Friday, September 30, 2016
It wasn't how I'd pictured the morning going. I had envisioned scenes of walking through the dark predawn streets of eastern Kyoto, watching the world awake and scurry off to work and school.
Instead, I got rain, buckets of it. The weather forecast had shown a dry window from midnight to lunchtime, and I'd been a fool to believe it. In fact it was the rain that had woken me, not long before the five o'clock alarm. I debated going back to sleep, but trusting that the skies would clear, I hopped on my bicycle and headed south to Demachiyanagi. The steady drizzle that I rode through turned to downpour with my first few steps, but I thought I'd carry on anyway, weather be damned...
Until 15 minutes or so later when I remembered the words I use when I tell my walking clients that I was calling a day off: "If it isn't enjoyable, what's the point?" And it wasn't. The scenes of life I'd hoped to see were non-existant, my world view shrunk to that which fit beneath my umbrella. I decided to go as far as Yase station and if it were still raining, I'd head home.
I pushed on toward Kitaoji. A row of low-income housing formed a canyon on my right, while to my left were some newly-built luxury flats. Typical Japanese incongruous zoning. I like the idea of these two economic classes coming together in the middle for a street party, but I knew that that was an illusion, one enhanced by the Billy Bragg songs I was listening to to help me forget the rain.
And before long, the weather lifted. While the skies didn't exactly clear to a brilliant blue, the rain did stop. And a certain beauty appeared, a beauty of imperfection. Clouds teased the hilltops, caressing their flanks. Shadows brought definition to every shape and form. Japan is best seen in lower light anyway.
I rounded Yase and followed along Route 367, ducking down the quieter parallel roads when I found them. I had very little go on map-wise, just a single web link that claimed the Wakasa Kaidō was the busier highway. I've driven this road at least 50 times, so opted to follow the side routes, partly as exploration, partly as reprieve. Mainly suburban commuter communities, but at least they had the mountains and rivers at their backs. Up on the main road much was in decay, abandoned and forlorn.
The valley was getting higher, or perhaps the clouds were lifting, but at any rate, the humidity was coming on strong, to the point that it fogged my glasses. The road lost its shoulder as I had feared, but I faced down the traffic racing toward me on the curves. My early start was meant to have gotten me through this bottleneck before rush hour started. I was afraid to take my eyes off the lane ahead, but I quickly glanced down at my watch. Seven-forty. Shit.
The shoulder returned in front of a tsukemono pickle factory. A worker came out clad head to toe in a white outfit like a Hazmat suit. Seemed appropriate, for when they put in the radioactive dye in order to get all those weird colors. I don't believe that shade of yellow even exists in the natural world.
The broad valley of Ohara spread out before me. Higanbana sprouted just about everywhere, beside the shorn stubble of harvested rice fields. I'd walked this stretch a number of times, so I turned my brain off and listened to some early ballads by Bob Dylan. Well beyond the turn off to Jakko-in and Kirin Cafe was a small sports center whose owner had a few years ago been gracious enough to let my daughter use their toilets. Needing a pee break, I crossed their carpark toward the facilities. Midway across a woman called out "Moshi moshi," which also sounds much more aggressive than the usual "Sumimasen." I explained what I wanted, which she reluctantly allowed. While inside, I heard a man join her, and upon my return I found the two of them standing there, waiting. The man was interested in what I was doing, and at least verified for me that I actually was on the Wakasa Kaidō. Though sharing the name, the busy Route 367 was the newer route. I thanked them again for the use of the facilities, to which he said that in future I should use the toilets at the bus station. I turned then and began to walk off, peeved at this sort of attitude, with which previous kindness is instantly revoked. Why offer it in the first place? For some reason he asked my receding figure its name, to which I gave my usual "code name:" Larry Rullelo.
A good thirty minutes on I met 367 again, which lifted me gradually toward the pass. Midway up, a trio of cops were tagging speeders with their radar gun. Passing by I asked one of them, "Catch anything?" which got a laugh. A small trail took me off the main road and over the pass. Just over the other side was the Yamazaki Geo Clean Park (Geo being the latest Japanese recent buzz word for nature). Its motto ought to be, "Cleaning up nature for its own good."
