Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Papers: Jack London

"The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."

On the turntable:  Devo, "Post Post-Modern Man"

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.
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Friday, July 28, 2017

Knowing Tranquility IX (Shiraishijima)

In his Inland Sea, Donald Richie seems to have given Shiraishijima a miss, but I intended to spend two days there, in order to walk the island's 88 temple circuit.  On a previous visit years ago, I'd met Amy Chavez, whose writings I had long known.  No one has done more than Amy in introducing the pilgrimage to the English-speaking world.  She is as passionate about the restoration and upkeep of the route (and the island in general) as she is about writing.  After a quick swim and a bath, I meet Amy at her Moooo! Bar, where we discuss logistics and admire the astounding colors of the sun setting into the petrochemical haze of the mainland.   

I meet Amy at her house the following morning at 6, and after a quick caffeine fuel up, we march up a flight of stone steps toward the forest.  Temples 80-84 are pretty straight forward, but T1-17 required a bit more work.  After ducking through a tunnel of overgrown bamboo we zig up and down the hillside in search of the telltale stone figures tucked away beneath the large stones that give the island its name.  I find the whole layout quite odd at first, until Amy mentions that the "temples" were placed where they were since they either marked a physical anomaly on the landscape, or had once stood beside homes.  The latter are long gone, though one hulk of tumbled timber lies rotting away where dreams once lived.  Now and again we come to a remaining well, which serves as waypoints of sorts, and eventually drop down onto the lovely gold crescent of a deserted beach.  Despite its beauty, there is a certain taboo about swimming or development, due to a legend that states that the bodies of feeling Heike warriors had washed up here.  This belief led eventually to the Shiraishi O-dori, danced every August in order to appease the souls of these centuries-long dead.

Amy needs to open the bar to the day-trippers on this sunny Sunday morning, but not before pointing me on my way.  Despite having a simple map, I immediately become lost, and in what would become a theme for the day, I find myself exploring many of the side trails, until finally figuring out the right path.  Maps are interesting tools in that they not only teach you the terrain, but also allow you some insight into the mindset of the mapmaker, in particular how they orient themselves to the landscape.  You will inevitably make a few mistakes, because the way that you see things is not always the way that they do.  Over time, I begin to understand why things are represented on paper as they are, and also in what types of places the stone Buddhas have been placed.  Thus educated, I push on more quickly.

The trail leads upward.  My greatest trouble is the overgrown paths, not yet cleared after an unusually long rainy season.  Despite brandishing a stick before me like a sword, I am quickly covered with cobwebs and other debris.  I'm not usual squeamish about spiders, but there is no possible way to enjoy feeling a web break across your face.  In some sections, bamboo grass spreads across like a curtain, and one leaf slices open the tip of my finger, which bleeds profusely and refuses to clot.  It is still dripping when I reach T23, and I smile as I remember that the deity here is the Medicine Buddha. 

A final short rope rappel drops me onto a small empty beach and T25 hiding on a cliff face.  Looking across the water I see Kitagijima and the roads I'd bicycled the day before.  I strip off my sweaty, cobweb covered shirt to wash in the sea, then I splash my face and torso, before sitting awhile to dry.  I eventually walk the length of the beach twice, and even climb back up the hill a bit to find the trail but it alludes me.  There is one section that might be it, but it is covered in vines as thick as wire.  I am not too pleased about playing Robinson Carusoe, or in facing a long return the way I came.  It is then that I see a motorboat drift quietly offshore.  "Oi!" I call, and the boat moves closer.  Once in earshot, I ask if they can take me across the bay to the houses a 100 meters or so away.  Prop raised, the boat comes closer in, and I help offload supplies, as the six people aboard had intended to spend the day here.  Once unencumbered, I climb aboard and am whisked across to freedom.

I attempt the approach to T26 from the opposite side, but the trail at the top is too thick, so retreat.  My disappointment at this doesn't last, as my intention is to was the pilgrimage route, and that doesn't necessarily mean I have to actually see the temples themselves.  This justification allows me a way out for the temple I subsequently miss, even if I know that they lies somewhere nearby, unseen in the thick of jungle.  Rather than beads on a necklace strung out in a logical line, many of the temples are up short paths spurring off the car raod that circles the island.  The trick is to find the entrances, hidden by growth.  I find the dirt road leading to T34-36, but somehow miss them.  Likewise, I miss T42 but this time I'm not looking too hard, as I've run out of water and the heat is rising.  Luckily there is a house nearby, and the man inside allows me to fill up.  He surprises me in not knowing the location of T42, which can be no more than 20 meters from his house.  

