Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sketches of Shōnan

It's only six a.m., but the sun is surprisingly high in the sky.  Unable to sleep, I'd left my ryokan -- the one that Ozu and his screenwriter Noda often used when they wrote their scripts -- and walked the short distance to the beach.  The sun, surprisingly high in the sky, lit the actors as they moved about the sandy stage.  A small group of them were picking up the litter from the previous night, detritus from the town's annual festival. Some of the revelers were still in evidence, sitting or laying quietly on the cool sand.

A few fisherman stood gazing out at the water, the ends of their ridiculously long fishing poles stuck firmly into the sand.  The more serious fishermen glided out of the harbor in their boats, to take a position out on the watery horizon, bows turned in the same direction, the odd triangular shape of their sails resembling the tall rock that has become a local brand.  The way that they were arranged along the line of the horizon was like a still life.

A small fire sends slight puffs of smoke up above the low bluffs.  The scallop shell of Fuji hovers above us further inland, the green of the lower mountains huddling close.  The ridges in the sand attempt to mimic these mountains, shaped as they are by forgotten footprints.  Despite the absence of wind, these tiny ridges crumble and tumble down into their troughs.

Up the beach, a young girl walks incredibly, incredibly slowly, each step a deliberation as her long skirt flirts with her ankles.  She is a vision, her movements drawing my attention away from my book, as the allure of beauty and sex often does. 

The pace of her walk and the bucolic rhythm of the waves suits the pace of my own body and mind this morning, as I was pulled out of slumber yet again at an hour far too early.  The sea continues the theme of liquification of the previous day, which began with an unusual (for me) three-pint lunch, moving through coffee, until settling back on beer again.  As I lay in my futon earlier, I had pondered the elliptical shape that the interplay of time and drunkenness takes, awakening to the same feeling I get when I am midway through that second glass.  

Just as I am easing into the slowness here, a wake-boarder's violent dash into the shorebreak pulls me out.  It is a reminder of the day's natural acceleration, as the sound of traffic up on the road behind me thickens, and the vision of beauty in a long flowing skirt breaks into a run to her boyfriend's side, where together they look at what was captured by his video camera.

On the turntable:  Josh Rouse, "1972"
On the nighttable:  Donald Richie, "Private People, Public People"

Monday, April 29, 2013

If you knew Fuji, like I know Fuji...

In the land of Yamato,

It is our treasure, our tuletary god.

It never tires our eyes to look up

To the lofty peak of Mt. Fuji


While many man-made monuments have taken on the role of national icon—think Big Ben, or the Taj Mahal—it is quite unusual that a natural object has assumed the same role. 

The earliest Fuji customs date back to the Heian period.  The mountain was often celebrated in verse, and was rendered extensively in the Manyoshu, Japan’s earliest poetry anthology, dated to the 8th Century.  Fuji is presented as landscape, as a religious object, and as the source of artistic and aesthetic appreciation.  It was an idealized mountain, and as such Fuji was best viewed from afar. 

Mt. Fuji’s true notoriety rose with the rapid growth of Edo (known today as Tokyo) in the 17th Century.  The Tokugawa Shogunate’s victory at Sekigahara ushered in a power shift to the east.  The center of true political control was no longer to be found in the old capital of Kyoto, but in a former fishing village on the Kanto plain. 

In 1635, the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu created sankin-kotai , or system of alternate residence duty. This required the daimyo, feudal lords, to reside for several months each year in the capital Edo.  When the lords returned to their domains, they were required to

leave their wives and heirs in Edo, essentially a form of hostage keeping designed to ensure their continued loyalty to the shogunate. The daimyo had to use highways designated by the shogun, the best known of these being the Tokaido and the Nakasendo. 

The Tokaido connected Kyoto with Edo, running along the seacoast of eastern Honshū. The daimyo who traveled the highway did so accompanied by enormous retinues, as befitting their status.  A prominent feature of the Tokaido would have of course been Mt. Fuji, whose distinct shape would have accompanied the processions over a number of days. 

