Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Being American, I've never had a king, to say nothing of an emperor. Thus the wonderful absence that lies at the heart of my difficulty in keeping track of Japan's imperial year system, which for me began when I arrived here in Showa 47, according to quick calculations on a sushi napkin. 
To further simplify things with a brief labyrinth of clarification, the Showa era began in the final year of the Taisho era (Taisho 12, I believe - I should check Wikipedia), which itself had begun at the end of the Meiji era (which had begun on some date/month in 1868 and lasted 44 years) and lasted until the first year of Showa, which in turn ended in Showa 58 with the naturally timed death of Hirohito (who has a different posthumous name, which used to be stored in one of my Showa brain cells). And just as Taisho 12 was also Showa 1, Showa 58 was as well the first year of Heisei, the new and current imperial era that has screwed up my drivers license renewal.

This multiplicity of dating gets confusing if as an American (other nationalities can speak for themselves) you go mentally non-imperial for any extended duration while living here, because every now and then in dealing with the J-world you suddenly have to convert between calendric systems, which was easier during Showa, because all you had to do back in those heady days was add or subtract 25 years to or from either calendar, respectively, piece a cake. I forget what you do now, something like you do (I don't) between Centigrade and Farehnheit, I think there are retrograde fractions in there. Then January 1 and the emperors' naturally arbitrary birthdays and deathdays confuse things. When I was about to renew my license I thought this year was Heisei 18, which turned out to be off by about 4 years when I finally asked my wife what year it actually was. For the information of those abroad who might be coming to Japan to renew their licenses or something, it's Heisei 22.
Many government agencies here use the imperial year on driver's licenses and other bureaucratic forms, to keep everybody in that old imperial frame of mind, so being ignoble I get it wrong and am late a lot. Also when I fill out those forms I always put down the easy-to-remember estimated number of years since the virgin birth of the savior of humankind, also called a lord to satisfy those old royalty cravings, though I try to remain my own noble, to the extent possible. I was stubborn as a kid, too; I've had my own system of time since grade school, if not earlier. I don't wear a watch either.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Can there be too much monkeylessness? Up until  yesterday I would have answered hell no, give me even more monkeylessness than I have now! But perhaps I can't really be impartial on this question, since I come from a historically monkeyless culture that - apart from politics and finance - has no experience with truly guiltless intelligence. The continuous monkeylessness of the West, I now suspect, has put the West at a deep cultural disadvantage, one that Westerners aren't even aware of, largely owing to their endemic monkeylessness. Sort of like genetically never having been exposed to measles.

The above question posed itself to me the other morning while I was waiting for the train, when my thoughts drifted to my innate desire for monkeylessness vis-a-vis the startling intelligence I have perceived in those beasts, who exhibit ancient patience combined with the original lack of conscience, yet bearing in themselves at least the surface manifestations of guilt, like their merely facial expression of the smile-- so much like loan sharks and politicians...

Recently I had gone through weeks- months, in fact - of monkeylessness, and, being a child of the West, was growing complacent raising mushrooms; I was no longer on my toes. I'd get a couple baskets of mushrooms in today and a couple tomorrow, "there are too many, so I'll get the rest over the weekend," I'd mumble to myself in a monkeyless stupor; it was then that the monkeys struck. They knew. They'd been waiting. And watching. Their scout saw me complacently take off on the motorcycle and according to his database I'd be gone all day; then they waited for the red car to leave with Echo inside, when they stuffed themselves at leisure with most of the rest of what in my monkeyless fog I'd naively thought were my mushrooms. I had fallen for the simian ploy, and so had learned once more. By these subtle stages have I become less Western, drifted more toward the other side of the Never the Twain Shall Meet boundary-- which no one to my knowledge has ever attributed to protracted Western monkeylessness.

On the other hand with its opposable thumb, monkeys are integral to Asia and its religions; thus the reality of monkeyfulness and dreams of monkeylessness have intrigued monkey-plagued Asian philosophers since the dawn of civilization, and may go a long way toward explaining the inscrutability attributed to these regions by the chronically monkeyless West. For with the presence of monkeys comes the deepest, most formidable aspect of "Where did we come from": "What is the difference between man and beast?"

Over the millennia, monkeyful societies have perforce pondered the in-their-face fact of natural intelligence in natural combination with natural consciencelessness. Europeans, Americans and Middle Easterners, in contrast, have never had to confront this daily reality in all its nakedness, never had to deal with the deeper implications unrelated to nature/nurture. Thus there are no monkeys in their holy books or shrines. This may be why they needed powerful, angry gods, strictly stipulated commandments, hardwired messiahs and suchlike.

