Saturday, July 25, 2015

Knowing Tranquility IV (Honjima)

Days amongst the waters had spoiled me, had created a space within for quiet to fill.  It was little wonder that I felt so cooped up in Marugame, liked its eponymous turtle, forced into a cramped shell of industrial and visual blight.  The sea was a five minute walk away, but I couldn't see it.  All that was revealed to me through my hotel window was power lines, a mish-mash of roofs and building styles, and the towers and cranes and smokestacks of the petroleum works somewhere out there by the water.  This northern shore of Shikoku was a horror show, a succubus that even the stake of the Seto Ohashi Bridge couldn't kill. 

Yet even this landscape took on a certain charm as the stratus clouds striated the light of evening light into one of the most beautiful sunsets I'd seen in a long while.  And this light of dawn too, is soft enough to shear away the hard edges of the city, as I walk through the morning cool to the ferry port. I stand at the water's edge and watch the boat to Hiroshima go.  I had originally planned to spend the morning out there, not to the city with a famously tragic history but to an island with the same name.  Upon closer look, the island had seemed to be little more than a quarry, though its high peak of over 300 meters would have offered a wonderful view.   But the five-hour return hike put me off.  Instead, I catch the 6 a.m. boat to neighboring Honjima, intending a leisurely bicycle ride around its shores, watching the life come into the day.        

Unlike the previous mornings, I am most certainly the only tourist on board.  The other half-dozen others are workmen, heading over to work on some sort of project (which I would later see is restoration on the elementary school (an optimistic undertaking on an island of 625 people)).   First thing I do when disembarking is to bid an old woman standing onshore a good morning.  Rather than return it, she simply brushes me off and tells me to go inside the tourist office.  When foreigners begin to learn Japanese,  they learn that good morning is ohayō gozaimasu.  But in looking closer, you'll notice that the root word is hayai, meaning earlyThe nuance here is that in greeting someone this way,  you are essentially complimenting them on how early they've gotten up, in order to get a jump on a day of hard work.  So it is a common mistake to use this ohayō at 10 a.m., which tends to get you a look that accuses, "Are you calling me lazy?"

I begin to ride, the sun at my back.  A few people are busy near the water's edge, fishermen, either just going out or just returning.  They smile at me as I go past, animated faces that are little more than crags carved deep into thick brown skin.  Beyond the village I am alone, as I make my way up the first of many steep hills.  Island roads tend to be built high above the sea so as not to be washed away.   This makes for challenging bicycle rides, especially in the summer when the pristine beaches taunt from far below and far out of reach.  Somehow, an entire army of crabs has made their way to these heights, their ranks divided into an array of sizes and colors.  The only true commonality is their down-turned claws, as if expressing an eagerness to play the piano.

Where the road levels out I come to one of Honjima's highlights, the Meotokura, which is a unusually built double storehouse.  I wonder at what might be inside, as there are no apparent homes that I can see.  Not far away is perhaps this island's premier tourist site, a movie location for a film set in yet another schoolhouse, whose name "Kikansha Sensei" is perhaps more familiar than the island on which it was shot.   I am surprised at how decrepit the place looks, a far cry from Shodōshima's pride in its cinematic history.   It is as if it hasn't been touched in the 12 years since the filming.   Then I notice some simple displays about the school's history, and read that the building itself fell in a typhoon only 6 weeks after the cameras stopped rolling.  Photographs show islanders rebuilding the school, simply for the benefit of people like me who happen to drop by.   

After days of rain, the morning continues to impress.  In the early sunshine, the sea looks stretched taut all the way across to the shores of Honshu.  The island cats too appear to be enjoying it, and I am forced to slalom around their laissez-faire dozing in the sun.  I imagine the only thing that makes them move quickly is the sound of the engines of the fishing boats returning with the day's catch.  Out on a nearby sea wall, a cormorant leisurely shakes its wings as if fanning itself in the heat.  Just beyond the village, a trio of nutria display a similar slowness, wriggling their backsides as they walk up the road, completely unperturbed by my form pedaling past.

People begin to appear now, breakfast consumed, work calling.  About a half dozen old women are busy amongst a cluster of graves, perhaps starting their cleaning before the ancestors return for Obon a few weeks on.  I will see another graveyard a little later, the graves hardly there, just small piles of stones more often seen in the hard earth of Mexico.  Just as I am wondering if this village is poor, an ancient granny pushes her cart from out of a field and gives me three freshly picked tomatoes.  Not all wealth is measured in money.  

