The human mind and spirit are advanced by what is written with pleasure. Jean Giono
LIVING HISTORY 1
Around ten years ago I spent two months in Bologna helping young Italian documentary makers translate subtitles and publicity materials for their films. It was fun being in a different culture and I met a few interesting people. Among them was an American woman who had relocated to Italy, where she eked out a living by translating magazine articles. I used to encounter her at a cafe near my apartment where idealist New Agers and others tended to congregate, though she didn't really fit into the mould of the average customers, who were well-meaning and gentle. In contrast she was bitter and judgemental, but she liked to talk and what she said was interesting. One of her obsessions was the Japanese Imperial court of the Heian era, which she knew a lot about. She said that she was writing a novel set in the reign of the Emperor Ichijo. She idolized this particular monarch, who ascended the throne at the age of six and enjoyed popularity until his premature death twenty-five years later. If you have read The Tale of Genji, you will be familiar with the ambiance and artistic accomplishments of the age over which he presided. In fact, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the work, served one of Ichijo's empresses.
Over coffee in the New Age cafe this American friend would enthusiastically tell me about her novel, one theme of which was how the pure Ichijo valiently endeavoured to counter the degenerate influence of the power-hungry Fujiwara regents. I can't remember the exact details, but she talked about it with such conviction that it seemed more real to her than what was currently going on in the world.
What's the meaning of history? For the professionals history is largely historiography - the use of the best methods and sources to establish the indisputable facts of a bygone age. This is what I studied back in the late 1960s at university in London. But there is another history, which, unlike historiography, does not aim at objectivity. Here we draw upon something that happened in the past to enrich our own lives. It may be quite personal, or it may add to our experience of life by making the present-day world more meaningful.
The tiny community in which I live has one of the area's most important historical sites - the grave of an imperial prince. Prince Munenaga (1311-1385) lived during a time when the country was ruled by rival emperors. His father Go-Daigo had challenged Ashikaga Takauji, the most powerful samurai warlord of the time, who responded by putting his own candidate on the throne in Kyoto. Godaigo fled south to Yoshino, where he set up a rival court. For six decades the Southern and Northern Courts waged war against each other.
Militarily speaking, the Southern Court was the underdog. Emperor Go-Daigo tried to undermine the Ashikaga clan and its many allies by creating a network of its own, but he kept close control by making his sons the top military commanders. Prince Munenaga became the general with responsibility for the eastern provinces, and Okawara in present-day Oshika-mura was one of his strongholds.
Surprisingly, given the dangers of the situation - many of his other brothers met violent ends - Munenaga survived into old age. His grave, which I can see it from my front garden, is no more than a hundred metres from my house. .
Now, after thirty years of living here, I want to find out exactly who Prince Munenaga was, and what, if anything, he means to me today.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
As humans we are generally satisfied when we encounter something that we like. It also makes us happy when another person likes us.
- I don't like it!
- She doesn't like me.
If only we could rid the world of these negative feelings.
Of course it's impossible, and, if you think about about it, not really preferable....
I printed a free music score off the Internet yesterday. Here are half the lyrics to Killing Me Softly With His Song:
heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him, and listen for a while
And there he was, this young boy, a stranger to my eyes
my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly, with his song
It has a beautiful melody, and the lyrics are even better.
Becoming curious about what inspired it I did a quick search.
Who is this strange Apollo whose words mystically mirror the mood of the woman who walks into the club on the casual recommendation of a friend?
As I had expected the lyrics tell a true story. The two protagonists are actually both singer-songwriters: Don McLean and Lori Liebermann. You can learn all about it on the Web, along with a side story that occurred four decades later. The essential details relate to a visit that the 20-year-old Libermann made to L.A.'s Troubador club, where the relatively unknown McLean was performing. And the number he sang that pierced her heart was a song entitled Empty Chairs. Later Liebermann mentioned this to her two songwriting managers, who, based on what she told them, came up with Killing Me Softly.
Anyway, the episode impressed me enough to take a deeper look at Don McLean, whose only other song I knew was American Pie. On Youtube I found Empty Chairs and Vincent. Yes, I can see why she was so entranced. It's a beautiful song. When, forty years later, Liebermann's two money-grabbing ex-managers attempted to deny her role in the song's creation, McLean came to her aid with evidence that showed the two money-grabbing men for what they were. I kinda liked him for that too.
At the end of McLean's Wikipedia entry, however, was a reference to a fine that he had paid in 2017 - he was then 71 years old at the time - for violence against his wife Patrisha. Later the couple divorced, but things did not end there, because Patrisha is now publicising details of her wretched 30-year marriage on a website where women in other abusive relationships are invited to share their experiences. Patrishia describes examples of her husband's egoism, controlling habits and occasional violence, though, rather than alienating her, his behaviour may have actually brought them closer together. She became totally dependent on him, dreading his threats to leave her even more than the times he said he was going to kill her.
There is another song that I sometimes mix up Killing Me Softly with, they're so similar. And Roberta Flack made international hits of both. It's called The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and was written by Ewan MacColl the British folk singer.
first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes,
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the empty skies, my love,
To the dark and the empty skies.
first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth turn in my hand,
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love,
That was there at my command.
Like Killing Me Softly, it sounds as if it's based on an actual incident. And so it is. The song depicts MacColl's first meeting with 20-year-old musician Peggy Seeger. That encounter eventually led to marriage, and, though, like McLean, MacColl was a controversial figure, the marriage endured until his death in 1989. During this time Seeger also fell in love with a woman whom, she says, she loved in a deeper way than her husband.
I didn't call myself a lesbian. I didn't love women. I just loved a woman. I never called myself a heterasexual because I loved Ewan. I just loved a man. Love is.
Seeger makes it sound simple. But don't be misled. No two relationships are the same. And I guess that's a good reason not to make stereotyped judgments about them.
We live in an age when the power balance in male-female relationships is more equal than it used to be. On the other hand, there may be less freedom in the options we have when discussing the subject. I mean, political correctness discourages ambiguity. So I could get into hot water by saying that, in my experience, there is an instinctive aspect of a woman that expects a man to protect her, which sort of plays into the hands of a male who seeks to control his mate.
And, while, in the stories I've sketched above, my sympathies lie with the two women, I can't make a confident judgement about the rights and wrongs of the protagonists' conduct. The simple fact is that I don't know enough.
Anyway, this brings me to my last point, which, yes, was again suggested by something I came across on the Internet. The third set of partners I'd like to introduce have a far more complex male-female relationship than that of Don and Patrisha McLean, or Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. Robert Graves and Laura Riding were both poets and writers who seemed to thrive by challenging not just mainstream thinking, but pretty much anyone or anything else that came into view. And, by the way, unlike the the other two partnerships, here the woman led the man. Graves called Riding his muse. Read about them in detail on the Net if you're interested. Here I will confine myself to one of Riding's observations. She says that hate can be more powerful than love, that it can create a deeper intimacy than strong romantic feelings, physical passion or intellectual affinity. Think about it.
Love/hate. Like/dislike. Neither exist in the natural world, where interaction among living organisms seems to be based on a different set of causes and effects. That in itself should alert us not to take them for granted. Love. Hate. It's an interesting exercise to try to work out what they really mean, and why they have come to play such an enormous part in our lives as humans.
1970年代初期のころ一冊の本が世界で話題となった。「スモール イズ ビューティフル」。
日本でもシューマッハの「スモール イズ ビューティフル」が評価されて、ベストセラーとなったのは中小企業と小規模農家の大切さだけではなく、日本人の社会性のきめ細かさと手作り文化など、いろいろなことが関わっていると思う。
JESCA AND THE VOID
I had a quite memorable moment after waking at around four this morning. I saw the Void as an image, recognised it as Reality, and knew it was not at all frightening.
As usual, when one has a perceptive thought, one tries to cling on to it, write it down, analyse it (as they teach you at school). And so that's what I did. Result: within ten seconds it was gone.
I'd hoped to wake up earlier, in time for Jesca Hoop's live show from her home in Manchester. But when I went online, it was over (it had only lasted for thirty minutes) and someone had already uploaded it onto Youtube. You can see it here
What a strange woman she is. More of a poet than an entertainer.
Then I had another hour's sleep, got up and did some work in the garden before it got too hot. As I was watering the plants it struck me that the memorable moment was probably no more than auto-suggestion - the sediment from all those Zen books I've read over the past thirty years.
That's perhaps the healthiest way to think about it.
Don't pay any attention to the caption. These is no lockdown here. Though there is a feeling, even in Oshika, that out there in the world something has changed.
I went for my first swim of the year yesterday in the Kogouchi river - a place where it's more statistically likely I'll meet a bear than a fellow human, so I don't feel I'm committing any crime. I knew that the water was going to be cold. Last year I didn't take my first dip until early June. Still, with the air temperature up in the late twenties Celsius, it was an inviting prospect. In short, it felt right.
Yes, the water was cold. Shedding my clothes, I managed to wade up to my thighs, even though I could feel my toes getting frostbitten. The big warning, however, came when my testicles touched the water's surface. That sounded the alarm. This is an extremely senstivie part of a man's body, and, as it's against my nature to do anything excessive, I changed tack.
Instead I decided to explore the valley of the little stream that flows into the river close to my favourite bathing spot. Naturally tout nu.
The sun was shining from a cloudless sky, and as the stream has its source at a lower altitude than the main river the water was a degree or two warmer. That makes quite a big difference. I climbed over the rocks, enjoying sunny pools where I had fun splashing around.
Turned out to be a great hike. So far I'd never been any higher than the mystic zelkova tree that seems to grow out of a rock, but above that the land, though steep, has a surprisingly gentle feel. The rocks are smooth and walking the soft forest floor on bare feet is a particularly sensuous experience.
Higher up I came to a small waterfall - about four metres high - that offered an inviting alternative to the failed swim. In the Buddhist world it's called takigyō - you stand under the cascade, while chanting a prayer or sutra. The invigorating experience certainly makes you want to shout out something. The challenge is not so much the coldness of the water, but the force with which it hits you.
Back down by the big river I lay on a sun-warmed rock and rested. Then got dressed and returned to my house and life under lockdown.
It had been a beautiful day.
FIRST LIGHT (2)
Although these days the main access road to Oshika is through the valley - along the Koshibu river - most of the old roads went over the mountains. I can think of at least four such passes - the Bungui Pass going north to Takato and Suwa is one that I often use myself, along with Gando, which goes through Ikuta to Toyooka and on to Iida. But there are also a couple of others - Jizo Pass, which takes you south into Kamimura along the old Akiba Highway, and Orikusa Pass, which goes west to Komagane. This last one is hardly used, but condition of the narrow road is fine. In a way it's the most beautiful, although I don't travel along it so often.
But I did yesterday.
Near the small communities on either side of the pass there were flowering trees in full bloom. Ethereal Somei Yoshino along the first stretch of the road in Kuwabara and exuberantly colourful varieties of cherry, peach and forsythia in Nakazawa on the northern side.
In Kuwabara I stopped by at the house of a friend whom I hadn't seen in half a year, drank tea and heard about the doctor-farmer who advises him on his health and about a trip that he made in his younger days from Los Angeles across America to deliver a new limousine.
Another pass links Komagane to eastern Ina. It's called the Hiyama Pass. Although the majority of the traffic takes the national highway by the Tenryu River, there are still quite a few people using the old Hiyama road. Likewise, the Tsuetsuki Pass between Takato and Chino. After Orikusa this was the way that I was headed.
Today is a long journey - to Kofu and back. So when I get to Chino I decide to break it by jumping on the train for the last hour.
Unfortunately when I'm in the station, which is almost empty, I realise that I left my face mask in the car.
But it's all so relaxed. Everywhere is, well, devoid of people, except for cars that you can see from the carriage window hurrying along the roads.
Such a strange feeling of freedom.
- Could be a good time to go travelling. Maybe Shikoku, which I've always wanted to see.
Not everybody was wearing a mask. One young woman who got on at a small country station wasn't, and later I noticed others in Kofu Station too.
Neither did anyone reprimand me in the immigration bureau branch office where I went to get my new resident's card.
At around three thirty it suddenly starts getting cooler. Cloud covers up the sun and the wind blows.
Luckily a train bound for Nagano City is waiting. So I jump on.
From Chino the drive route that I take back to Oshika is exactly the same as the one out. Yeh, I even chose the up and down hill road over the Orikusa Pass. It was dusk and full of deer, some of which crossed right in front of me. But, during the thirty-minute drive I don't see another car.
For longer than I can remember I have awoken before dawn, often to do a translation to meet a morning deadline. These days, even though I am not working, the habit continues.
One of the joys of living alone is the quietness of the night. Through the paper doors something shines. Is it the moon? Or the first light of the dawn?
This morning it was the last half of the waning moon, along with three particularly bright stars, arranged in a line to the east. One is Jupiter, but what are the other two?
I arise with a good feeling of clean and warm physicality.
Yesterday it rained and even snowed a little, but today the weather seems fine.
Have to go to the government office in Kofu to renew my alien resident's card, and decide to get an early start. I'll take Route 152, heading north to Suwa, and from there either hop on a train or drive all the way along Route 20. Depends on how I feel.
The first sun hits my house at just after six thirty. I breakfast on a buckwheat pancake and a cup of strong black coffee, take a cursory look at the newspapers and answer a couple of emails, then hit the road just after eight.
It's such a fine day. Still cold, but from a cloudless blue sky, the sunshine creates crisp outlines of the trees on the tarmac of the road.
Passing through Kashio, I notice that the small supermarket isn't even open yet.
Kashio hamlets are still in the shade. Here the valley is narrower
than in Okawara, the other half of Oshika, the one where my house is.
Okawara vs. Kashio. The sunshine-shadow ration is reflected in the
characteristics of the inhabitants. Okawara folk are sunnier, more
outgoing, while Kashio folk tend to be less talkative, slower to
express their opinions. They save their money, whereas Okawara spend
it. For this reason Y, who comes from Kashio, set up her karaoke bar
in Okawara. Back in the old days, there were even Okawara geisha, I
The last hamlet on the Kashio river goes by and the road begins a gradual incline to the Bungui Pass. From there Route 152 will descend into Hase and Takato, before rising to another pass, and then dropping steeply to Suwa.
With about fifteen minutes to the pass, there are remnants of yesterday's snow on the road. It's icy and slippy, so I put the car into four-wheel-drive.
A few more minutes up the road the snow is getting deeper. A tree has fallen across the road, but I somehow manage to remove the obstructing branch and drive the car under.
Hadn't expected this.
Round the next corner, a much bigger tree has come down, again I stop the car and get out to take a look.
- No way!
Back down and out of the snow, A, who works for one of the village construction companies, is standing by the road. He says that a snow plough is on the way. However, the fallen trees could take longer to deal with.
Nothing to do but head home.
The Kashio supermarket is now open, so I stop to get some cheap gasoline, and stock up with a few groceries, before realising that I don't have enough money to pay.
- That's okay, I'll put it on a tab for you, says T.
- Thanks, my pension comes in tomorrow.
- Strange to think of you getting a pension, Simon-san.
- Yeh, me too.
Then in the Okawara store I use my credit card to get a bottle of wine, before replenishing my water supply from a spring by the road. M passes by in his car and stops to talk. He is taking an old man who lives in the top house to the day care centre.
Across the valley the little community of Wago beckons with its red and yellow flowers.
Small, but deeply satisfying pleasures.
Yes, the day has developed in an unexpected way.
Now it's time to get home and open the wine.
OFF-PISTE ON THE EVE OF MY 70TH BIRTHDAY
But definitley not pissed off.
Just like an animal
awakening from hibernation, this morning I detected a surge of
something. Was it the human equivalent of rising sap?
Anyway, never one to let a chance slip, I decided to grab the day, and take my first trip to the river.
take the old man to the river is mercy
Starting at the
usual point of entry, I began cutting my way through the overgrown
bamboos to create a new path that would lead me to the rocky ridge. I
figured that this would be safer than the valley side that I usually
take. Here it's so steep that I slide over the earth, grabbing roots
and hanging on to tree trunks.
Indeed, the ridge was an easier way of descending, and after passing by some beautiful old rocks and a majestic katsura tree, I reached the river.
Usually this is the cue for me to shed footwear, peel off socks and splash through the water, making my way to my favourite bathing pool. But in early April it's still kinda cold. So I clambered over the rocks instead. I noticed that a couple of heavy rainfalls last autumn had completely changed the topography of the riverbed. Then in one tiny pool, I came across this.
