Monday, August 31, 2009
Saturday, August 29, 2009
The train was the first of the day, and it led me west along the coast. One beach lined a crescent shaped cove, but the ends had been lopped off and concreted. A beautiful old wooden station had lost its view of rice fields and forest to a five meter high pile of dirt upon which a questionably necessary bypass will be plonked. Two stations further on, a simply immense television drones on to an empty parking lot. It was fast becoming a depressing morning. I am glad to see a bit of the countryside before the central government completely fucks it up.
I got off the train at a small rural station where the only sign on life was a cat sleeping on the wooden rail where the ticket taker usually is. (Shape shifter?) I walked to the main road and was able to hitch a lift up to Matsunoodera, a lovely old temple with 1300 years of history present in its statuary. It was deserted but for a lone man busy at work on new carvings. The radio at his feet kept him up with the baseball at Koshien.
I got my nokyo stamped, number 31 on my Saikoku Kannon pilgrimage. On the road back down the mountain, I passed a trio of monkeys, the male seemingly upset with me about something. Not a single car passed on this quiet road, and even on the busier highway below it took about 45 minutes to get a ride. A Nagoya family were on their way to the beach, but the weather had other plans. The sea and rivers that we passed were the color of mud, with all sorts of flotsum bobbing along the shore. We passed through Maizuru, such a lovely name, for such an ugly town. Along the way, I dropped quite a few hints to my driver about how nice the view was from above Amanohashidate, which was a short walk from my destination of Nariaiji. They didn't bite, and I eventually found myself at the station. I'd wanted to use a boat, cable car, and bus to get up to the temple, but the rain had caused a landslide and the cable car wasn't running. There was a road up from the other side, but I needed a car to get there. A taxi was my option. For 31 temples, this was the only time on this pilgrimage that I compromised on one. Throughout the ride I was kicking myself because I'd forgotten my nokyo when I came this way last year. An oversight costly in time and money. This road too had seen many slides, with road teams pushing dirt and rocks into the streams below.
At the temple, I paid my third visit to Nariaiji, but was disgusted that they'd started charging admission, which must have helped fund an ugly new pagoda that rose from beside the parking area. Amanohashidate was hardly visible with the mist, which rose to veil the surrounding peaks. I started the long walk down , passing the odd jizo on the way. I stepped over fist-sized stones which had come down during the night, above swift streams running white and brown. Fresh landslides gave my mind something new to ponder. A few cars passed, but none stopped. I thought this ironic as they'd all been returning from a visit to a temple dedicated to the Goddess of Compassion.
A minute after arriving at the main road I was picked up by a man who had seemingly made a U-turn to do so. A retired salesman, he'd driven this region for decades, and now did little more than fish. Seemingly lonely, he was really enthusiastic about me joining him for a visit up to Ine, a lovely little village that I'd visited with Miki last year. He then changed tactics, wanting me to stay here in town and drink with him and his friend. It took some doing, but I finally got him to drop me at the station.
The rain and floods had fouled the train schedules. (Arriving home I found that it had been a typhoon which had killed 13.) I finally made my way south toward home, through valleys so wet and cold that the train windows fogged, and our arrival time grew more and more distant.
Friday, August 28, 2009
It was raining the next morning, so we didn't set out until 9:30. I lingered out front, looking at at plaque stating that this school, which had opened in 1885, had graduated its last class back in the spring. I was struck by the far -reaching effects of the country's population decline. Each school closure means more kids are educated further away, and therefore become that much more removed from their own local identity. These final pupils had laid their hands in concrete to commemorate the closure. There set in stone were the marks of 10 little hands.
We walked down the valley, rich with spirituality, including Jinguji where we saw the Omizu-okuri last March. I'd stop at every temple and shrine, then hurry to catch up with the group. After Wakasahiko Jinja with its 1000 year old cedar and wonderful Noh stage, the road forked and I lost everybody. The frequent jizo assured me that I was on the right path, but it eventually became highway. I pushed on trying to make it to Obama's Izumi market for the scheduled 12:30 final event. I just made, but the kids took some time to arrive. There were speeches and high fives, then we all sat down to mackerel soup. Afterward, we walked the last 10 minutes to the sea. I, like Gary before me, had made it. The photograph ritual began, so I said a quick goodbye. As I moved away, I overheard a few muttering voices. Most of kids never got my name, and I remained "The American," like some character in a Graham Greene novel.