The hamlet over the pass was called Tochū, which can be literally translated as "In the middle of." It takes every strength of your being not to add, "Absolute f-ing nowhere." Due to its name alone, it seemed a fitting place to stop. It wasn't raining at the moment, and with only about 15 minutes until my bus I thought that I'd sit somewhere, crack open my book, and through Gary Snyder's Great Clod I would begin to plod.
The Wakasa Kaidō carries on out of this town and immediately over the next pass. Route 367 undergoes a series of S-curves in order to climb it, something I truly hoped to avoid. The old trail must still exist. Unfortunately the community center was closed, and a man out front had little idea, figuring the path would be hard to find anyway. (Anyway, as that climb will wait until next time, I had time to find out.)
I moved toward the bus stop in a drizzle just beginning to fall. To my surprise I found out that my bus (one of only two a day), only ran on weekends, a detail the bus company forgot to put on their website. This could be bad, as hitching became my only option. But I was standing in the rain on a road that had no shoulder. The odds were pretty bad. To my surprise the third car did pull over, and with less than a minute's wait, I was inside and dry.
A couple returning from a wet morning fishing dropped me back in Kyoto at my bicycle. I detoured over to the stone marker that marks the start of the Ohara Kaidō, which I hadn't known existed. (The Saba Kaidō marker is at the west end of the Demachiyanagi bridge.) The rain began in earnest now, so I pointed my bicycle north, racing the forecast as summer fell in pieces all around me.
On the turntable: Bonobo, "One Offs Remixes & B-Sides"
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Rain begat rain begat rain. Amazing the precipitation we'd been getting, five, six days a week worth, for the past couple of months. Rainy season was long over, but nobody had told the rain.
All of which made Sunday even more glorious. And a good day for walking.
I'd thought I was finished with the Tōkai Shizen Hōdō (TSH) when I faced its terminus at Minō falls seven years ago. But that was before I caught Henrō-byō, which ails most of those who walked the Shikoku pilgrimage. Rather than return to that (not-so) small island as the stricken usually did, I chose to explore some of Japan's other old paths, and had taken on work where I tried to instill in others the joys of the open road. Two tours I led took me along multi-day segments of the TSH, and before long I found myself thinking that rather than be satisfied simply with the Kansai section, why not follow it all the way to Tokyo?
It was in this spirit that I got off the train in Ena. A festival was in progress, and all the lockers full. I batted my eyelashes at a middle-aged man in the tourist information office, who let me leave my suitcase with him yet warned me that he would close at 6. So much for my open-ended day.
Thankfully taxis were available, so I had one take me to where the TSH diverged from where the Nakasendo carried on into Ena. I moved quickly downhill, then played leapfrog with a pair of highways. Before long I found myself thinking that I was walking with different eyes again, that I wouldn't have the usual visual landscape clues that help navigate me along the old feudal roads. Thankfully the signage was good, far better than it had been a decade before. The recent hiking boom had helped with that. But one sign worried me in giving a walking time of 70 minutes in order to cover the next 3 km. A mountain was surely ahead.
The road rose heading into a small hamlet, and turning my head left I looked into the mouth of the very familiar Kiso Valley, with the tell tale peaks of Mts. Ena and Kiso Komagatake defining its right shoulder. Near a golf course, a handful of cats milled about, probably abandoned. They certainly had plenty of toys to bat around, as the higanbana spider lilies swayed across every berm.
The more I drew away from the rail line the more rice fields appeared, their stalks mostly listless and slumped over. Since this was the first truly sunny weekend day we'd had in weeks, I imagined that a flurry of harvesting was going on, up the length of the country. The heat of the day was high, 30 or more, a sure sign that yet another storm was building out to sea. In a month or so, I will surely see a newspaper article about what a disaster the crop had been this year. Things are undoubtedly worse in North Korea. Any time a round of missile tests begin, news about a flood or famine follows close behind. The US steps in with food aid to quiet things down. And a few years later, it starts up again. Yet Abe and his lot are traveling the world, talking up the dangers of the Pyongyang regime, in the hopes of getting assistance of their own. They know nothing, or perhaps everything, about politics.
