Bare branches of a cherry tree in a kindergarten near my home, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004I went with my wife for a long evening walk along the Nogawa River near my home the other day. A cold wind barreled down the corridor between the concrete walls of the river, laying the dead reeds flat to the ground and ruffling the feathers of the spot-billed ducks, pin-tailed ducks, little egrets, gray starlings, rock doves (common pigeons), jungle crows, carrion crows, and white wagtails that huddled along the ankle deep waters that gurgled by. Initially we had gone to share the experience of using our digital cameras together, but as I walked the accumulation of countless white plastic bags, discarded tissues, beer and soda cans, old mattresses, mangled bicycle frames, washed out shoes, a pair of panties, a motorcycle helmet, shampoo bottles, smashed liquor bottles, a collage of smut magazines laid open with pictures of young women in different poses, twelve (I counted them) fluorescent green tennis balls floating in the river, two car batteries wrapped in plastic, a bucket on its side spilling its contents of ripped lottery tickets, a plastic, red-checkered table cloth, a weathered printer, several snakes of computer wiring, a rusting motor scooter, and a humidifier in a soggy paper bag, well, they all just really got to me. My eye was dragged to them whenever I raised the camera lens and looked at the screen. I witnessed the birds wandering innocently amidst this and felt, simply, disgust.
When it comes to their environment Japanese are truly slobs. People simply don’t care. I’ve been pondering whether to go about painting some huge cloth signs to hang up along bridges and on the side of buildings asking, in Japanese, “Don’t you have any pride in your own country? I, a dirty foreigner, can see the awful mess of your land, why can’t you? Why don’t you at least clean up your garbage, if you can’t actually make an effort to make the environment healthy? Mt. Fuji is a disgrace!”
Knowing the Japanese, the police would be involved and I would be deported, most likely.
The scene and these thoughts killed the anticipation of taking beautiful photos. My wife and I sat down on a bench overlooking the river and watched a huge blue cloud obscure the sun and burst with god-rays, shafts of light walking over the cityscape, the edge of the light piercing our pupils. We held hands and talked about sad things, of endings. Of the final movement in a long struggle. A fat tabby cat squatted down just out of reach beside us, mewing for a handout. We laughed and in laughing broke down weeping. We turned our backs to the public path to hide in privacy, and cried together, still holding hands, the cold wind still brushing between our legs, our tears turning cold on our cheeks, and both of us reaching out gentle fingers to brush them away.
Three bombers pass by overhead as I write this and I ask, how can anything so abstract and faceless matter more than the difficulty of learning how to love and how to let go? Of knowing what is important to you and finding the language that would let you defend it and keep it near? I would say this is wisdom in the making, but I never knew until now that it hurts sometimes when wisdom comes calling. And that sometimes love involves conceding an absence that almost feels more than you can bear.
Kindness and grace sing alone in the evening, asking only that you listen. It is what you recognize in the heat of the setting sun, that last reaching out across a distance and feeling the warmth of someone who is necessary to your existence.
I’ve had a lot of time to think. And the conclusions are not quite so cut and dried that I can claim enlightenment, but there have been some tightening of convictions and brushes with clarity. Here are some of the pebbles of insight into myself that I found:
â€¢ I love the Earth. Ever since I can remember it has been a more than average, deep anima within me. When close to the natural world, when interacting with other living things, when walking between the ground and the heavens and no human intervention to obscure the view, when the childlike excitement and fascination envelopes me while I crawl through thickets or wade up to my waist in swamp water or climb a tree to get a closer look at a nest or walk for days and days along a mountain ridge, those are the times I always feel most alive. I live in the heart of Tokyo now and am denied these things. It goes against my nature. Like Dersu Uzala (from Kurosawa’s film and the book by V.K. Arseniev) something dies within me when cities are the only connection to life that I have access to. For those who love cities this is impossible to explain.
â€¢ I love the human race. People can be capable of so much beauty and grace and generosity. When they open their minds and care for one another and the places they live in, our imaginations are limitless. As a integral participant in the dance of the natural world, our role is as the steward of this world, with the means and awareness to protect all that is around us. Other animals have their place in the scheme, ours is to protect. And therefore I want to see that I position myself within my own life to fulfill my role as steward. And to resist with all my heart and intellect and abilities those who would destroy our world.
â€¢ The planet is in danger. How long are we going to sit around squabbling about this? It is not some parlor room debate where the “winner” gets to make a toast. It is the lives of millions and millions of our fellow creatures and our very own survival that is at stake. The danger is NOW! And yet we sit around like crash victims, staring with disbelief out the window. Meanwhile we play like fools with our weapons, our chemicals, our water, our air as if there isn’t a care in the world. The whole scenario seems to be following, step-by-step, Kim Stanley Robinson’s warning, from his Mars series books, where the Earth falls into worldwide catastrophe. We are on the verge of meltdown and still denying it. The planet cannot take this abuse any more.
