Friday, August 31, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #40

Proud sunflowers
Raise their giant heads,
Defying the storm.

On the turntable:  Everything but the Girl,  "Back to Mine"

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #39

None but that underfoot.
The floating world,
Obscured by cloud.

On the turntable:  Talvin Singh, "Back to Mine"

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #38

Dragonflies spin
Above the remains
Of warriors dreams

On the turntable:  Groove Armada, "Back to Mine"


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Nakasendo Waypoints #37

Ocarina's breathy tones
Dance amongst the smoky rafters
Of the tea house.

On the turntable:  Faithless, "Back to Mine"


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Papers: Marcel Proust

“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice in between contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”

On the turntable:  Stevie Ray Vaughan, "In Step"

Friday, August 24, 2012

Kunisaki Time-Out

A few days spent in the glorious countryside of Kunisaki.  Broad valleys brimming with green.  Insect life everywhere.  Praying mantises perch on the lights of the path at my inn.  A variety of trees and subsequently, birdsong, far richer than that in Kansai.  Magnificent stone torii hinting at mysteries in the hills above.  Tall rock spires draped with forest.   Serenely smiling stone Buddhas, amused by the same joke for 1300 years.  Farmers ringing their rice fields with fencing.  (The boar in the hills above are waiting for when the rice stalks begin to droop, they tell me.)  The lovely characters I meet: Aoki-san in his mountaintop tea plantation.  The hands of Yamamoto-san working his own land into shaped clay.  Chaku-san's warm smile and quiet good nature.  The stars above Momokusa when the clouds call it a night.  

On the turntable:  Nick Warren, "Back to Mine"
On the nighttable;  Eiji Yoshikawa, "The Tales of the Heike"

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nakasendo solo, V

This country can be drop dead gorgeous, but it can also present a face so ugly that it knocks you flat. Despite it being only 5:30 a.m., I'm already thinking this.  I purposely left early since I knew I still had two more hours on the godawful Route 21.  At this hour, traffic is lighter, but the clusters of cars as they are released by the traffic lights roar by in a way that taxes the nervous system.  I am grateful for a minute of quiet here and there, where it is as if I am the only one out and about at this hour.  Even the SDF base is silent.

I find my reward in the posttown of Unuma.  It is one of the more scenic towns along the whole Nakasendo.  The former inns, now the current homes of regular families, still maintain the patina of age.   Even the huge sake brewery is fenced in by the tall, darkened slats of two centuries ago.  Across the river, Inuyama's castle stands majestic on her perch.

I climb through green suburbs to a park, where three old men direct me into the forest and over a pass.  The mamushi warning signs probably outnumber the snakes themselves.  I walk slowly, out of delight rather than fear, happy to be away from traffic for a change.  At the base of the pass I'm fed through a tunnel which opens onto the Kiso river rushing past.  This scene finally connects me with the Nakasendo I know best, this water having moved through the narrow Kiso Valley that I've walked six times as a guide.  It is a welcome sight.

Sadly, this joy is short lived.  The traffic finds me again, beside three abandoned hotels.  I imagine that this had once been a booming tourist spot in the 90's, but today, not a single business is still alive.  There is more life up in the cave temple hanging above the river, where Buddhas and Jizos and En no Gyoja look over these monuments to impermanence.  The temple is small but would've been the ultimate place to have slept had I stuck to my original plan, to drift off to the lullaby of the flowing river, and the constant drip, drip, drip,  like a heartbeat in the cave's darkness.

Below the cave I come to a bicycle track that runs atop an embankment beside the river.  I follow it since it parallels the Nakasendo now running heavy with traffic and trucks.  A number of joggers pass by, including one guy running in Chuck Taylors.  It is far more pleasant to look down on the river, rather than at the factories to my left, but the sun is hot now as we get further into morning.   I'm happy to finally drop back down to Ota posttown, which is a little more modern yet tinged with history.  There is a museum here, surprisingly free, with a decent amount of exhibits and displays.  An old man sells his veggies out front to a few tourists.   I sit and have some bread and a cold tea, happy to get out of the sun's unforgiving glare.

