Thursday, December 28, 2006

I leave Basho in Ogaki with his friends, stay on the train to Nagoya, then continue on to Matsumoto by basu. Nagoya bus station is like any other bus station anywhere: open, draughty and seedy. The only difference is that, presumably due to lack of space, the stops are piled up one of top of the other, with my bus descending from the 4th floor by teleportation. An old drunk shuffles past. ‘realfake’ it says on his T-shirt.

I spend two days in Matsumoto, waiting for better weather, staying in the classically Japanese Momaru Ryokan on the river, visiting the castle. On my last evening I find a noodle bar, Matsumoto Ramen. I’m the only person in the bar at 7.30 PM. When the hell do they all eat? 2 in the morning? The waitress is friendly, but just stands by the till while I wolf my mayonnaise ramen soup with grilled chicken and sip my draught beer.

There’s a news item on the TV about a baby panda. She sighs. I say, “kawai ne?” (‘cute, innit?’). She smiles and comes over to talk to me (Talk? Well, mixture of Japanese, English, lots of charade). I tell her what I’m doing in Matsumoto, but she doesn’t recognise any of the names of mountains. ‘Not mountaineer,’ she says. She’s looking after the bar for her mother for a week, but she’s actually an aerobics teacher from Nagoya. I check – ‘ayulobics?’ "Hai!"

The door opens and a smartly-dressed young woman in a business suit comes in. ‘My sister!’ announces the waitress. I stand up to pay. Her sister does the honours. ‘Ah’, I say, ‘money woman!’’ No,’ says the sister, ‘no money!’ She says she works in insurance. ‘I knew it,’ I say – ‘money woman!’ The sister snorts and slaps me. The conversation turns to music. ‘Bayurcitylollers she likes,’ says little waitress sister pointing at smart big sister. ‘Huh? Oh – Bay City Rollers!’ Little sister giggles. ‘Velly old music!’ she says. We get onto the topic of past-it Lock Stars: ‘Slade!’ ‘Ah!’ ‘Sting!’ 'Nah!' 'David Bowie!’ I imply little sister is an old fogey, too. She slaps me. Hey, I’m being duffed up by two young Japanese women! More! I eventually erupt out of Matsumoto Ramen on waves of laughter and wander back to my ryokan giggling like a maniac.

On the 3rd day I get up at 5.30 AM and head for the early morning train on the Matsumoto-Dentetsu Line to Shin-shimashima, change to the bus, on to the Alps. The Japanese Alps did not exist in Basho’s day. They were created in 1888 by an American, Walter Weston. It seems a fitting end to my sojourn, to head for the hills. Basho would have approved. The ancients found the gods, wisdom, seclusion and consolation in the mountains (they didn’t mention being cold, scared and lost, but I’m sure they found that, too).

19 October 2005

OK. Let's take a raincheck on this one. I'm nearly 9000 ft up in the Japanese Alps; on my own - last people I saw were heading down an hour ago; there's about 1/2 hour of daylight left; I've lost the track; and I'm stuck on a scree. Above me the cloud is swirling down and there's no sign of the supposed hut. Hmm. Perhaps I should've listened to the hut-girl at the Karasawa hut, now 800ft below...

I get to Karasawa at 14.40 after a beautiful 6 hour or so walk from Kamikochi (a high Alpine valley) via Yokoo-sanso, now way down in the lower valley; first following the Asuza-gawa river, then branching off to the West to ascend ever more steeply. The trail is well-marked with white paint circles on rocks and trees. The first mark I see, a red 'O' with a yellow 'O' inside it, I think means 'no entry' or 'tree due for the chop', then decide it means 'do not smoke the trees'. That's alright then - I had no intention of doing so anyway. The hut-girl, who'd passed me twice at speed, once on her way down the mountain, once on her way back up again ("I just felt like going for a walk to the bridge!") tells me that it gets dark at 5pm and that I should stay the night at Karasawa, get up early the next morning for the summit of Hotaka, then go back down the same way, as it'd take me 2 1/2 hrs to get up to the Hotaka-dake-sanso hut. In any case, she says, the path over the peak then down the other side is not recommended. 'OK,' I think, and settle down in the hut.

5 minutes later the mountain jerks me to my feet. I tell the hut-girl I’m going on, and leave. What am I supposed to do for the next 1 3/4 hrs anyway? Look at her? Drink tea? If I don’t get up tonight it'll blow my schedule; I won’t get back down to Kamikochi before 4 or 5pm and not make Tokyo till very late. Then there's the 3rd or 4th Law of Mountain Walking which says: "Always gain as much height as you can when you can!" I forget the 1st, 2nd and 3rd ... probably one of them is: "Do not get yourself stuck on a bloody high mountain you don't know with dark falling and no trace of a path (!)". Another one certainly is: "If you have to cross a high mountain scree, keep those knees high and KEEP MOVING!" Except, of course, I can only make 5 or 10 yds before collapsing in exhaustion. Hmm...

