Sunday, October 25, 2009

Land of 8 Million Gods.

"Memories of home I sit in Kyoto Crows caw in the hill"
- Harold Wright.
Yes, I know it has been two months since returning from my vacation and I am still blogging about the events, but these pages aren't exactly in high-demand, so I trust I shall be forgiven for my lackadaisical attitude and dearth of punctuality. So then, where shall I resume? I left Tokyo and hopped on the bullet train bound for Kyoto. It had been a fun night of partying and I had unregrettably had no sleep. I sat tired in my seat on the train wishing for sleep, but unwilling to give in to the impulse with the Japanese landscape staring in at me from out the window, so I sat there, still in my chair as rice fields and mountains, and farms and cities, and small homes all passed by me. I arrived in Kyoto, anxious to see what the city would offer. Kyoto was the traditional capital of Japan, and is still considered the heart of Japan and her cultural capital. More than perhaps anywhere else in the country can you see people walking around in traditional Japanese kimonos. I searched the city, and all cities in Japan I visited, for a kimono for myself, but as I far exceed the average height of Japanese men, alas I could find nothing that would fit. Kyoto is known for her abundance of UNESCO world heritage sites and wealth of shrines and temples. Japan itself is rich in temples and shrines, those made by man, and those made by the Divine. I could not possibly have visited even half of the sites of the city in the four days I remained there, but I would let my tired feet find no rest in my effort to try.
I arrived in Kyoto and made my way to my hostel, though really a guest house. The first place I stayed, had one employee, the owner of the hostel. It was a small place with only a few rooms, but excellent hospitality and in the center of Kyoto's famed Gion district. I threw my bag down on my bed and immediately began my journeys for the day mapping out a few of the sites to see. One site I visited joined a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine on the same plot of land, the two great religions of Japan in a harmonious union. The Shinto shrine was famous throughout Japan as the shrine for lovers, a place to pray for success in love and relationships, and the shrine housed two stones called Lovers' Stones and if you close your eyes and successfully walk from one stone to the next, then you are to soon find fortune in love. It is said to have someone at your side to aid and guide you in the journey, a true semblance of relationships themselves, but in Cordell fashion, I was there alone with no one to guide or help, so I took off my sandals and with my feet I felt the lines in the stone pavement that led from one Lovers' Stone to the next, and safely made it there, and I know it has only been two months, so still I'll be patient for what the Shinto Gods have promised me, hoping they will remain more true to their word than the Gods of my past.
I walked out of the shrine, and out past the temple where I entered, looking back at the two great religions of a country dedicated to the sacred, and I took my thoughts and my feet out through the city, up and down the streets and alleys of Kyoto, stopping for green tea ice cream, or local pastries, wandering in and out of what shrines and temples I passed, and as the sun began to set, I found myself in a small patch of lawn and trees guarding a bridge and small pond of water where flowers stood out from the banks, the busy road above me, and I stared out above the overpass near me and watched the sun slip down over the city, a giant flame in the western sky, far far to the east. I watched the sun slowly sink in with the horizon and I walked among her subtle rays as the sky began to bleed with the colors of sunset and dusk embattled, and I found myself at Inari Shrine. It was dusk, with the coming of night and few people were there. Inari is famous for its thousands of
red tori forming covered pathways. Walking through between the dusk and the dark, alone in the silence of the shrine was a calming stroll with the spirits of great shintoist. Inari at night, it is a place for lovers. I walked the halls in the night, the sky itself serenading me with her silence, and I thought of the women whose hands I might be holding at the moment. I imagined the divine silence between shared under the lit tori, and stolen kisses in sacred hallways. I stopped off at a pond, feeling my way through the darkness down the slippery bank through the trees and bushes and watched the stillness of water at night, hearing soft sounds about me, though unable to see from whence the sounds came. I imagine it is the very feelings I felt that night, walking through the tori, that these shrines were built for, and if you can ever visit any temple in silence and solitude, than I implore you do.