â€¢ My anger is not impotent or inconsequential. When I react with anger to what the United States and Bush are doing it is out of pain and love for the planet and for all people. I cannot sit idly by while there are those who would destroy it all. Meditation and a letting go of self is all important of course, but what self will there be to let go of if there are no people to examine themselves? Before Hitler took control so many people had opportunities to voice their anger and prevent him from coming to power. If the Blacks in America had not voiced their anger at and opposition to their suppression, where would they be today? Certainly much worse off than they are. Or the Indians. If Gandhi had not seized upon the strength of his anger with Britain, where would the Indians be today? No, I will not back down and whimper in a closet. I am angry. I am opposed to what is happening and, though I am but a small voice and cannot do much, I will do what I can to oppose the world order that the United States is forcing on everyone. This in no way means that I am not angry about other countries and what they are doing, or that I think other places are perfect, but the United States poses the biggest threat to the world today. If the United States cannot learn to live in harmony with the rest of the world, if they continually shake the tree without thinking of others or the tree itself, then I will work to oppose it.
â€¢ Bush is a criminal. Not just a local criminal within the U.S. itself, but an international war criminal. He has attacked and murdered thousands upon thousands of people. He has started two wars, based on lies, and defied the international community. He has upset the balance of the entire world, possibly putting the stability of the world’s economy in jeopardy. Personally, I believe that he was responsible for the New York tragedy… there are just too many coincidences, lies, and sleights of hand to see it any other way, much as Americans are just too horror-struck to admit the possibility of such a heinous act on the part of their own president. Almost no one in America has even entertained the possibility of this, in spite of the awful lies and acts that Bush has already committed. The fixed election; denying access to the information about what happened before the New York tragedy; tripping up the investigations; planning the attack on Iraq long before the tragedy; the inability to find bin Laden (who was in the employ of the CIA for many years…which is suspicious in itself); the convenient death of Senator Paul Wellstone; the illegal and humiliating internment of people denied even the most basic human rights at Guantanamo; the backing of Sharon’s atrocious subjugation of the Palestinian people… just how many more outrageous and “evil” acts must cross the television screen before people wake up and inquire into the goings on behind all these things? Bush should be subjected to an investigation at least… really he should be facing trial in an international court.
I am certainly not going to back down and quietly “accept” the state of affairs. Bush losing the election this year allows a great criminal to get away without answering for his crimes. That simply is not enough for me. Someone has got to say something, even if the outcry is ineffective. At least I am trying and not simpering in some cage. If Bush manages to get you to cower, then he has won. He’s managed to gain the crown without even really making much of an effort.
â€¢ I will find peace. If I hold fast to my convictions and practice loving what I love, if I get out there and protect the world and people who mean so much to me, if I don’t let someone bully and intimidate me, I will find the steadfastness within me and know who I am. THAT is what I will meditate upon, not some wilted stem that forgets who and what it is.
But it would certainly be easier and the going a little lighter if others of you would join me, if we would join hands and stand up together. Many small voices can chorus into a roar. Even mice have strength in numbers.
Lots of wisdom in the comments from everyone, so much so that it feels bigger than my mind at the moment. I took time in the quiet of my morning living room today to slowly follow the lessons of a Pilates workout, my first time, breathing in and out, concentrating only on my respiration and my muscles and enlongating my occupation of space with my bones. After an hour and a half it felt as if toxins were being expelled with my exhales and a ball of fire, like a little sun, rising in my belly. The heat this generated burned throughout the evening, right through my classes, a long-missed cheer that had me bursting out in my characteristic laughter that always echoes through the school and makes my boss put her face in her hands, shaking her head.
So a good day, the heavy demon expelled, like fog breaking up in the sun.
I need a little more time to reflect on everything everyone wrote before I attempt a reply. If I try to write now it will just spill out in a leaky mess, with no coherence. But the cogs are working. And the ears are listening to the pulse, tracking the motion of the spirit, which always moves with the delicacy and deliberation of a snail.
I can’t get it out of my head: the sense that my last post somehow damaged something in me. I can’t sit still, I keep getting up to look out the window, I can’t do my work, even trying to get to sleep took a while.
It’s true what so many commenters have said, that there are a lot of Americans who don’t support what is going on in America or with Bush. I know that. Just the opinions of the commenters here alone proves that. But then how does one come to terms with all that is happening right now? People talk of being peaceful inside and trying to work out the problems then. When I don’t look at the news and get away from the city far enough so that I can’t hear the planes overhead all the tiime (four of them just went by overhead right now as I wrote this…), I can allow my mind to settle on other things. But a lot of that involves cutting oneself off from society. How does one not get angry when Bush appears on television or in the internet news and says and does the things he does?
As Americans so often remind everyone, America supposedy has a government “of and by the people”. How then does one separate the people in general from what the government is doing? Where does one direct the anger if one is not American? I speak out about America as a country and what it is doing and I can’t help but include the people when I refer to what it is doing.
Bush made the State of the Union Address last night (I haven’t seen, heard, or read it), something that is supposed to be meant only for the American people, and yet I’m sure he spoke about the “world being a safer place” or what not… meaning he was addressing the whole world. If he was addressing the whole world, if he takes it upon himself to dictate to all of us what we may or may not do, then why do all of us here in the rest of the world who are affected by his words and actions, have no say in deciding whether or not he gets to stay in office? Americans can at least vote about the matter. I have no vote. I have to rely on the will and mood of the Americans, hoping that they get some sense into their heads.
