29 September 2014

Mawwage...

Pew Research says support for same sex marriage has dipped a little.  No surprise, I think.  Everything human has ups and downs.  Perhaps it indicates a little ‘cause fatigue’ or something else.   Of course we shall hear some prophets on the right say it is a bellwether or some such thing.  As there are still some who believe the Civil War is not over (Tea Party anyone?) there will be die-hards for traditional marriage for generations to come.  Same –sex marriage, though, is inevitable despite them, and this tiny dip which is a sociological tip of the hat to an era that has come to an end.  All we who protest now are doing is making sure the foot dragging doesn’t take too long.

That being said, I wish to start another odd conversation about the way our society works, and because same-sex marriage has been so prominent it made me look at a curiosity of our culture that I believe deserves to change.  To wit, the legal authority of clergy to solemnize legal marriage. 

Those training for clergy life are always eager for the moment when they can ‘sign licenses,’ which is the one official thing we do that make us clergy different from civilians.  Virtually everything else we do can be done by lay folk, legally I mean.  But signing those licenses is the proof of our station and status.  What I did not know back then was that this authority to sign marriage licenses is not global.  
It seems that modern clergy authority to legitimate marriage is mostly an British custom.  In other parts of Europe and the New World religious and civil marriage have been divorced (excuse the pun) for some years. 

If our American (and Canadian) practices are cultural legacies not universal law, and we clergy who boast of our radical reformation roots have stood strongly against the commingling of church and state, then why do we allow ourselves to do this?  Some of us have refused to sign licenses until gay and lesbian couples can also enjoy legal marriage, which is noble but my question is why we ever sign them all? 

The more I think about it, the more it seems that this convention violates the intent of separating church and state.  By making clergy magistrates of marriage, then then wield civil authority not according to the law but according to their religion.  There is no reason for clergy to have this civil power, though.  No religion requires it, as every religion in the USA and Canada exists in places where clergy do not have this authority.  The convenience factor is minor, again as billions elsewhere do not seem aggrieved.  Its original purpose, which was to make it easier for those far removed from cities to have access to legal marriage, is now moot.

I believe it is time for clergy – from my UU tradition and others – to demand that the states remove this unhealthy and unwise practice.  Losing it will not impede religious practice, does not impose impractical burdens on couples or society, and tempts religious leaders to mix theology with law and church with state. 
What do you think?


29 August 2014

Now that I have Finished my Journey

Here I go again, stepping on a wasp's nest this time, perhaps.

In a recent Facebook post I questioned democracy as a way of creating justice.  It is a good thing, I said, not because of what it does because of what it prevents, to wit, tyranny. By slowing, complicating, and otherwise impeding actions that would be faster and clearer, it makes tyranny harder to accomplish.  But democracy does this by impeding all decisions not just bad ones.  So when we decry the gridlock and the compromise and the watering down by Congress we should not see this as anti-democratic but utterly democratic.  This may be what Churchill meant by calling democracy the worst of all political systems, except compared to others.  As bad a democracy is for getting things done, it does a fairly good job of preventing great tyranny by being so cumbersome, messy and venal.

This time - and this is very different - I am pondering a pattern of reasoning that assumes the innocence of the oppressed from deserving their oppression indicates an overall innocence. (A corollary would be that those guilty of oppressing others are guilty in some overall way as well.)

I see this in a variety of locations in time and place, but perhaps most notably in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.  Here's how:

The Israeli government is doing oppressive things to the Palestinian people around them - in Gaza and the West Bank and in their own midst. Our natural sympathies for those who are suffering has, for some, made the Palestinian people and their cause noble.  Because the one is wrong, the other must be right.  And for some the wrong of the one means they are wrong in general and the innocence of the other renders them innocent in every respect. Therefor any defensive action by Israel will be seen as wrong by some, and any provocative action by Palestinians will seen as just.

Logically, this is a form of the error called 'post hoc ergo propter hoc,' that because this is wrong that is right.  It may in fact be true, but not logically. But most people are not analyzing the situation logically. We see disproportionate violence and other acts which strike us as excessive. But that does not mean those who are harmed by those acts are innocent of anything except not deserving that.

The problem as I see it is reducing the dynamic of oppression to a binary moral zero sum game.  One one side is bad, the other side is good. When that happens, categorical thinking tends to rise - one side is ALL bad and the other side is ALL good.  In this instance, Israel's policies are bad, so Israel is bad, and Jews who believe in Israel are bad. (Those who read my post linking to the NYTimes article about anti-semitism should take time to read the comments which is where I began to think about this matter.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/world/europe/anger-in-europe-over-the-israeli-gaza-conflict-reverberates-as-anti-semitism.html?

It is hard to believe both in the necessity of Israel - which I do - and in justice for Palestinians - which I also do. But as one poet once told a younger one "everything serious is difficult" and it would be hard to find something more serious than this.

