On Appreciating Enka

Like many of the Japanese arts, enka does not lend itself to immediate grasp by outsiders.  The singers are usually middle-aged, and sport some sort of formal attire, agnostically either Japanese or western style.  The music is an odd mashup of big band, Latin, pop and traditional sounds.  The big orchestras and overwrought crooning suck any subtlety out of the enterprise.  But the lyrics inhabit that delicious space where a few key words – usually historical or geographic allusions – are able to conjure up entire scenes, if only in the minds of a native audience.

It’s an easy mistake to put enka in the box of traditional music, as if so many folk songs had nothing better to do but dress up and join the big band era.  But enka is thoroughly modern and is, in fact, a specific reaction to the massive social upheaval that occurred after the war, when the country went through its second prolonged period of economic expansion. In many ways it reflects the unique Japanese experience of alienation in the marxist sense.

The post-war boom drew an unprecedented number of young people out of the countryside and into the cities, fracturing families and destabilizing traditional village life.  Millions of Japanese learned for the first time to live in apartment blocks, wear neckties and have bosses.  In the early years of growth money was tight even in the city, and the young workers could not often afford the time or the fare to return to the villages for regular visits.  The cities had phone service long before the villages did.  And, to some extent, the workers with new desk jobs in the city lost the ability to relate to their families back in the village, where their ancestors may have farmed the same plot of land for many centuries. Japan’s Confucian family values system heaped guilt on these first generation city dwellers – for having left the village in the first place, and for having left regular contact with their families.  Enka is one way of expiating this guilt.

And so enka generally treads within this narrow range of themes.  There is the girl left behind in the village – what ever happened to her?  A longing to return to the village paired with the painful realization that things will never be the same.  The traditional way of life is romanticized and objectified at the same time that the impossibility of return is recognized.

And there are new things about the city – a looser social structure, quick gains, and new ways to pursue love and romance free of old strictures.

Here is a good example of this typical form of enka – Takashi Hosokawa’s “Bokyou Jonkara.” He misses his hometown in the Northeast, with its brutal winters and consistent way of life.  Exuberant memories of childhood games, family music making and drinking with dad are interspersed with the bitter reality of life alone in the city and his many years of neglect to write or visit.




Book Review: Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

I’ve enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ columns for some time, although mostly because it sometimes feels wholesome to be afflicted in your comfort.  Between the World and Me was something much more devastating than that, though, and its themes will haunt me for a long time.  The book is ostensibly a letter to Coates’ son, Samori, and the reader is immediately impressed with the rich heritage that child gets to have.  Well, its something.  The possibly interesting tension between the (modestly?) bourgeois status Coates has attained, and his strong identification with an underclass remains at the periphery of this book, though.

Related is the tension between a call to activism, Malcolm X style, and a resignation that “white” people will have to sort this out for themselves.  There is little that others can do to consciously push the change forward.  We feel this conflict in the juxtaposition of the dreamlike visions at Howard University, where the world of ideas opens up in unfolding layers, and the utter helplessness when faced with the physical destruction of one black body after another, culminating in the police murder of Prince Jones, a Howard student.  Coates’ unrelenting drive to raise the consciousness of his son, not to a history of these events, but to a system that necessarily generates these events, is the rationale of the book, and gratefully many more readers get to come along for the ride.  Of course, in focusing on consciousness, I am reminded that the socialist history of this concept has found it to be notoriously unreliable.

The central thesis is that the systematic destruction of the black body is a feature, not a bug, of American civilization, and that the entire edifice is built on pursuing this workmanlike genocide.  The main support for this idea is introduced early in the book, but is itself the weakest part.  It is the idea that “white” identity is defined entirely in the negative with respect to the black other, and depends on the constant oppression of those deemed to be black in order to pursue its own Dream.  (After all, in prior generations, Irish, Poles, Italians and Germans all identified under those labels, so where did this “white” come from really?)  If the identification of whiteness is solely dependent on there being a particularly black underclass, then I’m not sure I follow.  I think that native Americans were mentioned in here somewhere, and there was the frontier, the melting pot, conscious mythologizing of the American founding, common wars against nations having little to do with racial construct, and just so much going on that there must be other factors that determine whiteness, too.  But this book isn’t interested in those things.