I found a hotel near the waterfront and dropped my bags. This place was gripping tightly to its former bubblicious glory. Apparently, the Emperor stayed here once, a year before he took the job. I wonder if he partook in any of the services available, including (from the English translation) a geisha girl (12000 yen), and companion (15000 yen, limit of three please.)
My feet continued to ache as I walked the town. Tourist sights were well kept and the signs pointing to them prevalent. This is obviously a town that has respect for its past, but it also has an disturbing interest in my own nation's present. The face of my president is simply EVERYWHERE, to the point that it becomes surreal. I really don't know what to make of the President Obama vending machine. Prior to last year's election, this town was known for its temples. I strolled the outskirts, passing many temples and shrines. I saw an Atago jinja, and another for Kumano, but my feet vetoed the idea of climbing those high steps. I walked over to Hosshinji, the famous zen dojo of the great Harada Roshi. The valley around it was in veiled in clouds. There were quite a few monks about, cleaning and preparing for Obon. A few gassho'ed me, and it hit me that I was dressed somewhat like them, a brother monk. Moving on, I got a one handed gassho from a European monk on a bike, his zafu as bicycle seat. He wheeled around to chat awhile, then rushed off. I followed to his temple, Bukkokuji, another well-established training site. A different European foreigner was sweeping the tatami. I thought it must be tough to be a non-American foreigner in Obama these days. Every local person you'd meet would feel a little let down.
I walked the covered streets, nearly everything closed on the Sunday. Obsequious boy band music was piped in, making me ponder if it is played at the White House too. A shower took such stupid thoughts from my brain, then it was dinner time. I found a small sushi shop that offered mackerel on the menu out front. I went in and ordered, but quickly got vibed out. The sushi chef seemed content to hide behind stereotypes, rather than understand my perfectly good Japanese, which his wife had to 'translate.' The woman next to me asked me if I could eat fish, seconds after she watched me shovel two pieces into my maw. This in a town which is currently basking in the association with an internationally famous name. Next time I'm in Harlem, I'm going to start asking the locals if they only eat fried chicken. We'll see how long the blood stays in my body.
And why is this bothering me? I was perfectly happy to play the role of adopted mascot the night before. And the main reason I ate out tonight was to chat up the locals. And they would only have started that conversation due to my skin color. After all, I've never seen two Japanese strangers strike up a conversation here. Why does this not offend me? I, like every other foreigner in Japan, is happy to play the race card when it benefits them. Why do we think we can have it both ways?
After quickly chugging my beer, I'm gone in minutes. The grilled mackerel and draft beer I'd been seeking is found up the street. Here, I wind up talking to no one since everyone's attention is riveted to the Japanese woman's volleyball team on TV. I go back to my hotel and treat my knees to the bath they've been craving. Coming back to my room, I nearly fall over in laughter. When I'd checked in, I'd requested a bed, so as to give my poor knees some soft respite, a point I'd mentioned to the staff. All the Western Rooms were full, so I took this one. And now, I find that the maid had set out on the tatami four futons, piled half a meter high. I'm really going to miss this silly country. I pass a restful night in my cotton tower, trying and failing to figure out where the pea is......
On the turntable: David Grisman, "Acousticity"
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Breakfast was late and so was my departure. I hadn't slept well and my eyes showed it. I walked out of town, along a beautiful stream, with the occasional old man at random intervals, poles poised for bounty. The moving water and fishermen theme continued for the better part of the day. About an hour into my walk I saw the absurd sight of a couple dozen men tolling lines in a man-made pond, their backs to a perfectly good stretch of river. And they'd paid for this! I thought there might be a drink machine inside, but was stopped by a scowling young man. I asked if I could rest for a bit, yet he refused. It dawned on me that I'd passed into Shiga-ken. Ten minutes later, I greeted a couple old women before a liquor store, to no response. (Shiga!) I don't mean to be harsh on the prefecture, but I have had my share of encounters with its surly people, and far too long on the side of its roads, thumb out in futility.
