The human mind and spirit are advanced by what is written with pleasure.     Jean Giono


        家と空をつなぎにたる女郎蜘蛛     後藤杜子





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  and

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.

September 2019





topical tanka



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 recounted


coffee lees

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:

Kusama Yayoi

Yoko Ono

Kawakubo Rei

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.

Sagano autumn

the bamboos make

ancient music

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.

Buddhist Sagano:

the Christian Trinity

is worshipped here too 




A SERIAL WOMANISER 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?

- 優秀な酔っ払い?

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?

So being "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. 

















土曜日、ハラプロジェクトのメンバーが到着する日だ。上演は2日間。一日目は夜の7時から始まり、2日目の日曜日は午後の2時スタートだ。いっちゃんはすでに到着している。彼女ははるばる岩手からきて、最後に落語的な劇を披露してくれることになっている。ちょうどお昼前に6人の一座がたくさんの備品、衣装などを抱えてやってきた。私の家までの急坂を これらの荷物を持って運ばなくてはならない。でも今回で5回目なので、すべてなんなく済んだ。




演劇の極意 秩序とカオス















一日目の上演が終わって、飲めや踊れやのパーティーをした。それは真夜中まで続いた。そして3時間くらい寝て 私をさとす一風変わった声で目が覚めた。その声は「人間がやることなんて何事も大したことではない」と囁いた。私はうなずき、また眠りについた。








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

July 2019

                                                                  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.



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

June 2019


                                                                           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!

Bo: (snores)

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)


But 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 

May 2019


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 Kannon Here is something that immediately adds credence to what I've just said. In Japan 'Kannon' is the name given to a bodhisattva of compassion and mercy that in Sanskrit is known as Avolokitesvara. So, here we have a bodhisattava enshrined as a Shintō deity. Among the many manifestations of Kannon, the Koyasu is worshiped by women seeking easy childbirth.

Box 3: Kisshōten There is a little controversy over this. The image is clearly registered in local records, as a cultural artifact of the village, where its date is given as late Heian era. However, in a magazine article of fourteen years ago, the parishioners' head representative identifies it as an image of Prince Munenaga. If it is actually Kisshoten, here is another example of shinbutsu-shūgō. Another problem is that, although Kisshōten is usually represented as a female diety, the shinzō in Usa Hachimansha is quite clearly male. Later: this is not Kisshōten, but Hachimanjin, the god from whom the shrine takes its name. 

Box 4: empty. Yes, this too is a mystery.

Box 5: Another very old wooden image, which the grandson of the hamlet's negi (traditional priest) said he thought was an image of Hachimanjin, the kami after which the shrine takes its name. A former village historian, however, said that it was Prince Munenaga. So, this turns out to be yet another riddle. Later: in view of what I learnt about Box 3, it would seem that this is an image of the prince.

There is also a story that in the year 1886 the Ōshika village office sent a directive to every shrine in the village to present details of its shinzō. I have seen a copy of a drawing allegedly depicting Usa Hachiman's image of Prince Munenaga. It shows a monk-looking man with a shaven head. But no sculpture like this can be found in the shrine at present.

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.

In fact, there are various stories related to the shinzō that have been handed down. The missing(?) Prince Munenaga image is said to have been carved after his death by his son Prince Yukiyoshi. In fact, Yukiyoshi is also one of Usa Hachimansha's three saijin (enshrined deities), the others being Emperor Ōjin, who, as I said earlier, is represented in all Hachiman shrines and Prince Munenaga. Like his father, Prince Yukiyoshi is a local hero. He died, committing ritual suicide, at the age of fifty in 1424, while continuing the fight for the Southern court. Such was his legendary presence that in local folklore he also gives his name to the yōkai (supernatural being) Yukiyoshi-sama.

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.This is where your text starts. You can click here to start typing. Rem aperiam eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt explicabo nemo enim ipsam voluptatem quia voluptas sit.

Quia voluptas sit aspernatur aut odit aut fugit sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci velit sed quia non numquam eius.

April 2019

dont search for meaning

just sit 

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:


February 2019


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?

- Sì.

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?

- No.

- 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.

January 2019


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?

- Yes.

- 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?

- Genau.

- 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. 

March 2015

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.

January 2015

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