I give up and continue to follow the road.  This southern edge of the island is heavily quarried, and has few houses.  It takes me a while to find the trail upward, and after finding T43-44, the brush forces me back down again.  It is simply to high, too thick.  I am comforted by the fact that there are no vipers on Shiraishi, but the vegetation is tearing me apart, legs cuts and scratched, arms bleeding, feet stinking from open sores.  I am usual careful in what I wear while hiking, but the concept of "island" fooled me into wearing shorts and sandals.  But even if I had been properly dressed, the novelty of bashing through the jungle is wearing thin.     

I follow the road again to the next trail entrance, and attempt to backtrack toward T45.  I do find T50-51, but from there the brush remains impenetrable, turning me back once again.  There is only one more short section before I return to the island's main beach, now busy with day-trippers.  I rest in my room for about 30 minutes to recharge my phone and myself.  Then set back out.

The final sections are much easier going, though I do accidentally follow the well groomed hiking trail up the ridgeline that is the island's summit, over and around large boulders overlooking the waters that had covered them millennia ago.  The Buddha statues are more closely placed up here, easier to find.  I do allow myself a diversion down to an actual temple, Kairyū-ji, which still serves the spiritual needs of the people here.  Likewise, the Benzaiten shrine on a island just offshore.  This I reach not long afterward, to find a prayer ceremony going on, to mark the lowest tide of the year, which allows the worshippers to walk across the rocky seabed. One woman slaps dead an ant on her leg in the midst of chanting.   I turn to find Amy here too, and she leads me to the path up to my final temple of the day, T71, handing me off to Sanchan, who is a bit of a legend due to his popular bar sitting just below the Buddha's gaze.  

I would have liked to talk more with Sanchan but I am too beaten and worn out for chitchat.  I've done over 24 km over tough terrain on a very hot day.  Instead I have a quick swim, though it isn't as pleasant due to the low waters and the weeds, and I've had enough of the feel of vegetation on my skin.  Afterward, I have a beer with Amy, giving her some feedback on the map and the trail conditions.  We agree that it is currently a two-day route, but once cleaned up, could be done in a day.  She is intending not only to improve on the existing map, but is also sponsoring a trail race in order to raise funds for signage and trail cleanup.  But I am pleased with myself for my toils, especially when she tells me that I'm one of the first non-islanders to have done the whole route.

But not just yet.   I again meet Amy at 6 a.m. for another coffee, then we return to the bamboo tunnel to visit T85-88.  It is a bit of bashing back through the growth before we pop out of the jungle at the port.  It has been a pleasant couple of days, discussing many elements of island life, namely population growth and disappearing traditions, and the frustrations of island political decision making being made in an office on the mainland.  

It is toward there I'll head next.  I have yet another swim, and shake the crabs from my sandals one last time.    

On the turntable:  Deep Purple, "In Rock"

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Knowing Tranquility VIII (Awashima, Manabejima, Kitagijima)

The first thing I saw in the morning was a samurai riding on a stone turtle.  Well, maybe not the first thing, as I'd been awake for a few hours, though secluded in my drab room by the station.  And maybe not a real samurai or turtle, but stone emeulations of both.  Still, it was an image that lasts.

It isn't long before I find out their identity.  Urashima Tarō, of course.  It is a story that everyone in Japan knows, about the boy who spends three days in the underwater palace of the Dragon God, and upon his return finds that he'd been away 300 years.  Donald Richie mentions that Kinoe, a town a few islands over, claims Tarō as their own, but apparently the body of the turtle that bore him to the palace washed up near the whirlpool on Awashima's western shore.  

I'm puzzling over a sign telling me this last point, when a man rides up on his motorscooter, to fill in the blanks.  We both bow before the little roadside shrine honoring the turtle, then begin to ride back to the main port, where I'd rented my bicycle, as they'd been out of turtles.  The man holds pace with me, telling me about the island and some of the history.  He is friendly and quite easy going, in keeping with the island's languid pace, and it isn't difficult to imagine centuries disappearing as one dozed away out here. 

