Sunday, August 31, 2014
"The New York Times and Huffington Post represent so-called 'responsible journalism.' That means that they are practiced in the art of writing lurid allegations in such a way as to seem tasteful while still pushing all the same emotional hot buttons that writers for the New York Post or the Sun push far less pretentiously."
On the turntable: "Cafe Del Mar, The 20th Anniversary"
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Saturday, August 23, 2014
Standing before the concrete water basin, I am suddenly enshrouded in white. As I was undergoing my water purification before entering Kashihara Jingu, a group of about two dozen priests surround me, and begin to go through their own ablutions. Slightly intimidated, I move away from them, over the raked gravel that covers this wide open space. In shrines of this scale, the sense of airiness always feels that the whole place will take flight. Perhaps the stone covering the grounds is a way to tether it to the earth.
In entering the shrine, I have left the Shimotsumichi, one of the three old roads that had once led to the Heijō palace from the south. This palace was the home of the Imperial court during the Nara period, which lasted for the majority of the 8th Century, a time when that city was considered the true end of the Silk Road, its treasures having been filtered through the parallel palaces of the T'ang.
I allow my detour to continue, swinging widely to the east, in order to visit the site of the old Fujiwara palace that preceded Heijō as the capital, though for a mere 16 years. This site served as both a physical and temporal transition from the earlier Asuka capital a short walk south. I love this area, so rich in history, so fertile and broad in the never-ending rice paddies and the tell-tale tufts of forest that mark the eternal resting places of Imperials dead for over a millennium. This Fujiwara-kyō is simply massive, taking me a good half and hour to cross, passing dozens of two-meter high pillars laid out in parallel rows here and there across the plain. Marking the locations of ancient buildings, I lean on what I expect to be wood, but find to be instead some spongy synthetic material. The color is similar to my T-shirt, which had been orange when I put it on at dawn, but is by now sweat-soaked to a dull ochre.
Heading west brings me to Ofusa Kannon-ji temple, its courtyard filled with roses. Above, hundreds of glass wind chimes have been hung. In summer, the Japanese believe that a wind chime helps to cool the body, since the sound of striker on glass is the sound of the movement of wind. As I pass beneath however, the breeze stirs up not a delicate jingle but a cacophony of a fully-loaded tray dropped in a restaurant.
Back to the old road proper, narrow and lined with old wooden structures. A pair of old men hang paper lanterns over the road, the sign of an impending festival. I'm on the outskirts of Yamato Yagi, a town famed for its preserved look. Unlike the broader streets of the later Edo period post-town, these older lanes are far narrower, the structures darker and less earthen. At the crossroads of the equally old Yokōji road, a man beckons me into what had once been an old inn and is now a very simple history museum. The caretaker is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but all too often his enthusiasm turns to me and just how remarkably foreign I am. I have complained about this in the past, where I want to have an intelligent conversation about history and culture, yet the other party can't see past my eye-color and the unique structure of my nose. I can understand the natural curiosity about 'other,' I mean, at this very moment I am seeking out that which is particularly Japanese. But after a few basic polite questions, it is nice to move on.
So I do. Beyond the train station, the town becomes yet another suburb, and beyond this I follow a small river. I love Nara for its water. Steams cross and recross, leading to and from what must be hundreds of small lakes and ponds that dot this entire basin. I am accompanied by water the rest of the day. The river here is alive and healthy, filled with fish and turtles and cormorants. The lower tree branches on the far bank are bedecked with trash and debris, compliments of a pair of powerful storms that roared through the Kansai during the past two weeks. The pillars of bridges are similarly tangled with a snarl of reeds and tree limbs.
And so it goes for the next six hours. Where the earlier part of the day had been a delightful stroll along the cusp of history, the rest of it is spent atop a berm, with water ever to my right, houses representing a half-dozen different generations to my left. On such a hot day, the water should be inviting, but factory after factory shadow the canals on the far bank. I get a short reprieve in the form of a small village completely surrounded by moats like a medieval European town, but here too the water is a suspicious hue.
