Friday, July 31, 2009
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Everybody on the train looked exhausted. Granted it was a summertime Friday, but it wasn't yet nine in the morning. Even the school kids, off to some sports event, had their bodies slumped onto one another, a far cry from their frenzied ass-grabbing antics that usually annoys the rest of the commuters. With the grated metal window blinds, the Hankyu car looked like it was transporting cattle.
Miki and I both found ourselves with a rare weekday off, the perfect opportunity to finish the Western end of the TSH. We were pretty careless this time around, no checking of bus schedules as usual, and thus found ourselves stuck for 45 minutes in a bland bedroom town, trying to keep at bay both the heat and the accompanying grumpiness. We finally made it out to the base of Ryuōzan just before lunchtime. Depsite the lighter packs, our legs were still carrying the weight of last week. We walked silently along the trail, through a dead landscape of downed trees, corrogated iron rice fields, and wood shards littering the trail. Yep, we were back in Kansai. Machine cluttered farms lined the trail, above perpetual signs of road work and the industrial metal clang coming from further out in the hills. It was as if the world was a film set being constructed. Passing through a heavy anti-boar gate, we came to a small pond whose surface was nearly covered by lilipads. They formed a triangle not too dissimilar than the shape of our rice balls, bisected by the slight trace of where a duck had recently swum across. A beautiful blue bird perched on a low branch, then had a brief pre-lunch dip.
We found a hamlet next, where an old farmwoman snoozed in the shade and a lizard fell from a sheer stone wall with a 'smack!' A small white truck was parked along the next forest road, with more loud banging just beyond. Intending to gather police evidence, I took a photo of the license plate, switched my camera to video, in order to shoot these men as they dumped their trash. To my surprise, the racket they were making was them instead cleaning the forest. Beyond them, middle-aged couples were filling jugs with water spilling from a forest spring. Here the trail gave us our only climb of the day, which seemed to annoy our calves until they were appeased by the level ridge that followed. It was a straight and narrow path, past massive cemeteries and the odd stones marking bigger, more important men. (Are we truly equal after death?) The trail dropped past a large granite TSH marker sitting before a nature center. And here we lost the trail for the first time. There were quite a few paths with different names, which has been our curse since entering Osaka-fu. We chose the one that seemed to match our guide book, following it up a hill until we saw a sign that pointed back the way we'd come, reading, "Start of Tokai Shizen Hōdō, 0.5 km."
Apparently we'd finished about 2 minutes before at that big grey stone. It was the perfectly ironic way to finish, missing the marker as we had done dozens of times before. But it was a major letdown. After 431 km, over 12 months, there were no hugs, no high fives, no moments of relieved smug satisfaction. Instead, we'd marked the occasion with our all too familiar, where the hell is the trail? It is only in my role as a yoga teacher that I can appreciate the perfection here. How often are we focussed on reaching a goal, getting far more caught up in the idea of finishing than in the appreciation of the process. Just this morning, Miki had said she would've been fine not to complete this walk, and she wondered why I'm so attached to my desire to finish. I wonder that too, actually. Today's walk in particular felt spurred on toward its completion, rather than enjoyed. How poetic then, that when we finished, we weren't actually there.
Profoundly disappointed, we moved along toward Minō Waterfall like a couple of deflated balloons. There we stood in the spray, feeling it on our faces, arms out in supplication...
On the turntable: Chet Baker Trio, "The Touch of your Lips"
Friday, July 24, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
We moved quite slowly the next morning, downing canned coffee and showering with a hose.