So please tell me, where do I direct this anger I feel, while at the same time professing a love for many Americans and for the country as a whole? How do I find a sense of peace about the world (I like myself and am comfortable with myself personally) when there is this man, with his contingent of madmen, who wants constant war and strife? Where do I draw the line between speaking my mind and shutting up?
More than ever I think it is time to cancel the borders and stop defining the world by the names of countries. I speak as a world citizen, a Terran, a Child of the Planet Earth. I look upon this preoccupation with some imaginary boundary called “America” and wonder, who are they kidding? Yes, America is a beautiful and admirable place, as is every single other patch of land in the world. There is no border within the natural world, it is all one. Perhaps it is time to stop defending America or Japan or Germany or China against the rest of the world and learn to defend this whole piece of cake we inhabit, all, together.
I’ve been trying to come to grips with the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions concerning the United States, especially these last two and a half years. Susan of A Line Cast asked me, in a comment, what I thought of the effects of America:
“Funny how when we try hardest to justify and protect our way of life, and extend it to others, we create the most animosity in others. A recipe for further terrorism if you ask me.
It also strikes me as interesting that we don’t see any real need to be truthful in our portrayal of other cultures or even our own. I remember traveling to Asia a little over 10 years ago when it became apparent that what the US had most successfully exported was the television show “Dallas.”
I commented in my blog last night about a conversation with an ex-serviceman about how the only crime he saw in Japan during his stay was that which his fellow US troops had committed. I wonder what your impressions have been over the years about the ongoing export of “westernization” (in reality americanization” and if you think it destructive there?”
It’s taken me several days to digest her question and to delve into my feelings and thoughts. There is simply too much there, from too many years, a lot of it now stretching into numbness and deep, deep anger and distrust. The feeling is like the nervous suffocation that you feel when you are standing on the block the moment before the gun goes off for a swimming race, skin exposed to the cold air of the swimming pool hall, all eyes on you, the anticipation of water inhibiting your movement big enough to incur a kind of anxious frustration. In a place like this blog, where the vast majority of readers are American and the whole discussion is weighted in favor of what Americans might find distasteful or appropriate, rather than there being a worldwide dialogue so that all the unseen reactions to America can be fully aired, you risk quite a lot of backlash for opening your mouth about something that Americans are so sensitive about. And yet it is America that is disrupting the balance of the entire world right now, no one else. It is America that is fanning the fury that so many people around the world feel.
Just how do you deal with this huge debt of outrage, and still remain a fair and compassionate human being? Why must I carry this sense of outrage in the first place, or feel that I must somehow apologize to Americans for not being one of them?
This whole week fighter plane after fighter plane has been booming by over my apartment, in constant reminder of what the United States is asking the world to do and to submit to. I sit under my roof, staring up at the ceiling, cringing in the roar of sound, and feeling, well, what the hell can I do? And yet I must put up with this, because that is what the Americans want. I, not being American, have no say in the matter. I certainly have no say in whether or not Bush should be allowed to dictate to all the rest of us what we can and can’t do. As so many irate American e-mailers have enjoyed reminding me, “If you don’t like it here, get the *___* out!”, not stopping to think, of course, that I don’t live in the States any more and actually left it for many of the reasons that I list below.
I admit that my anger towards the States began long before its first reaction to the New York tragedy, in fact way back in high school when I had to endure the bullying that the American (and Australian) kids inflicted on everyone else in my school. All my life I’ve been watching Americans play this thespian mask game, one moment the comedian and do-gooder on the block, the next moment the tragic victim and raging machine gun wielder. My twenty years of living in the States brought me in contact with segregation in schools; with police throwing me up against police cars because I looked like a Mexican; with being asked to pigeon hole my identity by being given a series of boxes to check off in government surveys: 1) White/ Caucasian 2) Black. African-American 3) Oriental 4) Latino 5) Pacific Islander 6) Other… Please explain ______; with hundreds of movies in which the Arabs or Latinos or Germans or blacks are always evil, while white, American men are always hulking, innocent, wronged-but-I-single-handedly-will-wreak-my-revenge-on-a-whole-army heroes; with the devastation and despair of such places as the Bronx, which literally looked like a bombed out war zone, or the Douglas Fir clear cutting in Oregon; with professors in school telling me that my desire to study ancient Asian architecture for my graduation thesis was a waste of time because Asian architecture didn’t contribute anything of note to the development of world architecture, or a group of research doctors at the New England Cancer Research Center where I worked part time as a glass washer, during one lunch period when I sat with them discussing new directions in medical research, staring at me as if I had committed an error in the ways of propriety by daring to open my mouth and suggesting that they take a look at Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for some new ideas; with the loud-mouth ways of so many Americans who step into MacDonald’s here in Tokyo (heaven forbid that they would try the local food!) and literally shout at the girls behind the counter for not understanding English, or English teachers who whisper to me under their breaths about how ignorant and stupid they think Japanese are, and expecting to find a comrade in arms in me; with the dozens of books by people who lived in Japan for one year and propose, without speaking a word of Japanese, to “get” Japan now; with surprising number of American Jews calling me a “Jew-Killer” and “Mass Murderer” just because I happen to be part German, but who themselves have never experienced anything like the Second World War and wouldn’t stop for a second to ask what role my mother’s family played in the whole Nazi Germany mess (my family was pacifist, my grandfather refused to bear a weapon and became a medic in the national army… as distinct from the Nazi army…, and they harbored a Jewish family in their attic through most of the war until most of the family was discovered and sent off to the camps); with the almost chest-poundingly proud way of so many “patriots” who unapologetically condone the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but vehemently deny that it is anything like terrorism; with one of my closest friends in college, a Viet Nam vet, going through the whole Agent Orange thing, and another friend, a Vietnamese room mate who felt so lonely in America that he almost committed suicide; with some fruitcake sticking a pistol in my face while I worked the night shift at a hotel gift shop in Boston and snarling at me, “Get the *___* out of this country, you *—* Ayrab!”; with… with…with…
So much. I couldn’t possibly put it all into words here. So yes, I am angry. It’s like this enormous duffel bag of injustices and bad attitude toward the rest of the world that has been shoved at me and the perpetrator taking off into the dark. I am left with more weight than I can carry alone. And yet alone I have been forced to carry it. What American is going to truly listen or care? Or truly comprehend? I am told I complain too much. That everyone has a difficult life. And yet what other point of view can I validate, but my own?