At this point, I am puzzled as to why the maker of the map I am following chooses to send me to the west, rather than on the due-north trajectory that would take me directly to the main gate of Heijō palace. Later at home, as I look at Google Street View to see what I missed, I notice that he did me a favor in detouring me off a narrow, busy road with no apparent shoulder. Instead, I walk the bank of a much wider river, all the way into Nara proper. Along the way, I find a mystery. Six stone Jizo statues are lined up nearly behind a tree, but behind them is what looks like a cemetery, though devoid of all grave markers. Even odder is that each grave looks freshly dug, these symmetrical little piles of earth topped with a pair of tubes meant to hold flowers. I wonder if the people at rest here have been recently moved, their old plots now earmarked for some construction project. As we have just passed the Obon holiday, I further wonder if the souls of these people had been able to find the way to their new home.
Further on still, I come to a small park that supposedly contains a marker for the palace's old gate. The park is overgrown and unkept, and amidst the high grass I see only a few stones written with poetry. Yet upon one has been carved the illegible, flowing grass-style Chinese characters that may be commemorating the old gate. Sharing the name with its better known descendant in Kyoto, the Rashomon here is as equally absent as the newer one about which the film was made. And where Kyoto's grand old Suzuku boulevard now goes by the name of Senbon-dōri, here, what had once been the palace's main thoroughfare is now a canal that carries away what the modern city of Nara now longer needs, serving as an ironic metaphor to Japan's relationship with its own history.
On the turntable: "Rhythmes et Melodies de L'Inde Classique"
On the nighttable: Donna Henes, "The Moon Watcher's Companion"
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
The land on either side of the train was covered in a fine green quilt. Along the stitched edges, a casually dressed pair walked beneath umbrellas blooming upward against the rainy sky.
Damn you Mie and your damned changeable weather! The forecast just an hour before had been for rain early, then cloudy skies. But now it showed rain all day. The view from my train seat served as co-conspirator.
Back in Tsu lot much later, I returned to the stone that I’d passed three days before, which demarcated the southern terminus of the Ise Betsu Kaido, another spur branch that connected with the Tōkaidō 8 km to the northwest for the convenience of Kyoto pilgrims heading to the Grand Shrines of Ise Jingu.
The rain had dulled to a fine mist, so I didn’t bother to unfurl my umbrella, lashing it instead to the side of my daypack. I ziz-zagged my way out of Tsu, through quiet rural neighbourhoods. It wasn’t long before I arrived at the massive Takata Honzan, headquarters for the eponymous brand of Pure Land Buddhism. The temple had a long history, though the modern halls didn't reflect that. Their grandeur was instead represented by its size, a hint that financially this temple was doing very well indeed. Workmen rushed about, changing banners for the throngs expected during the Obon holidays. With little of interest barring the spectacle of scale, I quickly left the gates and was back walking again.
The rest of the day was spent along this small road, which wasn’t particularly interesting but at least it kept me in the countryside. The humidity was incredibly high. I don’t think I’d ever walked in such intense humidity . The day threatened rain, and when it eventually fell, I felt relief, as the humidity index dropped quite a few percentage points along with it. Then relief turned to frustration as the skies threw at me everything they had.
After lunch I left the rather bland farming roads for the larger, more heavily trafficked roads, with the pachinko and the convenience stores and the cake shops. So many cake shops. From that point on, I began to notice the signs for dentists.
The rain eventually let up, and some blue sky began to reacquaint itself with the earth below. This new lighting revealed a more attractive landscape, of woodland and fields, and quainter villages of a older look. When I first came to Japan, I loved this old style of architecture, and would go out of my way to find places like this. Today, my eye is more drawn to the anomaly of Western buildings of which one or two can often be found, though those too have have one foot in the 19th Century.
Then finally I ran into the Tōkaidō at the post town of Seki, passing beneath the great torii arch that faces the direction of Ise Jingu. The beautiful preserved look of the town was as good as it gets anymore. After all, this was the Tōkaidō, the granddaddy of the old feudal highways, and I promised myself I would follow its length before long. But it also made me ask myself just how far I want to take this walking of old roads. As this day had proven, there are small spur roads simply everywhere in this country. How minor a road do I want to walk? That said, each of those roads does have its own history, but how much of that history is still visible and remembered?
