Monday, September 18, 2006

Boring, these Japanese
If there’s a mountain in the way
They bore right through it

Long day getting to Takayama. Basho did not come this way, either, but they’re having the Hachiman Matsuri (Autumn Festival) and it’s the only festival occuring anywhere near his route this late in the year.

I take the train to Toyama, then have to switch to the bus as the trainline was swept away in a taifun. Soon I’m the only person on the basu. This is quite a common occurrence, me being chauffeured around in an 80-seater bus all by myself. I’m told that the reason for this is that, due to the exingencies of the Japanese electoral representation system, the representatives of ‘back-of-beyond’ constituencies have considerable power, so money pours in to butter them up. This money then has to be spent - on totally uneconomic rural bus-services which few use, brightly-lit UFO ‘visitor centres’ plumped down in the middle of nowhere, the hills being given concrete overcoats; and other things which are either downright harmful (such as gigantic concrete coastal ‘tank-trap’ structures ‘to prevent erosion’ which destroy the local ecology) or which nobody needs or wants.

The busdriver is the non-speaking, morose type, hunched over his steering wheel as the hours tick past. The girl at Toyama Information Centre (too much makeup) had said 1 ½ hours to Hirayu, but 2 hours have elapsed and we’re still grinding uphill, past squeaky clean Alpine style honey-pot resorts with posh cars parked outside, and I'm worried about making my connection.

After 2 ½ hours we’re there. Mr Grumpy wordlessly points to a well-lit lobby. I rush over – no information centre – and throw myself on the mercy of a snack-stand girl who takes me to the bus-stop and checks the times for me.

5 minutes later my connection draws up. The Takayama bus has a few passengers, a sweet young stewardess and a chirpy, smiling driver wisecracking with the passengers. No doubt he’s chirpy because he has her, unlike Mr Morose who has nobody. The stewardess tries out her best English on me, but can’t do times and prices, so she writes them down. 1540 yen (£8), arrive Takayama 18.30. She has this totally Japanese (and un-English) quality of ‘other-centredness’ – when she talks to you her whole being is focussed towards you and what you could want, not towards herself. Do they learn this, are they taught, or does it just reach out?

I roll into Takayama Bus Station dead on 6.30 pm and ask a young couple strolling past where the YH is. The guy stutters a bit but the girl looks at me from somewhere way beyond time and space, takes me by the arm, leads me to the corner and points. “Straight down the road,” she says, you can’t miss it.”

I check in, dump my stuff, freshen up, and find a noodle bar. Kirin biiru, soba noodles and prawn tempura. Ahhh. A brassy number in a short black skirt and very high heels flounces in, so I ask her if she speaks Ingrish, which she does. So we do. She flounces out again with a smile and a wriggle. An older woman, well done up 'with an air' comes in and eyes me up, chats to the mama-san. Oh yes, oh yes, I'm starting to get the picture: must be 'a certain part of town'. Uh huh. Any man that lot get their well manicured highly polished claws into wouldn't last 10 seconds. Sucked dry and spat out. Phut. Come to think of it, brassy number had a very deep voice for a woman, especially a Japanese woman...

[satellite link: you can zoom in on individual cars in Takayama if you want]

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Niigata train gets in at 20.07
Nagaoka train leaves at 20.12
Would I make that in Britain?
Would I hell!

I leave the three mountains behind and set my sights to the south. Leaving Tsuruoka at 18.30 I plunge down the coastal plains of the Inland Sea, shrugging off Children-Desert-Parents, Send-Back-the-Dog, Turn-Back-the-Horse, those fearsomely dangerous places in Basho’s day where outriders of the high mountains thrust themselves out into the sea. There were no kilometre long tunnels through them then, no highways built out over the ravening waves on concrete stilts. Travellers had to time their passage precisely in order to not get swept off into the sea or crushed against the rocks.

I get into Nagaoka at 23.00 and doss in the waiting room, sleeping scarcely a wink. At first light I leave the station and head for the Inland Sea. The sun is coming up and the Japanese Alps are ranked upon rank on the city horizon. I touch the water – it’s as warm as a warm bath. I've made it across the width of Japan!

I leave the Basho trail for a while to explore Kyobe-kyo, a gorge extending up into the Japanese Alps. The mainline train takes me to to Unazuki-onsen, then I change to a narrow-gauge train which goes up the gorge. The orange mini-train was built to transport workers building the dams and hydro-electric works scattered along it (including one in the shape of a medieval European castle) but now serves the tourist trade. Probably every river in the Japan is pressed into hydro-electric duties.

