Saturday, December 28, 2002


It's just a little Kyoto shrine; a strong woman could pick it up and carry it away. It sits in a niche in a wall on a nondescript corner to an alley I pass by every morning, in an otherwise soulless neighborhood of the kind often seen around train stations in cities, especially that early in the day: monolithic apartment blocks, closed-up shops, empty streets. But there is always a flower in the vase, and sometimes when I'm zoning by in standard commuter zombie mode I'm all at once alive awake amid the fragrance of a wonderful incense like an invisible cloud of god, and am immersed in the faith of another, in the simple but beautiful and sharing act it is to tend this humble shrine for the benison of all passing by, who, without ever saying so, are blessed by this reminder of the beauty that is everywhere and always in the soul, as far as we may somehow seem to get from that beauty, and by the realization that simply passing through a cloud of god can awaken the god in ourselves, at least until we get to the office.

Previously published, in slightly different form, in Kyoto Journal and Tricycle


The mountains this morning.

Friday, December 27, 2002


On the weekend I was standing by the kitchen sink pondering a cherrywood-shelf-installing approach when I heard a thud and looked up to see a thrush jump up and down at the large window over the sink. With what mind I had free at the time I wondered why the bird was so excited, and what it was trying to tell me, then I realized it had been some time since I had conversed with the birds or they with me, so somewhat more of my mind left off shelfness to ponder this, and I realized like a sun rising that the bird had flown into the window, thinking it a way through to the other window across the living room, so I rushed outside and saw the soft brown bird lying there in the throes of shock, and picked him up (so very light!), brought him inside (I know it was a 'he' because he was wearing a suit and tie) and put him on a newspaper in front of the fire to be warm, as is the way for shock (not the newspaper but the warmth), and he just lay there gasping less and less and less--then he began flapping a bit and looking around, which told me his neck wasn't broken and made me think he might have a better chance if he wasn't handled too much (what a greater shock it must be to be laying there after a shock like that and watch your giant featherless enemy come slowly toward you and pick you up when you have never even been close to one of these creatures, let alone been touched, even more let alone held, by one before!). So while it was still light I put him outside on the deck, where he stood into the darkness, and in the morning there was a bird hopping perkily around the garden wearing exactly the same suit and tie.


"If the answer is 'no,' give the year you expect to become necessary."

Thursday, December 26, 2002



Woke up this morning and our usual dawn silence was a din by comparison. In this modern world, one quickly forgets how silent silence can be when it has a mind to. The skylight was opaque. Now and then there was a large fluffy whisper outside as though there were a vast conspiracy of white going on, as if big clouds of of cold microdiamonds were suddenly sliding from cedars with whooshes and thumps. The birds weren't talking, not even in hushed tones. There was awe in the air. There was also about a foot of snow outside, and the air was white as it went on falling. Our first snowfall of the year. I went downstairs and stirred the fire, made some tea, stood in the dark house looking out at the graysilk sky growing in brightness and hoped it was white for all of you in Christmas on the other side of the world. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 25, 2002



We went today for dinner all the way to Ibaraki and up into the mountains and around and up and in to Madamamura, down from the road in a bamboo grove, the round restaurant frame fashioned of beams rescued from forsaken 300-year-old farmhouses in Shiga, the roof made using 6000 bundles of reeds from the famous reed-growing marshes of Lake Biwa. Here the poet/translator owner serves fine natural food in a fine place away from the hustle of the big city, away from systematized time, from canyons of artifice, to rescue the senses from zombie mode and restore the reaches of the heart...and even on a rainy winter day, it works!!

Tuesday, December 24, 2002


Yesterday, 2-year-old Kaya and 63-year-old I, hand in hand, went out early in the morning to find a little Christmas tree somewhere up in the forests on this Shinto-country mountain with its Buddhist name.

Along the way Kaya picked up and discarded several sticks she at first found appealing but that on closer examination were found to be lacking in some quality essential to her collection.

On the way, we walked to the pond, which was still as glass and filled with morning sky ringed with cedars.

Kaya stood at the shore and looked at it all long and hard, as only a two-year-old can who is busy filling up with everything in the world.

I could tell that as a city girl she was impressed by the space and by the no-one-aroundness.

Further up along the road, in an untended copse crowded with opportunistic trees, we found a nice little evergreen that was just Kaya's size.

We took the tree home, put it in a bucket filled with sand and decorated it with ribbons and bells and holly leaves, red berries, pine cones and little toys and ornaments from old Christmases.

Kaya clapped her hands.

Monday, December 23, 2002


Few things in modern life are more virtually exhausting or basically wasteful than anticipating snow-- particularly in vain, but even moreso when it does more than not snow, it sneers in your waiting face with that kind of nyaahh-nyaahh breath of spring in December, that implicitly temporary warmth you so foolishly loved in the Spring with all its golden promise, but that in Winter is merely a mask that yet again mocks your sweater, your scarf, your seeds, your frigid and pointless dreams of sledding, skiing, snowballing-- fantasies fragile as snowflakes. There was frost one morning not long ago, but when I reached out to touch it in primitive awe it was gone. And the scientists revise their estimate a degree or two in the next hundred years, yeah, tell me another one, oh white-robed arbiters of fact.

Sunday, December 22, 2002


One can bowl alone, but one can never garden or split firewood alone.

Friday, December 20, 2002



Kasumi and Kaya the tykette are visiting for the holidays, and we are a childed household once more. As always it is wondrous to me that if you have children and are paying attention you can never stop growing, always in some way you could not have foreseen, but that, thanks to previous growth, you are prepared for. Nature knows where she is going.

Thursday, December 19, 2002



Congratulations to all the hardworking folks at the Journal for a neverending job well done. The finest mag in and about Asia.


These mountains, like all mountains, are written up by ecologists in a scientifico-pretentious kind of way, sort of like accountants talking to each other, in a distancing style that has by default become the way people talk about natural things now when they want to sound authoritative, which is a damn shame, in view of the fact that there is so much more involved than science and sounding authoritative.

I like the old mythological mystery ways, in which one could actually talk with mountains, as being more real, and far closer to the point, which is to unite us with our surrounds. Or sing the mountains, until you know them by heart. A mountain is a helluva lot more than rocks and trees, as everybody knows; yet that is what we are told to "save."

As if this whole thing were a Saturday matinee serial in which we were the heroes in white and the mountains (or the entire earth, no less!) were a fair damsel in distress, tied across some railroad tracks, as the great steaming, billowing juggernaut of civilization roars nearer, when of course it is the roaring juggernaut that will go off the tracks into the abyss...

Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Just trial-seeded small front and back flower beds with penstemon seeds purchased last year in Colorado (Petite Bouquet: Penstemon barbatus; Rocky Mountain Blue: Penstemon strictus). I wonder if they'll realize they have no visas or will just emerge and flower as though it were their country. Also saved a few seeds to start indoors in Jan/Feb. I'll let you know what's up in 5 months or so.


Anyone for a piece of sweaty sock? Now a 3-meter chocolate Posh, that I could see.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002



Creative Commons is here.


Americans make their zeros starting at the top; Japanese start at the bottom.


Japanese genetic engineers have developed a silkworm that spins silk containing human collagen, a protein from human skin. Does this mean biotechnology in the silk region across the Lake? One hesitates to say it, but--frankensilk?

