Friday, January 30, 2015


I'd been at sea for the past thirty-six hours, aboard a ship whose logo was a pair of seahorses that looked like they might be butting heads.  There wasn't much to do on sea days of course, so the friendly crew had created an itinerary that was almost too full.  The motto seemed to be:  "Relax.  All you need to do is enjoy."  And enjoy I did, sitting in a deck chair for hours, alternating between reading a book, or staring out at all that water passing beneath.  There were the odd distractions, like the dolphins playing in the ship's wake, or the dark evening when a channel pilot had stepped out of a doorway many stories below onto a smaller vessel running parallel,  which then turned and sped toward the lights of Key West shimmering beyond the grey.   But most of the time the sea looked just as it does on film, capable perhaps of showing only three expressions:  grinning brightly under perfect blue skies;  cool and garlanded with puffy clouds; or the gritted teeth of whitecaps on a stormy night.

After a long time at sea, there is some relief to be found in a return to dry land.  One of first things I saw when boarding the bus was the squat church of San Francisco de Asissi, looking weathered and tired against the flash and noise of Cozumel.  The bus door vacuumed shut, but not before I'd gotten a hint of that tell-tale smell familiar to those countries once known as 'third world,' of food both rotting and cooked, with just a hint of diesel fuel underneath.

The bus took us past sleepy Mexican scenes of men in straw hats sitting in the entrances of small shops (one of which was named Lolita Lolita), dogs sleeping in the shade of police cars, and laundry hanging in front of concrete homes, all shaded by palm and bougainvillea.  There were also the odd political posters, most often showing a dapper mustachioed man named Zapata.

On the bus, our guide was talking things Mayan in an exuberant voice, punctuated often with abrupt "How's?" and "Why's?" as if in Spanish.  He mentioned that the Mayans use a 52-year calendar, at the end of which the people tend to destroy a great many of their possessions.  This may account for the shards of broken concrete strewn simply everywhere.

The bus stopped briefly at a small souvenir shop, and I got off to stretch my legs.  There's something about Mexico that makes you walk slowly.  Maybe it's the heat, or the earthen look of the tiles, or the squat people built closer to the earth.   

Back on board now.  The jungle on both sides of the road were alive in a way that deciduous forests aren't, the mangroves, cashew, mango and sugarcane all literally pulsing with movement.  It was far different than the mellow stillness of wood.   Pressing in, ever pressing in, as if ready to caress the bus whose tinted windows frustratingly muted the brilliance of the blues and greens outside.

But we got these, and the heat, full force at the ruins proper.  A fleet of bicycle taxis whisked us along the dusty trails that were punctuated with the mammoth edifices of grey stone.  I climbed to the top of one pyramid, looking out over the green that stretched away endlessly in all directions, much like my recent companion the sea.  I imagined other ruins out there, just waiting to be found.  I had read that these temples and ball courts had been built for the priests and higher classes.  The poorer peasants had lived in smaller huts out in the jungle.  Things had changed very little in the subsequent 1200 years.  Earlier on, all along the highway leading inland from the beaches, large gated courtyards were surrounded by similar dull pillars of stone, surrounding the palaces that were the holiday homes of the moneyed north.  Their darker, flat-faced servants still lived in the same simple squalor of their ancestors, a squalor though which my tall bus rode proudly past.

On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Morocco"

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Down there

He is buried in grave down there somewhere, in a grave with my name on it.

My plane had left La Guardia just under an hour before.  From the window, my eyes traced the broad Navesink River to the town in which I had grown up, and in which my father had died.  I wondered: do thoughts and emotions remain in the place in which they sprang to life?  If so, there is a patch of lawn fertilized by the sadness and fears of a young boy trying to make sense of the confusing dissolution of his parents' marriage.

Forty years and 30,000 feet removed, the boy was now in the midst of his own divorce. Not as messy, but he was trying just the same to protect a similarly uncomprehending child from becoming collateral damage.  The boy is now a man of an age slightly younger than his father had been when his heart had finally lost the rebellion against the anger and hatred that had ever defined him.  

On the turntable:  "Texas-Czech Bohemian - Moravian Bands"

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Walking in the Land of the Gods

Many thanks to Paul Crouse for inviting me to appear on his radio program.  Our hour-long interview went live this morning, but a downloadable podcast can be found here:

And as an introduction:

“Walking in the Land of the Gods”
Ted is an American writer, traveler and a long time Japan resident. Ted shares his experiences  studying Zen Buddhism and yoga, as well as his extensive walking journeys in the Japanese countryside.
In this wide ranging conversation, Ted and Paul discuss the old indigenous Japanese spirituality and how it can be applied in daily life.

On the turntable:  "Weekend Sessions"

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Papers: Bill Emmott

"[T]he vital thing to understand about Japanese people is their very normality and their humility.  At the heart of Japan’s traditional religion, Shinto, is exactly that humility: it is not like the monotheistic religions that postulate an all-powerful deity or an ordering principle for life and the universe. It is an animist religion that emphasizes ignorance in the face of the world’s mysteries and natural forces. It is an admission of what we don’t know, not a call to faith."