At six-thirty we started up the fire road where we'd spend most of the morning. Six km later we arrived at the campsite where we'd expected to stay, had yesterday's trail been more cooperative. The vegetation here revealed that we were once again moving toward Kansai. We passed through a community of posh 'second homes' where the vending machines charged 160 yen from a can of tea and the toilets were off limits, then pushed on up to Aoyama Kogen which was flat and open, revealing what we'd spent a day and a half walking over. Ise Bay stretched away to the east. We talked with a man who was gearing up to climb the Chuo Alps this summer. This view was also popular with the motorcyclists who'd ride up, have a smoke, then move along the road to the next view. The map up here showed us five more rest stops in the next 10km. Little did we know that we'd be instead walking the ridge below them, along overgrown trails which forced me to hunch over. The forest here was very active, most of that life airborne. I kept knocking cicadas off branches with my bag, and they'd smack into one of my temples, or both. Worst were those that tried to climb into my ears, their screams like the worst speed metal distortion. It's a wonder I didn't have tinnitus at the end of the day. But worse yet were the trail planners. This stretch was a roller coaster, up and down, up and down, over those stairs that I've come to loathe. There is no apparent benefit that I can see to putting a body through this. A path running parallel to the road would've been fine. Perhaps it was a conspiracy involving local orthopedic knee surgeons. There were some bigger animals up here, deer and rabbits dashing startled through the brush. The ridge was lined by tall windmills, their blades slashing through the air with a roar that caused the whole forest to throb. At the end of the row was a windmill commemorative rest stop with typical self-congratulatory display. "Look what we're doing to the Earth!" It must be the only tourist place in Japan that doesn't have a vending machine, which was sorely missed on this hot day. The reason could be related to their 'eco-conscious' themed signs, but how to explain the sensor-activated electric doors?
The trail now was a gentle ascent through a beautiful stretch of forest. Why ruin it then with the highest, steepest flight of steps leading back up to 800 meters? Erosion made most of them rise from the ground like goal posts, and gravity brought many of them vertical, becoming more ladder than stair. (Later, I noticed that our TSH blogger called then "Hell's Staircase.") I moved toward them laughing, singing Tom Waits' "Straight to the Top" until I was too winded. Then Waits' "Step Right Up" became more apropos. At the top of Kasatoriyama, we met road which descended as a steep concrete strip toward the village of Oyamada. There were quite a few Buna trees up here, a species I'm beginning to much admire. They are the rebels of the Japanese tree world, following their bliss amidst the monotonous straightlaced cedars. I lost interest in them too eventually, as my legs complained about the angle of the slope. I didn't know my knees and calves knew such foul language. I was so far gone that I forgot to be startled by the viper that I nearly stepped on. It was young and cocky, moving toward a rock wall, then turning to look back and mock us, like saying, "I could've had you if I'd wanted." Which begs the question: Do poisonous snakes know they're deadly? If so, how do they figure it out?
We reached the village proper now and sat beside an abandoned shack to the delight of our legs. There was a river beside us, which, if you believe the signs, is teeming with those rare Giant Salamanders. We crossed the bridge to a sake shop to ask the proprietess about lodging. I'm constantly amazed how local people can give so much information while simultaneously giving so little. This talent cuts across cultures. After her 10 minute zen koan, we moved on to Daibutsuji, where we'd start the following day's hike. There was an information center here, with a small folk museum upstairs. These are always interesting. We poked around, then melted into chairs to drink the tea a woman served us. Her answers to our lodging questions gave us a few more options, but most of them she couldn't answer. We left our bags and went next door to the temple to have a look. This was the first real living temple of the trip and should've held our interest. But we'd done back to back 30km days over tough ground. Last night, we'd agreed that it had been the hardest single day hiking for us, but today definitely prevailed.
We'd puzzled out that there was an onsen nearby that did food and may have camping out back. We thumbed a ride, from a jimbe clad guy in his 60s whose taste in cars and music was that of a man half his age. At the onsen, we weren't impressed by the surly staff, and less so with the 4500 price tag for a tent site. We hemmed and hawwed awhile before fatigue prevailed. Just as we stepped outside, the skies tore open. Sigh. We sat licking ice cream with Charlie Brown black clouds around our heads. Other guests sat waiting the storm out. After a short while it dawned on me how big a hit my genetic makeup was making with the locals. Inspired, I went back to the counter, told them what they could do with their overpriced square of dirt, grabbed the grottiest, most abandoned-looking umbrella in the rack, then stood out in the rain to hitch a ride...somewhere. Now let me take a moment to say how incredible a woman my wife is. No matter how long or hard the walk, she never complains. I could practically see her twitching with anticipation for a hot bath and bowl of warm noodles, but still she didn't moan. After a couple of minutes she was beside me, thumb out. Carload and after carload of pampered, happily relaxed day-trippers drove by our sorry, sopping, sagging selves. But Miki was a trooper. Finally, as dark was nearly complete and our hopes were almost gone, a pair of heroes picked us up and drove us the half hour to Iga Ueno. As long as I'm doling out kudos, I shouldn't forget the person who decided that it's imperative that the Yoronotaki izakaya chain have such wonderfully big draft beers. Nor the person who designed the lengthy tubs in Green Hotels. I lay there, my calves blown up like balloons and heavy as lead, the song of cicada still echoing in my ears...