With their elaborate road systems, the Tokugawa had also created a  “culture of movement.”  Pilgrims followed the Tokaido back and forth to the pilgrimage sites of Ise.  This led to a rise in travel literature, both in the form of travel guides and woodblock prints (ukiyoe).  Hiroshige has come down to us as the name most associated with the Tokaido, and his work The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō  stands as the best sold series of ukiyo-e prints. It is said of Hiroshige that he was “perhaps less an artist of Nature than of the culture of nature.”  His colorful images helped place Mt. Fuji at the center of the Japanese consciousness. 

As Edo grew, so did Fuji’s reputation.  Helping promote this were the many Fuji pilgrims and pilgrimage associations.  Along with the prerequisite temples associated with these groups, they also constructed artifices know as Fujizaka.  These miniature Mt. Fujis were constructed from rocks and plants taken from the mountain itself.  Soil from the summit of the actual Mt. Fuji was placed on the summit of the fujizaka, in order to harness some of the spiritual power of the volcano.  Many pilgrims no longer had to go to the mountain, as the mountain had now come to them.  At the height of the Edo period, there were over two hundred fujizaka, and none have been constructed since the 1930s.  Fifty six survive today, including those at Teppozu Inari shinto shrine and Hatomori shrine.

During their stay in Edo, the daimyo lived in large estates across Edo, many of which had extensive grounds.  More than one daimyo had a small hill built upon the grounds in which to climb and observe mount Fuji, called Fujimizaka.   Since earliest times, mountains had been climbed in to order to survey the land.  These viewings were ritualistic, but also had certain politic motives, as it was a symbolic controlling or pacifying of the land. A very fine example is at the Hama Rikyu garden in Tokyo.  The term Fujimizaka is also shared by many of the hills around the city.  Meaning literally ‘hill from which to see Fuji,’  these spots had traditionally offered the best views of the mountains.  Sadly in modern Tokyo, these views have been relegated to mere glimpses, with the coming of the modern high-rise.  The final possible view of the mountain, albeit a modest section of Fuji’s northern slope, is about to be lost to yet another construction project.  

Along with the fujiko and their Fujizaka, ukiyo-e served as the third form of media that led to the urbanization of Fuji. Hiroshige’s contemporary, Hokusai, found the mountain to be his greatest muse, publishing two great works of the subject. His One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji set the mountain as a common feature across the Edo landscape—on the horizon, between buildings, through a window-- emphasizing the relationship between the lair of the gods and the Shogun’s city.  The face of Hokusai’s Fuji is seen from every angle, with the commonality between them all being Hokusai, and the viewer.

With the fall of the Shogunate and the end of the feudal period, “Westernization” came into vogue, and traditional Japanese arts and crafts were considered old-fashioned and hackneyed.  Ukiyo-e had lost their value to the point that they were used as packing materials.  In this way, they came into possession of Europeans, and served as a source of inspiration for the Impressionist, Cubist, and Post-Impressionist art movements. Claude Monet was particularly influenced by the strong colors and lack of perspective, and Vincent van Gogh was known to have owned a copy of Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road.

Mt.Fuji as a common motif of ukiyo-e was thus exported through these prints to become an understood icon of Japan.  European travelers of the period longed for their first shipboard view of the mountain, which no doubt signified the end of a long sea voyage.  Isabella Bird wrote a fine example of this at the beginning of her travel classic, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan:

For long I looked in vain for Fujisan, and failed to see it, though I heard ecstasies all over the deck, till, accidentally looking heavenwards instead of earthwards, I saw far above any possibility of height, as one would have thought, a huge, truncated cone of pure snow, 13,080 feet above the sea, from which it sweeps upwards in a glorious curve, very wan, against a very pale blue sky, with its base and the intervening country veiled in a pale grey mist. It was a wonderful vision, and shortly, as a vision, vanished. Except the cone of Tristan d'Acunha--also a cone of snow--I never saw a mountain rise in such lonely majesty, with nothing near or far to detract from its height and grandeur.  No wonder that it is a sacred mountain, and so dear to the Japanese that their art is never weary of representing it.  It was nearly fifty miles off when we first saw it.

Travelers today – Japanese and foreign alike – still thrill at the sight of the mountain.  As the Shinkansen Bullet Train races past at over 270 kph (167 mph), all heads turn for a glimpse of Fuji, her brilliant snow-covered crown rising almost ephemerally above the land that she best represents. 

