Monday, November 23, 2015

Beneath Another Sky

The most difficult part of the walk began the moment I turned on my computer.  I mean, what is one to write about if nothing much happened?  It was the kind of day where nothing really appealed to the eye; nothing inspired words; nothing brought the feet to a halt to take a photograph...

I debarked the train in Matto,  my attention pulled immediately by the yellowing ginkgo trees of the old castle grounds which were attempting to bring some beauty to an otherwise drab day.  This set the mood for the entire walk, the odd splash of color on a dark grey canvas.

Grey above, grey below.  Little on the immediate landscape but cookie-cutter suburban sprawl, their squared irregularity broken only by the larger masses of industrial blight.  I was thankful then for the odd shrine which seemed to pop up every twenty minutes or so.  Above each was a single tree at the height of its tinctured spectacularity, the ground below littered with the leaves of those with less longevity.  But even with these, the metaphor for a fading and near deceased beauty was a bit too close.   Many of these shrines were tributes to Hachiman, god of war.  No surprise really since  remote farm communities like this were prime recruiting grounds for tough and hearty young men who went overseas to die in droves.  Same as every country I suppose.

Where the suburbs broke the land opened up.  The kites and crows were having a significant aerial battle above the dull colored stubble of newly harvested rice fields.  There must have been hundreds of birds, swooping and dodging and swirling in impossible geometric shapes.  It brought to mind an old dog fight of the First World War, and in an instant I remembered that the previous day had been Remembrance Day.

In the far distance, Hakusan had a fresh coat of snow, gradually moving toward the countenance that gives her her name.  She orbited slowly around my left shoulder as I entered a busier road seemingly dedicated to delivering people to the usual chain stores in order to whisk their paychecks away toward Tokyo.  I knew I'd be on this road for a while, and a quick peek at Google Maps said that it would be fifty-one minutes, to be exact.  With a sigh I pulled up a one-hour long comedy set by Bill Hicks on my iPod, and commenced giggling as I went on my way.

I had a quick pee in the toilet of a seemingly empty police box, then surprised a lone officer when I stepped back out again.  Crossing a long bridge, I saw a small amusement park nested against the berm of the river.  On the berm's other side, and nearly lost amidst the high grasses near the water's edge was a single teeter-totter, the world's most forlorn consolation prize.      

My fifty-one minutes having passed, the route began to zigzag again, as it had earlier on.  I was very reliant on my GPS here, and I figured I was in a footrace with the life of its battery.  There was very little else on the landscape to occupy me, until another river crossing brought be to the outskirts of Komatsu, the first place I saw that actually had even a touch of historical flavor.  What had been the old post town's high road was surprisingly lined with temples, each with a small placard detailing its history.  It all had a pleasant look, but one that was being lost in the fading light.  This land may be known by the moniker of Rising Sun, but this time of year, the sun falls all too fast. 


On the turntable:  "Doob Doob O Rama"
On the nighttable:  William Scott Wilson, "Afoot in Japan"

Friday, November 20, 2015

Haute Culture

Even at the early hour, there are plenty of cars in the car park, and I am lucky to have gotten one of the last spots.  I'd assumed as much on a national holiday, just not this early.  After I walk across the bridge I understand why.  Dozens of primary schools kids roughhouse as they wait to undertake an organized assault on Atago-san.  A handful of their teachers ignore them, looking unhappy to be stuck with this duty on a day when they should rightly still be in bed.

The hamlet of Kiyotaki itself still sleeps in shadow.  I move through them and up out of the steep canyon to where the sun is.  Before me is the long thin tunnel that seems more suited to the narrow gauge trains steam trains that ran through the hills nearby over a century ago.  It is still utilized by car traffic, though they are let through one direction at a time.  I've biked through this once, a harrowing ride where side mirrors missed clipping my handle bars by centimeters.  From my own car, I've seen hikers pinning themselves to the grey sooty walls.  There is no way I am going to walk through.      Luckily a little-used bypass road spirals up and over the pass above.  (It is a very unique case where the older road is the one that bores through the mountain.)  At the top, I see a sign pointing up toward a 'Fudo-in' further above.  Both the name and the location intrigue me, so I begin to climb a few hundred stairs to this small temple hidden within the absolute western limits of Kyoto. 

