While I’m at it


I should mention too that this month my column in Kansai Time Out is about En the Ascetic, a 7th century mountain priest who started a sect of syncretic Buddhist mountain worship that still exists today. His statue is at Ishiba-ji, in Shiga prefecture, and is one of my favorites so far.

  I am continually surprised and happy to contribute to KTO: for a regional, second-language magazine, it has a good layout, great community of contributors, and a lot of content for three bucks. I just wish my articles from it would be online somehow.

Snow Country


The Geisha Matsuei, Kawabata's model for his heroine KomakoMy latest article has been up for a month now; have a read if you haven’t yet. It describes Yuzawa hot spring, a resort town in the mountains close to Tokyo, where Japan’s Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata was inspired to write his classic, Yukiguni (Snow Country). I read Snow Country just before I came to Japan and was both entranced and mystified. The story focuses on a wealthy Tokyo dilettante and his failed love affair with a mountain geisha. The dilettante cannot love, yet pursues the young woman, who in turn falls in love with him at the peril of her reputation. 


Mountain resort geisha were not as fortunate as their city counterparts. While geisha in urban centers were esteemed performers and were often privy to many closed-door deals and secret goings-on, the mountain geisha performed for weekend guests, groups of men without their families looking for a good time. Shortly after they meet, Shimamura, the dilettante, asks Komako, the geisha, to bring him a woman. She refuses, embarrassed and angry, and says that no such women exist in this hot spring. Shimamura insists but Komako refuses; ultimately the young geisha that arrives is brought by his inn’s caretaker, but by then Shimamura has lost his appetite.

When he seduces Komako, the themes of beauty and harshness in Kawabata’s sparse, haiku-like prose really begin to show. Komako slowly falls into disrepute, but like the snow of the mountains, her beauty and purity seem untouched, as she loves Shimamura without restraint. The sparseness of the prose can be bewildering though, and the first time I finished the novel I was entranced but totally confused. Relationships between characters are very vague: much is left to nuance, atmosphere, the reader filling in the blanks with a wealth of shared cultural knowledge (for the Japanese anyway). It was both beauty and confusion, epitomized in my reaction to Kawabata’s book, that brought me to Japan; I can’t say I have made much headway in understanding, but the beauty is still here.

Sayonara Tourist Season!

A hush has fallen over the city of Kyoto: no buses rumble, no wandering masses tourists clog the streets, no tour guides spout history nor wave flags. The fall foliage season is over. 


Kyoto is famous for its spring and fall, for the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves that is, and it seems that every year the television advertises more and more the secret places that only locals once enjoyed. This year whole busloads of gaping out-of-towners paraded through my neighborhood and gawked at the foreigner on his bicycle, all headed up to a tiny temple that is normally both quiet and pleasant but is neither once a thousand shutterbugs descend upon it. 


That’s the problem with anaba, or secret places — once they are no longer secret they lose their hidden charm and become merely small and crowded. In any case, December is one of the best seasons for visitors to Kyoto as the city’s reputation for cold keeps most tourists away. At present it is sunny and 13 degrees Celsius — so if you can handle that much, you’ll love it.


Just stay out of my neighborhood.

Book Destroyer

Been reading a lot recently, as the winter has set into my room and words on the page are the only thing keeping me from sliding into complete hibernation. Well, that, and my electric footwarmer, which happens to be the greatest piece of desk paraphernalia every made, a massive inducement to just stay put at the computer where my feet are warm enough for blood movement. 

Since returning to Kyoto from Canada this October I’ve chewed through seven books, the most recent of which was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The story follows Jim Dixon, an assistant lecturer caught up in the petty intrigues of academic life and a lousy relationship with a neurotic that he can’t shake. 

The book is a study in frustration, and its humor comes through best in Amis’ description of Jim’s internal monologue, the snide comments he can only make to himself, the way he turns away from someone to make elaborately described faces of impotent rage.

Between Sword and Spear (sigh)

My latest Japan Times piece is now up. I was pretty happy with what came from my hike between Tsurugi-dake (Sword Peak) and Yari-ga-take (Spear Peak) until I noticed that I hadn’t explained that Yari means Spear. My editor couldn’t “stop the presses” so to speak, so it ran. Other than that omission, the text is pretty good I think.

Compound Fractures

Stress builds and builds until something gives, fissures appear: nightmare guests, rainblack winter, trailing after the elusive tendrils of future possibility, a bicycle wipeout, clusterfuck schedules

    angrily waving at a cyclist in the dark on the wrong side of the road (my side) until looming from the black of night, a shocked female face wrinkled with age appears, wondering what has come to her country as a foreign hooligan in a mask and helmet gestures wildly at her to get the hell out of the way.

Encounters with Kyoto University Social Rejects

A flash of understanding between sexes as I sat typing out an email to say thank you for a successful date: Ms. 50something approaches me and gives a full introduction, straight out of the ether, with only a “are you a student” as a preliminary question. She sits at my table and I try to return to my email. She asks a girl nearby to take a photo of both of us with her digicam. Entering surreal here folks, being photographed with someone whose name you heard for the first time less than 5 minutes before and don’t remember anymore. I grimaced.Back to my email… but she sights it and asks to do an info transfer, the modern equivalent of “can I have your phone number”. Unable to be outright rude and say “who the hell are you, exactly” I consent. Finally my student arrives and she repeats the introduction for him, handing him her name card (he’s really confused by all this) and then steps back to photograph us talking together about his schedule problem. I fled to his office. Where do people learn to be so uncomfortable? I know I’ve laid down some clumsy lines but this was awkward to the point of outright rudeness. Why should I give you my information when you haven’t even asked my name yet, for chrissakes?