There are, of course, a lot of wonderful experiences and growth that America gave me, and most of the time I concern myself with the small things in my life that have only to do with every day living, but that is not the point of this post right now, is it?
My father and I had a conversation on the phone yesterday, a long one, in which we both tried hard to make a fair assessment about why we are both so angry about the States. And to our surprise it was not what America had done or what they lied about that incited the anger, so much as the attitude behind so much of American thought and life. Americans seem to live in a state of perpetual existential discontent. Nothing is ever good enough. Nothing can differ from what they conceive as the “right” way to do things or think things.
Americans have the answers and business rights to everything (America threatened economic sanctions against the Asian cooperative economic group ASEAN when many countries balked at the United States demanding to join the group). They feel they can bash into anyone else’s garden and demand tribute, but take great offense when anyone else attempts to gatecrash their parties.
And the populace seems to argue and get angry about everything! Look at the movies and television shows… every other minute it is someone losing their temper and shouting at another person.
Look at the amount of suing gong on! Once, while living in Newton, in Massachusetts, after my roommates had spent days disturbing the neighbors with drunken horseplay, I proposed that we go around apologizing to everyone… one of my room mates, a lawyer, looked horror stricken at me, and announced, “Miguel, you’re living in the States. You can’t just go around apologizing to people! They will take that as admission of guilt and sue you!”
Look at such supposedly little things as the covers of video games… there was a game called “Spyro the Dragon”, in which a little dragon goes about trying to save his friends. The Japanese cover showed a cute little dragon, smiling and flying about with his friends (basically exactly what the game was about), but the American cover showed this fire breathing monster, destroying a village and looking mean as a devil… an interview with the American distributors revealed that without the mean-looking cover the game would never sell in America.
Or look at the sarcastic and often militaristic anger of women towards men in the States… (or the childish reaction of men towards the issues the women are trying to talk about) While I understand and support the need for men to change toward women and that women need more representation and opportunities, but even women know that disparaging another person, being sarcastic with them, or ridiculing them, in private or in public, rarely gets the other person to see things your way or gets them sympathetic. When I watch these popular talk shows on TV, such as Oprah Winfrey, or these movies where it seems every single time some woman has to make the point about how deceitful men are or how stupid men are or how socially superior women are or how much more nurturing and emotionally mature women are, well, it just turns me cold. Things are much more grey and unclear in the real world.
It seems there is no attempt to find a center point, to reconcile. It’s just, “You are wrong. You are evil. You this, you that.” Almost never, “I have a lot to learn. I have a lot of faults and habits I must work on. I need to see things more clearly and from a more balanced point of view.”
This kind of attitude is every where in the States. It’s what must, in part, lie behind the high school shootings or this insane “Homeland Security” nonsense. It most certainly is what lies behind the Iraq War. I have never felt this level of discontent anywhere I’ve been in the world (note: I haven’t been everywhere). While Japan has a lot of problems of its own, there is one thing I love about this country: there is at least an attempt to find peace and balance first, before throwing a tantrum or finding fault with everyone.
It wouldn’t matter so much what the States felt or did, if it didn’t affect everyone else. The whole world is turning on America’s whim, though, and no one can nay say it, lest they risk attack or sanction. We have to have the Coca Cola, the CNN (international, no? But with 90% of the news about America, of course), the jeans, the barage of movies, the computers, the basket ball games, the Nike shoes, the hip hop music, the MacDonald’s, the secular life set, the Puritan work ethic, the plastic shampoo bottles, the War Against Terror (“Against us?” we all ask ourselves here outside the States), the war planes screaming overhead. While I like a lot of these things and have found my own cultural uses for them, at the same time it feels like hegemony. What if I don’t want a secular government? What if I want to sing songs condemning the States? What if I want to wear a sarong rather than a business suit? What if, if I go by America’s dogma of “freedom”, I don’t particularly find the States a bastion of all that I want to be or want the world to be? What if I don’t think the States is a particularly good role model?
My wish is that the world work toward peace, not war. That we all talk as equals, not as master and servant. That we put aside our anger and try to understand each other. That we work for the common good of all, not just a privileged few. We don’t need some far-fangled project of settling on Mars; we need to figure out how to live together here on Earth, now. Not tomorrow.