The constant physicality, though, wore at me in the intended way.  Black bodies are broken in every way possible, and each time, the system acts as though it is simply working as designed.  And when they are not broken, black bodies are intimidated with the potential of being broken, and shamed in advance for it.  Realism informs us that blaming “black on black” crime is mistaking a symptom for the disease.  The fact that Prince Jones’ killer was a black police officer becomes an almost irrelevant detail when the whole system comes into view, and the fact that the individual actors are almost unwitting participants.  But here is the problem of consciousness again.

The most satisfying bits for Coates, I imagine, must come toward the end, when his criticism really hits home of those who, as a coping mechanism perhaps, reflexively condemn blacks for their own plight (not sure if I should say “those who think themselves black” or if its not supposed to work that way around).  I don’t recall if his name was mentioned, but one can imagine Bill Cosby, or others more sophisticated.  And you can find the predicable backlash from this crowd out there.  The crucial component of this thinking is a standard teaching that is apparently handed down to black children:  they must be twice as good.  They must be once as good because they will have all of the same foibles, youthful indiscretions and mishaps as their “white” equivalents will have, and once again as good because the system automatically discounts their very humanity.  This is the book at its most humanistic and devastating.

There are scenes where Coates travels to Paris for the first time.  He lets his own naivety show through here, which authenticates his bewilderment at discovering a place where, although oppression continues to exist, it does so in a very different form.  You can sense that he almost found true liberation there.

The frustration with how exactly to guide his son forward in a system dedicated to his dehumanization is relatable in its own right without any of the other context.  It seems that Coates wants a number of tools to be available to Samori, while acknowledging that none of them is a magic bullet.    In some ways, the dire circumstances of being black in America is not a necessary condition to making this understandable to any parent.

The book was a quick, but powerful read.



Shikoku 88 – Day 2

Temples 1 – 9

This short initial portion of the pilgrimage proved to be enjoyable, even with children.  The weather was perfect in late October and the trail was uncrowded.  The high season for the pilgrimage is from April – June, but people walk it at all times of the year.

For detailed information about the Shikoku Pilgrimage, there is nothing you can’t learn at Mr. Turkington’s website.

David Moreton lives and works near the start of the pilgrimage and was very helpful with advice.  He is also involved in translating the main guidebooks and can arrange to get materials to you.

Day 2

We were up and out fairly early, as is the custom in Japanese inns.  Breakfast was ready by 6.  It was almost as good as the dinner, although I did avoid the natto, which I’ve never been used to.  The kids didn’t eat much, which shamed me again.  Of course, our hosts reacted by over compensating – they packed up a large bag full of croissants together with six nigiri which, together with some towels, formed an osettai.


The obasan of the inn offered to take our picture in front of it, but her finger kept pressing the reverse camera button, and she was frustrated to find that she kept taking a picture of herself.  The kids found this so funny that the memory of it sustained them for the rest of the day.

The longest interval so far is the stretch between Temples 5 and 6, so we had a fairly long walk this morning.  There were a number of pilgrim’s shelters built along this stretch – we stopped and snacked on the food we had been given at one of them right in front of a primary school.  One could sleep in some of these shelters and, based on the logbook, many Japanese and foreigners alike have.

Not long later, a nicer model car approached us and a bag was handed our the window.  Some sandwiches and other snacks.  Only a few brief words were exchanged and the car drove off.  Judging by the proper number of snacks, they must have seen us earlier, went to a convenience store to buy something, and then found us again.  Our third osettai.