Later that night I walked down into the Gion district for Kyoto cuisine and began to walk the famed cobblestone streets at night. The occassional Geisha would pass by, only she and I on the road, only lamplight shining down on the bobblestones and our faces. I saw more Geisha the next day, but unlike my first night in the dark and
quiet, crowds stood around waiting and watching, and the poor Geisha as they approached were animals parading through a zoo. I preferred at night, no pictures, no people, nor the flash of cameras. I wondered through the streets at night, behaving like my father on some wilderness trail, needing to know where every road would take me, and I found my way in to another Buddhist temple long after dark, no one else on the grounds. I sat and stared at the temples and bells and roof lines. I could have stripped and run naked, but instead strode through under the trees dripping softly above me. I made it back to the hostel and and finally lay myself down for sleep around midnight, still not having slept from the night before. This was but my first day in Kyoto, land of temples and gods, heart of Japan. There was a feeling there in Kyoto, and the people seemed to know it, seemed to respect the heritage of the city, her culture and customs, but why would I use my own words, when others will always say it better?
"The charm of Kyoto is where nature fuses well with the human-made"
-Mizuno Katsuhiko and Kayo
"Kyoto has a wonderful embracing capacity. In a way you feel small and insignificant, as if looking up into a night full of stars. And yet it feels so personal, unlike in the elaborate buildings and castles of Europe. There is a more humble feeling about Kyoto; a sense that she was built by hands, not money."
- Sugihara Iona
I visited more places in Kyoto, and switched my last two nights to another guest house, also small, this one with two employees, one a very attractive Japanese gal named Jumi. I visited many temples, walked the famed creeking boards of Nijo Castle, saw the tallest wooden pagoda in all of Japan, attended a Japanese flea market on the grounds of Buddhist temple, with monks walking in processions and burning incense through the shops and shoppers. I took a train out to Arashiyama and the temple and gardens there and walked the river and monkey hill. I so hoped to swim int he river and jump from the bridge, but the water below was only ankle deep and offered no calming pool to escape the heat and sun. I visited famous Zen gardens and sat in silence staring out at the stones manicured in to a deep simplicity. I cannot recall all the places I visited, nor the names of the many temples and shrines and gardens that I saw. Often I would visit a temple only for the gardens, more marveled at the blend of water and stone among the trees than with the great temples. I sat on lawns and watched both sky and people. I relaxed in sacred shade. I breathed, and enjoyed, and prayed the many prayers I do always pray. I think my favorites in all of Kyoto were the Inari Shrine and the Golden Pavillion. The Inari Shrine I loved for my silent walk through the red torries, the dusk and the dark, and I captured in the long halls of the torries. The Golden Pavillion, or kinkakuji temple is a temple of gold serenely standing over water with lillies and coy and ducks floating and swimming. I walked all around the large pond, with the pavillion standing magnificently blended in with the trees and
water, yet standing out as if to say in triumphant voice "Here I am. Remember me among the water and lillies . Here I am and have been." I loved the pavilion for how it stood above the water in vibrant gold surrounded by a living pond. Also, I enjoyed my beautiful new friend, Jumi. We stayed up talking each night I stayed at the guest house till 5:00 a.m., and I enjoyed a fun and fleeting crush.
Like Tokyo, Kyoto offered me precisely what I hoped for, temples and shrines, and a glance in to an old culture, a city rich in heritage and history. I'll remember, like I remember the many sacred moments and sights of my life.
Were I a building I would be a little shop in old Kyoto maybe selling rice paper or erotic prints. . . Or I'd be an ancient inn built of smoke black wood or stained gray foundation stones hauled from burned temples. I'd prefer not to be tall like Takashima-ya or sturdy like the palace or Nijo castle; I want to shake in earthquakes and be rattled by lovers.
-Harold Wright

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Land of the Rising Sun

"The city is not a concrete jungle. It is a human zoo."
- Desmond Morris.
I often cannot tell if I am more a fan of the city, large and livley, or of the country, small and serene. One is full of peace, and the other energy, though in both you can find all things needed, if looking in the appropriate places. When I visit and pass through small towns and countryside I am awed and frozen still at the beauty. I am quieted and content and connected with nature and her creator. When in a city I am alive in my energy and connected with this world's other creations, and I watch, observer that I am. I love big cities. I love to visit them. I love walking the streets and staring high in the sky at tall buildings. I love the lit up signs and the skyline at night, jagged and raw. Perhaps after reading Ayn Rand's novel "The Fountainhead," I will look at skyscrapers differently, though I know I have always looked at them differently, and know that I have always looked at them, and not just glanced them over. I love watching the people, those on crowded streets or in busy parks to perform for coins, those making statements to stand out, and those giving equal effort to blend in to their own obscurity. One can never think of a city without thinking of her people, for if nature is God's altar to himself, then cities are man's altar to himself.