The heat began to come up and the walk became a slog. I rested when I could find shade, but kept along this single road, a hamlet appearing every hour or so. I finally arrived at my destination for the day , Oisugi. I'd expected to get there about 4, stay the night, and enjoy their local festival. Along with the fireworks and the Bon dance, I'd be an unexpected attraction. But it was still only 1:30 in the afternoon. I began to wonder if I could make it across the next set of formidable looking mountains before dark. But there was no one around to ask. Despite the festival, the town was quiet. Finally, I found four people standing around a truck. Ironically, they were about to lead a group of kids up the very same mountains, and assured me I'd be over well before nightfall. I made my choice and headed up the road.
There were a few river crossings and I soon made my way up to a waterfall. The trail grew thinner here, and steep, with small wooden steps rotting away on the hillside. I was on the wrong trail. But I gone past the point where I could return down safely with my pack. I had no choice but to keep heading up. I checked my map and found that I was in a valley just below the trail. This narrow path was literally hanging onto the canyon wall, with bear tracks every ten steps. My heavy pack was pulling me into space, so I leaned way into the dirt wall, grabbing deeply at roots and ferns. I eventually was able to cross the river. Then shot straight up. I'd pull myself up from tree to tree, resting often so not to tire and make any stupid mistakes. With every rest I'd scan above, taking what looked the most like trail. For the first fifteen minutes I was on all fours, then the slope became gentle enough that I could walk upright. Bizarrely, I'd find the occasional strand of rope, so knew that I wasn't the first to do this. I kept getting closer to the top, but still couldn't find trail. I was a little worried that I'd keep heading deeper into the mountains, but had a pretty good idea of where I needed to go, which was the direction of Obama. Then the fogged rolled in. And with it, many voices. It was the people I'd met below, now leading the kids to the peak. I moved diagonally toward their sounds, popping onto the trail behind the last of their group, and scaring the hell out of some young woman.
I kept with them until the peak, taking my place at the end of a long line of thirty people. As part of a group, I really felt like I was doing the Saba Kaido, making our way to replenish supplies. I chatted with everyone at the peak, then made my way down alone. The fog made it a magical forest, down a half tube trod by centuries of feet. The song of one bird was like an ocarina. I also heard the cries of deer a few times, then saw their fleeting forms racing downward. I finally came to road. On it, a centipede was tucking in to its tasty dinner of cricket head. Arriving in Kaminegori, I faced a dog standing in the middle of the road like a character out of Yojimbo. Rather than snarl and bark like most dogs, he chose to walk beside me for the next half hour. He'd often stop to sniff at something, then come charging down the road and within inches of my legs. I asked a woodcutter that I passed if he knew him, but he just laughed and said the dog would go home when it was ready.
The fog made it seem darker than 5 pm. I arrived at an abandoned school where a couple of team members were setting up for the arrival of the kids. As I'd run into them repeatedly, they invited me to stay. I 'showered' with a faucet and bucket, then went into the school to lay on the moldy tatami until the kids came. It was full dark by then, but they were made to eat inside the school's spooky gymnasium. Afterward, there were games and fireworks, then we all walked down through the dark to another school, 4 km further downhill. The first 100m were lit with candles, then it became pitch dark. I set out later than the others, having taken time to put my bag in one of the support trucks. It found it nice to walk alone at night, until I remembered that this is exactly how I'd had my bear encounter in Hokkaido. I overtook a group of kids and was happy to stay with them. One of the boys asked if I'd ever seen a ghost, so I shared a few stories until noticing one girl with her fingers shoved deep in her ears. The night was dark but for the white of a river rushing below, over rocks so massive that I was a little sorry not to see them in the light of day. Here and there mushrooms clung to trees, little white bulbs against the night. Around ten we arrived at Shimonegori elementary school. The kids went quickly to sleep while the staff had a meeting. They invited me in to go over the next day's agenda, but when things began to get bogged down in details, I snuck away. I found a small two tatami-mat nurse's office which had futons in the closet. My sleep was comfy but restless, as voices and banging echoed down the halls....