28 August 2014

Last Day and Last Words

May  5
In the morning we gather for breakfast which has become rather predictable over the days but never boringKnowing that today rain was likely, and that this last portion had the steepest ascent, I leave barely after seven.
The trail leads near to the grocery and, remembering how I appreciated a little caffeine the day before, I stop to buy a can of coffee from the machineThat itself is a novelty, a can of coffee from a vending machineWhat comes out is not only in a can but hotI am used to cold drink machines but not hot drinks in cansI drink it standing by the trail head, which is a stone staircase of courseAnd with the empty can in my backpack I start my day.
My last day was rated difficult because of the amount of climbing and descendingOver 5 km I would climb 830m, and over 500m of that came in the last halfThank goodness it was cloudy, but it was prelude to rain coming from Southeast Asia.
At the top of the first short climb, up from the village of Koguchi, I encounter the famous wardo-ishirock, a watermelon slice about ten feet tall covered in moss and lichen and decorated with the names of the three gods who are said to meet here once a year, the spirits of the shrines and temples we are visiting.After days of nature doing improbable things this notion does not seem at all far-fetched.
Not long after this, along a flatter portion, I come to a place of ruined teahouses, now just a clearing that is slowly returning to forestAlready I am in a sweat from the climb and seeing no one on the trail on the way up, I pause to remove both knapsack and shirt and enjoy the cool breezes beneath the treesIt turns out the trail is not as empty as I thoughtFirst, a young woman going north passes, and then a young man going southI feel over exposed, not the least because of my aging torso, and reclaim shirt and knapsack.
For the next 4.5 kms I climb toEchizen-toge pass, the highest point on the trail. Though not as steep as some of the early portions, this is the longest continual climb of the whole pilgrimageI am grateful for the generally even path, meaning wide and straight enough not to require studied attention every step and only a few stones to be avoidedBut at every turn the path continues up, beyond my view, no end in sight, a Sisyphian taskThose three miles take ninety minutes, each minute had 30 steps, or 2700 steps.
At the top of the Echizen-toge pass are four people pausingTheir presence tells me I am at the topThat and the assortment of little signs on posts - none more than a foot high or wide - hammered into the ground to prove they made itAt just that moment, the literal high point of my journey, the promised rain arrived.
forty or fifty feet
in the sky, raindrops
in the willow (Basho)
A noise like fireworks 
crackling, radio static
created by rain on trees,
It began slowly but quickly grew to a din. I get out my raincoat and wait under the trees, hoping it would be a brief cloudburst. It wasnt. And so begins my descent on stone steps now slippery with rainThough even more diligent now, do slip and fall, sliding along a wet stone and getting mud on my pantsNow, instead of perspiration wetting me from the inside out, the rain gets inside my slicker and wets me from the outside in. What about the contents of my knapsack, I thinkI have wrapped things in plastic bags, but not everything.
A cold rain starting
And no hat -- So? (Basho)
But you are now old
fellow traveler, and rain
may be your ruin
Looking for better footing I work my way down the stairs even more carefully. I have no room to injure myself, even a twisted ankleLooking for good purchase, I test the stones with my staff, and I slip again when the staff slides on the wet stone. It slips into a crack and I begin to fall againBreaking my fall by leaning on the staff, I bend itThere are a lot of steps aheadDoing without it is scarySlowly, using the crack in which it bent, I reverse the damageVictory sometimes comes in small packages, but it still feels like a triumph.
If you think that was memorable, the poet puts me in my place from years before, "... the mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air underneath so hushed that I felt as if I was groping my way in the dead of night... the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging cloudsI pushed my way through thick undergrowth of bamboo, crossing many streams and stumbling over hidden rocks, till at last I arrived at the village of Mogami after much shedding of cold sweat.”
Methinks my few words
are nothing compared to yours
but we sweat the same.
Great ocean views promised by the guide books do not exist as mist follows the rain, billows visibly filling in between the trees and blurring the landscapeBut in a sense this was even more Japanese.Confirming the photographer's rule that the best shots come during the worst moments, my eyes are rewarded with scenes that sunlight cannot produce: mossy Jizos more touching in the gray light, the edges of the world softened; bamboo groves turned into brush paintings; a tangle of moss covered tree trunks and a green boulder that are a snapshot of giants bowling in the forest.
As has happened several days, when I hear the distant rustle of river water I know the end is approaching.After a long quiet stretch on a ridge, steps return to descendI change tacticsInstead of looking for the least wet stones and gingerly testing each as I go, I step onto the largest one in each step whatever its condition and discover I can stride confidently downOh, that I had discovered this beforeWhat time I could have savedThen again, spending time is why I am hereBut walking down is now far more pleasant than climbing down.
From the peak when the rain started, down to the river, I have seen fewer fellow pilgrimsBut not none at allMy new walking strategy allows me to pass a couple easily, very different from those who watched me stumble an hour beforeCloser to the river the others are going up the hill as I go downDo they know, or care, how long and steep and slippery it isPhotos of these stairways are breathtaking to the eye, ones I have seen before and those I am taking now, and reveal nothing of their difficulty or peril.  
After many steps the steep slope begins to flatten out, a cemetery appears to my left enclosed in low walls, the sound of water grows; and then, at the bottom of another set of steps I am quite suddenly in a park outside the town where the shrines wereNo transition at all save for a carved stoneAnother pavilion stands nearby where I pause along with a group of young adults arriving to climb up. The trail,now more tidy but not less stony, takes me through a manicured lawn like a golf course and then to a long stone stairway that goes down to the shrines of Naki-san, named for the 400 foot waterfall that has been sacred for centuriesAgain, the stairs end suddenly in the complex, coming in the back door as I did atHongu, making me feel out of place among the day trippers strolling casually on the sidewalk that connects the shrines and shops.
As often happens, the Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple stand cheek by jowl, a remnant of the time when Buddhist monks also cared for Shinto sitesBut the buildings are always distinct in design and color. The Buddhist temple has a great bell inside, and a promising statue, but only for those willing to pay. Havingseen many others already I decide it is not worth the price.  I can see a bit inside along the side porch.  And I can hear the bell quite well indeed.  The Shinto shrine is beautiful but typical.  What makes then stand out is how they fit the place where they are built. Clinging to a hillside, hallway up from the valley, the gain their sanctity from the waterfall a half a km awayBetween them is a Buddhist pagoda, among the tallest in Japan, that serves as a viewing towerThat I am willing to pay to see.  Its inside walls are filled with Buddhist paintings but you have to climb up to see. I do.  
