Journal Musings

Genius Loci

Egg Offering
Cooked eggs offered to the deity (“kami”) of Shirakoma Lake, Yatsugatake, Japan 2003.

These last four weeks have weighed heavily in my heart and mind, dragging confidence and certainty into a dark corner, and leaving little space for carrying on with day to day indulgences, least of all blogging. It is the culmination of a personal crisis that shunted to the forefront of my life two years ago, a week before the New York tragedy, and now has finally reached its dying throes. It’s not something I can open up about on the internet, but suffice it to say that, second only to my diabetes, it ranks as the most emotionally debilitating event in my life. I have been struggling to come to terms with it, to wrap an emotional clasp around it, and come out of the whole thing stronger and better for it. But it’s elusive and stubborn. So much has shaken loose. So much that I took for granted before no longer holds firm beneath my feet. And each time I face the computer screen in an attempt to write something worthwhile, the words fail me.

So I decided today to write about that which is causing the words to fail.

A close friend recently criticized me for focusing so much on complaining and analyzing the less favorable aspects of my present situation, especially in this blog. I’m not sure that is what I have been doing, certainly not after I decided that I would no longer comment and rave about the situation in Iraq or my greatly altered opinions about the U.S., but my friend had a point… over these last two years I have more and more drawn into myself and blocked out much of the world around me, most of all drawing away from any further potential emotional tremors from friends and people who might become friends.

Looking back on the posts of the last few months a sense of remoteness (my friend adds “tragedy”) surrounds the words; there are so few people and so little sense of humor. You would think that my life is just made up of the blog and the mountains, and that I shun being close to people. And yet that is not who I really am. If you would come to know me you would understand that I love a good laugh and love company. These days I don’t know who I am any more.

This too will pass, I know. The world will move on, as will the rough seas of these ailing moments. I will laugh again and there will be friends to share the highs and lows with. It will pass, but in the meantime I seek something to grab a hold of to get through this. In the confusion of facing someone while soundless words die in my mouth, in the disorienting panic that awakes when someone asks a question and I find I must haul up some reserves to fix a steady image of myself for a sufficient reply, I have been diving deeper and deeper, away from all the demands and unnecessary social conventions. I have needed this time away, alone. I have needed time to take stock and regroup. I have needed to remember that alone I am all right, that I won’t drown in my own self doubt.

Getting out, away from the fingers of the computer and beyond the opacity of walls and ceiling, allows me to grow small and insignificant. I can forget myself out under the sky. The smaller I become the greater the pressure of my heart and soul, like compressed air at high altitude. I have a theory that, were I to wink out of existence while out in the lap of the world, becoming infinitely small, whatever greatness lies at harbor in my soul would burst out in a tantivy of wings, to dissipate into the smoke of what is all-encompassing. And I would surge through the aether like a pulse of blood. These are my dreams of flying, full of memories of happiness and fulfillment.

So I visit the places closest to the mix of chemicals, water, earth, air, fire and pressure that brewed up life. Places like the mountains where life is reduced to putting one foot in front of the other, finding shelter from the wind, gauging the limit of your muscles, eating, and drinking. Alone. Without thoughts. Without preconceptions or answers to anything. Somehow I’ve got it into my head that if I can’t explain a damn thing, can’t give a why or wherefore, the steamroller that is rolling over sections of my life right now, will pass by with little damage.

Faith in something I guess. A belief that I don’t have to take on the whole load by myself. A delegation of pain and healing.


Many of these thoughts started from reading Kurt’s (and other participants’) comments, from The Coffee Sutras: The “G” Word

Hiking Japan: Living Journal Walking

Watery Window

Hakuba Ground Life
Still life at the edge of the trail, Hakuba, Nagano, Japan 2001.


All spring I had been anticipating the ten-day break of August this year, for a chance to escape Tokyo and spend a nice long period walking up along the ridges of the North Alps. My pack was loaded, all the food prepared, and the route mapped out. I even went to bed early the night before to make sure that I was fresh for the exertion.

When I woke up the windows were quaking with the muscling blows of a typhoon. I peeked out from behind the curtains and found the false acacia in my tiny garden being thrashed to and fro like a wet towel. A muffled roar descended from the rooftops and broke over the eaves with splashes of whistling. Clouds raced through the sky like scudding ships.

Two days this lasted. The news reported landslides throughout the country. The second morning I walked down to the river near my apartment and found the banks overflowing, brown soup sliding by just under the high water mark. Flotsam danced among the eddies, shreds of reeds and torn up clods of earth, lone soft drink bottles, aluminum cans, tumbling, sodden magazines, and once a Nike running shoe. I stood on a bridge, listening to the driving rain spatter against the stiff material of my waxed-cotton jacket.