On the turntable: "Organized Konfusion"
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
It started with a photograph. It is captioned, "Just north of Kyoto, setting out to walk to the Japan Sea, late April 1961," and shows Gary Snyder doing just that. For years I've had that photo in my mind, and thought that I wanted to do the exact same thing. Miki and I had tried to do the walk last September, but a typhoon changed our tune. This time, she was busy so I set off alone, along the old Saba Kaido that once brought mackerel to Kyoto from the sea.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Saturday, August 22, 2009
But it was during my final visit that I finally came across the heart of Osaka, tracing the roots of its oldest history to an area filled with people living a life without pretense.
Thursday was my last day of work. Afterward, I met up with a handful of friends who we hadn't seen in some time. We met at Tani-9 near the site of the old Naniwa Nagara-Toyosaki Palace which was Japan's capital from 645-654. This is the oldest part of the city, obviously, and an ancient path leads south from there to Shitennoji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. There are many temples and shrines along the way, as well as sections of the old trail, most of them leading up and down steep slopes. A couple of these temples had large stone statues of Fudo, both surprisingly within the precincts of Zen temples, rather than the more likely Mikkyo sects. One large shrine had a section for prayers for the local Tigers baseball team, with home-made folk elements like banners and photos which had been added by fans. The trail winds up at Isshinji, a bizarre mix of international elements. It was the feeling of a Chinese temple, with water and trees and large porous rocks, yet the main hall is definitely Japanese, with beautifully aged wooden steps. A group of monks were chanting nearby, clanging Tibetan looking cymbals to time their chant. Beside the main hall was a smaller hall that held very old stone Buddhas, surrounded by flowers, and lit candles, shrouded in incense in a way that felt more Indian than Japanese. Most bizarrely were a couple halls done in a modern avant garde style of smoked glass and twisted metal. This whole layout was shaded by a tall events hall that mimicked Frank Lloyd Wright.
From the distant past we stepped into the more recent past of Shin Sekai, which leapt out of the postwar films I've been relishing lately. Created in 1912, it was apparently modeled half on Paris and half on New York's Coney Island. (This in itself is interesting, as pre-war Japan felt much more European, and postwar is, well, the 51st state.) The main arcade looks as I imagine the occupation looked with its cheesy shirts and other tat on display, touts hollering in front of oversized restaurants, 50 yen game centers, and wide sidewalks leading to the Tsutenkaku tower. You almost expect to come across remnants of the black market, and this seedy underbelly pervades all. Most of the people here are older, many looking in dire straits. Not homeless, but damn close. A couple guitar buskers are in their sixties. More men of that age sit drinking at make-shift tables, others stand in the many tachi-nomi joints about. There are three movie theaters, which are fronted by those beautiful old painted billboards of what's currently showing. Two of the cinema are for the unseasonal raincoat crowd, but the third has a split bill of a skin flick and the latest Jackie Chan. For some reason, huge gaudy creepy Billiken were everywhere. We walk down Jyan Jyan Yokocho arcade, lined with photos comparing then and now. As usual, the present gets a beating. Many of these shops are small, single counter restaurants, many with long queues even at this early hour. We pass under the JR line, a dark dank tunnel where a few card tables have been set up from which to sell second-hand porn DVDs.
