The illusion of freedom

I’ve been thinking more about happiness, and sorrow on the trail. I walked with Pierre for a day and a half and was happy to have his company, to have him drive me on; but it was also stressful not to be able to stop when I wanted or go at my own pace. The freedom was lacking. Ironically, I always had the freedom to say I would part, yet it took a day and a half to use it. Now on my own I have a daily pace which appears sustainable and no longer feel the pressure of time. This should have been the case from the start since I had three weeks set aside, but I needed to find my groove.
The trail is still often arduous and constantly tries my patience, but I’m back in the place where I can appreciate it. As much as I pretend, to me it’s not a game, it’s a way of life. Thoughts of work and family come from time to time, but I am for the most part in a different world: the world of nature, and history, and community. In this world I walk as an observer and an occasional participant.

– udon lady
– grocery store relief
– a well timed park, leaning
– “not a nap”
– now really suing instincts and signs
– could tsuyado, but freedom factor again, beholden
– keizoku ha chikara nari

As a twig, as a reed

In some ways I have been called strong, consistent. I know of many ways where I am fickle and easily swayed, however, even with matters to myself. My mood changes more times than I can count– with the heat, hunger, pain, and things not going as planned. In a more macroscopic sense I have even forgotten some of the blisses of henro; for there are many. Being at temple truly is a joy, there are so many things that sing to both the body and the soul. Though there is protocal about what is frowned upon, you can soak up a lot from just sitting in the center for an hour and letting the body become awash in the hypnotic beauty of Buddhism.

Perspectives and pacing

The past two days have been eventful to say the least. At the end of Wednesday I saw a young pilgrim depart from the last store on the day’s trail. He was ambitious and strong, determined to finish up the pilgrimage in ten days. he climbed all the way up the mountain to Yokomine temple, the fiercest trouble spot on the trail. After a long and winding road which ended at the foot of the steepest climb to the summit, I made camp under an awning.

– met @ temple 60 in the morning
– walked together
– changing to archaeology from history
– confidence from KYOUSA
– orange crush / fanta
– his pace, Joyfull
– together, at Shimin no Mori
– thoughts on life, meat plant, no work
– split next morning at 10, me sick
– settai
– my nap
– made another 35+ day
– bus stop, sketchy lady
– grandmother with baby, dandelion
– settai
– fix hat

Cold and dry

Today was a solid day of hiking. I managed between 36 and 40 kilometers, depending on the source. I am now at the base camp of the reputed most difficult mountain temple, Unpenji. It’s already quite cold so I don’t expect much sleep. I do however have a roof and all the fresh water I can drink, a blessing.

There is a custom to carry the henro staves over bridges. The reasoning behind this is that Kukai, the progenitor of Shingon Buddhism, was forced to sleep under a bridge once while on the pilgrimage. Out of reverence to him (represented symbolically by the staff), we do not use the staff to cross bridges.

Fittingly, under a bridge is exactly where I slept last night to take shelter from passing showers.

There’s something appealing about using instinct and experience to make tactical choices that guide your movements. Perhaps it’s romance, or the yearning for escapism. So often our lives are dependent on information provided to us on a liquid crystal display. So much of my life in the city is without mindfulness, constantly distracted. But walking on the trail with no information other than what you extract from the environment, that’s thought. The reasonable, cognitive kind of thought that led man out of the caves and into ordered civilization. You study the clouds, think of the pain in your blisters, or the condition of your stomach. If you stop a moment, and focus, you gain a deeper connection with existence that is so easily now stuffed down in the dark corners of the mind, and forgotten.

This is the kind of awareness that runs through the fourteen hours one spends on the road all day.

It had rained, and looked to do so again. The city opened up into a wide, shallow river, with deep banks of weeds, concrete blocks, and silt. From my point on the tiny shoulder, I could see far to the west, over the river and out of the city, to the mountains where the clouds mixed and elongated like whirls of blue cotton. Headlights from a line of waiting cars dotted the road ahead. I looked again to the rapidly darkening horizon and decided I wasn’t going to find anything better for the night. Self-consciously I climbed over the guardrail and slid down into the riverbed, imagining the stopped drivers that must think I’m some sort of derelict.

Under the large bridge there land was broken into three strips of stones, sand, and concrete. I’d heard about the river level rising suddenly after a series of rainstorms, and eyeballed the distance between the river and the concrete bank, wondering how quickly I’d have to move before anything was lost. Two summers before when I was learning to surf in Kochi, I’d misjudged the current of a river after a mountain storm, and nearly been drowned on some rocks while swimming it.

I picked a moderate plot of sand and began laying out my things. Hundreds of slimy insects festered in pools on the concrete embankment, crawling over one another. I wondered about snakes and parasites while the evening rush home of cars piled up along the road above. Feeling slightly apprehensive I stuffed everything except my shoes and bedroll into my sack, and hunkered down in my sleeping bag while the sound of runoff from the bridge wavered in the night wind.