I've come three quarters of the way around the island to Kasashima, but it is still too early for the tourist sites to open.  So I sit out by the water and read.  It dawns on me at some point that in four days not once have I touched her waters.  But the concrete around me, and the residue of trash puts me off somehow.  This particular island is too close to all that industry, to all those chemical plants of Shikoku.  But we still romanticize it.  Even the massive Seto Ohashi Bridge whose shadow falls close to this island had started out as a dream.  I image the locals here looking out their windows every morning to watch the ten-year progress on the bridge, finally breathing a sigh of relief as the silhouettes of the first vehicles went across.  And over on Honshu, the ferris wheel of Washuzan's amusement park survey's all. 

Nine o'clock finally turns up for work, and I enter the first of three villages houses that are open to the public.  The village itself is very old and picturesque; not the twisted maze of the usual island fishing village, but one a product of bureaucratic planning that the Edo period did so well.  But nothing ever goes according to plan.  The caretaker of the first house opens a sliding screen to reveal a hidden storehouse beyond, but then apologizes for having lost the key.  

Not far away stands the center of that bureaucracy, in the form of the old administrative office.  This island had been the headquarters of the Shiwaku Suigun, those highest caliber of naval officers who were not only fierce fighters but  also master navigators and shipbuilders.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi was quick to enlist them for his invasion of Korea, and nearly 400 years later, they were the first Japanese to travel across the Pacific.  It looks as if the pirates of these islands have been civilized after all.

And it goes a long way to explaining the behavior of the woman this morning at the pier.  Residents of towns that grow in the shadow of castles or other forms of authority would inevitably be a bit standoffish, a bit suspicious of outsiders.  And their descendants would carry this behavior forward.  The woman who had come across as gruff had in fact taken a moment to assist me, to direct me toward those who would best be able to help. She had cared enough to do that.  I can't say the same for those with whom I ride on the train back in the direction of home, each of whom is dozing, reading, playing with their phones.  Each encased in their own protective bubble, defending that island that is themselves.  And while with The Inland Sea Donald Richie goes a long way to show that there is no such thing as anonymity in Japan, even beginning the book using a classical Chinese epigram that states literally that no man is an island.  But oh how hard we continue to try.  

On the turntable:  "The Art of Recording"  
On the nighttable:  John Szwed, "The Man who Recorded the World"  

Friday, July 24, 2015

Knowing Tranquility III (Megijima & Ogijima)

Shodōshima greeted me with a rainbow, and now sees me off with rain.  This area supposedly gets the least amount of rainfall in Japan, but I had seen my share.  Perhaps it is the early hour, or the bad night's sleep, but the noise of the ferry terminal is getting to me,  raucous as a nightclub.  There is a group of middle school kids preparing to board, all dressed in sweatsuits for some sort of athletic event.  Judging from the bags they carry, quite a few sports will be represented.  The sheer racket they are making can probably be explained as nervous excitement.  Only the shaven headed kendo players are still, with quiet thoughtful countenances below shaven heads. 

I step outside to escape the noise, and am surprised that they all follow.  There are a few teachers about, none of which are enforcing any sort of order, least of all a rather butch looking woman who I take to be a PE coach, who rocks back and forth from foot to foot as she eats a hurried breakfast.  It is a recent (and ever-ready) media trend to bemoan the falling morals of youth, but it appears to me that the role models themselves have also slipped.  

On board, the smokers immediately fire up, in an isolated corner that is hardly isolated.  I am momentarily surprised by the presence of an ashtray mounted between the urinals, something I haven't seen in a long while.  In it, two cigarettes are slowly dying.  As are old customs apparently, in these remote corners of Japan.   

I disembark in Takamatsu, and head for another ship at an adjacent pier.  A small, two storied vessel, it is the type of boat I most associate with the Inland Sea, and the type on which Richie would have used on his own journey.  The newer ships are either large ferries laden with a highway of vehicles, or those small water taxis that rush from harbor to harbor in a way that must make the old people here reassess their centuries-old concept of time.    