I suppose it sounds boastful to say I’m not afraid, but I’m not - well, only somewhere round the edges. Something inside is quite coolly calculating the percentages: 'let's see now, you just passed a ruddy big rock with a slight concavity on the downhill side - if you are forced to bivowak then you should survive in there with all your clothes on until it gets light enough to move again'; 'it's full moon tonight, the cloud should clear with dark falling, you'll be able to see enough even after dark to continue on up'; 'that ridge to your right ... if you follow it down you'll hit the path at some point'; 'the sketch map in the guide shows the main path I'm supposed to join following the top of the ridge I'm most of the way up - so long as you go straight up you have to hit it at some point'.

Am I heading up for the right col at all? Well, I know I've got Hotaka on the left and some other peak on the right. I know I've got Karasawa immediately below. Also, the scree seems to be 'rounding off' not too far above me. I get my Indian Scout head-dress on and scour the scree for clues: a scrap of plastic sticks out between the rocks, a bit of rope ... 'ah ha - a piece of glass from a beer bottle!' Now, in general, the Japanese do not litter. I've seen none on the trail so far. So the fact that there are a few scraps here, and especially the beer bottle, would indicate a certain congregation of humans directly above. It might have been a will-o'-the wisp, but I also thought I heard a mechanical sort of noise way above my head some time ago, straight up. I decide to continue up to where the scree rounds off and see what I can see.

I get off the scree onto the ridge to my right, pull myself up on rocks and tough, wiry grass, panting, then have to cross it again to what looks like a slightly more stable area. Don't set the whole thing in motion, that would be a megazaster! Peaks rimmed in setting sun. Seemingly solid rocks shift, slide away under my feet. Rest every time I reach a seemingly solid bit, then scutter on to the next. Get to place where it flattens off a bit and poke my head over the top: right in front of me, Hotaka-dake-sanso, the hut.

Is it a mirage? I gasp up the last few metres of scree, clamber onto the wall and walk into the hut. The warden greets me and I register for the night. 7,300 yen with evening meal (about £37). An American, Scott, appears and greets me, too. Turns out he was an English teacher in Kyoto, saw an ad for a hut warden and got the job. Outside it's getting dark by the second, so I go and check the downtrail to see where the hell I got off it. Doesn't seem to be clear, though, whether it, in fact, hugs the ridge I scrambled up or actually goes down the scree. But I can't believe the couple I saw much much earlier could have got down the scree - if it started to go you'd slide along with a road of locks till you hit Davy Jones Rocker ... or the Karasawa Hut anyway, 1000ft below. I go round the back of the hut to look West, see if there are any dragons.

The luminescent horizon is striated in bands of apricot, crystal, adamantine, chrysophagic chalcedony; merging into pumpkin, ortanique, deepest Muscat. And there are dragons. Their pimply snouts stick out above the sea of fluffy-wedding cloud, they bear the names Yari-dake, Tsurugi-dake, Onanji-yama...

I go in for dinner and join a Japanese couple at the table. Many, especially young, Japanese women have this very impulsive and playful demeanour. I rehydrate by sinking 10 cups of green tea, 4 of black and hang out in the library, which has a very nice collection of climbing and mountain walking books - and a gas heater. It was 6 degrees at Kamikochi and it's hovering around freezing up here. The hut is perched on a narrow col between Oku-hotaka-dake, 3190m (you get to call it the familiar 'Hotaka' once you've earned the right), and Karasawa-dake, 3110m, and, surprisingly, doesn't seem to get blown off by the icy blasts of winter or shrugged off by a twitch of the dragon's shoulder. It's got a heated toilet seat! Wow, I'm sitting on a heated toilet seat in a mountain hut at 3000m up in the Japanese Alps!

The hut guys have gone crazy outside and are dancing around with sparklers and fireworks. I ask Scott if there's something to celebrate and he says, nah, it's just the isolation and altitude. It sends them nuts. If it had gone dark before I got up, the flashes would've guided me in right on the nose... Scott says the hut's closing for the season next week, he's off back to the Useless States of Amerikee to work in a department store or something for the winter, then back in April to reopen the hut. It'll take me 8 hours to go over Hotaka and down the other side to Kamikochi, he says, so I'll need an early start. I'm lucky - they usually have snow by mid-September up here. I'd never have made it if there'd been any. I roll out my futon on the sleeping platform along with the other overnighters, note with approval that it's mixed sex, pull the thick quilt over myself and attempt to sleep.

DRINGGGGG! Or, actually, lack of DRINGGGGG! I'd set my alarm for exactly 4.59 and I wake up at exactly 4.58. 'Mountain calling, this is your morning call! Hey, Hotaka here! Wanna see the sunrise from my top? Then get your great hairy butt outta the sack and get yer boots on!'

Uh. Oh. Uff. I'd packed the night before, so within 10 minutes I say goodbye to the hut, slide the door open and walk out into darkness with the faintest glimmering of light. The initial climb out of the col is more of a scramble, up freezing cold iron ladders, hanging onto chains, clutching rocks, but then eases off. The East is aglow in peach over a roil of cottonwool, the cloud layer being at least 1000ft below me. Peaks jut darkly out of the cloud-sea, one an active volcano with a black, wind-drifted plume of smoke parallel to the horizon. I round a shoulder of Hotaka and suddenly see, perfectly framed by the mountain and a slope: FUJI! Surely it must be? No other mountain is so high and so perfectly cone shaped... she beckons incandescently out of shifting opalescent lamella even Hokusai's deftness could never reproduce accurately.