This is the fifteenth installment of the ongoing Ecotone essay series. This week’s topic is Coming and Going. Please stop by and read the other essays or feel free to contribute your own words.
Downy feathers of snowflakes are falling like lost children from the sky this evening. It is the first snowfall this year. More than likely it is but a whim and the morning will find the earth as bare and dry as weeks gone by. But a lone Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) sits alone upon a bare branch of the False Acacia outside my window, awaiting the passage of light, hunched into her puff of feathers, her tiny head bare to snowflakes. I sit still, so as not to alarm her, and watch. It seems the moments together are filled with counting, all the way until she flicks her wings and flits away. The branch is left quivering in her sudden absence. And I find myself poised on the edge of my chair, alone in the gathering darkness, the air aswirl with children laughing.
So it is with birds, they come and go. If any creature could embody the movement of wanderlust, or the great rotation of the seasons, it must be birds. It seems that in the Beginning of Time, when some Speaker of Identities was handing out instructions on form and content, birds chose the way of airiness and elegance. To not be grounded, but to solve problems by carving away the extraneous, instead of throwing on more clay. The result was a marriage with the wind and a vision of distances, the planet beneath acting as springboard.
Earthbound that I am, I venture from my dwelling in the last dusting of winter, swiveling my head in lookout for the songs that had left with the dying of last year’s leaves. The voices come back in twos, catching the tops of the trees as buds form, and still tinkling with merriment from the warmer climes, like lovers newly returned from a honeymoon. Three, four, five, the old familiar faces are back, some directly to the memories of a summer gone. For those birds who remained behind, the ones that always shout louder than the others and shoulder through the delicate crowds, the return of the travelers shakes down the house of winter silence, and for a time the air quavers with indignation.
It is the return of the Barn Swallows, though, that barks, for me, of Spring fully arrived. Like liquid thought they barrel down the streets in fierce pleasure of, and concentration upon, clutching past arrival. Close-up their world seems to take on the rush at the terrible edge of a jet plane’s wing. Step back and Swallows love the open air, their wings scything the invisible. Even their eyes seem formed to look into the hard light and further, into the future, where their eggs lie.
Though I can’t understand a word of their language, the fluting and burbling and chittering of Swallow song always seems to speak of adventures and far off fields. It seems to beckon to my heart, just like the bugling of migrating geese, laughing and urging me to get out of this chair and lift my arms…
The brief summer harbors their laughter, has me on my tiptoes after the spell, sniffing out the salt sea or the undiscovered meadow. I would go with them, my mind seems to say, and it is time to prepare my travel bag. But that is the mistake right there. Swallows… all birds actually… have long done away with baggage. Their minds have been gleaned from aestheticism, from a total devotion to the task of flight. True travelers, believing in the brief encounter with all their hearts.
And come the chilly days of autumn I am again left behind, my legs feeling as leaden as tree trunks. The days commute to slumber, losing colors, bearing old grievances.
But my heart does beat more slowly than a bird’s. If I have wing beats, they echo in my footsteps. I may take longer to cross mountains, but the keening is there, to be off. Off and singing.
I wasn’t quite sure where I was headed on Monday, but with a day off and bright, sunny weather, I threw together my day walk kit, slung the pack over my shoulders, and stepped outside. A stiff wind, smelling of blue ice and tropospheric cold, skirled into the apartment entrance area and tousled my high-strung emotions; I hadn’t slept well the night before and the noise of banging feet from the upstairs neighbor lingered upon my jangled nerves. It was like the after effects of a bout of coffee drinking, muscles tensed and eyes flicking left and right, catching in some dust mote or the twigs that hold a stray, winter leaf quivering. But luckily the street outside waited without a soul moving about, and so for a time, most of the way to the train station, it was just the sunlight and me, in silent companionship.
The evening before had been filled with too much bad news on the internet and errant reactions to yet more infuriating Bush spectaculars. The two and a half years of heightened anxiety, level orange, along with one statement and action after another of disrespect towards people in the rest of the world, drove up the acuteness of self disharmony, like an off-key counterpoint in a chorus. The outrage reared its head out of concern, but the anger burned like an over primed engine, with the waste lingering in my breath, bitter with poison. People might ask why I, living here in Japan, would bother with the vagaries of American politics, but it is the gradual chopping away at my tether that links to America that eats at me. I have ties there and more and more I can’t see myself as being welcomed to participate. America was home and now it is thinning away into a tasteless and mediocre gruel.
So I was heading toward the mountains off-balance, wound up enough to possibly snarl at a pedestrian or two and knowing that my eyes would pull the shutters over any proper seeing of the mountains. Nerves seemed to fight a war all their own.
But there I was on the train, with no real plan but that the speed take me out of the city, if just for a while. The ticket amounted to the end of the line, which happened to be Mt. Takao Trailhead. Mt. Takao is this knob on the edge of the Chichibu range, just west of Tokyo. It is the place you go when you haven’t the time to take the trains further into the countryside and where it seems all residents of Tokyo end up together, to go conveyor belting around the standard loop trail. I was a little late, though, so the trains no longer carried the morning walkers, and I could sit stewing alone in the overheated car, eyes resting on the horizon, willing the city sprawl to come to a quick end.