Before long, I'm back on the bike trail again.  I keep seeing signs for the Nihon Line.  Nihon Line, Nihon Line?   What the hell is the Nihon Line?  Then I get it.  This area is called the Japanese Rhine, but to me walking along the river toward a iron trestle bridge I'd soon cross, with the Old Timey American music on my iPod, I feel more like I'm walking in the Deep South somewhere, through Georgia or Mississippi, on a hot day, with the old men sitting by the banks having a smoke and a chat, and fathers teaching their sons to catch catfish.

On the far side of the river I am surprised to see an Indian restaurant, so I duck inside for a curry and a beer, followed by an iced coffee.  My stomach churns as I continue along the hot roadway.  The next town is Fushimi, who express honesty with their signs saying  "Ruins of Historic Fushimi Posttown."  Which is true.  Not a trace of the old town remains.

I'm an hour away from my final destination of Mitake.  The Nakasendo weaves me on and off Highway 21, through little hamlets and under the shade of bamboo.  Just beyond a small shrine commemorating a headless oni, I take the last of the right angle turns that were built to slow an enemy advance on a posttown.  I know Mitake well, as it is where we start the real walking on our Nakasendo tours, and I'd planned to say hello to the Korean family that runs the okonomiyaki shop up the street.  But there's a train that I can catch in a few minutes, so I run the last 100 meters.

The train is near empty so I stand toward the back and towel off the sweat before changing into a clean shirt for the ride home.  As I do, I recall the words of the thruhiker of a few days back.  He said that when asked why he walks in this kind of heat, he doesn't have any answer. Even he doesn't know why.    But he's got it wrong.  The real question is:  why do we do this at all?

On the turntable:  "Memphis Gospel"  (Various)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Nakasendo, solo IV

The road out of Tarui was a dull road busy with cars rushing into town.  I'm nearly taken out on one curve by a 4WD vehicle of a type driven most often by people who live in cities. One stag beetle hadn't been so lucky, laying flat on the road's edge.  These prized insects are usually well cared for, so this was either an escapee that had been run down, or one that had been crushed beneath the foot of a jealous rage.  

I was really feeling tired this morning. It could have been the lack of sleep, despite the fatigue from yesterday's 32km.  Or it could've been the humidity just sitting on my shoulders.  Or perhaps too many consecutive days of dark, threatening clouds.  The scenery remained uninspiring, with the only beauty I'd seen having been the light blue Meiji-era building beside the canal in Akasaka.  Just outside of town, a crow peeled the flattened body of snake off the road like a piece of dried jerky.  It reminded me how, despite hundreds of hours spent outdoors, I've seen only a few snakes this year.  

Plodding on through the northern outskirts of Ogaki.  Between the suburban homes and small factory operations are random bits of nature:  the micro forest of shrine;  the tree lined canals;  the sudden burst of green that are rice paddies.  In one of the latter, I see a bird of a type I think I've never seen before, until it lifts off to reveal a belly and wings  so white and clean that it looks like an inner kimono. 

But mostly, more suburbs.  In front of one house is a large dead frog, one foreleg held out in front of its chest in the protective gesture of a Buddha.  I could've used some of this aid as I came to a bizarre series of overlapping roads without any trail signs whatsoever.  I walked around for a while cursing.  When I finally untangled myself, I noticed a half dozen pairs of panties in the weeds beside the road paralleling the river.  Somewhere in town, somebody's clothesline is a little barer this morning.  A wild cormorant pays no heed, peacefully fishing in the Hiranoi River.   

I cross a village on the floodplain before the next river.  An announcement comes over the loudspeakers that there is to be a minute of silence at noon, this being 'Peace Memorial Day,' 67 years after the Japanese emperor's speech brought WWII to a close.  When the time comes, I am crossing a high bridge, midday between two shores.  I can't find a better metaphor for the whole day.  Eventually I stop at the next temple and pray for the dead of my two homes. The flags at the local town hall fly at half mast.  Behind them, the trees lining the canal shed their white petals like cherry blossoms.  

I'm walking through rice fields, literally wilting due to lack of shade.  I find a tree here and there, then sit awhile at a shady temple.  In the village is a large stone commemorating the heavy losses that this particular place suffered in the war.  Nearby, the graves of three of these dead are decorated with fresh flowers.

