Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Sunday, April 06, 2014
"You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices."
On the turntable: Brad Mehidau, "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell"
Thursday, April 03, 2014
Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Quite pleased that I had a travel piece appear in last Sunday's Japan Times. The piece was originally conceived as an addendum for the Deep Kyoto Walks book I'm co-editing with Micheal Lambe, scheduled to be released this month.
The link is here.
On the turntable: The Band, "Across the Great Divide"
Sunday, March 30, 2014
Friday, March 28, 2014
There was no reason to think that the two women weren't ghosts. This peak bore the name Nyotaisan, or body of the woman. And now there were two, sitting across from us. They'd appeared at the top of this, the final climb of the Shikoku Henro circuit, having stepped from behind the towering stones that give shape to this jagged peak.
Japanese folklore is filled with tales of shape-shifters who appear deep in the mountains to prey on unsuspecting travellers, yet I've never heard of any that had taken the form of a Korean nun. She, through the translation of her Japanese companion, told us that they'd been walking the pilgrimage for exactly a month today, hitching here and there. It was a plausible story, made somewhat suspect by the clean clothing and shoes that looked new.
My own road up here had taken 4 1/2 years. True, Miki and I had already visited the temple that lay at the foot of this peak, a visit that (nearly) completed our pilgrimage in late 2009. Yet on the way up the mountain, we found a odd, hand-written sign that seemed to imply that the path had been off limits. This led to a final dash along the valley route, hoping to make it in time to get our final stamp. Once we reached the temple, we had met a few other pilgrims we knew, who told us that they had come over the mountain. One of these raved about how hard it had been, eyes wild in a post-adrenal state. Miki and I felt cheated somewhat.
I revisited that feeling over the years, but it took until today to actually visit the mountain itself. I was hired to guide a group over this peak in a few weeks, and something about the old man's raving had scared me. I needed to do the hike first to confirm that it was safe.
I asked Wes along, wanting another's opinion. We drove down from Kansai, detouring briefly to Temple 1, so as to set up a later joke that we'd "gone from temple 1 to 88 in a single day." While there, the nun I'd met on my actual pilgrimage in 2009 claimed she remembered me, and gave both of Wes and I sandalwood rosary beads to bestow luck on us. Thus charmed, we returned a quick prayer or two toward the Taishi, then drove off.
A taxi had dropped us at the base of the hike, and what followed was a classic Japanese hike, past farm houses, or the remnants of same, up along quick-moving streams punctuated with the occasional waterfall. The path remained a steady incline, then about two-thirds of the way along, we were thrust suddenly back to the valley floor, and faced with a final 400 meter ascent over a mere two km. Very hard work indeed. The final 100 meters did involve a little rock scrambling, but most could be done with using your hands, and was hardly the object of the raving old man's terror.
The two women descended first, then we followed, detouring first to the decaying Oku-no-in up a spur trail, then down what amounted to a very long staircase, arriving finally at the temple. There was a young Czech pilgrim before the Taishi-dō, an obvious walker, judging from his filthy clothing and cracked, sunburned skin. I tried to chat with him a little, but he seemed a bit out of it, answering one of my first questions with, "What day is it?" We also found the Korean nun and her friend, standing with a small group of pilgrims who'd obviously already knew one another from the road. They were behaving much like I had when I reached here years ago, just sitting and staring at the temple hall, unable to believe it was over, unable to leave.
I wanted to talk with each of them, but I didn't want to intrude on this private moment. And my own desire to want to share this with them, to show that I too knew what this felt like, revealed my own desire to return to the pilgrimage. "Henro-byō," it's called, pilgrim's sickness. And I suppose that's what prompts me back out on those long hot hard highways time after time, a sort of mad attempt to quiet the painful withdrawal symptoms of the soul.
On the turntable: Camper Van Beethovan, "New Roman Times"
On the nighttable: Jeremy Mercer, "Time was Soft There"
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
I stepped out of the subway station, and look slightly up the hill toward the castle. The grounds were a Pollock splatter of pink buds, but I didn't detour to investigate whether they were plum or cherry. Probably the former, as the sakura weren't due for a another few days still.
I grabbed a cheap 380 yen bento, and walked over to Tamatsukuri Inari Shrine, sitting on the steps since benches weren't provided. This area was once home to the craftsmen who had carved the magatama jewels that were so sacred to the ancient Japanese. Today, it was a quiet neighborhood, that still held the same slightly working class vibe, personified I suppose by the man who'd made my lunch.
More importantly, this shrine was the Osaka terminus of the Ise Kaidō. Just what I needed, yet another road to walk. I was already in the process of walking a couple of others. But this particular old path received priority status as it was considered most auspicious to undertake the Ise pilgrimage in a year following the shrine's renewal, a fact I learned from a recent post on my friend John's Green Shinto blog. I had already planned to walk the Ise-ji section of the Kumano Kodō later this autumn, but now I felt compelled to undertake this parallel, 170 km road as well. Good thing I bought new shoes last weekend.
I moved downhill, beneath a massive kusunoki standing in the middle of the road, then rejoined grand Nagahori-dori. Signage was good here, and it led me seamlessly onto the smaller parallel streets that followed what in these early stages was referred to not yet as the Ise-Kaidō, but rather the Kuragari Kaidō, and old road that led from the capital Nara to an ancient part of modern Osaka called Kōraibashi. The name was reminiscent somewhat of the word "Korea," proving an interesting linguistic parallel since it means Goryeo bridge, a reminder of the strong contacts between Nara and Korea at the time, and may even be where boats from the continent were moored.
I was curious when the signage would end, and it didn't take long. I was moving hesitantly into Higashi Osaka proper, along the busy Rte 15, or occasionally beneath the large factories lining the roads that flanked it. Very run down and rough looking. A couple of workmen in their 50s gave me a good glare as I passed. The lack of signs made sense if you consider that it's difficult to care about history when it's hard enough just to focus on the day-to-day present.
I had been long intrigued with this area, in particular with the section once called Kawachi, since it and its people had been the setting for Imamura Shōhei's first film called Stolen Desire. The locations of the film reveal a small rural town surrounded by vast farmland. Today it was all new, suburban, the absolute worst of Japanese development, right down to the rugby stadium in the middle of town, a testament to the rough and tumble people here. Any time I passed a person of the film's vintage, I wondered if they might have been within Imamura's frame, as so many residents had been extras. More important was the changes they must have seen during this last half century. As I walked along, pondering this, Mt. Ikoma rose like a wall ahead of me.
Before long I reached her feet. I paid respects to Hiraoka shrine, as picnickers enjoyed the plum groves nearby. I stepped back onto the concrete path of Route 308, which wound narrow and steep up the mountain's flank. It wasn't a long ascent, but it was a tough one, forcing me to stop a few times. I passed a couple of walkers coming the other way, each of whom nodded but didn't say anything as I came past. Were they trying to emulate the holy men of old, taking some sort of vow of silence on the climb?
I finally made it to the small hamlet up top, the tea house closed on this Monday. I moved beyond it, to admire the view of the Nara basin beneath the seasonal haze. Then quickly down the other side, past the fields and the Basho stone, the stone statues and the small temple halls. When my feet leveled out again, I was at a train station, tired, hungry, and foot-sore. But the shoes had performed marvelously.
On the turntable: The Clash, "The Story of the Clash"
On the nighttable: Rob Scheltheis, "Bone Games"