Yes, I love visiting these concrete jungles, and some I have always wished to visit more than others. One such city is the bustling megalopolis of Tokyo, the largest of them all. I can now say I have walked her streets. I have smelled, and felt, and heard, and touched, and tasted, and seen Tokyo, what little one can see of her in a mere weeks time, but the blisters on my feet will tell stories of her that the weakness in my words will never say.
I flew in to Tokyo's Narita airport and somehow managed to navigate the subway system and find my hostel. I spent the fist few nights in a capsule style hostel. Capsule rooms are just like they sound. You do not rent a room, or a bed, but rather a box, or capsule, in which you sleep. They are popular among Japanese businessmen or partygoers who miss the last train home at night. They are also becoming popular with backpackers, and I could not pass through Tokyo without a night in an enclosed box, covered on all sides, dark and private.
I don't really know what to tell you about Tokyo. I didn't do any tours there, nor in all of Japan, like I did in Bejiing, but I walked Tokyo and scabbed my feet, the thongs of my flip flops cutting in to my skin, already blistered from China's travels. My first few nights were in Shinjuku, a popular spot in Tokyo for shopping and nightlife, and as I arrived on a Friday night I ventured down to the heart of Shinjuku to find the fabled nightlife. I discovered firsthand, and later re-confirmed through books I read that most of Shinjuku's nightlife is more sexual in flavor. Seductive voices on speakers beckoned passers by in to video lounges or bars. Sex shops donned most streets, hostess bars donned every street, and each corner was crowded with men acting friend to every other man who passed offering sweet deals on women inside his club. Sexy Asian temptresses stood on corners, walking advertisement for massage parlors, and at the sight of foreigners would speak one of the few English words they know, "massagie." Yes, Asians don't seem to grasp the concept of the silent "e."
While I didn't venture in to any of the hostess bars, or maid bars, or theme bars, or strip clubs, or massage parlors, or sex shops, or video lounges, or arcade halls, I didn't try to rush out of the area either. It wasn't really temptation that kept me, nor even curiosity to enter, but the thrill of the moment, watching and listening to the people pass me by, and came back again to that part of town another night, to feel the energy again and eat in in street side noodle stalls, and the men working the clubs just couldn't seem to understand that sometimes all a man wants is a bowl of noodles, and not sex. But how fun it was trying to convince them and their well wishes when they let me pass.
Tokyo is an interesting blend of modern city and traditional Japan, and nothing exemplifies that as much as do the people. While people are not anxious to speak English, even those who can speak English, they are friendly, and if you look lost for long enough, someone will invariably come to assist you. For the size of the city, it is clean, with little litter, which I find surprising due to the aggravating lack of garbage cans everywhere in the city. Cab drivers are all dressed in collared shirts and ties with clean cabs, and store employees genuinely act like they are trying to help you, quite the contrast from China where you know everyone was trying to rip you off for all they could. It was also amazing to me in Tokyo, with as large of a city as it was that not only were drivers very conscientious of traffic laws, but so too were pedestrians. Even if no cars were coming on a small side street, a crowd of people would stand and wait for the walking light to turn green. Most cities, pedestrians rush in to intersections at any chance and weave in and out of cars like Frogger. There was definitely a sense of hospitality in Tokyo, in all of Japan, and I tip my hat to her politeness and propriety.
Not only did I walk the streets of Shinjuku, gazing out at sin and gluttony, but I walked through the temples of Asakusa, spending a few nights there and my days on her small streets lined with small shops that have been standing for decades unchanging. I partied and shopped in Shibuya, and club hopped in Ropongi. I walked the whole city, staring up at the Tokyo tower lit in darkness on the one night I was without a camera. I walked through parks and rode subways and saw the imperial palace, and clothed myself in smoke and ashes from burning incense and washed my hands from holy fountains at Buddhist temples. I people watched everywhere I went, and Tokyo rivals any place I have been for people watching. Modern Japanese goths skulk about in boisterous groups, pink girls dressed like giant dolls with bleach blonde poofy hair parade around, and fashion divas, both women and men, strut the streets. I thought some Korean men looked feminine, but wow, some of those Japanese boys really take it to a new level. Their hair, their fashion, their walk, any one of which would be a bold and brave plea for a mocking and beating back home in the states is in Japan the newest fashion trend, and on Sundays in Harajuka, everyone comes out on full display to show off their costumed creations. It is a thrill to see. I will also boldly admit that after only a short time in Tokyo I quickly and finally found myself attracted to Asian women. There were such beauties walking the streets, though most too short, and many with horrible teeth, but Japan, and Tokyo in particular, did have beautiful women, and even in coming back to small Yeosu, I found myself much more interested in the women here, and my eye has been much more active since returning.