Until today I've been quite satisfied with the quality of the map I've been using.  Most Japanese I know have remarkable skills at drawing, so it is a surprise that their hiking books have such lousy maps.  The estimated times given to do the walks appear to be absurdly conservative estimates, until you take into account that this also includes the time wasted trying to find the fucking trail.  This particular book too has finally come to fail me here.  It's as if the mapmaker just wanted to get the hell out of this area, leaving the job half finished.  I got so thoroughly confused at one point that I simply sit in the shade of a convenience store, swallowing my rice balls with angry bile.  I use road maps inside to figure things out.  For the next two hours, I'll follow a single straight road that will build up gradually until entering the city of Gifu. A few people sing karaoke in a small bar.  Across the street is a cafe called Namiki, referring to those rows of pine that once shaded the trail.  But here in the city, there isn't a tree to be found. 

The Nakasendo enters Gifu through an apparently Korean neighborhood, where the tarmac changes color, leading you effortlessly along the M-shaped turns through the city.  It is a nice stretch, the best of the day. The buildings keep their character, proud against the steel and glass a few streets over.  There are people around, but not in the bustling manner particular to a city.  People actually seem to be out casually strolling, on this the last day of the holiday. 

I had intended to stop here, and have a hotel room booked by the station.  (I'd actually intended to find shrines to sleep behind during these three days, but the rain stopped that idea cold.)  But it is only 4pm, with the road paralleling the train line for the next 12km.  I decide to walk until six o'clock, then take the next train.  The road out of town has me immediately regretting this choice.  I do get rewarded with a few parts of a more rural character, then the road becomes the busy Route 21.  It is actually pleasant through the town of Naka, quaint in a weathered, retro-Showa kind of way.  There is also large park with grass for grateful feet. 

Then, a doubletake, at an run-down old business hotel just shy of where I was planning to catch my train.  The old couple are friendly and amusing, so I shift gears and check in, avoiding a train ride back to a characterless chain hotel back in Gifu.  I chat with the old couple for a while about local dining options, then go up to my room for a much needed shower.  My room is old and beat up and wonderful.  After my shower I sit with the breeze blowing in from yet another rain storm...

On the turntable:  Grand Funk Railroad, "30 Years of Funk"
On the nighttable:  Monica Ali, "Brick Lane"


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Papers: Miguel Arboleda

"The wild really has little inclination for sitting still."

On the turntable:  Muddy Waters, "The Chess Box"

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nakasendo, solo III

The rain out the window sounded heavier than the shower.  The day before, I had planned to set out for a three day walk up the Nakasendo, but I just wasn't feeling it.  So I stayed home instead, kicking myself some when the rain stopped around 7 am and the sun came out. 

This morning saw similar skies, though the rain had let up some.  Arriving at Kyoto station to scenes of chaos, people milling in front of the neon signs announcing that all the limited express trains were delayed.  As I sat awhile on the platform waiting for one to come, I was lucky to overhear a station worker tell an elderly woman that he wasn't sure if they be running at all.  I quickly jumped aboard a local train that had been sitting idle before me, its doors closing just behind my back.

It was raining in Takamiya when I disembarked, yet its intensity abated little by little for the next hour until eventually petering out.  The sun didn't seem to want to take the stage today but that was just as well as it kept the heat down.

On a hill at the edge of town stood an old shrine, below which was a cluster of Jizo.  Beside them was a small Jizo temple, almost an afterthought.  I was definitely heading into the countryside now, the suburban homes falling away gradually like the rain.  Moving past a shrine with its papered barrier rope lowered to prevent access.  I thought it had to do with ritual pollution as the shrine stood across from a large modern cemetery and this was the time when the souls of the dead return.  But every shrine in this area seemed to be closed off, so it must be a local custom.  Soon after,  I passed another grave, that of the renowned beauty Ono no Komachi, standing lonely in a narrow ribbon of green between the expressway and the Shinkansen line.  On the latter, the trains weren't moving, two or three of them lined up nose to tail at a dead standstill.  It was like being in some postapocalyptic film, the vision of these ghost trains.  Something bad must be happening back in Kansai.  (Later I'd hear about the fatal floods down in Uji.)

