Friday, February 9, 2018


The black of the winter night feels as if it will swallow you.  It is liquid and you are being absorbed.  The train slips through it, a bullet through ink.  Glass and fluorescent lighting attempt to repel the advance.  Interior and exterior are 50/50, the same information given and taken.

After Akashi the train clings to the coast.  The sea.  And nothing.  Direction - forward, backward, up, down - stops.  You are pulled right through the glass, and you must swim.  Enveloped in black.  It is possible to drown in this kind of black.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mochi (餅)

If you thought that after nearly four years in this country I had become some kind of a quasi-Japan expert, on.

Mochi is a glutinous rice cake and a staple of most New Year's celebrations in Japan.  Traditionally it is made from steamed rice that is beaten to a...well, not a pulp, but a sticky mass with a large wooden mallet.  This rhythmic pre-New Year ceremony called mochitsuki requires the labor of two people: one to swing the mallet and the other to turn the mochi and keep it moist.  Once it is smooth, it is torn into smaller pieces and usually shaped into bulbous discs.

I was given a rather large quantity of mochi by an acquaintance who had brought it from a remote temple on the Japan Sea in Ishikawa Prefecture.  I was of course grateful for the gift, but completely clueless as to what to do with it.  He said I could/should grill it.  As I have neither a grill nor an oven this was not an option.  But I thought, hey, improvise, put those old Parisian culinary skills to use.

I approached it as I would tofu.  This was my first mistake.  A block of coagulated soy milk is not even remotely the same as a glutinous rice cake.  After cutting the mochi into more manageable pieces I heated a pan with a scant amount of oil and tossed them in.  Hmm.  Mochi doesn't brown it melts.  Okay.  I added water to the pan.  This turned into glue.  Hmm.  Soup.  I'll make soup.  I added more water and some vegetables.  The mochi was not transitioning from solid to liquid with the heat and water; it was coagulating, becoming more gummy, more gloopy.  I poured it into a bowl.  It had the consistency of Murray's hair pomade.  I literally could have used it to plaster my walls, and I wondered it it hadn't maybe been used for this purpose once upon a time.

There is a mochi soup called zoni.  This was not that.  It didn't taste bad, but I did have an outside fear that my internal organs might adhere to one another, that I might literally gum up my works.  I wondered if I had an solvents on hand.  Mochi does in fact send hundreds of people to the hospital every year and choking deaths are not uncommon.

The lesson here is this...well, I don't know if there is a lesson, only that I still have a lot to learn about Japan. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Wherever I lay my hat

Bing Crosby first sang "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in 1943.  

My annual pilgrimage to California for Christmas followed by the new year back in Japan always gets me thinking about "home".  What is it?  Where is it?  Is it where you were born?  Is it where you have spent the most time?  Is it where you are currently residing?  Or is it something more transient like the 1962 Marvin Gaye song, "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)"?

I'm feeling more and more like a Kyoto-jin, a Kyotoite in English (I think).  Kyoto is a city of manageable scale and tempo.  827.8 km² (514 miles²).  1.475 million people.  There is space.  I can breathe.  I like it.  When I leave Kyoto, I miss it.

Three hours in Tokyo en route to Narita Airport and I'm vaguely annoyed and slightly bored.  I don't know this anymore, this kind of city.  I've lost my urban sense, my urban joy.  The hustle and bustle of the big city.  I was intoxicated by this as a young man.  Now it seems to be somehow pointless.  Tokyo is imposing, glamorous, fast and furious, but for what, why?  Where is it going, the people, where are they going at such a pace?  Everyone trying so hard.

It's not too difficult to find peace and quiet in Kyoto, especially this time of year.  And what is home, if not a place to find a little peace and quiet.

Sunday, November 26, 2017


In the four short years since I came to Japan tourism has more than doubled, from 10.4 million visitors in 2013, to more than 24 million in 2016.  As of November this number has already been surpassed.  During the peak tourist seasons, in the spring for the sakura (cherry blossoms) and the autumn for the changing foliage, it does sometimes feel like tourists outnumber residents.

It has been some time since I made a concerted effort to view the maple trees and their deciduous comrades in autumn.  This is called momijigari.  With very loose plans I set out to see the color show at a couple of the more remote temples in Arashiyama.  This seemed to be a mistake from the moment I got off the train.  Arashiyama, around Togestukyo Bridge is always swarmed with tourists.  I have however successfully escaped this throng in the past.  Route 29, the main road on the north side of the bridge, was almost impassable, myself and hundreds of others literally walking in the street to overtake the slower moving gawkers.