We pull out and slowly rock our way back in the direction from which I came.  Just as I am thinking that the large steel cranes on the docks look like giraffes, a boat passes by with the model of an actually giraffe on its stern, for no particular reason.  And I smile, as one of my favorite things about this country is that incongruity never fails to be congruous.   

We land in Megijima, and board the bus that is waiting.  It has only one stop, which is the Oni caves atop the island's perfectly conical peak.  On board, I notice a woman who has a hair clip shaped as a feather.  But that is last I will see of angels today, as I head into the lair of demons.  

The momotaro legend is one well known, and for some unknown reason the locals decided that the island on which he did battle with the oni was this one, despite historical truths such as their cave lair was in fact a former mining operation.  I am fascinated by the legends of the oni, and my own pet theory is that these large, hairy, ferociously jabbering men were in fact Koreans who had made their way southeast from the coastal Izumo area. (The valleys between are filled with oni stories.) If there had in fact been people hiding in these caves, they were more likely to have been pirates, who over the centuries had commanded an area stretching across to China.  Documents show that the Chinese had ofttimes petitioned Japanese rulers to keep these wakō pirates in check, and it is believed that Buddhism itself was exported to Japan as a way to civilize its people.    

Whatever the case, the caves are fun, the highest form of kitsch.  Within are concrete oni of various size and color, a trunk overflowing with gold, and good old Momotaro himself preparing for battle.  And in the center of it all a small Buddhist altar, sitting with a quiet dignity.    

In one of the best quotes from The Inland Sea, Richie writes, "I heard the cicadas the moment they ceased."  I share a similar epiphany, for it is only when leaving the refreshing cool of the caves that I notice the morning's high humidity.  It sits heavy upon all after the previous day's rain, and as the moisture rises into the air to form a milky white, I am once more robbed of my view.  The summit of this island peak is enshrouded, rendering meaningless the signs point at adjacent islands.  Only bits of Takamatsu are visible, looking from this height like a dwarf Hong Kong.  

I return to sea level and walk through the village.  All is completely deserted.  Aside from a pair of men working in the ferry terminal, I don't see anyone moving out here.  What I do see are a lot of houses in various states of decay, many demoted to hold tools and decades of detritus.  One villa along the shore has a facade of Greek columns, many of them broken like a mouth of jagged teeth.  This is flanked by a handful of minshuku, all devoid of any life.  The only hint that they are still being used are the white plastic chairs bowing forward as if in apology.  It looks like a beach town would in the winter, but here we are in mid-July.  It could be that it is a week-day, or it could be the weather, but this whole place is devoid of life.  This Megijima, whose name can be badly translated as 'Female Tree,'  looks withered and beaten by blight.  I decide then to take the next boat and see how her male counterpart is faring.      

Ogijima has much more of a lived-in feel. Schoolkids swim in the school pool, and the senior citizen center is the center of the action, with grannies gossiping over tea and one old-timer getting his hair cut.  The cicadas too are screaming lustily at the top of their lungs.  The newfangled visitor center has been built as a concrete island topped by the swoops and swirls of roman lettering.  Within, I find some English information written by the middle school kids of the island.  Sadly the school had graduated its last class last year.  Most active of all are the cats, who can be seen all over the place in various states of inactivity.    

I make my way through the zigzag of narrow lanes to reach the shrine fittingly situated at the top of the hill above the village. I am about to ring the bell and pay my respects when I notice a young woman in a tartan skirt kneeling in front of the shrine, head bowed.  In Japan, the gods are petitioned with prayer.  When I come across a scene like this, I always wonder what it is people are looking for.  But this being a shrine to the god of childbirth, it is easy to guess.

I continue to amble.  Here is the island village of my imagination, one seen in numerous films, the whole community clustered together in a single cove, apart from the wild of mountainous forest and the distracting calm of beach.  The distinction here though are the art projects that have been erected in some of the abandoned homes.  Sadly, as at Megijima earlier, many of them are closed.

The few that I do stumble upon are delightful.  Within a small simple kura, and inside I find what looks like a lit up Christmas tree, but without the tree.  Dozens of jars hang with lights built into their lids, illuminating objects within.  Most appear related to childhood -- shuttlecocks, toys, photographs-- and I imagine that each of the 188 islanders have contributed something.   Around the corner I find a large porcelain object looping and curling, a bit of drifting seaweed beckoning the waters visible through the window beyond.  Most interesting to me is another kura from whose rafters hang a series of bamboo figures that twirl and clack and make music.  The whole thing is synchronized, to create a musical soundscape like that of a bamboo grove with perfect pitch.  It is this that makes me, finally, for the first time this morning,  sit completely still.  