Moving at a speed far exceeding that of the Shinkansen, I entered Toriimoto-cho, a lovely old posttown retaining its traditional look.  At the opposite end was an old-timey wooden canoe and beautiful vintage Jaguar sitting behind an apartment building.  Just beyond them,  I entered the forest for the first time since leaving Kyoto.  A short but steep climb brought me to a tiny hamlet in a narrow valley overlooking rice fields and Lake Biwa beyond.  It was quiet for a time, until I arrived back at the expressway and its everpresent rhythmic hiss.  I crested a low pass where beneath me, the expressway had entered a tunnel.  The far side was quiet.  A large monkey crossed the road in front of me.  As I stopped to watch it move through the trees, dozens of dragonflies churned the air above the rice paddies.

Where the paddies ended lay the village of Bamba.  People clad in black were gathering in the road, obviously heading to a temple downhill.  One man was carrying a small box of powdered incense which smelled like it was already lit.  For the first time, I felt like I was finally on the Nakasendo, moving through the woods that served as the boundaries of human settlement, and on into these villages that exhibit a vitality unseen in the lifeless suburbs that I'd spent two long days trying to leave behind. 

Where the village ended I found a restaurant that surprised me by being open. Inside, two women were busy packing boxes with masu  that were being delivered to families too busy to cook during the holiday.  I was the only customer of course, which allowed me to chat freely with them as I paired my fish with a beer that is always a miracle on a humid day like this.  I joked how when I explain the food to my tour clients, I inevitably use the English word 'trout' for not only masu, but also iwana, ayu, aji.  As we talked, a dozen larger fish swum in a cement pit at one corner of the kitchen, soon to join the souls of their own ancestors. 

Having satisfactorily carbo-loaded,  I moved along, standing on the shoulders of the beer.  Across from the former chaya is a policebox with information written in both Japanese and Portuguese.  Next to it is a butcher shop, open in defiance of the usual Obon prohibition against meat eating.  I soon came to the next posttown of Samegai, a lovely little village shaded by the trees that over hang the brook that runs through the center of things.  The town quickly became my favorite of all of those in Shiga, with the galleries, cafes, and temples.  The only problem is that fucking expressway running just above.

On the slope heading out of town I come across the only thru hiker I've met on the Nakasendo.  He had set out on July 22nd, and would arrive at his destination of Sanjo Ohashi in a couple more days.  He said that when he'd set out 25 days before, he had intended doing 40 km days, but the heat quickly changed his mind for him.  Now even thirty a day is a challenge.  He was friendly and chatty in a way that reveals the loneliness of solo travel.  I had many things I'd have liked to have asked him, but we both had places to go, and soon set off toward them.

The road brought me past a row of love hotels lining a quiet and shady river. Behind the modesty curtains of each hotel I could see a few cars, their owners currently doing their best to stimulate the economy.  I left them to their business, and moved into the forest along a soggy dirt track bisecting bamboo.  The forest on both sides was being used as a deliberate rubbish dump for the nearby factories, machinery and cars piled up the hillsides in an orderly fashion.  The trail opened out onto farmland, rice fields hugging a crescent curve of hills.

I wrapped around them to the town of Kashiwabara.  A Holy Roller moved past, his black priest's robes flowing behind as he rode his scooter to his next gig.  I meet another priest on the road, a nice young guy who seemed curious what I'm up to.  He tells me that he too lives in Kyoto, dividing his time between there and here.  Gesturing at his clothes, I joking ask if he's working, assuming that the priest job too is part time due to his full head of hair.  I carry on up the road again, behind a boy walking barefoot up the street.  A car pulls up, and a couple yells at him to get his ass home, to which he yells "No Way!' and moves along even more deliberately.

I cross the border into Gifu, the division here being a small stream.   The road is quiet, moving in and out of hamlets, then taking me into the forest again, through a narrow pass that helped determine the future of Japan.  Sekigahara lies on the far side, the site of the most decisive battle in Japanese history.  As I approach the town the clouds begin to build up like approaching armies, and just as I reach the town center the skies open up and then the deluge.  I stop in the covered front stoop of a bank to put a rain cover on my pack, for the only time of the four day walk.