Temple cat

The key feature of Temple 6 is an upside-down pine tree.  Although it looked like quite a normal pine tree to us.

We paused to eat lunch at this temple, and the kids found a cat to play with near the Daishi Hall.  While I was sitting there eating, a group of primary school kids and their teacher arrived and huddled around a table and chairs that had been already set up.  I heard increasingly urgent whispering, and had the old familiar feeling that I was about to be approached by Japanese kids who are worried about whether they can communicate with me.  They opted for safety in numbers and I was soon surrounded by 4 of them.  They were simply offering little trinkets, a drink of tea and small candies to pilgrims as osettai as part of a school learning project.  They were visibly relieved that I could speak passable Japanese, and we made friends for a while, as there were precious few other pilgrims.

Making friends

Temple 7 came in quick succession.  Here we passed a male/female pilgrim couple (didn’t seem like husband and wife – maybe father/daughter or brother/sister?) who shamed me a bit for being so clearly genuine and fervent in their faith.  It is hard to say how exactly, but there was a kind of care put into how they bowed, washed and recited the sutras.  I also had the impression that it wasn’t their first time around.  I was warned from previous pilgrim travelogues that there are times when you would feel like a mere tourist compared with the faithful pilgrims.  Of course, everyone is welcome to experience this pilgrimage on whatever level you feel appropriate, but this was one of those times.

You can climb up into the upper room of the gatehouse at this temple, where there is a shrine to fudo myo-o (a scary guardian deity typically displayed in or near temple gates).  Around here would have marked a decent 1-day walk, if we had walked a full day yesterday.

Temple 8 is up against the mountains again, and proved to be the most scenic of the temples so far.  From the parking lot and temple office, some kind of chant was played over loudspeakers, but it added just enough of the right kind of atmosphere.  The actual temple is up a path a bit farther, behind several gates.  Again, there were very few other people here.  A small bus showed up, but everyone did their rounds and left quickly.


Across the street from Temple 8 is a pond with an artificial island and a bridge.  The island is only big enough for a small shrine to benten, a hybrid Shinto-buddhist deity of the sea.

I wanted to make it as far as Temple 10 because that is the last of the temples on the north side of the river, and there is a 12-km distance creating a natural break between Temples 10 and 11.  Also, we were getting out of easy range of train stations, and Temple 11 is back near a station, so it would be easy to pick up from there next time.  Of course, there are two flaws in this thinking: 1) I would probably have to walk from Temple 10 to Temple 11 in order to do the pilgrimage properly anyway, and 2) the kids were starting to rebel.  We had business back in Tokushima that would take us back there that night.


It was getting late as we neared Temple 9 due to dawdling on the way.  There is a teahouse right across the street, and the old lady waved us over and offered to give us some treats as osettai when we were done with the temple.  Then we encountered a very happy older pilgrim couple at the temple, who handed us a bag of Japanese sweets.  There were some bus pilgrims at this temple, but they were different from the usual ones.  Their staffs had unusual ornaments and they all carried special bells.  They were  gathered along one side of the temple singing (instead of chanting) the sutras.  The singing was accompanied by timed ringing of their bells, and was more otherworldly and beautiful than the typical chanting.  Again, I felt like a bit of a tourist gawking in on their heartfelt belief.  In the end, though, tourist me only regretted that I didn’t make a better recording of the singing.  I’ve been unable to find anything online about sung sutras in this context.

We went back over to the teahouse where we received drinks and Japanese sweets as osettai.  I explained that I was arguing with the kids about proceeding to Temple 10.  The obasan urged us to give it up because there is some large number of steps (300 or so?) to get up to Temple 10.  Although I still wanted to do it, this gave me cover to cave in.  She called a taxi for us, which arrived a few minutes later, and we headed for the nearest train station on the south side of the river.  Of course, we made it to Tokushima with a little too much time before our evening activity…

Temple 9 ennui

This ended our short initial try at the pilgrimage.  It gave a good sense of pacing, how to handle meals, road walking, restrooms, traffic and the temples themselves.  It was touching to receive so much osettai for what felt like little effort.  I tried doing the full sutras at least once every day, and wonder if this might be a better template for a longer pilgrimage, at least until I get better at them.  We ran into very few other walking pilgrims this time of year, which is both a good thing and a bad, I suppose.