We cross a wide boulevard to enter another arcade, this one much grimier and seedier, if that's possible. A couple cafes have been set up by activists, their facades lined with flyers. The caterwauling of karaoke spills out of many restaurants, drowned by the roar of pachinko with the opening of the sliding doors of the half dozen or so parlors here. People seem drunker here, pedestrians muttering to themselves, bicyclists practicing slalom precision. We pass through this poorly lit zone, on our way to our dinner reservation. As the arcade ends, we find ourselves in Tobita red-light district, a small grid of narrow two-story buildings that have taken the name of a teahouse. Upon approach, you see the mirror reflection of a plainly-dressed woman sizing up passersby, and from front on, you see the girl on display, her clothes and hair and makeup done to perfection, visible in the glare of a spotlight. To my surprise the girls are all young and most of them knock-down gorgeous. I had expected more weathered goods for rent here. Large breasts seem to be the going thing, the cleavage very visible. A few of the girls are uniformed, catering to certain tastes. Even the madams are younger than I'd thought, many probably younger than I. A couple of them beckon me to come closer. One old granny makes me laugh as she says "Dōzo!" in a gravelly voice. I walk a little ahead of my wife, playing the role of window shopper. If a girl makes eye contact, I quickly and bashfully turn away. You can take the boy out of the Catholic church but...
We have dinner at Hiyakuben, an old Taisho building at the red light district's lower corner. Our friends had been wanting to come here for years, but had been afraid. The building's interior is done up in a gaudy style that is a blend of shinto shrine and Chinatown palace. Loads of vermillion, as befitting a former brothel. Each party gets their own room. I'd peeked at other rooms on the way to the toilets; many had small stages and drums for private entertainment. Our own had interesting woodwork overhead, with a raised section at one end that resembled the prow of a small boat. When we opened the screen to look out the window, we found a bullethole. The staff here are a little too saucy and the service brusk, though the food doesn't live up to their pride.
For much of dinner, our conversation had been on the neighborhood outside, and on the trade of its residents. It's amazing how superficially similar to Gion it is, yet the roots much older. After dinner we passed back through, it being full dark now. A car rolled slowly by in front of us, and I made a joke about drive-thru service. Whereas earlier most of the women had been sitting in the doorways, now around half were empty. My eyes drifted toward second floor windows, my ears at attention. How ironic my imagination at work, yet regarding this profession, imagination needs little place. The reality is right there,
On the turntable: Flower Travellin' Band, "Challenge"
On the nighttable: Rory Maclean, Under the Dragon"
(With apologies to Mikey L.)
During most of this year, I taught a lesson or two a week in Osaka. I'd always disliked that city, turned off by it's ugliness. Yet she finally won me with charm. My students were always open and fun, quick with jokes. After work, I'd usually walk the city's narrow alleys and streets, sometimes its rivers or parks. Most people noted my foreignness, which Kyoto-ites are always too cool to acknowledge. Many times I walked the length of Ogimachi's long arcade, finding more the interesting things down its narrow side alleys. Tsuruhashi was the real gem, the Korea town below the JR station was different world. It has a feel somewhat like parts of Kowloon, and the same sense of an almost subterranean society with laws of its own. This is most definitely not Japan. Amongst its traditional clothing shops and markets I found a chijimi shop that I particularly liked. The three aunties I found there were always happy to take my money and give me grief. Their teasing was refreshing.
Other parts had their own sights and charms. A girl in very high heels trots against the light across the crosswalk, to have a bus nearly sweep her away. Annual hay fever played out in sniffles and sneezes. A half dozen city workers evict a homeless man in the winter rain. The springtime pink surrounding Osaka castle. A sign written with "Amusement Developer" raises a smile. Other signs: "Climax Campaign," "Cook Dolphin." A happy slacker on a train, grinning his toothless smile at everyone. A bicyclist singing to his ipod startling the hell out of a straight-laced salaryman pedestrian. And my favorite, the zig zig girl.
I noticed her coming down the subway steps, moving diagonally from the upper right corner to the lower left. From there she moved diagonally again to the opposite wall, and again, and again, until she was through the wickets and gone. I actually stopped and watched awhile, trying to make sense of her behavior. I wonder too: how does she feel about the linear movement of trains?
On the turntable: Cornelius, "69/96"
Friday, August 21, 2009
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Back in the late winter, I walked a small section of the Kyo Kaido, which used to be an extension of the Tokaido, as it passes through Kyoto toward Osaka. It is essentially the Keihan line now, but sections still remain. I start near the amusement park in Hirakata. The road goes up through a section of town that probably hasn't changed in 50 years. It takes me to a small canal, then the color of the pavement changes making it easy to follow. I stop in a funky cafe for a cuppa, then continue down the narrow road, where the shopping arcade is trying to keep the dreams of the Showa era alive. I veer a couple times to the opposite side of the train tracks, to investigate hilltop temples and shrines. One of them had a nice view of the Yodogawa stretching away toward Osaka. How much nicer it be to see slow moving boats out there.