The ache in my muscles took on a subtle shift, and my climb was upon me. I was surprised that it was ishitatami, above which my shoes tried to find grip on stones slick with lichens and a week's worth of rain. It was slow going, even more so for the fallen trees. The apparent lack of hikers had me worried that I was on the wrong track, and once I topped out, I read my maps intently, and replenished my energy with a peanut butter sandwich. Not far on was the site of an old tea house, then the trail passed behind a cattle farm whose stench nearly asphyxiated me as I tried desperately to slow my breathing which had quickened with the climb.
The trail was arrow straight here, along the top of Mt. Yudachi. It had been a tough climb to be sure, but not nearly as steep as the infamous Mt. Asadachi. I quickened my pace along this flat forestry road, trying to make up time. If the signs were correct, I'd arrive in Iwakura twenty minutes after my intended train pulled out. Despite the speed I was truly enjoying myself, remembering why I liked the TSH so much, which alternated between quiet forest paths and narrow lanes bisecting hamlets. It was all far more pleasant than a forced march along overdeveloped roads, with the roar of vehicles rushing past every few seconds.
A man in the next village turned off his weed-whacker to ask me where I was going. Unlike a pair of women earlier, he didn't make an explosive sound of surprise at my answer, which led me to believe that I was better than halfway there. What followed was a few lateral crossings across long flat valleys, and short climbs over stumpy hillocks between. A stand of kosatsuba proved my suspicions that this too was an old highway, and a bit of Googling later told me that I'd walked the Daimyō Kaidō. Apparently I'd been in good company. Kano no Chomei had enshrined 1000 stone Buddhas out here. Not far away was the grave of Confucian scholar Sato Issai, who probably followed this road home when the Edo period forever closed, an event upon which he had no small impact.
My forced march had brought me to the station a half an hour before my train. The station was small, with a short platform, and as is rapidly becoming the case with these out-of-the-way stations, the waiting room had been turned into a display of rail days of yore. Bizarrely, one part of this was housed a small butchery operation, which as well as slinging meat also served take out coffee. A pair of middle-aged motorcyclists nursed small mugs of beer, which looked too good to resist. I took mine outside and sat on the platform on an old wooden bench, washing down a potato croquette and enjoying the silence. But the peace wasn't to last. Before long, a gaggle of noisy old women showed up, bringing the day to an end with a clamor as profound as the brakes of the train as it shrieked to a stop.
On the turntable: The Beatles, "The River Rhine Tapes"
On the nighttable: George Orwell, "The Clergyman's Daughter"
Monday, September 26, 2016
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Friday, September 23, 2016
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Recently I've been finding it more and more difficult to love, even like, this country that I've called home for 22 years. This feeling has caused me all kinds of undue stress. More and more time spent abroad, not to mention intense disgust at the abusive power structure current in play, has forced me to take a deeper look at Japan, shaking me from the somnambulic bubble that life here tends to induce.
On the turntable: Broadcast, "The Noise Made by People"
On the nighttable: Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter, "Bob Dylan and Philosophy"
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Saturday, September 17, 2016
Friday, September 16, 2016
A trip to Okinawa, three months after Ken died. Drunk on awamori and exhausted by the late hour, I catch a glimpse of my late son's face in my own.
A few days ago, the light catches the gray at my temples, and I see myself in ten years.
Everything exists in an instant...
On the turntable: Beck, Bogart, and Appice, "Beck, Bogart, and Appice"
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Friday, September 09, 2016
Tuesday, September 06, 2016
Very pleased to announce my first piece for the Singapore Straits Times, on a midwinter's journey to the Arctic Circle.
(See also my sidebar piece on Oslo.)
On the turntable: Bill Evans, "Portrait in Jazz"