Oh, Tokyo is a crazy city, the largest metropolitan area in the world, near 35 million people within the surrounding areas. I walked across the busiest intersection in the world, passed through the busiest train station in the world, and in general lost myself in the madness that is Tokyo. I walked, and shopped, and ate, and went out most nights, often with whomever I met at the hostel that day, and my last night in Tokyo I came back to the hostel I first stayed at. There I met a small group of people who invited me to a professional Japanese baseball game. Six of us went out to the game and cheered for the home team Giants, who won that night. Four of us were Americans, and we taught our Australian and Irish friend, as well as a few of the Japanese people sitting around us how to sing "Take Me Out To the Ball Game" after the 7th inning stretch. No baseball game is really complete without that song, and the crowds around us looked and stared at the funny foreigners singing loud in English. After the game we met up with more people from the hostel and went around the city looking for places to dance and party. Our group slowly grew larger and we finally found a place we all enjoyed and danced and raved and let all our energy crash out of us till 5:00 a.m. I returned to the hostel and dared not sleep, knowing I needed to check out and catch a train to Kyoto hours later. It was my favorite night in Tokyo. The group I was with that night was awesome, cool dudes, and sexy girls from places across the globe. It was a great way to end a great adventure and send me off on yet another.
I know I haven't written as much about Tokyo, a city deserving novels. I have always wanted to see her, and now I have, and though I did not take any grand tour like I did in Bejiing, from Tokyo I got exactly what I wanted. I wanted only to people watch, shop the stores, eat sushi and noodles, walk the streets and loose myself in the craziness, and that I did, and did it well. In a week there, I touched only the surface and left much undone, but what I did do will stay deep in me in memories.
All that a city will ever allow you is an angle on it -- an oblique, indirect sample of what it contains, or what passes through it; a point of view. Peter Conrad

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"River of Poems."

"He who travels in Guilin hills finds himself in a fairyland...He who sails along the Li River finds himself boating in a sweet dream."
The Li River is called the river or poems and paintings. Floating down the river it is easy to see why. I woke up early one morning, near the end of my China adventure and set off on a boat gently floating the Li River, 54 miles of scenery that in China they say is the best under heaven. We began our boat journey in Guilin, and ended 4 hours later in Yongshuo.
The river was crowded with boats of like mind, passengers wishing for glances at the fabled landscape. Hopefully, each of them discoveredas I did that it is called the River of Poems and paintings not merely for the strokes of pen and paint brush it has inspired over centuries and millennia, but because the river itself is the poem, each drop of water some sacred word, and the mountains and sky and fields and farms and huts and villages, all the envy of every artist, and I am no artist, so what justice can I possibly give to this sacred river, this River of Poems?
The river took us down in to the countryside, green in summer's sweat. The river was calm, like the day itself, and the water looked cool below us lapping against the boat. The river twisted and turned and carved its way through the Karst Mountains, limestone peaks at every view, pyramids to all nature, temples of dirt and stone, and as we floated down, these very
mountains became our bread crumbs leading the way to Yongshuo. The jagged peaks rose and stood mighty, tall juts of stone. Some formed mountains, others stood solo and proud. We passed many villages, farmers in their fields, children washing away
the heat in the winding river. Water buffalo waded through, wetting their skin and dipped and dove to eat the plants growing tall from the river bottom. Fishermen waded through with spears and some fishermen used trained birds to catch fish in their beaks too big to swallow, which then came back for the fishermen to pull the fish from their beaks. It is a way of fishing here practiced for many years.
The weather was befitting the river,forecasted for hot and humid, but perhaps because of the wind rising from the water it felt much cooler on the river, my shirt off allowed the breeze to blow and brush my skin and redden my chest and shoulders. I stood out on the deck, bending over the rails as though each inch out allowed me deeper breaths and a greater understanding of the wind on my face. I needed to feel it, just a little more. I needed the feel and smell of wind and water on my face, and I breathed with every silent awe of wonder.