Back in Tokushima, we did another kind of pilgrimage among the tanuki (badger – don’t argue with me about this translation) shrines that are scattered around the city….

The Kasai family in Tokushima offered to keep our staffs for us until we return again.

Shikoku 88 – Day 1

Temples 1 – 9

This short initial portion of the pilgrimage proved to be enjoyable, even with children.  The weather was perfect in late October and the trail was uncrowded.  The high season for the pilgrimage is from April – June, but people walk it at all times of the year.

For detailed information about the Shikoku Pilgrimage, there is nothing you can’t learn at Mr. Turkington’s website.

David Moreton lives and works near the start of the pilgrimage and was very helpful with advice.  He is also involved in translating the main guidebooks and can arrange to get materials to you.

Day 1

A bus from Tokushima station to the first temple proved more efficient than the train.  We were the only passengers on the bus by the time it got there (almost everyone else was riding it as far as a large shopping center on the north side of the river).  It was easy to find one (of possibly several) pilgrim supply shops just to the left of the first temple.  I was concerned about paying tourist prices for pilgrim supplies, but after conferring with David Moreton, it didn’t seem like it would be a big deal.  Still, it cost us each just over $100 to equip with shirts, satchels, walking sticks, calligraphy books, candles, incense and name cards.  We chose to forego the hats after considering the length of the trip and the hassle of trying to fit them into the luggage afterward.  We ended up regretting this due to their iconic look and they way they would have improved our trip.  The staff insisted we sit down and fill out the number of name cards needed to complete this day’s worth of temples.



I attempted the sutras at the first temple, but felt a little self-conscious and, in the end, it was only a half-hearted attempt.  It was a struggle getting the kids into the routine of lighting candles and incense, throwing coins into the coin box and name cards into the name card box, and then doing something at least seemingly prayerful.  Then repeat it all at the Daishi hall.  The payoff, though, was getting calligraphy in our calligraphy books.  We ran into a few groups of bus henro at the first few temples, and I was worried that they would slow down our ability to get our books stamped.  But the temples usually had a way of handling the bus pilgrims efficiently alongside the walking pilgrims.

After a few tries, the kids got into the routine fairly well and would be ready with a candle, incense, coins and name cards from their satchels as we approached the main halls.  It took a little longer for them to remember that we do it twice at each temple.


We found it easier to leave our staffs near ritual wash basins at the temple gates, do the rest of the tasks at the temple, and then pick them back up when we were ready to continue on.  At the Temple 2, though, two of our three staffs were missing when we went back for them.  A group of bus henro was there, but they didn’t seem to carry staffs, and only a few other miscellaneous people were about.  A temple office had a view of where we left them, but they insisted they wouldn’t have moved them and don’t know what happened.  Another supply shop was near there as well, so we went in and explained the situation and asked whether anyone had turned them in.  They were perplexed as well. So, we ended up buying two new staffs.  Given the general culture of trust in Japan that I have experienced many times over, I’m sure the staffs were just carried off inadvertently by someone.  I was surprised at how little distinguishing features there were between the different staffs.  This time we were given markers and wrote our names in a really obvious way on the new staffs.

The path leading out of Temple 2 passes though a graveyard, where the kids were delighted to find a troop of monkeys.  We chased them among the graves for a while, but it was hard to get a good picture because they were adept at staying one step ahead.