Sunday, December 15, 2002


The story of the 47 ronin was re-enacted all over Japan yesterday; everybody wanted a piece of that nobility. In Edo (Tokyo), where the major events took place, in Ako (Hyogo Prefecture) where Asano and his samurai came from, in Yamashina where Ooishi lived during the year of planning, in Kyoto where he and others hung out in apparent dissolution, and anywhere else in Japan where the social medicine of this legend of loyalty and honor could serve to strengthen the body public.

At Sengakuji, just a spear's throw from where I used to live in Tokyo, all the relatives of the 47 ronin came as they do every year to burn incense and bask in the spirit of their ancestors. As one tv commentator pointed out, in terms of their times these ronin were criminals and seriously violated all sorts of laws, from murder to forced entry, but now they are heroes to a hero-needing nation, as it turns to this tale of 'criminals' for strength.

And what an incredible tale it is. It was all traced out in Yamashina yesterday, starting with Asano's injurious attack on the cruel and overbearing Kira in the Edo Palace. For this transgression of etiquette, Asano was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide).

Ooishi and the dishonored ronin then began plotting to avenge their lord. Their fortitude, integrity and willingness to forsake everything to restore their honor, a quality distinctly lacking in the leaders of today, made this event all the more poignant and meaningful to a public whose leaders seem to be more like Kira than Asano.

But it was strange to a westerner like me to see, at Ooishi jinja in Yamashina (where Ooishi had lived and prayed and where yesterday's samurai parade ended), all the demure ladies in kimono dancing their delicate and sensual steps around the bloody cloth, slung from a spear, that held the 'head' of Kira.

Saturday, December 14, 2002


Today is the 300th anniversary of perhaps the most famous folkloric event in Japanese history, as depicted in the great Kabuki play Chushingura and countless movies. December 14, 1702 was the day of the Uchi-iri (break-in), when in the icy hours before dawn Ooishi and his fellow samurai broke into the home of the cruel Kira and avenged the death of their master Asano. For a year previously, Ooishi and many of his followers had lived apparently dissolute lives and been mocked for their faithlessness; Ooishi had renounced his wife and children and lived with a mistress, frequented the pleasure quarters of Gion in Kyoto and carefully acquired a reputation for weakness and loss of integrity. During this time he lived in what is now Oishijinja in the small town of Yamashina just over the mountains from Kyoto (the famous road from Yamashina to Kyoto was the forest "road" in the movie Rashomon). (Just saw the gray-haired eldest descendant of Ooishi on tv, wearing a plaid shirt, looking quite elderly handsome). We are off now to Yamashina, to take part in the hours-long celebrations. More later...

Friday, December 13, 2002


It seems we live on the southern cusp of yukiguni (snow country), where the winter sidewalks are basically tunnels through the snow, though it never gets that bad down here. Some mornings, though, I get on the train from our blinding blizzard, go through a tunnel or two and the sky is blue, the sun is shining, birds are practically singing,'s like Dorothy going from Kansas to Oz, only as an older guy with jeans on and no dog. It's another world. Then when I return, a tunnel or two from the sunny blue I click my bootheels twice and I'm back in the howling black and white again. There's no place like home. To me it's all just as miraculous as it sounds, but none of the locals seem to remark upon it. I guess in the right place even miracles can become quotidian. Some winters yukiguni comes right down and covers us all with a meter or two of pure white weather; other winters the line is drawn farther north, and the weather is rather mild here. The first winter we innocents were here, in the fall there was a plague of kamemushi (Halyomorpha picus; "stinkbug" (note to future innocents: do not allow stinkbugs in your salad) ) and the locals said therefore the winter would be severe. Sure enough, right around christmas we got 80 cm in one night, and soon after we were isolated by meters of snow for most of the winter, had to walk up the mountain pulling sleds of supplies. It was great. This year there were only about 50 cm worth of kamemushi, I'd say. But then I'm not really a local yet, so who knows.

First real snow this morning, woke up to that deep quiet, silvery predawn light that comes with the thick pearl-gray of snow clouds roiling in from the far north, tumbling down over the mountains, sprinkling the land and the folks with diadems, making all noble. Rarely is pure silence so exciting.

Thursday, December 12, 2002



As I departed the station this morning and the train man handed me my little slip of paper, the first little slip of paper in quite a long while now, the thought struck me as it does each time I get handed one of these: how very very strange, even incomprehensible, it would be to the US mentality to be informed that the people and the trains of Japan, the entire country, are so specifically and precisely and expectably and continually ON TIME that when a commuter train is a couple of minutes late a whole system-wide apologetic support apparatus swings into gear, and the train men stand at the exit wickets handing out little slips of paper with �e10 minutes�f or �e20 minutes�f or �e30 minutes�f punched out on the edge to indicate the maximum range of time the train was late (usually due to earthquake or accident), these late allowance slips to be signed and presented to the respective employers, in conjunction with the late-punched time card, to justify this aberrant lateness that is otherwise unconscionable and embarrassing in a nation so punctual that every other nation is way late by comparison. And how bizarre the very idea (especially to Long Island commuters as I recall), of being so able to count on the punctuality of trains that you can set your watch by them, or that the authorities can have such slips printed because train lateness is so rare, and that such slips will be used and honored, indeed never looked at askance but by a latecoming foreigner like myself.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


Firewood always knows where your toes are.


Yesterday we used the woodstove for the first time this year! Until then layering and sweaters had been enough to keep us warm (best to keep the body's own furnaces fine tuned as well), but a big thick white slab of pure Siberian weather slid south, and today the mountains are like sugarloaves in a very big clear blue bakery window. Perfect day for the task the weather itself makes essential: firewooding. Out there today in the crispness, splitting and smalling slabs of oak, selecting some bucked cedar for quick heat, getting the firewood place ready just outside the door before the snow comes and buries everything, making fine tuning impossible. Even after all these years, it still delights me to see a fire in the stove; it still amazes me here at night, with such cold outside, how warm just one single wood stove can be, how well it can heat a house. We have a loft upstairs, where I sit now inputting this, and not long before bed I'll just open the doors to the bedrooms and they'll all get nice and warm real fast, just from that fire down in the living room, burning the wood I cut last year. There is a deep reward in such cycles, so many of which we have put by the wayside in our march forward, cycles involving nature and natural exercise, natural thanks for warmth fully earned and appreciated many times over.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002



Deep in the night I am awakened by a strange thrumming-drumming--outside, I think dreamily in the dark--it has the yearning quality of sensual signaling from male to female, likely an insect (unlikely for a human of either sex to be hanging from the eaves and thrumming--sleep blends these realities with soporific fluidity). Then for a less sleepy moment I think it might be some kind of a bird, maybe an owl, when I realize that it's too small to be an owl, too rapid and insistent; it must be some insect trying to get in through the screen. Then more awake I think: Trying to get in through the screen? Makes no sense; there are no lights on in here, and now that it's winter there are no screens on the windows! But that part of my brain that doesn't want to sleep (admittedly the minority of me) is nevertheless trying to make sense of this in that persistent dichotomous pain-in-the-fundament way minorities have, so okay what the heck is it? Then I realize it's coming from the closed skylight above my head: squinting with one eye, I can make out a dark silhouette against the mid-night starry density: it is a big black stealth moth trying to reach the stars, drummm-thrummm. How in the dark can I not sympathize with that noble ambition? I reach up and open the skylight a crack, then fall back asleep unworried that a sudden blizzard might come during the night and make a drift of me. The free and star-bound moth saw to it, and in the morning there was a blue sky.

