Thursday, October 31, 2002

Never the Twain Shall Meet Dept.

Americans fingercount starting with a fist; Japanese start with the hand open.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002


This morning when I went out back and was poking around near the shiitake logs for some reason now forgotten, I suddenly noticed that right there in front of my eyes, almost elbowing my corneas, were four beautiful, pristine, brand-new utterly bugless shiitake as big as small dinner plates!! I immediately forgot whatever it was I had come out there for, and began harvesting and trying to balance the velvety delicacies on my hands and forearms as I juggled the brown treasures unbroken back to the house, where for lunch I sliced two of them into long paperthin slices much like wide noodles and sauteed them very lightly in basil-steeped olive oil with a touch of garlic and lemon thyme before tossing in some al dente fettucine sprinkled with some genuine grated parmesan and sort of went to Japano-Italy for a while, somewhere around Torino-Kyoto, where I wondered how I could have forgotten the small but worldfully delicious bounty the shiitake present us each fall around this time; they must know how I love surprises, and said nothing until the moment was just right. And in what a splendid language!!

Sunday, October 27, 2002


Planted spring beans and winter greens today, slowly learning bits more about the soil and what it must do and what the plants require it to do, and how little I knew only last year. And how little I know now. And because the knowledge we have can fill up what we think until it feels like a whole headfull, we have to keep learning that there's always plenty of room for such things as the feel of the dirt in our hands in the dusk, as the soil and the night take color from each other, our hands keeping the soil visible so we can get in the last of the beans...

And following me around all day circumstantially was the baby ferret, who didn't seem to be much bothered by my presence as long as I stood stock still at his appearance, as vassal to lord. Seemed wherever I went there he was too, rattling some dry leaves, poking his tiny masked face out of the bamboo, exploring under the deck, worming in and out of the firewood, furry butterscotch all warm and stretchy in the sun, curling back upon himself and enthralling me in the process.

Also gathered a kilo or more of air potatoes, as I call them, mukago, the viny fruit of the wild yamaimo, took me a while to infallibly recognize the yellowing leaves that are slightly off center, and their silvery vine-nodule fruits a centimeter or two in size up there in the overgrowth, but then my eyes couldn't stop spotting them, they had become as everywhere as they in fact were, and I couldn't walk down the road without having to stop and gather them, how could I just leave them hanging there, all that silvery bounty strung out for the taking with no other gatherers around, and most prolific, of all places, on the roadside right in front of our house.

There is something of the treasure in such things that are given to us direct from the hand of nature, that hint in their essence of the unbounded generosity whence we ourselves have sprung, and that we suffer to betray. And to celebrate this gift, a simple dinner of air potatoes like black pearls in a mist of rice, to satisfy the hunger they had given me.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002


To give innocents abroad an idea of the degree of control bureaucracy has over the populace in Japan, on the multi-layered postcard (!) the Japanese Department of Motor Vehicles mails out to drivers to remind them it's time to renew their licenses (!), one is told the very HALF-HOUR in which one is to present oneself at the DMV office! Today, therefore, Echo and I (both born in November; licenses expire in birthmonth) spent the entire day renewing our drivers licenses, as is the way in Japan.

I, however, being without stain insofar as driving is concerned (no tickets, no accidents since last license), have this year been designated a 'well-mannered driver' as the forms so quaintly put it, a quaintness that conveys the twilight zone in which Japanese bureaucracy yet abides. At the DMV, being among the traffically virginal I was placed in the quick-through group, and only had to stand in line, fill out forms, stand in line, pay some money, stand in line, take an eye test, stand in line, get photographed to look like a DWI mug shot on my license, stand in line, fill out forms, watch a video, get a lecture, stand in line and receive at last my Gold License (awarded only to well-mannered drivers such as myself)-- about an hour and a half all told.

Echo, on the other hand, having been cited some years ago for not coming to a complete halt at a rustic stop sign where there hasn't been any cross traffic for the better part of the last century, was included with the Hell's Angels group, and was in there all afternoon getting the full treatment, lectured at and being shown all sorts of gory accident pictures, screeching brakes and all. She emerged among the hot-rod hordes with the plain and unimpressive common license they administer to all the ill-mannered drivers.

