Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown XV


We had three days ahead of us and blue skies overhead. At an early hour, we found ourselves yet again walking away from Ishiyama-dera Station. This being the Shiga suburbs, it didn't take us long to lose the trail, always marked at annoyingly random intervals. (I said once again how I wanted to write a letter to the parks department, and this time Miki might actually hold me to it.) Despite walking lost between cookie-cutter houses, we made our way toward the tall hotels farther off, knowing they marked Nango Onsen and the bridge that would take us east across the river. The houses fell away quickly and we were soon on a farmroad that shook with every passing truck. The mountains weren't too far off and we were on them quickly. This area is known by the hopeful moniker of "Konan Alps", thought we found out later that this name referred only to the two low hills that rose to our left like perfectly shaped breasts. The figure of a lone hiker leaning into a stick was making his way slowly and gingerly up their steep sloped sides. The trail we were on was lovely, leading us along a stream. Just past a small Fudo Statue, a trio of waterfalls splashed their way down a series of huge boulders. We found a spot between them and tucked into our riceballs. Three old women suddenly came out of nowhere and complimented us on our perfect picnic spot. We surrendered it soon afterward and began to really climb, higher into the wilder and unspoiled reaches above.


At the top was Fudo-ji, and our approach was marked by more Fudo statues. One had a freakish gaze which followed us as we passed between the make-shift torii arch that serves as the barrier between the land of the living and the metaphoric land of death that belongs to Shugendo. The mountains where the yamabushi play are always marked by a certain quality. There's always the same sort of wind, the same sort of chill and darkness, with the clouds hemming in low overhead, and tree roots pushing up from the earth hazardously underfoot. This path is well-trod, sunken below the rest of the forest. The bird song, what little there is, sounds like a rusty gate. The temple grounds themselves are sparse, a few small structures, nearly windowless and lacking the frills and varnish of moneyed city temples. There are no patrons here, only hard training. Behind a small Jizo, a tiny ghoulish stone figure squats, and waits. We move up a set of stone stairs to an open area below high, swaying trees. A single figure of Fudo stands at one end, and upon our approach, he is lit up by a single beam of light from between briefly parting clouds. We have been accepted. Yet behind him too, nearly impercievable in the cliff face, is an older, more sinister Fudo, who scowls. There is some sort of duality going on here that is unsettling. Marking the furthest reaches of this open space is a cypress that is simply massive, stretching hundreds of feet up, with branches wind-shorn into an ironic bonsai. Shugendo is a sect strongly forbidden to women yet here on the grounds is a small shrine for preventing health issues specific to that gender. Nearby is a well named after a legendary dragon, and beyond that a path closed to all but those who lie down in this mountain. We find ourselves winded by a steep flight of stairs which we climb to the Hondo. It too is dark and dirty, thrusting out over the abyss and fastened to the cliff face by strong pillars and stronger faith. Whatever deity that is housed here (Fudo or Zao Gongen most likely) is hidden from us by the dark. We wander a little outside, pushing finally through a narrow gap in the rocks. Reborn once again, we descend sharply toward our world...


...which is sunny again. We follow the road awhile along a creek that flows through the grounds of the Shinji Shumeikai Sect, owners of the Miho Musuem which lies just beyond that hill to our east. The trail takes us onto their property at Misuji-no-taki Falls, dropping beautifully into fast moving water. A short ways away is a small farm collective, with a few farmhouses built in the traditional thatch style, yet completely refurbished within. We poke around some, and after awhile a young women comes over to chat, curious yet openly friendly in a way that members of these new religions tend to be. We move into the village proper now, older by centuries, then up a nice patch of forest. A half hour later it begins to widen, and Miki says, "Civilization again." Yet all I see is a hillside torn away, and the yellow machines that are responsible. We follow the narrow muddy potholed dirt road that led them here. Over the course of the day, we'll encounter three such roads, which seem to go on forever and offer little in the way of scenery. While I respect the fact those who designed this Shizen Hodo opted to use existing trails, I wish they'd been a little more creative in their choices. Close to half seems to be along roads such as this or down their paved, faster cousins. The trail markers here in Shiga are the worst of any prefecture. Most are old, and are quite dubious in which direction they are pointing. Despite them, we finally reached another village, gratefully grabbed a warm tea, then climbed into forest again. At the top of this particular rise were the ruins of Shigaraki Gushi, pronounced the capital in 745 by the impulsive Emperor Shomu. (The capital returned to Heian within the year.) Stones spread throughout the forest, marking the foundations of the cypress beams that had probably been contemporaries of the giant we'd encountered up at Fudo-ji. We stood up here amongst these remaining wisps of history, in a forest lonely but peaceful. Dropping down again, to meet the road at the Safari Museum(!), now closed. Dusk was falling and the wind, strong all day, was picking up. I'd been cold for hours so was thrilled when, upon approaching the platform, a train pulled up, saving us over an hour's wait 'til the next one on this quiet line.


