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!