Each of these installations is manned by a single person, each a young and fresh-faced bohemian.  Tellingly, none are actually from this island, and none are even artists themselves.  This is a part time job for them, commuting as they do from Takamatsu forty nautical minutes away.  I think that the owners of these buildings must be thrilled that they have been given new life, a way to inspire other than in the beauty of decay.  And the young people who look after them are filled with enthusiasm and life themselves.  One was extremely genki, a term that stymies even the most talented translator.   Lively, peppy, vigorous, vivacious.  All these apply, and then again, don't.  Genki is a nuanced word that the Japanese language is so filled with, one that can only be felt and inferred, through recognition rather than understanding.     

I return to the port, hire a bicycle, and ride above the jagged shoreline.  After looking at so many art installations the past three days I am beginning to see patterns in the natural world that look man-made.  The rocks look too perfect to have been created by chance.  The path brings me out to an old lighthouse that had been been a film location for "Times of Joy and Sorrow," by Kinoshita Keisuke, director of Shodōshima's 24 Eyes.   A small museum here deals both with the lighthouse and the film and before long my stomach tells me that it is time to go. 

I return the bicycle to a old woman who multitasks and makes me a plate of Hayashi Rice.  As she cooks I try to get her story, but she is less forthcoming than the young commuters from Shikoku.  I do find out that she also is from there, near Temple 88 of that island's famed pilgrimage.  I imagine that she came here in order to get married, and most likely, this island is where she will pass the rest of her days.  As for me, I'll be gone within the hour.

On the turntable:  "Stolen Moments:  Red Hot and Cool"
On the nighttable:  George Meegan, "The Longest Walk"

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Knowing Tranquility II (Shodoshima)

Much as it had with the feathers of yesterday, my day begins with an encounter with an angel.  Not only is my first stop a place called 'Angel Road,' but the car itself has been rented from 'Angel Rent-a-car.  And not only is Angel Road not much of a road (merely a narrow strip of sand that can only be walked at low tide), but the Angel car isn't much of a car, with an engine that makes a racket as noisy as a bosozoku, Japan's version of the Hell's Angels, only with one third the body mass and the guts within. 

I had intended to bicycle around the island, a leisurely attempt to take in Shōdoshima's sights, but the weather turned out absolutely horrible.  The manager of my hotel said that electric bicycles were useless in this weather, and I in turn knew that without one, my legs were useless against the island's 53.30 km2.   So I let him talk me into hiring the car, which turned out to be a good idea in the end. 

I watch a few young couples stroll the belt of sand where devils fear to tread.  The idea here is that in doing so, they will forever stay together.  But there are far more pairs composed of female friends posing and giggling as they wobble on their high heels, insensible in this terrain.  Equally insensible is the tourist slogan I spy near my car.  "Show!  Do!  Island."  I pray that the local JET teacher hadn't been bullied into coming up with that one.  

I had intended to begin my day with a hike through the island's Kankakei Gorge, but the clouds sat heavily upon the mountains, bringing doubt as to whether they were there at all.  I think that I'll give the weather a chance to clear, and begin to drive clockwise along the island's shoreline, to see what I might come across. Shōdoshima is in fact two islands, separated by Dobuchi Strait, whose mere 9.93 meter width has garnered it a World Record by Guinness for being the world's narrowest.  The middle section is covered by a series of white arches beneath which people can stroll and admire the waters. As I wheel past however I'm thinking it looks nothing less than the ribs of Jonah's dyspeptic whale.

I head to the extreme west of the island, wending my way through little fishing villages along the way.   My road takes me inland next, up a very narrow and steep forest road.  When traveling around the more rural parts of this country, I often find myself on roads like this, so inevitably prefer a small 'kei' car so as to better negotiate the tight turns.  The road saves me 300 meters of walking, but once at the carpark, I face the same distance, at first up an incredibly steep flight of steps, then later I have to pull myself up chains that are a godsend on such rapidly eroding terrain.  I am amazed to see a young couple near the top, the woman in very dangerous high-heeled cork shoes.  I pass them and have the summit to myself, with its lone weathered torii facing the incredible balancing act of Kasaneiwa.  The locals don't seem to know whether these massive stones are natural or were placed here, but this monolith certainly inspires, and like it would be anywhere else in the world, it has been deified.  My amazement wanes as soon as the heavens open above me, dropping a hot earnest rain, which pushes the humidity to its maximum index once I'm back into the low scrub further down.

