Saturday, May 25, 2013

Purity in Emptiness

'Wesak is that time at the Full Moon of May in which the Christ gathers the entire Spiritual Hierarchy together in meditation to invoke the forces of Shambhala.
The Buddha, representing those forces, appears and blesses humanity.'

We reached the top of the steps with the moon following, rising from the valley to bathe the upper trees.  The squat, perfectly squared roof of a small temple hall was beginning to glow with blue.  

Close to one hundred people were seated on the ground around the main hall.  I'd seen many of them at the cable car station below, representatives of two of Japan's current 'booms.'  The energy junkie yoginis in Thai pants and form-fitting tops sat cross-legged on the ground, slight smiles covering faces perched above perfectly straight backs.  Yama girls with large backpacks were perhaps a little overprepared for a night spent in the chilly heights.  

On the platform before the main hall, a very small woman of incredible years was chanting loudly, powerfully, as a group of monks wrapped in saffron responding in turn.  Mantra finished, she moved slowly toward the inner sanctum of temple, as a trio of young miko drifted from the wings, mouths covered in white surgical masks to keep their breath from soiling their offerings.  As they came to center stage, the monks started up in what was more song than chant, with a melody strangely reminiscent of a Christian hymn.  The flute, it too Western, came in, notes spilling over the crowd which passed flame from candle to candle.  I could've been in church.

The hymn shifted into chant again, and the whole crowd lifted their candles as one.  The monk's chant was interspersed with the voice of a woman translating it into English, both languages telling us that our combined light can dispel the darkness in the world, and before passing our light from one to another, we must first ignite the light within our hearts.

Moreso than the candles, my daughter was ignited by the light of the moon.  She passed back and forth around people on the ground, coming over occasionally to watch the miko float, or listen to the horns of the monks wail. Her frenetic movement drew angry looks from two or three in the crowd, and within my own self, agitation began to well up.  Yet all of us who'd come here for a dose of the spiritual -- particularly myself  -- should look to my daughter with profundity, at a being without pretense, perpetually in the now, a being completely spilling over with love and light.

On the turntable: Charlie Christian, "The Genius of the Electric Guitar"
On the nighttable:  Amy Chavez, "Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage"

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sunday Papers: Loudon Wainwright III

"Memory Lane is a dead-end street."

On the turntable:  Robin Guthrie & Harold Budd, "Before the Day Breaks"

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Above Oike

Above Oike, I sit in my hotel room, in a chair by the window.  The opposite side of the road, the north side, is lined with high-priced apartments, their perfectly squared forms nuanced with motifs ranging from Aztec to Miami Vice cool blue.  In one, a young woman stands on her balcony, one arm folded along the top of the rail, the other vigorously moving a toothbrush back and forth.  She is dressed in a simple T-shirt and slacks on this Sunday morn.  She stands there for a few minutes, turning her head to look east, turning her head to look west.  Then, her teeth satisfactorily polished, she turns toward the glass door behind her, pausing to look down at something by her feet, then goes behind the other side of the door. The screen is closed, glass door is closed, the lock twisted, the curtains closed behind her.  Six stories below, the traffic begins to hum...

On the turntable:  Joan Baez, "Forever Young"
On the nighttable:  George Samson, "A History of Japan"  

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Papers: Marty Plumbo

"Kyoto - the anagram-lover's Tokyo!" 

On the turntable:  Brute, "Nine High a Pallet"

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Nakasendo solo XIV

As it was the last day of the Golden Week holidays, I expected the Tokyo bound trains to be busy, so I caught the second Shinkansen of the day, near empty but for a few yawning people toting bags.  This enabled me to get to Fukaya by 10:30.  It took me a few minutes to find the road I'd left last November, then I headed toward where the sun was climbing, and granting people pleasant weather under which to play.

It wasn't too long before my own mirth began to waver.  There was very little appeal to the scenery, the plastic homes, the box stores, all neatly entwined by powerlines.  Cars ran past in a near constant hum.  I couldn't do much about what was before my eyes, by my ears were spared by my iPod, my mind partly occupied by the treatises on life and love by an all-star lineup of Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III,  Jane Siberry, Billy Bragg, Laurie Andersen, Steve Earle, and Vic Chesnutt.

The Nakasendo through Saitama seems remarkably unblemished by history.  Aside from the odd  jizo or stone carving, little remains.  No stuctures, no markers, nearly no explanatory signs.  The whole prefecture looks to be one big suburb, as uninteresting to walk as its Kansai counterpart Shiga.  Where that western prefecture certainly has history, I wondered what had happened here in the east. Had there been anything here, besides marshland and the occasional grove of trees? 

But I pushed on anyway.  At Kumagaya, the old road runs directly into a department store, and according to Walk Japan co-founder Dick Irving, on his webpage Nakasendo Way, "continues on a marbled passageway between perfume counters, silk scarves, umbrellas and flower stalls." I made it through Kumagaya without meeting a single bear, but I was distracted awhile by all you can eat pizza.

My stomach now as heavy as my feet, onward still, moving finally into a more rural area that abut the Arakawa River.  The road climbed to the top of the river's berm, possibly the highest point in Saitama.  I left it again all too soon, dropping down beside a small jizo hall, stone figurines surrounding my feet as I prayed.

