Saturday, August 26, 2006

Wanna go to Naruko-onsen.
"Shikansen?" asks unhelpful tourist woman.
"Iie (no)”, I say
"Ah," she says, "change Kogota!"
Nearly all gaijin tourists have a Japan Railpass. You pay a fixed amount and can travel anywhere you want for 1,2,3 weeks, depending. Sounds like a good deal, but I wasn’t so sure. It encourages ‘railpass tourism’, ‘ticking the boxes’, ‘getting all the sights in’. I thought that were I to find somewhere nice and wanted to stay for a while I’d feel I couldn’t – I’d be wasting my precious Railpass. So I didn’t get one.

The trains I take – apart from being cheaper - clack along slowly, stopping often to pick up and disgorge schoolkids, peasant women bent double after a lifetime of rice farming, people with interesting faces. I can see into backyards, admire the topiary in front gardens. You don’t get that at 300kph in a shikansen (bullet train).
No need to get anywhere,
no hurry.
Sun at Hiraizumi Station
I arrive at Naruko-onsen, drop into the Tourist office, drop into Takishima Ryokan (Has rather a ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ feel but does the job, says The Lonely Planet guide – they’re right, the place has rather an air, as does the wistful owner), then dash up the road to Taki-no-yu, an ancient and venerable onsen (hot-spring). Taki-no-yu is the holy bath of the nearby Shinto Shrine and has more than 1000 years of history. It has ‘hardly changed over the last 150 years’.

I pay my 150 yen (75p – who said Japan was expensive?), discard my clothes, scrub up and literally drop into the main male bath. ‘Scrub up?’ – yes, in Japan one washes before getting into the (communal) bath. The bath is steaming hot and meant purely for relaxation and soaking, not washing. Getting ready to bathe is a whole ritual in itself, sitting on a little wooden stool, pouring water over oneself, soaping, more water, ears, hair, back of neck, cracks between the toes, gargle, spit …

At Taki-no-yu everything is cedar – the main walls, the partition dividing the male and female baths, the bath itself, and even the pipes bringing the stinging hot, milky water in. A youngish guy with a blood-curdling tatoo of a samurai severing someone’s neck covering the whole of his back barges through the swinging door, scrubs up and drops into the bath. A yakuza (Japanese gangster). I’m sitting in a bath with a naked yakuza! He doesn’t, fortunately, seem too interested in severing my neck just at the moment, perhaps because we’re in a holy bath. Anyway, I can’t seem to worry about it too much. The water’s blissing me out. I soak for as long as I can take the heat, then get out.
a bunch of marigolds
in the toilets
at Taki-no-yu
As I leave Taki-no-yu, bending low to brush aside the door hanging, dusk is descending. Outside, red lanterns sway gently in a slight breeze, beckoning guests in to low-beamed, traditional-looking places to eat. A sudden clack of geta (traditional wooden clogs) and an underlay of voices as a mixed group of visitors, male and female both clad in the same blue and white yukata, rustle past. A scene which could have come down unchanged through the centuries, the millennia. In a daze, feet scarcely touching the ground, I wander off to find something I can eat.

The next day I go in search of Basho.

Beyond Narugo Hot Springs, we crossed Shitomae Barrier and entered Dewa Province. Almost no-one comes this way, and the barrier guards were suspicious, slow and thorough. Delayed, we climbed a steep mountain in falling dark and took refuge in a guard shack. A heavy storm pounded the shack with wind and rain for three miserable days.
Eaten alive by lice and fleas
now the horse
beside my pillow pees

All the main roads in Japan have massive dumper trucks thundering along them, transporting brother mountain to fill sister valley, steel girders to shore up the consequent gaps, concrete to pin down her underskirts, stop her wiggling. Yet still she wiggles. Her hot flushes in summer bake everyone alive, her cold tears fall silently in winter from ashen cheeks, the snow drifting up to 5 metres high. In spring her waters break, rain falls endlessly, birthing new life, cicadas sing, the rivers burst their banks, get their fingers into the land and pull it apart. Then: EARTHQUAKE! She shrugs it all off. Dumper trucks scuttle along her veins and the humans put it all together again.

I wander along the main road THUNDER, past the kokeshi factory THUNDER making brightly painted wooden dolls, pause to video young bloke making one THUNDER, up to modern bridge, cross the road THUNDER and down to shitomae-no-seki.