Until the government pointed it out, I'd never thought of Echo that way. Just goes to show you what a little bureaucracy can do.

Never the Twain Shall Meet Dept.

American handsaws cut on the push; Japanese handsaws cut on the pull.

Friday, October 18, 2002


Last night I was driving Kasumi home from the station in the heavy rainy mist, she and I in the dashboard-lit, theater-like front seat with the movie "Mountain Road on Rainy Autumn Night" playing on the windshield, chatting on the way about everyday things, college, friends, work, supper etc., high-beaming our way up the mountainside through the thickening mist-rain when, like bestial lightning, all at once the theater screen was filled with the headlight-lit, rain-glistening matted dark brown hairy fur shoulder-back-thigh wildness of a great beast shape leaping instantly across the road and being struck only lightly but with a very real-sounding thump by the left side bumper, the sudden star of the movie abruptly leaving the screen and disappearing into the woods in the complete darkness of the wild home on the left side of the road, erasing our thoughts that had just now been, as we plunged all unready into the sudden deep awareness that one mere flash of the wild can engender, reality rending the quotidian with a bristling bestial flank wet with rain (hairs on the bumper later told us it was an inoshishi (wild pig)), the shoulder of the wild flashing by in the mist of our oldest mythologies, the wildness we carry in us at the bottom of our blood, wildness we are now and then vouchsafed to glimpse as on a dark road, mirror of the pathways that span our souls and passions, the ways of the ancient ones, who spark in our eyes and begin to breathe at such a glimpse, then fade back into the apparent quiescence of memory at the next turning in the road, becoming ember-dreams of being free as the wild... then on up to the house into the arena of light at the front drive stone wall where a huge owl was spiral gliding into light and dark, turning away into tree darkness at our approach, trying to tell us something...

Thursday, October 17, 2002


Come to the rock
the father of wind, of water
the rock will know you
sprung from the rock your waters
turned in the wind your words
come to the rock that began your bones

Stop there in your deepest place
to the stillness rock knows
so still as to hear hearing, see seeing
begin to think rock thoughts
find you are closer to all
than belief can go

And though you move on,
in the place where you are
the rock remains

Come to the rock
and the rock will show you
the rock will lift you up

Wednesday, October 16, 2002


Last night, fresh (well, not very fresh actually) back from big city Osaka, with the afterfeeling of city crowds and the subway free-for-all jamboree still about me, I took the big flashlight and went out into the dark rainy garden to cut some nira (mild Japanese chives) to use in making dinner. As I approached the nira patch I heard, as though at the probing of my lightbeam, a great rustling in the short mountain bamboo that grows freely on the adjoining property.

I shined the light directly toward the noise as it grew toward me, thinking it might be an inoshishi or even a bear, when out trooped a small gang of three very rained-on and bedraggled monkeys, two young females and a teenager, nonplused by this sudden attention, as they saw it.

They had been quietly sitting under the big oak tree out of the rain, waiting for morning and my onions for breakfast, and now this... this self-proclaimed "onion owner" was making them move.

When they emerged from the bamboo into the garden they immediately headed directly away from me and proceeded to amble slowly into the dark toward the road, glancing back now and then, the females as though saying to the younger one "Pay no attention to that guy with the light, just keep moving, but remember where the onions are," the young one right off beginning to drift in the direction of the onions till I spotlit him in the bright beam, edged him back with the others and lit their way off the property.

I then cut the nira I wanted, confirmed that the garden was indeed fully monkeyless, and went in for dinner. How different the crowds are, out in the country.

Sunday, October 13, 2002


She was already on the morning train when I got on at the country station, was sitting in the seat opposite the one I happened to take, and so from under my baseball hat I got to look at her while she gazed at the way to Kyoto.

First at her eyes that had fire in them as a little spark, with the iron and flint that made it, then at her small strong hands with all the character worn in, hands that had fellowed the world, its water and soil, the worn-nailed fingers clenched around the black velvet strings of a soft purply glittery purse of the kind young women used to carry back in the sepia days, when she was a young woman and young women wore kimono...