It's toad spawn.
At the side of the pool there was a single toad. I imagined it to be the female, resting after laying all her eggs. There were thousands of them. She looked very relaxed, even pensive. It struck me that perhaps she had been waiting for a male - someone that would fertilise her eggs - but no one had turned up.
Meanwhile in other parts streams and rivers orgies were taking place.
Have you ever seen toads mating? It's chaos. Numerous males trying to mount the woman. Talk about rough sex. There are dead bodies lying around - men killed in fights, a female that drowned under her burdensome suitors.
But here a lady toad waited in vain for her prince charming.
- Could this human be my prince in disguise?!
I had to disappoint her.
the poor toad to her thoughts, I skirted the side of the
mountain just above the water.
I was keen to check for another possible route down to the water along a rocky ridge further upstream. I followed a deer track that seemed promising, but about a hundred metres above the river I found myself on a steep slope of scree and loose soil with no handholds. It was time to return to safety.
A couple of wrens were in full song midst the trees on the opposite bank. Other than that the water rippled and rushed without either an end or perceptible beginning.
The river is fed by several streams of the purest water flowing down over mossy rocks.
Later I passed a lonely cherry tree on a the bank that would be bursting into blossom in a couple of weeks' time.
- Could be a good spot to put a tent for the summer.
Then I headed up the hill along the zigzag road back to my car.
Ungaretti put his hand into his pants
And pulled a hair
Then held it up and studied it
With a pause he said
This I donate to my poet friends
Do what you will with it
And said no more
Ginsberg took the precious hair
Head bowed in reverence
He held it up and studied it
It's white! he pronounced
Ungaretti: love was a tempest
Strong seas, shipwrecks, insomnia
But now no more
He smiled again
Now it's a guiding light, and me
An old sea captain
Following its soft insistence
As I head for port
Neighbour H has been the bane of my life for the last three decades.
- How many dogs does your neighbour have? is a typical question people who visit ask me.
- No idea. At a rough estimate over forty. Perhaps more.
In short, H is a dog hoarder.
There is no law restricting the number of dogs you can keep and, anyway, in past years I've called out everyone from the police to the welfare office - several times - over H's animals. I've done all that I can. But the problem won't go away. So I have kind of given up. We've skirmished - sometimes he won, other times me. Actually, responding to his challenges can be quite educative. I have to imagine what's going on in his mind, though that's kind of impossible.
But we don't always fight. Sometimes I need his help - for example, he allowed me to lop the tops off trees of his that were blocking my sunshine. Other times he needs mine - like when he nearly severed his thumb with an electric saw, and I rushed him to the local A&E.
H also hoards building materials and other useful stuff, which once in a while he may share. Last year he not only gave me a load of secondhand drainage piping that would have been really expensive to buy new, but also let me run the piping across his land.
So neither of us wants to get into a long-running cold war with the other.
But I also have to say that he is the most selfish person I have ever met. And he hoards. Just as Nature abhors a vacuum, he will fill any empty space with his inconsiderate clutter.
Thus, over the past week I've noticed that he has been trucking in piles of recycled building materials and leaving them by the roadside. I may have given up with the dogs, but, Jesus, I'm not going to let him use the public highways and bye-ways for his mess.
- I need to talk with him, I thought.
So, one morning, when I felt I had the energy for it, I decided to go over. I know him well enough to ken how he would react. I mean, not only does that look in his eyes, when you criticize him, remind me of Francis Begbie, but also, like Franco, he has a thick local accent. This was how our conversation went:
- Hi, H-san, we've got a residents' meeting next week. Here are the details. Hope that you can come along.
- And what's keeping you busy these days?
- Aye, ay'm bildin mer hoosuz fae mi dugs, he says happily.
- Aye, I seen all that stuff ye got parked doun there on the road, I say.
He eyes me suspiciously, anticipating what I'm going to say next,
- You know that that's a public space. I jist wanna reassure miself that ye's not goin' be leaving it aw there for long.
- Livin' it thurr? Dinnae giv me that shite. Ye yuz it yersel. Ye friends pit thur fuckin cars thur. Thur int nuthin wrong wi me yuzin that space like anyun else.
He calls me omae, an insulting Japanese word meaning you.
When I ask him not to do this, his buddy standing nearby laughs. Then H continues his rant. This time, though, I'm omae-san.Which makes me feel better.
- Whooz goin tae liv gud wud oot thur in th' ren? Eh? You tell me thit!
- Okay, okay, like I said. I jist wanted tae make sure. We need that space for the community firewood distribution from the trees that the people constructing that linea line are cutting doun and givin us.
- Firwud! Wot fuckin shite iz thit? Thits aw finishd. Wunt be nae mer firwud frae thim!
He's right. There probably won't be any more wood from the linea people.
- Okay, okay, I git the train ah what ye saying. Stop getting all werked oop, will yer? We're neighbours, like. It int easy for any aw us, ye know. Tanomu de.
This last phrase is what everyone around here says . It means I'm requesting you (to do it). As usual in Japan, the thing that I'm asking him to do is left vague. But, of course, he knows.
Whether or not he will move the wood from the road, or just throw a blue sheet over it and leave it there, like the many other piles of things he has in and around the village, I don't know. Truthfully I don't really care, either. The point of this morning was to make my point. Just as it's not good to wage war with him, it's not good to be friendly with him either. And it's even worse to say nothing and let him ride roughshod over you, like he does to everyone else. He says 'Fuck you' to everyone, so occasionally I like to say 'Fuck you' back to him. In my own way, of course.
Does he respect me for it? I doubt it.
Then I left the two of them to continue their building of kennels for more fucking dogs. Jesus.
As usual, the encounter left me tired and depressed, while H. seethed.
Has he ever considered hiring a bargain-priced Chinese hitman through one of his yakuza mates to rid himself of the interfering foreigner? It would be a super-easy job...
No, I'm sure he hasn't. He's not a bad guy, just horribly emotionally immature.
I tell myself.
Dear H., you have caused me a lot of trouble and I curse you for that, but I don't hate you.
The old villagers die and are replaced, for the most part, by well-intentioned but flaky New-Agers, unconvincing intellectuals, middle-class retirees from the city and others. H is an endangered species, fighting for survival.
CORONAVIRUS READING LIST
This is not the first time that I have experienced a crisis that the papers were calling apocalyptic. I was in Oshika in 2011 when Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant went into meltdown. Oshika is not as close as Tokyo, but it was quite near enough to get a sizeable dose of radiation if the blast had sent the radioactive particles higher into the atmosphere and the wind had been blowing in our direction. Luckily, it didn't happen, but it could have, and for a couple of months, no one really knew what was going on. Fukushima was a more frightening prospect than the coronavirus: the children would have been the victims, not the oldies, like now. As a felicitous piece of Zen calligraphy goes:
Grandfather dies, Father dies, grandson dies
That is the natural order of things - the best we can hope for.
Now, let me tell you something that happened yesterday. I had begun the morning by reading the news, which had left me with a heightened awareness of the thin line between life and death. Still, it was a beautiful spring day as I drove to Matsukawa for a dental appointment. The early blossoms were on the trees, the sky blue and cloudless. Even the drive, which I've done thousands of times along that same road, had some unusual feeling of lightness. In the dentist's waiting room I saw that the books and magazines had been removed for reasons of hygiene, so amused myself by drawing a picture in my tiny sketch book.
Lying in the dentist's chair waiting for treatment to begin, I watched the wind moving the leaves on a decorative evergreen tree directly outside the window. Or perhaps they weren't actually moving, perhaps the sun's shimmering rays were causing an illusion of movement. Whatever it was, it was beyond beautiful. I was thinking: my whole life has been lived on the premise that I exist, that I'm me. But, actually, there is no importance in this me. Just then, I tried to move, but couldn't. In fact, I could have been a speck of dust, waiting to be picked up and blown away by the wind. And I would have ben quite happy if that had happened. The realisation that my entire life has been a complete waste of time made me smile.
Thus I was transported out of my ego world for a minute or two. At the same time it occurred to me that this, ideally, is how I would like to die. So I pictured myself ill with the coronavirus, and then smiled at my stupidity.
I spent the rest of the day doing some shopping in Komagane before driving home.
So I think that, for a start, our reading list might include some hints on shedding your egocentricity. Perhaps something by 13th-century Zen priest Dōgen. The Internet is full of his writings in English translation. For example, you can find eight different versions of his Genjō Kōan here
Or you could start with the easier Shōbōgenzō
which was written by one of Dōgen's disciples about his master. That will give you a taste of this strange world, where 'body and mind drop off.'
Reality and Imagination
The coming of spring brings snow and rain - blossoms, as the buds open, and mud, as the frozen ground thaws.
This year it also brings the coronavirus and the challenge of responding to the unfolding human situation. I read on one Japanese website that a Tokyo pharmacist, sick of rude customers, said, 'It's people, more than the virus, that are my biggest worry.'
I was talking with a friend in the States the other day, and remember saying to her 'Ah, yeh, we need to be real about this. Figure out the actual threat - I'm implying that it's not as much as the media makes us believe - and get on with life.'
The be real response is actually quite deep.
Reality = truth
Truth = beauty
∴ Beauty = reality
Neat and simple, very Buddhist - this living in the moment without illusion. Seeing things as they are.
Then a couple of days later I had another experience. I had woken up after a good night's sleep to a new day with thoughts of a friend - a woman I know - and her beauty. That morning the simple fact that I knew this woman seemed to make it wonderful to be alive. So I impusively called her on the phone, and she answered. Yes, even though it was quite early, she was up. And, yes, she was fine, and, yes, very busy. And, yes, the coronavirus was really worrisome. Our banal conversation continued for a few more minutes, like a balloon deflating.
What had happened? Imagination is the most wonderful faculty that we humans possess, but we can't analyse it. The only way our limited human brains can make any sense of it at all is through symbols. Obviously, some mischievous fairy had sprinkled love juice onto me as I slept, and when I awoke - in an imaginative fug - I mistook the symbol for reality. Yes, imagination can play all sorts of tricks.
But, would you swap it for reality?
I think not.
I'd actually been intending to use this quiet time between winter and spring to do some serious reading in Japanese on the history of Oshika. I tried, but my heart wasn't in it. Instead I was still thinking about LA, and trying to figure out the nature of this strange sprawling city and its bizarre life style. So I wasted a couple of hours, poring over google maps, seeing where actor James Dean had his fatal crash (turned out to be closer to San Luis Obispo than LA), where Marilyn Monroe committed suicide (Brentwood, about a kilometre from the Visvim shore), where Robert Kennedy was assassinated (at a hotel in Koreatown not far from MacArthur Park, another iconic 60s location). For reasons of curiosity or nostalgia I was going back over stark news events that happened during my own childhood and teenage years. What I began to get was a view of LA that only made sense to me.
At the same time I was finishing books that I began reading while in LA. Porno by Irvine Welsh is kinda fun, though there is only really one sympathetic human in the whole story. That's Spud. The others are all types that you would definitely avoid in real life. Still, I admit to a fascination in the ongoing development of Begbie's character, and am equally fascinated to hear that he is the subject of a sequel set in California called The Blade Artist. Will have to get that.
While in Hirono and Kazuya's house, I also came across a copy of D. H. Lawrence's Complete Poems. Here's one of them
Deeper than Love
There is love, and it is a deep thing
but there are deeper things than love.
First and last, man is alone.
He is born alone, and alone he dies
and alone he is while he lives, in his deepest self.
Love, like the flowers, is life, growing.
But underneath are the deep rocks, the living rock that lives alone
and deeper still the unknown fire, unknown and heavy, heavy
Love is a thing of twoness.
But underneath any twoness, man is alone.
And underneath the great turbulent emotions of love, the violent herbage,
lies the living rock of a single creature's pride,
the dark, naif pride.
And deeper even than the bedrock of pride
lies the ponderous fire of naked life
with its strange primordial consciousness of justice
and its primordial consciousness of connection,
connection with still deeper, still more terrible life-fire
and the old, old final life-truth.
Love is of twoness, and is lovely
like the living life on the earth
but below all roots of love lies the bedrock of naked pride, subterranean,
and deeper than the bedrock of pride is the primordial fire of the middle
which rests in connection with the further forever unknowable fire of all things
and which rocks with a sense of connection, religion
and trembles with a sense of truth, primordial consciousness
and is silent with a sense of justice, the fiery primordial imperative.
All this is deeper than love
deeper than love.
Lawrence has been called 'half a poet, half a prophet', and after reading this you can see why. I followed this up with a biography entitled The Savage Pilgrimage by Catherine Carswell and then began rereading Lady Chatterley's Lover. However, at some point Lawrence's intolerance became suffocating. So that was a problem because deep truth should liberate. I respect and love Lawrence, but I wanted to see how someone, perhaps of the same era, someone quite different from Lawrence but with the same zest for life, expressed his passion. I found exactly what I needed in Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel, from which this passage comes
He remembered yet the East India Tea House at the Fair, the sandalwood, the turbans, and the robes, the cool interior and the smell of India tea; and he had felt now the nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent, the cool clarion earth, the wet loaminess of the garden, the pungent breakfast smells and the floating snow of blossoms. He knew the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young earth; in July, of watermelons bedded in sweethay, inside a farmer's covered wagon; of cantaloupe and crated peaches; and the scent of orange rind, bitter-sweet, before a fire of coals. He knew the good male smell of his father's sitting-room; of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent; of theblistered varnished wood upon the hearth; of the heated calf-skinbindings; of the flat moist plug of apple tobacco, stuck with a redflag; of wood-smoke and burnt leaves in October; of the brown tired autumn earth; of honey-suckle at night; of warm nasturtiums, of a clean ruddy farmer who comes weekly with printed butter, eggs, and milk; of fat limp underdone bacon and of coffee; of a bakery-oven in the wind; of large deep-hued stringbeans smoking-hot and seasoned well with salt and butter; of a room of old pine boards in which books and carpets have been stored, long closed; of Concord grapes in their long white baskets...
I think that you get the idea. Prophet vs. Artist. Puritan vs. Sensualist.
Life is rich, deep.
A MATTER OF CULTURE (2)
Spring nears, some days warm, others cool, but with each day the rising sun inches a little closer to the east. Today there will be a few more minutes of light.
F. appeared at around ten this morning on his way up the mountain, bringing a bag of apples for me. The last time I saw him was at the end of the year, when he dropped by with his wife to thank me for the sakè that I had sent him. On that occasion he didn't look so well, but today he seemed better. It was the first time in six months that he was going up the mountain, he said. He was obviously in a good mood. We stood and talked for a few minutes. He remarked that he had been 'pruning blueberry bushes in Sado.' At least, that is what it sounded like. There was no way that he had been to the island of Sado, which is the only Sado that I know. So where actually had he been? Third time round I realised that it wasn't Sado, but Sawado - a hamlet ten minutes drive from here. I should have figured it out sooner, since Kamasawa, where I live, is often pronounced Kamasa. You'll also hear Maeza for Maezawa, Oza for Ozawa, and so on. F., who will be 87 this year, speaks pure dialect. He says things like 'Ki o tsukete kunayo' for 'Ki o tsukete kudasai' or 'Oyasumi nansho' for 'Oyasumi nasai'.
Anyway it was nice that F. took the trouble to drop by. It means that the dissatisfaction he felt about my cutting down the old cherry tree has passed (I wrote about this in July last year in a piece entitled A Matter of Culture).
When F. is in the mood that he was in today he is sweet and gentle. But, if someone or something has rubbed him up the wrong way, you have to beware. Then, the next time, he's okay again.
I guess that the Japanese way is not to rationalise some discomfort or perceived injustice, not to exaggerate it by treating it as a matter of principle, as Westerners tend to do. Why not let it go, rather than hang on to it? My many years in Japan have taught me to step back when I find myself the target of criticism, whether it is just or unjust. Either way I may attempt to explain, or just leave it. Then, after a certain amount of time has passed I endeavour to mend the fence by some conciliatory gesture. With old people it usually works, because they have been brought up to understand the importance of wa, which is the importance of trying to live in harmony rather than waging war. These days, wa sounds old-fashioned. In the modern world, you are encouraged to call a person out, make them accountable for what they said or did. As a Westerner who has seen the unproductive results of verbal warfare too many times, I think I prefer wa.
If we are to believe the historians, wa has long been a defining element in Japanese behaviour and social culture. A Chinese history of the 3rd century mentions it, along with the Japanese love of mountains, bathing and drinking alcohol, as well as the custom of clapping their hands in worship. Some things never change.