The river wrapped and carved around the mountains and valley with scenic vistas at every bend. One point provided panoramic views of the scene displayed on the 20 RMB note. It is worthy of the honor. A cave sat silently to the left, and giant chutes stood arrogantly to the right. Monoliths lay at every bend, every corner, and the mountains formed puzzles or held hidden paintings, one held 9 sacred horses eroded into her giant belly. Of this river of poems though, let a poet worthy enough give her final praise. "The river looks like a blue ribbon, and the mountains are emerald hairpin." - Han Yu
The river was glorious and spectacular,
though remember the river was but the journey and not wholly the destination, the means, but not the end. I arrived in Yongshuo and found a hostel with a guy
from Mexico city I had met who had been living in Shanghai for the past year.
We headed out to explore the city, found some small hole in the wall diner, run by a husband and wife and very young child who acted the part as waiter. It was run down and not all too clean appearing, but cheap and filling and delicious.
That night we met up with a gal from Sweden and all went to the famous light show on the river, the second biggest performance in all of China, next to the Bejiing Olympics' opening ceremony, directed by the same guy. The show was good, but made amazing by the setting and scenery. Much of the show takes place on the river or her banks. All the seats stared directly on to a large, private portion of the river, secluded and glass smooth, with those jutting peaks standing guard so close in the background. Hundreds of performers would sing or dance, all in traditional chinese costume. Hundreds of torches carried on canoes, or brightly lit boats floated across the river and spot lights fastened to the mountings lighting them in surreal fashion. It was art to sit and watch the river and those mountains, lights and reflections, and the performers merely interacted, knowing they could never steal the show.
Later that night we met up with a couple from England and all went out to a bar and stayed and talked for hours, and then me and my friend from Mexico went out to the various small clubs in town and arrived back at the hostel late.
In the morning we again woke early and set off on another adventure. We rented mountain bikes and headed out in to the countryside several hours. When you think of rural China, that is what I saw that day. Swamped rice fields held small hay tee pee and hogun style contraptions. Mountains and fields and rivers and ponds and small huts nestled under trees, overgrown with ivy. Water buffalo, ducks, and chickens roamed about. Farmers worked their fields, plowed and picked and gathered and raked the harvested rice grains in Zen like style. Men and women carted and carried
vegetables or hay, or hauled their loads on donkeys. Women washed clothes in the river, beating and grinding cloth against rock and stone. Irrigated fields formed pools of fish farms, corn and rice and peppers and so much more. I picked a hot peppera from a plant to taste and burn my mouth. We travelled small paths through small villages run down brick homes dark and drab and all we saw were those working the fields. It was hot and humid in the sun and we rode around in Chinese straw hats, amazed at every turn and peddle of our
feet. We reached an old stone bridge on the river about 35 feet high and we stripped to our boxers and jumped from the top. The water was perfect on such a hot day and we each jumped again and played and swam in the water with the occasional bamboo raft floating by. It was a grand day, perhaps my favorite part of China. Yongshuo was the postcard I had heard and hoped it would be.
This countryside, the many fields and
farms, and the mountains mixing and
mingling with rivers is often bragged about in China, and for me, one old and famous Chinese saying held true. "Guilin has the
most beautiful scenery in China, and Yongshuo is the most beautiful part of Guilin." Thank you Yongshuo, thank you for every blade and grain,thank you.
I ended my Chinese journey in Shanghai, walking around the city, eating delicious dried mangoes purchased from a fruit stand. I walked down to the Bund, Peoples' Square, and the French Concessions. I walked and shopped and looked and met up with an Ozzy for dinner in some small restaurant, and that night I stayed up late in my hostel room talking with people from around the world, and I was not ready for sleep, though the hours passed and my eyes burdened. I loved the talks. I loved the whole journey. China was a grand place for me, each day some new adventure, always busy, yet always refreshed and relaxed, and the end of China merely brought on the beginning of some new adventure in the land of the rising sun.
I spent my last days as I would have wished, juxtaposed journeys of roaming about crowded cities, and peddling quiet countrysides. Oh when I see the sights I did see on that river, or biking through small dirt paths cutting through farms and fields, I am drawn to the pastoral.
I had so long been troubled by official hat and robe
That I am glad to be an exile here in this wild southland.
I am a neighbour now of planters and reapers.
I am a guest of the mountains and woods.
I plough in the morning, turning dewy grasses,
And at evening tie my fisher-boat, breaking the quiet stream. Back and forth I go, scarcely meeting anyone,
And sing a long poem and gaze at the blue sky.
-Liu ZongYuan.