Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Deep Kyoto: Walks released!

Just quick note that the book Deep Kyoto: Walks is available as an ebook on Amazon!  A year in the engendering, it's time to release this baby into the wild! Naturally, any help you can give to find this child a home would be highly appreciated! 

More details are here: 

Amazon link:  

On the turntable:  Bob Dylan, "Slow Train Coming"

Monday, May 19, 2014

Even Further on Basho's Narrow Road... (Narrow Road Signs III)

At the foot of prayers
Etched in stone:

Freshly cut grass.

Mimics the chanting of monks
Within the Benten hall

Petals upon the trail,
Envy the longevity of
The maples' fresh green.

Basho, Sora, Ekaku.
Companions drinking sake
On the rocks.

Two ducks sail the waves,
Riding out the tempest
In the rice paddy.

Zen master sea gulls
With their scolding cries of 'Now!'
Follow me from Sado.

Flotilla of fleur-de-lys
Sails up the narrow stream,
Moving toward summer.

After jumping the rooftops
Beneath the full spring moon,
Weary ninjas sleep in.

On the turntable:  Headlights, "Daytrotter Session"

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday Papers: Leonardo da Vinci

"Wipe the dust from awareness."

On the turntable: Air, "City Reading"

Friday, May 09, 2014

Sea of Japan to Biwa...revisted.

Before walking the Hōkuriku-dō last December, I spent a fair amount of time deciding which of the two routes to take to the east shore of Lake Biwa.  What bothered me was that neither of those routes connected with the Nishi Ōmi-ji on the western side.  There was a road by that name, but I knew that it wasn't the real thing.  In Japan there are plenty of highways that take the monicker of an older route which traditionally lay close by, but not necessarily directly beneath.  I found what I thought was the most likely course, and decided that I'd walk that.  

Then one day, I came across a different map which showed the true route I'd been seeking.  The road didn't branch off the Hōkuriku-dō at all, but started its southbound journey from the western outskirts of Tsuruga city.  And rather than follow the broad river valleys, it snaked its way into the mountains, before rushing headlong toward Japan's largest lake.  

And so it was that I once again found myself on the first train bound for Tsuruga.  What is it about towns on the Sea of Japan that makes them look so tired? It took me a good hour to actually walk out of the city and into the rice fields that were in an earlier point in their planting cycle than those I'd been walking through earlier in the week.  

There wasn't a single trace that this had once been an old road.  Rather, it was busy with farm vehicles, with absurdly wide sidewalks, despite the dearth of bicycles out here.  I looked at the parallel roads to the right and to the left, but those too were lined with newer houses, lacking the usual wonderful line-up of old Edo period structures.  

The morning started muggy, but began to cool as I climbed, not due to the change in elevation which was very steady and gradual, but more from the wind coming off the sea, pushing me along, urging me toward the hills.  The landscape never seemed to change, just that bland, broad highway moving slowly on. There was a lone Jizo, and a majestic old tree.   Other than these, the road remained featureless.  I grew bored pretty quickly, and began to sing songs by Paul Weller.  That's entertainment.  

The mountains rose to meet me.  As they did, the road became a single track, which began to trace the bank of a concreted river.  This took me through a number of small farming communities.  Just beyond them, the concrete and the asphalt dropped away, and I happily found myself walking on bare earth.  My eyes were occasionally turned up toward the hillsides, as the memory of a bear warning sign that I'd seen further below resonated within my head.  But it was important to look down sometimes too.  Not too far along into the forest, I saw a sign pointing down a side trail in the direction of a Jizo that had been carved onto a giant, split bolder.  I followed this overgrown and unused trail until I saw a hut covering the stone upon which was imprinted a deity many centuries old.   As I took a step to investigate a smaller statue nearby,  I noticed a snake of a meter or more, moving slowly past my feet.  
The rest of the morning I followed the path as it hugged and crisscrossed the river.  It looked as it must have in feudal times, and I mused on this while walking along, climbing gradually into fresh green.  The forest around me was filled with birdsong, and if the constant chatter and squeals were any indication, rife with monkeys unseen in the trees.  On the final approach to the pass, the clouds began to roll in, and it wasn't long before the "potsu potsu" began.  Luckily there was a shelter at the top where I could sit and eat lunch.  The rain didn't last very long, but the clouds remained close.  Rather than linger, I headed quickly down the other side. 