Awashima had hosted a number of installations for the Triennale, but the spirit had caught on, with dozens of smaller homegrown projects sprouting across the island.  I'm not surprised by the rustic island bar, probably run by a real character, a common feature of laid back islands the world over.  But I am taken aback at the sight of a macrobiotic cafe, the only eatery I notice on the island.  Obviously, there are interesting folks about; those I see are sitting about, chatting away the heat of the morning.  There is none of the frantic pace of Ibukijima.  Once again I chastise myself for not staying the night here.

While the locals have all the time in the world, I don' t so have rented the bike in order to see as much of this island as possible.  Two hours proves enough, to bike to all the villages and beaches on the island, surprised somewhat by the hills.  At the far west end, a small hamlet fades back into forest, including the former residents' graves.  In a decade or so, it will seem as if no one ever lived here at all.  There are a few day trippers over on Nishihama beach on the island's back side, but not even their jet skis frightens a massive cloud of sardines, numbering the thousands, who may have fled the fishing fleet of the day before.  

I don't have time to climb the 200 meter mountain at the island's center (and what are islands anyway but underwater mountains?), which is fine in this heat.  I did want to visit Kubota Saya's art installation, the Missing Post Office, but it won't open until afternoon. This gives me more time to wander the grounds of the old Naval college, Japan's first.  It too is housed in an old wooden school, filled now with hundreds of photographs of students former traveling and working around the world. The movement of weather and tides dictated their movements, as now it did mine.  My boat would be leaving soon.  

As I sit waiting for a bus back to the station, I get into conversation with a mother-daughter team that I had briefly glimpsed in the Naval museum.  The girl had caught my attention, as does any mixed-race woman, for in their features I try to find a clue into how my daughter will eventually look.  She's an art student living in Milan, and with her mother had spent a few days on the island.  We share a long conversation comparing life in Japan versus Europe, mainly on art and politics, as our bucolic transport brings us north to Tadotsu, where we exchange cards and I disembark. 

It is the full heat of day, and I'm still sweat-soaked from my bicycle ride up and over the hills.  But the ferry port isn't too far so I decide to walk.  The town has a quainter look than had Sakaide, filled with old shops and narrow roads.  Along the way, I oame across an old building that is being used as a Shorinji Kempo school.  On a hill above, just out of sight, stands a towering pagoda with a Chinese look, a replica of the actual Shaolin Temple in Henan province.  This is the headquarters of Shorinji,  and I've twice visited; the first being on a relaxed tour with my former teacher; the second for a black belt test, about which I barely remember due to the nerves and intensity of the process.

I remember too there is a really good chicken restaurant somewhere in the area, but I don't really have the time to go searching, so instead get a cold drink and go to the pier to await my boat.  This single transport is the most important link of this particular stretch, for it is the only boat that covers a certain section, and only does so once a week.  (I was puzzled about the irregularity of scheduling, until I was reminded that I would be crossing the prefectural line.)  So I sit waiting for the crew to let us board.  This is a risky endeavor, as I am nearly brained by an old woman who loses control of her cane, and am nearly run down by a smartly dressed man driving a flash car with Tokyo plates.  His companion has an Asahi tallboy in his hand, and over the next two hours it will stay there, though I am not sure if it is the same can. 

I watch these two during the course of my voyage, for once not the one who most stands out.  As I do, I imagine a story for them, why they are bringing the car on this little ship to a little island; whether they are gangsters or merely a couple.  There is a closeness there the I can't quite define.  When I grow bored with this I go stand at the ship's side, away from the smokers in the stern, but catching the full brunt of the wind.  This is the first of four ships that will take me along the island chain that stretches from Tadotsu to Kasaoka, and I feel like I am finally traveling the way Richie did, the way that people traveled before the bridges were built.  Other smaller islands recede with our wake.  Now and again I look down upon a jellyfish just below the waterline, like a discarded prophylactic.  

 I change to a smaller boat at Sanagi, which speeds me across to Manabe.  I only have twenty minutes until my next boat, but the island is small, little more than a single village.  I head immediately for the old school, for I have come to find that those are the most beautiful, wooden structures from before the war.  This one doesn't disappoint, curling like a horseshoe around the athletic grounds.  I am curious whether it is still active, and the dozens of faces smiling at me from a recent newsletter show that it has. 