So many people came swarming up the Takao-san-guchi station stairs I had to step to the side and wait their passing. I proceeded out of the station and up past the trinket shops and the big, giant-cedars-surrounded temple, and past the cable car that the majority of the weekend walkers take. Putting my head down to avoid meeting the eyes of the hordes of returning walkers and thereby having to initiate the tradition of saying hello to every passer-by, I stepped onto the trail and headed up.
At first it was a hard clamber up a dusty slope, the autumn leaves now all pulverized to potpourri by the passing of thousands of boots. A thin film of dust covered the tree trunks and the leaves of the bushes at the edge of the trail, evidence of the dry winter. Hikers trudged by, most of them spent from the climb and many of them stumbling half-heartedly down the inclines. I kept my face down, not meeting their eyes, depending on the ruse that I am a foreigner and therefore don’t understand the customs and can therefore be forgiven. But the clouds of discontent continued to whirl about inside me. I attempted to peer into the trees and between the trunks out at the view of the mountains beyond, but try as I might I saw no beauty. I fingered my digital camera at my waist, scouting for photographs, but the glint on the leaves and the dull colors of the vegetation registered only as hard light in my mind. Ideas failed to flower.
A hiker in wool breeches, and a white down jacket in his right hand, showing off as he puffed along in just a white cotton t-shirt, his shreds of white breath floating past my head, dropped behind as I kept up my small, steady steps. The moment I passed him he renewed his efforts and took the rocks and footholds in long, reaching strides that soon had him wheezing for air. But he wouldn’t let up, so intent was he to prove how macho he was. I kept my steady pace for a while, hoping that eventually he would just give up, but he dogged my heels right up to the first lookout that faced Mt. Fuji, which unfortunately was lost in the afternoon haze today. I turned off the trail and took a seat on an exposed root, where I turned to watch the follower wheeze on up the trail, free to find another target.
A comfortable heat worked inside my belly. From down slope a katabatic wind rushed through the trees and chilled the sweat on my back. In response I sat facing the sunlight, letting the warm rays bathe my face and chest and folded legs. From my pack I pulled out a small thermos filled with milk tea and poured myself a small steaming cup, sipping it while gazing at the bosque at the foot of the slope. A Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) ratcheted up along the dead branches of an old beech tree, occasionally tapping at the bark, digging for beetle larvae. The furtive chipping away at the wood settled my nerves and I began to breathe in sync with my mind, the pump slowing down, easing the pressure, a slow equilibrium between what I was looking at and the images issuing from my imagination.
The walk went well after I finished eating two rice balls. Slowing down, I took the climbs philosophically, probing ahead for each new step and evaluating how my muscles reacted, gauging the level of my fatigue. To my surprise I didn’t tire, and even the last, long bout of stairs, which stretched up ahead like the stairway to heaven, I only needed to pause once or twice. The crown of the mountain lay in filtered sunlight, the afternoon haze catching the last rays and distributing warmth throughout the open space.
In typical Japanese fashion the summit included the obligatory restaurant and trinket shop, from which the cable car riders trotted bearing their paper plates of hotdogs and grilled rice cake sticks. I took a seat on a bench and watched a hiker bend over his camp stove and cook a pot of ramen noodles. He sat with chopsticks poised and slurped up the noodles with a loud grunt of relish. On the opposite side of the bench a family of five waddled across the gravel in their ankle length down coats. The father held a chihuahua on a thin leash and it scuttled after him as he strode up to the restaurant. As he ordered some green tea, the chihuahua squatted at his heels and promptly crapped on the gravel. No one in the family noticed the mess and I sat mute as other visitors passed the spot, their hiking shoes, sneakers, and cross trainers just missing stepping into the steaming pile. I was just about to open my mouth to inform the family when a woman wearing what must have been new sneakers, so white and bright they were, stepped slap dash clean upon the mess. As her stride took her past the store counter, so did her sneakers bear away the point of contention. The mountain had exacted its toll upon the unsuspecting adventurers.
The way back down followed a less frequented trail into a ravine along which a stream flowed. It was the catchment area for the waters of the surrounding hills, so as I descended more and more rivulets joined the stream until it grew into a small, rushing river. The trail led straight through the river for a while, requiring some balancing on moss covered stones, until it stepped away from the banks and skirted the water all the way down the mountain. Here the afternoon sun did not reach and the walk sank into a cool gloom, evening settling faster here, with trees hanging heavy over my head. Calories burned beneath my jacket, flickering like a flame.
Near the end of the trail a series of tiny shrines appeared, embedded in the rock walls lining the trail. Within the shrines huddled tiny figures of boddhisatvas, the corners decorated with chrysanthemums and camelias recently picked and placed in vases. In front of each of the figurines stood lighted candles, their golden light illuminating the dark interiors of the shrines, and the constellation of flickering candlelight issuing from shrines here and there dotting the way down the growing shadows of the trail, like unmoving fireflies. Passing through this silent gauntlet of silence and light a deep peace overcame me and I took several deep breaths as I passed through.