To those who dare
wholly unexpected treasure is granted:
Fuji-san from
I hit the peak finally just after 6am, just as the sun explodes over the horizon. I'm the third highest man in Japan (presuming someone's up the 2nd highest, surely someone'll be up Fuji)! Totally on my own. Funny, in this oh-so-crowded archipelago I've nearly always been on my own. Sunrise at Oku-hotaka-dake, 3190m, 6.14 am, Thursday 20th October, 2005. A moment to treasure for the rest of my life.

I take pictures then share the 'Gipfelwasser' with the mountain god (a can of sake I'd bought in Matsumoto). More a German custom? ('Gipfelwasser = 'peak water' ie a schluck of alcohol when you climb a peak): oblation on rocks in front of his shrine / cheers, old fellow! / mouthful for me / left rest for him. 2 Japanese guys from the hut are now climbing up to join me. I greet them, say 'Yaboo, sucks, you missed the sunrise you lazy sons of guns you should've got up a bit earlier!' (well, play-act); they grin.

I head off down to Mae-hotaka-dake to the SW, which is 300ft lower. It's a perfect day now, but I'm still grateful for the waymarkings - they add an 'X' to indicate 'NOT this way!'. The 'Daikiretto', which, according to the Lonely Planet 'Hiking in Japan' guide, is 'the most exhilarating (or the scariest) bit of hiking in Japan that does not require any specialist skills', is only a few miles north of where I am. It 'adds a skull and crossbones marking' to indicate that those who went that way went the way of all flesh... you 'drop from 3033m to 2748m at the bottom of the hole, then back up to 3106' and there are 'steel ladders, chains and BIG drops'.

I had been regretting not having 3 days to do this stretch as well, but as the Lonely Planet guide seems to be written for Jaunty Young Things With a Spring in their Step and a Song in their Hearts who vault from rock to rock over death-defying precipices like mountain goats, yodelling at the same time, not for middle-aged slowpokes like moi, I am now glad I didn't bite of more than I can chew. Their classification system needs redrafting for oldies: 'easy' means 'middling'; 'normal' means 'steep'; 'steep' means 'terrifying'; and 'exhilarating' means 'brown pants time'. I also consider recommending them to classify 'walks' as 'a one banana hike (1B)', two banana hike (2B)', 'three bananas' etc, judging by my rate of consumption. They'll probably conclude I'm a few bananas short of a bunch myself.

I reach, but do not ascend Mae-hotaka-dake (it'd take another 40 minutes and I'm worried about making an early bus from Kamikochi). The way ahead looks precipitous, but then I look back at what I've just come over, which looks even worse! Perhaps, as with so much of life, we project anxiety, whereas ‘just-doing-it’ naturally, automatically, leads on the the next step. Do people ‘with your best interests at heart’ or ‘trying to help you’, like the hut girl at Karasawa, actually help you? Moot point, arguable in all sorts of ways. My reaction is to distrust them and their advice, to avoid, side-step them, and do what the mountain, life, tells me. That way, perhaps, you're often 'wrong' but what the hell, Mabel... at least you know you're alive and it's solely your own stupid fault. The deal is, you make the decision, you live by the consequences. No moaning. That's a deal you make all the time, it's just more immediate and nearer in high mountains.

The trail turns West and drops. So this is what Lonely Planet considers 'steep'. It is, but there's no exposure and the rock is solid. Again, the too-steep bits have chains or iron ladders. The sun is gradually creeping into the Dake-sawa Valley in front of me, I can see the red-roofed Dake-sawa Hut crouched next to a dry river bed far below, then further, all the way down to Kamikochi, nestled alongside the skein of the Asuza-gawa river. The sun gradually flattens the world out from that crisp, new, early morning sharpness, jagged arete against pumpkin dawn, black shadows on skeletal trees. I stop to take pictures but my battery proclaims it's 'exhausted'. Well, so am I, mate, but I gotta get down this here mountain! I take it out and stick it in an inside pocket to warm up, upon which it allows me a few more pictures.

I sit on a rock and wait for 2 guys to chug slowly past on their way up. The first one sees me at the last minute and immediately strikes up a conversation in English. He's old, he says, 'not so fast anymore.' They spent the night at Dake-sawa and are heading up the way I've come, over Hotaka, down to the Karasawa Hut for that night. 'Old' or not, I'm impressed. Mr First-Friendly takes some pictures of me on my rock and promises to email them to me at home in England (see pic - thank you, Ken Matsumoto!). His companion gives me some spicy sweets. I have my second meal of the day (bread, blueberry jam, German sausage, squashed banana), rehydrate with hut water and continue the unremitting descent to the Dake-sawa Hut where I have the third meal of the day (bread, blueberry jam, German sausage, squashed banana). More of my front tooth breaks off. I nod to a lone Ozzie woman hiker with a massive backpack - she also spent the night at the Hotaka Hut, but in her tent on the heli-landing pad (! obviously a mere toddle for her, this 'walk'!). I recross the boulder-strewn river course and gradually wind down through moss-crept pine, cedar and cryptomeria forest to where the track gives onto a tourist trail along the limpid sidestreams of the Asuza-gawa. Here I turn left, but decide after 10 minutes it's wrong and ask some tourists. They say 'bus station right (nitwit)!' I retrace my steps and stagger down to the Kappa-bashi Bridge. You can scarcely see any water for the swarms of day-trippers, photographing each other in front of the sights, painting watercolours on the river beach, picknicking, buying souvenirs.