Monday, December 09, 2002



Anita Rowland by way of Jeremy Hedley notes Japanese males' eyebrow altering behavior. This is but one aspect of a cosmetic change that has been going on among young and fashionable males here for some time now. Most Japanese males could not by any stretch be called hairy, but I began to notice even less hairiness back in the late eighties, when college guys began to look quite androgenous in the summer, removing their arm and leg hair apparently in response to young women's expressed preference for less body hair on their men. The reason for that suddenly stated preference goes very deep, I expect. Perhaps it augurs a return to the epicene male fashion of Genji's time. Can pale white makeup and very high painted eyebrow-dots be far behind?


In the bright slant of sunrise, two fat hen pheasants waddle through the garden getting fatter on the wild seeds they pluck from plant and ground, dining fastidiously around my winter lettuce and mibune without touching them, completely disappearing now and then when they enter a patch of fallen leaves and pause; skittish in the slight morning down-mountain wind that can hide sounds of danger, now and then they stretch their graceful necks up to scan the surroundings that look just like them. Then they move on, dining with great delicacy. The male pheasant in his neon raiment is nowhere to be seen; in that getup he probably has to hide in the bamboo. In the spring, the pheasant mamas will bring their chicks to picnic on the chickweed.

Sunday, December 08, 2002


R.I.P. Philip Berrigan... Wood's Lot has a superb tribute to a man of peace.


I'm not the only one with monkey problems. From the description of the culprit and his apparent IQ, I think he was in my garden last summer, trying to borrow books; specifically, police procedurals.

Saturday, December 07, 2002


Important comments on a world-healthy diet, a subject dear to my heart...

"With some 780 million people suffering from chronic hunger worldwide, and with 40 million people at risk of starvation on the African continent alone, it is ironic that the people with the power and financial resources to do something about it are feasting 21 times a week. They are themselves dying, succumbing to the diseases that once afflicted only overindulgent kings and queens." More...


Interesting survey results from The Pew Research Center on What the World Thinks in 2002. For Japan, as elsewhere generally, the responses appear pretty gloomy; I wonder though, if the surveyors took into consideration the general Japanese aversion to overt positivism. Japanese tend not to praise (or condemn) themselves, family, situation etc., at least in public, so I wonder how accurate these results are, Japan-wise. To me, the most surprising finding was that 69% of Japanese respondents felt that the (Japanese) military was having a good influence on the country!!! What could this possibly mean? I have heard nor seen no sign of such feeling, though I can sense distinct undercurrents of change in the public demeanor. Feelings are more on edge as economic troubles loom. Once again, Japan may be the world's litmus.

Friday, December 06, 2002



"As far as the economic consideration goes, the Japanese boats ended up in red ink."


The scientists are doing what scientists have always done, what their long and specialized training has given them the skills to do: they are revising their previous estimates. Now they are saying that global temperatures won�ft be 2 degrees higher a hundred years from now, they�fll be 3 degrees higher, which means I guess powerboats on Park Avenue and pirogues on the Champs Elysee, though I�fll be in heaven by then. Anyway, I can tell you this morning that the scientists are way off already; it�fs six degrees higher right now than it was last year. Here it is December, and I look out my window and the trees are full of birds looking at their watches, singing �gWhat time you got?�h �gIs my watch right?�h �gIs this December?�h �gWhat are we doing here in December, aren�ft we supposed to be in Southern China right now?�h And such like birdsong, depending on the species. The crows just cock one eye to it all and say �gWhat the�c�h then resume digging in the compost; reality is, after all, reality. The crows do not seem to be revising their estimates. Unlike us humans. I came out of the house this morning and it was April. It�fs very unsettling, like when you suddenly notice that one sock is green and the other is your foot.

Monday, December 02, 2002



We are having a warm winter here so far, snow on the mountaintops briefly a couple of times, no snow now, here it is December and we still haven't needed the woodstove. Warm as spring this morning, leaves still on the oaks and a lot of other trees (chestnut, cherry bare) and the Carolina Jasmine is swelling with pending yellow blossoms; something deeply strange is going on. From paleogeology we know of ancient and transcendant weather cycles, such as they are, but have little idea as to the vast causation, or the long-term earthly homeostasis involved; so as we injure the delicate process in our many many ways, we have no true idea of what we are letting ourselves in for; it is all one vast and blind experiment, and we are the guinea pigs. Tony Tross at abuddhas memes mentions the amazing fact that his area in the southern Yukon was 10 DEGREES WARMER THAN FLORIDA (!) and refers the inquisitive visitor to HAARP. At this rate Lake Biwa will soon be salt water and I'll be living on the beach...

Sunday, December 01, 2002



The history of the earth dates back to about 4.5 billion years ago; the first organism appeared on earth 3.5 billion years ago; the first vertebrate 500 million years ago; the Japanese islands were formed 15 million years ago; Paleo-Lake Biwa was created 4 million years ago; the first human appeared 2 million years ago; today�fs Lake Biwa was created 400,000 years ago; man began to reside around Lake Biwa 20,000 years ago, the whole country became Japan about 400 years ago, and my house has been here for seven years.


Up well before dawn this morning, unfresh from troubled dreams, all the windows filled with silence and the blackness of stars curtained by overcast skies, I descended into the dark downstairs and, looking out the window for signs of sunrise, beheld out there in the endless night a moving golden light: it was a boat out on the Lake, gliding through the ancient dark as though a slowly moving star in the night sky, giving depth to all the night. What heart we can take in the darkness, from even a distant light!

Saturday, November 30, 2002



Down the road a farmer has clearcut perhaps 50 square meters of the quarter-acre wilderness (right in the midst of the rice paddies) that must have been there for a hundred years or more, judging by the size of the trees; the growth included varieties of beech, cedar, persimmon, bamboo etc. I spotted it as high quality firewood and mentioned it to Echo, who while going down the road met the guy who was cutting it, he said he was just going to haul it away, that if we wanted it we could take it, so we took all that could be carried, leaving only two large cedar logs and one immense beech log, maybe 5-7 meters long that made me wish I was a wood sculptor, what a fine totem pole or something it would make! All told, maybe two cords of firewood. We also took a bunch of fat bamboo, maybe 12 meters long, dragging it up the mountain hanging a long way out of the back of the van, scraping on the road, what a musical racket it made!! Big bamboo stalks, for who knows what. The bamboo will tell us; it has only a green voice yet, but soon it will be golden; and then we shall see.

Thursday, November 28, 2002


[From the archives]

On the way up the Lake road to Omimaiko, passing through the ancient cedar forest I stopped to visit the little shrine of the sumo wrestler of a thousand years ago, who changed sumo from a ritual involving a fight to the death, to the the sport it is today. There is an ancient stone monument there, with a barely discernible bas relief of the wrestler; and a ritual wooden-roofed sumo ring, painted the traditional colors, right next to the highway, cars flashing by... as I stood there in the residual silence that sudden awareness of such a length of time affords, I wondered what must this spot have been like one millennium ago (though spannable by only 10 centenarians), where the legendary wrestler was born and grew up, became renowned for his prodigious strength, and whence he set out for Kyoto, so far away along the Lake and over the mountain, on rugged paths beset with thieves... I stood there letting my mind fill with the image of this place way back in time from now, the way then but a footpath, nothing around but forest and a few thatch-roofed houses, the Lake as clear and clean as any beginning... it was difficult to hold on to that vision, because the now we have, unlike the nows of old, is so stridently insistent, like a badly spoiled child, with its toy cars and toy boats, its flashing signs, its virtual desires, its places to see and times to go, sun-moon-starcycles pretty much ignored, like old monuments...

