Thursday, October 27, 2005


I just realized that the kanzi for "jewel" can also mean "balls."

That's an interesting cultural/linguistic coincidence.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

First Snow (Right on Schedule)

So warm inside this sleeping bag
while it rains outside -

Might be snow by morning.

It was.
And I had to bike 10 km up the valley,

Thankful for my new wool gloves.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Land and People

The four girls gossiping at the bus stop in front of Utashinai Junior High School this evening were catching snow bugs, swarms of tiny gnat-like insects floating white and weightless on the golden air. The bugs hatch late in the day in mid-October, timing their emergence with the gasping brilliance of fall color that sweeps down from the mountains to flood the valley with dusty orange and dripping spots of red.

Snow bugs look just like the first flakes of winter, little bits of white fluff drifting about aimlessly on breezes that make you wish for a wool hat and a warm pair of gloves. When they arrive, the real snow is never far behind. The next storm to blow in from the Japan Sea will leave the hilltops shining with something more permanent than frost, and by late November the old men in town will wake up early to spend mornings clearing the sidewalk in front of their houses.

Taking time to acknowledge the subtle signs that mark the flow of seasons is an act deeply embedded in this culture. Indeed, for many Japanese, the very idea of distinct seasons is so closely linked to their sense of national identity that they are shocked and dismayed to learn that other countries have a summer, winter, autumn and spring. The broader myth of Japanese uniqueness is a concept close to the heart of many people here, especially among the older generation. Even as fast food chains replace soba stands and English seeps into train stations and talk shows, the grandmothers and grandfathers who survived the Second World War speak of their homeland as a land apart, separate and removed from the disorderly and unfamiliar rhythms of gaikoku, a word that encompasses everywhere that is not Japan.

Traditional art forms like flower arranging, calligraphy and the tea ceremony are at their core a means of showcasing the mood of the land. Calligraphy nearly always contains a reference to nature – the autumn moon, plum blossoms or chirping frogs – and displays of verse are phased in and out to match the season. Likewise, although much is made of the rigid form that governs the tea ceremony, the seasonal changes a master makes in the presentation of tea, such as the choice of sweet and pottery, are at least as important as adhering to the proper order of preparation. A well-chosen flower arrangement or scroll is a mark of sophistication in any inn or private home, meaning, in other words, that culture (the kind you can spell with a “d”) is a measure of one’s attunement with the natural world.

The same can be said for Japanese cooking, which places a great emphasis on the use of seasonal foods. This is a practical way of eating – food in season is cheap, readily available and delicious – but it is also a link to nature at the most basic of levels. Importing food to these islands was an impossibility until quite recent times, which means that from the beginning of history, every Japanese person was, in a purely physical sense, wholly a product of their ancestral land and the surrounding sea. While Japan is hardly unique among indigenous cultures in this regard, its extreme geographic isolation and the weight of a national history that was already ancient in the time of Columbus brought about an interdependency between life and land stronger than in the continental nations of Europe, Africa and the Americas. Looking around the staffroom at the Junior High School, I see Mr. Middle Mountain, Mr. Small Pine and Ms. Rice-Field in a narrow Valley. Religion too, is rooted in the land. It was only natural for the Japanese to place their gods and spirits in rice fields, rivers and mountains, celebrating the harvest with pagan festivals of fire, fertility and lots of booze.

Of course, tell all that to the salary-man living on curry rice, greasy hamburgers and beer, or the mullet-sporting teenagers who pay know all about hip-hop fashion (well, apart from mullets) but couldn’t tell you what plant tofu is made from. It’s difficult to reconcile the shallow, overworked and fashion-obsessed Japan of today with the slow, solemn earthiness of traditional life. Can flower arranging survive in a culture where the current obsession is a leather-wearing pelvic-thrusting comic who calls himself Hard Gay? Does the name Furukawa (Old River) mean anything in a land where running water in any form is choked off and blocked in by dams and concrete banks?

In truth, it is misleading to conflate modern day Japan with its feudal equivalent. Many traditions – ritual suicide by sword, for instance - are truly a thing of the past. However the links between land and people that formed the nation of Japan will not fade so easily, regardless of how nature is mistreated. The connection survives in habits, sometimes unnoticed, but rarely neglected. Japanese keep gardens, not lawns, every letter, and most e-mails, begin with a comment about the weather and shrines still dot forests, fields and mountains - like mushrooms after a rain.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Buddha Rocks

"Of the hands and feet, three must not move always," advised Watanabe-san, standing at the base of the Buddha Cliffs. The rock-face was nearly vertical, damp from sea spray, pitted and cracked by a millenia of winter winds. Craning my neck back, I could just make out the golden Buddha figure ensconsed against the gray sky, fixed in meditation. Watanabe-san tightened his pack straps with a tug that rocked him up onto the soles of his feet and, frowning with utmost deliberation, began the long spider-climb upwards.