I don't always know what's going through F.'s mind, but, as I watched him heading up the mountain into the forest, I felt reassured. We were friends again.
Have you noticed:
Aging is linear, with a beginning and an end, while time is circular. You can see it in human life and the cycle of the seasons.
Now, after the contraction of the winter, the days are once more lengthening.
We are taught that effort leads to achievement, that by bringing together the disparite elements we create the whole. But, in actual fact, if you look at nature, the whole (achievement) already exists and the natural tendency is towards disintegration You can see this very well in the case of love and marriage.
So, if you really want to construct something, the smart thing might be not to build it up, but, first, to take it apart. Think about it.
SKATING ON THIN ICE
a rainy day
I'm still crazy about women. Last night I got a beautiful buzz from
I'm with a woman,
someone whom I vaguely recognise, but then again perhaps not. Anyway,
I have my arm around her and am kissing her softly on the cheek when
she gently turns her head and kisses me on the mouth. Her lips have
parted, allowing my top lip to come between them, while my bottom lip
caresses the under side of her bottom lip. The kiss ends and she says
- Now you can take me to dinner.
Anticipation. Then I wake up.
Still, it had lasted just long enough.
Romantic dreams driven by sex instinct can, frankly speaking, be crude. But when the sex instinct is replaced by what, for want of a better word, I call gender magnetism, things are different. Here we are in an area of art rather than instinct. Sure, sex instinct and gender magnetism both originate at the same source - the mutual attraction of opposites, but in gender magnetism (sorry, it's just a term I invented) we can call upon human feeling, art and culture to refine our behaviour.
In the same way, depression or hyperanxiety can be relieved by a well-made cup of coffee. When your brain becomes so overcrowded that you can no longer even think, then take yourself off to the kitchen to wash the dishes! At least, I find it a highly therapeutic activity.
What do I like most about being back home? I think it's the smell of my house...
Quando, da giovane, mi chiedevano: cosa c'è di più bello nella vita? E tutti rispondevano: "la fessa!", io solo rispondevo: "l'odore delle case dei vecchi". Ero condannato alla sensibilità!
The distilled wood smoke that emanates from the stove is deeper, more subtly perfumed than sweet, sacred incense. Nor does it waft, but permeates the whole room, mixing with what was in yesterday's oven and the remnants of a cigar that I enjoyed back in January.
Yeh, home sweet home.
RETURN OF THE NATIVE - L.A. → TOKYO
On the last day of my trip we went to this Swedenborgian church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's son. It looks down across the Pacific.
I was kind of dreading having to travel on crowded Tokyo trains again, but then discovered that the weekday on which I had arrived back from Los Angeles was a Japanese national holiday. This meant that the carriage in which I travelled to see Suemarr, who was performing in Hakuraku on the Toyoko line, was half empty.
When I got to the venue he was with a couple of charming French-speaking fans, and we chatted a bit before the show, which was held at a bar in Rokkakubashi, a tiny street of tiny cafes and shops that took me back to Japan of the 1970s. I ordered a pizza, which also turned out to be tiny, and drank a couple of Scotch highballs, somehow managed not to fall off my stool as I was attacked by the drowsiness of the jet lag while listening to Sue's soft music.
This was the second pizza + alcohol combination of the long day - one that had actually spanned two calendar days - even though the flight was only ten hours long. Earlier I had breakfasted on a slice of pizza, a bowl of healthy edamame and a pint of fruity El Segundo IPA while waiting for my plane in LAX. I like to have a beer in Sheremetyevo during the stopover on a typical trip to Europe. The flight from L.A. to Tokyo was direct, so this time I had my drink before I got on the plane. And after ordering edamame to go with the beer I noticed that the guy sitting along the counter had ordered a big pizza, so asked him if he wanted to exchange a piece for some of my beans. Which he happily agreed to! A small gesture, I know, but it was deeply meaningful. It was my last - finally successful -hustle. It's not the kind of thing one could do in Japan, or even Britain, but after three weeks in the States I was coming to regard the hustle as something quite positive. Yeh, I had been hustled and I'd done some hustling myself. It's a way of life there - the deal, I think, Trump called it.
Getting in your car to go basically anywhere - that's another big thing in L.A., a kind of way of life. Over my three weeks there I came to regard this obsession with mobility, which is subtly linked to love of the automobile, a little less negatively than I had done before. Let's not forget that it was a major part of the American dream - with a car you could go anywhere. Literally anywhere in the vast network of routes that was constructed all over the county during the postwar era. And couldn't the network of freeways that people use to get around the great stretched-out city of L.A. be a wonder of the modern world? I wondered.
Three weeks in L.A., three weeks of experiencing life from a citizen's standpoint, also gave me the feeling - in a way that reading newspaper articles or watching TV reports had never done - that the U.S. is the centre of today's world. The energy, the enthusiasm for business, for self-improvement, the optimism. It feels like a big ocean, while continental Europe is a sea, something like the Mediterranean, and Britain, well, compared to America, Britain's a backwater.
I don't want to beat the U.S. drum too much, but from what I saw L.A. also seemed cleaner and safer than many cities in Europe. This was a surprise considering all the negative things the newspapers tell you about it.
Anyway, it was good to have a chance to draw some impressions of my own, superficial though they may be. It is always best to see things for yourself.
So, now I'm back in Japan, where the sun is shining and the first flowers of spring are appearing. I look back over all the overseas trips that I have made over all the years. They leave such a strong imprint, especially in those days immediately following my return to Japan. But then as life returns to its normal pattern the impact gradually disappears. And what seemed important is soon no longer important any more.
In a few months, in a few years what will I remember of this trip to southern California? But this holiday was a little different from the others. This time I wasn't soloing around Europe in my usual capricious way. I was with family. I watched my grandchildren growing, saw my daughter and her husband managing the demands of their household with imagination and responsibility. Quite admirable really, when you consider all the demands that life in L.A. makes upon them. And this gave me a sense of pride in them that felt like an addition to my own soul. So thanks Hirono, Kazuya, Len and Toni. Thanks for the ride! It was unforgettable.
THE WORLD TODAY
you're number 2, says a friendly voice
at this moment of awakening
it sounded satisfying
though the rest is a mystery
i mean who wants to be number 1?
and this is a city of freeways and intersections
where parents chaperone their kids
and eternal sunshine
with blue skies and clouds
and the sound of the autos
wake again to the world today
in some never-again moment
this L.A. morning
It was kind of like being thirteen or fourteen again, a time when I would spend the summers hanging around the stage doors of theatres in the British seaside resort of Great Yarmouth, collecting autographs and trying to chat to pop stars, comedians and other entertainers. I still have the two small books in which members of the Who, the Animals, Manfred Mann and other iconic bands of the 1960s and 1970s signed their names, along with Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones, Morcambe and Wise, Rolf Harris and numerous others.
Talk about ephemerality. Even if their names are still remembered, how many of them mean anything to anyone today?
I was in L.A., where my friend Joe, a musician in his mid-thirties, whom I first met when he was a young English language teacher in the neighbouring village of Kamimura, had got me an invite to the reception for Grammy nominated artists, engineers, producers and others on the eve of the annual awards honouring people in the U.S. music industry. Joe himself had been nominated for Rearrange My Heart, an album he had made with his band Che Apalache.
Actually it began the night before with a house concert in a mansion on Hollywood Hills. Jesca Hoop, a singer-songwriter whom to my shame I hadn't heard of before, had given me one of those rare musical experiences that stay with you for the rest of your life. It was a like the time when as a student hitchhiking around Europe in the late 1960s I had heard a young American guy sing Mr Bojangle on the ferry between Brindisi and Corfu, or a few years later when Carly Simon appeared at the end of a tedious James Taylor concert to light up the stage with You're So Vain. All the more memorable because it had been completely unexpected.
Anyway. The next day I returned to the mansion for an afternoon reception at which a whole series of folk, blues and bluegrass Grammy nominees performed. Apart from the music (each band did only one number, but if I had to choose the highlight it would be the Colorado farmer Gregory Alan Iskov. Check him out), the place was chocablock with interesting-looking people. I knew no one except Joe and his band, but rather than go search for them I thought that it would be more fun to stand by the drinks table and try to socialize. In addition to my own insatiable curiosity, I wanted to find people in L.A. who might host or suggest somewhere that would host a gig in the tour I was trying to set up for Anya Hinkle and Suemarr. The day before I'd even had a hundred name cards printed to hand out for this very purpose. The first woman whom I met lived in L.A. and turned out to be married to a man whose sister was president of the US International Olympic Committee, so she got one of the cards. Then I got talking to a really friendly rock musician called Ali Handal whose husband is a magician. She said that he often visits Japan, so perhaps he would do a show at my house one day. Great! Then I had a photo taken with charismatic farmer Gregory Alan Iskov (yeh, the guy I told you about ) before timidly approaching a stately looking gentleman with long white hair dressed in a beautiful cream-coloured suit. I thought that he may be British and wondered if he knew where the composer Leslie Bricusse lived in L.A. But he turned out to be from Louisiana and explained that he was the father of blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and personally had never heard of Leslie Bricusse. As I jabbered on he would say 'I hear you.' I kind of liked that because it sounded cool, while being quite aware that he probably had no interest in what I was saying. Still.
I had a long and interesting conversation with a member of the Grammy nominated band the Po' Ramblin' Boys about the geography of bluegrass music, in which he put me right about the differences between mountainous states like Tennessee (where he comes from), Kentucky and Virginia and the prairie lands of Kansas, Nebraska and Dakota. In his opinion the most authentic bluegrass comes from the mountains. I told him about my late friend Tom Deaver, who was from Kansas and made shakuhachi flutes that sounded like the wind blowing over the plains.
Finally I found the only guy there who was probably older than me. Who was he? None other than the Grammy nominated bluegrass gospel composer Rick Lang, who apologized that he and his wife had to rush off to meet their son and grandchildren, but presented me with a CD of his songs recorded by various artists. They were both really polite. In fact everyone that I had met had been amazingly polite.
At some point Joe and his entourage said that we had to go off to the official Grammy reception in downtown L.A. It was rumoured that Michelle Obama, who had been nominated in the Spoken Word section, might even make an appearance! But, when we got to Ebell House - the plush venue where it was being held - actually I was lucky get in. No one had told me that I needed an ID, which in the States these days, apparently, you're always being asked for. In the end I sort of slipped by, unnoticed, with the band. Nice work, Simon! And, once in, I detached myself to go on a sole search of more interesting-looking characters.
This was a big building with large halls and a central courtyard with fountains and purple, blue and red lights. There was food on platters in a big reception hall, while under the porticos of the courtyard there was a long row of tables with tiny cakes. I got myself a glass of pinot noir from the bar and tried a bite-sized raspberry tart that was absolutely delicious.
People were standing or sitting in small groups, and this made it a little more difficult to approach someone as nonchalantly as I had done in the Hollywood Hills mansion to strike up a conversation. Still it was doable, provided I had a strategy. I soon decided on one. I'd aim for oldish people who looked bored. And, the opening question would be, do you live in L.A? And, if they did, does the name Leslie Bricusse mean anything to you and, if so, do you know where he lives? A kind of stupid strategy, as it turned out.
But before I went into action I simply enjoyed casting my eyes around at the strange and beautiful scenes that were upfolding on all sides, like exotic hothouse plants breaking into flower. There was an African American rapper(?) robed in a scarlet khaftan, a group of brightly dressed and garlanded Hawaians gathered around their sixtime Grammy nominated local songstress, numerous big-busted women in skintight dresses and Nicki Minaj latex bodysuits. In the middle of the courtyard there was a place for group photos, a chance to show off expensive dental work. I wanted to take my camera out, but instinctively knew that to take images of these people might be regarded as tantamount to stealing their souls. So I resisted the urge.
The first bored couple that I approached turned out to be a soprano nominated for the Best Opera Recording, who, unsurprisingly, had not heard of the man who composed the musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Still, it was a chance to announce that I was a friend of Martyn Brabbins, musical director of the English National Opera, who had recently substituted when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Franciso Symphony fell ill before a performance of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges. I also threw in that I had once written the libretto for a successfully performed opera myself. An opportunity for name-dropping, boasting. But soon I moved on.
The next man that I buttonholed (apart from looking rich, he had a walking stick and I imagined him to be older than me, but turned out to be a year younger) came from New York, and knew all about Leslie Bricusse and his cowriter Anthony Newley and could even name the first musical that they did together called Stop the World - I Want to Get Off. He was an immersive sound engineer and had been Grammy nominated many times. I am not a technical person and wasn't in the mood to try to understand what he was doing. A pity really, as I've just discovered this short, simple but fascinating video of him on Youtube
Ok. I moved on again. Two oldish couples sitting on one of the long bench sofas overlooking the courtyard happily invited me to join them, and I got talking to one of the guys, who I thought to be about the same age as me. But he turned out to be five years younger. Shit! Am I the oldest guy here tonight?? I hope not. Where's Steven Tyler for fuck's sake? Actually I'd encountered another hidden pillar of the American musical establishment for the guy was Jeff Place, an archivist at Washington's Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage and he was happy to talk about the people that he'd known his long career, among them, the great ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, a hero of mine. Jeff is eight times Grammy nominated, this year for his work on Pete Seeger. I also came across this comment in an interview with him that was recently published in the Capitol Gazette.
What's it like to attend the Grammys?
I'm more likely to have something in common with the people producing reggae records than with Cardi B or someone. The thing that's really cool about the Grammys is, if you're nominated, there's a nominees party at this really beautiful hotel/museum place the night before that you can only attend if you're nominated. You can't buy your way into it. That's where you go and you run into people like Tony Bennett or Jack Black, we were talking to him at the last one. Those are fun.
So now you know.
On the way to find Joe, I ran into Aaron, one of his managers. The night before in Hollywood Hills Che Apalache had played a set of about thirty minutes just before midnight, and although by this time I was dog-tired I enjoyed seeing the band live for the first time in my life. I already knew all the songs that they played, but was surprised to find that Haru no Tayori, the pastiche on Japanese folk song that I definitely hadn't liked before, sounded for some reason cool on stage. They had also developed a semi-awkward stage presence that had an endearing naivity and cheekiness, enhanced by the soft humourous comments of Martin the mandolin player. I hadn't seen this before and thought that it worked. Anyway, I mentioned these thoughts to Aaron. The music they play has the stamp of precision so it evened the balance to clown around a bit. Next time, look forward to seeing how they structure and execute a whole show.
Found Joe in the ballroom and tried to get him to dance with me, but the son-of-a-bitch wouldn't. Actually, at heart he's quite a shy guy, so I forgave him for that. Instead I had a dance with his editor Abigail, then left to spend the last twenty minutes of the party on a final walkabout. Most people were leaving, but Jeff was still in his sofa seat, and I joined him. When I said that Leslie Bricusse wrote the first pop song that ever made a big impression on me (it was called Out of Town and sung by Max Bygraves in the movie Charley Moon) and that Anthony Newley was the first pop artist star whose records I had collected, he confessed, 'the first record that I ever bought as a kid was by the Dave Clark Five.' 'I know what it was,' I said and began to sing the lyrics to Glad All Over.
I hope I didn't embarrass him.
Suemarr on Suemarr
People often ask me questions such as: What kind of music influenced you? Are you a folk singer? What do think about the present music scene? I could give a short answer, but what I said would be shallow. This week I'm on Okinoshima in the Japan Sea, a place where time passes slowly, and so can give lots of thought to my reply.
When it comes to folk as a musical genre, I'm probably not a folk singer. That is because my repertory doesn't consist of songs about everyday things with simple lyrics, songs that readily appeal to the masses. However, I've undoubtedly been influenced by folk singers of the past. What they taught me was to go on singing. Whether at a scheduled gig or doing something impromptu, the aim is to share your song with the people present, to get close enough to communicate the song to them. I think that this influence is basic to me and will never disappear.
However, when it comes to lyrics and melodies, I try to offer more than the simple folk song. At least, I've arrived at my art by a more roundabout way.
Color, feeling, unconventionality and emotion I got from rock music.
Metaphor, irony, humor, beauty and caprice came largely from modern art.
When all is said and done it's through life that you accumulate influences. They penetrate into every corner of your body and mind. The words and music come from hidden springs and like water flow from stream to river. En route, a song may change in response to the different people that hear it. Some songs hit a deadend and dry up, while others reach the ocean. For these lucky ones it's the beginning of a never-ending journey. Some songs wash up on distant shores, while others - who knows? - may evaporate into the air, become clouds and eventually rain down on the mountains or towns. A sand grain on a beach too could be a song.