[The traditionally painted sumo ring has since been torn down and completely replaced by a never-used parking lot. RB]

Wednesday, November 27, 2002


On Sunday went to Ono with photographer Bill Schwob and his wife Keiko to visit the superb fall gardens of Daigo-ji temple (no photographing) where shogun Hideyoshi used to go for cherry blossom and autumn viewing. It was as always a soul-filler. On the way we stopped for lunch at at Tachibana, one of our favorite soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurants, then paid a visit next door to Zuishin-in, the Heian era (794~1192AD) retreat of legendary beauty Ono-no-komachi. Her house in the temple complex is long gone, but the deep staired well where she used to wash her meters-long hair is still there in the bamboo grove, same crystal-clear water-mirror at the bottom.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002



So a weekend of rain and sudden gusting winds (winds really know how to gust up here in the mountains; we seem to be near gusting headquarters) coming through in the night with their razor-sharp clippers, nipping off all the deciduous leaves and trimming all the dead coniferous twigs, leaving the garden like a million-piece quilt of ruby ivory gold amber patches, the newly bare branches of the cherries and oaks festooned with cedar branch ornaments, all sodden with rain. Like any transition a pretty, yet not pretty, sight. And thanks for the compost.


"If we are to maintain world peace, we must spend more time teaching our children the horrors of war in schools."

Sunday, November 24, 2002



Another weekend addressing THE WALL TASK, at least in part. It's somewhat like going to the dentist: a little bit at a time. I realize that what I'm trying to learn is not HOW TO BUILD A STONE WALL or HOW TO MAKE ROCKS FIT TOGETHER or HOW TO FIND ROCKS THAT FIT TOGETHER ALREADY (the latter is not generally in rocks' nature once they've gone their separate ways), but to share in some fundamental understanding that rocks already possess, and everywhere and always embody quite successfully, but of which I have little inkling as yet, owing to the softness of my being and the nature of my education, my syncretistic abilities being in the abstract, rather than in the igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary.
I have to go and stare at a stone wall masterpiece for a long long time (thank goodness there are lots of those around; Japanese stone builders are equalled only by the Maya) and let it sink in, then begin slowly to pile stone upon stone in a kind of stony grammar, a petrosyntax, in hopes of creating a stylistically masterful drama of epic proportions big enough to embrace my herb garden.
I seek to build it one way, and in learning I cannot do it that way (the rocks will not stand for it, they have their scruples, after all; rocks are not constrained by logic; they understand a much greater fundamental than we humans do), I learn some small thing that only rocks can teach; I focus on that and, that will not do either; that is not the whole of the thing, only a part. Rocks know it cannot all be learned at once, and wisely do not crowd me with knowledge.
But with that part I go on, and try again, and fail again, but when, after a week away I come back to the task, I find I have learned another little bit, it too is now part of me, part of what I know about stones and stone walls, part of what the stones in their limitless patience embody. With that I go on again, begin to build, and fail, and learn another thing, and so it goes on, as bit by bit what I learn rises up like a stone wall. And when that learning wall is at last all learned, it will be but a slight step to build the wall itself.
If I want a wall that is a stone poem in stone syntax, I have to learn the bit-by-bit stones teach me until at last I have a stone wall, not a book wall, not a Bob wall. The finest mortar for a stone wall, therefore, is patience in the builder, blended with integrity. No integrity in the builder, no integrity in the wall.

Saturday, November 23, 2002



Americans drive forward into parking lot spaces; Japanese prefer to back in.

Friday, November 22, 2002


[Full moon and clouds got in the way of the measly trickle of Leonid meteors we got over here in Asia that I was going to write about, so this is from November 1998. RB]

Tuesday night at around 10 and then again at around 11 I went out onto the deck and scanned the skies for a few freezing minutes looking to see if there were any Leonid meteors in our planetary neighborhood, but saw nothing other than the usual novas and galaxies and black holes, coupla nebulas and star-breeding stellar clouds, dwarf stars, pulsars, pretty much the usual skystuff, so went back in to get warm; I didn't really know what I was expecting, a lot of corner-of-the-eye redstreak falling stars per millisecond I guess, and then during the night I looked through the bedroom skylight whenever I drifted back near the wakeful shore, but saw nothing other than countless potentially life-forming solar systems sprinkled in great bubble-arcs cast across an incomprehensible distance by some unknown force an ungraspable time ago, and went back to sleep.

So it was with some misgiving that at the clanging of my specially set Leonid Meteor Alarm Clock I arose from toasty earthbound blankets at the unearthly hour of 4 am and went out into the cold night upon the deck across which blew a cutting prewintery wind, and laid down a futon for my sleeping bag into which I climbed with stellar haste and whence I looked up into the vast and unknown sea across which galleon earth is sailing, bearing all us galactic Columbuses.

I had turned all the lights out, and being up on the mountainside with no other houses around, and no streetlights, so it was dark, and the only light was the stars, the wind having blown the sky clear as fall winds do best, and there above my face was nothing but stars, as close as my nose in a way (what's a billion miles to a star? or for that matter to a nose?); seemed like so many more stars at 4am than at 10pm, eyes fresh from the light of dreams see so much more than eyes fresh from the light of waking, and there are so many more stars in skies than in skylights.

So I watched with freezing face as my eyes plunged into star-level darkness until there were clouds of stars, and then FLASH! A glowing opalescent tube stretched followably across perhaps one-third of the sky; then within seconds, another one and another, good ones, at about a rate of every thirty seconds or so.

One, streaking low down toward the east, seemed to bounce and then flash more brightly, almost as bright as lightning. This went on till around 5:30, when half the universe rolled over into daylight, taking me with it.

Thursday, November 21, 2002


Went down through the old neighborhood of Katata to the water's edge to visit the Ukimido at Mangetsuji, one of the most subtly beautiful I've ever seen (it's in the Omi Hakkei (Eight Views of Omi (Traditional name for Lake Biwa) 'Katata Rakugan' view by Hiroshige)). I'd never been to Mangetsuji before, though I'd seen it from out on the Lake, its famous building (the Ukimido) built out over the water on stilts; what a breathgiving place upon entering it; the gate, pines, garden, the view from the Ukimido, the general ambience, bespeak and beget a spiritual peace known too rarely these days; where are the times when one could have envisioned such a thing as this, and then built it? And then as at dusk you walk along the platform around the weathered building, turn, and, with your back to the broad sweep of the sunset water, look into the thus-greater dark of the Ukimido's interior: slowly, dozens of golden Buddhas shine to life in your changing eyes! Easy to see why Bassho, Issa, Hiroshige, Hokusai visited here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002



"Unless otherwise specified, all work shall be done perfectly."

Sunday, November 17, 2002



What a splendid and all-purpose, yet sleeper of an herb is lemon thyme, growing there languidly, flowing unobtrusively, even shyly, over the stone wall toward the ground all unattended, each tiny plump green rounded glossy leaf-edge tinged with yellow like a tiny sunrise over a tiny forest; but what gusto this little spirit brings to any dish! Sprinkle it on toasted cheese! Over soup! Into sauces! A pinch among sauted or steamed mushrooms!! The list could go on, as lemon thyme does, as all great things do.