If jumping down the boulder-strewn beach cleared my mind, climbing the Buddha Cliffs sharpened it to a fine point, every atom of conciousness focused on the feel of the rock against my hands, feet and chest.

Some years ago I found myself hanging from a rope after a caving accident in the Holy Cross wilderness of central Colorado. Unable to see the rope that held me, I hung there for the seven hours it took rescuers to arrive.

"It must have been terrifying," everyone said. "Weren't you scared?" And afterwards, thinking back on the cold, the pitch darkness, the horrible uncertainty, I did feel fear, hard and cold and spreading. But during those seven hours, holding on to that icy rope, I had been cold, I had been stiff, I had been hungry and I had been embarassed but I hadn't been afraid at all. What good would fear have done?

Pulling myself up to the impassive feet of the golden Buddha and looking out over the crashing waves and the cliffs beyond, the bottoms of my feet were tingling with an awareness of their fragility, but like the time in the cave, there was no a room for fear. A few clutches and grabs later, I was standing in a level grassy clearing the size of a college dorm room surrounded on three sides by sheer rock walls that opened onto the remnants of a gigantic rockslide. The rocks covered what was once a river, now reduced to a thousand white-rushing streams that poured through the boulders and into the sea, where flocks of seabirds plunged about voraciously in the oxygenated roar. Turning to the rock walls, I noticed another Buddha tucked into a crevice about three meters above the ground, then another, one tiny statue sitting on a ledge, and then another, higher up, and another - all embedded in the solidity of the rock and the calm of the clearing as the water tumbled and the sea birds squealed madly down below.

This was when we saw the bear. He was big, and he was brown and he was a bear, puttering about the rocks at the river mouth, unaware of intruders until I spotted him and yelled "BEAR BEAR BEAR" as loud as possible. The bear was about 30 meters away from us and showed no sign of wanting to come closer, but seeing him move, seeing him prop his big, wet paws up on a rock and snuff the air, seeing his muscles roll under his heavy skin - seeing this wild bear sent adrenaline surging through my body so hard it burned. I was afraid, and I stayed afraid when we left the clearing and began climbing up a game trail at the edge of the rock slide.

Seeing the bear made Watanabe-san cheerful. "Three years old bear," he boomed. "A recent high-school graduate bear. He is a cri-ti-cal age."

But I was still whistling nervously when we made camp, after dusk, in a clearing of young pines next to a black-pooled stream.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Gary Snyder

Two pieces of inspiration from Gary Snyder, a major figure in the Beat movement who lived in Japan for 12 years studying Zen Buddhism and is immortalized as the character Japhy in Jack Kerouac's book Dharma Bums. He now lives and writes in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. The first paragraph is from Snyder's own writing, the second is a speech off his as remembered by Kerouac and included in Dharma Bums.

"The wilderness pilgrim's step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy. The same happens to those who sail in the ocean, kayak fiords or rivers, tend a garden, peel garlic, even sit on a meditation cushion. The point is to make contact with the real world, real self. Sacred refers to that which helps us (not only human beings) out of our little selves into the whole mountains-and-rivers mandala universe. Inspiration, exaltation, and insight do not end when one steps outside the doors of a church. The wilderness as temple is only a beginning."

"...see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least fancy new cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to the mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier..."

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

To the Ends of the Earth....

My cousin Pete, visiting from New York City, is sitting on my living room floor amidst piles of damp wool socks and mud-streaked rain gear, scrolling through the photos on his new digital camera. He shakes his head, grinning ruefully.

“No one is going to believe I went to Japan. I mean – these pictures – it looks like Alaska - Kodiak Island or somewhere. Salmon. Scrub pine. The bear! It’s all mountains and clouds – not one fluorescent billboard on the whole memory card.”

“You’ll get your fill of bright lights in Tokyo.”

“Yeah. I’m not complaining by any means. It’s just that I never knew this Japan existed. I never knew it could look so…wild.”

Poor Pete hadn’t even had time to get his bearings. After enduring the fourteen-hour flight from New York to Tokyo, he barely made his connection up to Sapporo and then caught a train directly from the airport to Sunagawa, arriving at 9:30 pm, which was just in time to see the building in front of the station burn to the ground. Early the next morning my mountaineering mentor Watanabe-san rang the doorbell with a thermos of hot green tea in hand, and we piled into his car for an eight-hour drive to the Shiretoko Peninsula, a wilderness area in North-Eastern Hokkaido. When the mists of jet lag finally began to clear, my cousin found himself jumping from boulder to boulder on an empty coast listening to Watanabe-san talk about bears in fractured English while the peaks of Russia poked blue through a fog bank wrapped thick over the Sea of Okhotsk.