It stops by the time I reach the tree lined outskirts of town.  These types of trees once ran the length of the Nakasendo, a great blessing on a hot August day such as this.  I don't doubt that walking the trail was much more of an ordeal back in the days before abundantly available vending machines and convenience stores.  But people were much fitter then, their basic level of walking ability much higher.  Plus they had more shade, and weren't forced to walk on all this hard asphalt. 

But despite the ache in my feet, I thoroughly enjoyed this particular section of the Nakasendo. Sadly, over the next two days, that feeling wouldn't return...

On the turntable:  Fishbone, "Truth and Soul"


Friday, August 17, 2012

Parting Fires

My son Ken is always close, but he's especially close this time of year, when the spirits of the dead are amongst us.  That first summer after his death, his voice accompanied me nearly constantly,  and I grew to believe that the conversations that we had in my head were actual conversations.  

I'm sitting on this train and the moment I think that I haven't heard his voice lately, immediately there's his "Daddy!" I'm here buddy.

I am here sitting with my pain.  I haven't been sleeping well lately, which isn't due to anxiety as much as that my mind races with the details of all I have to do these days, all this mental juggling.  It suddenly dawns on me that we all do this:  the girl sitting next to me; everyone else on this train.  We all have anxiety, worry, grief.  The causes are different, but the way it feels is the same. 

Too often I judge or dismiss people because I glimpse a single action at a single moment in time.  Static.  But humans are more complex than this, being completely at the mercy of the shifting flow of reality around them.  We are all so vulnerable and fragile.  I should be more accepting of others, bonded as we are in our shared pain.  

And later now, as the souls of our dead are sent off for another year, I chose to forgo a view of the hills ablaze, and instead stay indoors in order to light a stick of incense and share a few more minutes with my dear boy.  

No need to wait an entire year.  As long as I have a heart, you're always welcome my love...

On the turntable:  David Grier,  "Lone Soldier"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Roads to Somewhere...

In the midst of a third go round with Alan Booth's classic "The Roads to Sata."  I read it for the first time about six months after arriving in Japan, and didn't care for it much.  I was still in my honeymoon period as a newcomer to the country, and found Booth to be a grumpy drunk.  

I read it again a few months before leaving.  This time I found it brilliant.  I'd had the prerequisite experience to relate to most of what he depicts, especially as I too had walked into similar situations  and locales.  More than this, my particular mindset at the time was as one well out of love with Japan.  Booth's cynicism found a staunch supporter in me.

This time I'm once again six-months into a life here, yet have found that I'm quite even tempered about things.  I'm still enamored with that which appeals, yet much more tolerant of that which rankles.  The biggest difference in perspective in my reading this time relates to a different writer altogether.  

Back in the spring, I spent a little time with Mary King, who had just published her own book about walking Japan.  In our conversation, she told me that she found affinity in the fact that both she and Booth were adopted.  She was further delighted when I mentioned that I too am adopted.  We speculated on whether this lack of cultural blood identity feeds a sort of wanderlust, if being of unknown origins makes us natural seekers, yet able to adapt and find home wherever we are.  

On the turntable: 'Til Tuesday, "Voices Carry"
On the nighttable: Sheila Nickerson, "Disappearance:  A Map"

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Things go better with...what exactly?

Spent the weekend helping with the translation of a talk by the marketing director of a massive soft drink megaconglomerate.  As I plodded through, I tried to suppress those rising waves of disgust at how arrogant and patronizing this woman was.  No real surprise since we are all seen as a nameless, faceless, pulsing demographic, rather than as individuals with unique needs and desires.  I listened to her speak in this completely different language, amazed at how out of touch with the people those in business (and politics) are.  Spending time with this woman made me want to take a bath for a week. 

But as I got deeper into the work, I grew amazed at the deftness with which she flows with the changing times.  It became obvious how the world has shifted forever.  The consumer has been given a larger voice in how corporations target us with their marketing.  They are all over social media.  (It was mentioned that this particular soft drink company responds to each of their 15000(!) Tweets every day.)  Via our social networks, we can affect policy.  I imagine a similar thing must be brewing in the political world.  