Kukai set up reservoirs, dikes and other useful improvements for the people while establishing temples all along the route.  Likely, the pilgrimage route pre-dates Kukai, as many of the temples were founded by an earlier priest, Gyogi.  Oliver Statler’s book is punctuated with vivid imagined scenarios of Gyogi preaching to pilgrims along the trail, which is a place many pilgrims have historically and perhaps even in modern times, come to die.  In fact it is said that the pilgrim garb – white shroud and hat to cover the head, and the walking staff that can be used as a grave marker, are meant to prepare one for burial anywhere along the trail.  The trail is undoubtedly littered with bones in places (even if Japan’s combination of soil and weather doesn’t preserve skeletal material very well).

Today it looks as though the area around the first few temples could be melting back into its ancient landscape.  Although I was familiar with Japan’s population decline, especially in rural areas, I was still surprised at the level of decay in the moldering towns and villages on the northern side of the river where the first 10 temples are located.  The pilgrim trail in these parts passes through what might have once been the “high streets” of these towns, but have since been bypassed by highways and newer developments in patchwork areas.  Judging by the number of roadside shrines, temples, jizo and other cultural artifiacts, the trail seems to stick faithfully to what must have been the old roads. But there were a lot of shuttered businesses and abandoned houses.  The trail is somewhat urbanized through here and there were few farms at this stage.  Overall, though, I was happy to be on the old roads as we encountered little car traffic relative to the  busy highways we could hear nearby.

We wanted to have a late lunch at Temple 3 and the best option seemed to be a convenience store.  We had to walk a bit out of our way for these as they tended to be located on precisely the new highways that the old pilgrim trail avoids.  The guidebook is invaluable here, as these otherwise invisible services are clearly marked on the map pages.


We purchased lunch at a Lawson and carried it the rest of the way to Temple 3.  We had that temple completely to ourselves, with the exception of an obasan who was sweeping up leaves.  Fortunately, the temple had a fantastic rest area with benches and tables, so we ate first and did our rounds afterward.  As usual in Japan, I had to hunt around for a place to throw away the garbage from our lunch packaging.  Seeing this, the obasan lifted the lid on a bottle recycling only bin and encourage me to just dump it in there.  I assumed that I had it on good authority.

We looked forward to the little blurbs about each temple in the guidebook.  Temple 3 has a well you can look into – if you can see your reflection in the water, you will live past 90, if not you will meet an untimely death.  We were relieved to immediately see our reflections.

The trail was well-marked through this area, thanks to the tireless work of a Matsuyama based committee, and I rarely had to check directions in the guide book.  The only time we got off track was just before Temple 4, where we took a road straight up a big hill near an automotive technical college.  After a while I noticed that there weren’t any trail markers – the pilgrimage route went around the hill.  But no harm, no foul – the road we were on ran straight back to the pilgrim trail soon enough and it might have even been a shortcut.  Also in this area, the trail diverted for the first time off of paved roads on a short stretch through a bamboo forest and across some farms.  It was a welcome change of scenery.

Temple 4 is up a small valley in the mountains just a bit and was more open than the others.  It was similarly deserted and a priest and assistant seemed to be closing it down.  I may have detected a scowl when we put our candles in the candle box after it had been presumptively cleaned out for the day (*edit – thinking back, the scowl was because Seth re-lit all of the burned out candles in the candle box – the kind of minor breach of etiquette perfectly befitting a 12 year old).  The assistant, and the one at Temple 5, were especially nice to us when signing our books, though.  There was a lady selling mikan for a few hundred yen a bag, which we took advantage of, and she threw an extra bag in as settai.  They were even better than I remember – and some of the best oranges I have ever had.  While eating them, we ran into an Australian who was approaching by bike.  He asked some advice having just arrived from Korea the day before, and biking the temples is the first thing he wanted to do in Japan.  He was hoping to camp somewhere near Temple 5, where we were staying at an inn.  We exchanged taking pictures and he rode off while we walked down the hill.


