant before being engulfed by full darkness, we found one last unlit candle, which accepted the flame in a profound rebirth of light. This light guided us toward an exit into the afternoon sun, itself to be reborn tomorrow, beginning the new cycle in the new harvest year.


A light rain was indiscriminately falling, reshaping the ancient stones while shuffling the leaves newly strewn atop them. A group of old men were near the shrine's office, pounding dried straw to later be twisted into next year's Shimenawa. As one of our group remarked, the true folklore lies not in these caves but in these men. We left then to make the short trip to a small hut popular with day-hikers. On the adjacent side of this narrow valley was a sheer rock face, and below it, someone had constructed a synthetic, artificial wall for climbers. (We'd definitely arrived back in modern Japan.) We had a quick bento lunch, surprised by another of our group turning up suddenly, then set to work. As this was an official Hailstones Haiku event, we spent some time putting words to impressions. Back in February and the symbolic end of winter, Moya had visited Ireland's sacred Newgrange with some poets who had composed a couple dozen poems on site. Our job was to answer these with two additional lines, turning haiku into tanka at this, the subsequent winter's birth. Three of us finished early to walk up the valley and across the suspension bridge 180 meters above. We continued on, back down the valley and along the river to the village proper. In the warmth of a cafe, we critiqued one another's work, until the sun actually did set, bringing about a definitive conclusion to the event, the day, the year.



On the turntable: "Victrola Favorites"

On the reel table: "Mystery Train" (Jarmusch, 1989)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And Also the Trees...


Twice this week, I was witness to the hasty amputation of Gingko limbs.  Standing in the middle of the street, to the west was still autumn,  bright yellow leaves an exclamation point to a bright beautiful day.  To the east was winter, gnarled limbs splayed like contorted fingers, reaching up as if screaming,  "Why!?"



On the turntable:  Mannheim Steamroller, "Christmas"

On the reel table:  "Bicycle Thieves"  (De Sica, 1947) 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Layers at the Western Edge


A woman had been singing since a few stations back. It was low, unobtrusive, yet added a sweet subtle melody to accompany the rhythm of a rocking train on a sunny day. As we pulled into Oyamazaki, I brought full focus to her voice, wondering if she'd continue, becoming more conspicuous without the cover of the throbbing of the rails. As we came to a full halt, I distinctly heard it, then quickly realized that what I was hearing was not her voice but the train at the next platform pulling away, humming toward Kyoto in the exact same pitch.


Miki and walked out into this small town, up leaf strewn streets past well-groomed homes. At the top of this meandering road was the Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art. It was housed in a lovely Tudor style home set against the hillside. We wandered the rooms, looking more at the details in the architecture than the works hanging on the walls. There were a few huge fireplaces, fine woodwork on the ceiling and eaves, plus massive windows, many of yellow stained glass making the interior forever 'magic hour.' Much of the furniture equally impressed, in particular one gravity-assisted clock hanging on the staircase. From the upper balcony we could see across to Iwashimizu Tenmangu, and below that the confluence of the Yodo, Uji, and Katsura rivers, where we'd left our Kumano Kodo Prequel walk a couple months ago. Behind the house was a small traditional pond garden, the surface completely littered with fallen maple leaves. This is acclaimed to be one of the best (hidden) places to see autumn colors, but the heavy winds and rain of the past couple days had abruptly closed out the season. We moved next into the large concrete Habitrail tube as designed by Tadao Ando. (I find the man's theory and philosophy to be incredibly inspiring, but I find his work to be pretty redundant. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, "There is none more grey.") Inside was Monet's Water Lillies, the definitive prize of this collection. There was also a Picasso, along with a few others. The theme of the exhibition was "Blue," and I soon found myself humming Joni Mitchell, though not as well as the woman on the train. I sat awhile in a funky right handed chair, looking over at Monet's genius. The frames of all these paintings were masterpieces in their own right, though nowhere was written the names of the people who laboriously carved them.