Thinking of a temple he visited in the far north, Basho noted
Even the long rain of May
Had left it untouched -
This gold chapel
Aglow in the sombre shade.
That’s the zen in him, finding clouds with every silver lining.  But ultimately he is right.  All is vanity.
Beautiful paintings - 
Rains can wash them all away 
while cleansing the world
To come this far and not approach the falls themselves would be foolish, so even though the rain has resumed, I trudge down more steps to the bottom of the gorge where buses gather to disgorge visitors who then join me in the last 150 meters through tall cedars to the foot of the fallsItself a shrine, there is anenormous incense burner at the bottom attended by a priest, and many sticks of incense stuck in the brazier, the smoke mixing with the mist and rain into a looming aromatic cloud.
Though no Niagara, Naki-san is impressively tall mesmerizing us allWhat is there in flames and waters that attract usEach perfectly balance order and chaosThey move but do not choose how they move. They are not alive but are essential to lifeThey are liminal things that bridge the apparent boundary between animate and inanimateThese things do not occur to me then, of course, as I take in the narrow ribbon of water that falls 400 feet to the rocks belowI simply look, as others do, many with translucent umbrellas against the increasing rain.
Each spot at Naki-san has a sense of finality as this is the end of the trailI look for a token to buy, to signify my endThere are several souvenir shops near the falls with a wide choiceI buy a t shirt, as I did in England and SpainIf there is a place to turn the official booklet with stamps I cannot find it, but I do not have the book eitherThe sense of accomplishment is murky, like the weatherHave I ended?
Mid growing rain again, I take a final long stairway of 600 steps – the Daimonzaka - which brings me to the official exit from the sacred region, a bookend to Takijiri-oji five days agoLike that place, this one is not quite apparent until one looks hard. Two Massive cedars guard the path - called husband and wife - and one last Torii gate signal leaving the sacred area, and outside there is one more large stone carved boasting of UNESCOMy official passage is complete.
As if to tell me more clearly, the rain grows heavier as I walk away, down the automobile road toward the bus stop. There is a final 5 km of trail, down to the seaI considered walking it when there was nothing but mist, but the rain is now heavy and so I take my agents advice and hail a bus to Kii-Katsuura, dripping on the floor of the bus as it lumbers along; the wipers thumping back and forth on the foggy windshield make the loudest soundAt the very end, which is also the train station, I walk to the wharf to find the boat that takes me to yet another hot spring spa built in the Catskill styleThat is, the place is enormousThe check-in desk has six clerks in matching blazers.  People in yukatas go back and forth to the famed onsens which are set in grottos and on cliffs.  My room looks out onto the harbor, incongruously lavish compared to where I was hours before, muddy and wet in the forest. And there is a private shower.  The bathroom is designed to be an Ofuro, a formal bath with a drain for rinsing and a tall sided tub, but being able to take simple shower alone is the real luxury I crave.  
Unlike Yunomine, meals here served as a buffet in a giant hallLong tables surround enormous tableaus of food.  Around the edges are more food stations.  My incompetent slippers lead me to walk in socks, which causes some amusementA woman behind the entry desk hands me a pair of slippers with a big smile.  Beyond her a very tall man in a tuxedo (and shoes!) points people to their seats at the long tables,with numbers at each seatWhole families in Yukatas walk back and forth between the sashimi and croissantsNot what I expected, but little has been.
By morning the sky clearedFrom the boat and train I see small islands in the harbor and along the coast.After an hour we pass Kii-tanabe where I started.  From Wakayama on the scenery is mostly greater Osaka, the second largest metro area in JapanI change again at Shin-Osaka, and the trip to Kyoto takesonly 20 minutes.
In Kyoto, my luggage is waiting for me, but Kyoto – yes that great city - was a little less thrilling when one arrives from sacred mountains and waterfallsI feel a certain incompleteness in fact, that there ought to be some ritual moment that closes my pilgrim passage. Fortunately, fate gives me a fitting end to my pilgrimage that evening.
By the time I have arrive and settle in it is 4 pm and the major sites will close soonExcept one.
The Fushima Inari Taisha, is a low mountain south of the city and dotted with shrines to Inari.  All arelinked by pathways that are nearly encased by torii gates erected side by side to gain favor from the kami of prosperityThere are even signs telling you how much a gate costsIt all makes for tunnels ofvermillion toriis, thousands of them, interrupted by shrines of various sizesIn the clusters of shrines miniature torii gates stack up on the altarsIt is a pilgrimage itself, and indeed I see someone jogging along the path from shrine to shrine paying respects at each with an offering, a bell ring, a prayerful bow and a solemn 'clap-clap.'  
Walking to the top and back was a good 2-3 km in itself - snaking in and out of clearings, up and down slopes, and all well prowled by catsThe path was getting dark as I circled back to the hilltop when the sun setPeople lingered on the ledge to watch the light turn from gold to red to purpleMy descent to the town was almost solitary, until I find the gate where I enteredAhead of me is a young couple, sitting on a step, relishing their solitude in the twilight.
“I visited the Gongen shrine,” Basho recalls.  “There are hundreds of houses where priests practice religious rites with absolute severity.  Indeed the whole mountain is filled with miraculous inspiration and sacred awe.”  I will settle for this lesser hill south of Kyoto on the Nara line.  
Five days later, after seeing Kyoto and Nara and Ise, I am walking through downtown Kyoto on my last evening there and at the busiest corner I collide with the two American women I met at Takajiri.  “We were supposed to meet at Naki-san,” I begin, “but we got a late start and the rain slowed us down,” one said. “So I went to my hotel,” I continue.  “Want that drink now?”  “We are leaving tonight,” the other says.  How could it be otherwise, as Buddhism is all about the illusion of certainty and control?  
Five days after that I am packing up to go to Narita and home.  Along the way I have relinquished underwear and shirts and socks, by design I should add.  I have accumulated papers and booklets and a gift for my wife and a stone or two – remember Fuji? - to remind me of where I was.  And in my hands I hold Basho, the book I have owned since 1971.  It is in pieces.  From Echizen-toge down to the bus stop it rained, and the rain got into the knapsack as I went.  
Shed of everything else
I still have some lice
I picked up on the road
Crawling on my summer robes.  
How sad it seems and then how right.  He traveled to lose himself – to unloose himself from the world.  The book has now done the same, unloosed itself as we traveled.  In the Ueno part of Tokyo, not far fromwhere he lived before leaving on his journeys, a section of town with same name as the village in which he was born, I leave the fractured book on the desk of my small room.  Why keep it? We are both going home.