On the turntable: Natalie Merchant, "Leave Your Sleep"

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Papers: James Kirkup

"Life in Japan made a new person of me.  I learned here, sometimes painfully, how to live and how to write.  Japan has taught me to have to courage to be myself, to be an individual and solitary in a civilization where conformity is the rule and solitude the exception. [...] Beyond the pettiness of much of Japanese life, and beneath much that is ugly on the surface, there is a profound, vast, resonant affirmation of life, a sense of ultimate quiet and eternity in everything, a mythological unity."   

On the turntable:  Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "Will the Circle be Unbroken"
On the nighttable:  Brian Moeran, "A Far Valley"

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fuji Circuit Haiku III

Winter snows
Under summer sky.
Framed in spring.

Fuji's body reflected
On the placid surface
Of the hot springs.

Awake to the east,
Fuji pulls back the sheets
As I slumber.

Twice a year, the sun rises directly behind Fuji, a phenomenon known as "Diamond Fuji." This morning, I was lucky enough to witness the spectacle.

On the turntable:  Johnny Osbourne, "Truth and Rights" 
On the nighttable:  Ivan Morris, "The World of the Shining Prince"

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Papers: Tom Waits

"I don’t like to take planes because I have too many things in my pockets and it’s too confusing in the airports. I have a lot of things in my pockets they disagree with in security.”

On the turntable: "Borrowed Tunes II:  A Tribute to Neil Young"


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Evolutionary Biography

I spent the better part of the winter reading Norman Sherry's masterful biography of Graham Greene, a marathon labor of love twenty-five years in the making.  Letters to and from Greene hold it all together.  I worry about biography in the digital age, at the inaccessibility of email locked behind passwords, the 'owner' having taken the key to his grave.  But perhaps there is no longer any need for biography at all, as social media has made us all our own auto-biographers.  

On the turntable:  Vic Chesnutt, "West of Rome"
On the nighttable:  Hisao Kimura, "Japanese Agent in Tibet"


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Papers: John Keats

'[N]othing startles me more than the Moment.  The setting sun will always set me to rights -- or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel."

On the turntable:  Sonny Landreth, "The Road We're On"

Friday, April 12, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #70

Yesterday's Sakura
Reflecting upon
A lost youth.

On the turntable:  Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon, "Clone"

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #69

Every rustle of bear grass
A direct attack
On a jittery mind.

On the turntable:  Spiritualized, "Let It Come Down"

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #68

The autumn harvest,
Born and raised
By the snows of Ontake.

On the turntable:  Shawn Colvin, "Cover Girl"

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #67

Legs bent to flee,
Serow rooted in place
By curiosity.

On the turntable: Susheela Raman, "33 One-third"

Monday, April 08, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #66

Powerful winds
Borne of storm,
Bend even the road.

On the turntable: Greyboy, "Mastered the Art"

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Sunday papers: Robert Graves

"There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either." 

On the turntable:  Soulive, "Doin Something"

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #65

Last remnants of snow
Swept from the hilltops.
Springtime winds.

On the turntable:  Joe Cocker, "The Ultimate Collection"

Friday, April 05, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #64

Sakura petals
Adorn the head of Kannon;
Birdsong adorns my own.

On the turntable:  John Hiatt, "Walk On"

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #63

No trace of life
In Saigyo's old home,
Yet his spirit appears
In every petal.

On the turntable:  Jackson Browne, "The Very Best of Jackson Browne"

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #62

An array of hues
Waiting in the wings,
As winter takes a final bow.

On the turntable:  Paul Pena, "Paul Pena"

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Nakasendo Waypoints #61

Black jagged edges
Of the castle keep,
Tempered by ovals of pink.

On the turntable:  Steve Forbert, "The American in Me"

Monday, April 01, 2013

Kyushu Expedition IV

The early ferry departure meant I'd miss the hotel's breakfast, but I considered that an acceptable risk.  I'd been looking forward to seeing Sakura-jima, but she was fogged in.  Kaimon more than made up for it a little further on, lengthening herself upward as if the entire southern tip of Kyushu was stretching after a night's sleep.