I finally roll into the bus terminal at 12.40. It's taken me 7 1/2 hours from the Hotaka Hut, nearly the 8 Scott said. I book the next bus out (13.20), there’s the usual bus confusion but I eventually get on the right one which links to the train at Shin-shimashima and fall asleep.

Bus from Matsumoto and 5 ½ hours later hours later I'm disgorged onto the other-planetary streets of Tokyo beneath 55 floor superscrapers. I muddle my way via JR and the Yamanote Line to Ikebukuro and pitch up at the pre-booked Kimi Ryokan, a world away from the domain of the mountain gods.

Mike and Yoko take me to the site of Basho's old hut alongside the Sumidagawa (river) in the days when 'Tokyo' was called 'Edo' and was further to the West, around the 3 rivers which flow into Tokyo Bay. At the end I come to the beginning, where Bassho started out in the Spring of 1689.

bug-eyed hyper-cruiser
takes Basho upriver
sunset water
After 16 hours flying, back in Bristol

Need to thrash my son at tennis
clean kitchen floor
hope my wife hasn't
found out she doesn't need me


Friday, December 22, 2006

I get back to Fukui after Eihei-ji, locate my (modern)(business-class)(impersonal)(dirty video channel on room TV available via key from automat next to lift therefore incognito on payment of £2.50) hotel.

Next morning, I leave on the Thunderbird Express. The train sweeps into Ogaki, the end-point of Basho’s long trip. He wrote:

Rotsu came to meet me at Tsuruga and accompanied me to Mino Province. Thus I arrived at Ogaki, my journey eased by a horse. Sora came from Ise, Etsujin galloped in on horseback, and we all gathered at Joko's house. Zensenji, Keiko, Keiko's sons, and other close friends called day and night, rejoicing and pampering me as though I had returned from the dead. Despite my travel fatigue, I set out again by boat on the Sixth of the Ninth Month to witness the relocation of the Ise sanctuaries.
hamaguri no
futami ni wakare
yuku aki zo
off to Futami
loath to part as clam from shell
in waning autumn
(trans. by Helen Craig McCullough)
My train stays all of 2 minutes at Ogaki, then rumbles off to Nagoya.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


priest factory
time to pack up, move on

I suppose I wanted to say I had no expectations of Eihei-ji. It was, after all, founded back in 1244 by the chief turkey himself, Dogen Zenji. I know it is the ‘mother’ Soto-Zen centre. I know Buddhism in Japan, like any ‘religion’ in any country, has a socio-political role. I know temples have to have priests and they have to be trained. I know the temples are passed down the male line – if your dad’s a priest you may have to ditch your career in the big city when he dies and come home to take up the family trade. I know someone has to look after the temples and parishioners, officiate at ceremonies for the dead, polish the Buddha's nose, replenish the incense, see to the accounts… I know the priest has to keep body and soul together, probably support his family, too. I know all this, but what has dancing with sutra stands to do with The Matter?

The historical Buddha. And Dogen Zenji. Completely revolutionary thinkers. But they spawned institutions, power structures, hierarchies, systems. Or didn’t they want to and we did? Perhaps it’s the fate of all revolutionaries. Maybe true revolutionaries just vanish without trace. Tradition, fine. ‘Doing-what-you're-doing’, fine. But sometime, somewhere, somehow along the line, the whole point slips away and you’re left dancing with sutra stands.

At Eihei-ji they dance with sutra stands. In the Joyoden, the Mausoleum where Dogen's (and his successors') ashes are preserved, two senior monks are teaching the novices the correct way to carry a sutra stand around.

You approach it, poise with one foot back, toes arched on the ground, the forward knee bent, so you bend with a straight back. Then you pick up the stand with your left hand about half-way down, fold the other hand - just so - across your left shoulder blade, elevate your body, swivel on your heel, glide soundlessly towards the door with one foot exactly in line with the other, turn left, glide, put the stand down. Two monks with 3 novices each. I come back 1/2 hour later and they're still at it.

It has, perhaps, a certain charm. But did Dogen really come back from China to teach monks how to dance with sutra stands? Undoubtedly I contradict myself. I can be moved to tears by four dancing girls in Takayama, and those intricate, flowing, easy movements will have taken years to learn to such perfection.

Still something jars. That's not the same. Here all has become form. I know that the way of the East is that you first learn The Art, then you transcend The Art. First you learn Zen, then you transcend Zen. But in Zen there is nothing to learn; and there is nothing to transcend.