The next day the sun broke through the cloud cover for exactly one day, steaming up the city like making crab dumplings, and the passage of water through all the fissures and cracks in the land sounded like a waterfall.

But this lasted only a day. The rain returned without a thought for all the Tokyoites who had been saving up their money for the vacation. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday… rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. It was like filling a glass with water in the sink, turning away, and forgetting that the glass was overflowing. My garden converted into a mosquito pond. The head high sunflowers lined up at the edge of a small farm plot down near the river began to turn brown from rot. My hiking boots put on warm jackets of white mold to fight off the chill. In spite of the August calendar dates, November was rising in my soul. I took to walking down to the river every afternoon to check the water level. The tow path had disappeared. Spot billed ducks, trailing their now almost fully grown chicks, paddled vigorously at the sides of the river, pecking at bits and pieces of vegetation that floated by. The drum beat of raindrops tapping the shed roof outside my bedroom window became the rhythm of my night’s dozing.

The vacation has now drawn to a close and the rain has let up, but the urge to throw my backpack over my shoulder and take off down the road still inflates my lungs. It is hard to breathe for the persistence of walls. The acacia in the garden has bent over double from too prolonged weight of water and will need cutting. Perhaps tomorrow. I have had no sky over me and my mind still thinks it is evening. The yawns come in waves. And I feel so sleepy.

Japan: Living Journal Nature Tokyo

The Smell of the Sea

Shetlands Foghorn
Foghorn on the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, the Shetlands, Great Britain, 1995.


In the last two weeks three times the air has carried the smell of the sea through Tokyo. Tonight was another such night. In all my years living in Tokyo never before have I smelled the ammonia and seaweed and salt away from the coast. It was like a subtle reminder of where I am, where all people in Tokyo are, but which is so easily forgotten amidst all the concrete and rush.

Tokyo.. once called “Edo”… was once famed for the variety, excellence, and freshness of its fish. The best fish was referred to as “Edo-mae”, sort of an equivalent of the American Grade A beef. During the Edo Period the docks and piers and wharfs and landfills that block the city’s access to the water today existed only in some dreamer’s mind; many of the waterways extended quite far inland, and the smell of the sea must have been a daily ingredient in Edo’s sea breezes.

To add magic to the briny air, I’ve been watching the TV series “Horatio Hornblower”. As a boy I loved seafaring stories and would devour such books as “Two Years Before the Mast”, “Treasure Island”, and “The Mutiny On the Bounty”. While other kids put together plastic racing car and robot models, I took my tweezers and rigged the intricate sails and masts of such tall ships as the Cutty Sark, the Golden Hind, the H.M.S. Beagle, and the H.M.S. Bounty. I still dream of one day learning to sail a yacht and crossing the Pacific. I would love to spend one night out in the middle of the ocean, lying on deck, and watching the stars.

This month “Pirates of the Carribean” will start. The sea has hoven into my shores this summer. The salt spray is calling.

Journal Nature

To All the Trees that I Have Loved

Tree Dolmen Denmark
Tree watching over a dolmen, Funen Island, Denmark, 1988 (I’m not sure what kind of tree this is. I think it’s a beech, but if anyone knows, I’d be grateful if you’d inform me)

This is the fourth installment in the ongoing online essays series at Ecotone, this time on the theme “Trees and Place” Please drop by and have a look at what other people are writing, or possibly contribute your own essay if you like.

Love knows no bounds, so the saying goes. At times I wonder about the cogs that spin around upstairs in my attic, because most of the emotions that have twirled and waltzed me around to that indescribable music seemed sourced to some transmitter on another planet, completely disconnected to any wires in my own little control panel. I’ve had my share of relationships with women and each time some tugging force manifested itself without my say so. Each of the women were different in so many ways, and each went their own way with vestiges of wonder, joy, and sadness. Without having known each of these women, the steps that I have taken so far through my life would have left me that much further behind in my unsteady progress across the stepping stones in the river. Men have, of course, played significant roles in the drama, but none with the intimacy and intensity of what I have known with women, to whom I have both completely opened the gates, while at other times letting out the monster. Love has turned me inside out, lifted me to where no man had gone before, and dragged me kicking into the open.

So it has been with trees, too. Perhaps it is their seeming immoveability, their tendency to be there when you get back. When you look up, there they are. They can usually be counted on to take you as you are, without comment, and to listen without prejudice. And unlike so many friends, perhaps, their stationary nature provides a pillow against time, somehow creating the illusion that nothing changes and that you can rest easy in their infallible devotion to one place. They are the friends that preserve the substance of memories when you return home.