Saturday, November 16, 2002


The Kyoto plant nursery that has property down the road brings to it all the wood cuttings and trimmings from their landscaping business, to turn the smaller limbs and branches into wood chip mulch, kindly piling up the bigger stuff at the edge for me to take away as firewood, and when I go down there a couple days after the last time there is new wood here and there, and if you have a wood burning stove and heat your house with wood alone as we do, it's like seeing piles of money lying there for you to just pick up, but this is real money-- not just pieces of paper with deceased males' pictures on them that governments say they won't exchange for gold-- this is cherry money, oak money, ironwood money, locust money, stacks of it, money you can turn right into lots of heat and light to cook on and dance to. I went down there this morning and got a whole vanload of sweet-grained money, mostly cherry (there is no better firewood) and ironwood, and bucked and split and stacked it all in front of the house, next to the big piles of other money minted for winter. There is pride of a new sort that resides in the riches of one's growing stack of firewood, one's work, the fruit of muscle, the grainy cumulus of effort, the quality and tone and visual heft of immanent heat, the craft of its hewing, the anticipation of its warmth, the sense it affords of the larger security that extends from far within a lifetime to far beyond its edges, teaching the mind to learn of itself thus, through body and spirit, and so to live and grow in accord with the true grain of being.

Friday, November 15, 2002


chill autumn dawn
six crows in the persimmon tree
what a caucus

Tuesday, November 12, 2002


So there I was in the dark of the Japanese night with marshmallow smoke in my eyes, holding packages of graham crackers and marshmallows and chocolate pieces on my lap, a graham cracker half in each hand and waiting slabs of precisely broken chocolate on each knee as excited Japanese boys lunged at me with skewers tipped with flaming marshmallows.

Without recalling in too much explicit detail the number of Smores I must have eaten in my own ante-bilious days of long ago (I haven't Smored for some decades, and plan to Nmore during the remainder of my life), I simply recalled how much those childhood memories meant to me, and how essential Smores had been to those moments of youthful outdoor fireside cameraderie.

I would therefore do the same for Keech's middle-school friends, who had never had Smores in their thus-forsaken lives; indeed, pitiably, they had never even heard of marshmallows! Mine was therefore an international endeavor to set right a vast cultural injustice and imbalance, to bring our nations and cultures and eras and generations and whatnot, childhood feats of nausea etc., closer together around the campfire of life, to share in experiences that would weave our lives into one big chocolaty sticky marshmallow world for the future good of all mankind.

I could almost hear the national anthems being played, with the flaming Sta-puf Man in the background, along with "There was a man who had a dog and Bingo was his name, oh," sung through crammed Smore mouthfuls while the singers swayed from side to side around the brightly blazing fire just before the horror stories began.

In any case, these citizens of the future would not soon forget this night; nor would they suddenly throw up in the car on the way home, ha ha. I would not forget either, how quickly I learned that it had not been I myself who had made all the Smores in those historic times; it had been the attending and well-prepared adults who had made all the Smores, may all blessings reside upon their unsung souls.

I was the solo attending adult now, and not well prepared, and I have never experienced anything quite like the stark fiery horror involved in being surrounded in the forest at night by a horde of urgently flaming marshmallows on sharply pointed, fire-hardened stakes as I reached out to choose and compress just one, only one! one at a time boys! from among them (as the flaming marshmallows shimmered there in the dark like visiting Buddhist souls), topping it with a slab of chocolate and sandwiching it between two tiny halves of a graham cracker in the dark, with my bare hands, by fitful firelight.

After such an experience, oneself does not cry for Smore. Nor can oneself put down any of the many things one holds, for one is sticky. Very sticky. So sticky as to be very nearly one with the universe, there in the dark with marshmallow smoke in one's eyes and warm chocolate somewhere on one's lap in the dark, being poked at by flaming points and deafened by international cries for Smore!!.

Thus a single Autumn night in the life of the intrepid cultural ambassador.

And Happy Birthday, Keech.

Sunday, November 10, 2002



Today the utter fineness of the weather combined with the utter kindness of the upper non-resident neighbor in giving me cut blanche with regard to thinning the trees on his property, mostly opportunistic oak (the old and beautiful oak near the road is where the monkeys shelter under sometimes at night when it rains), several of which I've had my eye on as ideal for shiitake logs (our shiitake logs are now about 3/4 played out) and the rest for firewood. And since the weather has been warmish so the sap is still running, and today was dry and clear and blue and cool, perfect for the task, I felled one of the shiitake log trees this morning and spent much of the day trimming, bucking and prepping. Since the neighbor's property is a bit overgrown with low bamboo it was a quite a tussle doing all that and then wrestling the tree lengths back onto my property. There's nothing quite like wrestling in a bamboo arena with an oak that wants to remain right where it has fallen with all the will for which oak is renowned, which is why in ancient times folks used it for castle doors and shields and roof beams and church pews, among other adamant objects. When the old folks used to say 'stout as an oak' they were speaking from direct acquaintance with one of the great forces of the known world, an acquaintance I have now directly acquired on many levels, starting with my toes. But once the oaken lengths were stacked up in a sunny spot where I could drill the widely spaced holes and insert the spore plugs, how rich and golden and quiet and agreeable they were, on their way to resurrecting, for years to come, as the most velvet of delicacies in the cuisinal world!

Saturday, November 09, 2002


A time-darkened chair of oak, it stood among other chairs of other kinds, empty of all but time and craft, in a warehouse for antiques; a sign said the chair had been made in England a couple of hundred years ago. It was a spoked, round-back chair with arms, a practical chair, its seat a single slab of wood, selected with care that the beautiful grain would be polished to this very sheen by centuries of backsides, and it looked in the physical language inviting so I sat in it.

The chair had been made for the body the way only a lifelong maker of chairs for folks he will see every day for the rest of his life makes a chair. It wasn't a quick production line assembly for a never-known stranger somewhere else in the world; it was the hand-fashioned essence of chair, that the maker himself had been fashioning, by way of his family, for three or four hundred years or even more, until his fingers, hands and heart knew vastly more than just how to make chairs-- the feeling was born into the hands by then, and one man could conjure an entire chair, for the entire body, out of wood with just fire and iron, make it sing with function.

I could feel that song in my self when I leaned my back upon the back of the chair and lay my arms upon its arms, my hands coming to rest where hands had been anticipated with simple grace, the maker saying to me thus eloquently over centuries that he had known how and where my elbows and hands would come to rest, how they would want to rest and how to welcome them-- where hands had in fact been coming to rest for centuries-- are we not one, after all, for here was a chair that was made for the one we each are: not a market unit but a person, with whom a chair should be a private conversation.

It was a chair made to last beyond a life, like a poem or a song, the craft of it to be remembered, another form of the name of the maker, of himself and the grace of his hands to be passed on and spoken of, sung of in wood, taken good comfort in, and I realized I had in all my years on earth never been so well understood by a chair; no chair had ever told me of these things. Every chair I'd ever sat in had been mute, built for a phantom, a non-existent entity, an average consumer. Few go this far to make chairs any more; and if they do, the result is a remarkable not to say purely aesthetic artifact unique to its time and form, costing too much to be actually sat in, more design than chair and so not comfortable to the sitter, who feels less valuable than what he sits in, as though there were truth in a throne.