On the turntable: Skatalites, "Skabadabadoo"
On the nighttable: Christal Whelan, "Kansai Cool"
Sunday, August 17, 2014
"It is not just in a human being's prerogative to challenge himself with reading, it is in our collective social interest. Through reading not only do we acquire smarts but we also become a better, more compassionate, empathetic species. There is a historical argument gaining momentum which suggests that the rise of the novel and the belief in the universal rights of man could very well be interconnected."
On the turntable: Led Zeppelin, "The Song Remains the Same"
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
The old man was standing at the base of the stone steps, hands clenched in prayer. The steps were steep, and at their top, I could see the pitched roof of the shrine, emblazoned with overlapping gold. The old man had bandaging and tape on both legs, and didn't look all that healthy. But there was life in the smile that he gave me as I walked past and began to ascend toward the shrine.
It was hot. It had been since morning, during a bucolic train journey that took me across the Mino plain. The train was old, and of a surprisingly narrow gauge, the seats close together like on the London Tube. The train pitched and rocked every time it picked up speed, and if I were to close my eyes, in the heat I could almost image being in a hammock in the tropics somewhere.
I disembarked on the outskirts of Yokkaichi, an ugly city of towering smokestacks striped in red. A short walk away I found a tall stone marking where the Ise Sangu Kaidō parted ways with the Tokaidō, and made its way to the famous shrine. In the feudal days, the only real excuse for a peasant to travel was to go on pilgrimage. and those coming from Edo would have passed this stone as they made their way toward the holiest of holies. I followed suit, bowing a greeting to a man filling two water jugs with water from the sacred spring shaded by stone.
For the first hour I found myself on a busy highway, unhappy with the 36 degree heat. Two years ago while walking sections of the Nakasendō I had promised myself that I would no longer walk any sections of road in the summer. But yet here I was once again. I justified by it to myself by saying that the countryside was always interesting in the days leading up to a traditional holiday. But this wasn't yet countryside, and all I saw were cars and trucks going their way on what was still a normal workday.
An hour later, I found a convenience store built beside a low hillock atop which was a small temple hut. Provisions quickly bought, I had my lunch sitting beneath the huge cast iron bell on the hill, the temple building beside very old and apparently long abandoned. I was unable to see an actual temple hall anywhere amidst all the new suburban homes below. This must have been a training temple in its day.
Just as I was thinking this, a middle-aged woman came up and confirmed it. Broom in hand, she had come to clean around the hut, and found me sitting here. She explained that the structure was barely stable, and had suffered a great deal from three centuries of being battered by the typhoons that seem particularly attracted to this prefecture of Mie. But since I was here, would I like to see the statues inside? They too were 300 hundred years old, but still revealed a nice color when conjured up by the light of my torch. A dozen protective deities each had on its helmet the unique feature of one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. The woman told me that she'd never seen these details anywhere else.
She next took me down to the actually temple building, which was essentially a nondescript older house amongst all the new plastic homes in the neighborhood. The living room served as the Hondo. There was no danka here, she explained, but the statues and altar needed a priest to do the proper rites at the proper times. Formerly Shingon, it was now a branch temple of Kyoto's Myōshin-ji Zen sect, and was being looked after by her father, who would be succeeded by her son when he was old enough. Being an only child, she was unable to become a priest according to the tenets of Rinzai, and her husband, adopted into the family upon marriage, appeared to be no longer in evidence. Impermanence.
As I walked away, I thought it funny how often I am approached by someone who is interested in explaining some obscure bit of Japanese history or tradition, who then expresses relief that I can understand the language. I wonder what would happen if I didn't. Yet I am impressed that the stereotypically shy and reserved Japanese make the effort anyway.