The more that I think about it, the more I realize that I will never command a wide audience. I play the acoustic guitar and banjo, but the sort of music I make is the opposite of what you would expect from these two instruments. Trying to define myself by genre or style is never going to be much use. But, for good or bad, that is the way of music in the world today.
What am I? I finally ask myself. Perhaps just someone who likes to drink, likes to talk, likes to sing. For whom happiness is getting into drunken conversations in a bar. Couldn't this become the raw material for a song? In theory, yes, but there is something that for some reason stops me...
-- You've chosen a very difficult job, someone once remarked.
-- With freedom and creativity, nothing is ever going to be easy.
in the late autumn
leaves that are still green
stir in the wind
the course of my life
It's a poem that I wrote while I was on Okinoshima and left in the local shrine.
(Translated and edited from the original Japanese below)
二〇一九年 十月三十日 隠岐・海士町にて
miscellaneous thoughts at yearend
The Earth. Everything begins with the earth, that chemical mix of elements, that matrix from which we all come and to which we will all return.
We all belong to some place on the Earth. You may be born there, or you may need to search for that place. But once you find it your life will begin to make sense.
You take from this piece of earth what you need. You cultivate it and tend it.
You share it with your fellow humans and other living creatures. Sharing can be frustrating, even painful.
Your share it with nature, surrendering the order you've created, learning even from what yet you don't understand.
Over the centuries the humans that inhabited your piece of land formed ties. The community will have rules and ceremonies. Respect them. Respect your fellow residents. Without others your existence is meaningless.
Be aware of your community's history, especially its evolved knowledge, its cumulative culture.
anya on oshika:
It's hard to describe the peacefulness of this village, in Oshikamura. To the eye, it kind of looks like a collection of fallen down shacks, broken places covered with tarps, broken panes reinforced with cardboard, cracked walls, broken floorboards, fallen down sheds, muddy paths. Sparkling high above the village is a bright white, snow-covered peak in the southern Japanese alps: majestic, imposing, breathtaking in the morning sun....
here are the lyrics along with english translation to another suemarr song from the album doromizu wa yureru. it is based on a poem by Nakahara Sōji (1949-2019).
参照： 淋しさの底ぬけて降るみぞれかな 丈草
in the twilight of the morning
i dreamt a very lonely dream.
but then awoke to find
everything had been laid aside
i could remember nothing
not even why i was lonely...
in the twilight of the morning
i dreamt a very lonely dream.
walking in the autumn forest
with the dance of birdsong
and sun coming through the trees
and then a sudden thought: next year, will i still be here?
me pining for the past...
in the twilight of the morning
i dreamt a very lonely dream.
imagine the heart as a lipped cup
well, some day loneliness will fill it to the brim
and then the bottom falls out
in the icy pouring rain...
Note: the last verse is inspired by this haiku of Jōsō (1662-1704)
The sleet falls
As if coming through the bottom
here are the lyrics to doromizu wa yureru, a song by suemarr, along with my english translation. the song is from the album of the same name, available at https://suemarr.com/
muddy waters swirl
fallen into the gutter until just now
no one even noticed until just now
then waiting for me thoughts of you
but doubts stir the muddy waters swirl
you've made yourself a place that's full of dreams
shut yourself safely in where even the world's a dream
lets clean off the dirt everything will be pure
but doubts stir the muddy waters swirl
crackpot mutters words blown out like a flame
but I see the truth in his vacant eyes
paintbox colours stolen all of them for you
lets dissolve our doubts in the muddy waters
the water in the stream is always so clear
deep green mountains move my heart
birds take to the wing while the sun sets
i don't want to doubt but muddy waters swirl
fallen into the gutter until just now
no one even noticed until just now
then waiting for me thoughts of you....
ode to the morning
Non abbiamo che questa virtù: cominciare ogni giorno la vita - davanti alla terra sotto un cielo che tace - attendendo un risveglio. Cesare Pavese
arcturus spica regulus
the three great stars of the spring
are as clear as crystals
in the still dark of
this december early morning
before the sun is up
im down the hill
to visit takao
whose wife recently died
hes different more friendly
and we talk about things
he explains how to start
a troublesome motor
then i drop by at tims
to borrow a tool
and make my way home
loading some wood from the shrine
over coffee i write a shopping list
fill out a form
check my email
read the newspaper fleetingly
watch the sun spread across the garden
and think about life
and what I will do today
svegliandomi un vaso di gigli bianchi sulla liberia
A news photo that I came across on an Internet website has brought memories of my own childhood, as well as triggering some thoughts on life then and now.
Okay, let's begin with a photo that is selling on the US stock photography Shutterstock's Japan site for over 22,000 yen. Here's the URL
It's not the first
time that I have seen this photo, which appeared in one of the
British national newspapers back in 1954 and which I remember despite
being only four at the time. The facts surrounding the affair, as
explained to me later by my father, were that a teacher at the
Kingsthorpe Grove Primary School in Northampton, where my grandfather
was the headmaster, caned a whole class of children as a punishment
for unruly behaviour. This did not please some of the parents whose
children were not among those guilty of causing the commotion and
they reported the matter to the police. The investigation resulted in
a court case at which the teacher, whose name was Audrey Jeffs, was
found guilty and fined.
My grandfather supported Miss Jeffs, whom he accompanied to court and spoke on the behalf of. You can see by the cheerful look on his face that he was confident of his own opinion and did not intend to be intimidated by the pressure of the parents, police or magistrates. Miss Jeffs and he lost the case, but I don't think that bothered him. Excepting the most extreme circumstances he believed that a headmaster should support his teachers. For him it was a matter of principle. Anyway, that's how I remember my father explaining it to me.
These days it's pretty rare for managers to put their own head on the block when one of their staff commits an error of judgement, which Miss Jeffs had obviously done. At the same time it is well to remember that corporal punishment was quite legal and a common means of discipline in British schools for a long postwar period. I saw it administered on fellow pupils many times. In fact, in my third year at the same primary school I was in Miss Jeffs' class. She had been censured but not sacked and continued to teach at Kingsthorpe Grove School. She also continued to hand out corporal punishment, which I watched her doing by hitting the victim on the palm of the hand with a ruler two or three times. It was no big deal, and by hitting you on the palm instead of the knuckles, which hurt much more, it seemed symbolically shaming rather than physically painful. I also remember the classroom as light, sunny, clean and quiet, and Miss Jeffs' lessons as interesting and easy to understand. If this had happened in 2019, she would have been fired for certain, perhaps even sent to gaol. But, back in the 1950s she was warned and allowed back. She was undoubtedly one of the school's better teachers. I also remember hearing that she was a divorced woman, something rare that at the time was socially frowned upon. Independent, determined, strong-willed... She would have be labelled a brutal authoritarian today. In truth she was probably one of the many women in postwar Britain who saw the new age as the opportunity to exert her individuality, to challenge accepted opinion.
My grandfather would have admired her determination. He possessed the same quality, having come from a working class background - my great grandfather, who never had a regular job, made his money by taking illegal bets. However, Len, as my grandfather was known (incidentally he was J.L. Piggott - John Leonard - not J.I., as the newspaper erroneously reported) was an ambitious young man who after serving as an infantry soldier in World War I became a teacher in his home town of Northampton. By the age of thirty-three he was the youngest headmaster in the town's history. He would remain as the headmaster of Kingsthorpe Grove School for the next thirty-two years, until his retirement. He then went into local politics, defeating the mayor of Northampton in an election, but died a few weeks later at the age of sixty-eight. I was thirteen at the time and well remember visiting him on his death bed, one May afternoon. I still have a clear image of him sitting up, conscious but not really able to talk, with the sun streaming through the open window.
Later, at the age of eighteen during the summer between finishing senior school and beginning university I stayed with my grandmother in the same house for four weeks while working at a local garage. We used to play cards and have long talks. She seemed to want to tell me about the man who had been her husband. I only knew him as my Grandad and the headmaster of the school that I had briefly attended. On many weekends I had visited his house with my father and in summer often spend time at a camp that he put up in the field of a farmer friend. Of course I didn't know then about the women in his life, something that my Grandma seemed to wanted to talk about.
- I loved him, but I don't know why, she would say wryly.
Or the fact that, according to my Grandma, he had got his headship at Kingsthorpe Grove by consciously cultivating people in the right places. As a young man he joined the Conservative Club, where he ingratiated himself with the politicians who ran the town. But, he had always been a Socialist and when he beat the mayor Corrin he was standing as the candidate of the Labour Party. His pet cause was the abolition of the 11-plus entrance examination and the introduction of comprehensive schools - something that came to pass in the 1970s, but was then reversed under Mrs Thatcher.
Going back to my Grandma's revelation that he was a womaniser, I wonder if he and Miss Jeffs were romantically involved. I suppose it's possible.
I have a photo of myself that I guess was taken not long after the scandalous court case. I'm sitting at my Grandad's desk in his study at Kingsthorpe Grove. My mother took it. Perhaps she wanted to inspire me to become a headmaster too. And little Simon does look a mite supercilious, though I myself can only remember feeling nervous. I'm sure that I was egged on by Mum to place my hands on the desktop in that rather adult way - to ape my Grandad. I can hear her laughing with amusement and satisfaction at my pose.
In the end I never became a headmaster like my Grandad, didn't even become a teacher like so many members of the Piggott clan. What did I inherit from him then? Well, for a start, my middle names John Leonard. Fidelity towards friends and courage in the face of authority, I hope. Love of camping and the country life, deeply. Ambition and the desire for social recognition? Definitely not. His womanising ways? I don't think so. Sure, I've always been interested, but quite early on in my life came to realise that the outcome is rarely worth the effort. If my DNA map does contain a womanising gene I think that it was dormant and may have got passed on to another Len. Actually the forebear to whom that I've most often been told that I resemble is my Mum's father John Harris Townsend. But he died before I was born. And, anyway, that's another story.
REINCARNATION - THE STORY OF MY NEW LIFE
I was under no illusion about how the overseeing buddhas would view the achievements of my life. I knew that my demotion in the order of earthly and heavenly beings was inevitable. However, I have to admit it was a great shock, when, following my death and the statutory forty-nine days of wandering in the netherworld, I found myself dispatched back to Earth as a toilet brush. I don't deny my many faults, but I do possess one personality trait of which I'm proud: I never complain. Caring neither for religion nor ethics, I just like to get on with things. Which is what I did.
It turns out that even among toilet brushes, there is a hierarchy. Luckily - or perhaps I had earned it - I was assigned to a workplace that was surely in the upper echelons of this hierachy. My new home was a cute little public toilet located on the west coast of an island between Japan and Korea called Sado. The English name may make Sado sound like a dark place, but, actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Although largely forgotten by the rest of the world, Sado is a gem. The Sobama toilet that was my home stands by a road that runs parallel to the island's best beach. This is not some urban shithouse bursting at the seams with humanity and its secretions, where for toilet brushes existence is worse than Hieronymus Bosch's 'Hell'.
The Sobama public toilet on the island of Sado, however, was a completely different proposition. Architecturally it could have been a daring attempt at post-art deco design. Either that or an attempt to replicate the funnels of a cruise ship. Who knows? Some say that a famous architect who had abandoned the affluent rat race of the city for the indigent freedom of tramphood had dashed off the design on a serviette at the behest of a canny local official who had recognized him and offered to buy him dinner. Whatever, it was a fine example of public works with a scale and functionality perfectly fitting its requirements.
The toilet brush in the public convenience at Sobama on the island of Sado enjoyed a leisurely existence. In a typical day there were around twenty visitors, some days even fewer. When one such person entered, the brush would hear the scrape as the cubicle door was opened, then slammed shut. Because, over the years the door had sagged on its hinges, it had to be lifted slightly in order to close the lock.
One day, I heard two men standing at adjacent urinals avidly discussing a subject that was obviously close to the heart of one of them.
- I finally discovered that this sex thing is a black hole. Best to avoid it. At least, if you're a man.
- You think so? I don't agree. It could be something beautiful.
- Yes. But watch out! Some of these women have a life force that they themselves can't even control. It completely takes them over.
The conversation continued as they walked out. Unfortunately, I couldn't follow them to hear how it developed.
A couple of high school students would sometimes use one of the cubicles for their sex games. Even now I can hear the girl's giggles. She didn't seem to have any worries. Was this the 'life force' that one of those two men was talking about? In contrast, the boy seemed extremely self-conscious.
On one occasion the girl, in a fit of excited self-abandon, threw the toilet brush into one of the nearby rice fields.
Later, an old farmer kindly retrieved me and returned me to my post-art deco home. I was glad to be back, but was also happy to have seen just a little of the outside world.
Generally I'm content with my life. There is no reason not to be.
The toilet windows are frosted glass, so I can't see outside, but their translucency means that I sense the subtle changes that occur when light begins to replace darkness at the advent of a new day. An hour or two later the sun comes streaming in.
There was an interesting exchange between the two guys at the urinals today. Here it is:
= i think im in love. smashed my nose while cutting bamboo and the nurse who treated it had such a gentle touch
= the high school girl came in with a new guy.
with the morning sun
i climbed the mountain
to the renge spa
Thousands of "boozy wasps" are terrorizing the UK after imbibing the nectar of fermented fruit and cider left behind at pub gardens, Travel + Leisure reports.
Que crains-tu de la guêpe ivre de son vol fou ?
Wine-making is finished! And am now fermenting the must in the gentle November sunshine and by the stove during the cool evenings.
Some of the grapes that I didn't use had been left in a bucket in the yard and attracted several wasps, one of which even got into my beer. I extracted it and it flew away, only to return later, and this time drown in the beer dregs at the bottom of the glass.
Grapes are health-giving in so many ways. Picking the fruit from the stem for two or three hours a day over three days gave me warm strong hands.
Grapes also symbolize transformation. And wasps? Well, they are the messengers of the gods, the go-betweens.
ITS JUST ANOTHER DAY
an old man wakes up one morning still feeling tired - one eye aches and his back is stiff. it's misty outside and cold in the kitchen, so he turns on the electric heater, pauses and then begins to wonder how to start this unpromising day, to give it meaning. he has no idea other than to make himself a coffee, which he does. frischgemalenen kaffee für deisennoch-nicht-gemalenen tag. he also boils himself some oatmeal porridge, and, remembering he has a small carton of fresh cream, opens the fridge and gets that out, serving the porridge in a yellow dish, he pours on just a little of the cream. meanwhile, in the coffee maker, the coffee is ready.
so i sip the coffee and spoon up the porridge. as the nourishment begins to take away the aches and pains, i get the strength to do something, taking a german book in order to mull over a memorable sentence whose grammatical construction i couldn't quite figure out. here it is:
wer von berufs wegen genötig ist, über die jahre hinweg sich selbst auszubeuten, der wird zum verwerter von resten.
the first half is no problem - literally: a person who for reasons of job has been compelled over the years to exploit himself. but, in the second half i can't see exactly how der fits in. does it relate back to wer, i wonder. 'a person who becomes to exploit leftovers'? neither does the use of wird seem natural. still. i like the music of the sentence, especially the word verwerter. the prefix ver-, often mildly threatening, is in this case extremely benign, turning werten (judge) into verwerten (utilise). also, interesting that both verwerten and the preceding ausbeuten could be translated in english as exploit. when reading german i feel like an orchestra conductor reading through the score of a newly composed piece of music that he must conduct, trying to get to the heart of it.
whilst i'm engaged in this brainwork, the sun breaks through the mist. there is cloud in the valley, but, above that a view opens through the trees in my front garden to the mountains beyond. the sight of this sensuous landscape moistens my dry analytical thoughts. the meeting of the sensory and intellectual worlds feels effortless. its something that the human spirit conjures up. what's happening to me can't be broken down into a materialist explanation without ignoring the manifest spiritual reality of this eternal moment.
looking out from my kitchen window i see that you have descended from your room in the kura. you discover the misty sunshine, yawn, gaze at the view for a second, enter through the glass doors into the bath/barn, take a zen piss in the toilet, clatter into the kitchen, greet me with a kiss that leaves a taste of the coffee that i'm drinking on your lips, and on mine the moozy morning fragrance of your female physicality.
i'm not going to ask you about the german grammar. i know that if i do you will cry out 'oh no, simon!', and laugh aloud. instead i'll grind you some coffee beans. and as we wait for the machine to make your coffee, our day will begin.
ancient greek philosopher plato put into a nutshell when he said: every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. those who wish to sing always find a song. at the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.