Kuronagi-onsen Ryokan is a 3/4hr ride then a 20 minute hike on a butterfly’d path hanging off the edge of a side gorge, descending to the ryokan built on the only flattish spot around, cuddled next to the stream. From my window the view is of two waterfalls and the crystal clear river itself, flowing over stones (but also, unfortunately, of power cables and a small artificial dam). Precipitous slopes climb up on both sides, thickly forested. There is no sound but that of the river.
feel lonely
do zazen
sound of water

This poem says that when you do zazen there is no separation. ‘Sound of water’ and ‘zazen’ are not separate. To talk about things, relate to them in the human world, we separate them out, name them, make them into pictures on the TV screen in our heads. To be human is to be ever separate .. or is it?

feel lonely
do zazen
sound of water
We are, as Rainer Maria Rilke would have it, ‘turned-around Beings’. “…denn schon das fruehe Kind wenden wir um und zwingens, dass es ruckwarts Gestaltung sehe, nicht das Offne, das im Tiergesicht so tief ist. Frei von Tod…” (…We take even the youngest child, turn him around and force him to look backwards at appearances, not that openness so deep within an animal's face. Free from death;)

“… Wir haben nie, nicht einen einzigen Tag, den reinen Raum vor uns, in den die Blumen unendlich aufgehn. Immer ist es Welt and niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht: das Reine, Unueberwachte, das man atmet and unendlich weiss…” (…Not for a single day, no, never do we have that pure space ahead of us, into which flowers endlessly open. It is always World and never Nowhere without No: that pure, unguarded space we breathe, always know…)

Humans – us – form ‘concepts’ in our heads, then we ‘systematize’ them, congeal around these systems and call them ‘beliefs’, ‘customs’, ‘the right way of life’. Everything, even Rilke’s “Reine, Unueberwachte” (the pure, that which is not guarded, kept under supervision or surveillance) becomes part of a code … dis-placed. This happens everywhere, in every coming together of humans: Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, Jewish. ‘The New’ arises spontaneously, instantaneously – but is immediately codified. Das Reine, Unueberwachte…

Buddhist Ethics is very simple. It consists in doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. When is the right time? NOW! Where is the right place? HERE! What is the right thing to do? What you do HERE and NOW! Sin and guilt – the things Christendom uses to keep you in your place?

Back at Kuronagi-onsen Ryokan I grab my towel and head for the rotemburo (a mixed open-air hot bath). This one's right by the side of the river, set amongst large boulders and steaming hot. No-one in it. Damn. No naked women. I strip, wash by the river and jump in … AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

No kappas around, - that’s good. 'Kappas' are sprites who inhabit mountain pools. They (reputably) pull your liver down through your arse and eat it. They have a cavity on top of their heads which contains water, and it's from this that they derive their magical power. Fortunately, all you have to do if you meet a kappa is bow deeply to it. As it's Japanese, it's compelled to bow deeply in return, on which the water in the cavity runs out, it loses its magical powers, and it can't eat your liver. That’s OK, then.

I have a nice hot soak, return to the ryokan and have a long snooze

leaving Kuronagi-onsen
light-brown frogs
jump out of my way

Sunday, September 03, 2006


  • purple links embedded into the body of the text will take you to a translation of the relevant episode from 'oku no hosomichi' - Basho's account of his original 1689 trip
  • links on the sidebar (to the right) are interesting or useful things (like an up-to-date Japan rail network timetable: click on 'english' in the box, put in your start-point and destination and, hey presto, pick whichever train you want! Who said technology ain't wonderful?)
  • there may be other relevant links, too
  • at the end of each posting there is a link to satellite imagery (the resolution on these varies according to the whim of the US military)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Sushi with explosively hot horseradish mustard. Blows the roof of your mouth off. Umeboshi. Sweet-sour mouth-puckering bitterness. Cleans the palate for the next taste sensation. A sort of Irish Stew with yam ('taro'). Sticky white rice - I haven't seen brown rice anywhere in Japan. Barbecued fish with a wonderful teriyaki-type sauce. Salty miso soup with little cubes of white tofu and spring onion. To follow, 2 perfect grapes, each the size of a small plum, frosted, wonderful Muscat flavour, seedless, of course. Offset with two slices of crisp, cold nasi (Japanese pear).