I continue my circumnavigation, thinking how in decades past I would have done this journey by thumb.  In one small village, facing the water, they have created a high pyramid of old graves, its base lined with old Jizo, and a large Kannon statue atop.  These graves have been stacked here to make room to the new.  Even in a country with such limited space, the dead keep coming.  And in fishing communities like these, it is to the sea that they return, out in the direction of Kannon's benevolent gaze.   

I pass an old and intact brick sake distillery, all but the smokestack disappearing into the forest.  Not far along is where the large stones that once made the foundation of Osaka castle had been loaded onto ships to be taken across the waters toward the northeast.  They have built a nice little museum here.  Inside are remnants not from that four-hundred year old project, but from more recent centuries, mainly iron tools and chisels, rubbed etchings of names carved upon exported rock, and a century old photo of workmen in whiteface, most likely as protection against the sun.  It reminds me of Burmese thanaka.  There is no sun to speak of foe me to worry about as I step back outside, noting that the same sort of stone work found in the foundations of old castles can also be found along the coast here, a source of protection of its own, against the typhoons that often thrash their way past year after year.  

As I drive on I begin to wonder if the island's quarries are still being used, as the mountains in this corner have all been badly eviscerated, the rain running down the jagged face of the rock in a dozen waterfalls. Not far off is a flat bottomed boat being laden by a crane with stone.  After passing a couple of scenic turn outs which tease with views that I cannot see, I come to the actual quarry site for Osaka Castle, including the infamous hachininiwa, under which eight men were supposedly crushed.

The rain had been steadily falling for awhile, but is beginning to clear.  Just outside Kusakabe, I pass through a tunnel, and it is like I am suddenly on a different island altogether.  I reach the Olive-en garden right at lunch time.  I have a plate of surprisingly good spaghetti, flavored of course by the local specialty, which I polish off quickly as the skies continue to clear.  The views have finally opened up, and I take them in while strolling the groves, catching glimpses of the sea between branches.  You might think that olives were introduced as an ironic tourist gimmick considering that the Inland Sea is often referred to as Japan's Aegean, and this island has a sister island in Milos.  But it was for the fishing industry below that olives were introduced, primarily for the oil with which to pack the fish.  The tree from which these all began still stands on the hillside, not far from the Greek windmill beneath which tourists queue for pictures.  The bark of the tree is twisted and deeply wrinkled, but still bears fruit.  It gazes across the waters toward the narrow peninsula beyond, where a popular film was shot sixty-one years ago.  

Donald Richie had very little to say about Shōdoshima in his book, but he does mention the old film location for 24 Eyes, talking mainly of the irony of the statue standing here, depicting film star Takamine Hideko rather than the historic person upon whom her character was based. (Richie probably knew Takamine personally, as he was already writing on Japanese film when the movie was released.) The statue remains, but aside from the school building in which the film was shot, all the other buildings would be new to Richie.  A narrow canal runs through a hodgepodge of galleries, cafes, and shops.  It is certainly an attractive place, attractive in a way that nostalgia-invoking artifice inevitably is.  I too am hooked, due to my love of film from the period.  The small museum has exhibits of daily life as it would have been lived in those first couple of decades after the war,  everything flanked by posters representing the films in which these archaic items continue to move and live.  In the building across the grounds the film itself most certainly moves, its 156-minute length repeated three times a day, year round.

The film set has received the TLC it needs to look as good as it does today.  There is much else that is old here, and isn't faring quite as well.  But there are exceptions.  One is the school on which the film was based.  Closed in 1971, it has all the character of the nearby film set, and even more considering that it is a greater source of pride for the locals.  Not too far up the road is the Marukin Soy Sauce Factory.  There seems to be a competition between the black of oil and the green of vines in which will cover the structure first, but the combination of the two is almost breathtaking in its beauty, the notion of mono-no-aware at its most profound.  I wish the museum too had been, and though far from dull, doesn't have enough to hold interest.  The highlight here is of course the soy sauce ice cream, which I would never have imagined to be as tasty as it is.  

