Wednesday, March 31, 2004



Last night after dinner, having dived under the table to catch the frog, the frog that in the froggy hoppy way kept hopping froggy just out of reach (the crafty cold-blooded creature having earlier managed to hop out of the rain and into the house when the door was held open for a moment to shake a raincoat), I was just about to grab him (most frogs I write about are male for some reason) when all at once His Greenness stopped and, forelimbs akimbo in a forthright pose, gazed earnestly upward at the towering stack of books under the table.

I stopped too, intrigued by this amphibian's sudden intellectual attitude as he virtually sought to grasp the ungraspable in all its glory, gazing much as we gaze at the stars, arrayed there before him like a cosmos of knowledge, drawn perhaps by titles that had nothing whatsoever to do with frogs, which no doubt was a first for him. Or perhaps he felt dwarfed by the multifrog size of a stack of a literature comprising other than endlessly intoned repetitions of ribbet; in any case, he froze at the grand sight, obviating the need for me to call upon my boyhood-acquired amphibian-outsmarting wiles; I captured him no problem.

He squirmed coldly and damply in my hand, seeking a way out as though eager to get on with his studies; but I, sensing that his time had not yet come, particularly in my kitchen, put the knowledge-hungry beastie outside into the damp dark where countless of his fellows were intoning repetitive but earnest ancient songs about frog life in damp darkness. The story of his adventure will likely be a source of some humor in froggy academic circles.

Ancient temple pond
frog jumps
cell phone sound

Tuesday, March 30, 2004




Spent most of yesterday firewooding, having the day before bucked about a half dozen large trees up in the forest gift.

Interesting challenge, working with chainsaw in the wild natural tangle of strangler vines (mostly wild wisteria) and thorny undergrowth, all compounded by the fact that the trees in this cluster had been felled toward one focus, creating a pyramidic interlacing of vines, branches, trunks, stumps roots and under/overgrowth, the resulting tensions so complex that when I cut something I never knew which way it was going to suddenly whang: in my face or at my shin, or just fall on my foot or maybe kick back into the general area of my existence, as the trimmed branches left spearing the air now and then lifted my hat off, caught my hair or maybe poked me a good one in the eye, or just tickled my neck in arboreal mischief. Makes you wise and cautious, up there among the woody limbs and trunks just waiting to get their own back. Trees can be devilishly clever, especially when they work in concert.

Then at last it was all bucked and in sections on the newly sunlit ground, which I dampened with gallons of additional sweat as I tossed the sections as far as possible toward the van, then again and again, thus toss-marching them some distance, then loading them, then unloading and carrying them to the chopping stump, where they piled taller than me, a pleasant intimidation, the 10-inch-diameter lengths splitting to a fine whiteness that turns to gold after its been stacked in the air and sun awhile, and indeed it is gold: same thing. Ask any woodster. Burns better, though. And another pleasure: unlike onions, it's of no interest to monkeys.

Sunday, March 28, 2004


From Nagasaki University

Also with high-definition image database of Japan photos from latter 19th century.

Just around sunset
first frog of Spring
says hello to everything

Priceless house
you have beneath
sunlit flower petal

Saturday, March 27, 2004



Kyoto Journal #56 is now available at your nearest word gourmet emporium.


"I don't think anybody could have predicted that those people. . . would try to use an airplane as a missile."

--Condoleezza Rice

It has always stuck me as odd that a couple guys in a cave could come up with an idea that was beyond the furthest ken of the entire US security apparatus. But then Dr. Rice didn't get where she is today by telling truths.

(Subscription required, but avoidable via the very useful

Friday, March 26, 2004


"As vividly described 2,500 years ago in Homer's epic poems of the battle of Troy and the struggle of one warrior to return home, The Iliad and The Odyssey, war is the product of powerful, ambitious, often insecure men who have difficulty separating their personal motivations from those of the state..."

Thus begins the foreword to these epics for our time, from The Rage of George through Ichor of the Gods to Denouement, translated from the original English by Victor Littlebear.

Over breakfast, Sly Ashcroft, who taps into
George's mind much as he does his phone,
Lays down his counsel to this Prince, this
Leader risen through his family's honor to
Take his place in hallowed history,
And wield the presidential scepter.

With a tip of the shield to Ken Rodgers...


Humans evolved big brains to deal with small jaws say the scientists, who in their scramble to support and refute this hypothesis are overlooking the one key evolutionary factor they're exemplifying, that came with smaller jaws: the ability to talk endlessly. Why just this morning on the train...

As to where the ability to jaw endlessly in many realms will lead us, just attend any political rally, go to any religious revival, crash any rap concert, if you want to see some full-blown jawboning; at the other end of the mandibular spectrum there's literature, a quiet form of jawboning, but even small jawbones aren't really made for reading...

As for finding any meaning in all this, jawboning duration is proportionately inverse to its substance, as all sapient beings know, thanks perhaps to the size of their jaws, which in affording room for their brains to expand, enabled humans to evolve to a level of intelligence sufficient to refute their own jaw-given hypotheses.


"Attorney General John Ashcroft told me 'he was invoking State Secret Privilege and National Security' when I told the FBI I wanted to go public with what I had translated from the pre 9-11 intercepts.

I appeared once on CBS 60 Minutes but I have been silenced by Mr. Ashcroft, the FBI follows me, and I was threatened with jail in 2002 if I went public.

Full article at Tom Flocco.



With sound files, and in later lessons, kana. Math lessons, too.