The road here was paved as it moved toward the valley, eventually joining a broader one when it finally flattened out an hour later.  I continued on, chasing the shadows of clouds which blew along the road's surface in the direction of the lake.   Frogs serenaded me as I went.  They were given a standing ovation by two towering rows of dawn redwood trees, which ran in parallel on either side of the road.  It was puzzling that these trees were here, as this species is more commonly found in the Sichuan Province of China.  But here they were, shading me for the next few kilometers.  I've read a great deal about the namiki shade trees that once lined great stretches of the old Japanese highways, offering the traveler respite from the sun and the weather.  I'd seen patches of them here and there during my journeys, but never a strand so grand and unbroken as these.  

The redwoods begat chestnut orchards, which in turn begat rice paddies.  Approaching one, I saw a man standing over a woman sitting on the bank, her arms stretching behind her to support her weight. This was the body language of the young, for no old farm woman would sit like that.  As I drew closer I saw that this couple were probably still in their thirties, smiling and seemingly happy at this rural setting and life in which they found themselves.  I imagined them as recent city transplants chasing a dream, an impression created for no other reason than their newish clothes and the slightly perplexed expression on the man's face as he looked at his newly flooded fields. 

I checked my GPS, which told me I had 35 minutes to get to Ominakasho station, from which my desired train would leave in 30.  The next train would depart an hour after that.  I picked up my pace, nearly speed walking, keeping it up for the final three km, before breaking into an outright run for the last few hundred meters.  God I hate running!  Each slap of foot on pavement brought shooting pains into the lower buttock muscles on the right side, a place that usually begins to ache this far into a walk.  I'd done 30 kilometers on the day, and as usual, the last five began to hurt.  But I was proud that I'd done this distance in six hours, a blazing speed made more remarkable by the fact that I had climbed over 600 vertical meters in crossing the pass.    

I made it to the platform seconds before the train pulled in.  And with that, my feet came to rest.  While there are still a few longer routes I'd like to walk  -- four days on the Ise Kaidō, about a week on the Kumano Kōdō -- in terms of distances that can be measured in day trips, there were no more roads in Kansai left for me to walk. 

On the turntable:  The Beatles, "The White Album"
On the nighttable: Winston Davis, "Dojo:  Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan"

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Road to Kameoka

The bus ride was a film played in reverse, as it followed the course it had the week before.  Where on that journey I had been surrounded by young schoolgirls, today it was their male counterparts, filling the bus with their musky hormonal scent.  Along the way I noticed other hormones in action, that of a blue heron striding across a rice paddy, taking broad deliberate steps through the mud, as if tiptoeing up to its potential mate standing nearby.

The bus dropped me off it Hatta again.  I moved up the road under the bright sunshine, a brilliant example of just how good the weather can be in May.  Entering a village further on, I heard a rapid tapping from around the next bend, and assumed it was a carpenter getting an early start to the morning.  But there in the street was a lion, carrying on its shoulder a man's head, which was smoking a cigarette.  There was another lion a few houses away, swirling and spinning in the gravel yard.  Beside him was the source of the banging, a tall man beating a simple tattoo on a small drum to keep time, as a pair of flutes trilled a repetitious tune into the morning air.

A housewife standing nearby told me that this troupe came up from Ise once a year, traveling and performing around Kansai and the Chugoku areas. As a fan of classic Japanese cinema, I have a number of times seen films that used these traveling actors as protagonists.  I'd like to pursue this more as a subject of research for a book, these old troupes that would wander the roads of Japan, literally singing for their supper.  It was quite fortuitous then to come across this lion dance, this shishimai, going house to house.  I had originally intended to do this walk a couple of days before, but the bad weather had forced me to postpone. Had I done so, I'd have missed this encounter completely.  Blessed by the gods I am.

The villages here were more spread out than they had been over the passes to the west, the patchwork of fields between much broader.  There were fewer shrines and temples as well.  I did find a Inari shrine up a low hillside, weathered and dull.  A trio of dull orange torii leads further up the hill before giving up, almost in exhaustion.  The forest beyond was overgrown and strewn with bamboo fallen in a long ago storm.  Back on the road below, I saw a number of stone lantern written with the characters for Atago, as well as one old road marker pointing the way, a testament to the fact that pilgrims had once followed this road while on pilgrimage to that sacred peak.   