17 August 2014

Day Four on the Kumano Kodo

May 4

Before continuing the journey, a further word about slippers.  Leaving one's shoes at the door is the easy to understand. The point is to avoid bringing dirt inside and not to damage the tatami mats. Then comes the dance of removing the shoes but not standing where the shoes are. That only begins to cover the custom, though. Both the spa in Yunomine and the minchuku in Chikatsuyu had toilet slippers - used only in the toilet area - which requires leaving the inside slippers outside the toilet, stepping into the toilet slippers just inside the toilet room, and reversing the process. Since none of these sandals or slippers actually fit, I spend most of my time in my room.

Breakfast at Yunomine was in a common room as it was as it was a Takahara and Chikatsuyu, but two floors down. I shuffle along, slippers constantly trying to fly off the front of my paddle shaped feet. This is supposed to be relaxing, but for me it is hardly that.

Breakfast was smaller, thank goodness, and though in a common room, each table is laid out for each person with their room number beside. This time people would see me eat, egad! Dried fish over a burning brazier, which I must turn over from time to time with my hachi. Another burner with tofu and onions, a soft boiled egg in a cup into which I broke it and added a shoyu sauce that made it wonderful. Rice porridge which is a soupy rice mixture I saw back in Tokyo, and better than it sounds. Salad and the other Japanese breakfast food - miso soup. Like dinner, no course is large by American standards, and the assortment of vegetables is excellent. But always very salty!

I am uncertain about how to eat dissolving tofu and how to pick flesh from broiled fish. Using a finger now and then to steady something, I became rather decent at plucking things. Sidelong glances confirm that Japanese do this too.

As we leave Basho speaks up, "I had a bath before I took shelter at an in," the poet remembers from his long journey. "It was a filthy place with rough straw mats spread out on an earth floor. They had to prepare my bed by the dim light of the first, for there was even a lamp in the whole house.” My stumbles are comic by comparison.

Today's trip starts with a bus ride from Yunomine to Ukegawa, there being no path between them for some reason which I do not know. I dislike skipping parts of the trail as I did last night but there is not a connection between these two places. My booklet says this would be an easy day, which it is by comparison only. Not as long as yesterday, to be sure, only four hours, and yet plenty of climbing and descending.
Driving me to the bus stop, I am delivered to the actual town of Yunomine, which is gathered around a narrow gorge through which a river runs and hot springs break forth into the river itself. The whole town smells of sulphur. People come here to take the waters as they do in Hot Springs AR, but this town is just a town not a city.

My host urged me to look around, which I did, first noticing several people carrying net bags of eggs which they will boil in the hot springs for their breakfast. Finding the trail that led here from the Hongu Taisha, the one that went over the ‘steephill, I decide backtrack along it for about 200 meters to the oji here, to pay my respects reverence and of course get the stamp. Coming back, I see the little old wooden onsen house for town bathing. It is perched over the river, its roof held on by stones.  It is women’s time as two are waiting on the porch.

leaving the hot springs,                                                                 
looking back how many times —
beneath the mist  (Basho)

Too plangent for me, companion. Ill try something a little playful for the morning.