The crowd thinned beyond the Sagano Line railroad tracks.  This was encouraging.  I thought, keep going, keep going until you are alone.  By the time I reached Sagatoriimoto in the foothills of the Atago Mountains there were just a handful of other people around.

There are two restaurants at the top of a hill where the charming Route 50 splits.  Both are named for the fresh Ayu fished from the nearby Hozu River.  I stopped for lunch at the one that appeared to be more modest in its pretensions - the 400-year-old Ayu no Yado Tsutaya.  I was shown the menu in advance, a tactful stratagem for shooing away dusty backpackers and budget tourists, then escorted to what I had hoped would be a private washitsu.

Alas, the lovely room with its immaculate tatami and gleaming black lacquer table was occupied by what I must describe as the stiffest, most uptight bi-racial couple I have ever encountered.  The gaijin was a middle-aged man with a neatly bald head and black mock-turtleneck sweater whose posture was impossibly straight.  The Nihonjin (Japanese) was a spectacularly plain woman in glasses hovering on the younger side of the same age bracket.  They spoke in hushed tones as if sharing government secrets.  The pretence was palpable.  And my nice grilled Hamo (pike conger eel) lunch was all but ruined.

I left that disagreeable scene and drifted through the mountain-hugging back streets where some truly gorgeous homes proudly sit.  A wrong turn brought me to Giou-ji Temple and a large flag-following tour group.  This horde dissuaded me from lingering.  At the entrance to Takaguchi-dera nearby I was greeted by temple staff shouting angrily at a man taking photos outside the temple grounds.  The nerves of those working in the industry serving the above mentioned millions clearly fraying.  I quickly u-turned.

I headed east on a road that cut across open fields and farmland to Daikaku-ji Temple.  Built some 1200 years ago this expansive structure complete with a large pond 1 kilometre in circumference was originally the detached palace of Emperor Saga (785-842).  It was converted to a temple in 876.  There is a network of buildings connected by squeaking covered walkways.  Slippers are provided at the entrance which makes stepping into the various rooms easy, but becomes humorously problematic when you discover your slippers are gone when you step out.

The shortened days mean the tourist groups abandon their missions early.  Walking back to the train through the town the earlier bustling streets were now pleasantly muted, the autumn palette of the Arashiyama hills a deeper, more moody hue.  My serene momijigari - found at last.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Yase Shamenchi Odori (八瀬赦免地踊)

The days are growing short.  The bus climbs into the black hills.  I alight at Furusatomae in the village of Yase which is at the foot of Mount Hiei northeast of the city.  Or at least I hope I have.  It's impossible to know in the darkness with little more than the moon to light the road.  The air is cool.

I have come to see the Yase Shamenchi Odori (pardoned land dance) which takes place in early October every year at Akimoto-jinja.  This so-called dance of gratitude, preceded by a grand procession, is a registered intangible cultural property of Kyoto.  The dance originated in the Edo period (1603-1868) when the shogunate Akimoto Tajimamori came to the aid of the people of Yase in a land dispute.  To show their appreciation for the favour bestowed upon them by this noble they built a shrine and held an annual dance performance in his honour.

The main feature of the procession to the shrine where the dance takes place is the eight young boys dressed as maidens with polyhedral paper lanterns balanced on their heads.  Each of the 12 panels of the 70cm tall lanterns has an incredibly intricate design of various flora, fauna and warriors cut from red paper.  Using special knives, these delicate artworks take months to cut out.  As the boys proceed up the unlit path to Akimoto-jinja the lanterns atop their heads appear to float in the night.  The solemn rhythmic singing of village elders at the top of the steps welcome the young lantern bearers.

The votive dance is performed by 10 and 11-year-old girls wearing floral headpieces and colourful period costumes.  There are two numbers: the shiokumi odori (salt scooping dance) and the hana tsumami odori (flower picking dance).  They move with the grace of young maiko (geisha apprentices) around the stage.

It is all quite exquisite and enchanting.

There is a certain mystery to the night.  It is the darkness.  Everything is a little vague and amorphous.  Returning to the city after the Yase Shamenchi Odori, it is as if waking from a dream.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


I see the scaffolding go up
brutal young men
     joking, cigarettes, brown skin

I know what comes next
     a shroud is pulled up

          inside a home breathes
          its last breath

They will attack the house
     with hammers and bars
     a mini excavator will
          finish the job

Tatami straw, cedar posts, clay roof tiles

     torn, twisted, cracked
     heaped in a pile

          the dust of another century
               settles, lightly

The shroud comes down
Someone's history has been

and the heartbeat grows
                    ever          more