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


Friday, September 29, 2017

Gion (祇園)

Gion is another world within Kyoto, within Japan.  It doesn't exist until after dark, and it lives in the shadows, skating along what seems to be the edge of something illegal.  But it is an institution so it can flirt with a sort of lawlessness that other districts can't.

No one lives in Gion; there are no residents, but at dusk it comes alive: beautiful women in impossible heels, long legs and 70s curls; maiko and geiko in kimono, clip-clopping in geta to exclusive tea houses; Brooklyn-style thugs with bleach-blonde hair and pierced ears working the doors, chain-smoking, mobile phone tapping; salarymen, black suits, white shirts, deep pockets, no imagination, red-faced with alcohol; yakuza heavies, Hollywood sunglasses, Italian luxury goods, the quiet swagger of ownership; curious/lost tourists searching vainly for an English-friendly restaurant.  Gion is a parade!

But to get in, really get in, you must be Japanese.  Things are much more democratic in New York.  A fat wallet or cleavage will get you in most anywhere.  Not so in Gion.  It is a trifecta of attributes: Japanese birth or ancestry, solid Kyoto connections and serious disposable income.  My friend Ken-san's bar/cafe Rinken offers an affordable seat to this mysterious world.  I sit and watch it float by.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sento-Kuyo (千灯供養)

In western Kyoto, well off the tourist trail, is a temple called Adashino Nembutsuji.  It is a good 30+ minute walk from Togetsukyo Bridge and the heart of Arashiyama.

This temple had its beginnings as a sort of potter's field in the Heian Period (794-1185), a place where the indigent basically abandoned the bodies of their dead.  The founder of Nembutsuji, a kindly monk named Kobo Daishi took pity on these lost souls and placed roughly hewn stone jizo (Buddhas) to honor them.  Over the centuries thousands of these statuettes were scattered around Adashino.  Some time around 1906, after hundreds of years of neglect, they were all gathered together in one place at Nembutsuji.  Today some 8,000 are packed tightly together in what is called 
Sai no Kawara or "the field of departed souls". 

Sento-Kuyo (千灯供養) is a ceremony to venerate the jizo of Nembutsuji held every year on August 23rd and 24th at dusk.  While the temple monks chant sutra, more than a thousand candles are lit by visitors as an offering to the ancestral spirits.  

This ritual is beautiful and hypnotic.  The candles multiply and the flames flicker against the growing blackness of night.  A rhythmic contrast of light and dark.  Soon the entire field appears to be wavering in fire.  The jizo shadows dance.

I circle around and around with my slender candle in search of a jizo that needs illuminating.  I study them, slipping between the narrow rows.  Some of these stone statuettes are said to be more than a thousand years old.  Whatever Buddha-like features that may have been chiseled into them have long since disappeared, worn smooth by time and the elements.  They are as anonymous as any mountain rock.  These are the ones I like.

At last I find the right one.  I light my candle and say a prayer.  Then I leave the hilltop temple glowing in the warm summer night.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tango (丹後)

In California when it gets hot you go to the ocean.  The cool Pacific, the onshore breeze.  A day at the beach and you forget all about the heat inland.  The city of Kyoto is landlocked.  But Kyoto Prefecture has a sliver of coastline on the Sea of Japan.  This region is called Tango and is about two hours north of the city.  It is not significantly cooler than the city, but somehow just being in the proximity of this large body of water has a cooling effect on the body and mind, a sort of illusion of cool.

A couple of weeks ago I made a weekend trip to Tango with my friends.

We started at Amanohashidate, a 3.3 km long isthmus covered with thousands of pine trees cutting across Miyazu Bay.  This "bridge in heaven" (the translation of Amonohashidate) is traditionally, and oddly, viewed upside down (i.e. between your legs).  From this vantage point the sandbar appears to be a path climbing into the sky.  Amanohashidate is ranked among Japan's three most scenic places (nihon sankei) and was the inspiration for the garden pond at Katsura Imperial Villa.

The eastern coast of the narrow sandbar is dotted with white sand beaches for sunbathing and swimming.  I was anxious to take a dip; this was really my main objective.  But I was surprised to find the water a tepid 27°C (80°F).  It was nonetheless refreshing and enjoyable.

For lunch we went to Amanohashidate Winery (est. 1999).  This small vineyard on the north shore of the Asoumi Sea (the enclosed west side of the Amanohashidate sandbar) grows its own grapes and utilizes German production methods.  They produce a variety of drinkable if not exactly remarkable wines using mostly Seibel grapes.

From there we drove to Ine along Route 178, which is Japan's, or at least Kansai's PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).  It is known by the local surfers as "Surf Highway", though the good surfing is on the opposite side of the Tango Peninsula.  It is a delightful two-lane road built just a few meters above the sea that hugs the curves of the coast .

Ine is a small fishing village famous for its funaya (boat houses).  Where most houses in Japan have a car in the garage, these waterfront dwellings have boats.  The ground floor is literally in the sea.

Our guesthouse, called Tycho, was deep in the Tango countryside and required an old-fashioned phone call when the car GPS failed to find it.  It was a quirky renovation of an old building that had only just opened.

After freshening up at a nearby onsen we were treated to a special meal in the guest house prepared by a local chef my friends had befriended on a previous trip.  I manned the bar and kept everyone lubricated between courses.  The dinner was simple but exquisite.

Hanabi (fireworks) followed.  In Japan fireworks can be purchased by anyone at any supermarket all summer long.  I found myself trying to explain that fireworks are illegal in the States even though most anyone can buy a gun.  Huh?

The next morning we woke early and a local fisherman/sushi chef (?) showed us how to make sushi.  Yep, sushi for breakfast.  I've had fish for breakfast before, but never sushi.  We all donned the colorful happi jackets of a sushi chef and got to work.  The ultra fresh fish plus my own touch...yeah, good.

Strange.  This was a completely Japanese weekend, a typical summer holiday.  There was very little English spoken and scarcely a gaijin to be seen.  But somehow it felt very familiar.  There was something very California about it all, from the beach to the winery to Surf Highway.  Maybe I've found a little California in Japan.