Feel lonely
do zazen
sound of water

Friday, November 17, 2006

In Kanazawa there are numerous maps in English. Trouble is, none of them relate to each other. In fact, the two I’m holding are a mirror image of each other. In one the main river’s at top left, in the other it's top right. The guide to Kenrokuen (a garden is a wondrous thing, God wot!) has pictures of the highlights along the edges ... but doesn't say where they are in the garden. I actually think it's because the 'frame' is different. They probably make perfect Japanese sense but not European sense. We can’t see what we aren’t conditioned to see. Even their hand gestures are confusing. At the so-called Ninja Temple in Kanazawa (it has lots of trapdoors, secret exits etc but actually has nothing at all to do with ‘ninja’), the guide signs to me with a hand gesture, but I don't know whether the gesture says ‘come over here’, or ‘go over there’, so I join the group she's leading. She displays slight annoyance and tells me to join the other group, so she was obviously saying 'please go over there, stupid gaijin kudasai'.

Back on Old Man Basho’s trail again after the offshoot to Takayama. Not having had any breakfast I head for the Post Office to get a load of money out, but the ATM will only give me £200. I can’t figure this and, after a lot of messing around between a very helpful PO guy, me, the ATM machine and two phone booths, I have to ring America. America quickly tells me that there’s a limit of $440/day. Phew ... if you're not in possession of one vital piece of information, the whole system collapses - and especially if you haven't had any breakfast…
some advice:
if you wanna get enlightened
have breakfast first!
lack of sleep and breakfast
may lead to 'change of consciousness'
but ordinary consciousness fine
Famished and desperate for coffee to soothe/drug my jangling nerves I barge into the oh-so-sophisticated Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art's minimal white-cube restaurant. A Liquid-Eyed Beauty bows and greets me. “Irashaimasu". "Kohi," I gasp, "kohi!" LEB picks up the menu and points to 'coffee'. "Ikura desu ka," I ask - I know if one has to ask the price of coffee in ueber-trendy pure white cubes then one is de-fi-ni-tely not trendy, but I'm past caring. Anyway, being a Great Hairy Northern Barbarian gives one certain privileges denied to the populace at large. "450 yen," she says (about £2.25). "Iie," I say, "too expensive! Anywhere cheaper?" She giggles. "Ah," she says, takes me by the hand, pulls me to one side and points over the road. "There!" she says. That's the 2nd Liquid-Eyed Beauty who's taken me by the hand! I had been told the Japanese never touch you (unless they’re well drunk) and here Liquid Eyed Beauties continually grab me! I LOVE being taken by the hand by Liquid-Eyed Beauties!

I leave, with great regret, cross the road to a soothing, slightly-faded Establishment for the Untrendy. "Kohi?" I ask again. "Hai - 350 yen," says the somewhat dowdy matron. Ah well, saved myself all of 50p - but at least I didn't have to pretend I was trendy. And I'd rather support little old ladies in slightly faded establishments that the 'arts as big business' elite in trendy white cubes ...

The Kanazawa 21st Century Gallery of Contemporary Fart, er, Art vs Kenroku-en the sublime. Ding! Seconds out!Well, says it all, doesn't it? Why do they bother? Nothing in the whole gallery remotedly touched me. There is a sort of 'artist' who specializes in vacuous crap, de-void of any sort of quality. Actually, 'crap' is too good a word for it. Crap breaks down into something useful. Gerhard Richter. Awful. I can sort of connect with some of his work, but that here? The 'explanatory notes', as usual in this sort of place, an artform in their own right, a type of 'literary' genre which in no way connects with what you're (not) seeing. Self-conscious juvenile cliched angst from stupid Americans. Japanese 'Look-At-Me-I'm-So-PoMo' Installation Art. I'm beginning to dread the word 'installation'. This one's a recreated seascape in the obligatory blackbox downstairs. Yes? I think of endlessly changing, endlessly self-re-creating Portreath in North Cornwall, the tide sweeping us tourists up the beach stage by stage till we're all perched cheek by jowl on the few remaining rocks. Now there's life, movement, endless variety. This installation is dead, lifeless. It stinks, literally and metaphorically. "Yes, but part of Art's role is to displace context." Go for a swim at Portreath, that'll soon displace your precious 'context'.

Ah, Anish Kapoor. 'The Origin of the World', 'a huge black hall (sic) will appear in the air from the sloping wall', the Notes say. It's a vagina. Well OK, the scale and the fact that it's sloping make an impression. But it's perfectly symmetrical in shape and in the space. 'The Origin of the World' (ie the vagina) is not symmetrical, dear Anish, have you looked at one recently? Anyway, it's an old advertising trick: wanna impress the client? Blow it up real big, that'll knock his socks off! Further, it's supposed to express 'Nothingness'. Bit of a cheek to talk about 'Nothingness' in this land of sunyata, so desu ne? Oh Sariputra...
A-ni-ish he say
Universe full of black hole
I say, well, fuck that!
(Could be considered a perfect Haiku as it's 5-7-5 syllables, but the Japanese don't actually measure 'syllables' in Haiku, they measure 'onji' which is not the same thing)