It is my thesis, cursorily examined here, that much about the East that the West characterizes as inscrutable has to do with what I call the Simian Index, which concept I may pursue in future, if I ever start an anthropological career, and lots of luck on that one; or I may not, depends on whatever. I was, after all, raised in a culture where free will is heavily promulgated, though I have since lived and traveled for over three decades in rampantly monkeyful cultures that are less individualistic and more collectively serendipitous, so at the moment I'm not sure of my true place on the Simian Index, but I'm definitely closer to something.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Windy days are frequent this time of year, now that hurricane season is past and we're down to winds that just blow local trains off their tracks. The savage breezes also kindly remove the rest of the leaves from the trees, but can dry out all those shiitake I've still got out there unharvested. Such are the autumn zephyrs up here on the mountain, where all through the night I hear the hiss of reluctant leaves along the ground, and then in the morning the public announcement far down in the village saying something about the wind that the wind renders incomprehensible, another example of man and nature battling it out in harmony. Such early windy morning announcements probably concern train delays, but from up here I can't really tell.

I could search around on the tv channels for the transport bulletins on such mornings, but by the time I'd find out that my train is on time it would be too late to catch it. No point in calling the village station either, because the semiretired guy who works at our minor stop doesn't arrive there till about the time my train departs, so the phone in the little office would just ring until it was too late for me to catch the train if it was on time. I could call the big central train office and get put on hold, but most mornings I'm fairly sane.

This morning just after dawn I heard that chime-y PA fanfare (Bing, Bung, Bong, Bing!) that prefaces the loudspeaker announcements, then the perhaps male voice saying what seemed meteorologically like "Because of what the wind does to these announcements there's really no point in my doing this, since none of you can understand a word I'm saying, especially you folks far up the mountain, but all the same it's my job, so did you hear the one about the nun, the banker and the frog who went into a bar...." The rest was blown away by the same long, strong gust of wind that blew the ladder off the toolshed roof, but none of that mattered because today is a holiday anyway, I forget what, but I was back asleep by then.

Later when I'm down in the village I'll ask around, see if anybody heard the punch line.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Who at my age doesn't have countless regrets? There is no way to get through even a well-lived life without regret. I'm not talking about the Waterloo of regret that everyone carries in the Napoleon of their souls, regrets that are even more pointless (less pointful?) for being so vast; no, I'm talking about the numberless nanoregrets, the rankle of instants, the turning points of the tiny dances that moments are, in which we performers of life are not as gracious or perceptive, sensitive, intelligent or discerning, thoughtful or eloquent in retrospect as we are now (retrospect grows with age), and as we now wish we had been been back then, were we thus gifted by the gods, for it is all a matter of godgifting, of probabilities, of impulses pulsed, chances taken and lost or won, the regrets being the times we got it wrong, and not on purpose.

There were some victories in there too, of course, the times we got it right, but we remember few of those, for they fit seamlessly into the natural flow of life, are not remarked upon especially by our mind's eye, and so in our habitual looks back do not cause a ripple on the horizon of the past; no, it is those little regrets, the nanonubs that forever rub the wrong way, the mini-if onlys and micro-I wishes-- It is bad to live too much in the past that way, but they make you do it, those little slivers in the mental underwear, those pebbles in the mindboots, those crumbs in the spirit bed.

None of us is alone in this; we all have such regrets, and the older we get - it's only natural - the more regrets we have. No one escapes this irreducible, utterly personal burden. By my age there's a whole diverse library of things I should/shouldn't have done/said, of turnings taken in youthful or other ignorance, word or silence, east or west, yes or no, decisions I made or didn't, things I could have done better or differently - such is one life, after all, and ignorance is beyond numbering.

But when I think about it, the brightness is that in all that cloud of misdoing I must have done so many forgotten things well, made so many good choices, because I'm still here, alive, sensing the darkness in a day's joy. And so I am privileged, in a way, to have all those regrets I pester myself with now and then, when I'm not paying enough attention to being--

When at last I do pay attention I realize that at the very least, I do know better, now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


The few folks who live up here on the mountainside necessarily get more exercise than do the flatlanders, not only because they live up high in rarefied air and so get more naturally strenuous exercise, often as not preferring to walk up to their homes from the roads and rails below, but also because they walk a lot in general around the path ways in their various wonderfilled amblings, since they are by dint of their personal natures assertively outdoor folk, who hike, climb, garden etc. in a large way and in winter get a lot of extra snow to shovel. They are folks who enjoy productive physical labor, full-living folks who chose to live where it would be more physically challenging and naturally rewarding to live.