I crested a low pass, then dropped toward Kameoka.  Along the way, I passed Yu no Hana Onsen, or 'Flowering Hot Springs.'  Though what was really flowering was an acidic cocktail of sulfur and burning plastic.  Perhaps what I was smelling was the captive oni of legend, whose tears contributed to the magical qualities of the waters.  Apparently that had been good enough reason for John Lennon and Yoko Ono to once pass the night here.

On the outskirts of town, a series of streams crisscrossed the plain, its clean waters providing raison d'etre for the sake brewery which imposed a proud presence in wattle and brick amongst all the surrounding shops and homes. As the town's density increased,  I grew a little concerned that I'd have difficulties following the path.  I'd already spotted its likely path on my GPS, but was concerned by my rapidly dwindling battery.  Yet the road itself never let me down, never lost the traditional look of low homes lining its narrow passage.   

The townspeople had come through too.  Once in the town proper, the signage began, leading me through a number of right-angled turns befitting a castle town.  And if the direction continued to remain in doubt, both sides of the road were paved with light brick.  I followed this yellow brick road and navigated the turns, paralleling the old castle moats whose waters were partly responsible for the riot of colors in bloom everywhere I turned.

I quite liked this town, having never seen its true face before.  My only experiences here had been traveling the unattractively busy Route 9 along the outskirts, or walking through the bland suburbs up to the hilltop temple of Hōsen-ji where I'd polish my zen a few times a year.  Today I saw well preserved homes, narrow lanes free of utility lines, and ample signage to explain it all. 

I arrived finally at Umahori Station, reuniting me with a section of the San-in-do that I'd followed out of Kyoto back in 2008.  Not far from the station stood a single fifteen-story monolith, rising to flip the bird at the traditional part of town.  I remember many nights sitting in meditation at the temple in the hills above, looking down at these lights ablaze, the darkness beneath cut only by the trains pulling in and out like glow worms.  Since I knew that the trains ran through at twenty minute intervals, I was able to cheat and use them to time the meditation, waiting for the 8:39 to come in to signal a mere minute remaining until I could relieve the pain in my knees.  Today too, the train proved a respite for weary legs, as it bisected the steep gorges that cut into Atago's flanks, then dropped me into the heart of the Old Capital.

On the turntable:  J.J. Cale, "J.J. Cale Live"

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Sunday Papers: Wendell Berry

“Stop somewhere, and begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.”

On the turntable:   Warren Zevon, "The Wind"

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Road to Sasayama

Once again the weatherman lied.  He'd promised me clear sunny skies, but all was dull and grey.  My train moved beneath, pulling out of an equally grey Osaka, and heading northwest into the hills.  In the seat before me, a young high school couple sat, heads close, sharing a look at a smart phone, or perhaps sneaking kisses.  At one stop, the boy abruptly got up and sat down beside me.  I was puzzled, until about fifty other kids wearing the same uniforms filled the carriage.  I liked this whole scenario, of this young couple hiding a love found during a longer commute.

From the train, I saw signs of spring coming back into the land.  A farmer was turning slow circles around his field upon a tractor.  Neighboring fields had already been flooded.  The rice would go into the ground within the week.

I disembarked.  Wisteria crawled upon the trees above the station, purple streaks amidst the new green.  The residents of this small village were a bit taken with my foreign presence, something I wouldn't have expected this close to the cosmopolitan centers of Osaka and Kobe.  I wandered away and out into the grid of rice paddies, the world doubled due to the placid water in the fields. 

Today, I was following the Sanin-do, one of the most ancient of roads, which led from Kyoto to Izumo Taisha. I had lived just off it during my 12 years in Yonago.  This particular section was known as the Sasayama Kaidō, named after the frontier town into which I would walk an hour later.  A castle had been built here by the Tokugawa, in order to keep watch on the powerful lords to the west.  The narrow streets parallel to the castle ruins still retained their feudal look, and the newer shops of downtown could hardly be called contemporary.  The '60s look of their frontages mimicked the stock beyond the doors.  There was the bamboo and wicker shop, the kimono shop, the shops which sold only umbrellas. Black beans seemed to be the coveted souvenir here, being sold out of wooden bins everywhere.  

There was a bizarre double retro vibe going on here, as if fifty years ago the town fathers had decided to celebrate the town's history but preserving it, yet the town of that time had found itself unintentionally preserved as well due to stalled economic growth.  Sasayama appeared to be capitalizing on this, and it was working.  New life had evidently flowed in, personified by the younger, hipper presence here, in the form of a woman in her flowing India clothing, hanging more of the same upon the racks of her boutique.  I saw two cafes run by men in ponytails, and some rather progressive menus written in colorfully swirling chalk lettering.  These artist types had been charmed enough to relocate here, and I too felt the spell.  I promised myself a return trip for further exploration. 