I had an opportunity to purchase food at a grocery store for lunch around 11:30, but it was still early and my instinct told me that I’d have a chance to find a restaurant before long. Unfortunately this was another of my gross misjudgements in the level of suburban development. After that store I didn’t come to another establishment until three hours later. As my stomach murmured and growled, a large portion of the walking I did was through one of the never ending series of wheat fields. Rugged, topical asphalt, the road was pitted and worn from trucks, bearing no respite from the beaming midday sun. I had another minor lapse in humour fraught with irritated grumbling. By one thirty I could take no more and sat down on the ledge of a sluice gate to eat emergency rations under the withering sun.

Later I would come across an udon restaurant just before closing. I hungrily slurped up my soup and downed six glasses of water in the deserted restaurant. Just as the clock struck three it played a lilting version of “If” by the 70s folk band Bread. Ironically, this was exactly the song I was singing to myself earlier that morning when in better spirits. The chagrin brought more that one tear to my eye.

– kannon statues
– camera man guy
– hakui purchase
– bamboo guy
– lost, circles

Gentle on my Mind

Insight and love are two things you’ll never find if you go looking. The nature of the pilgrimage is that you expect some modicum of wisdom, of purification to occur. The first time I started on the trail it was to answer the question I had before me: what is important in my life? Where do I go next?

I found answers, ones that I’d already known before I began, but probably didn’t want to realize. Those are always the the best kind of answers, because they’re easy to feel sure of.

This time, the fourth, was different, however. There was no conundrum, no branching point in my professional or personal life I needed to resolve. Just a simple wish, one that would take decades to see through.

Even without an answer, you need to start with a question, or an examination; the stock taking of all the phobias and insecurities that have calcified since the last time you took stock. All the barnacles and calluses that built up on the soul, an entire industry of turtle-necked psychiatrists and new age healers are pushing eighty dollar an hour sessions and detox plans to chip away at the slow fragmentation of the human mind. In one sense henro is another swing at that, but one with no rules or prescriptions other than to walk and not abuse the freedom.

So not having any kind of debates with myself about all the cobwebs and bum legs packed behind my eyes was a little bit of a let down. I had taken to singing more than I’m used to. For some reason Gentle on my Mind just felt right and I’d already been through it about forty choruses. At the time I didn’t think about it, but it must have been quite a sight, a scrawny stork-legged white man hiking down the highway, taking in all of the quiet humility of rural Japan, running through the second and third verses of Glen Campbell’s quintessential ballad, mumbling through every fourth line where I didn’t exactly remember the lyrics.


Standing in the rain. Slowly getting soaked. You’re looking at a slatted bench in a private carport. The question you’re asking yourself is, “Is this the best I’m going to find for sleep tonight?” Fortunately yesterday the answer was no, and another three kilometers of perseverance revealed a park with a large gazebo housing a wooden dais. Unless you come across a koya lodge with straw tatami mats, this is about as good as you ever hope to come across as a walking henro.


Yesterday’s drizzle has worsened into an allout downpour, halting my advance. I’ve taken refuge in a coffee shop adjoining a bowling alley. And endless barrage of falling pins fills the old kissa cafe. As I sheepishly sit on a soft lounge chair, my wet trousers slowly seep into the upholstery. Word is the rain will continue until well past midnight, sending me to thoughts not only of lost progress, but giving up and splurging for a hotel.

Parks and recreation

The little roadside parks are always a boon to the walking henro. There is sufficient water to do priority laundry as well as plenty of benches and tables to it on.

The reported distance between each temple varies greatly between signposts and maps, so it’s always a pleasant surprise to be closer than imagined. I’m six kilometers from Enmeiji temple, and making fair time under overcast skies with an intermittent drizzle.

I realized today that noon really is midday when you start walking at five in the morning. This kind of pacing gives the opportunity for naps when the situation presents itself. I had a fair time on a soft beach for half an hour on already blistering feet. It wasn’t quite as healing as I expected, some things from the city still were caught in my sleep. Nonetheless, I savored what may very well be my last time on the shore for this circuit.

Back on the road

This may be the only chance I get to write today. Weather is poor, but my early flight paid off and progress is fair. Now half-soaked, every bit of my hot meal is a luxury. The road began with many other pilgrims, but I have since lost sight of them all after temple 53. They likely have more sense than to scurry about in the gusting rain, looking for a dry place to sleep. My final option may be the benches of an unmanned train station. In that case I’ll have to wait until midnight, after the the last departure. That would give me another five hours to think and edge along. Fortunately this part of the trail converges with the only usable road in the area so convenience stores and restaurants are common.