There are further compensations however, if such metrosweeteners be needed for living hereabouts. To a name just a few (as one does with the stars in heaven, rather than use up a lifetime being specific), each season you get an honorary PhD equivalent in biology, hydrology, geology and meteorology, and in addition to lotsofology there are all the splendificent views of year-round diversity involving big samplings of pretty much everything there is, from planets and stars to creatures, water, clouds, earth, plant and spirit, the welcome summer air upflows and downflows of  morning and evening, the crossmountain breezes of mid-day, not to mention all the swards of green in summer, the total immersion each autumn in the finest of natural forest art, the snow sculptures of winter, the rainbowed choruses of spring. And what can be sweeter than mountain water, all the flowers, tree perfume, the heights of air, the wild pantry?
And there's more. Unlike the present urban jaganath, this will go on for what we call forever. My advice to you is, if you're living low and feel unfulfilled, live high.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Thursday, November 11, 2010


Nature can be pretty sardonic, especially when it comes to mushrooms. Like the other day, when I was so certain about my shiitake situation, nature did that whoa thing it does whenever it senses complaisance in the human condition, sort of like what it's doing now to the world economy. As to the point I just deviated from, I guess I have about 50 shiitake logs going at the moment, some newbies at 1 year old since inoculation, some 2 or 3 years old and others getting into their dotage, which varies depending on the size of the log and the amount of sapwood it has.

Commercial shiitake growers and vendors - to set off on another vaguely relevant tangent - have to grow or buy their own supply of logs, logs of consistent and manageable size for stacking and moving-- not too heavy etc., especially if they're selling the logs directly to consumers at the farm stores, either for inoculation or already inoculated (designer logs, I call them), as they do around this time of year. But since I'm non-commercial and have no oak-laden property (no way I'm cutting down my old oak!), nor do I buy designer logs, I must take whatever incidental fresh oak I can get from other sources (landscapers, developers, folks with too many crowding trees etc.). Thus my oak logs tend to be a bit larger, and opportunistic in shape, so often not straight or easily manageable. I also wind up with a lot of odd-sized bits of scrap timber that goes into a special firewood pile under the deck. Vague relevance is drawing nearer.

In any case though, in managing my shiitake logs I inoculate them, incubate them, move them around, water them now and then, stack them, restack them and finally move them to a corner place where they can shroom at last, and there I keep a close eye on them. So close that my mushroom eye is pretty much blind elsewhere, as it turns out. You see about the relevance? To get closer to my wandering point, I have the logs arranged by age too, so I always know what's going on, and over the 15 years I've been doing this I've gotten hardwired into thinking I had it all nailed, well in hand, right in place, tabs on everything shiitake-related around here, that's the kind of mental state I was talking about above; nature abhors both vacuums and self assurance. As for me, I didn't notice for a few days, because this was in another place, it was under the deck, you see. I didn't-- Who would expect -- I've never-- Why would I-- but I digress from my tangent.

To wend once again toward my point, a couple days ago I was walking toward the shiitake section way over in the corner of our lot, when I nanonoticed that under the deck there were some big healthy shiitake mushrooms growing. But I'm not and never have grown shiitake under the deck, so I only nanonoticed, because such a thing was impossible. But it kept nagging down there at the corner of my mind, so eventually I macronoticed. It was an odd feeling, abruptly observing mushrooms growing there on their own, and then going "Oh yeah, they can do that..." and then the question of actual IQ arose.

I've seen kikurage and lots of other mushrooms growing wild, but I've never seen shiitake growing wild. Let alone under the deck on a small section of oak firewood about 30 cm long that had been placed there only because it was an odd length and small, so would dry quickly and could be easily tossed up top for use in the nearby stove.

It was the variety of oak that designer log sellers prefer (some variety of red oak, I think), not least because shiitake seem to prefer it, so it is in strong commercial demand. I don't recall seeing it growing around here, so now I intensely wonder where I got that piece. Anyway, just lying there in the stack under the deck it had been inoculated naturally, unlike the standard oak all around it! I'd walked past there many times while those mushrooms were swelling into largeness, but to me there were no shiitake growing there: that's the odd-size firewood storage place, not the shiitake growing place, which is over there, where I organized it...

Nature loves to go wild.

Monday, November 08, 2010


Seems like this is a bad year for just about everything, at least for the wildies around here, though many of the civilizedies aren't doing all that well either. I was out looking for free wild food this morning in the form of mukago, which are ready at around this time of year, but it seems like the yamaimo offspring have suffered the same fate as acorns. In my searches I found a final total of might as well be zero, barely a few pitiable tiny pea-sized things hanging forlorn on the long yamaimo vines tracing through the bamboo and forest-edge undergrowth.

In good years I easily score handfuls of the minipotatoes from among the wild yamaimo leaves as I go along the roads and wade into the bamboo. Even if I'm not thinking of mukago I am reminded by those lush pennants of bright yellow heart-shaped leaves vining up and across the bamboo and low bushes, draping themselves from one plant tip to another, eventually creating a yamaimo leaf canopy that gets most of the sun and rain and in autumn yields the best crop, those on the tall bamboo stalks silhouetting their tasty wealth against the sky: air tubers that can reach the size of a large macadamia nut.

