Saturday, 11 July 2015

Narrow Road To The Deep North 1

                                             ‘How was the festival
                                              up at Nikkō...
                                                            Kobayashi Issa

Midori is a Japanese melon liqueur, the main ingredient in cocktails like The Universe, The Mikado, Fairyland, and Dreaming of Zen. Suntory launched it into the universe during a monster party at Studio 54 in 1978, the same year the New York club was raided for tax evasion, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy, after its owner had stated that only the Mafia made more money than the club.
Robyn and I were on the Kamakura station platform thirty-six years later, leaving the Mikado and dreaming of Zen in our own fairyland, when we met the real Midori. 
An elegant diminutive Japanese woman, older but ageless, Midori exuded warmth and generosity of spirit. She was lovely, like my Aunt Clarice was lovely- played the bad cards as well as she could, lost, smile still radiant in the storm. Midori was an ikebana expert, waiting on our platform for the same train. She travelled with us as far as Tokyo, refusing to take my seat, and asking delicately poised single flower questions, about why we were here. Our conversation was interrupted at stations along the route, by the kind of pipe organ fanfare music we knew from hockey games in Canada. I told Midori we were headed to Nikkō, home city to the Nikkō Ice Bucks in the Asia League Ice Hockey.
“Ah so desu ka.” She said, like I had taught her something useful. We exchanged bows in Tokyo Station, and melted apart into the crowds of men in black suits carrying satchels, divining the universe with their extended cellphones. 
Robin and I found our way across the city to the private Tobu train station in Asakusa, and boarded our Spacia special express, north to the ‘sunlight’ city of Nikkō, in the Tochigi mountains. Past the half mile high white Tokyo Skytree tower, the tallest in the world, the expansive terrain of skyscrapers and apartment blocks gradually came back to ground level, turning to suburbs, then towns, never too far apart. There were fewer salarimen, sitting together like Jizō guardians, and other passengers, Green Gable Barbie Annes, women in love limbo and floppy hats. Our conductor found us in the wrong seats, but graciously changed our tickets to accommodate the better view. He turned and bowed to our carriage, every time he entered and exited. We flew by a sign in English, on a shop in a congested village. Making your dream come true.

Friday, 10 July 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 45

In 1923, the Great Kantō earthquake caused the sea to recede at an unprecedented velocity. The waves rushed back in a great wall over twenty feet high, drowning some and crushing others, beneath an avalanche of waterborne debris. The total death toll exceeded 2,000 victims. Large sections of the shore slid into the ocean. The beach rose six feet, creating a new wide expanse of sand, fully exposed above the waterline.
The last of our own sand in Kamakura was trickling through the hourglass. At the base of the stairway was the Maiden ritual dance stage, where Yoritomo forced the mistress of the hunted Yoshitsune, Lady Shizuka, to perform for him. Pregnant with Yoshitsune’s child, rather than celebrate the Shogun, she sang and danced to express her love for his fugitive brother, his joy and skill in cutting leaves as they fell from a tree, and her sorrow at his plight. 

                                        ‘Flung up at the moon,
                                        Thrown down at the grass-
                                        The dancer’s hands.’
                                                        Sixty Senryu

Thursday, 9 July 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 44

‘Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation  
 that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the     
 greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your 
 lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see 
 all things  clearly. And you can see all the forces that shape events; 
 not just the things happening near to you.’
                                                                          Miyamoto Musashi

The Daibutsu hiking trail finished along the railway tracks, at Kama-kita station. In 1603 the shogun, Ieyatsu Tokugawa, moved the capital to what would become Tokyo, returning Kamakura to the small fishing village it had been before Yoritomo's arrival. That was the plan for the rest of our day as well. But it didn’t go as planned.
The uniformed railway official, behind his protective booth, gestured that we couldn’t board any Tokyo-bound trains from his station. Robyn and I would have to take a commuter south into Kamakura city. Because we didn’t understand how to buy the required tickets out of the machine, his frustration boiled over when he came out from his protective booth, and physically fired our washed coins into the right slots. We bowed low for being so incompetent, and left on the first carriage into Kamakura.
We began walking a long, wide city centre boulevard, through multiple torii, towards the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, tracking the time we had before our real train would leave for Tokyo. Off in the distance we could just make out our destination, growing larger too slowly. The shrine was dedicated to Hachiman, god of archery and war and, by extension, after Yoritomo built the shrine in 1180, the protector of the samurai warrior class he had brought to power.
In front of a shop with an intricate display of plastic food, Robyn and I bought two murasaki-imo sofuto purple sweet potato ice cream cones. We ate them as fast as we walked, making every lick and second count.
Flanking the main approach to Tsurugaoka were two ponds. One represented the Minamoto Clan and has three islands, while the other symbolized the Taira Clan, the Minamoto's arch rivals, and has four islands, because the number four is pronounced the same as ‘death’ in Japanese.
“Lots of death here.” I said. To the left of the wide stairway leading up to the Hongu main hall had been a large ginkgo, once used as a hideout in an ambush attack on a shogun. Every autumn the tree turned beautifully golden, but it died in a winter storm four years before our visit.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


... until thursday.

