Tuesday, September 29, 2009

町石道ー Choishimich- Hiking to Koyasan


I believe in Esoteric Buddhism as much as I believe in anything that I don't believe in. I don't even find Buddhism very interesting. I think it is tedious and soporific and silly. It resists absorption by my brain as if it were mathematics. However- It was always coming wasn't it-However, Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism in particular got a few things right: It conducts business on a human scale. It is accessible to you in your body as a human. Maybe that is why ancient Buddhism did architecture so well. It's buildings are often large, to be sure-grand even- but they are large to us as humans, not unfathomable. The World Trade Center, to use an unfortunate example, was about as bad as buildings can be. Terrible. Forced. Todaiji on the other hand: magnificent. Resplendent. Great.

That is why when I found myself going to Koyasan over Silver Week I decided to approach it as a human should, in the footsteps of Kukai (空海), ascending the 6 hours of worn trail into the mountains known as the Choishimichi (町石道).  For those not in the know a Cho 町 is the ancient Japanese measurement that is around 109 meters. This path to Koyasan is composed of 180 stone markers marking one cho. Most people these days go by cable car or drive on the roads. Is it too self-righteous of me to shake my head at those who will weekend at a holy retreat by starting and ending in a parking lot? Has self-righteousness aver stopped me before?


I took on the journey with Natsuki and Eri who, while far more Japanese than me, are about as esoteric as a new washing machine expo. Yet both might be considered intrepid. Many pilgrims begin their circuit of Shikkoku with a visit to Koyasan. Although there were many Ohenrosan on the train, none got off at Kudoyama station with us. Japanese maps and signs are notoriusly spotty- brief aside, not only did the map at the station not orient to north, the inset of the map pointed in yet another direction- so we made our way downhill, to cross the river and begin at Jison-in, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was being attacked by pumpkins.




This is stone 180 and the stais leading to it from the back of the shrine. This will be the rate of climb for about the next hour up the mountain.


But then there you are in a kaki field towering over Wakayama while the smell of whale bacon simmers in a wooden kitchen somewhere.




The great thing about hiking in the fall is that farmers leave buckets of fruits everywhere and charge about a dollar for bags of them. In this case you can take 5 or 6 kaki for 100 yen. Why 5 or 6? I don't know. I wouldn't have packed a lunch had I known though, as these were excellent.


Ascending from the kaki fields the trail gets more enclosed and very Lord of the Rings. The forest isn't old growth, but the trail is very old. It was laid down in the 800s. The stone markers replaced wooden markers in the Heian Period.



And as we entered Mordor.


The trail is very well marked. It would be very hard to get lost. One small draw back to the natural setting is that a large golf course borders the trail for an hour or two half way in. As we approached it, we exclaimed, "Wow, nature is so green! No! It's a golf course." Shame.


Marker 100.


A remnant of a pilgrimage.

The frequnecy of pictures drop off a bit here because it started to rain on us about 5 hours in. This was after encountering a suprising bluff, a snake, a dead mole, and paralleling a noisy road that is rather distracting. There was also a strange grove of palm trees.


About an hour or two from the goal, you cross a large intersection. This is where you realize you didn't need to pack any food and that you resent cars. There is also a bathroom here. Out of the intersection is the steepest climb of the hike. It doesn't last long though. There are huge ceder trees and a bunch of rocks from Japanese mythology. I put my camera away so it wouldn't get wet.

The very end of the hike is a steep series of switchback leading up to the Daimon (大門)  which, true to the kanji, is very large. Here the road makes a hairpin turn in front of the gate that faces you, the hiker. As the young priest at the temple where we stayed rightly said, "If you come here in a car, you have no idea why the gate faces that way." I have been pretty consistent since my days as an urban planning undergrad in insisting that some places should be hard to get to, and not every experience should be made easy. I am being an ass, but an accurate one, when I say that people that tell me that they have been to Koyasan but haven't made the hike there, haven't been to Koyasan.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Yatsubuchi no Taki 八淵の滝 Hike

This is the hike described on pages 223-227 of Lonely Planet's Hiking in Japan 2001 edition.

I decided to do this hike for part of Silver Week 2009 for two reasons; One because Odai ga Hara is apparently still closed due to a landslide and two because this hike is not dampened by koyo (autumn leaves) not yet being in full effect.