We do have a forum, but only if we choose to be heard.

On the turntable:  Peter Murphy, "Unshattered"
On the nighttable:  Shusaku Endo, "Deep River"

Monday, August 13, 2012

Nakasendo, solo II

As I'm congratulating myself on how quickly I can move in the morning (I'm one of those annoying people who are able to wake up as if by the flick of a switch), I feel a drip down my arm.  Shit, my water reservoir is leaking.  It had acted strangely on that last hike I did with Wes, and now I see a nice little hole in the bite valve.  There are a few moments in the kitchen where I make like a Dutch boy, find the leak, and transfer the water over into a couple of nalgene.  I'm going to need it.  It's going to be hot again today.

On the train I'm feeling a bit self-conscious due to the wet spots on my shirt, that is until I notice that guy hanging off the strap in front of me reeks like a mosquito coil.  His T-shirt looms in front of me, its large font literally screaming, "Don't ask me 4 shit."  Sorry, bro.

I should have asked him about trains.  I'm lucky to find a seat in a busy commuter car.  I tuck into my book, and look up at one point to notice that Lake Biwa is on the wrong side.  Shit again.  I often tell people that I sometimes miss those early days when I was illiterate here, and hopping the wrong train being the impetus for adventure.  Well, this morning I've gone retro. 

I eventually get back to Yasu, where I finished the last walk.  The Nakasendo is right where I've left it.  Obon is coming up soon, and the temples are aflurry with sweeping brooms and splashing water.  There are quite a few dosojin along this stretch, freshly decorated with lovely purple flowers.  On the outskirts of town I come to Sakurabasama burial mounds.  The largest, Kabutoyama, has had a tunnel cut into the side, and at the end is a small chamber lit by an electrical source coming from somewhere.  At the center of the chamber is a large stone sarcophagus, lid pulled slightly aside.  The body is of course no longer here, but perhaps some trace of the spirit remains, so I apologize out loud for disturbing it,  then realize immediately that this could be the first time that this long-dead person has heard my native language.  While thinking this, the entire tomb shakes as the Shinkansen passes nearby.  I'm not the only one doing the disturbing.

I follow the Shinkansen tracks for awhile.  What would take me over two weeks of hard walking will be covered by the train in about 2 hours.  I'll parallel the line for the rest of the day, never more than 500 meters away, as the trains push the air along with an impatient whoosh.

The pushing of things aside is the perfect metaphor for the town of Shinohara.  It is another one of those bedtowns that has no time for that which isn't new and shiny and safe.  Here the Nakasendo signs disappeared quickly.  The few historical points seemed almost an embarrassment, like the hiding away of an elderly relative in some back room.  Just beyond a newly abandoned gas station is a small pond important in the life story of Yoshitsune, one of Japan's greatest heroes.  The area surrounding it is hemmed in by development, and the water of the pond itself is covered by an oily scum from all those trucks passing by a couple of meters away.  The only hint that this had once been a sizable post town are the placards showing the locations of what had been prosperous inns, staked in front of those lego-like instant homes designed by the most unimaginative of Tokyo's cookiecutter housing firms.   Even the more developed post towns have a section that retains somewhat of a look of the old.  Here nothing remains, least of which the dwarf bamboo from which the town of Shinohara took its name.

The next town, Musa, is entirely different.  I backtrack to the old river crossing, from which Hiroshige took his print of the town, and walk through a lovely little area of old buildings.  Near Oiso shrine I take a long rest in front of a house that is for sale.  I live out an entire life while sitting here:  of watching Sora grow up with the shrine and surrounding forest as her playground;  of converting the old sake shop next door into a cafe for shrine visitors, which would take on a hipster vibe with live music at night;  of the envy of friends as we'd walk from my front door and into the surrounding hills to explore the old temples up there;  of growing rice in one of the fields that stretches away seemingly toward Kansas.  A pastoral idyll, an hour from Kyoto.