MEMORY AND AUTHENTICITY
I've finally posted the last of all the oral histories that I took from people living in the village. I think that browsing them will give you an idea of what the village was like in the first half of the 20thcentury.
In addition to the tapes, there are a number of publications about the village. As with any subject, the deeper you go, the more you realise how little you know about it. Editing the transcripts of the Oshika villagers' memories certainly made me feel that way. So, my next aim is to read the books on village history. Will this increase my understanding of the individuals whose lives were lived out against this backdrop? And by combining this subjective individual memory with objective analyses of historical events will an integrated view of Oshika village emerge? I doubt it but, at least it will be fun to try.
Countless oral histories are now freely available on the Internet. Recently, while listening to audio files on the website of the British Library I came across an interview with a woman called Daphne Hardy Henrion (1917-2003), a talented and successful sculptress, who, when she was living with the writer Arthur Koestler in wartime France (they shared a house in Provence) also became the translator of his novel about Stalinist Russia 'Darkness at Noon'. By all accounts she was someone with a strong personality who led an exciting life. Her reminiscences would surely be worth listening to? I thought. However, I'd forgotten that, while a lot of people are only too happy to talk about themselves and their lives, this is not necessarily the case for everyone. In response to the interviewer's clumsy attempts to draw her out, Hardy retreats into her shell. However, towards the end, when the topic turns to Hardy's present life, there is an amusing exchange:
Henrion - I have a friendship with a chap called David, who worked as a model once. We're quite - what can I say? -
Interviewer - companionable?
Henrion - Yes.
Interviewer - And he lives near you?
Henrion - Not very far.
Interviewer - Can you see him quite often?
Henrion - Most weeks he comes.
Interviewer - Do you have good chats together?
Henrion - Yes. Nothing very deep.
Interviewer - Is he a widower?
Henrion - (pause) No, he's a homosexual.
It's interesting how a tiny comment or a casual gesture can illuminate someone's personality. This is one such moment. Otherwise, it's all so excruciatingly English - the conversation of people, who, like the Japanese, strive to avoid offence（角が立たないように）. Or perhaps it is just that Hardy, who, by all accounts, was intellectual and cosmopolitan, is just bored. You can find out about her at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1447686/Daphne-Hardy-Henrion.html and https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Art/021M-C0466X0138XX-0100V0/
In another of the interviews, the sculptor David Nash (1945 - ), who spent many years living in the Welsh village of Blaenau Ffestiniog, recalls a neighbour, Phyllis Playter, the companion of the novelist John Cowper Powys and says this about her:
She smoked Woodbines and was very sociable and liked to offer people a cigarette, and she had this big chest of drawers and one of the top drawers she would heave open, she was very small and very frail, and it was full of every sort of cigarette you could imagine, and she would say, `Well help yourself'. Because she didn't want to oblige people to smoke Woodbines, which was her favourite cigarette. Gin and tonic and lemon also was always out. And then there was a clock that ticked in this room, and a beautiful mirror.
Nash never met Cowper Powys, but recalls hearing from his neighbours, who remembered seeing the octogerian writer
walking up the hill in his very thin-soled shoes because he wanted to feel the ground, and he would hit this stone with his walking stick and then walk back down again.
This too is memorable.
In life we mainly miss the target. The rare occasion we hit it occurs when we're no longer trying. In these two cases it happened as the two interviewees went off topic.
In ethnology, fieldwork interviews are not only a resource of facts relating to people's lives, but can also, with sensitivy, throw light on some aspect of the person in focus. What strikes us at that moment is a feeling of truth. Not an opinion, but reality.
I had a few drinks the night before last, probably one too many because the next morning I vomited. Since then, though, I've been fine. That night Y-san brought five bottles of top quality vine naturel to my house to enjoy with me and two of his friends. Since recovering, I've been finishing off what was left.
It's been quite a strenuous month! On Sunday too I'd had a bit to drink at the Okawara festival - very cheap Sauvignon blanc from Chile - what a difference! But when I say strenuous, I don't mean drinking. I'm talking about physical stuff.
The month started with me getting the itch to re-tar the roof - something that I hadn't done for a couple of years. I'd even begun to wonder whether I wasn't too old. But then, when a free day with the right weather (it must be hot, but not too hot, very dry and not windy) came along, I suddenly had the urge, along with the curiosity to see if I could still do it, to try.
So I climbed up onto the roof with a pail of tar and a brush, and began. In the end, even enjoyed it! Over two half days, I applied a fresh coat of tar to the iron panels, some of which were showing signs of rust. It was solid work that made me feel good.
Another big job was to shift a load of logs left down by the road up to the house, where they had to be cut, chopped and stacked for winter firewood. Then I had to go down to the village centre and get five more vanloads.
Then one of the rubber rollers came off the small carrier that I use to bring loads up to my mountain home (it's driven by a four-stroke engine and has caterpillar-like roller wheels). With Tim's help I put it back on, but then it came off again and latter snapped. While bringing the disabled machine down the slope to the road, the other roller came off. Somehow I managed to get the carrier safely into the communal car park, where it will stay until I find can find some cheap replacement tyres.
A couple of days ago I watched an eighty-year-old man down at the village woodpile, getting logs. The man, who could hardly walk, was with his daughter and, as I knew both him and her, I asked the woman what was the matter with her father. She said he had a hernia that had affected mobility in his right leg. Then earlier this year he had suffered an impact fracture of a vertebra in his back, and that had weakened his left leg.
When I wondered aloud if he should you really be doing heavy work less than four months after breaking a vertebra, she said:
- I've told him the same thing myself, but he refuses to listen.
Yes, I know the man's feeling. If you're not moving, you're not living.
At some point being in the mind isn't enough. It's like sitting at a desk.
If anxiety stops you from sleeping, don't just lie there. Get up and do something - wash the dishes, make bread, tidy the room. Soon your problem no longer seems important. You've discovered that it wasn't a really a problem at all.
Occasionally I wonder what I will do when age no longer allows me to carry out the physical work that has become so much part of my life in Kamasawa. With a loss of mobility, willl I lose contact with reality? I have to find some strategy to prevent that happening to me.
The only thing that the following comic haibun, written many years ago after a drunken evening with a friend in Kyoto, has with Mishima's tetralogy Sea of Fertility, which I've recently been rereading, this time in Japanese, is that they both end in an encounter with the aged abbess of a Buddhist temple. However, the real inspiration for this irreverent little tale comes from a meeting between poets Allen Ginsburg and Guiseppe Ungaretti https://allenginsberg.org/2012/06/giuseppe-ungaretti-1888-1970/
a tinge of incense
the undergarments of an old nun
How I came to find myself beneath the Buddhist robes of the famed Setouchi Jakucho is a long story. I had embarked on a campaign to raise money for a literary magazine founded to publicize the work of struggling poets that was now struggling itself. More specifically, I was looking for famous figures who would donate a few hairs from private places for public auction to support their unknown and unsung brothers and sisters.
- What the fuck is a pubic auction?
- A pubic auction is when the auctioneer uses his prick instead of a gavel.
Has there ever been such an event? Probably not. So, whom could I approach? A Kyoto friend suggested the bald Japan-based travel writer Pico Iyer, who was quick to respond with a surprisingly glossy black item of incredible length. The Nagano naturalist and Celtic poet C.W. Nickel was less forthcoming, but eventually conceded a grizzled hair from his pepper-and-salt beard.
Donald Keene was another from whom I had hoped for something. But, his 'son' refused my request point blank.
- If Donald K won't, how about the other Donald? I thought.
Donald Ritchie had died several years before, but I had a plan. Ritchie's estate was contested by three former lovers, and while the legal process inched its way towards a ruling his Japanese-style mansion in central Tokyo's Roppongi lay untouched. Surely, if one snuck in, there were random hairs to be found lying around on the tatami, in the plug hole of the ofuro...?
Then came the ladies:
These grand dames were also on my list. Postmenopausal pussy. I admit a fascination. An old man going after even older women. What's wrong with that?
It was only when my Kyoto friend mentioned the name of Setouchi Jakucho that I realized my omission. Now in her nineties, the venerable priestess of the Tendai sect had said that human weakness was a fertile ground for sainthood... Surely there was a chance that my quirky request would resonate with her media-savvy, touchy-feely brand of avant-garde eco-Buddhism?
The interview took place on one of those gorgeously clear late November days.
There was a breeze blowing through the bamboo grove that knocked together the tops of the trees.
the bamboos make
The precincts of the small temple were immaculately clean. I made my way across the raked gravel to the entrance of the abbess's cottage. The sliding door had been left open a few centimeters - the sign that I was expected and welcome.
Ushered into her study by a female acolyte, I discovered myself face-to-face with the great woman. She smiled, before launching into a long monologue about herself, her beliefs, her various illnesses. Jesus, what a chatterbox! I sat listening. I was both bored and fascinated by this manifestation of human ego.
Then she wanted to know all about me. So I began talking, and this time she listened. Very intently, keeping me in her gaze and occasionally nodding sympathetically.
At least an hour had passed when at last I found an opportunity to mention the literary magazine and its financial problems. The delicate request that I then made seemed to surprise her. Had she not been told? More probably she had forgotten. But, picking up the bell on her desk, she rang for an assistant, said something that I was unable to hear, and the next minute two young women appeared at her door with a large chair, which they brought in through the narrow opening, and then, making a space, placed in the middle of the room.
Jakucho somehow levered her decrepit body up from the tatami and approached the ornate wooden chair, where, clinging to its armrests, she settled herself onto the purple cushion. Thus seated, she smiled, opened her robes and motioned me under.
The silence of the curtained hall in which I found myself contrasted starkly with the hitherto garrulous abbess's room. I was between two marble pillars - her legs. Only the toes of her feet touched the tatami mats, but perfectly balanced. The incense of her robes mixed with the smells of the human body. When I reached up with my tongue, I tasted ammonia. But, to my disappointment, there were only three straggly hairs around the lips of the orifice.
Having partaken in communion, though, I was happy to forgo my quest.
the Christian Trinity
is worshipped here too
A SERIAL WOMANISER
...one deep yearning of our lives: to let everybody consider us great sinners Milan Kundera
What do I want to be remembered as? With
the advance of age and gradual ebb of the life force it's a question that I sometimes ask myself.
- A serial womaniser?
Here are two possibilities, both of which I would actually find quite attractive.
But let me explain.
The first I came across in a recent newspaper article on the late U.S. novelist John Steinbeck. In a long interview that his second wife had given to a British hack back in the 1970s, Steinbeck was apparently accused of being "a serial womaniser". I can think of far worse things to be called by an embittered ex-wife. Moreover, being raised in a society whose values were once based on chivalry, not to mention worship of the White Goddess, a man could hardly avoid not falling into the trap of defining his life quest as to be successful with women. According to medieval knights and Renaissance courtiers, union with the perfect woman, was what gave life its ultimate meaning.
So, regardless of whether or not he ultimately reaches his goal, someone who has been called "a serial womaniser" was obviously trying hard. Despite the negative light in which it may be seen today, I feel that to be remembered as such would actually be okay. And there is another reason - it's something that I've never achieved myself. In fact, I'm light years away from it. So, the irony of it also appeals. I mean, I was once called "a bit of a charmer", but never ever "a womaniser", let alone "a serial womaniser".
As we all know, it is appearance, rather than reality, that drives most social interaction. People hold their opinions, people act, not on the basis of how they really feel, but on the basis of how they want people to see them. When one understands and accepts this, one can appreciate the delicious irony of existence. If you get this, you experience life in a deeper way. Remember: appearance is never reality.
So I will be happy to be remembered as "a serial womaniser". In fact, if you want, you can even carve it on my gravestone.
The second way by which I would be happy to be remembered is as a "優秀な酔っ払い". For those of you that don't read Japanese, a good translation would be "a smart drunk". To tell you the truth, I was called this a couple of weeks ago. It's not really necessary to detail the circumstances other than to say that I'd been drinking with friends down in the village all afternoon and by the early evening I was too inebriate and too tired to make it up the hill back to my house. So I just sort of went to sleep where I was and when I woke up an hour or two later finished the journey home.
Being "a smart drunk" is cool because it means that I'm not "a dumb drunk", and that's why I think I like it. The other thing is that, like "a serial womaniser", it's not true. These days, for reasons of economy, I've stopped drinking pretty much, the only alcohol I take being the odd glass of sake with a meal. However, once or twice a year, I do feel some sort of need to get legless. A touch of madness, maybe, but wasn't this was quite acceptable to the Greeks and Romans, before the Christian moralists came along?
"a smart drunk" too is fine. But I would like to draw the line at
carving both "a smart drunk" and "a serial womaniser" on my
gravestone. That, I feel, would be a little too much. You see, irony is subtle.
If it's overdone it dies. And there will only be room for one of us down there.
keep the thrills in the freezer
away from the sun and hot attention of scandal seekers
delicate flavours melt on lips
but the excitement is low key
no decisions taken
the game plays out
in fleeting encounters
and solitary moments.
the possibility of action:
a distant sound
on a sultry afternoon
LOVE ME, LOVE MY HOUSE
The fifth Hara Project kabuki show at Saimontei, the little theatre that my house turns into once or twice every year, recently ended.
Actor-director Hara Tomohiko and I both thought it was one of our best. In fact, the productions, which usually take place on a weekend towards the end of the rainy season in mid-July, have all been good.
The idea that I should make my home into a performing arts space came to me on a trip to Europe back in the winter of 2015. I was reaching the end of a holiday in Naples that had included in stays in a fifteenth-century villa above the poor but vibrant shitamachi quarter of Rione Sanità, as well as in an apartment on the smart Mergellina seafront. I had enjoyed the ambiance of this southern Italian city, along with its culture, history and magical landscapes. In fact, I didn't really feel like returning to Japan at all. Japan was still the place where I wanted to live, but culturally modern Japan, with its anime, manga and game culture, didn't have much appeal.
So what do I like about Japan? I love my house, Japanese food, I like the culture from the Heian period up to the end of the Tokugawa/Edo era. I like Meiji and Taisho authors too, because although they were coming under the influence of Western literature and philosophy, they are still deeply rooted in their own Asian culture.
Anyway, there, in Naples, I came to the conclusion that I would try to rediscover my love of Japanese culture.
A few years before, in Nagoya, I had been taken to see Obasute, a play based on a novella by Fukuzawa Shichirō. It was about a man taking his aged mother to the mountains to die and I remember thinking how well the production worked.
I also thought how good it would look staged in my own village of Oshika-mura, where there were real mountains, traditional houses and people with a gentle but stoic view of life and death.
So, to cut a long story short, I invited Hara-san to bring his production of Obasute to Oshika-mura. That was in the summer of 2015. One rainy weekend, his staff built a stage in my garden for the performance. However, ultimately, the weather forced us to move the play inside and, this interior venue turned out to be so good that during the succeeding years that's where it stayed, even when the weather was fine. And the outdoor stage became a terrace where we would eat our communal meals.
For me, turning the inside of my house into a theatre is a very satisfying challenge. As I said before, the love affair that I have developed with this house has become central to my life. Relationships become boring when a routine develops. Life must be dynamic and never taken for granted. That's why I like to try new things. In a Japanese house, where paper doors replace walls, space is fluid. And this hasn't come about by accident. If you go back to the fifteenth-century, you also see the beginnings of Zen gardens and the Noh drama. It was a golden age, inspired by a particular Buddhist philosophy of life.
Anyway, in the week preceding the arrival of Hara-san and his troupe, I reduce my home's interior to its essential simplicity. Ornaments are cleared from tabletops and, along with other stuff, thrown into boxes. Fusuma and shōji are removed and stacked in one of the back rooms. Eventually, even the large glass windows will be taken out and placed carefully in front of my earthen-walled storehouse. What remains is a mini-version of the Kyoto temple Kenninji, the first place I visited that turned me on to the splendid emptiness and wonderful materials of traditional building.
The house is completely open, with just the pillars holding up the roof. From the wooden boards of the engawa, you walk straight onto the tatami mats of the living room.
I try to make a mental note of where my possessions have been relocated, of the places to which the objects big and small must be returned. But, my brain becomes overcrowded with details and so in the end I give up. From my experience of past Saimontei weekends, I know that everything will eventually turn up, though it could take weeks, even months.