In my time I have sat in many chairs, that made me feel all sorts of ways-- from the tubular kind with the plastic caps on the leg-ends that chaired the 1950's to bags of styrofoam beads to leather/steel trapezoids on legs to straight-back chairs, bentwood chairs, easy chairs, reclining chairs, and on and on, and this was the first chair that had ever, how shall I say it, welcomed me, personally. The back curled round and the arms curled round and I was really in the chair, felt both embraced and rooted as I sat there, rooted like an ancient tree; there was no postural insistence from the chair, no disquieting tipsiness, no jittery ricketyness, no gangly angularity, no shoddy looseness, no shivery tubularity, no artistic misfitting, but solidity: simple, rooted, oaktree solidity, after 200 years of use!!!

What today is made like that? What today like that is made by a man who, like his father and grandfather and further back, has fashioned his very life into comfort for people he knows and will never know, from whom he seeks respect and appreciation, even centuries hence? Sitting in the chair I could feel in my heart as in my body every measure of the distance we have come from all the things that in their ways once filled life quietly and elegantly to the brim, how things in themselves used to tell us of one another, and show in their use the care that resided in what we crafted, how wholeheartedly we gave of our lives in our creations.

This was a chair that had been made by transforming the beauty of trees through the beauty of hands into the beauty of chairs. How far from there we are, on the chairs that bear us now, when we never set eyes on or even sense who makes the chairs we use, and more and more likely it's not even a who but a series of whats, as the spirit of hands fades from the products around us until there isn't a caress in a carload, and we live unknown by our surroundings is what the chair said, with an eloquence increasingly lost to our time.
[Rewritten from the archives]

Friday, November 08, 2002



This morning before dawn I was screeched from the deeps of sleep by the uncomfortably close-up vast barndoor-hinge squawk of the pheasant Elvis, who was belting them out from inside the dense mountain bamboo below, just the other side of the woodpile. Yesterdawn he had been doing his unlevel best from a reasonable distance upmountain, like a kid swinging on heaven's barn door, squeaking it over and over and over (how the hens find that sound charming I can't imagine, but every year there are lots of pheasant chicks, so there must be oodles of charm in it somewhere, and in out-of-tune violins played execrably). I've been in that bamboo, it's ideal for kids' fishing poles, maybe even light flyrods, and it is dense, I've been far into the depths of that thicket on my hands and knees after good bamboo for garden stakes, and to cut down fast-growth scrub trees that obscure the view and shade the air potatoes that grow in fall like a lacy yellow-silver net across the bamboo tops in places, and I've sort of swum along the bamboo tops after air potatoes themselves, and when you are in or even on there, and not a bird or a snake or a fox but one that needs to be upright, the bamboo rules completely. I can't imagine going in there and calling out to feathered ladyfriends, even as Elvis.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002


Today a blustery cold rainy day, perfect for a long leisurely trip up beauteous stormy narrow coastal roads to the northwest of the Lake and the thousand-year-old silk-producing region where, as we saw in a long 'factory' tucked among the houses, they still produce by hand the finest master-preferred silk strings for koto, shamisen and the Chinese kokyu, silk strings being prized by the masters of those instruments for the feeling and nuance that silk affords, in contrast to nylon and other synthetics (production involves women running far back and forth wetting twisting corded silken strings that are then boiled in mochi (a special 'sticky' rice) paste, then in turmeric!); there is a cosmic lesson here about the natural being far more precious than the synthetic, ask any old master...thence to nearby Kogenji to visit again my favorite juichi-men kannon (11-headed Kannon) with the crazily smiling 11th head (Shiga Prefecture seems to have cornered most of the great juichi-men kannons as a result of the ancient wars, whence such treasures were sent here for safekeeping and here remained, lucky us)...But every bit as interesting to me was the nearby farmstand, where a genuinely smiling and goodwill-emanating farm woman stood selling mountainblossom honey, red peppers, persimmons, large adzuki beans (very unusual), home-roasted peanuts in the shell, yams, pickles, charcoal and some of the very nicest baskets I have seen in these parts. Bought adzukis and a basket woven of akebi vine, and the lady filled it with persimmons as a gift. As we stood there looking at the various goods, persimmons were raining about us from an old man up in the persimmon tree, who was laughing as he knocked down the bright orange fruits with a long bamboo pole as his wife ran around gathering them up. I helped her save a few from rolling into the roadside stream. Later a moment among the old buildings near the temple presented this haiku:

red-painted roof beam
smoke-blackened kitchen walls
peeling potatoes

Tuesday, November 05, 2002


Oh how wondrous are three-day weekends and no matter the brevity of your list, you never get it all done, because there's always a bigger list operative: the cosmic list, that stands waiting immutably for you when in the eagerness of all innocence you walk out the door to begin work on your own personolocal and much less relevant list, such as cutting firewood or caulking a wall, or some such rationally immediate objective. So although I did get a few of my own items done, there were just enough cosmic perturbations going to skew my aim a bit and have the Monday sun set as I was halfway done planting the beans I'd planned to plant since Friday.

But epiphanies abounded: Sunday morning when I awoke I heard a tiny, delicate ruckus going on in the dawn outside my window; looking out I could see nothing but some chestnut tree limbs and a few late leaves in sunshine, all very nice, until on closer examination with hastily de-bleared eyes I saw that the tree was festooned with tiny bark-and-sunlight colored long-tailed tits, like delicate christmas tree ornaments bouncing around, who in their formal wear went hopping from branch to branch pecking at tiny bugs and such, the tree no doubt liking it very much, I could almost hear it say "Yes...YES! Right--there--aaahhh!" over and over again as the suitably dressed and chittering mob passed through on a long and leisurely mountainside breakfast over an extended bit of bird gossip.

Monday, November 04, 2002


Morning Ginger

Harvesting ginger early in the morning in the upper garden where I dump the woodfire ashes all winter (ginger tells me it loves woodash), I plunge my hand (no blind and unfeeling metal tool!!) into the loose soil at the base of the slender green stems to grasp and loosen the whole root cluster so that none of it breaks off and gets lost (a stray piece of dirt-covered ginger root looks an awful lot like dirt), loosening the whole thing with its roots reaching far out into the soil around, I lift it all up and break off the original root-node and put that back into the soil, taking only the newly grown root, the smooth old-ivory-colored portion with the delicate pink buds and the long glassine tendril-roots that are so delicious (surprise!) as tempura, and it is always such a beauteous experience to pull so gemlike an object from the sandy-ashy-loamy earth that I can only hunker there a moment and admire it, turn it this way and that in the morning light before washing it at the hose till it's clean as a polished opal, then in the kitchen chopping off a bit of the fragrant gleaming root-ivory to use in breakfast (splendid texture and flavor the new root has, as opposed to the darker, stringy, spicy-hot older parent-root we of the west know as "ginger"), for a delicacy of flavor that will soon have me digging in the morning for more...

Sunday, November 03, 2002


Went yesterday morning to the flea market by the town library benefiting the anti-incinerator action, great to see all the folks out there buying and selling and finding value and worth in used items, unlike the mood toward such things when I first came to Japan, when used things pretty much equalled rotten garbage and Japan was an antique paradise for scavenging foreigners. So much has changed for the better for all (except the scavenging foreigners), and how much worthier can a Saturday morning flea market be?

