Saturday, December 31, 2016

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

A quick Merry Christmas update from a few days' north of Tokyo... I've walked across yet another of the worlds' largest cities.  A lot of urban walking has occupied my time in the last week or so, not so much to my liking as mountain or beach walking, but amazing nonetheless.  I'm still having a great pilgrim time.

Christmas is outrageously commercial here - not an ounce of Christianity buried in Santa Claus here, but presents, music, and decorated trees abound.  It's always interesting, celebrating Christmas in a different culture.

I've been reunited with my snowshoes, thanks to the fun Redemptorists who have been taking care of them at their mother house in Tokyo.  We celebrated with some dry and tasty Japanese sparkling wine.  I have little hope in using them soon, since the temperatures are well above freezing.  As I continue north, I can hope for snow, perhaps climbing higher into the mountains rather than sticking to the seashore just to find some.  Carrying all of my winter gear has been tiring - I'd rather wear the heavy clothes than carry them.

I only have a moment tonight before the Japanese language celebrations begin at the Catholic church tonight - so Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

One Night with a Geisha

On one bright sunny morning with a strong westerly wind, I walked delightfully through harvested rice paddies - the sea to my right, the mountains to my left.  There in the distance, the theatrical side-lighting accentuating its upward-facing wimple - Mount Fuji, its snow-capped alpenglow just like in the posters.  Far off - 150 kilometers, 4 days' walk - perfectly situated in the vee of two fore mountains.  (I should make a quick watercolor, I thought, as soon as I find a good place to sit, out of the tailwind, but still in the warm sun.)  I walked for some hours.  Clouds came - Fuji faded then disappeared into a white sky.  Later that day, light rain, high winds... for the days that followed, heavy rain, blustering winds, a downpour now and then, dramatic rising fog, sinking clouds, Mount Fuji hidden above it all.
I walked through forests and fields, along the rocky coast, on the beach in the spray of ferocious waves... a small sign in the mist declared in rare English - 'Mt Fuji Touristic Mountain Trail'.  No other pilgrims (of course), no hikers. Dramatic rain, dramatic wind - whistling like in the movies... rising mists and equally sinking clouds, occasionally letting 'almighty power' sunbeams penetrate like golden stakes.  Fujiyama hidden from my searching eyes.  I saw it from a distance one morning.  I know it's there.
People continue to be good.  I've encountered many immigrant communities around the Catholic churches where I seek hospitality.  Peruvians, with whom I can speak Spanish, Brazillians, with whom I can speak Spanish and listen in Portuguese with surprising mutual understanding; and Filippinos, who conveniently speak English often enough.  It goes well.
One evening, a Japanese priest contacted a local woman from a long-standing Catholic family - that is, from among the 'Hidden Christians' who converted four centuries ago and persisted in secrecy when it was outlawed.  I'd be more comfortable in her home than in the parish hall, he suggested. 'Chotte-mate' Wait.  An hour later, came a Geisha.  Proper Meiji-era kimono and hairstyle, wooden sandals, split-toed white silk socks... To her home we went on foot, with quick little noisy steps.  Surprisingly untidy, her antique wooden home, but otherwise out of a movie set.  An elaborate Buddhist home-shrine built into a wall commemorated her late husband and his repectable parents - his father of the pre-war warrior class.
Her English was no better than my Japanese, so a learning opportunity for us both.  'Sukyaki?' she suggested for dinner.  Sure, I've heard of it.  A portable gas burner was placed on the low wooden table on the reed floor mats.  Bite-sized morsels of green onions, napa cabbage, some oddly textured root vegetabe she called 'cognac' or something audibly similar - with zero calories, she claimed - tofu, sliced pork, and strips of beef sizzled rapidly in a shallow pan placed on the open flame.  A small bowl of rice, chopsticks, okay, I can managed, but I had to muster all my resources to continue when she delicately and with all the elegance of a tea ceremony (which turns out to be her daytime metier) cracked an egg into another small porcelain bowl.  Using your chopsticks, dip the cooked meat and vegetable pieces one by one into the raw egg just before eating... she gestured and demonstrated. Really? Raw egg? (must I?) (should I?) ((When in Rome... close your eyes and swallow...))  On the more culturally comfortable side, she kept the 1.5-liter carton of Japanese red wine flowing into our small ceramic cups during the extended joyful meal full of laughter.
Her agility surprised and outpaced me - sure, I had walked well over 40 rugged kilometers in the rain that day (while she taught proper tea ceremony procedures to the up-and-coming Geisha wannabees) - I felt cramped and stiff alternatively kneeling or hunched cross-legged at the little table - heated underneath with an electric blanket - the only source of heat in the house aside from the cooking burner.  She often went from the demur kneeling position at the table to run to the kitchen or shrine room for various things and back kneeling again like a gymnast sticking the landing, kicking her indoor sandals off every time entering the reed-mat dining room.  Watching it made my muscles ache all the more.  She showed me photos of her wedding, her calligraphied high school diploma, rare photos from the time of her youth - she was well over 80 years old.  What an inspiration.
I'm continuing up the Pacific coast, closing in on Tokyo, passed the quarter- way mark.  Afterwards, I suspect the population will thin out a bit and I won't be able to find a Catholic church every night.  No worries.
Ferrets a-plenty, but still the snow monkeys elude me.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Autumn Colors

Even I am impressed with how fast I'm traveling through Japan.  Autumn has come, surprising late, and the cool nights are offset by the brilliant colors of the Japanese maples.  Since my last update written in Oita, by which I had walked 576 kilometers, I've walked around the island of Shikoku - famed for its Buddhist pilgrimage of 88 Temples - and onto the big island of Honshu.  Now just past Nagoya, I've walked a total of 1,300 kilometers, nearly a quarter of my planned total for the pilgrimage.  My only struggle remains finding computers with internet access and without email restrictions.  For all its technological advances, Japan has a few quirks.  Updating my blog has a lesser priority than talking with breathing people, so explains the long gap in time since the last update.