Here there is also an interesting rule of life in play. It's the question of the balance between order and chaos, where order means efficiency and clear thinking, while chaos offers a view into the unknown: the possibility of creativity.
It's Saturday, and the day on which the members of Hara Project will arrive. We have two shows scheduled - one on Saturday evening beginning at seven and the other on Sunday at two in the afternoon. Icchan is already here. She made the long journey from Iwate to do her comic skit, which closes the show. Just before midday the main party of six arrive in cars with numerous boxes of props and equipment. These all have to be carried up the steep path to my mountain home. But this being the fifth time we've done it, everything goes smoothly.
In a little over thirty minutes all the stuff is sitting on the tatami waiting to be unpacked and turned into the set for a medieval dance drama set in the lonely countryside of Fukushima.
Hara-san always brings a clear mental plan of what he wants, and before long, everyone is following his instructions, putting up curtains, erecting a dais for the biwa player, even going out to cut bamboo that will be used to turn the room next to the kitchen into a bamboo forest. I myself am frequently called upon to dig up search out props - this year some shōji doors with coloured patterns that I created for fun one rainy afternoon become the doors of a lone woman's hut.
I watch with a mixture of a fascination and foreboding as these outsiders take over my house, sometimes asking, sometimes not, as they rearrange almost everything in super-fast time.
In the theatre world the customs of normal life don't apply. Common sense is suspended. No wonder that actors and entertainers have long been regarded with suspicion by those in power. At best they are irrelevant, at worst, a threat to the smooth running of society.
Back in the early eighteenth century, a high-ranking female officer from the part of Edo castle inhabited by the shogun's wives and concubines was discovered to have attended a kabuki performance and had dinner with one of the actors. The subsequent scandal resulted in the male actor being exiled to a distant island, while the poor woman was confined to a wooden cage for several years in the countryside of a small castle town quite near to my own village. It is known as the Ejima-Ikushima affair, and offers a good insight into the attitude of the then rulers to the entertainment world.
Theatre seems to be another subtle combination of order and chaos. Rehearsing for the performance requires a lot of hard and methodical work, which can be repetitive and tedious. However, ultimately, no matter how well an actor has learned his or her part, when he steps onto the stage, he must let go, improvise. Performance is a fresh and authentic reaction to a specific moment. It's a kind of Zen, which teaches that every instant of every life is unique. And, one should also add that, the less you try to control it, the better you are likely to be.
Appearing on stage - even for someone like me, who only does the preliminary announcements - brings all this home.
This weekend the Saimontei program comprises four parts. The main item involves Hara-san, supported by Isowa Maho and Kato Kei, appearing as a woman whose karma - the experiences of her life and her reaction to them - has turned her into an embittered and aggressive old hag - a demon. It is the kind of folk story that psychologists like Jung and Joseph Campbell have written about - a myth to live by, a way of passing on wisdom by suggestion rather than rules or commands.
Seeing Hara-san on stage again I am reminded of how good a performer he is. His skills range from Kabuki and Noh to avant-garde and even Gilbert and Sullivan operettas! At seventy-three, he's the consummate performer. In the thirty-minute tour de force he plays a frail old woman who lets a travelling Buddhist priest stay in her mountain hovel before changing into a hate-spewing demon after realising that he has betrayed her confidence by venturing into a secret room. The demon jumps in rage, grimaces and threatens to devour the priest. But, though surreal and shocking, this is not a horror show. What we are watching is frustration and bitterness in an extreme form, the peeling back of a psychological skin to reveal the destructive instincts that we all possess.
Later, Hara-san talks about his preparation - not just his study of the onibaba myth, but also his interest in the psychology of onryō (vengeful spirits) as found in the eleventh-century Tale of Genji. Our conversation turns to the human psyche, with its many layers, where all sorts of negative emotions and inner devils dwell.
The program is completed with a separate recitation by the biwa player, a hilarious comic performance and a dance piece that I and a couple of friends quickly put together using the old piano in my house. The music that I chose was composer John Cage's In a Landscape.
It's fun watching the same program twice - once at night with spotlights and candles and the other in the daylight. Though not large, the audience is attentive and appreciative. But what are they all thinking?
Working closely with others, you can achieve so much! During the weekend I am reminded of this and, conversely, how little we can ever know of each other. Being human is to live in a world of illusion. After the evening performance there is a party, with drinking and dancing, that goes on until midnight. After three or so hours of sleep I wake up with a strange little voice that tells me in a matter-of-fact way
- Nothing humans do will ever amount to anything.
I nod, and go back to sleep.
Later, with the new day beginning, I'm the first one up. Out in the garden, taking a piss, I hear the voice again (or is it a different voice?).
- Your human brain can never grasp the nature of reality.
That's not telling me anything that I didn't already know. But, what smartass little demon deep in my own psyche is suddenly feeling the need to reeducate me? And why?
It's a mystery hinging on the moment, but soon disappears.
I shake my head.
There is nothing to do but go into the kitchen to wash last night's dishes and get myself a coffee.
A MATTER OF CULTURE
Once in a while an English musician whose elder sister I used to go to school with gets me a ticket for a classical concert that he is conducting. This year I had the opportunity to hear him do Elgar's First Symphony. The same weekend it also happened that my old Nagoya friend Hara-san who every year brings his theatre troupe to perform at my house was doing a show on an outdoor stage in a town nearby. So I decided I would combine the two and have a cultural weekend.
But things didn't get off to a good start. As I was walking down to my van I bumped into F., the Japanese guy who sold me my house and still owns lots of forest around it. He is what Japanese call kimuzukashii hito - a somewhat difficult person. And I knew, because I'd already heard it from someone, that F. had some a bee in his bonnet about an old cherry tree that I had had cut down. Here I should say that, for my sins, I'm now in charge of our local shrine. In Japanese my official title is ujikosōdaichō ('parishioners' head representative'). In short, I'm responsible for its upkeep, which isn't a particularly big job, but there is the grave of an imperial prince in the grounds, etc, etc. So I have to make sure that the place is in a reasonably good condition. Any damage occurring to the buildings would be a complete pain because I would have to go cap in hand to collect money to pay for the repairs.
But, to make a long story short, I had cut down this old lichen-encrusted cherry tree whose branches overhung the shrine roof because I could see that one day a strong wind or a heavy fall of wet spring snow would snap off a bow and send it crashing onto the roof. Unfortunately, for F. the tree had a lot of sentimental value, of which I honestly had had no idea. F. doesn't live in the village anymore, but still comes to look after his forests. So when he saw what I had done he was mad about it. I guess I can understand why. Still, he was the only one, and, what's more, he didn't live here anymore, so, strictly speaking, he didn't really have any say in the matter. At least, that was how I looked at it. Not to mention, I was a little irritated myself because, having gone to all the trouble of making the shrine safe, I was now getting attacked for it.
This is a really common human situation. Someone does something for what he or she thinks is the public good, for absolutely no personal gain, only to find themselves totally misunderstood.
So F. and I had this long exchange, neither of us really acknowledging the other's position - hey, that's how we humans are - at the end of which he accused me of deciding things 'like a dictator' (here I can hear one or two family/close friends agreeing with him). But this was welcome, because it gave me the chance to end the conversation by taking the high ground, saying something like 'Well, if you really think that, it's kind of difficult to continue this...,' the implication being that he was way out of order with his exaggerated insult. But was he? Who knows?
Here, an interesting thought occurs. I saw the matter in pretty practical terms. I'd done something that I took to be within the limits of my power as head parishioner. Perhaps I had not consulted everyone. But, I was quite happy for people to discuss it, censor me and, if the worst came to the worst, I'd resign. So if it was a problem for him, he should initiate some sort of procedure in that direction. Two other Japanese I talked to, however, had suggested we placate F. by planting another cherry tree near to the one I'd cut down. My reaction had been, what use would that be? In another thirty years its branches would again be overhanging the shrine roof! What I'm saying is this: that the first thought of the two Japanese I talked to had been for F.'s wounded feelings, and their solution had been a conciliatory gesture to soothe things. In contrast, my reaction had been, while politely acknowledging F.'s dismay at the loss of the tree, to consider the matter in purely practical terms.
So, am I a typical Westerner lacking empathy? Is this a difference of culture? A difference of approach based on the cultural assumptions that influenced the way my English parents raised me? And why hadn't I thought of consulting a tree doctor?
So, the cultural weekend begins on a low note, but with plenty of gritty questions to ruminate on as I drive down to Toyota. Even though it's the rainy season, the weather is not at all bad, and the sun sometimes manages to peep out through the generally benign but dense cloud cover.
After just under three hours I cross the modernistic bridge next to the equally modernistic Toyota Stadium. I find a super-cheap parking lot (only 900 yen for up to 24 hours, yippee!), Then make for the station, from where I take a train for Fushimi.
It's nice to walk along this wide main street in the very heart of Nagoya, and after meeting a friend at her hotel, I'm sitting at a table outside a Starbucks coffee shop listening to what's happening to her aged mother in a care home where she'd rather not be, as well as the progress that her adult children are making in the world and the interesting things that her busy husband's doing (he's the musician). She also tells me about her experiences as an airB&B host and other helpful stuff. And it's fun speaking English to a native Englander, both of us in absolute and unconscious control of our syntax and expression, never having to worry about the other not understanding what you're saying. If you have ever lived abroad you will know what I mean.
After Starbucks we head to the concert, pick up the tickets, which turn out to be the best seats in the hall. Marvellous. First on the program is 'Glorious Clouds', a new work by a London-based Japanese composer, which, contrary to what I had anticipated, is great to listen to, as well as to see in performance. It is followed by a youthful Turkish pianist playing Mendelssohn's Fourth Piano Concerto, but to me the encore - 'Black Earth', a powerful composition by Fazil Say - is much more impressive. Quite different to the usual meringue served up as encores. Last item on the program is the Elgar, a piece of music that I know and love, but have never heard in the concert hall. As usual I enjoy watching the orchestra play their hearts out while magician MB waves his wand and pulls musical rabbits out of the hat.
Afterwards we go backstage to meet the conductor. The Japanese composer is also there, and we talk about his piece, and, more specifically, its title, which had seriously bothered me when I had seen it translated in the program as Gurōriasu Kurauzu.
- Couldn't you have found a couple of kanji for the Japanese title? I ask.
- Can you suggest anything? he responds.
Actually, in some moments during the concert, I had already been trying to do this, but only succeeded in coming up with 凛,a strange kanji that I'd spotted on a decorative manhole cover in the Shizuoka city of Numazu. I wasn't altogether sure of its meaning, but the composer tells me that it suits the Elgar more than his piece.
Later, on the subject of clouds, merveilleux nuages floats into my head from somewhere. It's French and comes from a mysterious little poem by Baudelaire. This sounds better than 'glorious clouds'. However, a Japanese translation continues to elude me. I wonder, do Western poets see clouds where Japanese ones would just see the sky. I mean - and this could be one of those glib and clichéd comparative cultural explanations - are we Westerners prone to focus more on the parts than on the whole? Well, perhaps so, that is, until the Impressionists came along... who, of course, were themselves big fans of Japanese art? So, 'clouds' is fine in English, as is 'nuages' in French. But, in Japanese perhaps 'clouds' should just be 'sky'. So that's what I'm working on now. The exact phrase hasn't come yet, but I think it will.
The train ride back to Toyota is, in a word, depressing. I mean, is there anything more depressing than riding a Nagoya commuter train? I guess the answer to that is, yes, riding a Tokyo commuter train. As usual, I am subjected to the 'empty seat' ignomy, in which the seat next to the gaijin is always the last one to be occupied. Finally, some brave soul decides to take it. But then, when another seat becomes available quickly changes to that. When it comes to this sort of behaviour, I hate the Japanese.
Predictably, it's raining as the train pulls into Toyota. I'm eager to escape from the humans, and have been wondering whether it would be feasible to find a bench somewhere on the spacious riverside park by the stadium where I could lay out my sleeping bag and get some rest, soothed by the soundscape of the singing water. But the rain makes this impossible, so I jump into the van and head out through the urban sprawl in the direction of rural Asuke, where Hara-san and his troupe will be rehearsing their play tomorrow.
Just twenty minutes from the centre of Toyota, I'm in the countryside, having located a quiet cul-de-sac in an area of farming land and forest. The river is too far away to hear, but in its place, there is a chorus of frogs in the paddy fields. It's already after midnight, so by the time I put down my futon, merciful sleep is immediate.
When I wake up at five, it's already light. The rain has turned to soft drizzle. I can now see that my instinct for finding hideaways was pretty perfect. The existence of a nearby hunters' trap shows me that I'm far more likely to meet wild boar and other animals here than humans. Of course, a human will periodically come to check the water level in the paddies and, if necessary, open the pipe to supplement it. But, because of yesterday's rain, it's almost certain that he won't come today. This fact of being able to count on being alone is somehow so deliciously pleasing.
So, I boil up some water in a pot on my tiny camping stove, and enjoy a bliss-filled cup of tea. Ha, ha. Could those clouds also be bliss-filled? Perhaps this would work even in Japanese?
I need a few hours to recover from the temporary psychosis induced by last night's train ride, and do so by dozing and reading, while looking out onto the misty landscape.
It's ten o'clock and I need a cup of coffee. As I don't have any in my meagre supplies there is only one choice: konbini. At the risk of wrecking my equanimity I head to a convenience store on the outskirts of Asuke. Actually, it's okay. I thank God that, despite its geographical proximity, little Asuke is a different world to Nagoya or Toyota.
Hara-san and his crew won't be around until the afternoon, so I have the morning to explore. It's something that I've been meaning to do for a while. Ever since I began recording conversations with old people living in my southern Nagano village of Oshika, I have slowly come to realize the deep historical link that we have to the communities of northern Aichi. In other words, southern Shinshu (the old term for the province) and northern Mikawa (likewise, the old name for Aichi) form a kind of bioregion.
It turns out that, like Oshika, from where the 14th-century imperial prince Munenaga Shinnō unsuccessfully battled his northern rivals for close to half a century, the town of Asuke was initially on the side of Go-Daigo, the prince's father. However, when the latter was forced to flee Kyoto and set up his southern court in the mountains of Yoshino, Lord Asuke (the town is named after him) was arrested by allies of the northern court and beheaded. According to one person I met there, the members of the Asuke's extended family all fled. Apparently no one living in the town today bears the name. Where did they go? Many of them settled in Shinshu. Actually we have a family here in Oshika by the name of Asuke. Both husband and wife work in the village office.
The drizzle of the early morning has stopped and there is even the sign of sunshine as I drive south from Asuke through the mountains to a settlement called Matsudaira. This is a famous name in history, being that of the family from which the great shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu originated. It was Ieyasu who built and ruled from Edo Castle - the present Imperial Palace.
Matsudaira Tōshōgū is a shrine dedicated to Ieyasu's ancestors, the greatest of whom was Matsudaira Chikauji. Today, the shrine along with a beautiful Buddhist temple endowed by the family are open to the public. But it's a low-key tourist spot. The day I visit is a Saturday, but at the small museum I am the only visitor. Clad in training pants with a go-fast stripe and a sweater with silver lettering, the elderly female curator patiently explains how the ambitious Chikauji slowly began the family's rise to power.
Here again there is a link to my own village of Oshika. Matsushita Koto, the late wife in a local landowning family, claimed to belong to the clan. When I interviewed her back in the 1990s she insisted that the original family name was Matsudaira, and that her ancestors had come from that area. You can find the full interview in the 'Villagers' secton of this website under the heading 'M.K.' In it she mentions the invitation that she received to a big ceremony commemorating the 600th anniversary of Chikauji's death. In the museum I find photographs and explanations of this very event.
The Matsudaira temple is called Kōgetsuin, and I think it belongs to the Buddhist Pure Land sect. Its location at the top of the valley is superb, as is the minimalist, beautifully designed garden and the temple architecture. In the mountain by the temple the grave of the great Chikauji is marked by a small hōkyointō pagoda-shaped stone that is exactly the same style as the grave of Munenaga Shinnō in our own local shrine. Though I have never heard of any meeting, these two figures were contemporaries.
Between the Tōshōgū shrine and the Kōgetsuin temple there is a delightful garden running by the stream, along with a small restaurant in traditional style. We live in an age of mass-tourism, but this place matches the peaceful ambience of those that I visited back in the 1970s, when I first came to Japan and made numerous trips all over the country.