We got off the train at another lonely platform, surrounded by fields and not much else. The hill directly in front of us was flicking with Christmas lights. We had reservations for a small inn out here, and had little idea which way to go, but the owner had earlier assured us that we'd know. We headed toward the lights. The owner of Oishi Minshiku was standing out front, having had some sort of premonition (or at least an idea of the train schedule). "I wasn't sure whether you were coming." He showed us to our room in an adjacent building. It was two adjoining rooms, both tiny, and at first I guessed that this was a renovated love hotel. We later found out that it was a dormitory for his apprentices. Oishi-san(?) was a potter and a wood-carver who'd once lived in Osaka, but had moved out to these wilds 17 years ago. His temperament as an artist was apparent in the inn's design, of a few rambling buildings completely littered with artwork both classic and cheesy. His pottery and woodwork were simply everywhere. On the hill behind the inn was an outdoor hot spring, which he offered to let us use, but he'd have to get it ready. Taking the hint, we said, "No, no, the bath in our room is fine." A smile of relief crossed his face as he turned, his ponytail bobbing its way toward the kitchen and the pressing business of dinner. I'd found his inn online and had wanted to stay here for the food. Oishi was also a hunter, and whatever he'd recently shot would be our meal. Today we had slices of frozen deer, katsuo sashimi, and thin sliced wild boar. The latter was to be eaten shabu shabu style. I was worried both karmically (as recently my anxiety about meeting one in the wild seems to be growing weekly) and gastronomically (not wanting to be weighted down by digesting meat during the following day's hike). Unlike the heavier, oilier botan nabe, this meat was really light, due to the fact that he'd raised the animal himself. His traps are especially small, letting him trap only adolescent hogs, which he'd fatten for three years to around 60kg, making for some tender and tasty meat. (There were apparently 17 more inoshishi on the grounds here.) The meat from a single boar would last around one week, and could last longer except that the internal organs are too smelly to be eaten by anything but his dogs. Alcohol seemed to be on the house tonight and flowed freely. We were the only guests, and besides the omnipresent TV, the only entertainment for the night. He was a funky guy with his own way of thinking, which entertained us as well. Written on the board above him are all the different types of game that he was able to prepare. (I believe another trip out here is necessary.) He told us how business had been off since the new bypass was built. "Most folks just come out for a quick golf game or a look at some pottery, then head home." As if to emphasize this, the news on the TV was mentioning that this had been the first day that highway tolls had been reduced to 1000 yen, and that traffic was triple the average. Some folks had driven all the way to Shikoku just for lunch, then returned home. Miki and the owner clucked their tongues, saying how ridiculous that the government talked "Eco-this" and "Eco-that," yet would create measures which ensured waste by encouraging more mindless, sheep-like consumerism. With this, we pushed ourselves off the wolf-skins upon which we'd been sitting and waddled toward bath and bed.