I crossed the Suzuka River, and dropped into what was finally the look of an old road, flanked with the two low parallel rows of houses. This would be my scenery for the remainder of the day, barring the rice paddies that demarcated the villages, or the odd burst of arborial splendor that were the shrines, their precincts screaming with cicadas. Most thankfully, it also keep me off the main highway running just parallel, as it weaved and zigzagged through small farming communities and some of their larger suburban cousins.
I arrived at the sea by midday. Despite that, I never actually saw the water, hidden as it was by the bodies of large factories, and the long unending walls of grey concrete. The only reasons I knew the water was close were the signs warning me that this was a tsunami zone, indicating that the area would be inundated by a wave four meters high, then two, then one-point-five. Far off behind them, I could see the tall cumulonimbus clouds stacking up. Being this close to the water made me feel hotter for some reason, so I took a rest on the grounds of an old feudal police office, now being used as a park. In one corner of the park was a sumo ring, covered by a tarp made concave due to all the water that the recent typhoon had brought. As I sat there, a swallow repeatedly swooped down over the waterlogged tarp in order to quench its thirst.
As I went on, I saw more standing water everywhere, covering the vegetable plots, and carving channels in the sand of building sites. The grounds of one shrine was a bayou where the trees extended from the water. The majority of the rice stalks, just shy of full maturity, lay lazily atop one another, the mud around their roots so waterlogged it could no longer handle the weight. But like in the Coleridge poems, there was not a drop to drink.
In the heat of the late afternoon, I saw the first of a handful of signs for local sake. Just as I was thinking how nice it would be if they did their own beer, those same magic words appeared. I made a quick detour down a narrow side street, entering the grounds of the distillery. It was quiet just before the holidays, but I found a young man sitting at a desk. I asked him if I could buy a beer directly from him, and he without responding pulled one out of a fridge and poured it for me. As I drank we talked about sake, and about some of our respective favorites. We both agreed that the sake made in Kyoto wasn't very good. I had the same opinion about that city's beer as well. He professed to being more of an expert on sake, and poured me a few cups so I could taste his product. He felt that beer sales were rapidly declining in Japan, and that the craft beer scene wouldn't go anywhere. Sake sales were on the rise again, he told me, and he and his colleagues here were attempting to cater to younger taste buds, creating suitable flavors. "Can you taste it, smooth like white wine?" he asked as I took a sip from my glass. "Something for the young ladies."
My carbohydrates suitably reloaded, I walked the final hour toward Tsu. The clouds I'd earlier seen out to sea now began to roll in, mercifully taking some of the heat off of the day. Perhaps they were conjured up by the massive wind turbines visible on the peaks to the west. Through those peaks wound the Ise-ji section of the Kumano Kōdō, a walk I hoped to do sometime next year.
A walk through the hills sounded pretty good right now. Post work traffic was rushing a little too quickly down the narrow road, and at one point I had to sidestep into a shrine to avoid getting clipped by a mirror. The placard hanging off the shrine's aluminum torii was charred a dense black. Beside the torii was an poster for a classic film series to be screened through the autumn. Each day there would be a free double feature. The starting time of the first film was 1:30, a hint at the demographic that they were hoping to entertain.
For me, I'd find my entertainment on whatever was in front of my feet. The following day, I was facing a further 37 km to Ise, not an impossible distance, but one I'd rather not undertake in the full heat of August. Luckily, I'd be trailing a train line for most of the day. Come afternoon, I'd simply walk from station to station, then gauge whether I wanted to carry on walking. Wherever the answer would come up "No," I would get on a train. A block or two before arriving at my hotel, I saw a sign written in English, "You've got the Power." Not any more, I thought.
And that sign proved more prophetic than I had thought. As I slept, Mie had turned her charms to yet another storm. Rain brushed the window of my hotel room, and the forecast was for heavy rain all day. While the 27 km I had covered the previous day hadn't been horrible, they hadn't been particularly wonderful either. I'd be back in the cooler days of autumn, my footfalls leading me to Ise Shrine, the motion of my feet to be succeeded by that of my two hands coming together, to greet the gods who had attracted the feet of so many others before me.
On the turntable: "Urgh! A Music War"
On the nighttable: Shigeru Mizuki, "Onward Towards our Noble Deaths"