Thursday, March 25, 2004



Attentive readers of these chronicles of irregular quality will have noted here and there postings of varyingly sour degree relating to Japanese desserts, as they are called, despite their obvious disparity from the Western conception of that term. There are many Westerners here in Japan who, though they can't talk at the moment because they have something neither here nor there in their mouths, would argue that in terms of flavorsavor, traditional Japanese desserts are definitely from, shall we be circumspect, elsewhere on the planet.

In defense of traditional Japanese desserts I must say that at this point in the discussion I usually stand there quietly kicking my shoe in the dirt and studying the distant horizon, because as long as I've been in Japan, I've been unable to come up with more than a mere trifle of an argument in defense of anko and its myriad manifestations. Who could like yokan, for instance, who was not born here? And even then? Take a large containerful or so of agar, add three large containerfuls or so of sugar and two large containerfuls or so of adzuki bean flour, let it set for a while and there you are. Why you are there, however, beats me.

As the facts plainly indicate, the Japanodessert plaintiffs lining up around the block to get into this moot court do have a point, and since those individuals have been rendered temporarily inarticulate perhaps because they just got dumbsided by a chunk of yokan they thought was some kind of chocolate fudge, or a jelly donut that was in fact filled with adzuki bean paste, I will serve as their spokesman pro tem; they can take over whenever they recover; it varies.

Let this brief puffery be the shot across the bow of the Good Ship Amanatto.

And for dessert, there's beans...

Wednesday, March 24, 2004



This afternoon, in a welcome respite from shaping sentences with mind chisels, in a sudden hunger for actual heft and palpable rendering I went outside to split logs, and what with the warbler warblings and the jinchoge waftings and the growing stack of fragrant wood (cherry, oak, camphor) it was all I could do to keep from laying right down on the ground and letting all that beauty take me away to where beauty goes, which I eventually did until it was time to break away from beauty and get back to the word chisels. Even now I sit surrounded by growing mounds of semantic shavings... This was just a little break...



Another example of the xenophobia prevailing at the higher levels of Japanese government (of course there is no English version; what would be the point?). All of this has been made easier for the Japanese government thanks to the precedent set by the snitch implications of Bush's Patriot Act. Not surprisingly, this xenophobia is best exemplified in Japan's Department of Immigration. I wonder if I've been reported yet; I'm sure my presence is "a cause of concern" to some of the folks I meet in the course of a typical day.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Monday, March 22, 2004


As we travel the convoluted pathways of life, asking ourselves the myriad questions that characterize intelligent inquiry, such as "Why am I holding this golf club?" or "What did the refrigerator say?" we learn that some information is more important than other information, as indicated in these quotidian examples.

But it isn't the answers we get, it's the questions we ask that set us so far apart from the apes in the forest, who have no idea what it means to come in under par or fill the ice cube tray or what a toilet is; even the concept of leveraging is alien to them. This is why they remain up in the trees, completely uninterested in the captivating issues and time-consuming tasks that fill our everyday lives right up to HERE.

So when we ask these questions, which may at the time seem strangely unimportant, such as "Why is that shoe up there?" we must remember that there is a reason, even though no one has the slightest idea what it is - professors, popes and imams notwithstanding - and even though the apes may hoot at us with increasing volume from the rapidly shrinking leafy canopy in the illusory simplicity of their monotonous, moviestarless, subhuman, fruit-eating, no-bathroom, golfless, godless lifestyle, just because they were here first.

Do not listen to them. Pay them no heed. They are wrong. Go on about your business with the office windows closed and the air conditioning on, turn up the background music and ignore them; in their simian way they envy your commuter ticket, your shoes, your eyeglasses, your pension, your nuclear energy, your nine iron, your status, your bidet, your freezer compartment your vitamin pills your duplex your two weeks in Bali. You've got it all, they haven't; you can hear it in their lack of syntax. Keys to the Kingdom? Don't ask.

Sunday, March 21, 2004


While gathering up an armful of sheets and pillowcases to take downstairs to be laundered I looked out the bedroom window and saw some monkey scouts in the garden, the fast and daring teenager type, then heard them whoop softly to their distant companions up mountain: hey come on down, the coast is clear! I ran downstairs and out onto the deck with the armful of laundry and completely nonplused the marauding beasts: What in monkey hell is that up there jumping around?

They couldn't figure out what I was, they had never seen anything like it, nor did their monkey myths include such an archetype: a giant marshmallow, a talking cloud, a large potato, what. This rendered me completely ineffectual as a monkey disperser, so I went back inside, shed the laundry then ran back out and presented myself in toto: then the simians knew who it was. Oh yeah, that guy. They didn't even begin to amble. Teenagers. I grabbed some rocks. He's serious. They took off. Slowly.

Fortunately Kaya and I had yesterday harvested the early shiitake, which must have upset some very apish expectations and might have been what they were whooping about. But this was not a time for complacency. All was not resolved. Later while I was again upstairs I heard a pretty fierce monkey fight on the other side of the house. I went to a window and looked out: it was a monkey mother and her kid disagreeing on the simian equivalent of the kid wants his own car. The answer was definitely no.

The kid ran off by himself across the rice paddy in a Rebel Without a Cause kind of self-indulgent lope and through sheer chance, that's the way these things happen in life, he almost fell over a pile of potatoes the farmer had discarded into his rice paddy as compost, a monkey discovery equivalent in human terms to about three hundred thousand dollars.