 In a clearing on what could be called the mountain's shoulder is the usual assortment of Kobo Daishi statues and a large open space under the steady gaze of En-no-Gyoja.   I myself see little besides a small goma hall made disappointingly of ferroconcrete.  Alongside is an octagonal path lined with 88-metallic stepping stones; beneath is sand from each of the corresponding temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage. And despite my initial disappointment, the Fudo-myō statue within the small hall is beautiful, holding the usual sword to cut through delusion, which in this case might be emanating from a pair of satellite dishes nearby.  

The path continues a short while more, leading me to a saddle that offers stunning views of Atago just above, and of Kyoto itself spreading away to the east.  The air is as clear as air can be, and it looks as if each peak of the Kitayama mountain range is stretching itself upward like the arched spine of a newly awakened cat.  I stay here for a good long time.  When I finally recede into shadow again, I feel the rush of wind as a crow swoops low over my right shoulder, coming to rest again atop the statue of En-no-gyoja.   This stops me quicker than the view had just previously. 

A three-legged crow know as yatagarasu was said to have lead the Emperor Jimmu to the sacred lands of Kumano, past and current home of aesthetic monks following in the footsteps of none other than En-no-Gyoja himself.  I smile at the symbolism, and don't move on again until I count the legs of this bird perched on the saint's stone head. 

At the bottom of the steps are a couple of dozen VW Beetles resting and rusting behind a structure that must house the priest here.  Further along is a monument to those who died in Siberian POW camps at the end of WWII, many of the survivors unable to return to Japan for a full decade after the peace treaty had been signed.  I offer a quick prayer to their tragedy, on this early November day that marks the birthday of the Emperor in whose reign the roots of that tragedy were born. 

Happier faces can be seen a short walk up the road at Otagi Nembutsu-ji, hundreds etched in stone slowly going green with moss. Beyond the temple grounds, raucous young baseball players race up the hill that I just descended.  Continuing in my own direction, I come to Otagi's somber counterpoint of Adashino Nembutsu-ji, where all the graves that once lined the old pilgimage path to Atago were collected in order to make room for the wider automobile road that replaced it.  I had planned to visit, but the temple is closed today for some unknown ceremony, as somber chants emanating from inside pass over the heads of the black-clad figures silently standing on the steep stone steps.    

The outside world holds greater appeal anyway.  This particular stretch before me is as nice as anything I've seen in Japan, all thatch roofs beneath a colorful zenith of maple.  It is exactly the type of landscape that I seek out on my longer walks, and it is a mere 20 minutes from home.  I slow my step to relish it, and the delight moves with me as I continue through the semi-rural suburbs of Sagano, past Daikaku-ji and to the shores of a Hirosawa pond, now filled with water as is normal for the season.

But the modern centuries eventually intrude as I follow a canal system due south to the built-up banks of the upper Katsura-gawa.  This is all familiar ground, so I see no reason to linger, though I do take a quick coffee at a new shop whose bright white box of an exterior stands somewhat at odds with the dark wood of the ryokan and tofu restaurants surrounding it.  Still, it is respectful in its simplicity.  More importantly, the quality of its product is quickly acquiring an international reputation, a fact made obvious by the dozen or so Asian tourists in the queue.

Thus fueled, I continue pushing south, over the bridge of Togetsukyo  and around the bend that traces the Arashiyama foothills.  Matsuo-Taisha marks the next directional change, east now, but not for long, as I quickly reach the quiet semi-urban shrine of Umenomiya.   That feels right for today.  Above, clouds have invaded what had earlier been an empty sky, and they now threaten rain.  Below, my feet tell me that my 12 km have been just enough, and are ready to mark off only a few more steps until the clock crosses noon. 

On the turntable:  "Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, Best of '83"
On the nighttable:  Micheal Scott Moore, "Sweetness and Blood"

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Papers: William M. Kunstler

"All tyrants learn that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality than to do it without that pretext.”