The stones keep the wood
down. The wood holds the water.
Sulfur mists just laugh.

Waiting for the bus, the two American women with whom I started turned up. Remember them? I was relieved to see them, as carrying so much had to be awful for that first climb. Today they have much less stuff. They truly had no idea how tough the climbs would be and repacked the first night and sent the stuff ahead, something I said I did and they did not know they could do. As footloose folks, they are going to go to the end of today's section and walk backward to Yunomine for another night. We promised to share intelligence when we met up, which we will.  But not when or where.

The trail from the shrine of Kumano Hongu Taisha to its sister temple Nachi-Taisha, developed later than the first. In older times, imperial pilgrims would come to the Hongu Taisha and then travel down the river to see the Nachi-Taisha. There are, therefore, fewer monuments than on earlier sections. But there are excellent views, decent trails for the most part, and because it is a Sunday on a holiday weekend, more hikers. The landscape is now pretty steadily the same - beautiful mountainsides through which one sees neighboring mountains; gorgeous, ho hum. At the top of one, a little jizo pillar marks the highest point along this segment, with a view called hyakken-gura, or 3600 cliffs or peaks. Not quite accurate, there are nonetheless dozens of mountain tops and peaks visible from here.

No much farther along there is a branch trail to an even higher point famous for its sunset views. I start climbing and then see a sign indicating it is most of a kilometer away, and mostly up. Not being sunset I decide to pass it up.

More than previous days, the trail hugs the hillside rather than following ridges, and as there are no railings and the trail can become rather narrow, my companion recalls when he was on his way to Sarashina, “Above my head, mountains rose over mountains and on my left a huge precipice dropped a thousand feet into a boiling river…”  My response,

Like the many tree roots
my toes struggle to hold on
to the mountainside

Today, aside from the usual climbing and descending, I meet new birdsongs, bothersome insects that loved buzzing around my head but did not bite (there seem to be no mosquitos in Japan!). Basho remembers a night spent in more belligerent company.

“Bitten by fleas and lice
I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow”

Thankfully nothing of that sort beset me. Today, in fact, I have a better maintained trail most of the time but also two trees that fell over the trail and require some negotiating.

The spiritual highlight is a Jizo about halfway along that had a great heap of stones at its base, Sai-no-kawara. Close to the pillar is a sign that explains how children's souls have not enough karmic credit to get into Buddhist heaven if they die, but Jizo will help them if they made piles of stones for him. But a demon, Oni, knocks them over. The souls need help from living people, it seems, so people pile stones on or around Jizo. In this place there is a great heap. Touching, but why here?

On the last descent, a really long one, I pause when I see an old tree with a great vine - a firehose of a plant - dangling from it. Or is it a vegetal boa constrictor, choking the tree over a period of years? Turning around to snap a better picture I spy another Jizo embedded into the hill that I had passed, shrouded by the hill and the tree as I went by. My goal is to take a photo of every Jizo I see.

My companion remembers,

Over the ruins of a shrine
 a chestnut tree
 still lifts its candles (Basho)

But having no shrines to remember,

Hiding from my view
Jizo naps in mossy bed
will pebbles awake him?

I emerge from the woods onto a road and the village of Koguchi, a handful of houses along a little river between the hills. How odd this feeling of relief and reluctance. The body is always ready to return to society but the mind pauses. It is not the desire to be alone as much as a change in company. Among people the mind must think ahead and plan and act, whereas in the trees there is simply being amid other beings.  The temples devoted to the Buddha are farther from him, I think, than the bare road.

Once in society again, even this slight village, I feel hungry. A small grocery offers iced tea in a cooler and a snack. The owner almost grudgingly appears to take my money. In a bus stop I can sit in the shade and drink until my lodging is open for guests.

She speaks little English, but has a streak of pink in her gray hair. My room is more modest than last night with a small laundry line. She will wash things for me, I finally understand. In my room tea and small snacks are on the low table. By 430 I have bathed in a simple tub which in Japan has very tall sides to allow for extended soaking. I put on denim guest pajamas which are very comfortable, and write in my diary while awaiting the evening meal. I have an 8 tatami room, with glassed shouji that opens onto a vegetable garden out back. There are only three guest rooms. One more arrives - a couple I think. The male proprietor has more English than his wife but not much. The other guests are Japanese. This will be interesting.

Dinner last night was lovely, both because of the food and the company.  Called by my host, I came out to the front room where I entered to find my fellow guests, a couple as I expected, already sitting. To my delight they both had fair amount of English. He, it turns out, is a professor of rice science near Kyoto and had spent a year in Florida not long ago. They were very engaging. We shared stories of adult children, travels, and the quality of rice in America which he confessed was equal to anything in Japan. His wife asked me if I heard the news, which of course I had not, that there was a notable tremor in Tokyo the day before. Checking the TV in my room later there was video of shaking shelves. But it could have been as far away as California to me.

Worth noticing was how homely the experience was, with folding chairs around a simple large table. Now and then I glimpsed into the kitchen from where I sat. A radio or TV played quietly in the background. But the food again was abundant and varied and always slightly different even when the materials were the same. What remains with me now, though, was the honesty that this was someone's house.