I paused at one shrine and peered inside. The figure of the Buddha looked back at me. And it hit me why I needed to get out of the house and just take a walk, no matter where it led me; even if just for a moment, I needed to commune with something bigger than myself. I needed a sense of magic. A reminder that the importance of the mystery can still be found in a simple walk, or that the joy of just breathing and working my legs could be so much more profound and indispensable than all the earnestness of the news.
The train was waiting at the end of the trail, a metal box creaking in the oncoming evening. I sat down, closed my eyes as the burning of movement buried itself inside my closed eyes, and let the train rock me back to the city.
Spent the afternoon watching The Last Samurai yesterday. When I first saw the preview for it last summer, I groaned, “Oh God, no, not another epic movie about some white guy becoming a downtrodden and less enlightened people’s icon, who saves them for their own good!” After hearing good reviews about it from the Japanese press, though, and getting some thumbs up from a few of my students, I decided to give it a try.
I stumbled back to the train station afterwards, roiling with conflicting feelings and with a lot of questions and reactions.
It is a beautiful movie, that much must be said. The grand vistas of the mountains, the rural scenes, the replica of the port town, even the fencing sequences and moments in the temples were exquisitely and accurately done. The movie gave quite a sense of what life must have been like right at the beginning of the Meiji Era, the last days of the samurai.
And some of the acting was unforgettable. Ken Watanabe, I think, stole the show with his powerful portrayal of a warrior lord, and Koyuki (which means “Little Snow”) left the whole theater of Japanese moviegoers weeping behind their handkerchiefs with her dignified and subtle portrayal of a woman whose husband is killed by Tom Cruise’s character. Even Tom Cruise does a good job both in portraying the true awkwardness of a foreigner attempting to speak Japanese and in learning the moves of Japanese society. I liked some of the contrasts that were sensitively incorporated, showing how differently Japanese and Americans think.
Perhaps because I’ve lived here in Japan all my life and traveled throughout the country, including more walks in the mountains than I can remember, I also noticed a lot of glaring problems. First, the landscape. One quick glance at the mountains and I knew immediately that it wasn’t Japan )most of the film was filmed in New Zealand). Japan’s slopes are steeper and come together, usually, with more angles. The flat bottomed valley of the rural village was too flatly abrupt, with few of the village houses nested on the steep hillsides, as would be characteristic of Japanese mountain villages. The vegetation on the mountainsides was all wrong… a pallor of green that doesn’t exist in Japan, where it tends to be much more emerald in quality, due to the warmer climate here. The way the soil clodded up wasn’t characteristic of Japan. The presence of palm trees and giant ferns, on both the slopes and in the forests, gave away New Zealand’s identity… in the area where this story takes place there wouldn’t have been any palm trees or giant ferns lurking in the backgrounds of the battle scenes. And worst of all was the supposed form of Mt. Fuji, which has a huge crater in the side facing the ocean approach to the port town and which would not have appeared so large in the sky from what I suppose was supposed to be Edo (the old name of Tokyo). Mt. Fuji is 150 kilometers away from Tokyo. For me, but probably not for most people, the whole movie environment felt wrong, not Japanese.
Because a lot of the behavior of the Japanese characters was closely discussed with the Japanese actors, the feel of their gestures, voices, pronunciation, and dialogue, felt very natural. The interaction between the Japanese characters worked, too, unlike in such movies as “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (a Japanese general in real life would never have given in the way the general did in the movie) or “Black Rain”. However, there were moments when things just didn’t come across as authentic. When Tom Cruise’s character leans over to hug Koyuki’s character’s boy, there is no surprise on the part of any of the Japanese. But this would have been scandalous behavior, especially for a man to show to a samurai boy… the boy would have been shocked, as would the onlooking man in the garden, and certainly Koyuki’s character would have stopped dead in her tracks. Such behavior between men and their children is still not often practiced even today, let alone back in the period of this movie. And I had trouble with Ken Watanabe’s last scene when he ends by speaking to Tom Cruise in English. For someone trying to hold on with his last breath to all aspects of his culture, it seemed peculiarly uncharacteristic of him to resort to English.
In spite of these faults, the story was well-written and the transformation of Tom Cruise’s character quite believable. The gentleness and devotion of the movie to the human heart left me quite deeply moved by end of the show.
What disturbed me in profound ways, however, were the images and emotional reactions I had to the battle scenes: I couldn’t stop thinking about Bush and America’s Year of War last year. The more I watched those hundreds of soldiers falling in the movie, the more angry I became and the more uncontrollably grief stricken at the thought of all that has been forced on all of us over the last two and a half years. War, war, war, war, war! I was just totally exhausted with thinking about it and at times in the movie I could barely keep my eyes upon the scenes so close to weeping I was. It finally all came cascading out in that one, brief view of the entire battlefield with all those thousands of dead. One more crack of a gun. One more horse gutted. One more young man shot to pieces… I wanted to stand up in the theater, raise my fists, and shout my fury at Bush.
Instead I just sat and watched, looking for the entertainment value.
Fine movie that it was, it ignores the truth of the samurai: that they were very often brutal oppressors and caused untold hardship for the majority of the Japanese people who mostly lived on farms and were not allowed to carry weapons. All the glory of samurai chivalry is all very nice, but what was depicted is not an accurate picture of Japan’s history… which has always been fraught with bloody wars. The Meiji Restoration did a lot more good than bad for Japanese culture and people live a lot more at peace these days than back then. I can’t imagine very many Japanese would want to go back to those “good ole days”.