On the turntable: "Karma Collection Sunrise"

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Sunday Papers: Louis Aragon

“Why should we spend our time manufacturing synthetic nightmares and call them art? All we have to do is pick up the daily paper to find real, factual events far more fantastic than the wildest dreams of surrealism.”

On the turntable:  "Sacred Spirit II"

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Papers: Dalai Lama

"Happiness is not really made.  It comes from your own actions."

On the turntable:  "Tun Dun" (Sdtk) 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Knowing Tranquility VI (Omishima, Oshima, Majima)

I forego breakfast for the short climb up to Kōjō-ji, to gaze past its National Treasure pagoda into the direction of the day's ride.  Hirayama Ikuo had been here before me, of course, and dotted along the grounds temple were sketches he has made.  Simplistic and filled with brighter colors, I appreciate these far more than the larger works that made him famous.  The hour is early but people are already working.  A woman sweeps leaves in the narrow lanes of the village below, and some unseen hand has lit a fire that burns its way through the rubbish of the day before.

The streets are empty as I follow the shoreline in the direction of my elongated shadow, past stone Buddhas looking with steadfast gazes at the detritus of man turning somersaults in the tideline, and the larger more damaging monuments of industrial pollutants across the water.  I have my own dawn koyaanisqatsi moment on Sunset Beach, and it takes me a great deal of effort to pull myself away from the calm waters and their enticement to stay.

I repeat this on the far shore of Oshima, looking backward along the route I'd just pedaled.  I find myself thinking a great deal about bicycling, about how much I am enjoying myself, but that I still find it an inferior form of travel to walking, as the pace is too fast and I often find myself wheeling around to get a better look at something I'd whizzed past.  A large complaint is with the unfriendliness of the 'fraternity' of bicyclists.  When passing a fellow hiker on a trail, nearly all will return a greeting.  With bicyclists it is perhaps one-in-ten.  And the one who does smile back is inevitably clad in casual clothes like me, riding something equally shabby.  The more professional among us never even make eye contact.  Perhaps their spandex is too tight on the muscles to allow for the curt nod of the head, or the upturned edges of a grin. 

But I love being here, with the wind and the sun.  The weather is absolutely perfect as I follow Omishima's 'Island Explorer' course around the its northern corners, between the shimmer of water and the gentle colorful sway of the cosmos.   
I eventually arrive at Oyamazumi Shrine, one of Japan's three most important shrines, which along with my earlier visits to Izumo Taisha and Izu Jingu, completes a hat-trick for the year.  I wandered beneath the shrine's towering ancient camphor trees, trying and failing to remember a visit made here in 1997.  On that visit I chose to give the shrine's Treasure House a miss, something I later regretted after learning that close to 80% of its collection are National Treasures.  I won't make that same mistake today.  Victorious warlords would donate weapons here after an important victory, and it was fascinating to see all these names familiar from Japanese history.  Could that really be Kiso Yoshinaka's sword?  I wanted to believe it, although in his 2001 afterword to the later Stone Bridge Press edition of Inland Sea,  Richie mentions that what was Yoshitsune's spear today had been attributed to Benkei on Richie's visit three and a half decades before.  In a similar vein, this island's most famous daughter Tsuruhime Ohori (whose armor is here too) was renowned for near single-handedly repelling an invading force at age 16.  Unfortunately no records of her can be found prior to a novel written in 1968.  Like the branches of millennia-old trees, memory can be pliant, twisting and bending to the ravages of the winds, and to time.    

Over and across Hakatajima, an island on which I never actually set foot, as my feet never once leave my pedals.  Ōshima is next, and last.  After a quick lunch, I board a boat that takes me out amidst the powerful whirlpools that had been both a threat to the powerful pirate clans here, as well as a clever defense system for their fortress that once stood atop a trio of small islets between.  In order to move through the swirling water, a boat's engine need be powerful, and powerful it is, roaring so loudly that I can't make out the narration coming through the speakers.  So I choose to sit back and enjoy an hour out of the saddle.   The pilot cuts the engines from time to time, allowing us to pitch and spin within the eddies, before reengaging them just before we smash upon the rocks.  I can't help thinking that I've experienced a great deal in my life, but never have I been tossed about by a whirlpool.  Highly recommended. 