We moved up through the forest to Houshakuji Temple, where the Kamakura era statues sit in perpetual meditation. Up into the trees again, to a clearing where Hideyoshi celebrated his victory over Akechi Mitsuhide, shortly after the latter had cornered Nobunaga, forcing the latter to perform some impromptu soul searching at dagger's end. We had our lunch here, sitting in the sun amongst the ghosts of long fallen samurai. At the top of the ridge was Sakatoke Shrine, dusty and old, with unusual structures open to the elements. Standing here, I looked into the forest to see a warlord riding up on a white horse. A half second later I realized that it was simply a man in a loud jacket and his wife in a white hat, mimicking exactly the colors of the murals I'd just turned away from. The backdrop and the real forest matched up perfectly, all well disciplined rows of bamboo, mottled with light. Miki and I carried on down the trail. Needing to pee, I stepped a few feet into the forest, but immediately heard voices. Zipping up, I decided to wait, only to find a group of 200(!) hikers coming along the ridge. Miki and I moved on, against the stream, taking quite a few minutes before we were free of them all. We made our decent then, past a mountain biker carrying his machine on his shoulder, working his way up slowly. He was the first biker I've ever seen on trails in Japan.


We reached the road, crossed, and moved through stubbled rice fields. Ice puddles lay untouched by the low winter sun. We soon reached Youkokuji , a lovely complex of buildings standing as the focal point to a well-preserved village. The extent to which things were left untouched shows the pride in tradition that the locals here must have. We spent some time walking up and down the stairs between the buildings, giving ourselves to the atmosphere that flourishes so well in esoteric Buddhist temples. We took some of this magic back into the woods, moving as ever through bamboo. These mountains were alive with--well, simply alive, embodying legends long forgotten. Another, smaller village marked the opposite end of this realm. I can imagine the festivals this place must hold, and the mystical experiences of their centuries-dead residents which gave birth to such rituals. A half dozen houses stood around a tiny temple of a simple structure. Inside was a tremendous wooden Buddha nearly the size of the room itself. Miki and I sat a long while, taken in, taken in. When we were able to move again, we made our way back through more bamboo, slowly reentering the current century, where trains awaited to take us into hyper-modern Osaka and my reading for Four Stories.



On the turntable; Junko Onishi, "Live at the Village Vanguard"

On the reel table: "Go" (Yukisada, 2001)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday papers: J.D. Salinger


"The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."
"Catcher in the Rye"


On the turntable: Cecil Taylor, "Looking Ahead"

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Out of the Past


A woman striding into the room, moving slowly but purposely in her long black coat, with long black stockings tucked into thigh-high black boots, makes me feel...
noirish.


On the turntable:  "Black Mirror"
On the nighttable:  Charles Baudelaire, "Les Fleurs du Mal"

Friday, December 19, 2008

Awalk in Beauty


When I lived in Hong Kong, crossing the harbor on the Star Ferry was the greatest of delights, moving over rough water toward one of the world's greatest skylines. I loved the Lippo Centre, with its pandas climbing straight out of an old Atari game. And I loved I.M. Pei's Bank of China Tower, all those odd angles throwing out some wicked feng shui mojo to its neighboring rivals. I had long heard that Pei's Miho Museum over in Shiga is equally amazing, though softer. It took me a decade, but I finally got there, stumbling on filmatic metaphor the entire way.


It took Markuz, and his sister-in-law, Mie, to make it happen. We climbed into her car for the long and winding drive into a landscape well into autumn, rice fields cropped like 50s haircuts. We left the car and jumped forward 20 years, climbing a gentle rise into a 1970s vision of the future. The walk was made of some synthetic type of brick, over which elongated electric golf carts soundlessly ferried lazier visitors. A handful of gardeners were picking up falling leaves, eerily disappearing behind trees and into shadow like Noh stagehands (or Disneyland workers, if you prefer a more postmodern simile). We entered the tunnel I'd long heard about, my own impression in keeping with the 70s pop cultural theme, remembering Steve Austin moving through a similar spinning passage on his way to meet Bigfoot. Watching other people passing from the tunnel brought to mind the final scene of Close Encounters, small figures passing dazzled into the light. (As this museum is owned by the Shumei religious sect, I think that this too, is a fair simile.) Leaving the tunnel we catch our first glimpse of the museum, like a squat temple of brilliant glass and steel, gorgeous against the hills and forest. From inside, the sound of the wind moving through the valley sounded like a Theramin. Occasionally a young woman who would moved about with a small bell and a placard with the single word, "Silence." Was this a request, or some kind of ironic Dadaist performance?


The exhibition we can to see was of a series of objects owned by Kawabata Yasunari, Nobel Prize winner of Literature. (His Nobel medal itself was here on display.) This man 's life purpose seemed to have been full immersion in beauty. Likewise, all the art and objects around him appeared to have nestled themselves in the deepest corners of his soul, to continually pop up in his writing. Symbiosis complete. Noting all this, I thought him the antithesis of the antihero of Mishima's Kinkakuji, who was so overtaken by the temple's beauty that he had to destroy it. Kawabata instead tried to synthesize with beauty, and his canon is a continual meditation on aesthetics. I found myself inspired, finding love once again in a culture whose blemishes are all I seem able to see these days. Truer, deeper beauty is all around me still, the choice is mine whether or not to see it. To quote Takamura Kotaro:

"Once beauty manifests itself in the world, it never perishes."