Anyway, as I stood on the stone steps of Kōgetsuin, gazing down the small valley of modest buildings and monuments (they were arranged in a pleasing sort of feng shui way), I compared this scene to the magnificent grounds and massive stone walls of today's Imperial Palace in Tokyo. History is, at times, fascinating.
I drove back to Asuka through often remote mountains and valleys. With the town so close to Nagoya, I hadn't expected this. The mountains are nowhere near as high as Oshika, but the feel of life here is quite similar.
Hōeiza is a 19th-century wooden stage located at the foot of the shrine in one such mountain community. In traditional style, the stage, which can be manually revolved, is housed in a building that also includes dressing rooms and other essential spaces for props. The audience sits outside in the open under the glorious clouds.
When I arrive there at around three in the afternoon, a dress rehearsal for the show the next day is beginning. Good timing. Apart from me, there are only a camerawoman making a video and a man taking photos. On stage Hara-san is playing the part of an old, seemingly harmless, woman who will later show her true self as a bitter and vengeful demon. It's a play that he is going to do again at my house in a couple of weeks' time.
The next piece is a comic sword-swinging romp that immediately lightens the atmosphere. Later I greet some of the performers and catch up on what they've been doing since I last saw them, as well as making a few mutual arrangements with Hara-san for the Saimontei performances.
The day before I'd been backstage as the musicians of the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra prepared for the concert, and later afterwards as they chatted and made for home. Now, here again I sense the unique esprit de corps of the performing world. But these are part-timers - shy exhibitionists, outsiders like me... What do we have in common? Well, we're all trying to express some essential truth - and it doesn't need to be deep - about being alive. For each of us this is going to be a little different, but what is the same is the frustrations we feel when we fail to get our message across, along with that of joy and contentment when we succeed.
It is a beautiful sunny late afternoon. I had originally intended to stay another night and watch tomorrow's performance, but it has been such a perfect two days that I decide there and then to end on a high note and to head back to Oshika.
It was getting dark as I stopped at a roadside rest area to buy some cheese and tomatoes for a snack. Later, a bit further down the road, I found myself too tired to continue, so lay down on the mattress in the back of the van and tried to sleep. When I awoke just after nine, I reckoned that I had just about enough energy to make it home. So that's what I did, and was back in the cool of the Oshika mountains a little before eleven.
Note: See PHOTOS for the pics
WILD SWIMMING 2
I made a fourth visit to my mountain bathing spot and another discovery! The leafy bed belongs not to a bear, but to a wild boar.
On my way down to the river this time I noted that the bed had recently been used. There were also fresh animal footprints in the sand along the river where I took my swim. Later, when I ascended the bank to begin the long walk back to my car I observed something moving in the nearby trees. I proceeded slowly, not wanting to surprise whatever it was, but as I passed by the animal came out. For a couple of seconds we looked at each other, but then it turned and loped off in the direction of the river. It was a smallish male wild boar - judging by its size it would have fitted the bed perfectly.
Anyway, that's nice to know. I think that I'm less likely to be attacked by a boar than by a bear. In addition to the two deer skulls and horns that I found in the forest, there were also a couple of boar skulls. There really are a lot of animals there.
I also got thinking of the walnut shells on the rock by the boar's bed. I wonder if the squirrel that left them there and the boar are friends? How delightful it would be if they were! I've been trying to imagine some of the conversations they might have:
Squee: Bo, old boy, you can't spend all day in bed. Rise and shine! It's a lovely day. Come on, get up. Get up!
Squee: Time for breakfast, time for your morning cup of tea!
Bo: Please, Squee. You should know that I'm a nocturnal creature - I've just gone to bed! You can wake me up mid-afternoon for my daily walk by the river.
Squee: Did you see that the human has been around again. Why can't they leave us in peace?!
Bo: Indeed. Disgusting creatures! I've watched him from afar swimming in the river. You wouldn't believe how ugly humans' bodies are, and all the fuss they make over a little bit of cold water. I've never seen anything like it. 'Argh! Eeeh! No! Oh!' It's pathetic. As far as I'm concerned, the sooner we see the end of the human race, the better!
Squee: You've got a point there, Bo.
Bo: Must remember to send in my contribution to Trump's re-election campaign. His policies are definitely getting us there.
Squee: And don't forget Bojo, Bo, in the UK. He's another make-it-up-as-you-go-along man.
Bo: Good thinking, Squee. Yes, let's encourage them to seminate their chaos. And - who knows? - it could be sooner rather than later that we get the forest and the river back to ourselves! But now, it's time for sleep!
Squee: Okay, Bo, sweet dreams. See you in this afternoon!
(to be continued)
time, who can return it? Who can give me back those seasons of glass and sand?
That morning I'd been dissecting the lyrics of 'La Lettera', a song by Francesco Guccini written to honour two recently deceased friends. As he put it, he had had the impulse to write something that would fix his affection for them without recourse to rhetoric or sentimentality. It's an interesting song in which he uses the deaths of his two friends to lightly approach a couple of existential philosophic questions.
Anyway, it was a coincidence that, later in the day, I received a call telling me that someone who, while not being a close friend, I'd known for over thirty years and kept in intermittent touch with was dead.
- The funeral is tomorrow, she said, but I and a couple of others would like to see K before he's cremated, so we are going today.
I too had a feeling that I wanted to do something to mark K's life, so offered to drive them - an offer that was immediately accepted.
To tell you the truth, these days, I see funerals as both an occasion to say goodbye to friends and a chance to gain insight into something that will eventually - the older I get the closer it comes - happen to me.
I remember going to a ceremony - attended by just a few people - soon after the writer S died. When I visited him during his illness, which lasted for nearly two years, he would encourage me to massage his thin and weak body. But, despite his ninety-two years, his paralysed body still felt quite vibrant. I even detected an unexpected sexual attraction.
After his death, however, when I touched his head, there was absolutely no life there at all. It was like a stone. Sure, it was still his body, but there was no connection to the man who'd lived in it.
Now I'll talk about my experience in the case of my friend K, the man whom we visited. He had died at home and was lying in bed. The yellow skin of his face looked as if it were wax. Here too his flesh and bones now seemed to have little in common with the man whom they had once defined.
Incidentally, I don't believe in the separation of body and spirit. I don't believe in a soul that lives on. The physical sensations that my own body gives me are central to my life. Sometimes they seem the most important part of it. But when life ends, something departs. What is it? Or perhaps the question is, can we satisfactorily put into words what happens?
I know it's a question that I will never answer. Still one has to go on asking it.
K's funeral turned out to be a beautiful occasion. It was a fine June day and the garden of his home was full of colour. The room in which he lay was bedecked with flowers, and there were tables full of food and drink. There were no sutras or prayers - just a couple of songs, sung by Bob, a musician who came with us. So we gave thanks for K's life, and accepted the inevitable mystery. During the day we also enjoyed each other's company and took a little more courage for our own individual fates.
River swimming in Oshika is the most glorious enjoyment of the summer for a tiny minority of the population (perhaps only me...). Anyway, the swimming season is here again. I took my first dip yesterday, and, although the water seemed a little cold, once I had made the plunge it was pure heaven.
No two days or weeks or seasons of our short lives should ever be the same. So, each year, when the spring comes and the warm weather beckons, I begin looking for new places to swim.
Up to now. I'd always taken my car to the river and started from there. However, earlier this year, it struck me that I ought to explore the forested sides of the valley through which the river runs. They're quite steep, so one has to be careful. Some parts are overgrown with bamboo, for which you'll need a hatchet to hack a way through. After I disturbed a bear there one time, I began to realize that here was an animal paradise where the only humans you would ever see were the odd fisherman or two down by near the river.
Anyway, after a couple of afternoon trips to explore the area I decided on a rough itinerary for the swimming season. I say 'season', as if it's got a beginning and an end, which I suppose it has, but it only begins on the day that feels right for me - when the condition of my body tells me to go for it. It may not necessarily even be a hot day, it's all about feeling. And, this year, that day was yesterday!
The starting point is pretty close to Kamasawa, the place where I live. It's just a five-minute drive on the Goshodaira road. I leave my car parked on a tiny piece of grass above the forest and set off down the mountain towards the river. The last time I came was the time that I surprised a bear eating bamboo shoots. So today I'll take the path that I used on my first visit, with a small diversion to avoid a dangerous piece of steep slope.
Near the road I pass a rusted bear trap that probably hasn't been used in decades, then negotiate a tangled thicket of bamboo, most of which have collapsed, and are lying horizontally, blocking the way. Somehow I get through. Now I'm into the open forest.
Soon I arrive at a flat, grassy clearing. I can hear the river at the bottom of the valley. It feels good to be this deep in nature so soon. A sort of path winds down and I take that, pausing here and there at holes and rock crevices to look for evidence of animal habitation.
Then I find this
It's a bed that has been newly used - by a bear? Nearby there are walnut shells neatly laid out on the rock - I guess by a squirrel? Then I notice a deer antler among the leaves of the bed. It turns out to be the most beautiful set of stag antlers that I've ever found. Feeling a little bit like Goldilocks, I don't linger, but do accept the antlers as a gift. I'll clean them in the river, take them home and perhaps one day return them to the wild.
I arrive at the dried riverbed, wondering if I will get a glimpse of the bear. But this doesn't happen, and so my attention now moves to this year's first swim. On a previous visit I'd passed a likely looking pool, not so big, but with clear inviting water and a soft sandy bottom. The fengshui of it felt right - not cramped by other big rocks, but in its own space, about twenty meters from the trees, where one could leave one's clothes, and approach the pool across the rocky riverbed.
When it comes to river swimming, for me the approach is important. Take time to adjust your body to the water, its temperature, while enjoying the physical sensations and shocks. Here you are back in the natural world of your primeval ancestors far from civilization. We should all be able to appreciate - but how many of us can?
Sure, the water was cold, it felt a little too cold, but then it always does. Actually it wasn't too cold at all. It was just that my stupid mind was telling me so. After a good five minutes of edging my way, little by little, into deeper and deeper water, I finally swam. It was fine. Absolutely fine. In fact, I stayed in the water for around twenty minutes. I also washed the half -skull of the stag and antlers.
Having dried and dressed, I decided to walk the final stretch of riverbed and river barefoot.
Further upstream there are some beautiful little glades.
This is the spot where I finally clambered up the bank.
The rest of the walk, I guess, you could regard as part of your training, if you're into that kind of thing (which I'm not). A long service road for a nearby dam zigzags up the mountain. You could even try running it. But, at my age, a brisk walk is about the best that I can do.
Then you are at the top again, back on the Goshodaira road just below the small shrine. From there it was a short walk back to the car.
(from my diary)
When we're recording impressions, making what we believe to be accurate statements about the world around, I wonder if we are conscious enough of how our physical condition may affect the things that we are saying.
This thought came to me just recently when I was sick for several days. Fine for a few hours after waking up, I would begin to feel weak mid-morning. Despite having no appetite, I force myself to eat a bit of lunch. This, I invariably vomit later in the afternoon. I have a nap, but end up feeling no better. Determined to somehow throw off my condition by activity, I decide to take a short drive to the centre of the village to do some shopping, but this too ends badly when I get motion sickness and vomit again on the grass verge. Because I feel so rotten, the beauty of the newly planted paddy fields in the afternoon sun fails to impress. Casually encountering people I know is not the usual pleasure. I struggle back home in the car, feeling even worse than when I set out. Collapsing on the bed, I get a couple of hours sleep. When I wake up it's just getting dark, but rather than lying awake in bed, I get up and tidy the kitchen, make myself some boiled oats, to which I add milk and maple syrup. This feels more digestible than the spaghetti that ate for lunch (and later vomited). Then, after a few more I go back to bed.
It's four in the morning when I wake up, but I feel better and, as a result, the whole world suddenly is once again interesting. I get up (yeah, it's quite usual for me to go to bed before nine and get up at around four), finish washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen, then go into the garden, where the new day is breaking, to water some herbs, flowers and vegetables I recently planted. After that I tidy the other rooms of the house, have a cup of coffee with biscuits, and then wash some clothes. When the sun comes through the early morning clouds, the world looks wonderful. Once again it's good to be alive.
on sobama beach i wash away my sins in the salt water
splashing into the waves goes the sado seaweed gatherer
tired and taken by the stars i fall asleep
KAMASAWA USA HACHIMANSHA 釜沢宇佐八幡社
History books don't necessarily deal in facts. Anyone who has embarked on a project to re-create something that happened in the past from original sources will soon find out that different people see things in different ways. The Kurosawa movie Rashōmon, which is based on a short story by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, is a good example. Most historical documents are, after all, nothing more than human opinion.
When earlier this year I was asked to become the ujikosōdaichō (parishioners' head representative) of the Shintō shrine in the small community where I have lived for thirty years, I decided that it was finally time to establish some facts about the shrine.
Usa Hachimansha is in the hamlet of Kamasawa in the Shinshū village of Ōshika-mura. Located on the slopes of what are now called the South Japan Alps (although I prefer to use the older term Akaishi Sanmyaku), Kamasawa is definitely what Japanese TV likes to refer to as hikyō, one of those incredibly secluded places, so far out of the way that you'd be forgiven for not knowing that it even existed. In its heyday, there were just under thirty households, but now we're down to nine. Still, it's a great place to live, and we residents are proud of belonging here.
Apart from its amazingly beautiful environment, Kamasawa (by the way, it's pronounced Kamassā) could be regarded as a special place because of Usa Hachimansha, whose grounds contain a stone monument that once marked the grave of Prince Munenaga, a fourteenth-century member of the Imperial family, who during his long life was the chief priest of the famous Tendai Buddhist temple of Enryakuji and the editor of the Shinyō Wakashū, the last imperial collection of poetry, as well as being a samurai general attached to the ultimately unsuccessful Southern court of the Emperor Go-Daigō in the Nanboku Civil War. Kamasawa was one of his bases during that long conflict.
The first unusual thing about the Usa Hachimansha shrine is its name. Hachiman is a Shintō god associated with the spirit of the third-century Emperor Ōjin, a deity that became popular with the samurai. There are thousands of Hachiman shrines all over Japan. For example, the Tsuruoka Hachimangu shrine in Kamakura has a famous festival in which samurai archers shoot their arrows at the target while mounted on galloping horses. In the case of Kamasawa's Usa Hachimansha shrine, 'Usa' refers to an area in Kyūshū that has the nation's oldest Hachiman shrine, dating back to the eighth century. So, why does a small shrine in the mountains of central Japan bear the name of a shrine in the far-off southern island of Kyūshū? The only explanation that I have heard for this is that it was founded by descendents of the Heike clan who had escaped to the southern island following their defeat by the Minamoto in the twelfth-century Genpei War. Incidentally, there is a Heike hamlet in the mountains of a village adjacent to Ōshika. So it is quite possible that descendents of the defeated clan found their way to Ōshika too. But there is absolutely no historical proof of this.
Every Shintō shrine possesses shinzō, sacred images of its kami. But, from a historical point of view, investigation is practically impossible. This is because these images are located in closed boxes standing on the altar of the inner shrine, and the only person who is allowed to open these is a Shintō priest.
Today there are five boxes standing on the altar of Kamasawa's Usa Hachimansha shrine, and I can confirm that they contain the following images:
Box 1: Karasu-Tengū This is an image from the old Sanshōbō shrine that once stood between the rice fields on a flat piece of land at the junction of the Ogōuchi and Koshibu rivers. The shrine existed until 1946, when it was decommissioned and demolished in the general disillusionment with traditional Japanese culture that occurred at the end of World War II. As heard from a contemporary villager, the official reason was that it would be a burden for a small community to have to maintain two shrines. Some other time I will have more to say on this Sanshōbō shrine, which in its day was once quite famous. Pilgrims traveling the highway passing through the village that leads to the great Akiha shrine in Shizuoka would often make a detour to worship at this small mountain shrine. It was also an important place for Buddhist priests known as shugendō, en route to or from ascetic practices in the nearby mountains. For those confused as to why a Buddhist would worship at a Shintō shrine, just let me say that this duality has never been a problem for Japanese. As belief systems, Shintō and Buddhism complement each other, in the same way that we humans experience the mystery of nature in an idealistic way, while making practical moral choices that affect the quality of our own lives and those of others.