I make a quick visit to the Murakami pirate museum, a twin to the one I visited yesterday on Innoshima.  Apparently  a large number of the current residents of these islands bear this surname, so at least one of them must be among the workmen currently rebuilding the old fortress just across the water.  It is bound to be more interesting than this place, which doesn't really capture my attention.  Perhaps its because he day is growing late, and have a lot more riding to do. 

Naturally, I encounter the only hills on the Shimanami Kaidō, two coming in quick succession.  The busy road upon which I travel too conspires to making this one of the least pleasant parts of the journey.  I eventually find myself atop the four kilometer-long Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge.  Three-quarters of the way across I come to a broad elevator, which brings myself and my bicycle down to Ma Island, which has a few roads but no cars.  My inn is the largest structure on the island (other than the massive uprights of the bridge itself), from which no other buildings are visible but those of Shikoku across the water.  I wander down to the beach with Richie's book and a beer, then eventually go up to my room, from where I watch the tankers and freighters head toward their Imabari moorings.  And later I sleep to the sound of lapping waves and humming engines.  When I awake briefly for my usual pair of nocturnal toilet visits,  I see through the window the dim lights of immense ferries as they cart their slumbering freight to Kyushu to the west. 

And that final morning brings an easy one hour journey into town, against a wave of workers bicycling to the shipyards beneath the bridge I've just crossed. Many have the darker faces of India, the Philippines, South East Asia, faces that never fail to turn toward me with a smile.   Just outside town I feel my pace slowing, and notice a middle-aged Japanese man riding my draft.  I ponder the etiquette here, as he doesn't know me but is purposely using me to my own  disadvantage.  I consider slamming on the brakes as I have done a few times in Kyoto in order to chastise a student doing the same.  But today, I merely swerve to the side and let him go onward into his day.

My own brings me to Imabari proper, a city in which I find little to hold my interest.  I must've spent some time here during my Shikoku pilgrimage in 2009, but I can't distinguish this place from any of the others that I passed through.  By that time I'd been on the road for two months, and each lurch of the foot was simply to propel me forward and to hell with what was beside me.  I have a vague recollection of the castle, but a closer look doesn't reveal much, certainly not the 'seafront castle' as I'd been promised, unless they refer to a sea of indistinct grey apartment blocks.  The rebuilt keep stands proud but is losing the battle to encroaching development. So I wheel then through an arcade called 'Ginza,'  which is fighting its own battle against a modern and more global economy.  

Then the station, to see a trio of mascots bobbing around and shaking hands more convincingly than any politician.  Without any irony they stand before a recruitment poster for the Self-Defense Forces, whose 61 year-old mascot status was just revoked last month by a parliament whose true visages are just as effectively hidden.

I can see where this line of thought is taking me, so I suppose it is just as well that this leg of the journey is complete. I board a train which carries me through the ruined landscape of northern Shikoku, as beside me a moth flits and bashes itself against an artifice of sky.

On the turntable:  "Verve/Remixed 2"
On the nighttable: Will Self, "Psycho Two"         

Friday, October 16, 2015

Knowing Tranquility V (Mukojima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima)

The weather has taken a turn.  It is no longer the heat of a hazy July afternoon, but the first stirrings of a chill borne upon an October morn.  This chill envelops me as I disembark the train in Fukuyama. Looking to bring some heat back into my body, I undergo a long search for a vending machine that has the tell-tale red strips which signify hot cans of coffee, its bottom shelves having switched from blue at the top of the month.   Forgoing the escalators I produce my own heat in the climb up to the platform, at the edge of which I stand with my face turned to a sun that promises Indian summer. 