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 43

The moral may be not to go looking for life’s lessons in Japanese magical giant testicle raccoon myths. Tanuki share our own raccoon’s lack of salivary glands, and will wash a sugar cube in water, until there is nothing left.
Robyn and I carried on through a bamboo grove, to the ancient yagura burial caves, containing statues and remains of resting Kamakura samurai. Then we hit another sign. Walk This Way... The God of Happiness (Hotei) is waiting for you in the Cave. Robyn and I found the Laughing Buddha statue of Hotei, god of good fortune and happiness. After having been touched by generations of Japanese wishing to improve their luck, Hotei’s discolored belly, left earlobe and index finger were worn smooth and rubbed dark.
We left downhill, towards the Kita Kamakura Station. Behind the street that ran to the left of the front gate was the house where movie director Yasujiro Ozu lived in the 1950s. Ozu got news of his fatal cancer, as I did, on his 60th birthday. The grave he shares with his mother at Engaku-ji temple, which we didn’t get to visit, bears no name- just the character ‘mu.’ Nothingness.

Monday, 6 July 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 42

‘A farmer caught a troublesome tanuki in his vegetable field, and tied it to a tree to kill and cook it later. But first he had to take care of some errands in town, leaving his wife to guard the animal. But the tanuki cried and begged to be released, so the woman decided to set it free. The unfettered animal turned on the wife, and killed her in gratitude. The tanuki then contrived a foul trick. Using its shapeshifting abilities, it disguised itself as the wife and cooked her body into a stew, serving it to the husband when he returned. As the farmer  complimented the stew, the tanuki transformed back, and revealed the treachery, by telling him he had just eaten his dead wife's flesh, leaving the poor man in shock and grief. But the couple had been good friends with a rabbit that lived nearby. The rabbit told the farmer that he would avenge his wife’s death. Pretending to befriend the raccoon dog, instead he tortured him, dropping a bee’s nest on him, treating the stings with a peppery poultice, and setting fire to kindling (piled to make a campfire for the night) near the tanuki’s back. The flamed burned him badly, but without killing it. The legend ends with the tanuki challenging the rabbit to a life or death contest to prove who was the better creature. They were each to build a boat for a race across the lake. The rabbit carved its boat out of a fallen tree trunk, but the tanuki fashioned his out of mud. The sludge boat began dissolving in the middle of the water, and the tanuki failed to stay afloat, apt punishment for its horrible deeds.’

Sunday, 5 July 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 41

Behind the temple's main hall, Robyn and I took the circular path around to the left, through the temple garden, and past a cemetery. The only thing in the graveyard that didn’t make it look like an electrical substation was a ceramic statue of a tanuki, the Japanese raccoon dog.
Boisterous, merry alcoholic pranksters, the legendary tanuki were normally depicted with enormous testicles, on which they could fly. His character was like your drunken grandfather- borrowing money, getting intoxicated, and dragging his sagging scrotum across your fresh-mopped kitchen floor. A common schoolyard song in Japan makes explicit reference to the tanuki's endowment.

                             ‘Tan Tan Tanuki's bollocks ring: 
                              The wind's stopped blowing, 
                              but they swing-swing-swing!’

Tanuki were mystical shape-shifting magical tricksters. In some stories, they turned horse excrement into delicious looking meals and served it to travelers; or transformed into humans, got drunk, and bought brothel services with leaves temporarily transformed into money, adding counterfeiting to their long list of felonies.
Tanuki had eight special traits that brought good fortune, coinciding with the hachi ‘eight’ symbol on the sake bottles they held- a hat to protect against bad weather, big eyes to scan the horizon, a sake bottle representing virtue, a big tail to provide steadiness and strength, an over-sized scrotum symbolizing financial luck, a promissory note exemplifying trust or confidence, a big belly signifying bold and calm decisiveness, and a friendly smile. Great subject matter, they frequently materialized in Japanese woodcut ukiyo-e, as in Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Seven Wonders of the Clowning Raccoon, in which a tanuki is shown as the magical nutsack beast, cheerily dancing his way around a geisha house. 
But there is one Japanese folktale, in which a tanuki is the villain, worse even than the raccoon gangsters that perpetually threaten our Vancouver Island vineyard grape harvest. The legend of Kachi-kachi Yama, ‘Fire-Crackle Mountain,’ an onomatopoeia of the sound a fire makes, and mountain ‘yama,’ is the story of The Farmer and the Badger.