The adolescent monkey did a few silent and I would swear righteous eureka leaps then adolescently picked out the two biggest, best potatoes and took them off to the grass at the side of the paddy to roll around and play with until they were clean, then he went out into the middle of the road and sat down to eat them, the fool. The elder monkeys saw him, added two plus two, ran to the heap of potatoes, took potatoes and merely rubbed them with their hands to clean them and ate them on the spot as fast as they could, the youngster never got another potato, he went off dejected into the woods. Three hundred thousand dollars, just like that.

This was all just prelude to the cloud of monkeys that not long after passed like a vast red-faced brownness through our little patch of blue sky. There were toddler monkeys playing like crazy up in the tall oak trees full of sunlight, running up and down the dancing branches playing monkeytag on the bouncing bare limbs like on a playground, while the elders hunkered down in the bamboo looking at me and wondering where their next free shiitake was coming from. It was clear what an endless task it was, raising all those kids without a job, without a steady income, no pension and only one decent all-weather outfit, but it was also clear that my little patch of land was just a speck of their vast multimountain territory, so why were they always hanging around here? I threw a rock at the sentry on the roof, then walked around whistling and hooting, expressing my human nature.

Saturday, March 20, 2004



When before bed last night I told Kaya that we would plant radish seeds in the garden tomorrow, her eyes lit up even though she has no real idea what seeds are, or that a few weeks from now we'll have red radishes, after I explain it all to her. She doesn't even know yet what a few 'weeks from now' means. It takes life time to grasp such graspables, and she just got here.

But excitement is certainly no problem at her age; the prospect of anything new, whatever it is, is simply exciting just for being new, like Kaya herself. So when we went out this morning and prepared the soil together, she needed no idea of what we were actually doing in order to bounce with excitement at doing it: loosening the soil, hilling it up a bit, getting out any stones she found (when I explained to her that radishes hate stones in their shoes, she cleared out even the tiniest pebbles), making a planting groove, and then when at last I opened the by now nearly mythic packet of radish seeds and began to place them in the groove, spaced about an inch apart, explaining that radishes like some room, Kaya held out her hand for some seeds then took them one-by-one in her fingers and planted them as I moved on down the row, while she just stayed in one place making sure all her seeds were happy.

Then we covered up all the seeds and went to get some shiitake for lunch. Kaya was excited at that as well, and then was excited about carrying the shiitake back to the house, then was excited at eating them. Made me think to plant a lot more of those excitement seeds in my own garden, where it's always Springtime, after all.

Friday, March 19, 2004



"There is a real chance that history will mark the outrageously foolish Japanese borrowing of unlimited yen in order to buy the dollar as the worst mistake ever made in economic history. This torpedo, welcomed by and possibly constructed by the US Fed, may well have been the event that history will say mortally wounded the global economy by providing liquidity at just the wrong time."



Iraq War 'May Have Been a Mistake': Italian Minister

Zapatero: Iraq occupation a "fiasco"

Polish president says he was misled on Iraq

A misguided war that has divided the world

Seems to be some kind of tsunami forming.


"Would she move back to Helsinki? That would be one option, although judging from what she sees on television, life in the city seems comical. "People running around on the streets, busybodying for no reason about things that do not matter. They should just sit down and say that this is enough."
She does not really miss city life at all."

Thursday, March 18, 2004


Another great thing about living out in the country is all the chances you get to use tools, to learn about them and to appreciate them. In the country you do your own wood chopping, gardening, pruning, masonry, bucking, woodworking, painting, etc.-- in other words, tasks you're going to be doing over and over-- so your hands teach you the basic lesson real fast: get the best tool. Of course it will cost more than the stuff they sell in the corner gardening store, but as the Chinese say (no doubt they were talking about tools), "the cheap is not cheap, and the expensive is not expensive").

So my old Japan-made, broad-cheeked, practically unsharpenable, terribly handled and comparatively featherweight axe finally gave me enough blisters and dulling and sharpening hassles that I set out to find the finest quality woodsplitting tool, and I finally found it. Fortuitously, not long after that fellow upmountain gave me the small forest, I received my Gransfors-Bruks splitting maul, the finest of its kind I've ever seen, from the Swedish company that says it makes the finest axes in the world, and judging from this specimen of their work I'd have to agree. (It was made personally by axesmith Rene Andersson, whose initials are coldstamped into the maul head.)

Now that I've seen the quality of the maul, I'm going to get one of their axes too. It is perfectly balanced, superbly steeled, excellently handled, holds its edge yet is easily sharpened, and working with it makes wood splitting as pleasurable as all-out physical labor can be when you're using the finest tool for the task at hand. With my old axe I could backbreakingly split, say, this much wood in a couple of hours; with my new GB, I can split THIS much wood in half that time. And afterwards I can do more.

As anyone knows who works with hand tools, there's just something about fine quality that doesn't fade; there's a time- and hand-tested utility, especially in the ancient type tools like adzes and axes and knives, that just feels good to the hand. You're so much closer to the tool and its functions, since you wield it directly and the feedback is physical, not a matter of realtime megahertz. And the result is there before your eyes, there within your hands and muscles, who know when they're beholding and holding the perfect tool for the job.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004


You've been working in Osaka for a couple of weeks now, commuting from Kyoto and back each day, a distance of some 60 kilometers, and you've learned a few basics of the fine art of Japanese commuting. You've experienced firsthand the relentless and dedicated pursuit of the objective, the fearless defiance of odds against. Already it is clear that the innocent foreigner, in his rigid territoriality, his righteous sense of individual liberty, is no match for this mass progress. You perceive that few Western governments have ever understood this.