Temple 5 was in the town area just down the hill from Temple 4.  When you approach from the pilgrim trail, you first pass through a related compound that looks like it could be the temple, but is some other special temple or training facility.  The actual Temple 5 is also spacious and it was similarly deserted, except that our Australian friend was there with a Japanese companion.  It seemed they had just secured arrangements to camp in the temple grounds and temple staff was explaining the setup to them.  I could only imagine that this accommodation was made due to it being the off-season and the temple being otherwise deserted.  We had plenty of time to do our rounds and gets our books stamped, as it was about 4:30.  The lady who stamped our books here was especially interested in our trip.

Given that we were bound to get a late start today and had to get equipped, I was glad that we had booked a place right outside the gates of Temple 5.  The timing was perfect.  I cannot recommend the inn there, Morimoto-ya, enough as its facilities and food were top rate.  The only other guest at all was a young trainee priest who is walking from the Mt. Fuji area down to the bottom of Kyushu as part of his training.  This is unrelated to pilgrimage here, although he is following along for part of it for this part of his route.  He seemed not to take meals, or else dined at an entirely different time.  The bath felt fantastic after a half-day of walking.  The kids embarrassed me with their rejection of most of the food, but I cleaned up my plate to show gratitude to the hosts. The meal of sashimi, egg omelet and pickled vegetables was out of this world.



A California Lad: Walking the Sierras

The Range of Light.

The whole range rotates through the sky as you walk.  The jagged tops tear through the clouds, pulling in the clear California sun in shafts and whirlpools.  If there are more beautiful places on earth, others can have them.  This is good enough for me.

On the west, tenuous highways carry crowds through the sequoia groves to the big waterfalls.  Yosemite.  Kings Canyon.  Sequoia.  The roads end where range after range of impassable, golden granite pile up ever higher towards the eastern crest.  This the walking country.

I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built. And, rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again. – J.M.

Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Economy of Self.

Survival, in California, in the summer, is rarely a doubtful prospect.  But there is a certain economy to having everything that is needed and no more, and this state of being is a kind of enlightenment.  It’s not as if attachments are totally done away with, but we are free to act as if many of them are suspended for a time.  Down the mountain becomes a place to put this suspended world – none of its concerns, disputations, or gratifications are the least bit relevant in the mountains.  All that is needed is already provided, freeing the mind to enter explorative and creative modes.

Mobile phone signals still do not penetrate much of the eastern Sierra, but that might be changing.  Solar panels are now draped across the packs of fellow hikers.  Awkward anchors to the world below.

Of course, there are the traditional anchors – fellowship with other hikers, rangers who copy your schedule and monitor the trails.  Communication of plans and travel in pairs and groups.  Meaning that travel in the Range of Light offers only the illusion of solitude.  But, in that, the illusion is better than the real thing, anyway.

Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own. – Robert McFarlane (h/t: Ronan)

The Minarets, Ansel Adams Wilderness

The Wild Temple.

Harold Bloom’s review of the The Band’s 1968 classic “The Weight” observes in that song that “No American ever really feels free unless he or she is alone…”  And that is something of the draw here.

The wilderness in older places is countryside.  Thousands of years of human cultivation have shaped the land into something domesticated and livable.  Alpine valleys, remote Japanese villages, Shropshire.  This place is not like those.  After a few decades of timber felling (including some mighty and ancient sequoias), mining and sheep grazing, the rentiers were kicked out.  It was to be a wild place for the occasional pleasure of city dwellers.

And so it is a delineated place, set apart.  Permits govern entry and exit.  Ideals exist for packing trash, making fires, setting camp in suitable places.  There is a tradition of behavior here that is learned by practice, and is entirely useless in the world down below.

The best views are earned through dusty miles of rocky travail, and there is no other way.  The golden bear sauntering through the meadow in the brilliant dawn only ever exists in the moment you see it.

So, in the end, there is something special in just the fact that rest of humanity has never before sauntered out of their SUVs to say “meh” to any of this.

Getting the bug at a young age