All the kids were there too, helping out and learning about direct public involvement, no longer being uniformed in school every Saturday as they used to be. It is quite a thing to see country folk becoming activists, obachans (grandmas) out there in their aprons selling their best homemade pickles, such as sliced daikon (major radish) with takanotsume ('hawk's talons': hot red pepper) rings, in opposition to heavy-handed government, one obachan selling an exquisite long-green-pepper picklepaste I've never had before, visually even less distinguished than caviar, but as rich and flavorful and taste rewarding as any delicacy you can think of to defeat political chicanery, she was running out of the pepper picklepaste but said she'd be selling more down at the hot spring baths tomorrow, so I went there this morning to buy a LOT but she was sold out by the time I got there, only had some long-green-pepper-leaf pickles (!!!) which, to my great surprise, are very nearly as good!

Saturday, November 02, 2002


That Kind of Soil

Yesterday bought materials and today made a soil screen and began screening out the stones and pebbles from the garden soil, the better to accommodate carrots and gobo and the other roots, which aren't happy with stones in their shoes and poking them in the ribs, who is? And how elegant then is the destoned soil, how concentrated and lovely and organically purposeful, cocoa in its musky richness like the finest growth stuff, nascent food, imminently ready to turn into daikon or onions at the mere snap of a season. The still totally stoned soil adjacent looks distinctly unworked, unemployed, homeless, wild, fodder for weeds, derelict troublemaker, mocker of one who aspires to onions. I used to hang around with that kind of soil. I used to be that kind of soil.

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...

Monday, September 30, 2002


Talked to an elderly farmer gentleman, one of the old family names around here, he stopped in his truck when he saw me standing outside with a shovel, sweating with no shirt on beneath my cowboy hat, looked me over for a few seconds, got out and ambled over, started to talk the way breezes start to blow; a most natural and unhurried individual, genetically conditioned by centuries of winds and waves and germination on a mountainside above a lake on an island that one day came by some quite subordinate process to be called Japan. He said that the rain had been good so far, had been bad last year and he didn't know if it would be good next year, no depth of consideration required where such would be folly, a wisdom lost in the citified world, most certifiably in the stock market. We chatted of everything from farming to the Heian era to poetry and snowfall as he lit a cigarette and smoked it to ash and then went on his way the way a breeze goes on its way.

Saturday, September 28, 2002


And I, oh I of little faith, castigating the chestnut tree as infertile, unproductive, judging by the bug-infested husks I found beneath it last year (having knelt on one in the grass and been stabbed multiply in the knee as by a sea urchin), and empty green ones in early September, at 6:00 this morning I was out harvesting the windfall of chestnuts, going OW! OO! OUCH! as I tried to pick them up in the dim light without gloves, trying to grab maybe one spine only...

Then, remembering another technique I had seen, I had to stop every few inches and winkle out a good-looking chestnut or two from the burrs scattered all over, using my feet the way the farm women do when harvesting chestnuts, stepping a foot on either side and forcing the chestnuts out, and how startlingly beautiful to the morning eye, when suddenly from the drab and spiky husks emerge those sleek, brown-coated thoroughbreds that fill my pockets, the morning silence the while punctuated by further thuds from the chestnut tree, the burrs falling, some bursting, spilling their contents out on the ground, others simply lying there voluptuously spiky in the grass.

And voluptuous is the word, with every bit of the quality of unmistakably overt sensual invitation to all comers, whether bugs, birds, beasts, or botanically lascivious guys like me. There are few sights more resplendent in their way than a thorny chestnut chest bursting like pride with its treasure on the dewy morning ground, glimmering brown gems even in the early light; and when husked and in a heap, how earthlovely is that deep glossy brown plumpness!

Rich brown chestnut-bulging husks all over the ground at my feet, I had a couple of pounds of chestnuts within a half hour, a process of great delight as being so direct and immediate in the link between me and all, like breathing, like sex, like being born, like dying, the ecstasy that pervades it all, so manifest in that brief burst of indistinctness from all that is...

And when peeled and boiled with rice, the chestnuts led me to experience first-tongue the deliciousness of kurigohan (chestnut rice): fresh and chesty chestnuts, steamed to just the right degree together with brown rice, become flavor and mouth-feel ambrosia when bitten into.

Later in the afternoon, home alone watching the veils of silver mist obscure and reveal the trees, wondering what could be the purpose of a life spent doing just such things, I realized like the mist and the trees the nature of revelation and concealment, that what is hidden need not be found to be known, need not be known to be worthy.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002


These cooling days the hawks are shrilling mating shrills clearly meant to catch the ear, riding the winds and soaring in pairs high, high up in the light-blue pearl of sky brushed with horsetail clouds, and what a graceful expression of love they are on the feathered wing, of the transcendant love they are, even from way down here in the mundane distance you can feel how it must feel, how splendid it must feel to fly and tumble head over talons in love, voyeur that you are, and feel so natural being...

Monday, September 23, 2002


Saturday, to view the harvest moon we went to Hikone castle (the white sunlit pinpoint ENE across the Lake) where, as legend has it, Emperor Meiji stayed one night and for its special beauty decreed the castle be spared the fate of the many other castles throughout Japan that were being razed to end the samurai era.

Along the castle gate road, restored to the edo-style buildings of black wood and white clay as in the woodblock days, the shops offered such traditional goods as candles, pickles, fabrics, kampoyaku (herbal medicines), ceramics, sweets, stationery etc., with a coffee shop and a soft ice cream store to keep things up to par.

The road wandered on past lotus-filled moats and the house where Ii Naosuke, the 13th Daimyo (Lord) of Hikone, complained like any teenager of fossilizing while prepping for Daimyohood (couldn't be Daimyo till 35), studying philosophy, calligraphy, martial arts, poetry, zen, tea ceremony and flower arrangement, unlike world leaders of today.

At dusk we joined the surprisingly not-so-many folks who had come to hear the insect orchestra while watching the harvest moon rise over the magnificent pond in Genkyu-en (created in 1677), the castle's garden and guest villa, now a ryokan (what a place to stay!!).

With the night garden lit by paper lanterns and the pathways lined (or barred) with paper-sconced candles, folks with moonlight on their minds drifted toward their selected places on foot around the pond, across its bridges and over its islands (it is Lake Biwa in miniature) or by candle-lit boat across, there to sit sipping tea and conversing in low tones, gazing the while at the castle, itself looming like a moon in white rising on black wings, all waiting for the round bright face of the true harvest moon, the mood slowly subduing before the momentous event in this anciently magnificent yet unsung place out in the boonies only an hour and a half from 20 million people, sky like moonstone, and over all circling again and again the solitary crane with a squawk that sounded like "What are all these people doing in my place?"

Then with a fanfare of deepening silence the moon rose above the trees and fell in silver sparks upon the mirror of the pond rippled by shadows that were swans, as everyone gazed upward with an ancient shared respect until the garden closed at nine and the crane had it all to himself again as he and his ancestors have every night since 1677, with swans, frogs, insect songs and moon.

Saturday, September 21, 2002


Last Monday was old folks day, or respect for the aged day, as they call it, though I didn't notice any increase in respect. Of course I'm not completely elderly yet, but still. Pro rata respect would be good. I had the day off, anyway, so of course the rains came through, dumped a few oceans around the house; no painting the deck or chopping firewood, I was out in the cascading rain (reminded me of the time I went under Niagara Falls) shoveling acorns out of the culverts with a little red shovel like kids use at the beach. Well, can't a guy shovel acorns in the rain if he wants to? Even with a little red shovel? Yeah, all those immature acorns plug up the culverts as good as anything, a fact best realized when the very sky is water. And the red shovel in the pouring rain, talk about memories...