On the nighttable:  Haruki Murakami, "A Wild Sheep's Chase"
On the turntable:  Funkadelic, "Standing on the Verge of Getting It On"

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Hang your Head no More...

On January 23, 1905,  three men entered an inn in what is now Higashi Yoshino-cho and sold the carcass of a male wolf to an American traveler.  It would prove to be the last animal of its kind.

I'd come across this tale in Brett L. Walker's The Lost Wolves of Japan.  I first read it two summers ago, as I led a group of Singaporeans through the snow covered high peaks of Hokkaido.  It was a fitting location for my reading, for it was there that a Ohio rancher offered his expertise on raising livestock, and one of his teachings was the importance of exterminating the local wolf population with extreme prejudice.   As I penetrated deeper into the Hokkaido hills I similarly penetrated into the heart of the book,  an exploration of how the Japanese went from a culture that saw the natural world as a sacred land of the gods (including most definitively the wolf), to a society who quickly and widely accepted the western view that this same natural world was a bountiful font ripe for exploitation.  Within a single generation the howls of the wolves were silenced forever.

I eventually passed the book on to my friend Wes, who readily agreed that we visit the site where the last wolf has been memorialized in a bronze statue alongside a narrow stretch of river.  But our mission wouldn't begin there.  In the vicinity were a pair of peaks that find themselves on the bucket list of many Japanese mountaineers, the Kinki 100 famous mountains.  There were a handful of other, more attractive mountains closer by, but as they were all over 1400 meters and covered in snow, we opted to approach two that were half that height.

So it was that we found ourselves walking up a steep pitch in a light rain.  The day was reasonably warm, the warmth increasing as we pressed back against the stubborn might of gravity.  The Dainichi Nyorai statue we passed midway betrayed no emotion as we went by; nor for that matter did the lone hiker we saw that day.  And that's about all we saw, as this Horizaka-san was socked in, and a metallic map on the top taunted us with its display of what we couldn't see, including Mt. Fuji far far to the east.  There were however a couple of corrugated tin lean-to's for those staying overnight.  Soft mats and bottles of water were provided either for those stuck on the mountain unintentionally, or for the yamabushi who saw this mount as a playground.   We descended along one of their trails, wild and slick as it shot us downward, now allied to that same gravity that had bullied us earlier. 

After a quick refuel at a roadside Chinese joint, we drove part way up the flank of Shirai-zan, bisecting rice paddies bordered in stone, until a gate prevented my car from going any further.   The mountain's name translates as 'White Boar,' which I'd love to believe refers to some mythological beast.  More likely it is simply the covering of snow during the winter months.  Not this day however, though it could have been a welcome method of covering up the evidence of man's abuse of the natural world which has spiraled out of control since that Ohioan stepped off a ship in Hokkaido over a century ago.   Whereas the peak earlier today had been for the holymen, this one was for the villagers.  And the condition in which they'd left it could only be described as blasphemous.  There had once been major forestry here, and though no recent cuts were to be seen, hundreds of trees spilled down the hillsides dead where they lay.  A concrete road had once brought the loggers in, passing a farm now similarly abandoned.  Ours wasn't the toughest of hikes, as the trail meandered in and out and above a few ravines.  Except for a trio of giants said to be a millennium old, all was new growth cedar, sodden pollen pouring from their trunks in the form of white foam, perhaps in biochemical confusion on a day far too warm for January.  We found the peak just beyond a junked scooter that had somehow made its way up to 800 meters.  The rain and the devastated landscape did little to inspire a long visit here.  It wasn't too long before we were back at my car.

Our drive to the wolf took longer than our two climbs had.  Along the way I kicked myself for not having prepared an appropriate soundtrack, which would have included the Dead's 'Dire Wolf,' Los Lobo's classic, "How will the Wolf Survive?,'  X's 'Hungry Wolf,' and of course the obligatory 'Hungry Like the Wolf.'   Plus copious amounts of that old bluesman.  But I was forced to settle for the criminally underrated Wolfgang Press, and a track or two by Herr Mozart. Along the way, Wes pointed out peaks he'd scaled, many climbing out of the smallest of hamlets.  These grew further and further apart until we found ourselves moving beside a valley quickly growing dark.

Then the wolf appeared.  It stood still and proud in the shadow of the hillside, its mouth eternally open in an expression of either defiance or surprise.  Wes looked around at the hills that these proud creatures had once proudly roamed.  Both he and I share in that spirit I suppose, having logged countless hours of our own moving along the same trails, though through what is now no longer the same landscape.  

If the nature of the wolf is perhaps within us, then so too is its curse.  And as if bewitched, we yet again took a series of wrong turns, though this time we were protected from the chill by the steel body of my car.   And now as the fog pressed in and the darkness thickened, the forest reminded us that, touched by the hand of man or no, it was still most definitely wild, and had teeth. 

On the turntable:  "Buddha Chillout Lounge"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nakasendo Waypoints #89

Before my eyes
The day ages
From blue to grey.

On the turntable:  Alamedas Riddle, "Granny Riddle's Songs and Ballads"

Monday, January 19, 2015

Nakasendo Waypoints #88

Somewhere beneath
All that fresh fallen snow
Lies today's haiku.

On the turntable: "Asian Groove"