Monday, July 24, 2006

Cedars line the path to the main gate of Zuiganji, dead straight, moss under them. I have been here before. I have never been here before. I have been here before. I have walked up the path to the Zen Temple. The temple lies just where I remember it, just as it should; no, just where it has to; no, it just lies. When the archer looses the arrow, it is already in the target.

It’s raining lightly, a taifun curling its wet, scaly tail round the Inland Sea. I pause at the corner of the verandah and look out onto the rounded hips of the slope behind. Rain drips lightly off the eaves into the moss. I know why I’ve come.

10,000 miles is not too far
to hear rain dripping into moss
at Zuiganji

Basho didn’t like Zuiganji much. He was craving for something simpler: “…the temple was enlarged under Ungo Zenji into seven main structures with new blue-tiled roofs, walls of gold, a jewelled Buddha-land. But my mind wandered, wondering if the priest Kembutsu’s tiny temple might be found.”

Now, more than 300 years later, Zuiganji has mellowed and settled into the landscape. Less of ‘what should be’ and more of ‘what is’. Round the back ‘36 retainers committed seppuku when their lord died’. A lifesize china doll replica of the said Lord, Date Masamune, scowls in the museum, his helmet crested by the keen sickle of the ascendent moon. Trainee Zen monks sculpt the bushes next door into ‘natural’ shapes, stepping back to inspect their handiwork.

‘Natural’? Don’t tell me a Zen Garden is ‘natural’!
It’s as precision manufactured as Mitsubishi steel.
If you want ‘natural’, see under ‘m’ for ‘malaria’!

I wander off up a track and a monk comes after me to tell me I’m intruding. I start to mention Dogen Sangha in England, but desist. I’m in Japan, in a traditional Zen temple, and here you probably have to sit in the Lotus position for 50 years before you’re even qualified to kiss the Master’s arse.

Kissing arse fine
but what is Zen actually about?
The local train stops at Nobiru and I trudge under fir trees through a shower and the gathering dusk to Oku Matsushima Youth Hostel, where I have a six-bunk room to myself. Jets on training flights from the nearby airfield fly past in perfect unison miles above my head.

That night, and the following, I dream consecutive dreams of women. I go to sleep, dream of my wife, wake up, write poetry for 2 hours, go back to sleep, take up the dream where it left off, dream of a past girlfriend.

The shadow of my bunk measures the slow hours of night;
the voice of the sea-goddess beckons from the waves: come drown in my body!

This goes on for two nights. Why? Then I remember. Basho, landing at Ojima Beach, Matsushima, writes: ‘…alighting at Ojima Beach, one is almost overcome by the sense of intense feminine beauty in a shining world’.

Island dotted after island: piggy-backed, mother-baby, father, grandfather. Careless goddess-strewn islands fertilized by sea-god sperm. Red pines ache to connect heaven and earth. The ancients have left messages. Oh Matsushima!

I take a final wander along the beach.

In the sands of Nobiru Beach
I write the name
of every woman I have ever loved

Then I take the train back to Sendai.

[click here for satellite imagery of Matsushima]

Heading North, I change for Ikinoseki, then catch a bus to Hiraizumi and a local bus to the ryokan ‘Okkiri-so’. The owner is waiting for me outside and bustles me in, gabbling away all the time in Japanese. I have a quick soak in the communal bath to shake off the dust of the journey and join the other guests in the dining-room. Hilarity reigns from the onset. Not only does this stupid gaijin not know how to sit, um, decently in his yukata (at a table 6 inches above the ground), he also obviously doesn’t know what to do with the assorted cooking paraphernalia and medley of little dishes on his table.
Like a fish out of water, I gape at a flood of Japanese;
hauled over to translate, guy at next table says, "broiled salmon testes!"
I flip over and die
The other guests – all men – seem to be either utility servicemen or travelling salesmen. One offers me sake onzarokku. Yes – sake on-the-rocks. The giggling owner – but she’s giggling with me, not at me – shows me how to light the brazier and cook my own food, to my own liking. The thin-cut beef is delicious, the miso soup - but some of the other ingredients…well, thebrain is willing, but the stomach is another matter.

You don’t walk on your feet, you walk on your stomach! Food so fresh it’s still wriggling. Kill it! Burn it! Eat it! Great Hairy Northern Barbarian prefer well dead and well cooked! Sink teeth into Japanese schoolgirl butt! Nyugg!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Soft morning in Komagone
Crows discuss the day’s prospects
A 13 hour flight and I sleep scarcely a wink. Snow-streaked Siberia washes away to starboard beneath the wings of the Jumbo. I sit between Lynne, textile-weaver from Edinburgh, and Emi, Swiss-educated Japanese poet and dramaturge. Lynne and I talk about the Arts Council and whether arts’ grants encourage a type of artist whose work depends solely on the availability of grants (‘a grants artist’, as she calls them). She thinks people should ‘just do their work’. I don’t have much of a leg to stand or even sit on here as the very reason for my being able to participate in the conversation is courtesy of an Arts Council travel bursary … and in any case I’m ambivalent. Artists have always been – and needed to be – patronised, whether by a bureaucracy such as the Arts Council, or by a Pope (Michaelangelo) or a Grand Duke or some other aristocrat (Mozart). The Muse, frankly, doesn’t seem that bothered. She can, in some ways, be quite an amenable sort of lady.