I am puzzled as to what the Japanese call ‘luxury’. By European standards, I would call the ski-hotel I'm in fairly ‘luxurious’. Yet there’s a row of construction workers’ trucks lined up in the carpark and they’re all staying here. I wake up and look out of the window at the workers jigging their trucks’ hydraulic platforms around to get the water off, preparatory to moving out for another day's work on the infrastructure.

dawn at ski-hotel
construction workers’ trucks'
morning ballet

'Ski-hotel'? The Japanese, refreshingly, do not seem to inhabit the dualities we construct ('the religious' vs 'the profane' etc). Do they ski down holy mountains? Of course. I look out for the three gods in Versace ski-suits - surely pink, lime and mulberry with cream piping - bopping down the moguls; then the local bus takes me into Haguro-san Centre.

I cross over the road and squeeze into the birth canal.

A mad Japanese photographer with loads of equipment is hopping around Venerable Cedar Tree next to gojin (5-storied pagoda), trying to get the best shot of the rope-hung cedar. I’m trying to get the best shot of gojin in fleeting, wind-driven sunlight myself, but he keeps disturbing me, hopping around, talking loudly to himself and laughing. In a conformist society, indeed, in any society, how do you create personal space for yourself? One way is to go mad .. or pretend you're mad. They may leave you alone, then, so long as you don't overdo it.

There’s a sudden influx of tourists and three groups of kids.
"Arigato gozaimasu!" the primary school group greets me.
"Arigato gozaimasu!" I reply.
“Good morning!” says the first secondary school group brightly.
“Good morning!” I reply.

The third group just giggles, and one of the schoolgirls gives me a brilliant smile. There’s a spattering of Westerners. I look at them curiously. Haven’t seen any for, oh, weeks.

blonde girl at Haguro-san
exotic beast
amongst a forest of crows
There are 2446 steps from where I am, opposite gojin, up to the shrines at the top. It ‘took 13 years to build them.’

"What you up to today, then, Hirashi?"
"Building steps, mate, building steps"
"But your pappy and your grandpappy both built steps-"
"Yes, mate, that's what we do - build steps, mate. Runs in the family, like. Step up in the world, you know."
"Haw haw haw"
" How's you're stepmother?!"
"Haw haw haw”.

I'm still jumping around photo-ing steps and cedar trees. I clamber up a few hundred, stop to take photos and have a rest.

2446 slippery steps up Haguro-san
God, it's hard work being born!
2/3 of the way up there’s a path off to the site of South Valley Temple. In Basho’s day there was a temple here, a fairly new one, built just 50 or so years ago. It's where he and Sora stayed, courtesy of the head priest. Basho wrote:

The winds that blow
Through South Valley Temple
Are sweetened by snow
The site is unbelievably tranquil. A small, green glade. Two kidney-shaped ponds which encircled, held, the temple; now full of water plants. Some large, flat-topped stones which were the foundations of the temple (it burnt down centuries ago). Another inscribed stone at the far end. Scattered trees. I'm quite alone.

Looking for best angle for shot
I tread unintentionally near pond
a frog
The idea/non-idea, concept/non-concept, practice of 'non-intention'. Very central.

I leave South Valley Temple, rejoin the steps and continue the process of birth.

the birth canal
of this goddess
is lined with cedar trees

human being he go up with great difficulty
daddy long-legs he glide up
lightly, naturally

Yet more steps. Early in the afternoon I burst through the red torii at the top of the steps into infinite light:


All three gods, of Haguro-san (birth); Gassan (death); and Yudono-san (rebirth), are enshrined in this brodignagian red jumbo-jet hangar for the gods in front of me. 'The thatch on the roof alone is 1 1/2 metres thick', the brochure informs me. A dull wailing is being emitted from within, a ceremony going on. The steps to the hangar are high even for my long legs. There's a bit too much encrusted tradition going on here for my taste. I like to think the mountain gods and goddesses (and the forest gods) are rough gruff sorts of chaps and chapettes who like fresh air, not too much incense. They sit up there amongst the clouds or trees and grump around the place, lay a bit of waste every now and then. I can't relate the mountain god singing to me all night on top of Gassan to a being or a doing who would consent to live in an airplane hangar (oh, a very very impressive red-painted one with oodles of functionaries to worship one, to be sure).

behind the shrine
Smell like toilets everywhere
I wander off to find out times of buses back to Tsuruoka, and after a bit of argy bargy with a ruff-tuff monk-type (these fellows ain't sissies!) it turns out there's quite a few, so I decide to go for the 3.30. This worries ruffy-tuffy who keeps telling me 'next basu, next basu' and pointing to next bus already waiting. I wander round the corner out of his sight. Smile at beautiful woman selling postcards.

Back in Tsuruoka . Lonely Planet are a bit sniffy about Tsuruoka, but it suits me fine. It's got excellent transport connections to everywhere; a great supermarket which sells cheese and bread; cheap, good, clean accomodation; free internet connections on the 3rd floor of the Marica Department Store next to the station; a Mister Donut (!); not to mention, of course, a silly statue outside the station which sings loud folk songs to itself whilst turning round and round. What more could one possibly want?