The train back to the trail left before eight. Oishi had woken us early, fed us, and even let us make some rice balls for lunch. He was a real delight and I hope to go back. (As should you. Oishi is atop this list.) We picked up the trail again, climbing a steep set of stairs into beautiful soft light. Miki and I are early risers but rarely make it out this early since we are usually on a train making our way toward a trailhead. It is a bit lame to call light delicious, but it was, and I miss those days of solo travel when I'd break camp at dawn and set out. (I look forward to seeing more of this light come summer.) The trail went over this low peak and descended again, alongside a creek. We passed a few shrines during the morning, most being little more than a rope or a stone marking a huge tree. The animist element of Shinto was alive and kicking out here. The next village was about a dozen homes spread out along a wide valley. This rare acceptance of space is unusual for Japan. Each home was huge and far away from the others. I could imagine the villagers coming together for festivals, gathering at the town hall, which stood just in front of the rice paddy where we sat and enjoyed some trail mix. We climbed out of the village into some real forest, dark and wild. The trail led through a small tunnel cut into a narrow bank of earth, passing between a few high lakes. Atop the next peak we had a wonderful view of space stretching away toward some high, wild looking peaks out west. (I'd later realize that we were now looking at the remainder of the day's walk.) It was rare to look out at this much...nothing. None of the usual concrete eyesores or power lines scarring the sky. The villages too were few, the green of trees ever-present. What we'd descend toward in a few minutes was the border of modern Shiga and Mie Prefectures. But in older times, this line bisected the towns of Iga and Koga. Both were traditionally the strongholds of the ninja. These ninja clans are mysterious in origin, thought by some to be remnants of defeated warriors, either of the dethroned Taira, or of the T'ang who'd fled China a couple centuries before. Or they could simply be former yamabushi who'd given up their mountain training grounds for a more settled existence of farming or esoteric Buddhist espionage. Either way, it was easy to see how the vastness of the forest below us would appeal to someone looking to be anonymous. We moved through the day, criss-crossing this border. The forest was filled with Spring, of new flowers, of bees, birdsong, and the voices of frogs. We moved along fencing designed to keep out the boars. It was creepy to pass through a gate between the safe village-side and the outer, unprotected barricades. It added to the whole medieval feel of things. Being this close to the pottery center of Shigaraki, it was natural that some of these villages had a kiln. Smoke rising from forged weapons could therefore be easily disguised as pots firing. We found ourselves moving through a Mie-ken relatively untouched, along a trail system which didn't rise or fall much, proving to be built more to traverse an area with ease and a certain amount of speed. In fact, we hadn't expected to go this far in one day. As the morning turned to afternoon, we realized that we wouldn't need our hotel reservation for the night, and that we wouldn't have any more hike to do tomorrow. For us, the trail stopped just below where those high ominous peaks shot straight up. They would keep. In their shadow was Tsuge Station, and a reasonably short ride back to Kyoto. We'd get there before dusk, to settle in with a DVD--Princess Mononoke, reminding us of where we'd come from.


On the turntable: Ryukyu Underground, "An Evening with Ryukyu Underground"

On the night table: Will Ferguson, "Hokkaido Hitchhike Blues"

On the reel table: "Gandhi" (Attenborough, 1982)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

That cat's name is Maceo


On the train this week, was a mentally handicapped guy who looked just like Kodo's Oda Yosuke. He was sitting there in the priority seats, tapping his feet and singing quite exuberantly, with huge expressive eyes. His voice had all the gravel and shriek of James Brown. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I toggled over to some instrumental tunes by the JBs, took one bud out of my ear and had my own private Funk Party. All the way to Kyoto, there was Oda Yosuke, boogying along with Fred and the gang, right there on the Kintetsu line...


On the turntable: Lucille Brogan, "The Complete Recorded Works"
On the nighttable: Yoda/Alt, "Yokai Attack!"
On the reel table: "Gion Bayashi" (Mizoguchi, 1953)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Omizu-okuri


It was Monday, and we were driving above a fast river, wheels pointed north. High mountains loomed at the head of the valley, looking quite smart in their winter outfits, in obvious emulation of their older Himalayan siblings. The look was accessorized with the rustic temples clinging to the hillsides, clumps of snow piled in their shadows. A grove of well-lined cedars lined the banks of the river. At one bend, a whole section of them had slipped into the water, taking out a large section of road in the process. The shabby makeshift bridge built nearby added further color to an already remote scene.