I pass through Hirakata, then Kuzuha. The trail gets even narrower, passing modest homes and small temples. Many of the homes have maintained a centuries old look. I finally come to the end of the homes and am surprised to see a sign warning me of vipers. Past this overgrown part, things open up onto rice fields. In the middle is a temple I've often admired from the train, but being a training temple it is closed to guests. I enter another shopping street, lined with many old inns that had once housed Edo period travelers. At the end of this street is a huge tree, dwarfing all. I see a sign posted alongside, which I at first take for a Shinto monument of some sort, but on closer look is a notice about how to separate the rubbish. How sad that this massive being that has shaded some many figures through history, has been relegated to the place where the trash is picked up. The houses from here get more shabby. I'm guessing that this must be a buraku area. You don't often see poverty like this. All becomes squeezed between river and hill until blending into Yawata, where another spur of the Kaido heads south toward Nara.
Having walked this center portion of the Kaido, equidistant to both Kyoto and Osaka, I'm tempted to choose an end and carry on to either of them. But I worry that the paths are unmarked, and I've wasted too much time in my life second guessing myself, and retracing my steps...
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Friday afternoon, Deep Micheal and I explored south Kyoto, Fushimi in particular. We got off the train in Tamababashi and headed uphill into the sweltering suburbs. Where the green began was the site of Momoyama Castle. Originally built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it fell eight years later. Floorboards stained with the blood of the defenders can be seen in their current use as ceiling panels at various temples around Kyoto. I'd seen this distant castle many times from town, but never realized that it has two keep. A short walk away is the tomb of the Meiji emperor. I can imagine the procession as it carried his remains up an incredible set of stairs. Below these is Nogi-jinja, dedicated to the hero of the Russo-Japan war who disemboweled himself upon the death of Meiji. There is an interesting display here, as well as a room of creepy Daruma dolls which remind me of those bouncy heads from 'Spirited Away' As we spirited ourselves away, I was once again flabbergasted at how rich (and deep) Kyoto history is.
We whiled away a nice afternoon, wandering the temples, canals, and storehouses of Fushimi. Deciding it was time to carry on with the business at hand, we settled into a microbrew for the third part of our interview series. When I asked Micheal just how deep is Kyoto, we simultaneously broke into a Bee Gees song. And not for the first time. Stumbling back to the station later, we again followed the canals, this time lined with light.
Sunday, I took in the areas to the north and south. Starting below Otokoyama, I walked in the shade of the hill, over the tile paths that bisect old shops and homes. Newer, blander homes rose up too soon. Where it grew old again I recognized as part of the Kyo kaido, which Miki and I walked until it was lost to suburbs. I found a large stroll garden, which once belonged to a famous Edo poet whose tea party guests dined from small compartmentalized boxes that were the original bentos.
I then took a train to Sumizome. Near the station I was surprised to find a small Spanish cafe, who did a nice beef stew and Heineken. I was puzzled as to why it was here until I saw a Catholic church that had Spanish roof tiles. It reminded me of Santa Barbara, and then further reminded me that missionaries were the missing link between Japan and the California Coast, pushing their dogma on the natives who eventually melded these with their indigenous beliefs into a unique bespoke package. Unrelated to all this was a guy in a T-shirt that said, "Against the 70's." Mike Watt Fan? I eventually made it to Fushimi Inari shrine itself. The neighborhood just to the south is especially nice, with a couple of lovely yet unpretentious temples and spooky hiking trails that lead where the tourists never go, to an ancient realm of chipped stone graves and shaded waterfalls. I wonder at what dwells there, especially during these days of Obon. And what will remain after tonight's fires?
On the turntable: Nouvelle Vague, "Bande a Part"
On the reel table: "Sword of Doom" (Okamoto, 1965)