There were more children here thirty years ago when Shinoda Masahiro filmed MacArthur's Children, which was detailed life here in the Inland Sea, and was nominated for an Academy Award.  I do come across a number of kids chopping wood and preparing for some kind of event, but I of course have no way of knowing whether they actually live hereProbably not, as their numbers seem high considering there are only about 200 people on the island.  What there are lots of are cats, and the island has become better know for that, partly due to a French comic by Florent Chavouet, whose photo hangs prominently in the ferry terminal.  

But on such a hot day, not even the cats were in evidence, though they could be spotted sleeping in various patches of shade, dreaming perhaps of chasing cicada once night fell.  Or perhaps they dream of taking over.  As Japan's population continues to fall, the cats have already begun to outnumber residents on many of these islands, and it won't be long before they are the only things left.

My next boat whisked me quickly over to Kitagijima.  I had two choices of boats, each departing an hour after the other.  There didn;t appear to be much happening in the island's main village, so I thought I might try to explore further afield.  I asked the man in the ferry terminal if they rented bikes, and after a few preliminary questions to led me to a beat-up model out behind the building which I assumed was his own.  Rewarding his entrepreneurship with 300 yen, I bicycled off to the island's far end.  

It was a bigger place than I'd thought, but luckily it was flat, so I kept up a steady pace along the shoreline, wondering after a while if there was anything here but concrete factories. It truly was an ugly island, with lots of quarries and stone slabs strewn about.  I find ironic delight in the island's name, "Tree of the North," for it is only on the north shore that any can be found, the rest having been carved up so badly. 

Richie spent an inordinate amount of time hunting down a stone cat, one of the more comedic parts of his book.  In the end he finds the cat to merely be a pile of stones stacked in a far corner. But I spotted it quite quickly, and was surprised that Richie, who is incredibly observant missed the connection with the industry here, choosing instead to fall back on Heike legend.  

The road runs out eventually, so I wheel back, passing again a fisherman multitasking with his four lines extending into the sea.  Passing through a small village, I again experience a bizarre aural illusion.  I hear what I think at first is an hourly chime, but it is a quarter past four.  Then I see the inbound ferry and assume it must be letting the residents known it is coming in.  Only then do i notice the man selling bread out of his truck, beneath a speaker affixed to its roof.    

Before I leave the island, the ears will be called into play yet again.  Riding back toward the terminal, I see a handful of people sitting in front of a beach house.  A handmade sign advertises curry, so I assume they have beer.  As I wash the dust of dozens of concrete factories out of my throat, a man and a woman begin to play music through amplifiers, so I sit and listen awhile,  As they go into "Stand by Me," I wander over and join in the chorus.Music truly is the best means of international communication.   I only have a half an hour until my boat, but I join in on a few numbers as the day begins to cool.   They have taken to drunkenly calling me Mike, after the microphone I suppose, but it has been a fun encounter, one of those delights of being a expat in Japan, where your foreignness helps initiate an immediate relationship.  It won't hold up a boat however, so I turn and move in that direction.

On the turntable: dZihan & Kamien, "Freaks & Icons"

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Knowing Tranquility VII (Shamijima, Ibukijima)

It is incredible that Shikoku, gifted as it is with expansive areas of great beauty, can also host some of this country's ugliest cities.  And amongst these, Sakaide stands out, a characterless tangle of heavy industry and petroleum tanks. The latter cover like pimples the reclaimed land that now firmly affixes Shamijima to Shikoku proper.  If there is a bright side, it is the cooling breezes coming off the water.  

The land on this spit is pretty barren and lifeless, little able to take hold in the tainted soil but kudzu vines. To the almost artificial screeching of the cicada, I walk through a dystopian landscape devoid of people, along a high wired fence and beneath the massive slabs of concrete that hold up the Seto Ohashi bridge.  Little wonder the few buses that run out here.  As I walk along I think of "Manufactured Landscapes," a film that horrified me, which I meant to review, though I never did.  Manufactured excuses...

But the museum built in honor of the bridge is delightful, as are the grounds surrounding it.  Perhaps it is the weather, the sky perfect, with just the right light shimming off the water, showcasing the white symmetry that seemingly glides across toward the mainland.  Behind the museum, I sit on a Fujimoto Shuzo's sculpture/bench that is one of the projects for the art Triennale and enjoy the sight of cars and trains moving to and fro.  A pair of sandpipers stand on the cool of a marble slab that is a cleverly designed sundial, throwing the small shadows of the birds in the direction of the number 10.  This reminder of the rising heat puts me too in motion.  