Then more 'decontextualisation'. A courtyard with what looks like a small swimming pool. You follow an underground passage and come out under the pool, which is actually 10cm of moving water over a pane of glass. To people on top it looks as if you're under the water, to you it looks as if you're under the water, too. Fine. The creator schlepps this sort of thing around the white cube circuit for probably squidrillions of dollars (I'm not saying the creator gets squidrillions of dollars, but installing this kind of thing costs a lot of money and takes a lot of space). Category 'playing with preconceived ideas' etc. Fine. So what? We're literally just over the road from one of the most famous gardens in history, Kenroku-en, dating from 1676. Has the artist LOOKED at Japanese gardens, the use of the different elements, the way the water is directed, the rocks, bridges, trees, Koi carp? And if Leandro Erlich has looked, then he has not SEEN. They are subtle beyond belief, beyond understanding. Your pool, dear artist, doesn't reference this at all. It's a simple, one-horse idea and all it references is YOU. I was more moved when visiting the Sea Aquarium at Minehead where you walk under the aquarium and see sharks and manta rays lazily flap around and over you. It brings back such deep ancestral memories of when we breathed water
After Japan
I'm not taking any crap
from so-called 'artists'
In the evening at the ryokan I bump into Dalgit from Israel, who was in the Youth Hostel in Takayama. Her room turns out to be next to mine. We team up and wander around the old samurai quarter of Kanazawa, talk, eat. She maybe does or doesn’t have a boyfriend back in Israel. I go back to my room and go to sleep. Next morning she’s a bit off. Was I supposed to make a pass? So she could accept or decline? Was that the game? What were the rules? Who knows? Who cares?

The ryokan is just down the road from the strutting fashionista district of Kanazawa. The ‘skirts’ they don’t wear are so short they don’t exist. Bit like Zen. Nothing there. (?). They’re all so skinny. How do they have children? Maybe they don't. The Japanese are dying out. I film as many of them stalking around in Gucci and (fake?) Burberry as I can. Two ‘get-em-in’ girls dressed up as French maids accompanied by a guy on stilts with frizzy hair and alu-foil trousers prance around up the street . I wander off to film light reflected in a pedestrian crossing, shadows of storks; then head over the river to record temple bells in the mizzle.

Monday, October 02, 2006

At 6 o'clock in the morning the Buddha downstairs gets up and starts banging away.
"Where's my clean underwear?" he grumps at his wife, "What's for breakfast? “Damn - forgot to get any milk out of the freezer last night! Kids up yet?"
I can't sleep through that racket; get up, go for a pee.
The Youth Hostel in Takayama is in a practicing temple. At 6 am in the morning the priest, who is also the warden, gets up, starts banging the gong downstairs and chanting.

I can't get used to the Japanese idea that 'the wall' is 'the door' and 'the door' is 'the wall' (or both, or neither). A Japanese hosteller gets up from breakfast, pushes ‘the wall’ to one side and walks through. I do a mental double-take. All the Europeans at the hostel trooped in and out through what we'd conceptualised as 'the door', ie. the two more prominent panels at 'the front' of the ‘dining room'. But 'wall' and 'door' and 'front' and 'back' and 'side' - and indeed ‘room’ - have no meaning in a space which you can treat any which way you want. That whirling sense of Universes shifting.

Japanese maps and leaflets, though ostensibly full of information, also give me a sense of dis-location. They don't actually make much sense - to Europeans. The festival information for the festival in Takayama said there would be a procession at 1 o'clock and had the route on the map marked out with little arrows. Fine. I position myself along marked route and wait. And wait. I bump into a German traveller from the hostel and she’s waiting, too. No procession ensues. I go off to the river bank and have a snooze. I learn later that there was a procession, but by a different route, one not marked by arrows. Maps show the inside of your head, not what's on the paper.

The Autumn Festival here in Takayama is an annual festival of the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine in the northern half of downtown Takayama. The shrine dates back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399), who entrusted Prince Takefurukuma no mikoto with the task of subjugating the monster Sukuna, a fabulous beast with 2 heads, 4 arms and 4 legs. Before undertaking the task, the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of the shrine and prayed for the success of his mission. Emperor Ohjin is let out every year for the festival and ferried around in massive, ancient, intricately decorated ‘floats’ to see how his people are doing and to bless and succour them.

In the evening I head up the main river to find a stance to view the night parade. I bump into Miriam again, the young German women I’ve bumped into several times that day already, so we team up. I’m glad of the company as it’s a bit lonely when the whole town’s parading around with his wife/girlfriend and you’re on your own. But also a feeling of regret, forsaking bitter-sweet loneliness and absolute independence. Suddenly, instead of just doing something, everything has to be negotiated – ‘do you want to go there? Do you want to drink/eat this/that?

We find a stance. The progress of the house-high floats is heralded by the simultaneous lightning flashes of thousands of digital cameras and camera-phones. One by one they sway past in the narrow streets on gleaming black and brass wheels 6ft in diameter, pulled and pushed by sweating, gesticulating men. Their myriad red Chinese lanterns flicker in the dark and the shrill of pipes, clang of struck metal, boom of drums and dulcet tones of young children’s voices emanates from their bowels. Miriam and I go to look for a beer and something to eat.