This morning I spent the hours waiting for my plane studying the wear on my soles and thinking of the correlation between the patterns of my blisters. I couldn’t come up with anything immediately, since my heels are worn more than my toes, but it is the outside of the food I’m dragging.

Mamiya Six IV

Being a film photographer is a rarity these days. When news spreads you take pictures on emulsion, cameras have a habit of working their way into your possession. I have inherited two 1950s rangefinders, a twin-lens reflex Yashicaflex and recently a folding Mamiya Six IV.

Mamiya Six IV

Mamiya Six IV, top

One thing that took a while to figure out was how to load the film properly. There are some text-based instructions on the internet which often gloss over an important point. When initially setting the film advance knob to the red spot from where you begin loading of the film, it is crucial that you get the knob to stop just before the red dot, with the advance lever in its neutral position. Doing so gets the knob into the position where the shot indicator ring is disengaged and you can advance the film without the shot indicator moving. Then you move the START line in the film to the white dot inside the body, at which point you may move the advance lever to proceed winding to the 1 position which will coincide properly with the first frame displayed on the backing paper (see below).


I went through about four or five rolls with the knob indicator ring out of sync with the film, quite a waste. The next time I load the film I’ll take a video of this and upload it, as there are no videos to be found showing how to properly load this camera.

Lots of pieces in motion

A gentle rain has been falling since this afternoon, the water carried on a chill breeze. There is a tension in the mind and the muscles of expectation. I do another set of reps on the dumbbells and watch the news. Items for my base pack are catalogued, weighed, and sorted. I run another estimate of how many calories I’ll lose every thirty kilometer day on the trail, and eat another rice ball. The anticipation runs high, but drown it in busy work. Ohenro is always like this. There is so much more than just the formidable physical challenges. Obligation, performance, the family I leave behind, and the mental fortitude I lust after.

I lay down on the straw mats in my room and run through another set of ball pass crunches.

A jet plane roars in the distance and I watch the stratus clouds drifting east. In learning a third language I’ve lost eloquence and diction in all three, emphasizing my natural ability to retain and understand language, but not necessarily retain it for refined use. The rose bushes in the garden outside rustle, dismissing my thought.

The agitated soul uses words curtly and with frequency. The contemplative one additively and at a modicum. Already my mind is aligning blissfully in the direction of harmony. I’ve found a new topic to debate: whether it is better to leverage the energy of my restlessness, or seek to excavate it in hopes of exposing the rich veins of strength below.

I start a set of push-ups before continuing with You Are Here.

Warmer thoughts

This weekend I have a few extra days to get things done. The weather has warmed considerably so on Friday I made the trek out to the farm where I keep my car over the winter to remove it from cold storage. A couple of leaks had gotten worse, unfortunately, but for the most part she was in fairly good shape.


Now that I’ve caught up on all my old blog entries and fixed the more egregious cases of code rot, I can focus on the future with a clear conscience.

Here is another little song I worked on during my recent month of music making, inspired by last June’s idyllic trip to Valencia, Spain.

My Berlin


Holger asked me to give him a tour of “my” Berlin. This is a tiny peek into how I find the city.

This is a bench, under a tree, in the northeast corner of Volkspark. It is rather nondescript as far as benches in parks go: it is made from weathered wooden slats, chipped and split, with the occasional graffiti tag along the brim. But to me it is a dais in the mind, a stationary raft in an ocean of thought.

I sit here, on the bench overlooking the volleyball pit below. Each time that I’ve come to the city it has been winter, and the park mostly empty, save for an unleashed dog that goes wandering through the sand while his owner strolls along the outer rim. There is traffic in the distance on Danziger Strauss, though I don’t mind it. What I do focus on is the sound of winter, the muffled sound caught in snow with pockets of ice footprints. My mind takes me to the era of the GDR, of Eastern Germany under Communist rule, a city built by Turkish labourers, and the endless rows of humble unadorned concrete apartment blocks which still fill the borough of Friedrichshain. I think about the beleaguered Spree, and great brick bridge Oberbaum that spans it, once so proud and now just humbly tolerating the fate of a city who still hasn’t seen enough gentrification to purge an ecosystem of patchwork industry and sodden club flyers.

When I first came to Berlin in 2009 I bought a copy of Faust. In between the hours I spent wandering the graveyards and remnants of The Wall, I drank charmingly minor Bavarian lagers and got lost in the tale of a man dissatisfied with life and tragically seeking something more.

From a cold bench overlooking a bowl of ragged turf in the People’s Park I read novels and write my thoughts about an equally tragic city. The withered leaves from the eternally barren tree fall silently, and I stare into a grey city obligated to eternally apologise for its past.

Japanese weblog of an expatriate American raver