The sky has cleared, though the highest peaks still hide themselves.  With a sigh I point the front of my car toward them, weaving my way into the white.   And it is as futile as I expected.  No hike today, and no reason to take the cable car through the gorge since there will be little to see.  It appears not to running anyway, due to the weather.  I ask the bored looking staff a few questions about the hike, then return to my car. 

I weave along Skyline road, lined with cloud and mist.  I do get a consolation prize in the kites.  One after another they lift into the air at my approach, but are unable to burst skyward due to the dense branches overhead.  I slow my speed to theirs, drifting just behind and beneath a powerful wingspan nearly as broad as my car.  This is repeated at least a dozen times, and up here in the white, I may as well be soaring with them, along the top of a road that is, for all intents and purposes, running along the top of a mountain extending straight out of the sea.

On the turntable: "Asian Groove"

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Knowing Tranquility (Inujima, Teshima)

Descending the steps, I watch a pair of feathers brushing a young woman's shoulders.  She is wearing these feathers as earrings, each so soft and so perfectly white that they might have come from the wings of angels.  Yet what really helps her take flight is the music coming throughout the ear buds inserted just past each feather’s spiny tip.  It all looks connected, all part of a single accessory.  

I started my journey at an hour before the Bullet Trains run.  After a slow ride through a light tinting all in silver and gold, I was whooshed along westward, feeling some pity for the salarymen forced to stand at such an early hour, heading as they were away from a three-day weekend spent presumably with family.  I'd wager that a great number of these men did this trip every week, beckoned away by an artificial loyalty to their company. 

The roads to most of the islands of the Seto-Naikai begin here, at Okayama.  It seems that most of the trips I had taken out across her waters had initiated with transport out of this station.  I jump a taxi and repeat my destination to my driver at least twice, before his aged ears and my accent find some common ground.  We wheel out, following a streetcar carving its way through a cityscape bright and bleached out in the morning sun, the sparks bursting overhead an unnecessary accentuation.  Green begins to temper the harsh glare at the edges of the city.  On a patch of grass before a shopping mall, a young girl walking a poodle is suddenly hit in the chest by a sprinkler that
turns on unexpectantly.  Her surprise is so great that her body near folds in on itself, trying escape the rush of water. 

I spent the first week in Japan here in Okayama, in a training center in order to prepare for the teaching job that I’d hold for the next two years.  We were housed in a small dormitory on the far side of the station.  I still remember the sweet smell of mold and fabric softener in the laundry room, a smell that I still occasional catch in summer, one that never fails to bring me back to this city. 

But I associate Okayama with one other memory as well.  In my training group was a young woman who had attended the same university as I.  This connection was further enhanced by the fact that we were in adjacent rooms, and it reached its apotheosis in the eventual connection of our lips.  This kiss signified a break not only with a waning love affair I’d left behind in the States, but a more definitive break with my life there in general.  In mere days away from the land of my birth, I had begun to change into something new. 

Or perhaps into something old is more like it.  Within weeks I would begin to turn my back on those things that I had found most interesting in my own society, the newest, the most hip, the most up to date things.  I began to find much more value in things from the past.

It is this spirit that I undertake this journey, an ironic attempt to build something new from the old.  Walk Japan has sent me out to look into developing a tour of the Inland Sea, focusing mainly on the areas of art, literature, and culture.  One element of this was of course Donald Richie’s iconic The Inland Sea, which I feel offers the most penetrating insight into Japanese society ever written.  When I first read it shortly after my arrival here in 1994, I found it full of insight and truth.  But truth is as fleeting as time.  So with the book as template, I set off, to visit some of the places he visited, as well as others, in order to find out how much remains of what Richie saw nearly fifty years ago.