My route through Japan is determined around the 15 cathedrals, going north on the Pacific Ocean side, turning around the northern island of Hokkaido, and returning south on the Sea of Japan side.  So far, I've gotten stamps from 6 of the cathedrals - Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Oita, Takamatsu, Osaka, and Nagoya.  I'm heading now toward Yokohama.  The population density is noticeably higher as I travel north, so rarely since leaving Shikoku am I in nature during my day's walk.  Not as nice for me, but still very interesting.  Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are everywhere.  While on Shikoku, I saw plenty of pilgrims going to the 88 temples, a traditional circuit with a resurgent interest since the tourism board go involved - with advice from the tourism board of northern Spain.  Funny that the Japanese pilgrims I saw were either getting out of cars or at the bus stops and the foreign pilgrims were walking the mountain paths in the rain.  A Japanese man I met at one of my private home-stays one evening told me that the Japanese value the unique stamps and calligraphy they get at each shrine over the time it takes to walk.  The ends justify the means.

I've managed to visit several of the 16th-century pagoda-style castles and fortresses that popped up when Japan was becoming unified.  The history lessons are varied and interesting.  About 60% of the nights I've been staying at parishes or convents, speaking equally Spanish, Italian, and English, with two drips of German and one of French.  The balance of the nights in family homes and as often in my growing but pathetically weak Japanese as Spanish with Peruvian immigrants or very basic English.  It's always a good time with plenty of spontaneous parties.  Nearly every day, people continue to offer me origiri - rice balls - and fruit - oranges and persimmons.  Japan continues to be a terrific place to be a pilgrim.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Once-in-a-Lifetime-Encounter

There's a new word in my Japanese vocabulary today - Itchy-Goi, Itchy-Yay! meaning something like 'this has been a once-in-a-lifetime-encounter.'  Handy for me, I'll be able to use it everyday.  Pilgriming in Japan is fantastic.  The people I've met have been over and above hospitable.  I've also learned 'Ee-Pi' = enough! please, I can't eat anything else!
I've wandered though thickly forested mountains and along long sandy or rocky beaches.  I managed to send my snowshoes ahead to Tokyo with a Redemptorist priest, so they'll be waiting for me when I arrive there just before Christmas (insha'allah).  It's still so warm that I'm wearing only my first layers and am carrying all of my winter clothes, a heavy burden that will disappear in the coming weeks as I continue to head north.  Leaving Nagasaki, I've traveled through towns and villages perched on the edge of the South China Sea, and the breezes have been more balmy than fierce.  The fragrances of the mountain flowers are heady, and I'm delighted to step on mint growing wild along babbling streams - nothing like a handful of mint stuffed in the boots at night to keep the locker-room odors at bay.  I've heard and seen many wild pigs foraging for acorns, and fat black long-haired squirrels, and pods of dolphins surprisingly close to the shore, but the snow monkeys have eluded me so far in the wild.
The trees are just beginning to turn at the latitude I'm passing - about 34 degrees north - but they'll turn quickly as I've rounded the islands to face the open Pacific Ocean and island-hop toward Osaka.  I'm torn - do I prefer the mountains - rugged, exhausting and providing great views - or the coast - serpentine and bustling with fishing boats and ferries and interrupted with picturesque villages and tightly packed bedroom communities around the bigger cities?  Sorry I can't be in two places at once... one day, maybe I'll come back and do a second lap.
The architecture is mixed with ultra-modern clean-lined townhomes with gardens bursting with pumpkins, daikon radishes, lettuces and potatoes, and the ancient Samuri-style timberframe homes with layered tiled roofs and upturned cornices surrounding perfectly manicured cultivated gardens.  I've slept in quite a variety by now.  Buddhist shrines, monuments, and cemeteries are everywhere, sometimes in the most out-of-the way places, moss-covered and seemingly abandoned, and somehow tidy nonetheless.  I've caught the tail end of the rice harvest and often walk along the paddies and terraces where bundles of upturned stalks hang drying in long lines between stubbly remains. 
The only thing I've encountered that's a bit untoward has been the multitude of spiderwebs, as big as bicycle wheels with complex multidimensional guylines stablizing them in fabulous geometries - cotangential hyperbolic paraboloids... they'd make Euclid downright giddy.  While I see some high in trees and powerpoles, most seem to be right at my face level, invisible until I'm a victim.  Yet, the thoraxes of the spiders themselves, always present in the center of the web, are as big as almonds or dates, black and fluorescent yellow, with evil red markings, and long black and yellow striped legs... menacing indeed... are they poisonous? I keep getting caught up in their stickiness when I'm walking along a mossy mountain lane... if they were poisonous, surely they'd have been eradicated, right?  Maybe not... what would Buddha say?  I've asked and asked, but few people I've met have experience in the out-of-the-way places I walk and - well, what newbie to a language learns vocabulary words like 'poisonous' and 'spider'.  Ah well, so far, so good.  Itchy-Goi, Itchy-Yay!
[I don't get to computers often - the local libraries I've visited restrict use to news and database access.  I've tried four times in the 17 days I've been walking around the southern tip of Japan, and today is the first time for success to update this blog.  More soon.]  Really, I don't think there could be a happier pilgrim =D