[click here for satellite imagery of dewa sanzan]

Basho travelled – dangerously - by rice boat on the swollen Mogami River en route to Haguro-san. I consider stopping off at Furukuchi to take the same trip, but it’s raining. It’s more than raining, it’s tossing it down and showing no sign of stopping. The swollen lead-grey Mogami slips past to starboard as I stay on the slow-train to Tsuruoka. Basho wrote:

All the summer rains
Violently gather
Mogami River

I write:

Long, grey, boring, miserable day;
the weather brightens towards evening.

Dewa sanzan’ means ‘the three peaks of Dewa Province’. ‘Dewa’ refers to the custom of paying tribute in featherdown in the 8th century. The three peaks are Haguro-san, Gassan and Yudono-san. They represent Birth, Death and Rebirth and are an exceptionally popular pilgim route in season. According to Basho, ‘the Engi ceremonies call Haguro-san ‘Ushusato’ or ‘Feather Province Village Mountain.’ He goes on to say, ‘calligraphers mistakes changed the name to ‘Feather BLACK Mountain’. He also calls Gassan ‘Moon Mountain’ and Yudono-san ‘Bath Mountain’. All in all, lots of room for confusion.

I spend a few very comfortable days in Tsuruoka, staying at Nara Ryokan with a kind landlady, visiting Zenpoji, eating at Mister Donut, then take off for the mountains.

Mister Do-Not:
Tomorrow - genuine Japan;
but tonight - Mister Donut!
er, sumimasen, 'genuine Japan' wa doku desu ka?
(sumimasen=pardon me; wa doku desu ka = where is it?)
In Tsuruoka:
Sod the gameshow:
let's see the crumpet!

“You’re not going up there!” scolds the lady from the information office, rushing up to me as I wait at bus-stop no. 3 for the bus to Yudono-san san rosho. “It’s all shut for the winter. There’s nowhere to stay! It’s cold and the mountain demons will eat you! There’s no bus at the other end, either!”

The bus deposits me at Yudono-san san rosho and a concerned gentleman accosts me. “You’re not going up there!” he scolds. “It’s all shut for the winter. There’s nowhere to stay! It’s cold and the mountain demons will eat you! There’s no bus at the other end, either! You should go up and come back down today, stay in the hotel!”

I mumble something to pacify him – but I have no intention of coming back down. I have made a deal with the mountain that, come what may, I am going up it and spending the night on the top. I’m fully equipped and provisioned and there’s no question or confusion in my mind. I stride off down to the beflagged stream, then up the first stage, disturbing a white-clad figure bathing in a mountain pool – a sprite?

An hour or so later, halfway up the Mountain of Rebirth, Yudono-san, I suddenly realise I’m doing the pilgrimage the wrong way round. The guide book recommends it the wrong way round!

Muddle through.
Do everything wrong.
That’s life.
Some people act as if they know what’s what.
They don’t
Pale crescent moon over Yudono-san

Fine. Next, I next miss the top of Yudono-san completely (it’s a small bump off a long ridge). And to set the seal the run of three, I realise I’ve also completely missed the all-important shrine – Yudono-san jinja - which is at the start of the hike! This shrine is so holy, nothing is to be said about it. I can’t say anything about it even if I wanted to, because I’ve completely by-passed it!

Basho wrote:

forbidden to speak
alone on Yudono Mountain
tears on my

I write:

Bypassed Yudono Mountain.
Missed rebirth yet again.
Guess I’ll have to make do with this life

Ah well. My father used to say, ‘don’t go back – go on’.
I go on.

I reach the top of Gassan, Mountain of Death (1984m), at around 3.30 that afternoon and cast around for somewhere to sleep. At Kaji-goya, a handful of feet below the summit, there’s a random collection of prefabricated buildings, but they’re all shuttered and bolted against the winter. I investigate a possibility behind the main building. Then I look at the obviously new toilet block. The sliding door is - open! The inner door also slides away obligingly and I’m looking into a bright new toilet lined with sweet-smelling pine. Metal rungs go up invitingly to an open trapdoor. I climb up and stick my head through into a clean, snug space of about 15X30ft, with small frosted glass windows to let in light, completely wind and rain-proof! Thank you, whatever-your-name-is, mountain god!