It was an old purse and the hands were old hands, a farm woman's hands, toughened like walnuts by work and weather, she wore baggy tweed pants, strong as iron but with a touch of non-work-clothes refinement suitable for a farm grandma's rare trip to the city, the pants in the fashion of monpei but distinctly not monpei, a fashion statement in its own way - she clearly had opinions about things - and her mauve jacket, brand new but decades old, they don't make them like that any more, she must have gotten it in one of those little village stores you pass by on drives through the countryside, that have the old wooden walls with little ancient windows where you see just hanging there for what appears to have been a very long time (forget about display these are just clothes after all, buy or pass by,) the taupe and mauve and beige and brown and gray goods in the windows: cardigans, jackets and pants you can't imagine who will buy because you don't live anywhere near that time...

But then all of a sudden in the midst of these hurriedly commuting and generally waning modern up-to-date lives there she is, in brusque just-sitting-there-stone-healthy-at-85 contrast to all this office paleness, this borrowed sophistication and fashionably impending transaction sweat: one beautiful old farmer woman in lovely old-new stodgy eternal clothes from a far away place of mind and time, fashion from way back when there was no fashion except a change from kimono and monpei...

This was rad back then, and that's what she still wears now, elderly rad, this mauve rough weave jacket with the just barely perceptible red threaded through, blossoms in the pattern somewhere, no doubt she knows what blossoms they are, and with shiny purple silver-speckled buttons, a pale violet scarf and one of those taupe sweaters from the window of such a store too, just a little silver in her black hair, her face brown-wrinkled, topographic with life, eyes that reflect all that can be known to the bone about garden and birth, time and death and what the hell are salaries...

She is like a rock in the midst of these fluxy tides and fickle currents, she is the secret rock of this country, of all countries, of all of us who have gotten this far, of whatever constancy humanity can lay claim to... sons and daughters know it is the mothers who carry it all, and if it all falls it is the mothers who remain to get on with the getting on...

I stared at her secretly until I dozed off, and when I awoke she was gone.

[First published in slightly different form in Kyoto Journal #40]

Friday, October 11, 2002


Last night as I was coming up the mountain road (no streetlights) accompanied by a complex frog and cricket a capella with the occasional cry of a lovelorn hawk, backed by the wind rustling in the drying autumn bamboo or combing itself though the remaining rice stalks, over me the full night sky like a jeweler's velvet cast with diamonds beyond reach, just above the trees along the ridge, following me up the road, was a remnant of a sliver of the moon, attached to the dark blue yolk of itself in a lighter darkness, a delight-bright cheshire-cat grin slowly sliding down the horizon and on to other eyes around the world. Then suddenly all was only starlight, showing me the eyes I really have.

Wednesday, October 09, 2002


Ferret comes up on the deck at night and snakes along the walls, looking in the glass doors trying to figure out why he can't go any further inward than whatever glass doors are and if the movement behind them is movement at all, or any threat, before he snacks on the cat's leftovers. His ears are pointed triangles, like the motions of his head in trying to digest what goes on in rooms, for these are surely the first rooms he has ever seen, and a very ponderous wild animal puzzle, though the deck with a hole in it (where the rock comes up through) gives him easy access from the ground to food right out there for the taking. And what could he possibly be thinking about those odd silhouettes he sees shifting about the better to watch him through the big panes of what he has no idea is glass? He is the color of butterscotch and as smooth in his movements; looks like a long, soft taffy without the wrapping. Softness moving through the softer night.

Sunday, October 06, 2002


Last weekend went with friends to a restored old mill out in the countryside amid small mountains on the other side of the Lake and, after about a half-hour spent gathering beautiful garden rocks from the whitewater river below, had charcoal-grilled (in irori right at our knees) fresh brown trout and mountain vegetables in an experience and with a flavor and ambience that one couldn't get in any city in the world; i.e., trout served by the person who just caught it, fresh from the mountain stream it is served beside, is real; trout served by someone whose employer bought it wholesale from a fish merchant who got it from a dealer who shipped it frozen after paying bottom price to whoever caught it some days ago and served on the 44th floor is not real. On our way out I spotted the big old carved wooden sign that had been on the front of the place, no longer used since the new carved sign is up, so I asked if I could have it, and they were glad to have me take it. It will make a nice table. Real, too.