Since my previous posts, I have jumped ahead a fair bit in Donald Richie's Inland Sea, though I suppose the more linear-inclined can find the blanks filled by the second half of this post from December 2009.  But Richie's travel narrative too was spliced together from a variety of trips over the years, despite the book's seamless flow.   He wrote a great deal on Onomichi, the town which I was currently headed toward.  While he had spent a fair number of pages detailing the ins and outs of its back-alleys, I'd merely be passing through, with only enough time in town to get on a rented bicycle and move myself toward the water. 

It's no real surprise that Richie had in Onomichi alluded so much to sex (a favorite topic of sorts that can be found throughout his writings), as the Chinese characters for Onomichi could be quite liberally read as 'the path on which to pursue tail.'  In a similar distortion of kanji, I find myself whistling the old WWI classic, "Over there," during my ten minute journey across the strait to Mukaijima.

The island itself is essentially a suburb of the city.  I've always had a complicated relationship with Onomichi.  I greatly appreciate climbing the hills between its temples and along its 'path of literature.'  (I have a fond memory of walking the latter with a friend who struggled up the slopes on a leg crippled from polio, in a scene that could almost be found in one of Mishima's works.)  Despite that, I've always found it a godawfully ugly port city, whose unattractiveness can be seen even in 1953 in that marvellous closing shot of Ozu's Tokyo Story.  

But that is behind me now.  I make my way across the island, on a rented bicycle that bears the scars of multiple accidents.  Chipped paint, frayed wires, and a front basket misshapen like a gourd.  As I move along, the saddle wobbles a bit, but I am thankful for this play as it will spare me from a sore bum at the end of the day.  And most of its 24 gears are in good working order.  So it would be that on this machine I'll be spending the next three days, at an unhurried pace, over a route that could be covered in eight hours if done in one go.  Thus, I begin to follow the blue line toward Imabari on Shikoku. 

The first part of my journey is along a rather uninspired shopping street which eventually spills me out on the open waters of the bay. Amongst the boats anchored there is an old fishing boat with wooden cabin and neat triangular sail, which shines a fine white against the green and blue behind.  The sun shimmers off the water as I weave along the shoreline, stopping time and again to take photos.  Traffic along the road is thankfully sparse, and unhurried as it goes.  In contrast, vehicles move at great speed along the highway above, racing toward the first bridge which is beginning to loom up around the curves.  For us bicyclists, an access road has been built parallel, one that zigs and loops up through the fruit orchards toward the bridge's great height.  Mercifully, the road's pitch is kept at about 3 degrees, which allows for a slow but not terribly difficult ascent.  I reach the apex and am fed onto the bridge, one level down from all that speeding traffic overhead.  The bridge vibrates at their passage, which along with the height has me feeling a bit uneasy as I cross its kilometer-long span over the channel.

The road down the other side is a tight spiral, and before long I am back at the water's edge.  I wonder whether the bicycle paths were planned along with the bridge, or were an afterthought.  In any case, a good amount of concrete has been poured, no doubt to the delight of the LDP and the local construction industry.  I have often written of my disgust with Japan's concrete coated countryside, but I find that I don't particularly mind it in this form.  Rather than looking at roads to nowhere, I think I would quite enjoy riding similar paths through unkept forests and hills over the length of the country.

On Innoshima now.  I could cross the island in less than an hour, but decide to detour and look at its sights.  I had seen a trio of lighthouses from the bridge above, so try to seek them out.  I pedal up a steep mountain road, and notice the steps leading downward to structures so gleaming white that they once again bring out the comparison with Greece.  Climbing the steps is another bicyclist, spandex head to toe.  He is startled to see me, but once recovering, asks me where I am from.  I know the answer he is after, but I am feeling obstinate and say "Kyoto."  He mutters a bit after that, wondering why I am out here since Kyoto is such a beautiful place and has so much to offer.  People have to go somewhere, I suppose.  This encounter sets up a thematic tone for the next few days. Once again, the inhabitants in these remote corners rarely treat me as any different than they.  It is only the other travelers, those from the 'civilized' cities, who take note of the difference of my caucasial features.     