"The master of the house brought out some cups," the poet remembered from his trip to Sarashina shrine. They were "too big to be called refined, and were decorated with somewhat uncouth gold-lacquer work, so that over-refined city-dwellers might have hesitated to touch them. Finding them in a remote country as I did, however, I was pleased to see them and thought they were even more precious.” My folding chair and denim pajamas meant more than my blue yukata and hand served meal the day before.

Back in my room, my futon now unpacked for me, I checked my laundry for dryness, having hung it on plastic hangers on the clothes line in my room. To serve my evening sweet tooth I had bought a bag of candies in the store earlier, fruit gels dusted in sugar. I eat and read and write until bed time.


10 August 2014

Day Three on the Kumano Kodo

May 3

Arising early, I eat breakfast a little before 7. Ma and Pa innkeeper, very amiable, had my place laid out with smoked fish, scrambled egg, rice of course, pickles, and miso soup. Pickles are as vital to a meal as rice. And in such variety of color and shape and taste. None are as potent and Japanese as the pickled plum; which a tiny mauve colored fruit, shriveled like a newborn baby. In the mouth it is an explosion of salt and sour without even a hint of sweet, which to the western tongue is a shock. Even after eating them for days, my tongue still expects something fruity; as in winter each day I expect warmth.

slowly spring           
is taking shape:
moon and plum (Basho)

The poet tells me. To which I reply.

Too slowly the tongue
realizes that winter
will never be sweet.

I was on my way by 7:15, retracing the steps I made yesterday. Today I make haste as the distance is 25 km and I must catch a bus at the end to complete the journey.

From the outset the trail was busier. A young man with strong legs is just ahead until Tsugizakura, where he pauses. Past the teahouse with the laundry line, I meet up again with the two Japanese women. “Did you see a gray hat, perhaps?” 

“Yes, in the road yesterday a half a kilometer to Chikatsuyu from the shrine.”  But we are now some distance beyond the shrine. They had stayed by the teahouse, in turns out.  I am sad and a little sorry for not picking up the hat. (I think about the Americans who I have not seen since leaving the bus on Thursday.)
This is an easier day than expected because, though it is longer, the portion of paved and level trail is higher. 

That said, the length and the three large hills to climb and descend make it strenuous enough. According to my information book, the road climbs 1200 meters during the day and descends 1400. With every mountain pitched at a reliable 25-30 degrees that means lots of very tall steps when there were steps. Going up gets the heart pounding, and that makes for stops along the way – places for seeing on purpose and taking pictures. Going down is even harder as the trail is stony and full of twisting tree roots which requires watching and planning every step down as well as up. My eyes must look down to assure a solid landing.

There are other animals today out today. Along the automobile road I see a macaque, wild monkey, loping across the asphalt about 50 meters ahead of me. It picks up speed when it sees me, darting into the bushes. If monkeys are supposed to be amusing, I am far from amused. Monkeys belong in zoos, movies, Africa – they exist in the wild which means this place here must be, well, wild. That this happens close to a car tunnel is an added incongruence. I think of the black bear that casually jogged across a road in Vermont one afternoon. Before I could say the word ‘bearit was gone. This morning I hear the leaves rustle as it climbs up the hillside.

Birds are very vocal in these woods, and I hear more frogs as well. Somewhere in the early afternoon I finally spy one - quite small for the loud sound it makes. Later on the trail I spy a blue beetle, yes blue. Not a dark purple or black with a bluish tinge, but a shiny royal blue carapace. Later in the day I see the empty shell of a tiny river crab. When you have to look down often because of the unpredictable terrain, you still see unexpected things.

Monkeys, beetles, crabs,
and birds. This is your home. I
should remove my shoes.

Less poet, more poem, Basho reminds me.

Sparrow, spare
The horsefly
Dallying in flowers. (Basho)

Sometimes even rocks and trees and moss assert themselves. An old stone water bowl from a ruined teahouse, large and heavy like a toilet, is all that the eye can see of the teahouse, and is itself rimmed with thick moss around the lip. Somewhat later a half meter wide boulder that fell onto the path some time ago stopped there because vines captured it in a ragged net as if snared by a hunter.  The road dwindles to barely a meter wide along hillsides, littered with small stones that elude the vines. “Imperial caravans came this way?” I ask myself again, incredulous. Chronicles tell of bearers and nobles, pausing at every oji to make ablutions and prayers and climb a little higher in purity. Surely the climb itself with its self-basted ablutions is as purifying as the shrines.

There are plenty of little ojis, without the trappings and formalities, eroded statues and lichen encrusted stone slabs like gravestones. Some are in name only, a spot on the map, a few have decent trappings. Between them is an assortment of Jizos, mostly sad little statues covered in moss visible only because a faded bib sticks out from the lumpy green of the stone figure. One or two have plastic cups with dried sticks rather than flowers, and several had baby cups or toys telling me something of the provenance of the giver. These have come to mean more than the grander shrines. They need a little more attention, I think, so I take their pictures. “Smile!”  (They always do.) 

Twice today, going through villages between mountains, a house has a roadside stand with ‘primitive’ carved wooden statues. The first had a man peeing, his member being the spigot for the water tank below. I think of the rude little boy in Brussels doing the same thing. Not as charming when it is a full-grown image rather than a little boy.