My taxi driver’s sense of direction is as bad as his hearing, but he is persistent and finally gets it right, depositing me in a place that at least isn't too far a walk to my ferry.  I’m at first uncertain of the boat when I see it, hardly bigger than the cabin cruisers that joy-riders had undoubtedly motored off shore this past holiday weekend.  Indeed, it only sits 26, far fewer at this early hour, though most seem to be heading over to Inujima in order to perform work of some sort, the women carrying boxes of soft drinks, the men sitting along the seawall smoking.  Behind them, an old woman collects rubbish with a pair of extended tongs, her disfigured face straight out of a Greek tragedy.  I ask another woman issuing tickets whether there is bicycle hire on the island, and she smiles and asks why I would need a bicycle, as the whole island can be walked in under ninety minutes.

Indeed, Inujima proves to be so small that I can’t make it out against the larger Shōdoshima behind.  I start out by sitting flanked by propane tanks in the aft, but then move to the bow so as to look out the front windows and face the future I am heading into.

But once ashore, I find that the old cliche applies, of a place that time has given up on.  A few new things have appeared however, as the island is now home to an art project that has sprouted up at various locations amidst the village.  Most notable is the Seaside gallery whose wooden walls have been singed in order to protect from weather.  Its shape and colour reminds me of something out of the American midwest, but rather than prairie, it instead rises from the sea. I have two hours until this and all the other structures open up, so I wander town, returning again to the dock within 15 minutes.  I find a patch of shade and sit and wait, allowing time to give up on me too.  

The coming of ten o’clock and the ‘opening’ of the island pulls me back.  The ticket in hand is further reminder of the arbitrariness of place, the limitless of the spacial as well as the temporaral now once again open to me.  Fitting then that my first destination, Seirensho Art Museum, looks simultaneously like it has both existed, and been abandoned, for ages.  I enter the museum proper into a darkness that further confuses since what at first appears to be a long turns out to be a zig zag path, 'straightened' by a  series of mirrors.  Senses by now completely confounded,  time and space begin to further break down.  When they finally do reassert themselves near what you assume is the end, you find yourself facing a mirror filled with sky, clouds passing mockingly.  Through a side chamber next, into a room from whose ceiling hangs the pieces and fragments of an old building, fused only where the mind fills in the gaps.  Reality thus totally shattered.

To step outside is a return to the world complete.  But even here is a definitive incompleteness, in the decay of this former smelter that surprisingly stood for a mere decade at the turn of the last century.  Smokestacks tower over all, devoid of foundation, rising from and toward nothing.  One has chunks missing as if it bitten into.  I enjoy a lovely morning hour beneath their brick, following a sandy trail that ducks in and out of the shade of jungle.  It is a bit like the
Buddhist ruins of Ashokan India, until the glimpses of the sea remind me again of where I am. 

My stroll continues, taking in the better part of the island, past exhibits that have been incorporated into abandoned houses, representing the various natural elements in a variety of unique and creative ways.  Upon approach a figure will emerge from shadow to stamp my ticket, then vanish again into shadow.  It is after all a very hot day.

There is as much art on display in the views of the water that opens at the end of alleys, in the beautifully marked wings of a kite, in the triangular prows of fishing boats, in the etched faces of a pair of grannies staring out at a sea like at a third companion.  The smile I receive as I pass is the greatest art of all.  

Further on, a man sits in his garden listening to his radio.  He beckons me over, and tells me to go inside the tumble-down shack behind to have a look at the simply massive carp he keeps in a small pool.  It never fails to amuse me when I get into conversations with people who talk to me as if I were living abroad, ignoring completely the fact that we are conversing in perfect Japanese.  After complimenting the man on the magnificence of his fish, I wander over to the port and performed my best imitation of him, waiting until someone comes along to take me to places far away.

Moments off the boat that sprinted me across to Teshima, I rent a bicycle to help me get around the art exhibits dotted about this hilly island.  I have never ridden an electric bicycle before and am delighted at its speed, as I whiz along the harbor scaring stray cats.  In the middle of the village of Ieura is a home designed by Yokoo Tadanori, who is perhaps my favorite Japanese artist.  I don’t usually go in for pop art (have never really gotten Warhol and his pretentious ilk), but I like Yokoo, perhaps because I have always been intrigued by Taisho and Showa period advertising.  This house then is a wonder to me, whose traditional garden has a carp pond of tiles so brilliant they rival the color of the fish themselves.  The house is the opposite, subtle and dark like most old country homes, which makes Yokoo’s work pop off the walls brilliantly.  In one room, the floor is glassed so that you can watch the fish swim beneath the house itself.  In the adjacent room you can enter a tall cylindrical tube with a similar mirrored floor, which in reflecting the height above gives the illusion that one is walking on air.  The windows of the main house are tinted red to give the sky a post apocalyptic look. 