I do my washing at the YH, want to hang it out to dry upstairs but the warden's wife scolds me. 'No, not there - outside!' I can't find outside so she sends her daughter to show me. I go off to what the festival programme proclaims is a 'Marionette Performance'. The main piece has incredibly intricate puppets controlled by 6 puppeteers at the same time. I get to the shrine too late and can’t see much over a sea of oohs and ahhs, so I wander off and stumble across an unannounced procession. The god's got out again and is travelling around his domain in much smaller, blue-cloaked carts each pulled by one man. He's accompanied by his kamikose (guardians of the god) in traditional garb - sticky-out shoulder blades (not pads) and large, shallow straw hats; vestal virgins (literally - young girls done up to the absolute nines in long white flowing gowns with flowers in their hair...), loads of little boys in patchy coloured gowns banging gongs and drums, dignified older men in Edo-age dress (Edo - 1655), long swords scraping the pavement with an eerie zishing noise ... and lion dancers at the front. They obviously have a list of places which want to have their demons exorcised (ie they've paid the dancers to come and do it!), so they wend their way slowly around the neighbourhood, doing the lion dance at each of these places.

They end up at a staged area alongside a small river, opposite a temple on the other bank and conduct a beautiful, haunting service. On the left the musicians, with shaku-hachi (bamboo flutes), small drums, cymbals and gongs; in front of them, right next to the altar, 4 specially chosen vestal virgins; on the right the older men and dignitaries, all in Edo-style costume. There are actually few onlookers today, and we are allowed into the inner sanctum, nearly up to the stage. The service seems appropriate, fitting. It's not verbose and long, but graceful and flowing. The best bit is when the 4 vestal virgins (literally 'handmaids of the god') get up and dance for him. Ineffably gracious and moving: fans in hand, intricate foot movements, now two to the left, two to the right, sway, form a different combination; intricate movements in perfect synchronity. That angle of the head, and a flowing line from inclined head (to the left), along white samite-draped arm, to fan; hold for an instance, flick of fan, shake of four fans, snap audibly shut, sinuous dip to the left, head upright, glide sideways and turn. I was crying - if I were a god I'd be saying, "yes, that angle, yes, that movement, that ripple of movement!" The girls glide back to their place in front of the musicians and the head honcho comes to centre stage, sits, bows deeply, and that's that.

The little boys scamper off into the temple where they’re fed and watered, leaving their accoutrements haphazardly draped across blackened cedar steps.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Boring, these Japanese
If there’s a mountain in the way
They bore right through it

Long day getting to Takayama. Basho did not come this way, either, but they’re having the Hachiman Matsuri (Autumn Festival) and it’s the only festival occuring anywhere near his route this late in the year.

I take the train to Toyama, then have to switch to the bus as the trainline was swept away in a taifun. Soon I’m the only person on the basu. This is quite a common occurrence, me being chauffeured around in an 80-seater bus all by myself. I’m told that the reason for this is that, due to the exingencies of the Japanese electoral representation system, the representatives of ‘back-of-beyond’ constituencies have considerable power, so money pours in to butter them up. This money then has to be spent - on totally uneconomic rural bus-services which few use, brightly-lit UFO ‘visitor centres’ plumped down in the middle of nowhere, the hills being given concrete overcoats; and other things which are either downright harmful (such as gigantic concrete coastal ‘tank-trap’ structures ‘to prevent erosion’ which destroy the local ecology) or which nobody needs or wants.

The busdriver is the non-speaking, morose type, hunched over his steering wheel as the hours tick past. The girl at Toyama Information Centre (too much makeup) had said 1 ½ hours to Hirayu, but 2 hours have elapsed and we’re still grinding uphill, past squeaky clean Alpine style honey-pot resorts with posh cars parked outside, and I'm worried about making my connection.

After 2 ½ hours we’re there. Mr Grumpy wordlessly points to a well-lit lobby. I rush over – no information centre – and throw myself on the mercy of a snack-stand girl who takes me to the bus-stop and checks the times for me.

5 minutes later my connection draws up. The Takayama bus has a few passengers, a sweet young stewardess and a chirpy, smiling driver wisecracking with the passengers. No doubt he’s chirpy because he has her, unlike Mr Morose who has nobody. The stewardess tries out her best English on me, but can’t do times and prices, so she writes them down. 1540 yen (£8), arrive Takayama 18.30. She has this totally Japanese (and un-English) quality of ‘other-centredness’ – when she talks to you her whole being is focussed towards you and what you could want, not towards herself. Do they learn this, are they taught, or does it just reach out?

I roll into Takayama Bus Station dead on 6.30 pm and ask a young couple strolling past where the YH is. The guy stutters a bit but the girl looks at me from somewhere way beyond time and space, takes me by the arm, leads me to the corner and points. “Straight down the road,” she says, you can’t miss it.”