I nurse my 'wounds' with a coffee down at the water's edge, eyeing a lovely campsite edged up across the trees.  A few kilos further on, I pass a small hand written sign reminding riders to travel safely.  Beside the sign is a bouquet of cosmos and other wild flowers.  They are slowly drying in the sun, giving their lives for whomever lost theirs on this shaded curve in the road. 

I find my detour road to Shirataki-san, which twists upward at a 15 degree slant.  It isn't long before I am off the bike, pushing its heavy frame toward the sun.  Easier than riding, harder than walking.  I take a rest at a fork in the road, and eat a power bar.  I had very little breakfast this morning and am feeling it.  It must be affecting my judgement as well. As I return from scouting out a route down, I notice a crow atop my backpack, about to tear into my first aid kit.  I clap and holler to scare him off, but it is too late;  he's already gotten the rest of my snacks.  Just when I am calling him a murderous bastard (and things worse), I turn to see a pair of Australians with curious looks on their faces.  

The rest of the uphill goes quickly due to conversation.  I snap a few photos of them, then continue on my own, wandering over the hillside amongst the 700 stone Buddhas,  praising each and every one for such a clear day and rewarding views.  From this aerie I confirm my ride down, and before too long I am following it, around and to the south to a village where I get lunch at a kaiten sushi shop, inspired not in the least by the roundabout where I was raided by the crow.  From this encounter with a sanzoku (山賊) , I seek out the kaizoku (海賊), although here the pirates were called the euphamistic suigun, or navy.  I think back on the pirate lore of Megijima and others, but here is physical proof in the form of a castle keep standing on a hillock.  It is a rebuild to be sure, as a society as top-heavy as the Edo shogunate would never allow such blatant contrarians to exist, but it allows me an enjoyable half an hour to wander the displays of weapons and ships of yore, beneath the booming voice familiar from commercials and NHK.  

I loop back around to rejoin the path where I left it, then follow it off the island. Up and over now to Ikuchijima, pausing briefly for a mikan gelato on the way to Kosan-ji.  I have been here before, in a journey by car and ferry in those days before bridges.  Besides the kitschy entertainment of the passage through the Buddhist hells, all I remember is a bustling courtyard framed by gaudy architecture.  Today, it is lackluster, a bit forlorn, and I am nearly alone.  What a difference two decades makes.  It presents a wonderful example of mono-no-aware, and how poignant that a shrine built to the memory of a deceased mother has become so neglected at the death of the filial son.  There has been some attempt at resuscitation in the construction of the bright white marble 'Heights of Eternal Hope' that tops the hill behind.  Sadly, sometimes hope springs infernal, and perhaps they should add a new display to the passages through hell below, of death due to slow economic decline.        

I make one final stop for the day, at the adjacent museum of local artist Hirayama Ikuo.  I don't think much of his art (which might present better with black lights and lava lamps), but  am quite taken with his story, of a wanderer who covered a great deal in his time, along some rather remote pathways.  His steps took him far from this hometown of Setoda, a place of which Richie was quite critical in his book due to its crass commercialism, including his classic quote, Travel hopefully broadens those who travel. It usually narrows those who have to deal with the travelers.  Today, I find the place quietly charming, as my legs pump through their final revolutions of the day, coming to rest at my waterfront hotel.  

After dinner, I sit before my window and read.  Time and again, my attention is pulled by movement from outside.  Below me, water flows black through these narrow straits.  It carries along small water taxi along, which I watch until it disappears beneath the monochromatic rainbow of a small bridge.  It is only then that I realize how few boats I'd seen today.  I tend to associate the Inland Sea with the old ferries shunting residents from island to island.  How truly superfluous the bridges have made them, and the era in which the ruled. 

A high school girl is waiting in the light of the ferry terminal, to be eventually picked up by her mother.  I imagine that the mother too grew up on this island, with this scene repeated a generation before.  I compare her to the schoolgirl of a similar age who had served me dinner downstairs, in this hotel run by her family for countless generations.  Lives follow the lives of those who came before, time spinning like the movement of the eddies just offshore.     

On the turntable:  "MOM: Mother for our Oceans"
On the nighttable:  Sakuraba Kazuki, "Red Girls"