We arrived at Jingu-ji just before dark. Any temples with this moniker are the last remnants of the old Shinto-Buddhist connection which nearly became extinct with the coming of Meiji. This Jingu-ji, just south of Obama city, is perhaps the most famous, and is host to the Omizu-okuri festival every March 2nd. An acquaintance had a home just below the temple, and after a warming cup of tea in front of the Franklin stove, we walked out into the cold night. A few hundred people were gearing up, standing in front of the temple. A couple sections had been roped off, and at their centers a large pile of logs had been stacked, covered over by their soft needles. The air in this mountain valley was clear and revealed many stars, a crescent moon. Chanting had been going on for some time, punctuated by the occasional bellow of a conch shell. At seven, a bright light appeared within the main hall of the temple, and suddenly, a man shrouded in white appeared from within, carrying a massive fireball, which looked like a two meter smudge of sage lit aflame. Fire roared up into the rafters, brushing the curtains and punching out at the crowd. It's incredible that the whole place didn't go up. These shrouded men (covered head to toe in white and looking a little too similar to Klansmen) were accompanied by an entourage of yamabushi, who ran through a series of chants and mudras, twirling swords and axes, and even shooting arrows dangerously into the crowd. Then the pyre was lit, flames quickly shooting 10 meters up, in a swirling attempt to touch the stars. (Watching the upper limits of a fire this size and the shapes it makes reveals why we say "tongues of flame.") The wind was down, but the heat was belching up an incredible amount of sparks, going up like fireworks and coming down like grey snow. The heat also sent up sections of cypress needles the size of human hands, which would twirl slowly and teasingly like a bully, to fall down over the crowd whose collective volume would increase with their fear. The shrouded men brought the flaming bush back out through the crowd, who due to the heat began to push back, creating a dangerous chain reaction where the lot of us were collectively heaved backward, like the undulating movement of fire, of water. I knew then why I'd been warned not to wear my fleece hat. The fireball was carried down toward the river, and the crowd began to move toward the pyre left behind to light the goma sticks we carried. These were a length of thick rope tied together with four sticks of gomagi (a word that Ken Rodgers tells me has Indian roots). The crowd was still dangerously pushing, but this time toward the flames. Like everyone else, I fended for balance, until I noticed some open space to my right, so pushed my way out of the crowd. The was no perimeter to keep us in, and I couldn't figure out why everyone stayed herded together like that. I walked easily toward a small building which upon closer view contained an old well cut into the forest floor. This was the source of the water drawn earlier that had been purified by the flame. I took a sip. Very sweet. There was a huge tree just in front, its trunk old and twisted and swirling in the opposite direction than the flames had earlier on. Pure shamanistic magic this. Miki and our friends found me here, Juri leaning in close to the tree, sticking her face into a hollow knot like a deep kiss.


We then lit our gomaki from the incredibly hot embers in front of the tree and followed the crowds down the steps and alongside the river. What I saw before me was hundreds of people stretched down the river carrying torches as if looking for Frankenstein's monster. The yoga teacher in me suggests a more spiritual metaphor, of people using this sacred fire to light up the dark places of the soul, in order to root out the beasties that lurk there. But I know that the majority of the people here were taking part in this event for less serious reasons. And why not, there were snacks and cold beer waiting back on the tour bus. Our own group of a dozen had once again found each other somehow. Two of our friends had wrapped themselves in white cloth in protection from the heat, and we quickly dubbed them the Zoroastrians. We all followed the crowd upriver. I was amazed at how careless people were, considering they had 20cm flames extending from their outstretched arms. They'd turn quickly to shoot photos, or suddenly change direction. Beside minding both flanks, you had to take care not to trod on the many pieces of wood which had fallen to the ground and were still lit. Along the sides of the path were iron pots set up for people to drop their torches into. The further we'd go, the more had collected, the cumulative flames getting higher and higher. Miki and I laughed at one middle-aged woman looking quite panicked as the flames burned closer to her hand. Another man with an even shorter torch walked very deliberately. My own had burned pretty fast, and when the flame was about 15 inches, I mock run, holding my flame aloft like it's the Olympic torch. When it got down to 8 inches, I'm running for real, wanting to take this to the end, not wanting to add my flame to the others littering the road, which by now looks out of the Paris riots of '68. And how much this is like how we live our lives, trying to burn, burn, burn, trying to draw the energy out of every endeavor, and refusing to give up before those around us. Yet our flames will burn out when they will, and for those whose lives burn out of control, there's always the choice to let go, be it the literal corporeal release of suicide, or opting for the more peaceful (though challenging) path of transcendence, where we get to keep our flesh, yet must alter our relationship with it. I finally reach the end to find the crowd slowly funneling through a Torii arch and down a path to the river's bank. I mentally yell at them to let me pass, to let me add my fire to that already burning high and hot beside the water. Then I suddenly realize that we were never meant to carry them that far, and I extinguish my torch in a pail of water. I move with the crowd to the fireside, where the yamabushi are carrying out more rituals. They then cross a bridge to the other side of the river, where the head priest pours the purified water into the fast moving current. From here, an underground stream will carry the water to Nara's Nigatsudo where a similar ceremony will take place on March 13. The water will have moved along a ley line that takes it past Kurama, Kamigamo, Shimogama, Jonangu, and beyond Nara to the sacred sites further on, Tenkawa, Kumano Hongu, marking the coming of spring, as it has for 1300 years. We watch awhile the rushing water tinted red by fire. Then we turn and slowly head back down river. Like fire, like water, and like Spring, always returning.