I check in, dump my stuff, freshen up, and find a noodle bar. Kirin biiru, soba noodles and prawn tempura. Ahhh. A brassy number in a short black skirt and very high heels flounces in, so I ask her if she speaks Ingrish, which she does. So we do. She flounces out again with a smile and a wriggle. An older woman, well done up 'with an air' comes in and eyes me up, chats to the mama-san. Oh yes, oh yes, I'm starting to get the picture: must be 'a certain part of town'. Uh huh. Any man that lot get their well manicured highly polished claws into wouldn't last 10 seconds. Sucked dry and spat out. Phut. Come to think of it, brassy number had a very deep voice for a woman, especially a Japanese woman...

[satellite link: you can zoom in on individual cars in Takayama if you want]

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Niigata train gets in at 20.07
Nagaoka train leaves at 20.12
Would I make that in Britain?
Would I hell!

I leave the three mountains behind and set my sights to the south. Leaving Tsuruoka at 18.30 I plunge down the coastal plains of the Inland Sea, shrugging off Children-Desert-Parents, Send-Back-the-Dog, Turn-Back-the-Horse, those fearsomely dangerous places in Basho’s day where outriders of the high mountains thrust themselves out into the sea. There were no kilometre long tunnels through them then, no highways built out over the ravening waves on concrete stilts. Travellers had to time their passage precisely in order to not get swept off into the sea or crushed against the rocks.

I get into Nagaoka at 23.00 and doss in the waiting room, sleeping scarcely a wink. At first light I leave the station and head for the Inland Sea. The sun is coming up and the Japanese Alps are ranked upon rank on the city horizon. I touch the water – it’s as warm as a warm bath. I've made it across the width of Japan!

I leave the Basho trail for a while to explore Kyobe-kyo, a gorge extending up into the Japanese Alps. The mainline train takes me to to Unazuki-onsen, then I change to a narrow-gauge train which goes up the gorge. The orange mini-train was built to transport workers building the dams and hydro-electric works scattered along it (including one in the shape of a medieval European castle) but now serves the tourist trade. Probably every river in the Japan is pressed into hydro-electric duties.

Kuronagi-onsen Ryokan is a 3/4hr ride then a 20 minute hike on a butterfly’d path hanging off the edge of a side gorge, descending to the ryokan built on the only flattish spot around, cuddled next to the stream. From my window the view is of two waterfalls and the crystal clear river itself, flowing over stones (but also, unfortunately, of power cables and a small artificial dam). Precipitous slopes climb up on both sides, thickly forested. There is no sound but that of the river.
feel lonely
do zazen
sound of water

This poem says that when you do zazen there is no separation. ‘Sound of water’ and ‘zazen’ are not separate. To talk about things, relate to them in the human world, we separate them out, name them, make them into pictures on the TV screen in our heads. To be human is to be ever separate .. or is it?

feel lonely
do zazen
sound of water
We are, as Rainer Maria Rilke would have it, ‘turned-around Beings’. “…denn schon das fruehe Kind wenden wir um und zwingens, dass es ruckwarts Gestaltung sehe, nicht das Offne, das im Tiergesicht so tief ist. Frei von Tod…” (…We take even the youngest child, turn him around and force him to look backwards at appearances, not that openness so deep within an animal's face. Free from death;)

“… Wir haben nie, nicht einen einzigen Tag, den reinen Raum vor uns, in den die Blumen unendlich aufgehn. Immer ist es Welt and niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht: das Reine, Unueberwachte, das man atmet and unendlich weiss…” (…Not for a single day, no, never do we have that pure space ahead of us, into which flowers endlessly open. It is always World and never Nowhere without No: that pure, unguarded space we breathe, always know…)

Humans – us – form ‘concepts’ in our heads, then we ‘systematize’ them, congeal around these systems and call them ‘beliefs’, ‘customs’, ‘the right way of life’. Everything, even Rilke’s “Reine, Unueberwachte” (the pure, that which is not guarded, kept under supervision or surveillance) becomes part of a code … dis-placed. This happens everywhere, in every coming together of humans: Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, Jewish. ‘The New’ arises spontaneously, instantaneously – but is immediately codified. Das Reine, Unueberwachte…

Buddhist Ethics is very simple. It consists in doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. When is the right time? NOW! Where is the right place? HERE! What is the right thing to do? What you do HERE and NOW! Sin and guilt – the things Christendom uses to keep you in your place?

Back at Kuronagi-onsen Ryokan I grab my towel and head for the rotemburo (a mixed open-air hot bath). This one's right by the side of the river, set amongst large boulders and steaming hot. No-one in it. Damn. No naked women. I strip, wash by the river and jump in … AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

No kappas around, - that’s good. 'Kappas' are sprites who inhabit mountain pools. They (reputably) pull your liver down through your arse and eat it. They have a cavity on top of their heads which contains water, and it's from this that they derive their magical power. Fortunately, all you have to do if you meet a kappa is bow deeply to it. As it's Japanese, it's compelled to bow deeply in return, on which the water in the cavity runs out, it loses its magical powers, and it can't eat your liver. That’s OK, then.

I have a nice hot soak, return to the ryokan and have a long snooze

leaving Kuronagi-onsen
light-brown frogs
jump out of my way