What has changed from the book is the bus schedule. We left Imadegawa at 7:04, changed at Kyoto and made it to Omitakashima in time for the 8:59am bus. Horror of horrors, the bus has been moved back to 9:03am. Natsuki and I were the only hikers wandering around in front of the lonely station for about 40 minutes, buying canned coffee, pondering the statue of Gulliver dragging boats and watching two rather old ladies fiddle with their pricey road bikes. The bus showed up around 8:50am and we got on because we had nothing else to do. I asked the driver if it was the bus to Kurodani in Japanese and he gave me a very good explanation of the full route in English. I usually engage in a battle of pride for which language I will speak with people, but he charmed me into throwing in the towel with his complete lack of confidence coupled with his complete competence in communication. As we were sitting in the back of the bus alone, a swishing herd issued from the not yet electronic station. The express train had let out and every mountain walker who was over the hill and ready to roll had turned up in their, subdued, Montbell greens, browns and grays. There were two other foreigners as well and I remarked to Natsuki "We all have the same book."

The bus takes about 30 minutes to get to Kurodani as it goes first to the Gulliver camp grounds, where everyone but us got off. Natsuki began to get skeptical as there wasn't a crowd anymore. The bus then backtracks to an intersection and heads towards Kurodani. One smart loner had gotten off at the intersection and walked to Kurodani, cutting about 15 minutes off of his time. We got off the bus by a small cabin serving pasta and started up into the village. Natsuki's skepticism turned to incredulous as I told her "There's the vending machine where we turn left." Whatever. There is a reason there are no Japanese space pirates. Kurodani is a nice little village that looks like the winters are hard. The road has crystal clear water flowing down both sides. A road leads into the woods were a sign stands saying declaring the hike to be dangerous, for serious hikers with proper equipment who know what they are doing. People die here every year. You might die to so fill out a card. We did and Natsuki was grateful that I talked her into buying boots instead of wearing tennis shoes.

May I take this opportunity, while not doing too much foreshadowing, or overhinting at not so existent excitement, to declare that this IS, indeed, a very hard hike. Not always. And not in some ways that other hikes can be. But this hike has a very, very slim margin of error where you getting all deaded up real quick is entirely possible. This isn't a fun day in the woods that you decide to just go do. Even though it is, without a doubt, fun. And it is in range to just go do. Wear boots. Be in shape. Think about what you are up to and have the confidence to do. Check the weather. Be serious about it.

From the sign the hike is a nice 50 minute stroll in the woods by a stream. The trail can be a little hard to read at times, but there are red marks around to help you. In general, stick to the right side of the river.

The falls start at Gyodome Taki (魚止滝).Which means, "Where the Fish Stop." And I guess they would. Here we ran into about 8 Japanese people in dry suits and helmets working their way up the river. In the river. I suppose a trail drops down from Gulliver camp grounds as we also ran into the white guy from the bus here. Just below the falls there is a bit off a false crossing. The trail is marked on both sides, so we crossed. But you just cross back again about 50 feet up so you should just stick to the right.

And that's when the CHUDs came after me. From here on it gets real life, batshit crazy. I wish I had pictures but I wasn't sure about the wet factor and the death factor so I left my camera at home. An excuse to go back. My shoes were soaked already though from the false crossing. You start making your way up to the falls by a system of chains nailed into the rock. Some are old and brown, some are new and shiny, but they all seem like a fucking joke. I think I screamed and laughed in terror as I saw each new challenge. In this early area, when you cross back to the left of the river, you have to crawl over a few slippery boulders and trust a log that is lodged in the water. If you make it across that, you have to go on chains and pegs to a narrow ledge and a slippery ladder. It is like playing at being a monkey. A crazy, thrill obsessed water monkey. My kind of monkey.

I could describe each section in detail, but all I could yell at the time was "This is crazy and scary and beautiful!" And that is what it is for the next 1-2 hours. Midway through the falls section you intersect with a trail down from Gulliver. You already think of these people as despicable civilians and you pity and despise them. Keep going because you will be scaling a 75-degree, wet cliff in a few minutes. I also saw a Hibakari (a slim brown snake) on the trail just above this section. The further you climb, the less people you see. The less people you see the more ridiculous Robin Hood fantasy land you enter. The top sections of these falls might be the most beautiful terrain I have seen on earth, but I am prone to capriciousness and overstatement.