And water, I see a dozen waterfalls, mostly small but one makes a real splash, forgive me. Something of a surprise in this remote place, though. Even on the most narrow trail along the highest ridge, there are rubber pipes running along or close underground to carry water, I suppose, both to prevent erosion and capture the water and maybe the energy thereof. This remote and ancient way is being preserved by modern hoses and pipes that try very badly to hide themselves from view.

Rain begins to fall as I reach a rest house in a valley between hills - an open pavilion with tables and attached WC - which makes it worth a stop to take off my raincoat and let it drip a little before resuming.  Thankfully, I need only empty my bladder as the toilet is the traditional squat sort, a small metal trough in the concrete floor and no cleaner than most rustic facilities. 

The rain grows heavier and the wind blows the water under the eaves. Basho remembers a poem from his friend and Zen teacher Buccho, appropriate to the moment.

This grassy hermitage
Hardly any more
than five feet square
I would gladly quit but for the rain. (Basho)

I must of course quote him in return.

Weather worn satchel,
hardly more than five feet tall,
we cannot quit yet.

I still like the more obvious puns and turns of phrase, as you can tell. 

Detoured because a typhoon a few years ago washed part of the actual pilgrim road out, I walk a modern road for a while, a relief but also a regret. I want honest blisters.

Clouds clear off a bit and the sun begins to steam the air. Back into the woods I go, a relief in the warm sun, but there is soon a large clearing at the edge of the forest. Not a clearing, no it is a collapsed hillside from that same typhoon I guess.  And the trail has been remade over top of the debris.

All along the way there have been small repairs where rocks or mud have come down. Some have masonry walls and some just stacked logs. Nothing as enormous as this, though, a steep hundred foot slope of dirt and rock where a forest was. Below the temporary trail fifty foot tree trunks are heaped like toothpicks.

Spring rain
conveyed under the trees
in drops. (Basho)

His wisdom is paying off.

Waterfalls everywhere
gentling the air and the ear
swallowing the trees.

Then, in a short while, I am beside a river, walking along its bank and then almost without warning comes a little red bridge where there is another pavilion and a dead end road and a cookout and cars parked snug against the bright red bridge where the river and the ancient road meet, where I fill my water bottle and eat a little, standing apart from the gathering. But a few meters further on a gathering of some organization, which I surmise because there are bright vertical banners posted near a shrine. Men in traditional clothes stand about in conversation. Children play in a little circle, and women handle food - offerings to the kami at the shrine here, while talking and eating themselves.  I decide not to pause here, or to collect the stamp. 

The road is not mine, now. All this time it was Kumano and me and a few fellow pilgrims: our place. Now, I am the visitor again, trespassing with my dirty clothes and European features, outsider. As the road rises and the trail branches off into the woods I am glad. So much has solitude become my partner that company makes me feel alone without it.

Following the modern road (and my two women friends from the rest stop yesterday) I choose not to take the trail when it goes down to the river and back to the road. I imagine the steep steps down and back and think the three mountains already today are plenty. I know from the map that the old road will rejoin the new in about 500 meters, and the thrill of steep steps has long passed.

A few hundred meters further now the path leaves to road to climb a steeper path of course, and with each step I hear the sound of people and in a few hundred meters  find myself at Hosshinmon-oji which marks the far edge of the Hongu sacred district. Hosshin means “spiritual awakening” or “aspiration to enlightenment” and mon means “gateway.” While each oji along the way is a ritual passage toward the goal, this one signals a transition into the most sacred area. Nothing about its appearance makes that evident, except probably the carved stone markers in Japanese. The spigot that feeds the chozuya is across the automobile road from the oji itself. A sign clearly says it is not for drinking, presuming passers- by would do that. A local walker fills his canteen without a thought.

He shakes the sacred
water from his hands, like flies.
Too pure I surmise.

Yes, my poet companion, you are right. It is about the moment, not the meaning, which is why yours is still superior.

Just as I scoop it,
it rings in my teeth:
spring water  (Basho)

Speaking of water, somewhere in here, feeling hot and tired, I remember that I have had no caffeine today. In one of the villages along the way ahead I prowl the ubiquitous drink machines and succeed in finding some koku zero. It gives me a little kick, enough to power to the end, past the leisure hikers who amble along the path.

The road descends mostly now. I come to Fushiogami-oji, ‘falling on the knees shrine,where one can glimpse the main shrine down in the valley. Not today, of course. Mist and haze cloud the view far below. More day hikers here, and across the road in the rest pavilion. They are showing their stamp booklets. This is the first time I see one or know of them. My little pad of stamps looks rather silly I think, as I tug on the chain that keeps the stamp attached to the kiosk. Children eat ice cream cones with spoons. Where did they find them?

The stamp kiosk, which looks like a birdhouse, has become part of the ritual for me. Some have them and some do not. The ‘birdhouse’ contains an ink pad and stamp, usually chained in some way. They are like woodcuts, but some pads are nearly dry and barely make an impression while some are very fresh and the impression bleeds on the page.

Down, into another village with another carving shop, and beyond it my first look at tea farms. They are shrubs in long rows, like a hedge. Old men and women in wide hats pluck the leaves. A thousand years would not change this scene. Prints and paintings from China and Japan that seemed fanciful in museums – with their farmers in paddies and steep mountains nearby – now seem like photographs.   

