I'm traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto over the Japanese Alps this week, along with my friend Brendan, an illustrator from New York who might as well be my brother given the amount of time we spent together as children, plotting out expeditions and drawing blueprints for zoos. Brendan's friend Joe is with us too. He bears an almost disturbing resemblance to Tom Cruise in the movie the Last Samurai, but so far Japanese people have pegged him for Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. Brendan and Joe are both sketching at a feverish pace, and hope to produce a relatively accurate journal of this trip in comic book form when they get back to New York.
(I took the ferry down to Hokkaido and spent a night in Kashima, Ibaraki before meeting Brendan and Joe)
Writing by flashlight in my slightly musty tent, 42 km North of Narita Airport. Found this campsite easily, in a quiet hillside park right by the station, flowers blooming red, white, purple, walking trails, benches, and, according to my brochure, the remains of a castle nearby.
It wasn't until after dusk that I stumbled upon this town's famous shrine, a wide path lit by lanterns through massive cedar trees, much like the approach to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Two security guards in their little peaked-roof hut, one tall and skinny, one short and bald, I sat across from them for a while, soaking up the silence while they puzzled over me, but when I got up to leave the skinny one called me over and led me through the gate to the inner grounds, shining his flashlight on the eaves of the roof and into the crowns of tremendous cedar trees, thousands of years old.
(The next morning)
Rain last night, sun high in the sky now at 6 am, rain fly hung over a park bench to dry.
Took my breakfast of 7-11 Oden (a sort of stew) into the shrine, walked down the avenue of cedars, deep green, old men sweeping leaves from the packed-dirt path, sunlight catching streams of mist in the canopy.
Sat by the thatched-roof shrine at the end of the path, no one around, at breakfast and walked back to the gate, monks chanting morning prayers.
A man was painting the shrine gate in oils, had his easel set up in the path and another man was watching over his shoulder - short, grizzly gray beard, windbreaker and baseball cap.
I stopped to watch too, and he looked over at me, grinning, a single solitary tooth poking from his lower gum.
"It's pretty," I said.
"Nah, it's crap," he said loud enough for the painter to hear, waving his hand in front of his face.
"Mine are better. Nu-do. Nu-do. Naked women. Naked women with tits out to here."
A group of elderly female tourists were walking by in white track-suits. "Bunch of old biddies!" My new friend was having a wonderful morning.
"Take care!" he said, and limped off into the shrine.