At first the movements of the individuals in the station mass had seemed to be random in nature; this misjudgment stemmed from both your ignorance regarding the higher laws of Japanese commuting and your indignation at the repeated violation of your personal territory. Your indignation waned, however, as you surrendered to the support of the crowd that twirled you along like a twig, when you began to grasp said higher laws and the truly impersonal nature of mob satori.

So today you've left the office only seconds after 5:30, to give yourself a reasonable chance of success in this event. Yesterday you almost had a seat, but it was the wrong train. This time, to make sure, you double-check the schedule before purchasing your ticket, wasting precious seconds while the pass-carrying professionals shimmy and elbow fluidly around you, seeking superior pole positions in the platform lines upstairs, all in obedience to Japan's highest law of commuting: if you see empty space, occupy it.

The competitive tension returns now in a rush of adrenalin as you spot an old lady shuffling ruthlessly toward the wicket you're heading for: no contest. First blocking your latter leg sharply with her cane at shin level, she mounts your advanced instep and shoulders you back a notch, shopping bag then ballasting her neatly through the wicket, leaving you stunned with her expertise.

She waddles off toward the escalator. No way: you lope for the stairs with a youthful stride, taking the steps two at a time, leading the old lady by about 4 lengths at the top, where three lines are feasible: which is shortest, which looks most professional? As you pause to decide, the old lady moves out like a tank from the top of the stairs. Not a chance: go for it. Dashing forward, dodging the lost and the hesitant, you round the guide rail, lope confidently toward the end of the shortest line just as the old lady slips her brick-filled shopping bag into the space and scuttles deftly under the rail to take her place in front of you, a benign smile playing about her wrinkled lips.

Immune to your microwaves of indignation, she stands solidly in pole position 12; no window seat for you; but still, a chance for a seat. It is the way, you reflect, of elderly women in this country to grab their rights at last, if needs be from naive and sentimental foreigners. Moreover, it is all impersonal; you yourself are not the object of these buffetings, these defeats; it is merely your physical manifestation that must suffer them. No need therefore to steam with indignation like this, a costly drain of energy not to be borne every day. Thus one learns--still, that twinge of the instep, that sting of the shin, the abruptness and heft of that shopping bag--preoccupied, you are pushed with sharp discretion from behind: the train has come in.

Now the game is afoot! The rules that govern polite behavior in this nation of casehardened courtesy are now temporarily suspended en masse as the higher laws of commuting merge with anarchy. What count now are position, power, agility, speed, relentlessness, elbows, knees, hips, feet shoulders, boarding tools (umbrellas, canes, bags, rolled newspapers etc.) and impersonalness.

Age or infirmity mean little in this arena, and the old lady knows it. She's off and shoving like a bouncer the moment the train doors open, cane and bag plying the legs of laggards, fending off those who would gain--but the other line, into the back of the car, is moving faster! Two rank amateurs at the front of your line have cost precious seconds being polite; now someone carrying a cello case is blocking the aisle (mental note: keep an eye out for large musical instruments in future lines) and four housewives are debating where to sit, as if this were a social occasion!

The housewives are tossed to the nether regions as the cello comes unstuck with a violent jerk, nearly felling the old lady. The thought pleases you. She pauses to recover: a flaw in her style, to be taken advantage of with daring speed. No contest after all. You feint impersonally by her in a graceful double-gainer half-twist one-legged commuter leap--a single aisle seat just there--the last: get out of the way, for--an arm shoots by, resembling something made long ago of a hard, dark wood, plumps a bag of bricks down on the very seat and is followed at dazzling speed by the old lady, who has trumped you at the finish...

You stand all the way back to Kyoto, among the amateur commuters blasted by wind from the windows, fighting for balance on the 50-minute ride, the old lady beside you sleeping blissfully, bag of bricks in her lap. But you are not indignant. There is no ire, no umbrage. You go over it all again, analyzing your moves, reviewing the moves of the pros, finding out where you went wrong: not relentless enough--an elbow just then would've--could've been faster with the shoulder; have to learn that trick with the knee--cane countermove--shopping bag defense--practice at home tonight--all impersonal--thus you ramble your way back to Japan's ancient capital.

Though still just a novice, you have learned much today, and will do even better tomorrow. Sooner or later you'll get a seat; in time, you might even be up to a crack at the old lady. She wakes up now, end of the line; you stand back to watch her get off, study her technique as she forges hydraulically forward, toppling men twice her size. Relentless. Awesome.

And now for the bus.

[Earlier version published in Kyoto Journal No. 4]

Tuesday, March 16, 2004



As Winter slips away on wisps of ice and Spring draws near on warbler songs, many of the houses on the mountainside that fall empty when the snows begin and the residents head back to the city for Winter (I can't imagine why, but imagination does have its limits) are now coming to life like the mountain itself as the Spring folk return, moving up from downland as the frost level shrinks toward the mountaintop.

Into the fragrance of jinchoge (Daphne) the Spring folk return along the narrow mountain roads, the windows of the upmountain houses one fine morning open to fresh air; then in the evening, lights from the rooms up there, and family sounds drifting down; in the morning, flocks of children run by in country excitement while their elders wander in search of the bright green turbans of butterbur, fiddlehead ferns uncurling, mushrooms swelling in the shadows, Winter silence going the way of Winter as the days fill with hellos

Monday, March 15, 2004



We were much more fearsome then than we are now.