But I didn't linger long, and moved once again out amongst the fields.  They had done some remarkable things with the trees here.   Many of them lined the banks of the fields, hinting that strong winds must blow wild out here.  A pair of real giants towered above the small Jizo hall nestled at their feet.  Many of the homes still retained their thatch roofs, one of which having recently been replaced, glowing bright and green like fresh grass.  Flowers both wild and domestic added such a rich burst of hues that almost made me forget the grey clouds above.   Hand in hand with all this new life came the inevitable partner, death: a snake, and later on a frog, lay crushed into the asphalt.   

The Sanin-do carried the burden of its age with a certain weariness.  All-night lanterns were overgrown with creeping vines.  Memorial stones of an ancient vintage lay in the weeds to the side.   Deities resided in wooden structures that were rotting and covered in mold.  Even the few shrines I passed had simple torii of a few tree trunks merely lashed together, the shrines behind being of an underterminable age. Underlying this all was the immature voices of juvenile frogs who tested their new legs by raising themselves from their beds of mud.      

This valley was broad and easy for farming, the road unobstructed as it moved arrow-straight through a chain of villages.  These communites must have gone back far more than a millenium, back to a time when clans were migrating from the provinces toward a Yamoto state just being born.  The shrines all dated to this time, when chieftains held far less sway than the gods.  The rain sodden gate of one of these gave off the scent of wood as I approached.  I took a rest at a different shrine further on, one even older, with a certain air of mystery.  As I sat before yet another massive tree, the caretaker came out and began telling me a bit of the shrine's history, and about the festivals that were still held every year.  There was a selection of black and white photographs commemorating a time when the shrine was the cohesive bond for the community, a bond that would begin to erode once those same photographs were put into a electronic box and began to move. 

As I left the protection of the shrine, a squall rolled over and unleashed upon the paddies, and upon me.  I took shelter in a bus stop for a few minutes until it relinquished its urgent intensity. The rain itself kept on, so I pulled out my umbrella and followed suit.   As if a co-conspirator with the weather to my misery, my narrow road merged with the busier highway, and I began moving uphill against the trucks that doused my trousers with the mist coming off their tires.  

Approaching Anabiki Pass, I eventually found a section of the old road that helped me to avoid the unpleasantness of a long tunnel.  It wove and wound up the slope, littered with leaves and small branches.  At the pass was the obligatory Jizo, this particular one turned toward the hillside which was in a rapid state of deforestation.   But the forest got its own back, as one section of the road had fallen into the valley below, the white guardrail twisted and extended out over the abyss in a gesture of pleading. 

Until this point the walk had been fantastic, the Sanin-do well preserved, despite a few short sections on the busier highway.  The remaining hour unfortunately stayed with the new road, and though expecting a descent after the pass, I found myself climbing again.  The highway crossed the next pass in a series of S-curves, and without a real shoulder, I had a few tense moments of walking upon the road itself, into blind turns.   Over the top, and I was given perhaps a meter of space, as the oncoming traffic slowed and veered around me.  

Looking down into the valley, I noticed the ghosts of old rice paddies, their terraced shapes obvious and unnatural.  I imagine that the fields had provided the food for the tea houses that had surely been atop this pass.   But even these would be lost soon, judging by the tree-felling being done above, as well as further done the valley.  Based on the curves of the road earlier, I imagine a tunnel is to be bored beneath, the new road laid atop those traces of fields.  But who cares about history when you can shorten the drive by five minutes?  I supposed there's some consolation to be found in the fact that the new road will be true to the original route of the Sanin-do.  

I walked into Hatta, and found my bus stop.  I had about twenty minutes until the bus arrived, so looked for a place to charge my phone.   The adjacent police box was open, with no one around.  It did have an outlet, so I plugged in and sat awhile.   When the bus came I boarded and rode the final eighteen kilometers into Kameoka, joined at some point by two dozen school girls, which served as a bookend of sorts to the day.  I was surprised that the bus avoided the main highway and followed the Sanin-do itself, making us the latest set of travelers moving along this, the most ancient approach to the old capital...

On the turntable:  The Band, "Live at the Academy of Music"
On the nighttable:  Art Davidson, "Minus 148º"