It was sunny when we arrived on Yakushima.  My driver was waiting there, and he quickly whisked me and my luggage toward the mountains at the island's center.  He kept up a steady patter as we wound up into the hills.  I enjoyed talking with him about the island, but then he started getting into the usual 'foreigner this, and foreigner that.'  For example, when I was asking him about Yamao Sansei (a famed ecology writer who had lived here), rather than have a conversation about him, the driver chose to ramble about how surprised he was that a foreigner knew about him.  Etc.  Even worse was that when I asked him for information about the mountains here (vital info to anyone about to do a multi-day hike), everything he told me I later found to be false. Along the way, we passed a few deer, along with a monkey sitting nearby like he was their shepherd.  My driver went on about how rare it was to see them, yet I saw deer and monkeys throughout the entire hike.  I also found some comfort in his telling me that all the vipers were down by the sea and not in the hills, but later a ranger set me straight.

I had a quick informative chat with a ponytailed ranger at the trailhead, then set off.  From the first few steps it was easy to see the inspiration that Miyazaki Hayao found here, with the trees and the moss intermingling in a way that was almost social. There were more shades of green here than I thought possible, the fresher hues springing from the darker tones of the dead.   It is wonderful to be alive in a place that has so much life, and how sad that this same feeling of wonder we get is a testament to the fact that such places are becoming rare.  As I moved upward, I felt as if I was part of it, rather than simply hiking through.  How easy it would be to just sit down and become a permanent part of the landscape.   

The peaceful atmosphere was contagious.  Intermittently I'd pass a cluster of kids that were part of a Tokyo school group, and they were all in the same awe that I was.  At the top of the pass I talked awhile with one of their ranger guides, who had been working here for eighteen years, and I wondered the shape awe takes when it is tempered by time.

As I dropped over the other side of the pass, the mud creaked in a way that sounded exactly like the forest sprites in Mononoke.  The trail arrived eventually at an old rail line once used for logging. Boards had been laid between the rails for easy walking, and to ensure safety on the multiple bridges that spanned fast moving water pregnant with snow melt.  It was fun to move along this line, yielding occasionally to the groups of walkers returning from a day trip to Jomon sugi.  Yet this stretch carried on like this for a good hour, so it was a relief to leave it for real trail again, utilizing the exposed system of roots for foothold as the trail steepened.

Atop this next section was Wilson Stump, a small clearing at the center of which was a massive hollowed out stump.  Ducking within, I entered a space bigger than most Japanese apartments.  Water flowed through off to one side, and I could imagine the starlight that would come through the natural skylight above.  Being within what had once been a mighty organism was profoundly spiritual, a feeling that would have gone back for centuries beyond the time when the small stone shrine had been placed within.  I sat outside in the clearing awhile eating a Clif bar, as a ranger photographed a group of the Tokyo teens, who posed as if they were the next big thing.

Upward still, the hikers becoming scarce.  The face of Jomon-sugi looked wise.  This grey and wrinked visage predates all but the rocks beneath it. I stayed here and stared at it as it stared back, both of us maintaining our silence.  I debated staying at the nearby hut as I heard it isn't used much and thought I'd be alone.  I liked the idea of walking back to Jomon Sugi in the dark, the two of us silently pondering the stars.  But I'd heard good things about the newer hut an hour further on, which also would shorten the following day.  

The trail reached a definitive top of something, and the sea of clouds rolled in to covered all I'd walked earlier.  The hut came up quicker than I thought, but there were already others there, all of them university students but for an older man who kept to himself in one corner.  I took an adjacent corner, then went outside to eat my dinner of cheese, jerky, and three day old onigiri.  The latter crumbled as I ate it, but I tried to catch every grain of rice as it dawned on me that I'd shorted myself a day's ration of food.  Completely unprompted, one of the college students offered me some miso, which warmed me before I crawled into my sleeping bag.  I was glad I'd brought my winter bag, due to the fact that I was sleeping at 1500 meters and the night went below freezing.  (Many hours later, I enjoyed the stars as I took my prostate for a walk, but the cold kept me from enjoying them too long.)  A small group of students actually had the temerity to cook within the hut itself, despite the rest of us trying to sleep.  I thought of trying to pass myself as a ranger who catered to foreign groups and tell them off, but I wasn't sure if cooking inside was actually forbidden.  They did try to keep quiet, but for the occasional bursts of laughter, and one guy who seemed to say, "Butter," every third sentence...