Excellent interactive visual history, depicted by the participants themselves:



Yesterday and today bucking and splitting firewood from up in the forest, a section of which the owner is converting to fruit trees. I wished him luck with deer and monkeys. My bucking and splitting muscles are not happy after a winter of non-use, but they were one happy bunch of muscles when they hit the bed last night.

Then this morning they're bouncy and restless as a bunch of teenagers, want to get back to the firewood thing, don't just sit around like this over morning tea or whatever, c'mon, c'mon, let's go, let's get busy, then they feel excitedly good and right at home aiming and swinging the axe, hearing and seeing the result, then pounding in the wedge and stacking the splits and stopping to stretch and straighten out a bit before going on again, irrepressible, muscles just love to do what they were made to do, it's best not to get in their way, but simply stand back and let them carry on.

Just now returned from splitting an already bucked oak trunk about two feet in diameter, wedging each section apart alone there in the turf of the meadow and forest birds so I could carry it piece by piece down to the van. And what a pleasure oak is. With all the ancient knowledge it embodies, to do with turning sunlight into tall strength, and as strong as oak is, and as hard and heavy as it is and as broad as it gets, it resists splitting until you get the leading wedge in far enough to enable placement of the following wedge; then the oak knows instantly that the game is up and splits in half as clean as a crystal. The hemispheres then split as readily as carrot sliced lengthwise with a knife, and with as crisply delicious a sound.

Then my sunlight-powered muscles carried all those hefty armfuls of golden sunlight down the mountain to dry in the sun for next winter's fires, all in the cycle that is always unbroken.

Sunday, March 14, 2004



[Excerpt from the Biwa Book]

One evening a couple of weeks ago it began to snow what when I was a kid they used to call corn snow, grains of snow about the size of corn kernels, like a lot of real cold styrofoam packing material falling from up there in the dark. A palpable dryness took over then, both psychological and actual; the air was winter-drier than usual, and later when I was just falling asleep in the big hiss-whisper that surrounded the house, through the snow-pinging skylight above my bed god suddenly took a flash picture of me with my eyes closed, and I opened them but was still blinded and then lifted from bed by the loudest thunder I had ever heard, a tsunami of sound that went on and on and on, rolling down the mountain across the sky away toward the distant sea and still roiling and rumbling and crashing, from one long bolt that had shot along the sky in an instant over a distance it took sound many minutes to traverse away. Biggest lightning bolt I ever didn't see, longest loudest thunder I ever heard, but in the morning everything was normal, no big footpints around, not a sound remaining.

Saturday, March 13, 2004



aiming at the heart
of all those years--
splitting firewood

Friday, March 12, 2004


"Obviously, we are looking at diacetyl because it is a known compound that will come off this popcorn."

The first direct study (!!) of chemicals contained in one of the nation's most popular snack foods (has been for 20 years now), shows just how much the EPA's Indoor Environment Management Branch (!?) and the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (!?) care about the kids in this profitable experiment who zap and gobble this stuff down; but if they survive the experience, the GOP doesn't want them suing the pushers.


Send him to

Thursday, March 11, 2004



Last weekend a nice fellow from the village came to the door and asked me if I wanted a forest. He had heard I was a firewood person and he was clearing an acre or two upmountain, and would I like to have the wood, and I did not by any means say no, who wants to let a forest go to waste, so by way of pointing out how things can get sidetracked in Spring, yesterday evening of a sunny day Echo and I set out for a lumber run when I noticed the very first jinchoge blossom had opened.

I bent to take in that rich fragrance and noticed below it and slightly to the right a bright chartreuse flame-shaped bud emerging from our very own front flower bed, when the annual nickel dropped: it was fukinoto (butterbur: Petasites japonicus) season!

Knowing how fast news gets around on the sansai (mountain vegetables) grapevine, we immediately went and got a nice basket and headed off to our favorite secret butterbur-harvesting locations, where we looked for quite a while, heads down, searching for something we hadn't lost, feet poking gently through the new growth beneath the brown weeds of Winter for those little shy light-jade gems until we had about ten of them so we could have 5 each for dinner, you don't want to eat too many at a time (can be toxic, if not properly prepared), not that that many come up at a time anyway, these plants have an ancient intelligence that has clearly served them well (we never weed butterbur that has managed to grow), but anyway they'll be emerging here and there for the next few days, and we'll get our share.

Butterburring is a fully meditative activity, you have to slow way down when looking for them, especially when you have a few already in your basket, filling the air with their tantalizing fragrance; all that slowness and closeness to growth gets you thinking about plant wisdom, how carefully the little bud puts up its guard and picks its places, how it knows the right time and temperature, just as the jinchoge does, to emerge in all newness...

I'm sure there are dozens of scientific answers to all these questions and more, all couched in international standard nomenclature, that satisfy the hunger for question food, but touch nothing of how butterburs long, long ago became us and we them, how we know each other so well now whether we know it or not, and how that awareness is nearly as satisfying as fresh-gathered fukinoto tempura with rice on a chilly Spring evening...

I'll get the forest over the weekend.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004



Japan's Prime Minister is going to start an English version of his weekly email magazine
touching on things political and cultural. The Japanese version, the best-known email magazine in Japan, has 1.7 million subscribers and is one of the best-subscribed e-mail magazines in the world. Signups for the English version of the Koizumi Cabinet E-mail Magazine start March 11.


Tilted over all Winter in her too-small clay pot, and then in early Spring her long slender green-hope branches, tipped with glowing blue flowers, tangled with weeds and debris from the winds of winter, some branches even laying on the ground and overgrown, how bedraggled she was!