Coolness
portrayed in painting:
bamboos of Saga (Basho)

Says my companion. The image, just that and nothing more. Perfect.

Hats yellow in sun
roll slowly through the tea leaves
above old fingers.

Not bad. I am making progress.

Down gently now, the sound of the river Kumano grows slowly. More steps and I reach the outskirts of town. Now, the sound of people adds to the babble of the river. I am on a road with houses, and like a servant I enter the Kumano Hongu Taisha from the back door, between outbuildings, passing trash bins and trucks parked in back. Not a grand entrance for a pilgrim destination.

This is not where the shrine should be. An enormous storm in the 1880s flooded the river where the first complex was for centuries. The emperor then ordered it moved uphill. Of course, all major shrines are rebuilt regularly, so no place is actually very old, although there are some ancient Shinto buildings in places like Takahara-oji. It is the place and the kami that make it reverent, not the buildings. Nature is timeless, you see, creating and destroying as it will without regard to what we humans prize.

I do not reverence the kami here, mostly because the lines are long, and I ‘gave at the Jizo officeearlier in the day. But mostly because those here are truly part of this land and I am not. This ritual is a family affair and a good guest does not inconvenience ones host.

There are three shrines behind one common fence, along a wide fence with people lined up at each. I linger around the edges, taking in the quiet that prevails despite the many people, listening as they ring the bell and clap. In the outer court people mill about like tourists and shoppers. There is always a place to buy amulets and charms, and young men and women in priestly dress to sell them.

After all that hustling to make the bus it turned out I had two hours to spare, so after a long rest on a stone bench, smelling my own stench, I go down the front steps, many and steep, flanked with white banners. Very impressive.  

A village surrounds the shrine complex, serving visitors like any other tourist spot. Having time, I walk a short way on to the original shrine site – and part of the pilgrim road – which was demolished in 1889 and now marked by the largest tori in the world.  It is an Otorii actually – an honorific form of torii - and is still a sacred precinct because only some kami who lived there moved up the hill. Two resident spirits remain on the riverside.

“There was the ruined site of the temple built by the high priest Shunjo at the village of Awa in the province of Iga.” Basho always remembers other places wherever we go. This place, though, is not a ruin. There is a raised area, where the original honden was, I surmise. “The main hall had been completely destroyed, leaving only foundations,” the poet remembers.  Rice paddies cover the area just outside the enormous torii gate, seedlings poking up from the water. Very pretty I think. “The priests living quarters had been reduced to paddies and fields,” he continues.  Pretty paddies are the luxury of the tourist.

The pilgrim road continues on from here to Yunomine Onsen where I will sleep tonight. But my guidebook advises taking a bus after all that walking because the last 3 km are very steep. Considering that the guidebook never mentioned the trail being steep before, I shudder to imagine what it will be when it is worth mentioning. The sun has come out in earnest; it is almost hot waiting for the bus under the translucent canopy by the museum and a can of beer bought from a vending machine feels very satisfying.

I met the river here,
chasing it down the mountain,
and toast the victor.

Cast your eyes a little wider, my companion says. Like this,

This hot day swept away
into the sea by the
Mogami River  (Basho)

A little crowd boards the bus when it arrives, precisely on time of course.  It is a short tide and I know exactly when to get off, but my bus stop is odd – there is nothing nearby. Have I made a mistake? A sign in Japanese that I cannot read lists a phone number. It matches the one I have, so I follow the arrow uphill - yet again - but only briefly.

My hotel is a spa featuring extensive onsens. They greet me at the large hotel front doors threshold with a smile and directions to leave my shoes right there. A numbered tag will protect them like others lined up on the floor.  My slippers are even smaller than the last. Japanese women walk faster in kimonos than I do to my room.

After situating myself in a very lovely room with a view over the nearby valley, I head toward the onsen both for spiritual and physical purposes.  This one truly is under the sky. It is more of a pool made to look like a pond edged with stone. The women in the next pool, separated by a wooden wall, are just audible. My senses take in the sounds of voices and waters, the sights of rock and tree and sky and waves, the sensations of hot water and cool air.

And, after a returning to my room, another elaborate dinner, this one served to me in my room. When people say Japanese food is boring or unsatisfying, they must not have eaten like this.  To be served alone in one’s room is fun but also a little unsettling. A young lady with some English lays it out - explaining it all - kneeling very demurely before me as I sit at the low table. She leaves from time to time, but not without bowing first, closing the shouji behind her. Soon she is back with more food, several times over the hour. Like other meals, no course is very large, starting with a hot pot to cook scallop and prawn (big enough to be menacing if seen on a street corner) along with cabbage and onion and tiny mushrooms I should know the name of. There is rice of course, and a demitasse of split pea soup, sashimi, sushi, seaweed soup (which was really good) and a starter of raw snail (was it alive?), a little mushroom custard served en croute no less, pickles of course, and then a tiny almond pudding.

Like my bath, every sense is strung along like a Brahms melody that refuses to end when you think it will. Afterwards an older man lays out my futon. What a sensible bed this is, but what a meager pillow.

From bath to dinner
moments pass like pearls on thread
adjacent alone

As ever, yours is better, sensei,


hold for a moment
the sound of slicing soybeans:
bowl beating (Basho)