Above the falls, the valley narrows and gets stuffy and close. It began to smell like a dump wrapped in an old wet rug, which is to say it smelt like bear. Very possible. We had been passing crushed acorns for a while. We started talking loud and clapping and quickly came over a ridge where everything got hot and dry and sandy. Flies swarmed around us and we had a great view of Biwako (琵琶湖)。  

From here on it is what is described in the book; a series of ridge lines run together and you get insane views of the world below. We saw a few other hikers along this stretch, but not many, and we weren't sure where they came from. The flies were the real nuisance through this section. There were at least 30 on me at all times. You drop and climb between the summits and this wore on Natsuki's spirit and my shoes. The last few drops are much steeper and more difficult than the book lets on. Maybe the terrain has changed, or maybe the writer is a descent specialist, either way it got a little rough. A lot of the climb down is through gullies or washes. As I was placing my hands to steady myself a medium sized black snake took notice and gave way a bit. Things got very bear like again and we were joined by brown frogs who were also on their way down. The last two hours went on forever and the sole of my right shoe decided to slip its mortal coil, which made the going quite comfortable. Walking strangely to compensate my pinkie toes began to swell like little pigs in a blanket.

When you finally hit the road at the bottom you feel it is about time. There were "campers" sitting around wooden houses playing with DSs and smoking. I disobeyed most advice I have heard and took of my broken shoes immediately. I walked the last bit to the train station bare foot only to find, of course, that my shoes wouldn't go back on my swollen feet. The train was also swollen with holidy tourists so I got to stand back to Kyoto, try to walk in my shoes to the subway and go shoeless home.

I recommend the hike highly, but it is rough. The last 5 hours are spectacular but nothing to compare to the thrill and beauty of the first 2. I might suggest doing the falls part and taking the cable car back from Hira.

As a side note, I am usually a fairly fast hiker and I finish most hikes an hour or so under the suggested time. Not so here. It took me 7 and a half hours from the trailhead to Kitakomatsu station.

Have fun.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I had a conversation with a stubborn, smart geologist when I was home. I have found that many of this type think global warming is trifling and silly. Of course, they are geologists. They don't take notice of crazy shit like this.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The People Who Died

A haven't kept a commentary on the recent rash of important deaths. Partly because I was in America and now I have no internet, partly because I risk turning into the Crypt Keeper, turning over cyber graves like compost and revelling in the pity. I passed on Steve McNair joining the Len Bias Fan Club; on the wall their with Spider Savidge and Steve Olin. I passed on Les Paul because it was too large and graceful a thing to treat with any kind of appropriateness in a hurried fashion. I passed on Cronkite because it was historic and expected. That brings us, incompletely, to today, which brings passings that might not be so noticed but seem and, in fact are, important.

First up is Norman Borlaug. I would wager that the majority of people out there have no idea who that is. I am not saying that as a snob, I am saying that because you probably have no idea who the Club of Rome, Barry Commoner, Ken Venturi or Samuel Mockbee are either. Their names ring out in very specific circles. If you aren't into agronomics or urban planning or environmental theory then these people and their viewpoints don't have much to do with your lives. Except that Norman Borlaug did. He had a lot to do with millions of peoples lives. And when you effect millions of peoples lives on this planet you effect everyone. But, Borlaug is a difficult case for me, and a lot of other people. He was a compassionate agricultural genius who set out to save the world, did, and yet people still argue vehemently against his actions. I am one of those people.

How is that possible? What could be wrong with making plants resistant to disease and not as susceptible to draught. What is wrong with making sure that millions get fed? I can't make a reasonable argument in the ten minutes I have to write this, but I can point you in the right direction. It is an argument straight out of Star Trek (The Next Generation of course.) Or maybe Back to the Future. Borlaug changed the world. He permitted millions to live. Millions to live an reproduce who produced millions more. Millions more to be fed by Green Revolution crops. Millions more to sustain a population bubble with the end transforming from slope to cliff to overhang right before our eyes. The problem in the world is that when you save millions of people you have to keep saving millions more people and you are never in the wrong saving people. As the Japanese t-shirt reads: It Is Problem.

As you can see the argument is complicated and I firmly believe that Borlaug was a super genius out for good. I understand that I could just as easily be wrong but I largely see the Green Revolution as an unsustainable aberration, although I hope more super geniuses can prove me wrong.