It's all academic at this point, though, cause this year, even in the best of my secret places there were lots of golden leaves but no treasure to throw into the pot before the rice cooks. They were even scarcer than acorns, which both the bears and the wild pigs like, but the mukago are a special treat for the latter, because after strong winds the minitubers fall to the ground among the bamboo warrens where the pigs nose about and bears do not go; this year, though, there is rampant mukago notness on top of severe acorn notness, so among the gruffly marauding bears there will be some grumpy widely foraging pigs out there, as though either group needed competition...

In the same vein, took a morning walk to visit the pond yesterday, and on the way passed the old wild persimmon tree whose autumn branches every year appear about to break from the weight of the fruit, so I always feel duty-bound to grab a few pocketfuls - especially before the monkeys get them - but this year there were only a half dozen or so persimmons on the whole tree; I've never seen a wild tree looking so unfulfilled at the peak of its career.

Then over at the pond I saw on the sloping bank countless places where a number of wild pigs had nosed up the soil in search of earthworms and any other natural slow food they could find, but from the immense number of nosings I'd judge that the wild porkers must have had to hustle to finish all that work before dawn, so it appears they didn't have much success, and unlike me they don't have a well-stocked winter pantry, so this may be quite a hungry winter for the local wildies.

Both of those hungry parties are welcome to my chestnuts and compost pile, as long as they dine at night. Casual dress, no fighting, and stay away from those onions.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Last weekend I just managed to make it to the final day of the Otsu Museum exhibition of sacred sculptures and paintings from various temples in Shiga Prefecture, all designated national cultural treasures or national cultural assets. As I walked around admiring the rarely exposed works on display I felt my eyes drifting from the holy faces, which were pretty much all the same, as holy faces tend to be-- I've seen so many holy faces in sacred places all over the world, and they've all been... holy faces. A standard thousand-yard stare - up, down or straight ahead - with a soupcon of the ecstasy that surpasseth whatever the local dogma stipulates. Faces exquisitely crafted, breathtakingly so in some cases, but monolithic: not leading into diversity, but expressing one thing infallibly: worshipful artistic skill.

Generally speaking, holier-than-thou is a bit of a turnoff in the real world; why should art be any exception? If you've seen one holy face, you've gotten the idea: the depicted individuals have made it to the summit of the spirit-hierarchy. At this exhibit though, I could sense that the artists hadn't had any fun limning the same old sanctity for the 10th generation. It was almost as if they were saying: "This holy stuff is a bit of a cliche; what we really enjoy is the artistic delights down below, where we depict the baser angels of human nature."

For in fact my eyes were inevitably drawn from the standard blissed-out faces up top to the fascinating and varied demons beneath the sacred feet. Now this was invention-- this was art. The sacred face is prescribed territory - a lifted chin here, half-closed eyes there, maybe a subtle lipcurl and that's about it - but gargoyles, demons and imps obey no rules; they go all the way...

Here was where the artists could dive right in and give free rein to their imaginings, embody their arts in those demons thumbing their noses at the sanctimonious, rasberrying the overlords of righteousness, carrying on up to their necks in the fundamentals; maybe they are half monster and half human, maybe they do have hands and feet that are half paws, maybe bulging eyes above sharp fangs beside big humanteeth, plus pointy ears and tail, maybe they do have spots, lumps, ridges - even scales - but they are where the art is.

These sculptors were among the greatest artists of their day; and by the time they got the chance to create these statues they had carved a thousand holy faces, as had their forebears for generations-- all the lineaments that depict enlightenment, divinity, tranquility, good will, peace, love-- the sacred gaze had become artistically uninspiring. As well, it should be pointed out that without those vulgar gargoyles and personal demons to give them a leg up, those glazed-gazing saints would have had nothing to achieve; nor would the artists who came later. Here was where the sculptors and painters could pull out the stops on their creative imaginings, this was where the art was, with the sacred standing on the top, as though victorious.

This was a big statement from all those silent artist voices, a visual comment perhaps unconsciously passed on to us today from ages gone before, when there were demons and angels instead of Hollywood and TV-- i.e., that there's not much creativity involved in depicting the sacred per se; that the fun of creativity, the spark of life, is in the star supporting players, the bedrock of all that we hold sacred: the hardworking, put-upon imps and demons. Without them, the righteous has no basis; without them, nothing is sacred. Besides, they're where the fun is; you can learn things from demons that you can't learn anywhere else. To widen your sacred horizons, you've gotta hang with demons at some points along your way; just don't linger too long, and never believe you've left them behind.

Later on, when you honor the sacred, be sure also to honor those baser angels, for which those ancient artists were so painstakingly thankful.