“The bears living in Shiretoko are not the same,” Watanabe-san was saying, jumping casually across a gap in the rocks with his pack slung loosely over one shoulder.

“A bear, kuma, lives in…” - he paused, frowning, making sure of himself before using the new word – “…in a ter-rit-tory.” He held up his palm and traced a large circle with one finger.

“If a bear…meet…hoka no kuma…in ter-rit-tory…kenka suru. Fight. But in Shiretoko, so many bears. Perhaps…three hundred and fifty. The area is not so big” - he held up his hand again, tracing many small circles - “so the bears living in Shiretoko…only very small home ter-rit-tory. Any bears go many places for the food. Kenka sinai. They…don’t fight.”

He carefully considered what he had said and, “Soo desu nee,” made a small nod and jumped down to the next boulder.

Watanabe-san is 56 years old and can hike faster and farther on steep trails with a heavy pack than any college kid I know. He started studying English at age 50 in order to travel more easily, and loves to take the foreign teachers of the area on trips into the mountains he knows so well. Not that we teach him any English – usually, he is teaching us - which berries are edible and which plant the Ainu used to poison their arrowheads, how to find a climbable stream-bed on a topographical map, which dirt roads lead to hidden hot-springs in the hills. His voice is deep and resonant, his speech considered, slow and clear, but his laugh comes easily, as if the whole point of focusing one’s energy with such care is to never miss a joke.

The far end of Shiretoko, where Watanabe-san was leading us on that chilly September afternoon, is remote to the point of inaccessibility. Paved roads plied by tour buses carve their way up the coast on each side of the peninsula, but both dead-end about ten kilometers short of the cape. Likewise, the traverse trail that connects the peaks of the Shiretoko Range loops back down to the coast at a point even with the end of the roads, leaving a valley choked with thickets of twisted scrub pine and impenetrable bamboo grass between Io-zan, the last peak on the traverse, and one lonely mountain standing at the very tip of the peninsula. Even this year, when the park was designated as a World Heritage Site, only a very few travelers ventured beyond the paved roads and marked trails, leaving a triangle of wilderness from Io-zan to the cape for the bears to divide peacefully among themselves.

Knowing that their son is venturing into a trail-less, bear infested wilderness is the sort of thing that regularly ruins my parent’s weekends, but with Watanabe-san as our guide, pepper spray holstered to his waist, I felt comfortable leaving the car behind and setting off along the coast. Better than comfortable in fact – the heather on the cliffs glowed burnt-orange in the long-shadow light of fading day, seagulls wheeled and cried overhead and those peaks across the strait - that was Russia – far Eastern Russia! My pack was just heavy enough, cinched tight, full of warm clothes, food and a mysterious bottle of green liquid Watanabe-san had asked me to carry. I felt fine.

For some time after leaving the road we passed weather-beaten shacks tucked in close to the base of the cliffs, some deserted, but others still in seasonal use by fishermen. At one of the last shacks a silver-bearded fisherman and his wife were laying out the days haul of seaweed to dry on the rocky beach of their front yard, faces and hands the same leathery brown color as the wooden building in which they slept. Their dog was nose-deep in a salmon carcass, bracing the fish with a front paw as he gnawed away ecstatically by a small stream that tumbled out of the mountains and into the sea. We crossed the stream on a narrow wooden footbridge, casting our shadows over countless more salmon, hump-backed and hook-jawed, all in various stages of disintegration, all desperately struggling upstream through water so shallow their bellies dragged along the gravel.

Few activities focus the mind as well as traversing a field of boulders with a full pack. Eyes gauge the stability and texture of the next rock and the distance to cover while brain calculates, sending arms swinging and joints flexing; muscles anticipate, stretch and contract, stretch and contract. The mind, fully occupied, is free from the usual flotsam of nagging worries and stray bits of guilt, totally engaged with the simple, rhythmic purity of the task at hand (and foot). This rock, that rock. This rock, that rock. This rock, that rock and then another, each problem as unique and cleansing as the waves.

After an hour and a half of rock hopping Watanabe-san called a rest. The beach behind us curved away into the fading light and up ahead tall pillars of pitted black rock extended from the cliffs into the ocean, blocking the path. Watanabe-san waited while we threw off our packs and took long, throat-pumping swallows of water, a half smile playing in his cheeks. When our breathing slowed, he pointed at the rock face ahead.

“Buddha. Can you see?” And there he was, on top of the highest rock, a golden Buddha, palms up, serene over the crashing sea.

“Now we climb.”