Emi says (in German) that in Japan there is no official patronage of artists that she knows of, and certainly not of poets. There are only various more-or-less unpalatable alternatives: engineer an entre into academia and teach; do some ‘day-job’ to earn the filthy lucre; or get yourself under the tutelage of a Master Poet in a group. The last-mentioned, she says, means you can’t say ‘no’, but must bow to the authority of the Master and the consensus of the group. Hmmm. Basho seems to have lived off the beneficence of well-to-do merchants aspiring to culture (about whom he was fairly snobbish) or aristocratic hosts. He also had disciples.

No point trying to be ‘pure’ in this life
Just write poem, eat dirt
We curve across the Sea of Japan, dismiss the route across northern Honshu - which is later to take me a good 10 days on foot, by rail and by bus - in a few minutes; and beam in on Narita Airport.

I stay for 2 jet-lagged and culture-shocked nights with most kind hosts Eita and Saori in their exquisite flat in Komagone. At 11.00 at night we have a farewell drink 55 storeys up in a Shinjiku skyscraper, then I join a busload of home-going students on the night bus north to Sendai. Nikko, sessho-seki (‘murder stone’), the Shirakawa Barrier, Fukushima and Iizuka (“…inside the temple, enjoying tea, Yoshitsune’s long sword and the priest Benkei’s little Buddhist whicker chest …”) - all whistle past in the dark.

Arriving in Sendai at 5.30 in the morning I catnap under the elevator until the shops open, ignored by early morning workers.

Then I have a MacBreakfast.

Sendai is ultra-modern, clean, spaciously laid out with three levels of transport: below, the underground and local trains; at ground level, the buses; up above, the shikansen (high speed bullet train). Coming out of the massive ‘Verkehrsknotenpunkt’ (‘transport hub’) I am confronted by a giant plasma screen high up on an office block. 4 bears are dancing the tango and singing (loudly) in Japanese.

Universe got constipated
excreted human
Uff, what have we here?

At lunchtime I pick up a bento (lunch box) and retire to a local park. A very conventional-looking ‘salaryman’ of 50-odd sits 20 yards away on the sparse grass, practising his mouth organ with the absolute concentration and complete lack of self-consciousness of a small child. We’ve lost this quality in the West, we ‘educate’ our children out of it as soon as possible. He’s playing the hymn ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ from a Teach-Yourself book, pausing only to carefully wipe his shiny instrument on a special cloth which he just as attentively folds away into the case. An immensely fat Japanese schoolgirl in the usual short, plaid flouncy skirt waddles past and a couple of kids are playing football in the far corner. I snooze, then, refreshed, catch the local train with a bunch of happy ladies out to Matsushima Kaigan.

an open sky!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind — filled with a strong desire to wander. . . .

Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 1966)

On a beautiful Spring morning, the poet Matsuo Basho patched his trousers, fixed his straw hat and rubbed moxa into his calf muscles to strengthen them. Then he picked up his writing instruments, a few travel necessities, and, accompanied by his friend, Sora, left his simple hut on the banks of the Sumidagawa in Edo (present day Tokyo) to begin a long journey into both his and Japan’s interior. He wrote:

Behind this door
Now buried in deep grass
A different generation will celebrate
The Festival of Dolls

The year was 1689. In England, William of Orange was being crowned King, and was to go on to crush a Catholic Irish rebellion in The Battle Of The Boyne in 1690, an event still celebrated annually by ‘the Orangemen’ (Ulster Protestants). Basho, however, "was dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima.”

After his travels, he spent four years compiling his writings into a book, oku no hosomichi (variously translated as ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ or ‘The Narrow Road to the Interior’), which has since become one of the most revered classics in Japanese literature.

The passing spring
Birds mourn,
Fishes weep with tearful eyes.
In the late summer of 2005 I boarded the Intercity Hopper from Bristol International Airport, bound for Schiphol in the Netherlands. Here I picked up a KLM long-haul flight to Narita, Tokyo. I was going to realise a long-held dream: using oku no hosomichi as a guide, to follow in the ancient Master’s footsteps - or as many of them as I could in five weeks.

Edo (Tokyo); north to Matsushima with its fabled islands, further north yet to Hiraizumi and Choson-ji, site of the Golden Hall of Konjikido (already reputed by Marco Polo); then East, East across the spine of Honshu, the main island of Japan; through Naruko Hotsprings and the Shitomae Barrier; on to Tsuruoka and a pilgrimage to Black Feather Mountain, Moon Mountain and Bath Mountain, where there is a shrine so holy even Basho was not allowed to say anything about it; then plunging down the coast of the Inland Sea, past Children-Desert-Parents, Send-Back-the-Dog, Turn-Back-the-Horse – fearsomely dangerous places in Basho’s day – and on to Kanazawa, exquisite Kenroku-en, Fukui, Eihei-ji, headquarters of the Soto Zen School founded in the 12th century by Dogen Zenji…

These fabled names dance in my head as I haggle over the price of a pair of lightweight Gortex boots in the Outward Bound shop, scrutinise the Lonely Planet guide for places to stay, kiss my wife goodbye, and begin a long journey into my and Japan’s interior.