...at four the usual hut racket began, despite two full hours until daylight.  It began with an alarm, and the crescendo built from there.  The others were quiet as they packed up, but my indoor cookers gradually began to talk in more conversational tones that I could hear despite my earplugs.  "Urusai! (Shut up!)," I roared at them, before drifting off to sleep again.  

I awoke again as light was coming into the sky.  I was sleepy as I set out again, after a meager breakfast of bread and some chocolate covered coffee beans which worked as well as the real thing.  I'd had a lousy night's sleep, but felt energized as I stayed above the cloud layer which glowed gold.  The trees grew more and more gnarly, then stopped.  I pushed on through a layer of low shrubbery of a brilliant green, whose small twigs helped on the sections of trail slippery with ice.  I reached a trail junction, stashed my bag behind some boulders, and thus unencumbered, shot across the ridge to Nagata-dake, an imposing spire that offered fantastic views on this sunny morn.  A young hiker from Okayama joined me, having come up an adjacent trail.  We talked awhile, both of us basking in the glory of the morning, then I doubled back toward my pack.

It wasn't long before I reached the top of Miyanoura-dake.  I sat up here awhile, eating a Clif bar and watching Sakurajima push her plume of ash into the sky far to the north.  I smiled at the thought that everything from here was down.  Whether it was due to my heavy pack, lack of food, a winter spent indoors, or (sadly) age,  I'd really felt it this time around.  

The descent was down through more shrubbery, punctuated with massive boulders strewn all across this upper strata of the island.  An hour or so later, I ate my lunch beside the marsh at Hananoego, in conversation with an older man from Shizuoka who was a bit of a quiet soul. Then descended more to eventually arrive at Yodogawa Hut.  I'd expected to get here by four o'clock but was only one-thirty. That's okay I thought, I have books, gorgeous environs, and good weather.  I sat there awhile, then the mind began its usual scheme and I was back on my feet before the clock struck two.  

I made the last bus of the day, received the okay to stay an extra night at the inn where I had a booking the following night, and from there I more than made up for my lack of food, plus got a bath, beer and a futon as a reward...

...the next day I took the bus back up to Yakusugi Land in order to scramble up Tachu-dake.  I sat upon this flat slab of rock to eat my bento, then took my time descending through a landscape of massive trees and fast rivers that I can't imagine I could ever find tiring.  A friendly deer kept me company until my bus took me back to the bath, beer, and fried flying fish...

...and yet another day, with a hired taxi taking me along the coast through villages more Okinawan than Japanese.  There were waterfalls, the forboding peaks of Mt. Mocchomu, flyers  for yoga and massage stapled to poles, and coffee shops set in the jungle, all of them conspiring to conjure up images of a life lived on this island.


But there was also a ferry.  At sunset I was back in Kagoshima, sitting in what was formerly the stronghold of the Satsuma-han, drinking beer brewed there on the hilltop premises, and watching Sakurajima fade as a storm rolled in.  The storm held off until I could have a Saint Patrick's Day pint in a bar that smelled strongly of wet dog.  

But I hold the rain responsible for an aborted attempt to get to the top of Karakuni-dake.  I disembarked in Kirishima Jingu, a town with a bright a new train station, which doesn't quite dazzle you to the point where you fail to notice the scent of raw sewage coming from beneath the grates of the town's main drag. As if in protest, the businesses in the area have long been shuttered.  I ponder whether to wait an hour for the bus or hitch, and as I'm examining the bus schedule, a couple of taxi drivers who obviously moonlight as comedians came over for a chat.  I thumbed a ride partway to the trailhead, but the weather forced me to retreat to Kirishima Shrine, where the priests climbed the steps beneath umbrellas of oiled paper. I decided to head north.

A wise choice.  The weather cleared as I sat that same evening in an onsen in Fukuoka, and later enriched the words "Happy Hour,"  the only downpour being the craft beer that went from pint-glass to gullet.   

On the turntable:  Captain Beefheart, "Grow Fins Rarities"