On the turntable: "Hare Krishna Hare Rama"
On the nighttable: Henry Scott Stokes, "The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima"
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Saturday, July 11, 2009
...so I walked. It's good to walk. I once loved to walk the streets of a city, any city, in order to see a place without the plastic. When dusk falls, the cities facade--as presented by City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce--crumbles. Only real people exist after dark. I traced unlit streets, figures moving toward me, literally lurching with the pull of a briefcase to one side. Taxis shot by on these narrow paths, slaloming the figures, the telephone poles, and me. Near the top of the street a dozen women are huddled in the doorway of a woman's shelter, waiting for it to open and looking very cold. Despite being very well dressed, they could be extras in some Depression era film. The lights of Shijo well up and I move along its covered sidewalks, in front of Xmas trees and winter coats behind glass. Here are more young, well-dressed women, striding quickly toward home after work. I dogleg up Teramachi, following the covered streets in order to stay out of the rain. It's more crowded in here, young dudes with big hair lurking around, squatting in front of closed up shops. A few have their guitars out, each song always in the same pitch, the monotone caterwaul always loud and sincere. Oike-dori is busy and bright , the neon blue of the fountains mocks the water that flowed here in better times. I drop into the subway, encountering now the couples, many heading home as it's a worknight. As if in opposition, the solo subterranean figures look lost, ruffled hair, faces hiding behind books.
Through all this I have the new Dylan on the Pod. His latest is a greatest hits collection, each track having once played soundtrack to my previous walks spread over various countries. The words are universal, international, interversal, descriptions of characters like those I pass on this night. Dylan remains ever the griot, stripping bare the same facades that daylight encourages. And with these truths I slip into a certain state, one step closer to the reality of the beings with whom I know nothing except for that they are right here. I could break the wall even further by making conversation, but that moves the truths from the universal to the personal. I prefer to keep things general tonight.
This illumination is blinding upon entering a bar. There are many people there, but there is nobody there. Aside from one friend, everyone is new to me. Where did they all come from? I'm feeling too separated, too happy in my own protective zone of the general, to connect. The darkness here helps, as does the smoke from the fireplace now filling the room. I chat, I joke, but I give nothing. I am enjoying the company of these people who I've never met, hearing their stories, but I deflect any questions. The only real necessary communication, ordering a beer, ironically leads to a situation even more disjunct, where the order never comes. I keep one eye on the window, watching the rain. When it lets up, I go.
I'm alone now, but for Dylan. His words follow me to the towering Sanmon gate of Nanzenji. Architecture of such size tends to diminish the personal. I stop awhile thinking of other nights I've sat here, yet these memories intermingle with memories brought on by familiar songs. I'm in many places, many times, many states of being, at once. The night feels heavier all of sudden. A city this old is full of ghosts. And they are here, mixing with my own ghosts. I begin to move toward home, through a night that becomes more the feel of autumn, with an increase in the wind. This wind swirls the leaves along the street, along which go my thoughts, constantly scattered, scattered.
On the turntable: Andrew Bird, "Noble Beast"
Thursday, July 09, 2009
Bizarre weather today.
It's July, I've got less than two months to go here in Kyoto. Lately, I've been peeling away my work and other obligations like sunburnt skin. Which frees up my Mondays. I decided to spend this one with JesusChris, meeting him for the first time since April. Hanging out with him is like hanging with Local Legend Tim, moving aimless through space as the day unravels toward night.
After an exuberant chat over a potent Vietnamese tea, we moved up to the compass atop Yoshida-yama. We cooled ourselves on the marble stone, talking and listening to a storm coming from the south. We moved over to the cemetery above Kurodani, watching high battleship-grey clouds mount their attack on Kyoto Station (as punishment for poor architectural accessorizing I suppose). The clouds began to flank our own position and the big fat drops began to fall, foreshadowing an imminent deluge. The skies opened just as we found shelter in front of a barracks-like apartment building. JesusChris immediately stripped off his shirt and shoes and bounded merrily into the rain, looking like he was starring in his own personal Bollywood musical. I stood dry under the tin roof and pouted. In most of my relationships with friends, I am the impetuous one, but here I stood, alternating mentally between excuses about why I wasn't out there and scolding myself for being so straight. And there I stayed, as my friend frolicked and danced and I merely hunched and stared stupidly at a security camera.