On the turntable: The Beta Band, "Best of..."

On the reel table: "Kill Your Idols" (Crary, 2004)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Devolution


(A comment by cjw on this post reminded me of a story.)

Had an interesting moment in Qanat when the escalator stopped suddenly.  The people on the escalator looked around confused, unsure of what to do.  
They're now called stairs folks,  your grandparents loved them.  


On the turntable:  Paul Butterfield Blues Band, "East West"
On the reel table:  "Repo Man"  (Cox, 1983)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Night Out


I'd spent the afternoon with Roger, watching him edit his latest film. I return home to find that no one had made a reservation for my yoga class that night. This was bizarre. A band I'd long wanted to see--Asakusa Jinta--was playing at Taku Taku in little over an hour. (Why are the gigs I hope to see always on Thursday night?) I hadn't wanted to cancel my class, but I suppose that I had put out a negative vibe which everyone picked up on, hence the free evening. I dress for the cold wet night and get on my Vespa. Not surprisingly, it won't start, since I haven't ridden it in four or five months. Just as I'm about to give up, it starts, and I'm off through the rainy streets.


I enter Taku Taku to find the opening band is still on, wrapping up their set. They're a local band, young and handsome and obviously popular with ladies. I find I'm one of the few guys in here. The girls are standing mostly, swaying back and forth to the beat. The way they move is like seagrass, immobile at the roots. On stage the trio is still rockin' on. They've been well honed on their craft, busting out all the classic rock 'n' roll poses and facial expressions. They're dressed like the early Who, the guitarist whaling away on Angus Young's Gibson SG guitar, the bass player keeping time on a loaner from Paul McCartney. For their encore, an older, seemingly more seasoned musician joins them, blatently ignoring the dancing co-eds as he strums his massive bodied ES335. It was like a display of the instruments of 1970s rock gods.


Asakusa Jinta kept up the theme, their guitarist on his double necked Jimmy Page special. He and the rest of the band really ripped, living well up to their hype. Jinta music is a post WWII version of chindon, which musicians played as a means to advertise local shops. In addition to Jimmy Page, the band had a loco tuba player, a hot girl on soprano sax, and a hipster trumpeter, plus what seemed like Les Claypool on bass, furiously slapping and smacking his clear-bodied, stand-up bass. The drummer though was the true engine of the band, keeping a frenetic pace for this ska-punk-klezmer madness. Brilliant!


The show over, I stepped outside, smiling to find the rain had stopped. And so had my Vespa...



(There is a second part to this story, for with the ending of the gig, the night truly began. And I attempted to write it, but a straight narrative can't capture the surrealistic magic feel of the city streets on that cold autumn night. So, I rework it and rework it, thinking it now as a short story. Will post it later if I can get it into a satisfactory form.)



On the turntable: "Celtic Christmas"

On the reel table: "There Will Be Blood" (Andersen, 2008)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Poking Zyra


Joined facebook today.  Boy oh boy are worlds colliding now...



My Morning Jacket, "Z"

Don DeLillo, "The Body Artist"

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I'm Yours, You're Mine


Upon my return to Japan,  I realize that the time remaining in my stay here has dwindled down to the length of human gestation.  Beyond that is a year on the road, a journey that has a certain metaphoric symbolism:  an expression of the freedom of the young man which, at 41, I no longer am.  Recently, what I really long for is the step following, of pitching my yurt with steel cables and settling into the routine of work and grad school and children.  What drives this feeling is, ironically enough, partly material.  I seem to think that once I gather all those internationally scattered possessions of mine,  rejoining them as if they're parts of my self, I will be more complete somehow.  My brother laughs at how when I visit friends, I tend to leave things behind, as if parts of me want to remain in the States.  He is correct in all but scale, since these 'parts of me' are now spread across three continents.  


The Buddhists say that our possessions eventually own us.  I agree, but must rebut using the example of T'ang poet Ou-yang Hsiu,  Confucian minimalist in all but books, the bound evidence of one's memory and intellect.


On the turntable:  Mogwai, "Ten Rapid"

On the reel table:  "The Lower Depths"  (Kurosawa, 1957)