Back beneath the blue skies, fifth gear of my electric bicycle helps me fly up the long steep hills of the island center, then descend to the Art Museum, which is Teshima’s showpiece.  Museum is a bit of a stretch actually, as the only exhibit is the structure itself, a white domed roof covering a vast concrete floor. Two ovals have been cut out of the dome, to reveal not only sky and trees above, but also the song of bird and cicada.   Despite this, there is a quality to the silence within that is metaphysical, like that of a Buddhist temple or, considering the coolness of the floor, a mosque.  There are two dozen or so people here sprawled out on the floor, in various states of doze. Resting perhaps after the long bicycle ride up. I walk barefoot between them, dodging the puddles of water that are moving across the floor in a way that looks like they are crawling toward one another, and eventually toward a larger primordial pool at the center that little by little is taking them all in.  The spiritual metaphor is again oh so present. 

It takes a great deal of effort to pull myself away, but I have one more stop to make.  At the island’s far end is Les Archives du Cœur  A woman clad in a doctor’s uniform meets me, then gestures toward a door off to the side of the room.  Entering, all is dark, but for a single light bulb that pulses red in time to the beat of a human heartbeat emitted by a massive pair of woofers at the room’s far end.  Since the exhibit’s installation, over 42,000 people have recorded their heartbeats, to be played at some point for the benefit of visitors to come.  I am listening to the the heart of a young Parisian woman who was the 16th person to contribute her rhythm. I return to the dorm, and out once again to the beach, to the rhythm of the cicada whose own hearts will cease beating within a fortnight. 

With their roar in my ears, I look across the waters to the East.  I have left behind now the room of red, of white, of black, and the blue that has been constant companion above is now going grey with the building of storm clouds.  Across similarly tinted waters lies the island where I will spend the night.  

On the turntable: "No Alternative"

On the nighttable:  Frederick Exley, "A Fan's Notes"

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Papers: Lafcadio Hearn

"I ought not to have been born in this century, I think sometimes, because I live forever in dreams of other centuries and other faiths and other ethics..."

On the turntable:  "Goodbye Babylon"
On the nighttable:  Dennis McNally, "On Highway 61"

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Papers: Kenneth Rexroth

"It makes no difference which side wins, if peace does not win."

On the turntable:  "Skaboom!"

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Points and Lines

I walk the streets of the city, amidst the wreckage of another weekend night.  A crow plucks noodles out of an abandoned box in front of a convenience store.  Across the street, I spy Michael Jackson, flanked by three admirers.  As I drew near, I see that it was simply a scrawny Japanese guy who has adopted Michael’s hat and locks and questionable skin tone.  Drunk out of his mind, he is being led down the street by three of his friends. He suddenly stops and points his finger back up the road, striking a classic MJ pose, then pulls out of his friends’ grasp, and moves in the direction of a 24-hour internet cafe. 

There are very few others moving out here, mainly a handful of delivery men peddling their bicycles away from the Nihonkai Shinbun tower, whose rounded sides of bright reflected glass reminds me of the Ewing offices in Dallas.  I carry on past the newspaper men up Kanazawa’s high street, over a bridge girded by steel, and move away from the rising sun, the hour not yet five a.m..

I’d never seen this part of the city before, but it is as attractive as the rest.  On the river’s far shore I find myself flanked by one of the old geisha quarters and the village of temples nearby.  The floating world and the Buddhists had always had a close relationship, and I ponder how often had these low earthen walls been rebuilt, worn down over time by the robes of monks who’d climbed over them at night.  It seems like a fair metaphor for enlightenment somehow.

I move off the main road at a place called Izumi.  But the only spring I see was that of my step,  which drives forward my shadow, now lengthening a fair distance down the narrow lane.  This would be repeated for the next couple of hours, as I trace the narrow roads which usher me from busy street to busy street.  And all along this zigzag the city gradually falls away, as does the charm of my surroundings, until I am  affixed
firmly into suburb, moving against the flow of traffic that races along arteries to feed the pulse of what I have left behind.   


 On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Jamaica"
On the nighttable:  Trevor Corson,  "The Story of Sushi"