The first tree that arises in my own memories was a venerable old Weeping Willow that stood in the back yard of the Parkway Village housing complex in New York, back in the 1960’s. It was a craggy old stick with crooked branches and a wide gash in its abdomen where mud dauber wasps found refuge. The long strings of its leaves cascaded from the scant branches that clawed at the sky and swayed in the wind. A grey squirrel resided in a crook in its cranium, dashing out along the limbs to chatter at me as I sat playing among the roots, or tightroping out to the ends of the branches when I clambored among the boughs. For four summers that tree and I grew together, and when my family moved to a new apartment that looked right out at the backyard, I would greet the Willow every morning from my bedroom window.

Then, in the winter of 1968, a great blizzard hit, turning the night blue and the wind screaming across the window panes. In the middle of the night a great crack woke me and when I ran to the window I witnessed, through the indistinct blurr of snow and darkness, the great form of the Willow lying prone in the yard. I cried that night and still grieve for the loss of a great friend.

My family moved to Japan the following year. New trees that I had never seen before stood watching as I took my first tentative steps in the new country. Among them I discovered new creatures and fresh adventures and as I grew the visions that they evoked seeped into my making. One particular tree, a Camphor Tree, five stories tall and just as wide, with a trunk as wide as a Volkswagen, stood behind my junior high school building. It was a place few students ventured and where I loved to retreat to when I wanted to be alone. One afternoon I was reading a book at the Camphor’s base, when three boys, Peter from Australia, Marcel from South Africa, and David from America, found me there. There was little talk. They were big and strong and thorough. Afterwards I lay sobbing between two huge roots, blood from my nose spilling across the wrinkled bark. I lay there until night fell, clutching the great roundness of the tree.

After high school I moved alone to Oregon, on the west coast of the United States. In all the ten years that I lived there, no single tree stands out. Rather it was like walking into some grand banquet hall of giants, 30 meter tall Titans, the Douglas Fir, standing at attention at every corner and every open space. The mountains were covered by them. The university campus ran like a green carpet under their legs. When I looked up at their faces their eyes were far away, as if contemplating the sea to the west. They never looked down. And so for ten years I scuttled among these mighty sentinels, getting smaller with each day. When I left Oregon I was no more than a mouse, but my eyes had learned to consider the horizons, and the distant clouds, and the wind.

Boston was my next stop. After Oregon it seemed as if walls had closed in. The company of trees dwindled to what the verges allowed, but I was grateful for the Plane Trees around Harvard. And one sunny spring day I stared amazed during my first encounter with a weeping tree, a Sugar Maple leaking sap with the first warm spell of the year, a delirious joy at the retreat of the cold of the northern winter.

I had found a woman I loved in Boston, but could not love Boston itself and I felt I had to leave. So I forsook what I had started there and returned to Japan. The distance was great. The telephone bills ate half my paychecks. The one who was waiting for me couldn’t bear the strain and left. In my sorrow I took to the mountains around the small town at the foot of Mt. Fuji, every weekend walking farther and harder, till my feet ached and I would sing Beatles’ songs at the top of my lungs as I descended in the evenings. On one small and almost unnoticed mountain that pitched itself right at the knees of Mt. Fuji and commanded a wide perspective of the entire waistline of the great volcano, stood four aging Japanese Cedars. They reminded me of my beloved Douglas Firs in Oregon, standing in the same regal straightness and also looking away over my head. Many afternoons I fell asleep at their feet, bees buzzing in the grass and crows cawing in the distance. One time I decided to camp there and I sat all night listening to Racoon-Dogs, Red Foxes, and Sika Deer shuffling amidst the underbrush. The following morning I stood naked beside one Cedar trunk, watching mist rising from the valley, as Mt. Fuji rose like a golden queen in the rising sun.

And so the circle made a full turn. Tokyo is my home again. The trees that I have loved still stand behind me along the long road, and I wonder if they will be there if I were to return to give them my regards. Tokyo is cutting down much of its tree kin. It is a lucky gift if you can open your window and hear the leaves sighing. And in that perhaps I am lucky. For, outside my window, for the past three years, I am able to rest my eyes upon a big chested Magnolia Tree. In spring she bursts her corset and waves at the sky with a thousand white gloves. The first bird of the dawn, the Brown-eared Bulbul, heralds the light with his piccolo screech, from atop the highest branches. And in strong winds, such as the big blow earlier today, all the fat leaves turn up in prayer, asking only for another day. Just another day. I watch and smile and nod in agreement.