On the turntable: Kokoo, "Super Nova"

On the nighttable: Swami Buddhananda, "Moola Bandha: The Master Key"

On the reel table: "A Man Called Horse" (Silverstein, 1970)


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Westbound II (One for Nanao)


It was a beautiful day, very clear, very warm. We biked along a gradual slope, which led us between and around the small bamboo laden hills that dot the northern part of Kyoto. Out along a small creek, feeding the fields still sleeping away the winter season. Above one field, we saw a huge banner of Kokopelli, dancing in the soft breeze. This must be the place. Today, Wakusei Gakk o was hosting a memorial service for Nanao Sakaki. It was supposed to have started at 10, and despite our showing up a half hour past that time, preparations were still going on, mainly in the form of lighting fires and chopping wood. A few people were busy getting lunch ready. We all milled around, chatting quietly and respectfully. A small altar had been erected in the southeast corner of the yard, with a few pieces of fruit, some branches and flowers, a cup of something. One man with a beard and long ponytail knelt before it offering prayers. The rest of us stood silently, watching. The man began to play his handmade dulcimer softly, meditatively. After a few more prayers, he sang a song on his guitar, dancing back and forth in a rocking folksy style. Lastly, he picked up a long branch which looked like an unstrung bow, blew on it a few times, then stated in a loud voice that this wasn't a weapon, and that those of us gathered were lovers of peace. He threw the branch on a small fire, then followed it with some pieces of food, some water. Finished now, he stood back up and yelled at the sky, "Nanao, Omedet ō!" The rest of us did likewise, applauding and yelling our congratulations into the air.


People began to move into the school. One long wall was covered with dozens of photos, some with, or taken by, Gary Snyder or Allan Ginsberg. Gary's reading here in 1988 was where that flying Kokopelli had come from. Below the photos were tables covered with programs of former poetry readings, plus some handwritten letters and poems from Nanao. At the center of things was a small altar, and beside it were a few possessions, his jacket, his hat, his rucksack, his sandals. For a man who had stirred up so much dust, he certainly had small feet. At the back of the room was a stage. The rest of the day would be spent in poetry and song, capped off by a screening of an old Suwanose film from the old days. It looked to be a good time. Yet it was too nice outside. Giving it some thought, Miki and I decided to get out and honor it, and Nanao, in a way that he would have appreciated. Saying a quick goodbye to friends, we stepped out into the sun, and began to walk Earth A.




We followed the Tokai Hodo through the hills marking the western edge of Arashiyama, dotted with many small temples. Happily, we ran into few people out here, despite the good weather. We were reminded that we shared our walk with other living things, in the form of a sign in a public toilet telling to beware of Vipers. No surprise since they love the bamboo groves that striate the hills out here. Above one grove, we found a small Obaku temple, standing lonely and forlorn at the top of uneven stone steps which looked like broken teeth. The main hall was a zendo, the inside perimeter dotted with zafu. An "enlightenment stick" leaned against one of the pillars. In such a haunted locale, one could only imagine the severity of the training here. Not far away we followed the trail, ever marked by bamboo, up to a small pass where we rested with tea. Behind us, a new suburb had sprouted. A stone walkway led through it, following a creek which flowed between the cookie cutter homes here. If you've read this far, you know how I feel about suburbs, but this place had done well in honoring the surrounding hills and keeping a semblance of green. The rest of the day was spent moving along the groves famed for their persimmons, then on into deeper forest. In the fading light, we came to Oharano Jinja, built with some connection to the Imperial Family. At the front of the main shrine were the usual A-Un figures, this time in the form of deer, the open mouthed one to the right with a scroll in it's mouth (I wonder if Ojisan Jake can shed some light on why.) A bizarre end to the day, winding up in a place built in honor of the Imperial Family, whose deification led directly to the disllusionment of a young soldier, who, finding no place amongst such ways of thinking, opted simply to "Walk On."



On the turntable: "Boycott Rhythm Machine"


Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sunday papers: Suzuki Shunryu

“We fall down by the ground, and we also stand up by the ground.”



On the turntable: Art Pepper, "Lost Life"

On the nighttable: Shiga Naoya, "A Dark Nights Passage"