There was a little charm as I moved beside a small canal lined with shade trees. A walking course ran parallel on the other side of the water, allowing visitors to enjoy the flowers that famously bring this village color.  But sadly all was gray for me, meeting Route 164 as it moved toward Konosu.  The skies above were also moving to gray, stalking me, looming over my shoulders.  Bizarrely, the sun broke through, as the clouds peeled to my right and left, leaving me alone and dry. 

There was a Brazilian restaurant, and a place that did Indian curries, now both closed.  Equally closed was the inn where I'd hoped to stay. Google maps told me that there was another hotel not far off the trail, but when I called I realized that it was a love hotel and it would be over three hours before I would be allowed to check in for an overnight stay.  If I needed to kill time, I'd rather push on toward a cluster of hotels seven km further on.

Had I stayed in Konosu, I'd have finished the day with 28 km, not a bad day's work considering the late start. But those seven additional km did my feet in.  When I limped into a family restaurant as the light fully left the sky, I had four blisters. The hotel was only a few minutes walk away, another love hotel, as I'd expected.  If you input 'hotels' into Google maps,  a great number of them will appear, the absence of a website being a clear giveaway. But love hotels have jacuzzis and big comfy beds, and in these I took comfort...

...I'd planned a modest day of 25km to the border of Saitama and Tokyo, and thought I'd sleep in.  But the wind had built overnight, banging something against the wall outside.  At first I'd thought it was the couple in the room next store engaged in some sexual judo, but the banging had a consistency that went well beyond any mortal's longevity.  Thus it was I was awake at five.  As I'd be on Rte 164 most of the day, I might as well hit the road before the traffic built up.

Breakfast was eaten in the parking lot of 7-11, legs extended in the sun, cooled by the gusts that waltzed about me.  The trudge down the road left me hungrier than the poor sugar laden bread had, and I walked along like a zombie, steps shortened to avoid putting too much pressure on the balls of my feet, where the blisters had appeared.

I'd never blistered this badly.  It was my shoes naturally, which I'd half expected when I'd left, but I needed this particular pair of footwear for the tour that I'd lead after finishing this walk.  It was a rite of passage of sorts, allowing me to find some connection with the writers who'd written about their own long walks, the opening chapters of their books filled with similar complaints.  So I soldiered on, following in the mincing little footsteps of those who'd come before. 

Any positive thoughts on the topic had left me by the time I got to Uruwa.  I'd had some relief in walking the hard-packed earth leading from Omiya's Hikawa Shrine, through the namiki of ginkgo more prevalent here in Kanto than the tall pines out in the west.  But my stops were growing more and more frequent.  Seeing a Burger King near the station, I spent a long time in the toilet, cutting and fitting moleskin to cover the balls of my feet.  I worried about taking so much time here, that the staff would think I was doing something untoward within, though the stink coming off my socks could definitely qualify as untoward.  But when I left, the only person who gave me a look was an older gentlemen with dandy dress and hands weighty with rings, the latter busy as they applied make-up to his soft but aging face. 

As I continued on through Uruwa, I found that I liked the look of it, almost as much I like the ring of its name.  Beyond it, I came to Warabi, the only town in all of Saitama that actually showed any appreciation for its history.  A few buildings had an older look (albeit the post feudal Nakasendo Meiji or Taisho styles), and there was actually a history museum, closed after the holidays.  Sadly, I was led to soon onto busy Route 17, also known by its alternative name of "Nakasendo."

The winds had grown incredibly strong by this point.  Mercifully, they been giving me a little push from the back all day, but the odd gust would force me to instinctively ground through my feet, an action made painful due to the blisters. The ground around me was littered with bicycles, not a single one upright on two wheels.  The wind was strongest as I crossed the bridge above the Arakawa River. 

On the far side I was finally out of Saitama.  Nearly immediately, I dropped down a slight hill, then up a higher one on the other side of one of those weird little bowls that this metropolis is dotted with.  I came around a little curve and popped onto a street whose atmosphere was unmistakably Tokyo.

I'd originally intended to stop a bit earlier at Toda, on the Saitama side of the river, but the state of my feet had made me want to push on and shorten the following day.  I'd taken a rest, then moved on an addition 3 km to where I knew there was subway station.   And arriving here, thus, I'd taken another short rest, then gritted my teeth and went 2 km further, before calling it a day.

Slowly it was that I moved down the stairs and through the labyrinth of the subway.  Descending wasn't so bad as I could balance on my heels, but going upward was agony, with nothing to do but put my weight on my blisters and push.  I made it eventually to Omotesando, and 246 Commons, where I sat with a beer and a plate of fries, in a vinyl-walled tent that moved so much in the wind that I nearly felt sea-sick.  As I sat here, I knew that there was little chance of my finishing the Nakasendo the next day.  I could physically hobble the last 10km to Nihonbashi, but then I'd been in no shape to begin my tour that evening.  A tour leader who limped would do little for the confidence of the customers. 

So, I table it to autumn.  While Saitama had done a number on my feet, I suppose I could congratulate myself on two long days across here hard surfaces, of 35 and 32 km respectively.  Rope a dope as it was, I call it a draw...

On the turntable:  The Magnetic Fields, "The Charm of the Highway Strip"
On the nighttable:  Oliver Statler, "Shimoda Story"

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Sunday Papers: The Dalai Lama

“Nothing is for just one generation.”

On the turntable:  Josh Rouse, "Nashville"