So many times throughout the winter I would be out gathering firewood and see her laying in the snow, blown over by the wind, and I'd straighten her up, try to find a wind-sheltered place for her and the pot she was outgrowing despite my carelessness, but each time the winds would soon catch the tips of her long branches and set her over again.

Then came this fine Spring day and we'd both had enough. I got out the tools and dug a generous hole in the best and sunniest corner of the garden, cleared out Rosemary's branches, freed her tangled roots, set her straight upright and firmed her in with her very own soil. How proudly she stood now! Straight up from the ground toward the sky, just as she'd always wanted, every branch a reach of life, her flowers now a bright blue garland in the sun.


US public debt, to the penny.


Good grief. Leave it to the academics to mummify the fun right out of it.

"He started investigating what people do with music players because he realised it was an area that had been neglected by other students of culture."

Au contraire, m'sieur; took you quite a while! I guess you haven't read this, written several years ago by a student of culture.

snow or shine
crow got only
that one black suit

Tuesday, March 09, 2004




She's lost 105 races so far, and not won any. "Fans identify her losing streak with their own difficulties at a time when Japan has long suffered recession... We feel we can work hard again when we see her racing desperately for the finishing line."

She's heading down the stretch... Will she ever win?

Monday, March 08, 2004



We're all aware that the agrochemical industry is working not primarily for profit, but for the good of humanity, particularly in third-world countries, where for example they shipped all the remaining inventory of paraquat for sale cheap, back when it was outlawed in the first-world countries ("...workers were not wearing every piece of protective equipment required for mixing and loading of paraquat: 'a rubber apron, rubber gloves, a full face shield, rubber boot coverings, and a waterproof hat or helmet.'" [BurmaLibrary] Sounds safe enough. How's your salad?), where it was initially tried by the very first unknowing consumers (who's gonna tell us, the agrochem lobbyists?), until strange things began to happen of which little has been said (have you heard about them?) and then even more of the same thing happened to uneducated third world farmers, but that was even less newsworthy. Nothing like a big synthetic carpet to sweep things under, we're all part of a global agrochemical experiment anyway.

You gotta love their approach to problems. For a long time the agros were spraying crops with powerful herbicide to kill weeds, but the herbicide was so deadly (didn't seem to affect the taste of salad, though) that it also killed a lot of the produce. (Consumers just got allergies of unknown origin, inexplicable tumors, birth defects of uncertain etiology and other items on that very long list of diseases with no proven relation to agrochemicals).

So did they stop spraying and figure out cleaner, more organic approaches to the problem? No, time is money, no profit in that. They took an approach more in keeping with their attitude toward us consumers and our world: they altered the fabric of life. That way the changes would be cheap, permanent, ubiquitous and most importantly, patentable, i.e., profitable. What they have done is to GENETICALLY MODIFY your salad/grains/beans to make them resistant to the herbicide! So now they can spray that stuff till the cows don't come home and birds fall from the sky, but your food will still be standing! Isn't that delicious lettuce?

The reason I bring this tasteful subject up is that Japan is strongly opposed to importing any GM foods or seeds, whereas China, historically renowned for the welfare of its masses, is very interested. Not that anyone can now close Pandora's box, but things should get interesting over here. In the meantime, get that salad away from me, please; I'll grow my own.

Sunday, March 07, 2004



With Spring only a couple weeks away, woke up this early morning ready to do some gardening and groundwork around the house beneath a big blue optimistic sky with a bright golden sun just beaming down and warming all endeavors, looked out the window had to rub my eyes but it wasn't my eyes it was snowing hard, a goodly snowfall on the ground already. So puttered about indoors, then for lunch went up the road on the west side of the Lake to check out Meson, the new restaurant offering chef-prepared French country-style nouveau cuisine up in the woods between Hira and Omimaiko, and where you can stay in a log cottage. The price was very reasonable for the tastefully prepared, healthful and delicious food, the place is beautiful and the folks very friendly. Have to go there more often. Highly recommended if you're traveling this way. Here's their website.

Saturday, March 06, 2004



"As the nation headed for war last year, President Bush "clamped down" on the media, extending and expanding a controversial policy that banned reporters from photographing flag-draped caskets of soldiers killed in combat. The White House said the policy was enforced to "spare the feelings of military families." Yet, in the very first television advertisement of his 2004 campaign, the president has blanketed the nation's airwaves with an image of "firefighters carrying a flag-draped body" from the 9/11 wreckage at Ground Zero."

This is the guy who refused to testify in open session before the 9/11 commission!

More in this vein from the firefighters at the IAFF, w/ thanks to kbibb


"With an electronic whir, the machine released a dollop of "peach body shampoo," a kind of body wash. Then, as the cleansing bubbling action kicked in, Toshiko Shibahara, 89, settled back to enjoy the wash and soak cycle of her nursing home's new human washing machine..."

This is what we all may be in for, if we live long enough... Think I'll stay in the mountains.

Friday, March 05, 2004



Someone somewhere on this bright blue marble subjected that eclectic phrase (sans @s)to a Google search and when the results came up there was Pure Land Mountain right on top, above even Carl Sandburg and Robert Service: makes me freel right proud, in an eclectic sort of way...

[And once PLM was Google-spidered, it became the ONE and ONLY site with that phrase on it, which fact I'm trying to undo with the @s; can one undo a spidering, de-spider, revert to prespidered status? Advice welcome.]