At the top of the Mountain of Death
I say a prayer for my dead

I take shelter from the bitter wind behind the shrine wall, munching on bread and processed cheese. Rank upon rank of mountains march off to the west, rimmed progressively in red, then gold, then salmon, then pure light as the sun slips below the cloud layer. A great horizontal wedge of light has its apex to the south, its striations running round 270 degrees of sky, past Chokai-san on the borders of Akita province, merging in the east into the most subtle mauve, then fading to deep indigo and nothingness. I stand and just look for 2 hours, alone in the sanctuary.

By 6.30 it’s pitch black so I retire to the shelter, curl up and try to sleep. I’m in my sleeping bag, wearing a thermal top, long johns, two pairs of thick hiking socks, trousers, a T-shirt, a shirt, a thick winter fleece, a Gortex jacket and a balaclava – and I’m still cold. The wind howls round the eaves and sings through the sliding doors downstairs. I keep dropping off, then half wake up again, thinking someone is singing to me. The pitch of the voice varies from a soft warble to a crescendo. But not a hostile song.

all night long
the mountain sings to me

At some stage in the long night the voice tells me she wants an offering. I don’t even think of slighting her, so I oblige. Later, I go down for a slash and look out into the night. It’s misty. Rain is OK, wind is OK - but fog could be dangerous. I go over the route I came up in my head – can I retrace my steps in fog? I drop off eventually, wake up just after 6 and rush down to check on the weather. The wind has dropped and it’s clear and dry.

Gyatei gyatei. Hara gyatei. Hara so gyatei.
Boji sowaka. Hannya shingyo

I say ‘thank you’ at the shrine, leaving my nightly offering and a few coins, then stumble over rocks on a very well marked trail down to Butsusho-ike-goya, a hut just below Omowashi-san (1828m). It’s spitting with rain, long wisps of cloud drifting over the path and up the valleys. Soon the rain really sets in.

a single strand of red momiji
across mossy rock
below Omowashi-san

It’s only later I read that the male deity of The Mountain of Death has a female counterpart – The Goddess of Fertility.

Mountain gods I can deal with
Human beings?
Well, they're just a little
more complicated

The wooden-platformed trail leads on over Midi-ga-hara, ‘a scenic marshland with countless small ponds and plants, including some rare species said to have existed since the glacial era’. I hit the carpark at Gas-san-hachi-gome, from where a bus to Haguro-san would’ve left if there’d been one. There’s a crane restructuring the carpark after the latest mountain shrug and a few sodden visitors. I briefly consider hitching a lift, but I want to commune with the mountain, not explain to daytrippers who I am and what I’m doing there. Anyway, I’m on a pilgrimage and I want the anticipation of the wondrous Haguro-san ahead of me as I labour towards it, not to get there in a car or bus and have it presented to me.

all day long
I trudge from death to life

Down I trudge, for mile after mile and hour after hour, along a one-track metalled road, always down. I go through three climate zones: the tops with wiry grass; the dwarf maple zone, resplendent in red and yellow; then, lower down, mixed deciduous wood, beeches, a few pines. It rains. Then it rains some more. Then it rains some more again. I go slightly mad.

HULLO MOUNTAIN! I yell at Gassan.
HULLO MOUNTAIN! I yell at Yudono-san.

About 2/3rds of the way down I come across a tiny shrine to the forest god - with wide, overhanging eaves. I move his sake and beer offerings to one side and take shelter next to him for a while. He doesn’t seem to mind.

Shrine of the forest god
shelter from the rain

Mountain god passes me on to forest god
"Look after him for me," he says,
"he’s a poet."

After 6 ½ hours of continuous descent the road finally bottoms out (4 ½ hrs from the beginning of the road). I squelch on, the road winding slightly uphill again, till I come across the incongruous sight of a large, well-lit ‘education centre’, plonked down in the middle of a glade. Did a UFO deposit it there? I beam in and when someone eventually appears in response to the phone ringing I ask him if he speaks English. He shakes his head and says, "chottomatte kudasai" (just a moment).

I chottomatte, dripping water all over their clean floor, and when I next open my eyes the Fairy Princess in the shape of a marvellous, attractive young woman has materialised in front of me. My mouth drops open. Is this a being from another planet? Fairy Princess rings up a nearby hotel who’ll come and get me in a car. Whilst waiting she shows me around the visitor centre, pointing out the plants and animals and exclaiming over how far I’ve walked. Gassan has over 5m of snow in the winter, she says. I bask (males are easy to flatter by the female of the species). When the car comes, she gives me a present (a button clip of a flower which grows on the mountains). She stands at the door to wave me off.

Forest god he fond of joke
Find nice young woman to get poet hotel room

[click here for satellite imagery of dewa sanzan]