Inside, I linger to enjoy the cool. The first displays are of the old ferry systems that once crisscrossed the Inland Sea.  My favorite photo shows a group of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs around elaborately set tables, like those old Pan Am posters of the golden age of jet travel.  There were other photos of the ferries themselves, the last four having simultaneously finished their runs on the same April day in 1988. 

I have the place alone for awhile, until a woman arrives with three children who, based on the conversation, is a teacher with her pupils. A small group, and a ever present reminder of declining population. (I'll later come across a series of poems engraved in stones lining the beach, left behind by students from a now defunct school in order to honor the poem in the ancient collection, Manyoshu that Donald Richie reminds us was set here.)   

I not usually a fan of these types of museums but this one is quite remarkable, as moving from room to room shed light on how the bridge had systematically been assembled.  What impressed most was the concepts behind the design.  Who came up with this stuff, and how did they know it would work?  How did they place the massive concrete supports into the sea?  How did they extend all the supporting cables across miles of open water?  To envision such a project I imagine requires a similar suspension -- of disbelief, demonstrating once again that in physics lies metaphysical proof.   

I walked back across the park, beneath the (symbolically) 108 meter observation that not only overcharged you on admission, but wasn't even as high as the bridge that most visitors would have crossed in order to get here.   The long rows of concrete supports for the bridge reminded me somewhat of tombstones, but at least they offered shade for the walk over to what had once been Shamijima island.  The shade didn't extend over as far as the sidewalk itself, so I walked in the middle of the empty road, wondering how the museum could justify its financial existence. 

Once upon the "island" I came across an art work by Tanya Preminger, which was like a burial mound with a concrete path spiralling to the top and back.  It was nice to stand awhile at the crest and feel the subtle touch of the wind off the water just behind. Below me was an incongruous park, built primarily for frisbee golf.  It was interesting, an somewhat attractive, all the amenities that had been laid out for the locals. But in this lies the typical Japanese political mindset.  Accompanying the construction of an incinerator or nuclear reactor was the usual "carrot" offered to the residents. I suppose from one perspective, it is far more attractive to shut up and enjoy a place to play frisbee after a day's fishing, than to find your boat burned in mysterious circumstances, or that your neighbors are no longer interested in buying your catch.    
I moved along to the water, the centerpiece being Shamijima Nishinohama Beach House, with a well-groomed beachfront with shaded decks that you could rent for 2000 yen a day.  Children were playing in a small body of water sectioned off by concrete tetrapods a dozen meters or so away.  From the perspective of a swimming child, these would prove additionally useful in that it would block the vies of all the industry and refineries across the way.  

A sign pointed me toward an unpaved walking course through the trees.  I walked beneath the pines, which occasionally splayed their branches enough to offer glimpses of the blue waters beyond.  Cliffs of soft stone looked as smooth as marble, carved and hewn by an eternity of waves.  Out at the point, I sit and pull out Richie's book to review what it was that he found here.  But on a day as fine as this one, I find myself more interested in my own journey.  Beyond the jagged rocks, more of the bridge has revealed itself.  Now and again I look up at the sound of a train rattling over.  Just to my left is Honjima, and further out, the steep pitch of Hiroshima Island tempts, a light mist surrounding it, accentuating the mystery.  

I walk back through the village, past the abandoned school and to a museum dedicated to a famous artist whose name means nothing to me and whose work means even less.  I grab a share taxi back to the station, and along the way, a caught snippet of song reminds me of my lost son, and the sadness suddenly wells up.  I think that this is why I like traveling by myself sometimes, that it allows me a chance to welcome my loneliness. 

Perhaps I am not alone in this feeling.  I have time for a quick lunch at the station, and across from me I see a foreign man with his children and what I presume are his wife's parents.  He looks like he is anywhere but part of the conversation.  I remember well having similar moments, suffering through dull outings arbitrarily chosen simply as a means of passing the time in a small city lacking in distractions. Any form of escape was sought out, much as this man's attention is pulled around the room, eyes seeking...anything.    