Elbowed aside from these humble chronicles by the mysterious affair of the flaming feet, I've hardly been able to get a word in edgewise for the past week, to mention for example the fact that for said week Echo's hot feet have taken her up north to visit her folks and Kasumi's family, with its world-famous twins, while I keeping the homefires burning and devolve into the big-course-load collegiate sloven I used to enjoy being (does one ever truly depart the summits of slovenliness?), eating simple fast-cook one-bowl meals interspersed with emergency junk food (hey, I'm not fussy) and rationalizing dirty dishes (they're only for one person today as well; I'll do them all tomorrow).

While having neither an interest in satisfying every single little nitpicking healthy food-craving whim of this endlessly hungry beast, nor in any case the desire to take all that time to figure out how to feed it properly (and just one individual, even if it is me!), beyond maybe the occasional single-bowl meal aforesaid, I've come to realize under the auspices of this odd hunger how much I still don't know, not only about the more detailed kitchen-y aspects of yours truly and the finer culinary secrets of Echo, but also about all the finer processes of Japanese cooking, not to mention where everything is and who I really am, what life is all about, when do we eat, where did Echo hide those cookies etc. You can learn a lot from not eating.


Since for so many years I read my rambles/flashes/poems in public at the renowned but alas no longer extant (and original) Kyoto Connection, I've been thinking about reading some of my posts/rambles aloud to post here as audio files, and will one day, if the vectors thereof should align; but in the meantime, here is a very pioneering idea, though the vox must not be too popular... Wonder who does the screening...

Thursday, March 04, 2004


In which Echo walks fire, the cosmic joker reappears and Bob succumbs to the pun of a lifetime.

Last time, you remember, having missed the key shot of the priest firewalking I was perfectly positioned in firm resolve to capture the key shot of Echo firewalking. I should mention my tacit assumption that the cosmic practical joker had done his work, had his bit of fun with us and was even now attending to greater mishaps elsewhere.

Echo was at the end of one of the two long firewalker lines, so it would be a while before she was to hotfoot it; I could scan the scene at my leisure. I watched as grandmas walked through fire, grandpas, priests, truck drivers, young mothers, rockers, you name it. I looked here and there, taking it all in: the sweating fire managers, flying sparks, a group of firewalked ladies with pantlegs rolled and fire-tenderized feet mincing very gingerly over the sharp gravel on their way back from the fire to the foot-washing bath behind the pickle-selling tents, a trough filled with black water surrounded by naked feet and people whispering Ow Oo Ow as they washed off their sizzling soles and tenderly put their socks and shoes back on.

I glanced quickly back to Echo's line, to find out how far she had moved ahead: she wasn't in the line. I would have sworn...looked at the other line. There was no other line. The priest was waving to those in the long line, asking them to move to the empty line. Echo had already done so, and was at that very moment walking resolutely across the embers, Sam Peckinpah directing: just as Echo was about to step out of the shimmering heat waves on the other side of the fire I--raised-my---camera---in---e-v-e-r---s-o-o-o-o---s-l-o-o-o-o-w---m-o-t-i-o-n and snappedjustonequickperfectshot. In the photo, I managed to capture the left leg of Echo sticking out of the nose of a cosmic joker agent who had just at that moment stepped in front of the lens. Such is the particular firewalking photo record of that day, which I will needless to say not share with you here.

Echo soon returned mincing over the gravel, holding her footprinted parchment, saying, "Wow! That was hot!" Upon my asking why that was a surprise to her, she said that she had planned to sort of trot quickly across the coals, but the priest who stood at the head of each line to keep things going in sacred regularity, as well as to keep folks from chickening out-- or worse, giving up in mid-walk-- said something into each firewalker's ear, then when the furnace was clear gave each a hard shove of ki in the small of the back to send them firmly on their way across the searing expanse. It turned out that what he'd been saying, and what he said into Echo's ear, was: "Don't run. Walk slowly and evenly across." So Echo had to walk as though strolling casually through a blast furnace.

As she washed the ashes from her practically hissing feet in the black bath and put her shoes back on, and as we walked (she gingerly) around the shrine a bit before returning to the car for the drive home, Echo began to speak meditatively on the nature of pain: how, although this pain she was feeling in her feet right now was just like conventional pain-- it had all the earmarks, so to speak, and was irritating in the extreme, like all the everyday pains-- she could not relate to it as she did to the usual pain, couldn't be negative toward it, because it was kami related.

The objective in standard self/pain relations is to make the pain go away; this pain, in contrast, was self-chosen, indeed inflicted for sacred purposes, and was therefore itself sacred; so she had to respect it, sort of even savor it as being positive in nature, and accruing benefit with its extension, so in a way she had to enjoy the suffering, nurture the pain. This went against every instinctive principle, affording an illuminating gestalt on the reality and illusion of pain. I had to agree with her; it was indeed an interesting perspective on pain, though I would not pursue the matter further by going home and sticking my foot in the woodstove or striking any part of my body with a hammer.

In closing, I must make a brief comment regarding the courage of Echo and all the others I had seen confront the fire. I must state for the record that of all the many who stood in line to do the brave deed, whether grandparent or teen, when the time came to walk the embers, not a single one got cold feet.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004



Feet of Flame

I've noticed a funny thing about firewalkers in general: if you're going down a street, any street, you'll never be able to point to this person or that and say with any conviction: this individual is a firewalker. You simply can't pick a firewalker out of any crowd. This basic truth was very forcibly driven home to me as I stood there studying the surprisingly large number and wide diversity of the folks who filled the long and steadily extending lines of imminent firewalkers. But oddly enough, all of them had rolled up their low dresses and pants legs to protect them from the heat, while leaving their feet unchanged!