Throughout the day, the sun plays peek-a-boo in the clouds, but it is hard to ignore the rising humidity.  It worsens as I am forced to march along Route 8 and all that traffic.  In the afternoon, I try to find some brief moments of cool in the shadow of the trucks backed up at every red light. 
Luckily I'm not on roads all day.  I cross the Echikawa down in its dry river bed, despite the signs warning me that water could be released from the dam upstream at any time.  I'm prevented from reaching the far side by about five meters of water, but rather than concede defeat and return back to take the bridge, I push through the reeds until I find a way across.  As I pour cooling water on the red welts and scratches on my legs I ponder why we men will stubbornly push on at great risk rather than prudently retreat to safety. 

Echikawa is a lovely stretch of road beneath the shade of trees.  Many of the homes look abandoned, trees and vines growing madly behind crumpling earthen walls.  A beautiful Taisho building is being sold as a residence despite looking more like a European bank.

The sun is low now so I walk the left side of the road in the shade of the two-story buildings.  My left hip is hollering loudly about something, so I take many rests, leaning against the iron shutters of yet another failed business. My feel feel like taiko bachi, which someone had been beating against the asphalt for the last six hours.  Two young girls bicycle past, one of them wearing a shirt emblazoned with, "Wishing you the Best."  Thanks, sweetie.

The last 7km are hard fought, but lovely Takamiya perks me up.  The grassy verge brings relief for the feet, beneath high zelkova trees that throw welcome shade.  A tap attached to the side of a house  offers cool and delicious water.  The town itself retains its historic look, marred somewhat by traffic a little too heavy for such a narrow street built for pedestrians.  Cars jerk sideways suddenly like crabs in order not to sideswipe one another.  One impatient driver brushes my hand with his mirror as he passes.

Finally the station.  Two elderly station workers sit in their air-conditioned office, watching Sazae-san on TV.   Waiting for my train, I think that I'd pushed it pretty close to my limit today.  And the scenery had hardly been worth it, through the worst of Shiga's suburbs.  The few sections of beauty had been too far between, offering the mind too little to distract it from the pain of going over all that asphalt.  The greater challenge was that it had been 35ºC degrees for most of the day, the humidity like a thumb.  Yet I had been set on my 30 km goal.   I make a vow that I'd set a 25/25 rule:  never going over 25km on a day that is over 25ºC. 

But within a week I was hoping to walk 94km over three days, across the broad Minō plain...

On the turntable:  Paul Simon, "You're the One"
On the nighttable:  Alan Booth, "The Road to Sata"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Papers: Joseph Campbell

"We must not confuse mythology with ideology.  Myths come from where the heart is, where the experience is, even as the mind may wonder why people believe these things.  The myth does not point to a fact;  the myth points beyond facts to something that informs the fact." 

--An Open Life

On the turntable:  Jerry Harrison, "Casual Gods"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Japan hail

I like how the JR ticket machines have that cute animated woman who pops up and gives you a little wave as you take your ticket, thus 'humanizing' the process.  

On the turntable:  一万 Maniacs, "Our Time in Eden" 

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Daughter Father

I come from a long line of strong women.  Pioneers, one and all, in their own way.  So it is that I feel it easier to communicate with women, easy to speak from a place without screens.

The birth of my daughter last year has effectively challenged my ideas of how I view women.  In thinking of her future, I find myself rubbing against my own misogyny, discovering a chauvinism that I didn't know I had.

I think of those things that she cannot do.  American-born, she'd be able to become president of that country, yet unable to be the Empress of the land that makes up the other half of her cultural identity.

Last autumn, on a visit to the Philmont Ranch, I walked through the small museum dedicated to the history of the place, and the history of the boy scouts in general.  I felt a slight sadness that my daughter will never be able to take part in many of those activities, (My friend dc was appointed the first woman Camp Director of Philmont, so she may have a different opinion.  I hope that she'll chime in if I'm wrong.)  In Japan, my daughter can never join me in my Shugendo training, never stand with me atop the weathered peak of Omine-san. 

