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.