Of course there's the spiritual purification aspect involved in all this, but if you held my feet to the fire I could very quickly think of several dozen more agreeable ways of getting pure. This need to voluntarily subject oneself to a technique highly favored by torturers throughout history escapes me completely, much as wealth does. The firewalking folks that were lining up as if for free ice cream were young old, male female, all walks of life, tall short, heavy light, healthy unhealthy, in suits dresses jeans, all forthrightly queueing to walk through the fire, even very senior citizens, who were doubly brave in not being able to walk fast, lightly or with any certainty in one direction; who in fact were in danger of spiraling into ash. But on they went.

I could only conclude that there's simply nothing that sets your run-of-the-mill firewalker apart from other folks, except a certain unknowable quality hidden deep within that surfaces only when there's a very large bed of hot coals nearby in the open air, which for some reason (perhaps stemming from an experience in early childhood, maybe it's genetic), brings on a craving to place the extremely sensitive soles of one's feet into extended contact with a very effective and renowned pain-causing phenomenon.

You can therefore imagine my surprise when Echo came out of the closet and said: "I'm going to firewalk," and I realized that I was married to a latent firewalker; even more worrying, that perhaps to her I was a form of fire. Suddenly I was much more of a foreigner than I'd thought.

When Echo went to get her firewalking parchment, though, they told her that the parchments had all been used up; as every year, there were way more firewalkers than parchments. A fire can only scorch so many feet, after all. Shortly afterward, however, there was an announcement that a few more parchments had been found somewhere (probably on some firewalking parchment scalper), which announcement caused a small riot near the parchment stand when all the wannabe footburners swarmed to get parchments. Echo, having been strategically located as a result of her previous attempt, was one of the lucky few to get one; only about a dozen or so were available.

So Echo got in the long fire line and I waited in the perfect location with my camera so as to be sure not to miss the second key shot of the day, events regarding which, and overall closure of this warm event, will be related in Part V.


Just received (and quickly!) a very welcome book shipment I ordered from Amazon in the States. Buying foreign books in the bookstores here is a rather pathetic experience; their buyers seem to select books by throwing darts at pages of odd catalogs. It's in English, what the hell.

Among the books just received is the superb Ben Franklin biography by Walter Isaacson, and the translated poems of Han Shan (Cold Mountain) (a single copy of the Ben bio might show up in Kinokuniya bookstore in a few years, to be snapped up immediately at twice the Amazon price and never re-ordered; the Han Shan: never; it's Chinese, after all), whose pinup portrait, together with his buddy Shih Te (a copy of the original that hangs in a subtemple of Daitokuiji), has always hung above my desk.

The trouble with most poetry translations is that they're not translated by poets, but by academics, and the result is frequently terrible, a disservice needless to say to the poets themselves, who, mostly being dead, have little say in who is handling their words. The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (Translated by Red Pine, Copper Canyon Press) is an extremely welcome exception.

Leafing through the Ben book, I came upon a photo of an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, with editings by Ben and others. Where Thos. Jefferson had written "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" Ben had crossed out "sacred and undeniable" and interpolated "self-evident" (he made few other substantive changes), the phrase that has since become the spiritual "navel" of the document and seed of so much thought-freedom. I'd always assumed that it was Jefferson's phrase. Thanks Ben, for that profound foresight.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Monday, March 01, 2004


In which Guji Takes a Bath and Firewalks, Author Misses Key Shot

After the prayer blaze got going real well, because he had to stand close enough to be responsibly sacerdotal the guji got a bit hot as he chanted and had to call in some fire controllers to splash some water on the fire so he could finish without bursting into flame; then when he had done and returned to his chambers the prayer managers took over, carrying out from the Shrine and throwing onto the high holy blaze the bundles and armfuls of the thousands and thousands of smaller written invocations written on waribashi (disposable chopstick)-sized pieces of cedar, which took quite a long while, then it was all let blaze freely.

The guji then reemerged, dressed coolly for that cold day in nothing but fundoshi and a short cotton coat for the water ritual in which he bathes and purifies himself for the firewalk to come, for he is to be the first to walk through the fire, as his ancestors have been doing for centuries. After sitting on a straw mat in nothing but the fundoshi, splashing himself thoroughly with water and praying toward the fire, the guji then dressed in white robes and stood before the fire barefoot, chanting to psyche up his feet for the heat to come, while the fire blazed down to coals and the fire managers hooked and towed away the large smouldering logs, leveling out the heat-shimmering embers into a level walkable area of embers some 30 cm deep, ringed with crowds who kept their distance from the heat.

Echo and I had by now managed to grab a seat on one of the small ceremonial stools the first priests had used, and I squatted beside her waiting for the key shot from the optimal angle, when the guji would walk barefoot across the flickering coals. This took a while, as the timing was everything; my legs were complaining as I angled for an even better knee-level shot of the imminent first step into the fire, my photomanic movements causing Echo to shift her stool slightly, such that one of the brass-tipped back legs came heavily to rest on the big toe of a suited fellow standing right behind, causing him to react loudly, necessitating seated/squatting bows of apology from us, and when I turned back around the guji was on the other side of the fire without the slightest sign of pain on his face, and all the lay firewalkers had begin to line up on this side of the fire, parchments in hand (upon which to impress their ash-black feet when they'd made it through the embers), bare feet waiting their turns, which all took place in Part IV.