A train brings me to Kannon-ji, and it is a short walk to the ferry.  I wonder if I passed through on my Shikoku Pilgrimage, and a glance at a tourist map shows not only that I had, but that there was something here that I had missed, relating to Kukai's birth story.  I make a quick call to my friend David, who I consider to be the foremost foreign expert on the pilgrimage.  he isn't sure what I am talking about, but think maybe that I am confused with a similar stretch of beach near Zentsuji.  What I do find is a massive sand sculpture amidst the pines of an old Japanese coin, built supposedly in the 17th century as a means of welcoming a well-liked official. From beach level, it looks, well, like a pile of sand, so I climb through the forest to the overlook, and am rewarded for my effort.  It is simply massive, 122 meters across, dwarfing the people who play on the beach beyond.  Further out still is the small shape of Ibukijima, where I next direct my efforts.

The island is famous for being one of the last places to maintain the old Heian period dialect (a charge I've heard leveled at the Izumo region as well), which would make sense as the fleeing body of the Heike clan would have shed members on islands all along the Inland Sea.  On the boat, other riders chat in voices that I imagine sound like how crabs talk.  If this was the voice of the Heike, I can understand why they were so disliked.  This is the fast boat, and as it pulls away, I climb out to the bow to let the wind dry my T-shirt, watching the low hump out to the west swell and grow, and before I know it, we've arrived on the island.

Ibukijima is also famous for its sardines, and this, being height of the season, leads to a frenzy of activity.  People move much more quickly than I've come to expect from these islands, with scooters zipping along all the roads at the pier.  There seem to be no cars here, but for the odd kei truck.  The lone village itself is built higher up the hill and away from the waters, as is common on many of the islands.  I move upward away from the bustle, and come to another art installation, Ishii Daigo's House of Toilet, which I promptly make an interactive artwork.  It is flanked by another abandoned school and a shrine shaded by a massive tree.  In summer, the sound of the shrine is the sound of the cicada, and when you clap to wake up the gods, the roar of the insects wells up as if in reply.  

Beyond the shrine I find the folk museum, set as usual in another former school.  I wander the classrooms, separated into different thematic parts of island life.  I have an odd experience where I hear the laughter and voices of the students, which is so clear that I think it has been piped in.  It takes a moment for me to realize that there is an actual kindergarten on the hill just behind.        

There is a temple at the highest part of the town, and behind it, sloping down the hill toward the sea is a cemetery of the island's dead.  On the waters further behind, a fleet of fishing boats is going out to catch sardines.  Cycles of life go on.  I wander down through the labyrinth of narrow lanes between the houses.  At the far end, I nearly add to the cemetery's number in startling an old fisherman,  who then looks angrily at me, shirtless to reveal gristled and tattooed physique.  I apologize and turn back, past an interesting set of jizo statues, and to a stone marker commemorating the linguist who did his research here.  Below me, the port continues its bustle. Despite this, I regret that I hadn't booked a night in an innout here, rather than returning to some anonymous cube in a characterless hotel across from the train station.  

But I did chose loneliness after all, and it is to that that I return.  I do get a little companionship in the form of a sushi chef, for I am a curiosity in being both a foreigner and the only customer, once he can turn his attention away from the television.   I appreciate his talk almost as much as his fish, which costs a fraction of what it would in the cities of Honshu.  Then I am released again into the quiet of a small city night, but for a host rushing from a taxi to buy his client cigarettes, and the dull throb of a bosozoku revving up for the night, and a salariman drinking from his tall can of chu-hi as he walks lethargically to the station.   Loneliness apparently takes many forms.  

On the turntable:   Dock Boggs, "False Hearted Lover's Blues"

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Papers: W. Somerset Maugham

"The writer cannot afford to wait for experience to come to him; he must go out in search of it."

On the turntable:  Don Byron, "Nu Blaxpoiation"


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Kōjō no Tsuki

This week I took Somerset Maugham to the top of Takeda castle.  A disembodied Maugham anyway, in the form of a biography that sat heavily in my backpack.  I'd gotten a very early start, but already my shirt was soaked, and my heart raced my feet for top pace. 

It was a bit of a ridiculous mission actually, to climb a low, squat mountain in the full heat of July.  Even more so was the fact that I'd be driving five hours return to climb something that took less than an hour.  But the lords, at least the work of the lords, had beckoned, and those called best come. 