These squals rarely last long, and when the rain let up, we moved down toward Shinnyodo. But the storm regrouped and counterattacked, throwing large pyrotechnics our way. We huddled and had a Rashomon moment under a temple gate. Each time we'd step out, we'd get hit with another burst. Finally, as the skies showed blue and the grey had moved on, we started uphill. And one final, enormous, arm-hair raising flash hit the cemetery stones to our immediate right, the final thrash of the dragon's tail. I showed JesusChris Honen's purple cloud meditation stone, he in turn introduced me to Afro Jizo. Under the half-closed eyes of Oily Buddha, we parted ways.
The storm returned a couple more times before the sun set. In the fading light, the season's first cicada began to sing, like the tuning note of an solo instrument which serves as the seed of the symphony to come. After dark, the moon rose in our small valley, ducking and weaving through the clouds. The light from it's rays streaked the wet air, extending from all four cardinal points like a Zia. I knew that much later, in the middle of the night after the city went to sleep, my bedroom would take on that special glow of the full moon's light. I will miss that certain quality that the light takes during early these morning hours, and the feeling that I'm the only one in the world who is lucky enough to see it.
On the turntable: Skatalites, "Hi-Bop Ska"
On the nighttable: Diane Ackerman, "A Natural History of the Senses"
On the reel table: Pom Poko (Takahata, 1994)
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Ezaki Mitsuru was having another exhibition down at Gallery Mu-un. So it was that Miki and I, along with KJ John and Sage, spend a long morning making our way down to south Nara. There were a few of the usual Yoromi suspects around, including that couple from Fukui who do kamishibai. We passed the afternoon in conversation. It was interesting to see Ezaki's latest works, and how he is continually developing as an artist. He talked about the creative process behind his new fish hanga, and explained the multi-faceted Buddhist philosophy behind one of his earlier works, which up until now I'd taken for an eye chart.
As the conversation shifted toward other ears, the four of us walked through the village and up the hill to the swampy lake, then got lost in the forest on the way down. In the late afternoon John and Sage hopped a train north, to be replaced an hour later by Zach, who was in Kansai on business. He was pleased with the natural and healthy food to come, as he'd been holed up in a dormitory somewhere in the industrial bowels of Osaka and force fed starch and salt. This simple dinner had all the feel of a party, and although we'd arrived worried that we'd brought too much beer, as we staggered off through the dark toward our beds we found it had been just enough.
Dawn marked the curtain rise on a comedy about me noisily rattling a dozen doors in search of the toilet. Giving up, I walked over to Mu-un along a road damp with rain. I sat awhile and looked across the hills toward the bigger peaks draping their shoulders with white mist. It was a quiet morning, last night's revelers appearing one at a time as if making stage entrances.
After a late breakfast, Miki, Zach and I made our way to where we'd left the Hodo a few weeks before. We quickly came across a small shrine that pointed in the direction of Ise. A tiny green frog was balanced on a hollow piece of bamboo, and another was bathing in the rainwater within. Zach picked him up but he leapt away, launching a desperate kung fu kick in our direction as he fell. We followed a paved road around a lake. It was hot day, and below us, a few men under umbrellas had wonderful ringside seats for a good day for fishing. As we crossed a high suspension bridge we saw a school of large grey flat monsters moving toward the baited hooks. We kept along the road, falling into conversation when the scenery let us down. Which wasn't often. The striated lines above the water told the history of the lake and above, birds perched in trees waiting for lunch to swim by. Eventually the water stayed behind as we moved into the hills. After too many experiences of searching frantically for trail markers, we found one that was the size of a small house, pointing into the forest. Just inside, a car came rushing down the hill, chased by what I thought was a deer. On closer approach, it proved to be the biggest dog I've ever seen, probably a Mastiff-Great Dane mutt, out for a 'walk' with its master, running after his car doing at least 20kph. It looked pretty tired, but turned to flash a wet, sloppery smile as it passed.
We climbed up and over the pass, through a forest well used. There was a large sprawling park at the other side, then a village, then Muroji. We had time to kill until the bus, so spent it searching in vain for the ice cream we all craved. Shaved ice just wouldn't cut it. And so the bus came and took us to the train, and we moved west, toward the bigger and crowded cities where people understand that summer's value is measured in ice cream...
On the turntable: Willie Hutch, "The Mack"
On the reel table: "Pather Panchali" (Ray, 1955)