I find myself worrying about her safety, in a world of perverts and abusive partners.  I don't think I ever thought this way about my son.  And I worry about her being relegated to her role as a second-class citizen.  Here in Japan, this discrimination is more overt, though I find that women here seem to find that place empowering and are comfortable in that identity.  I personally feel that Japanese women appear to be much freer than their American counterparts, who believe they are free yet are often stuck in the mire of gender politics.  I'm getting muddled here myself, but I'm trying to say that most non-American women, being of older, long established cultures, seem much more grounded in who they are.  Their identity is rooted in culture, not gender.  American women by contrast constantly seem to be seeking something.  My mother would of course rebut that these non-American women are operating from a position of default.  They may appear more free, but they lack the freedom to choose otherwise.  And again, this sexism on my part stems from my own position atop the social ladder as a reasonably young, reasonably secure white male.  My world view is shaped by, though by no means limited to, this position.

But what disturbs me most is my own relationship to a daughter.  In my mind's eye, I have always seen a future spent with a son.  I see us camping, hiking, shooting hoops; the usual tropes of male rites of passage.  Not that I can't share these my daughter, but somehow this doesn't visualize in the same way.  I want to believe that I feel this way because I lost my son at a young age, and will never have a chance to share those things with him.  So I enter into this new relationship with my daughter from a position of lack.  Which isn't at all fair to her.

With every week, she is growing into her own sense of being, and it is to watch the shaping of this personality that allows me to begin to see her own distinctiveness. And what I see stands apart from gender.  My child is simply my child.  

I look forward to watching her moving further into life, eventually taking on the role of teacher and challenging more of her old man's inherent preconceptions.

On the turntable:  Ziggy Marley:  "One Bright Day"
On the nighttable:  Edward Dorn, "Views/Interviews"

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Carnival of Sorts

In front of my house there's a high wall with large sakura trees on the other side. The wall surrounds the playground of an elementary school, and looking out over it from my house's second story gives one the illusion of space, open sky stretching away toward the mountains of Kitayama. 

In the evenings, the classrooms long emptied, there always seems to be something going on.  It is fun to guess by the sound coming into my house from across the road and over the wall.  The rhythmic thunk of a basketball.  The quick and harsh clacks of bamboo shinai.  The chatter of the baseball diamond.

Being summer now, the school kids on break, the sounds are different.  At seven a.m. sharp, radio taiso rouses us with its blaring distortion.  Then the brass, and the drums, of the marching band. I find it kind of funny that there are such bands here, despite the obvious lack of high school football.  From upstairs I watch what I can see from between the trees, catching the occasional glimpse of a methodically moving figure in uniform, the brilliance of color wilting in the rising heat.

On the turntable:  Roxy Music, "Live in Concert"

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sunday Papers: Richard Louv

"In the space of a century, the American experience of nature -- culturally influencial around the world -- has gone from direct utilitarianism to romantic attachment to electronic detachment.  Americans have passed through not one frontier, but through three."

--Last Child in the Woods

On the turntable:  Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball"

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Inter-dependant Arising at SamSarasa

Cooling with iced coffee at Sarasa Nishijin, perhaps my favorite Kyoto cafe.  When I lived at Daitokuji in the summer of '03, I used to come here a couple times a week, to have a Guinness (rare in those days) and a chat with the owner Aki-san about Tibetan Buddhism, Krishnamurti, and other things that go so well with an Irish stout. 

Anyway, I haven't seen Aki-san in years (a busy man, with six Sarasa branches to manage), but today the guy in charge was wearing a shirt with the words, "Number 2."  Ignoring the obvious scatological references, I was tempted to ask him, "Who is Number 1?" yet was afraid that he'd laugh in my face for assuming that I was a free man, and at my delusion in thinking that the decision to come in here today was of my own volition.  

On the turntable:  Slim Harpo, "The Excello Singles"

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Edward the Scrivener

Reading Seidensticker's book on Kafu Nagai, which is as much about Edo as it is about Kafu himself.  An epitaph of sorts, for what Edo was under the Shogunate.  The book could easily be considered the third book in a trilogy in Sedensticker's writings about Tokyo.  Makes me want to walk around the city and explore.

On the turntable:  Blondie, "The Best of Blondie"
On the nighttable:  Edward Sedensticker, "Kafu the Scribbler"