Saturday, October 05, 2002


Spending this weekend largely on firewood; the more I work with it the more I realize that each wood has its own character, its own spirit, and not only as seen in the bark; some is whispered in the heft, and in the sound the chunk gives off when tested with a hard knock.

Some of its personality is vouchsafed in the scent of the fresh facet, and much in the signature of the grain, but most is revealed in the heat and the life of the flame.

A lot like a person. There's the cherry type, the oak type, the pine type, the cedar type and the spruce type, to name a few.

In a short walkaround respite from my labors, spotted an akebi vine full of fruit back in a secret place along the road, but the fruits are all still green; have to wait till they ripen. Hope I can get them before the monkeys do, though that's the monkeys' line of work, so I'm less likely to be on the spot at the right time.

Mukago "air potatoes" are also out now. Picked a few and had them in rice for lunch. Also cut a lot of sizeable bamboo stalks for garden use, before the snow bends them permanently. They're great for beans and frames, but best of all they're free, like every single best thing there is.

Friday, October 04, 2002


At the edge of the field across the road the flashy male pheasant struts back and forth, back and forth obsessively, hypnotically almost, giving it all he's got in front of a newly adult pheasant hen who keeps trying to get away but is cut off expertly at every turn by this relentless wolf in rainbow feathers, this honey-voiced charmer.

The little hen, demure and dull by contrast, is new to the game and not quite sure why she merits all this attention as the feathery dude flaunts his perfect pompadour, drives by in his low rider, flexes his muscles, revs his engine, shows his tattoos, lays rubber with his drag racer, stretches his tight t-shirt, croons a hit tune with some air guitar, opens the inviting door to his chopped and channeled hot rod as he drives by slowly, hangin out the window, and then for a moment he himself is entranced by the very sheerness of his unequaled talent and irresistably staggering handsomeness...

The hen, taking advantage of this lull in the intensity, scoots off into the bush and disappears, when all at once The King hits the reality brakes, acts as if nothing has happened, tosses his feathers back as if he hasn't just been turned down cold by the cutest chick in town...

Thursday, October 03, 2002


Each year, one morning in late September I wake up having completely forgotten one of the finest fragrances on earth, and am reminded once more by the very subtle perfume that wafts in the window on the pulses of the moist morning mountain air, seeming to belong more properly in dreams, not in real life, the nose ambrosia of the kinmokusei (Osmanthus fragrans), that amazing blend of the essences of apricot, peach, cream and several other nuances that are ancient familiars to the nose, but that the mind knows nothing of. And from this most retiring of flowers, tiny apricot-cream buddings along the branches, only visible from up close, comes this astonishing profundity of scent.

When I first experienced the fragrance, I stood looking around in the garden, right on the edge of heaven, with no idea where this priceless treasure was emanating from; not a flower in sight but a couple of late marigolds... I never suspected the big clunky "hedges" (2 meters-plus high) lining the edge of the property at the far road, that had been planted by the former owner and didn't really serve well as hedges, being too open at the bottom and requiring frequent pruning; they looked to be a hassle and I was thinking of replacing them with something that did more than just "hedge" ineffectually, that maybe bore fruit or something (I'm not a big fan of the merely ornamental). But once I realized that they were the source of this annual paradise, I became their servant for life, in return for certain mornings each September.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002


Well that big old blustery wind-bully "mega-hurricane" turned out to be nothing but a pussycat around here (we were struck by the big fluffy tail), threw a couple chestnuts at the kitchen window, bent a few onion stalks, threatened some late tomatoes and intimidated several beans but faded away fast, leaving a splendid blue morning with chestnut largesse all over the place. I can't go three feet without getting weighed down by pocketsfull. I love this kind of problem.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Chestnut Ballistics

I have not complained as all night and all day the falling chestnuts thump the roof and the deck (conveniently positioned for just such effect) and me when I enter the garden ("Those chestnuts, those maddening chestnuts: will they never CEASE??"), but now they are thumping like nutty artillery at the intensifying approach of that big angry red splotch right near Japan on the Pacific weather map: megatyphoon (!) Higos, a big blow for which I must now batten down the hatches. It promises to be an exciting, if chestnut-filled, night...