Box 2: Koyasu-sama. This is the god of childbirth and child-raising. Although more commonly known as Koyasu Kannon - a Buddhist bodhisattava - there are plenty of Koyasu-sama Shinto shrines too. Belief in Koyasu-sama dates back to early medieval times and is an example of shinbutsu-shūgō - the assimilation of Shinto into Buddhism - or vice versa. Although there was a brief religio-political struggle in the 7th century, when Buddhism was introduced into the country, and later in the mid-19th century, when Japan modernized on a Western pattern, during the many centuries in between there seems to have been no problem at all - a good example of the Japanese talent for compromise and assimilation.
Box 3: Hachiman, after whom the shrine is named. This is the god of war and martial arts, worshipped by samurai. He is the protector of the country and identified with the 3rd-century emperor Ōjin.ē
Box 4: Empty. It should contain a wooden image of Kodama-sama, the god of sericulture and farming. All that there is, however, is a crumpled Kodama-sama ofuda.
Box 5: Prince Munenaga, I think. It is very old and chipped. Could it be the wooden image that Munenaga's son Prince Yoshiyuki is said to have carved of his father? Opinion, however, is split. A grandson of the hamlet's negi (native priest) said he thought it was an image of Hachiman, while a former village historian believes it to be the prince. But, as Hachiman sits in Box 3, surely this is the prince, whom, along with Yoshiyuki and Hachiman, the shrine is dedicated to.
In the year 1886 the Ōshika village office sent a directive to every shrine in the village to present details of its shinzō. A drawing depicting Usa Hachiman's image of Prince Munenaga sent in response to this is remarkably like a wooden image found in the Buddhist altar that is kept locked away in a cupboard in the meeting room next to the main hall. The large cupboard contains sacred objects from the hamlet's old temple Tairyūji, where the funeral ceremonies for Prince Munenaga and his family were carried out.
I have also seen a photograph of a wooden image said to represent Emperor Ōjin, alongside another wooden image of a Kyoto noble, both dating back to the Heian era, long before the time of Munenaga. But these sculptures too are now mysteriously no longer in the shrine.
I also heard one piece of gossip that blamed a village family for the loss of the sacred images. It was said that they sold them to pay for the college education of their son!
As a shrine's sacred images are traditionally hidden from view it is not surprising that confusion exists. In extreme cases, a shinzō is kept in a box, where it is wrapped in layers of cloth, from which it is never taken out. So, over the ages, people may become unsure what it looks like, or even what it is.
Another thing we should remember is that the shinzō is not in itself a kami, but only an object that the kami enters at certain times. Sacred places like Mt. Fuji and the Nachi waterfall, along with natural objects like certain rocks and old trees are the same. There is a generic word for this - shintai (sacred body).
So, when all is said and done, learning about your local shrine comes down to learning about its kami. Shintō is the way of the kami, the forces that created our world and maintain the natural cycle that supports it. We are living beings that can only marvel at its beauty, but never really understand it.
dont search for meaning
in the sunshine
far from the chatter of the cherry flowers the morning silence the song of the electric heater
lontano da fiori ciliegio cicaleggianti canticchia la stufa electrica nel silenzio del mattino
two haiku by me:
this next one is from higashimura sensei:
I bumped into the hipster conductor from TrenoItalia in the bar of Chilivani-Ozieri Station. Although he lacked the characteristic razor-cut-above-the-ears of the Mitte hipsters that I'd seen so much of a Berlin, he had the trademark beard, and he would say hipster things like:
- I've been all over Sardinia, but the only thing I know about the towns is their stations.
- People of Alghero don't think of themselves as belonging to Sardinia. They're Catalan.(smile)
- Olbia, yeh, it's small-town. But so is Sassari, where I come from (sigh). Not like Tokyo, or Berlin, or Paris...
I had first met him on the platform three days ago when I was setting out on my journey to the interior of the island. He had helped me when the information board said something completely different, and then, again, he redirected me when there was another change.
Before that I had been shouted at by the red-haired lady in the ticket office because I had confused her by saying 'dieci-due' for twelve instead of 'dodichi'.
But I wasn't alone. I had a bicycle with me.
- Traveling around with a bike is much easier than traveling around with a woman.
I was pleased with this succinct observation, so I looked around for someone to share it with. There was an old guy with white hair, beard and droopy mustache, who seemed not yet senile. My Italian went something like this:
- Sai, è più facile viaggiare con una bici che con una donna.
He immediately understood what I was trying to say, and laughed.
- Lei è da questo paese?
It turned out that he had lived in Olbia for fifty years. He told me that he was now seventy-five. Like Jirka.
The momentary encounter ended when the train came in.
In the carriage, I wondered what would have happened had I approached a stranger in Japan with the same gambit.
Almost certainly the reaction would have been incomprehension, horror, alarm.
No, I don't think that I would have got a laugh in Japan.
This was the trip that I was embarking on when I first encountered the hipster conductor: it was from the Sardinian port town of Olbia to Ozieri, a town in the interior of the island that I had selected one night, by caprice. The reviews on for the B&B in the town (Wonderful! If only I had been able to speak Italian!) pointed me to a place I had never heard of, with the promise of a host or hostess who wouldn't bore me by trying to speak English.
On the spur of the moment, I also decided to hire a bike. I had seen people taking their bikes onto trains. How wonderful! I thought. So that's what I did. And it was a lucky decision, because while looking at the map on the way to my destination, I discovered that the town was ten kilometers from the nearest railway station.
On arrival, there was light rain, so I put on my waterproofs. But I was happy, indeed happy, to be free on the road. I had written out a rough map in my notebook, which I followed, singing. For the first time I noticed that there was quite a wind.
Down the highway we cruised, me and my bike, until the road began to go upwards. It became quite hard-going, and, moreover, despite what I had expected, there were a lot of cars, racing past me.
Still, I was happy.
I found a side road, which went in the direction of Ozieri. Similar to a fortified town of Spain, Ozieri sat on the sides of two mountains, looking out over the plain. Most of the buildings were three, four or five stories high.
A kind traffic warden in the main square directed me to my B&B, which was on the third floor of one such palazzo.
The bike ride had made me tired, and, mentally, I felt disoriented. The luncheon alcohol had also left its mark.
I was greeted by three people - the patroness, her husband and a gentle-looking friend who was visiting. They were all about my age. Instead of playing it cool, I got excited, explaining that before the shops closed I needed to get a printout of some work that had to been done. So, they called the son of the friend.
Simon (yes, another Simon) arrived and guided me a stationery shop in the town.
We chatted, and then he left. At last I was able to relax.
I took a shower and was in bed and asleep by 8 o'clock.
The next day was a rest day. I was tired. I had work to do. But I did manage a stroll around this strange little city, with its cathedral and Borgia Palace.
When I reached the highest point, I looked out across the plain, which stretched as far as the eye could see. But on the other side there were hills and valleys.
As the train route had traversed the plain, I decided, if possible, that I would explore the hills and valleys.
Friday - I arrived.
Saturday - I rested myself.
Sunday - I was ready to set out again.
The weather was far from good. Cloud, sun, showers, but, at least, I was refreshed. On my bike and, with a map in hand, I set out.
Soon it was raining, the wind was blowing. But the roads I took between forest, brook and fields were invigorating.
I guess I belong to that type of person who is more mind than body, but without physical movement I would become an useless intellectual.
I rode my bike for three hours, up hills, along windy country roads where memorials to the people who died in traffic accidents dotted the roadside. This is the kind of thing that you notice that you wouldn't notice if you are traveling by automobile.
At some high point, within view of the next small town, I decided to turn back. Speeding down the hills, risking death as I took less than half the time of my outward journey, I returned. Safely.
On my return, here, I would like to say something about Graziella, the patroness. Her oil paintings are everywhere. The predominant colour is yellow. I like her colours, also the brushwork. What disturbs me is the strange figures. Here are the apostles, she tells me. Here is Christ. Obviously.
Every morning at 7:30 I take breakfast: lettuce with anchovy, banana and walnuts, Ozieri-style bread (similar to chapati), jam made from apricots and blueberry, a pint of English tea with milk. Sometimes we talk.
- Do you go to church?
- No. But I used to, my mother made me.
- Is your mother in heaven?
- She died in 1997. Unlike me she was a good Christian.
- She is in heaven.
This is how it goes.
- Will you come to mass tomorrow?
- I'm sad to hear that.
I like best the house in the evening and at night (after Graziella has returned to her own apartment) with its strange pictures and empty rooms (I am the only guest). This is a beautiful and cultured family - I have even met Maria Vittoria, the couple's only daughter, who lives in the university town of Sassari - the honesty of their characters have rubbed off in the peaceful ambience of the dwelling.
- You don't like my pictures.
I hear Graziella saying, with disappointment, but no rancour.
Of course, she's wrong. What I like is the subtle influence of imagination on architecture. Christianity, which to her is so important, is to me just another dogma. In the empty house I can forget it. Discarded, the place emanates its own quiet pagan magic.
Leaving Ozieri, cycling back to the station on a sunny, invigorating early spring day, everything seems so much easier than that rainy journey I had made a few days earlier to the town. I do the journey in half the time, arrive at Chilivani-Ozieri Station with about forty minutes before the scheduled arrival of my train back to Olbia. That's when I bumped into the hipster conductor again. Standing at the bar of the station cafe, we talked about this and that. I complimented him on his English. No, no, he protested. I said that I lived in Japan and was a translator. He said that he had once thought of being a translator. I said that to be a translator you needed an attitude of precision, that he looked like that sort of person.
- Yes, he said. If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well.
At some point, during our conversation, which had begun to take on a life of its own, I looked out to see a train arriving at the platform. And I glanced up at the clock.
- Isn't that my train? I asked.
- Yes I think it is, he said.
- It's a minute or two early, isn't it, I said, panicking a little, picking up my bags. It'll wait for me, won't it? I said, rather disingenuously.
- No, I don't think so, he said. He smiled.
I grabbed my bags, and, bidding him a hasty farewell, dashed out, down the stairs of the underpass and up onto the platform where the train that I had thought was mine was standing.
It turned out, not to be my train, which, in turn, was late. Luckily. So I went back to the cafe, got the newspaper that I had left on the counter. The hipster conductor was no longer there.
Although it seems to stand in the middle of nowhere, the station of Chilivani-Ozieri is an important junction in the railway network of Sardinia. Trains passing through there head for Oristano, Alghero, Cagliari and all the major destinations on the island.
In the end, my train arrived, but during the journey there were more delays, and so we didn't get to Olbia until well after midday. I was in no hurry at all, so enjoyed the relaxed journey, looking out at the sun-stroked landscape, while, across the aisle, an Italian woman dressed smartly but without style was reading Thomas Mann's 'Buddenbrooks' and texting on her smartphone.
Dear Aeroflot! The flagship carrier of the former Soviet Union. It's a small but instrumental part of my life. On my annual shuttle to England or to continental Europe - usually in winter - I always look forward to renewing the acquaintance. The trip is an escape, a recharging of the batteries. And as Celine wrote, 'Travel exercises the imagination.' In the early years I invariably travelled Aeroflot, but later, when I took my children to visit their grandparents, I preferred direct flights. Now, that I'm old and single again I've returned to my air travel roots, like someone, meeting up again with a dear friend from the past. Airbuses have replaced Ilyushin-62s, and Sheremetyevo has been jazzed up with designer shops and ethnic eating spots, but essentially it's the same unpretentious, no-frills airport, where at any one moment you'll find an enormous cross section of nationalities in transit across the world.
Many of the travellers that you meet on Aeroflot are like you, and even if they're not, you'll probably share something in common, something to talk about to whoever is sitting next to you.
On this flight - the one that I'm going to tell you about - I found myself next to a young oriental woman, who could be Japanese, but I thought was more likely to be Japanese- or Chinese-American. Then, I heard her speaking fluent Russian with the aircraft personnel. So that made me curious. But these days one is less inclined to initiate conversations with strangers, so I had to wait until she broke the ice. It turned out that she was from Kazakhstan and was returning home after spending a week in Japan, where, along with other young people from Central Asian states, she had visited three different Japanese cities, seeing the sights and participating in various cultural activities. For her it had been a dream tour that had left her wondering: Why wasn't I born Japanese? She felt so comfortable there. Having spent a couple of days in Tokyo before heading west to Kyoto and Hiroshima, she said that returning to Tokyo it was like coming home.
We talked and talked. She wanted to know all about my four decades in Japan, while I was happy to meet someone from a secular Muslim country, where religion was not so important. She told me all about Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev University, where she was doing and MA in public administration and policymaking. English was the language of study there. She also talked about neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Fascinating. We discussed the subtlety of cultures, the sensibilities of Asians, and so on, and so on.
From Moscow, I was taking a connection to Munich, while she was heading back home to Astana. So I gave her my email address, telling her to contact me if ever she came to Japan again, and we said our goodbyes.
The plane had been nearly two hours late departing Narita, and so the usual three-hour stopover had been greatly reduced. While waiting for the connection, I noticed that the three young women that I had seen checking in at Narita with skis and big sportswear bags were also taking the same onward flight. I guessed that they on the way to some winter sports tournament, and wanted to ask what, but resisted the temptation, not wanting to seem like some intrusive 'oyaji'.
So we got onto the plane, and after a journey of three hours arrived in Munich just before ten at night. Following immigration, we all ended up by at baggage reclaim, waiting for the carousel to disgorge its contents. Indeed, wait we did, while all the other passengers collected their bags. It was then that I have the chance to ask one of them:
- You're on the way to a winter sports tournament?
- What do you do?
- We are ski jumpers.
- Oh, wow! You're famous, then?
- No, no.
That was the end of the conversation. Their skis came, and they also had a few bags. But I lost sight of them, and before I knew it, I was the only person around. The carousel and stopped. Obviously my bag was still in Moscow.
- Ist das alles?
- Ihr Koffer ist nicht hier?
- Dann, gehen Sie zu Lost & Found.
I must have walked the length of Munich airport. Finally I located the counter, where a guy about my age helped me to fill out a couple of forms and checked the situation on his computer. Then, just as we were finishing off, the three ski jumpers arrived, accompanied by their male coach.
Yes, they too were missing three of their bags. So I helped them to complete the forms, and while we were waiting for the guy to try to locate their bags we talked a bit.
- You come from Hokkaido?
Two of them did. So I said to the third woman:
- So I guess you must be from Shinshu...
- I am! But how did you know?
- Actually I live in Shinshu too.
She turned out to be from Ueda.
They had loosened up a bit, and I was enjoying a different sort of conversation from the one that I'd had with the woman from Kazakhstan. Still, it was fun. Anyway, I got the coach to take a souvenir photo of me with them, and then, wishing them good luck, went off to try and find a taxi.
Oh yes, I forgot to say that I had also asked their names. One introduced herself as 'Yuki', while the others told me that their surnames were Iwabuchi and Seto. Despite their young ages, they were quietly confident, while their body language spoke physical ease and supreme coordination. But they were also friendly and kind of cute. One of them made me think more of a high school or college student than an adult athlete. Later I discovered that she was 24-year-old Yuki Ito, already a two-time World Cup ski jump winner. The other two were fellow members of the highly successful Japanese women's ski jump team, one of the teams to beat in the current World Cup events.
So there we are. Japanese ski jump World Cup winners travelling economy on Aeroflot was a surprise. Still, ski jumpers are a bit like marathon runners: lonely types that would rather avoid the in-crowd. On the TV we watch them waiting at the top of the jump tower, silent and strong, sometimes a little tense, even occasionally apprehensive, but we can never fail to admire their courage.
So thank you, Aeroflot! You introduced me to some more interesting citizens of the world. Aeroflot - the airline for interesting and interested travellers, fount of fleeting but memorable encounters, please never change.
Capri sat in the middle of Naples Bay as always, but looked more beautiful than ever on this bright Sunday in early spring. The Mergellina promenade was busy with people - leisurely old couples, families with children in pushchairs and on bikes. Dogs. Permatanned ladies, sitting at tables in the gardens of the hotel cafés, looked on. Near the park at the Chiai end of the boulevard the road had been closed to traffic, allowing the people to spill off the promenade, the kids to run wildly across the asphalt, while the dogs barked as they strained on their leashes, and the bicycles raced around in circles. Where the road had been reopend a limo went by, while in a nearby park there was a merry-go-round.
Winter Sonata - Momo
December comes with its pensive mornings
And year-end visitors: a dear couple
With their two children, a boy and a girl.
I watch the mother as she reads to her son,
Imparting bits of her soul with the words.
Implanted and moistened by her love,
These seeds will grow, and through them in years hence
She will be surprised by tiny images
Of herself, small moments of eternity:
A recognition of Time's mystery,
A reconfirmation of its sanctity