I'd been wanting to climb Takeda castle for many years.  I'd come across its photo now and again, usually the unkai money shot, its stone figure rising from the mists of autumn.  In reading about it, I discovered it is considered one of the top 100 castles in Japan, a claim I find surprising.  To the best of my knowledge, only about 100 castles remain anyway, with eighteen considered authentic.  But of these, just twelve are truly authentic, as the other six have been restored to such an extent that they no longer composed of any of their original elements.  The whole notion of a castle ranking in the top 100 seems silly anyway, as in the feudal period itself, there were only about 200 to 250 castles at any given time.  It is on par with the contemporary notion of rewarding children participation awards, medals given for simply showing up.    

Bilingual signs counted down the 900 meters to a pay station at the top.  I'd anticipated this, and was curious if there was a way to skirt it. For the principle of course.  (There wasn't.  The high fence at the start of the trail ensures this.)  After forfeiting my 500 yen (300 last year), I asked when they had started to charge.  2013.  This made great sense.

The previous year, a film called Dearest (あなたへ)had been nominated for 10 Japanese Academy Awards, winning two.  The film was also a popular hit, many viewers so moved by the final scenes filmed atop the mountain that they began to flock to its eyrie.  The town began to impose visiting hours on the site, then ultimately began the admission charge. 

These funds went toward a restoration project that finished this past April (around which I carefully timed my visit.)  Perhaps they'd overspent, and now charged 200 yen more than in the past.  And as I arrived at the top, I saw how they'd spent their funds.

Roped pathways funneled the visitor in a labyrinthian spiral like for the queues at Disneyland.  Every inch of these paths were now carpeted in a cheap looking felt, probably to protect the shoes of the dear guests from mud and dust.  But just months old, the carpet was bunched up and torn, and will ultimately cause injury in those that it will inevitably trip. 

This was tourism at its worst, something Japan excels at marvelously.  Things are rarely left to their natural state, the conditions which began attracting visitors in the first place.  I see the results on my walks throughout the country, the detritus of Bubble-era left to decay at the high water mark of errant spending.  Perhaps in the future it is these ruins that will be considered the castles of that time, monuments to assumed power that in their inevitable end prove completely devoid of perspective.  

A tipping point is certain to be reached eventually, as people discover that the place doesn't look like it did in the photographs they saw on the social media pages of their friends.  At its heart, tourism is the consumption of a place, and little by little the world is looking a bit gnawed on.  The only thing left behind that appears palatable is the plastic food in the window; a delight for the eyes but completely devoid of substance.    

Back in the 'Nog, our castle ruins had been left alone, the structure having been destroyed at the dawn of the modern period in order to provide wood to heat baths and cooking fires.  (With the same lack of foresight and perspective.)   These untouched ruins had nothing special about them, but their simple beauty and atmosphere drew us back again and again, through the many seasons.  During the autumnal moon we'd perch and play music and make poems, to honor the ancients, and thankful for the conventional wisdom of letting things be. 

On the turntable:  Dif Juz, "Extractions"
On the nighttable: James L. Haley, "Wolf: The Lives of Jack London"

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Papers: Allen S. Weiss

"With altitude comes that rarefaction which shortens the breath, lightens the mind, and inspires the soul, whence the feeling of an 'eternal instant' in the heart of the present, experienced by so many mountain climbers.  Either reach the summit or risk the abyss.  But the summit must be attained with mind, no body; ephemeral, earthly pleasures must give way to immortal, spiritual truths."

On the turntable:  Dvid Grisman, "Dawgnation"  

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sunday Papers: Knut Hamsun (Wednesday edition)

"A wanderer plays with muted strings when he comes to fifty years. [...] A wanderer who cannot reckon every day on food and drink, clothes and boots, and house and home, feels just the right degree of privation when all these luxuries are lacking. If you cannot manage one way, why, there will be another. But if the other way should also fail, then one does not forgive one’s God, but takes up the responsibility oneself. Shoulder against what comes — that is, bow to it. A trifle hard for flesh and blood, and it greys a man’s hair sadly. But a wanderer thanks God for life; it was good to live!"

On the turntable:  Chet Baker, "Chet Baker in Europe"

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Sunday Papers: Robert Louis Stevenson

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel’s sake.  The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints."

On the turntable:  Delirium, "Chimera"

Monday, July 03, 2017


Pools of azure
Off the tip of your wing...

On the turntable:  David Grisman, "Dawgwood"


Saturday, July 01, 2017


Stone walls resounding
With oration and steel.
Castles in the rain.

On the turntable:  Duke Ellington, "The Centennial Edition"