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Spider Lilies (Higanbana*)

And now that the rice fields have been shorn of their treasure of golden seeds, and are reduced to a stubbly beige corduroyed with straight rows of stalk-spikes, with all about to fall into the slowing cold of autumn and thence to the ice of winter, just in the nick of time pops up into the morning the bright red sparkling gems on long green stalks that are the spider lilies, clusters of them rising like hope itself reborn from the culled earth, freshly daring from the verge to bring us the crimson message that there is courage always in the land, there is brightness yet in the dark and warmth in the cold, there is sustenance yet beyond sight, as here to see; and if this is so for the likes of the wisps of these frail clouds unfolding, then how much for the likes of folk as sturdy as we, and so the verge of one more autumn is crossed in beauty

* Higan (Buddhist term for the week around equinox) + hana (flower); Lycoris radiata.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002


What a word is 'chaff,' truly biblical in its power, perfectly conveying the castoff, the useless, the windblown negligible fragment. There will always be chaff. But the bad rap isn't completely unwarranted. Soba chaff, for instance, makes an excellent filling for singularly uncomfortable pillows. As for rice chaff, naturally the big chaff here in Japan, it seems that not much is done with it; each year after the rice harvest there is a surfeit of the stuff, and of the punky scent of its slow burning in situ. Specifically it comprises the rice hulls, of which there are light beige piles everywhere after the grains have been culled, hulled, bagged and stored away.

I've recently learned of the many gardening uses of rice chaff, for example it is an ideal mulch, and soil loosener, among its other qualities. So I've been keeping a lookout for unwanted chaff to use in my garden. But the problem is, how do you tell if a pile of chaff is really unwanted? Just because it's sitting in a pile in the corner of a paddy doesn't mean it's been orphaned. This may be an intercultural thing, but it keeps me from going to farmer-neighbors' doors and asking "Say, do you have any unwanted chaff lying around?"

And is chaff ever really wanted, or is it simply one of those non-commodities farmers have to put somewhere, like worn-out tractor parts? Many of the farmers, as I say, simply burn their chaffpiles right in the fields to get rid of them, generating an aroma that characterizes this time of year (like autumn leaves back in a NY of the past, but much less aromatic) and leaving ash scars all over their fields like geomantic moxibustion. There seems to be nothing systematic about this; some farmers simply let the chaff lie where it falls, some put it in piles at the paddy edge, or in small piles here and there randomly; others lay it down in strips, others mete it out neatly along the rows, some use it to blanket their daikon (BIG radish) sprouts, all of this I suppose reflecting the character of each farmer in some way, and the way he thinks about time, and his fields, how punctilious or fussy or lazy or symmetrically inclined he is.

The other day farmer T., who has a field across the road, drove up with six big bags of chaff (more than twice the size of the conventional western burlap bag) in the back of his truck and, taking each bag in turn in his arms, the bags being nearly as big as he, staggered to a different part of the now dry, shorn paddy and spun around fast and randomly like a kid in a schoolyard, whirling and scattering chaff everywhere till the bag was empty and he went dizzying back to get the next bag.

His was the most fun chaffscatter I've ever seen, by far. That chaff was definitely used, and each summer farmer T.'s rice plants appear to be happier than most. The cattle rancher across the Lake where I get my fertilizer simply scatters chaff six inches deep on the concrete floor of his cattle barn, then every couple days plows it all into big piles outside and lets it heat itself up till it's cured into the finest organic compost in Shiga Prefecture. Folks come from kilometers around to smile as they shovel it into bags to take home and spread on their gardens.

Sunday, September 15, 2002


Night on the pond
one by one the carp
through the moon

Saturday, September 14, 2002


Another weekend spent on the Stair Task. When I went out to delightedly put the finishing touches to my michaelangelic work on Saturday morning, I saw with eyes I somehow hadn't had last weekend that the last riser was four cm too high, which would fool the climbing foot into thinking the riser was the same height as the previous ones and causing stumbles for the next hundred years, couldn't believe I hadn't seen it, even with all those other things to think of, like a cure for cancer, the world economy, the Mets winning the series etc. So I tore the last step out and fixed it, got it the right height only to realize it wasn't centered. So I tore it out again and centered it, only to find out that one riser was in backward. So I tore it out (sometimes the learning curve is more like a flatline), turned it around, put it back in and fixed everything, only to realize that Einstein had no idea what he was talking about. 21 plus 6 equals 27, right? And a 27 cm wide riser-to-riser space would be well covered by a 30cm step, right? Wrong. At least not on my staircase. I think there's some kind of math warp up around my house in the region of the stone staircase, where 27 is bigger than 30. I measured the step: 30 cm wide, as it has always been. I removed it and measured the distance from the bottom of the upper riser to the top of the lower riser: 21 cm. And the thickness of the lower riser: 6cm, as it too has always been. So I put the step back on, and THE RISER STUCK OUT FROM BENEATH THE STEP!!!! Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, you guys had no idea that MATHEMATICS TOO IS RELATIVE!!!! Relative to what, I have no idea, except that it is focused around a stone staircase project in the mountains above a large lake somewhere in the far east that shall remain nameless, lest we get the tabloids over here (RELATIVITY DISPROVEN!! EXPATRIATE VIOLATES EINSTEIN!!). But you have to walk away; you can't let stone staircases drive you stone mad, as Archimedes intimated in his invention of the screw pump. I shall return.

Thursday, September 12, 2002


I saw it the other day, it just sort of jumped out at me from a newspaper article I was skimming on my way to some actual news, and I thought my eyes had deceived me so I directed the derelict orbs to check again and confirm that 'no one would really ever say such a thing in a newspaper, which is supposed to maintain at least the illusion of fidelity to facts,' is I guess what was going on in my interconscious, that part of the mind we live and walk around in and look at the world from the windows of, that we create as we go along out of bits and pieces of what we think was the past and what we think is the present and what we expect will be the future, but yes, the paper said what my eyes had said it said, and I quote: "...a yellowing 1976 newspaper." I couldn't believe it. A yellowing 1976 newspaper?? Didn't they mean 1796? Did they think 1976 was ancient history or something? And stated so cavalierly! Why 1976 was only a couple of... decades... yeah, I guess the paper could be a little discolored by now, if it's been left in an attic window or something, and if you really want to stretch a point, but why say it's yellow, as if we'd all instantly concur, as if 1976 were a universal symbol of antiquity or something? Much more to the point is the fact that even though I'm pretty dogeared myself, 1976 was only a year or two ago in my mind, and I dare say in most readers' minds who aren't mere children of 35 or so. What are these chronically challenged journalists thinking of, calling a newspaper from thence 'yellowing'? Thomas Jefferson's letters are yellowing. Civil war posters are yellowing. A 1976 newspaper is not yellowing. Slightly sepia, perhaps, around the edges if improperly stored. I know that to those handicapped by youth-- those suffering the chronic deficit of limited years-- 1976 might seem a long time ago, but in fact it isn't. And actual, physical newspapers do not 'yellow' all that much in a mere decade or two for the convenience of unconscionably juvenile journalists. Where do they get 15-year-old journalists, anyway? Does the world in its new age believe that 1976 is just so much history? When, then, were the sixties: in the big archive with the pyramids and the fall of Rome? Hell no. Why, even the fifties are still right here, fresh as a new front page: that's me on the high school steps with the guys, listening to Elvis sing Hound Dog over the airwaves for the very first time, just a couple of minutes ago.