A reconstruction of the torii (gateway) stands here, alongside the old country track, a statue of the great man and an explanatory panel showing the barrier as it was then.
Basho was treated suspiciously here;
there is a theory that he was a spy for
the Shogunate.
Freely passing Shitomae-no-seki, mist lifts off the valley
I put my notebook in the statue’s hands and a dragonfly alights on it, then takes off again. Dragonflys in Japan carry messages to and from the Land of the Dead.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Here, the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara clan passed away like a fleeting dream (…) Only Mt Kinkei remained. I climbed the hill where Yoshitsune died; I saw the Kitakami, a broad stream flowing down through the Nambu Plain, the Koromo River circling Izumi Castle below the hill before joining the Kitakami…”

Yoshitsune is one of the best-loved tragic samurai figures in Japanese history. After securing a succession of bold and crucial victories for his elder brother, Miramoto no Yoritomo, in their fight for the shogunate, he fell out with him and was forced to flee north to the protection of the Fujiwara Clan. The Shogunate eventually came after him and his protectors, sacked, burnt and pillaged the lot, and that was that.

Basho had Yoshitsune constantly in mind during his travels, and most of the rest of his trip was in fact a mirror image of Yoshitsune’s epic flight for sanctuary.

I stood at the railings at Takadachi-gideo, right where Basho wrote perhaps his most famous verse:

Summer grasses
All that is left of great warriors’
Imperial dreams
Here Yoshitsune killed himself when all was lost. Here Basho ‘sat down on his hat and wept bitterly till he almost forgot time’. I saw what Yoshitsune saw as he died: the broad sweep of the River Kitakami, its tributary, Koromogawa, coming in from the left, the crescent-shaped sandbank on the far side of the Kitakami, the bulk of Kinkei mountain, looming against the sky in front ... and a massive great by-pass being built right in front of me!

I am going to protest! I have a duty as a poet to protest! I could be the last poet to stand here and see what Yoshitsune saw as his blood stained the ground and his sight dimmed! How DARE they build a by-pass in front of it??!? This is a rape of Japan’s cultural history!

Rampant on horse
Rampant on dumper truck
Highways Development Agency

Infuriated and saddened at the same time, I jump on my rattly hired bike and peddle madly down and across to Choson-ji.

Choson-ji was founded in 850 by the Tendai Buddhist sect, and then extended by the first Fujiwara lord into a vast complex of over 40 temples and 300 buildings. Most of the complex was ravaged by a fire in 1337.

There is a Jamaican connection here, believe it or not. Marco Polo returned from China in the 13th century bearing travellers’ tales of ‘the fabled islands of Zipong’ (Japan) and ‘The Golden Hall of Hiraizumi’. One Christopher Columbus picked up on these. He determined to make his name (and fortune) and find the fabled hall by travelling west to the Orient, avoiding the almost total economic blockade by Muslim States of the way to the East. It took some time to find a sponsor for this doubtful venture, but eventually the Spanish Queen, Isabel, prevailed on her husband to bankroll the trip, and, in 1492, a date indelibly fixed in every West Indian schoolboy's mind through the memonic “in 1492 / Columbus sailed the blue”, he made landfall in the Bahamas, believing he’d reached ‘The Indies’. Hence ‘The West Indies’ and the start of the European exploitation of the islands, the growing of sugar-cane, slavery, buccaneering, expansionism, why we play cricket in Jamaica and all that jazz.

Konjikido – the actual Golden Hall - dates from 1124 and is housed under a protective outer wooden structure from well before the 17th century Basho. This, in turn, is housed under a modern protective shell. Layer on layer. The Japanese wrap things in layers, boxes. They wrap themselves in layers, boxes. Kimonos consist of an exquisity of multiple layers. Their famed lacquerware consists of layer after painstakingly applied layer of lacquer. Their society itself consists of layers, boxes.

Konjikido itself is golden, marvellous - but, like Basho at Zuiganji, I am distracted by the shuffling day-trippers, the tour guides, the loudspeakers; there’s too much gold, too much veneration.

Basho wrote: ‘Jewelled doors battered by winds; gold pillars cracked by cold, all would have gone to grass, but added outer roof and walls protect it. Through the endless winds and rains of a thousand years, this great hall remains.

I write:
Jewelled doors battered by winds;
gold pillars cracked by cold;
all will go to grass where grasshoppers sing,
oh Konjikido