But still, the movie’s call for people of different cultures to hold on to who they are is an important one. It can certainly provide reflection to people around the world today who are beleaguered by American’s push to render all lands and people in their image. Fingerprints be damned! Brazil has the right attitude. Let Americans be fingerprinted all around the world in retaliation. They deserve just as much humiliation as anyone else, no?
I’m not sure The Last Samurai taught me anything at all about Japan. It just seemed a reiteration of what I already knew and a refute of what the West thinks it knows about Asia. But worth a looksee.
The sunlight is delivering peace this afternoon, alighting upon the window pane and and sifting through to the walls, where the white glare heats the chill like a silent furnace. Without a cloud in the sky, it seems as if all plants are turning toward the sun’s appropriation, reveling in the radiation, and offering their yearning in return. I can feel their expectation within myself, the rounding of the corner in the year, when the longest nights have slowly grazed past and the season begins to make its way uphill toward the pass, where renewal waits. It is almost expressible, this impatience for sunlight and the cry of mornings with windows thrown wide open.
Upon my window sill sit two sand dollars, three rounded stones picked from river beds, a small carved stone Boddhisatva, and a barrel cactus, tilted in its axis, toward the light. These items have traveled with me through the years and over uncertain distances, two long dead, three polished by time and elements, one brought alive by human intervention, and one still growing as it waits for water. They seem to resist time, but with the daily rolling of the great star across the window pane, they, too, seem to make an incremental passage from day to day. When I look at them I am reminded of the simple acuity of existence, when each is perceived in its whole, distinctly, uniquely itself.
The neighborhood has taken upon itself to hush up today, almost as if it were paying respect to the sun. All things hold still, resisting even breathing. When the wind blows, it restrains itself to quaking among remaining leaves, so gentle that their tenuous holds upon the mostly bare branches might still allow them yet a few more days as leaves, before they drop off and disintegrate into the soil. The sadness of autumn has passed, however, and midwinter stirs the pot. The awakening of blood only needs enough seasoning of sunlight before the sauce begins to bubble. It is only a matter of time before the first thaw.
Wow! That’s a lot of comments I got for my post the other day and yesterday. Thanks, I appreciate it. I hope we can all create a great community this year. I look forward to reading more of everyone’s thoughts and stories and to watching the blogs grow. To the great number of new bloggers (I’ve been quite surprised by how many newcomers there are… maybe everyone got blog subscriptions for Christmas? TypePad must be making a bundle!), welcome! It is exciting to hear what the new voices will have to say.
It is interesting, in my absence from the web for the past month (I must have logged on to the computer maybe five times) how many people have stopped by here. It reminded me, as I went for a walk this morning, of a flock of birds gathering in a deserted garden: you never see the birds when you step out, but there they are at the feeder, crowding along the fence rails and branches, when you leave them alone. Easily startled. Easily stirred up. And wary of the feeder until time tells.
By taking time away from blogging I’ve come up with the theory that blogging is a kind of consumerism, a kind of accumulation of newness and ideas, much like gossip and bargain sale shopping and advertising. The difference from a book lies in its constant change and attempt to present all ideas as something as yet not told, when in actuality very little new is being said at all. Books require you to sit down and concentrate. They sit still and wait, whereas blogs flit by like the information before a blinking eye, a kind of verbal animation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that animation, video, digital music, cell phone communication, and blogs are all gathered together in the same place.
Like others have written, I didn’t miss the blog very much when I was away. In fact it felt a lot quieter in my head and a lot simpler. What I did miss were a number of people who I’ve really come to like as people, and whom I’ve started corresponding with offline (one person here in Japan I almost had a chance to meet in real life, even). The ideas people discuss are great, too.
Tonio, at Savoradin holds a very well thought out and provocative discussion about blogging and friendship, basically spelling out his belief that without the immediacy of touch and presence, without all the dirty work of real life, a true friendship cannot develop over the internet. Perhaps he is right about the start of friendships… the trust and belief in its existence and in the substantiality of the other person rests upon our mammalian need for touch and physical presence. Without a reference point with which to locate another within the landscape of reality, without the knowledge of what is happening in their real lives, without, as Tonio suggests, the finality of such things as disease, departure, or death, real concern for another cannot develop. Perhaps this is true. Parting is such sweet sorrow. (could Shakespeare have made a good blogger?)
But it is also true that a few of my closest friends I have known for more than 30 years and during that time I may have seen them in person maybe five or six times. The rest has developed and maintained affection, long distance, through letters. I believe there are all kinds of friendship and love and that distance and ephemerality do not diminish some kinds of bonds. I know, without doubt, that I will be friends with and hold them dear those who I’ve been in touch with all this time. And new friends will also join the flock.
Like birds there are so many varieties of friends. Some wing by in the night, some flit up to your windowsill, stare at you a moment and are off. Still others linger, get to know you, and then fly away with their own concerns. And a few remain, day in and day out, whatever weather, through all the seasons. Like birds there are no right or wrong friends, just different shades of plumage.
All are welcome to my garden, even if they do not talk to me. And all must apply their wings as they see fit, including my own. Freedom is what birds are all about, aren’t they?