Next up: Jim Carroll. Patty Smith says he was the best poet of his generation. I doubt that. All I really have to say is that when Jim Carroll kicks it and you can't say he died particularly young, some kind of age is over. Something great is done. I wish I had some hair to cut off or an earring to take out. I spent a few years there doing you proud Jim. I hope it was enough.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Barney Frank

In case I haven't said it enough before, I generally love Barney Frank. He is in the right of it again in saying that calling President Obama a liar is challenging him to a debate, which is in turn "like tugging on Superman's cape or pulling the Lone Ranger's mask."

That is one thing I never get about Democrats, I would show up at people like Glenn Beck's house and say, "So what was that again?" But that is why I can't even get elected to graduate school I guess. My approach is decidedly not about building consesus and inviting good will.

Back to Congressman Frank's point, isn't yelling at the President that he is lying, aside from being unseemly and childish, a public challenge? If I was affiliated with the White House I would step on the accelerator and never look back. It would be like that scene in the Goonies where the training wheels come off the bicycle as the convertible goes around the turn. Bye Congressman, thanks for the question. Have fun in the basement with Sloth. Or, as Michael Stipe put it, "A simple prop to occupy my time." Just use Joe Wilson for all of his limited abilities. Make him the poster boy for opposition to health care like Ross Perot with NAFTA. "Ladies and gentleman, the Great Health Care Debate starring President Obama vs. Joe Wilson. No, not the smart Joe Wilson who was ambassador to Iraq....this guy!" Have you ever seen a fight where someone is getting so beat that they just kind of roll over and curl in a ball. Yeah, that. That is pretty much what I want to see. "Here I am Joe Wilson. I am the lying President coming to your hometown to debate you on health care. What? It hurts where? What the fuck do I care? Shut up and take it."

That would be my advise anyway.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mountain Top Removal

Here is a good piece with some interesting numbers. People need to realize that it is industry that gets rid of lots of industrial jobs and then blames it on the goverment or environmentalists. Layoffs due to automation or moving to a foreign country are just the price of progress, but loss to regulation or a shift in priorities is a cause for violence.

Give Us Our Free!!

I think Atrios is largely in the right of it here. I can never fathom why our Democrats are so stupid. I think it is institutional. Do they not get that Republicans will oppose whatever they come up with and they would be loved if they just went out and fought and passed the health care that people want? It is just systematic that we can only promote people who would otherwise get spit out for being lukewarm but instead get carresed and elected. Just come out and say, "We are going to pass whatever we want because we are the majority and you tell us how you like it in a few years." Instead we get the same weak sauce, shivering in the corner wondering why it is beaten by those it loves so much. Give us helath care now suckers.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Huge Japanese Erection (as per david's request)

The internet in school has no block! The internet in school has no block! Yet I still have the internet block in my life known as "not having internet." What an experience. I don't even know that Ted Kennedy is dead yet.

It is a lazy cynics game to say, "Oh, elections never change anything. They are all the same guy anyway." It is generally a cover for never having the guts to put yourself out there for anything and the security to not have things like abortion gag rules have any effect on your life. That is why it is with great reluctance that I say that the significance of this election is.......?? Fuck, I don't know. Sure The LDP has been in power since forever but as Pete Townsend told us, "I love having sex with children." No, no...that other thing about the bosses being the same as the old bosses new bosses. I have no real faith in another empty suit in another drab Japanese office deciding that the safe course is safest. At least Hatoyama's wife is a complete nutcase. That is re-assuring. Although you would think she could come up with something more original than "I was with Tom Cruise in a former life where he was Japanese." No, no Ms. Hatoyama, that was a movie with Tom Cruise filmed in New Zealand where you have probably been on vacation. And it kind of sucked. Strange coincidence though, that out of all the dead people on the planet you would have been partnered with a movie star who is popular in their home country. I was Kurt Rambis's caddy corner neighbor in Moorish Spain. His house smelled of almonds. Strange that. All that can really be said on the matter is that Aso was a tremendous dumbass to crash a party so resolutely into the ground. All the election meant to me was some more noisy trucks and white gloved hands. Now, ask me when the Japanese Communist Party unseats the DPJ, that will be a huge erection.

attempting to silence the voices in my head.