2019, BLOG XIII: Pape’ete to Mo’orea

Pape’ete has a little airport snuggled against the sea. Coming down one sees classic, as advertised, absolutely stunning views of Mo’orea. I was met by a rather gruff, tough looking Tahitian woman named Sandra who took me up to my home stay or guesthouse, or whatever you want to call it, that is on the side of the hill near the airport. The family live in the lower part of the house; the paying guests are upstairs. For over 100US a night I have a room a little bigger than my bed with dazzling hand-painted white and orange sheets on it whose window looks into a shed where the mother hand-paints pareus. There is no noticeable air movement. I share a bathroom with from two to six people depending on the resident population. There is one room with its own bath with big windows that give a view of Mo’orea. I suspect that’s over 200US a night. The residents at the moment are two very young Danish girls one year from finishing their degrees; they are both psych majors, and a couple from French Antibes.

Off the living room there is a porch with an incredible view of Mo’orea and the reef, a continuous white lie of surf with aquamarine on one side and dark blue water on the other. That view of Mo’orea, a dark tower of volcanic rock covered with jungle is so familiar from photos that seeing it for the first time from the veranda I had the same reaction I had had years ago upon initially seeing Mont San Michel. I wanted to say over and over, “But it’s just like its picture,” and felt like an idiot.

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Mo’orea frequently wears a small chapeau of cloud on its head or it may wrap itself in a dark eiderdown of weather and disappear completely.

I know I am in the tropics because no-seeums are attacking my feet and ankles under the table. I must remember not to scratch.

I woke in the morning to roosters crowing and dogs barking. When we drove down into town we scattered red hens onto the verge. Looking down from the veranda there are houses of various undistinguished sorts, mostly one story, with corrugated roofs painted cream or red. Any space between houses is crammed with bananas, palms, frangipani, langilang flower and fruit trees of various identifiable and unidentifiable varieties.

I went down into town with the Danish girls who were leaving to go on a cruise with ten other Danes. We were driven by Fafa who was much less sullen than Sandra. She has been to the States and driven around California.

Fafa had told me to go to the Bank of Polynesia to get money. The machine coughed up my card and told me to contact my bank. This always sends a chill down my spine. I stood in line for half an hour to find out that they do not recognize cards from outside French Polynesia at Bank Polynesia. They suggested I try Bank Tahiti, which I did but I was only allowed to take out the equivalent of 250US which considering that my hotel had to be paid in cash was not enough. But I could get more tomorrow. I walked around the market, which is high roofed, airy, full of bananas, papayas, pineapples but few vegetables. Upstairs I could see there were tourist shops but I put off visiting them. As I wandered the aisles I saw hats. I had left mine in New Zealand. I tried one and liked it. The seller and possibly maker then demonstrated that you could fold it up and pack it, a surprise since it looked brittle and fragile. I was convinced at 20US. In amongst the hats were bright flower crowns to be worn with or without a hat. Women in the market were wearing them on their heads or as a band around their hat.

I walked up and down Boulevard Pomare, looking in shop windows and gazing across the street at the sea. Going in and out of pearl shops I picked up useful bits of information, most particularly where to have lunch–upstairs in the market at the Café Maeve.

My informant was quite right. I had a delicious poisson cru en lait coco, smooth on the tongue and rich with the flavor of coconut with taro chips and a papaya smoothie. Excellent.

When I got home, again a taxi, this time from the taxi stand on Boulevard Pomare, I found the daughter of the family, Rani, was teaching English to an elderly woman. I sat down and helped with hints but over did it at one point and was scolded by Rani. The woman was finding it difficult going, mostly I think because the elderly brain does not memorize easily.

After the lesson Rani took me down to the supermarket by the airport, which was nice of her.

The next morning after breakfast I walked down to the main road and the bus stop with the French couple. The bus is fine and is 200 instead of 2,500 as the taxi costs. I got out at the market, walked to the Bank of Tahiti and withdrew more money.

Remembering that I needed postcards I went upstairs in the market, browsing a few of the shops, before finding a place that offered 10 cards for 750, about seven-fifty US. I suggested to the woman 100 cards for 7,000. She said in French 7,500. I said 7,000.  To my surprise she made an angry pounce saying in English, “You are not in charge, Madam.” I said “7,500 then.” As I picked out the cards I wondered at her anger.  When I handed them to her and she counted them—99, I had to pick another—she said, “7,000.” I was touched that she had thought about her reaction and made a fiscal apology.

Again I ate at the Café Maeve, this time chicken. As I was leaving the French came in. They had been to the Botanical Garden and urged me to go. On the way home I excoriated myself for not doing more but I don’t think I have ever been in a place where I have been so happy to do nothing as I have been in Pape’ete.

I didn’t, knowing my ability to get lost, have the courage to walk home so again it was 2,000, or 20 US. I have no sense of direction and get lost easily. Luckily I also tend to walk in a circle. However, price was a huge inducement to try finding my way in the future. I packed. I was leaving the next day for Mo’orea.

2019, BLOG XII: a train, a ferry, a bus

I spent the day on the train going through a different landscape than I had seen up north but, as the day before, going in and out of rain. There had been yellow-green moss on trees around A’s house but from the train the trees were encrusted, scaled with green lichens. Besides cows and sheep there were occasionally llamas. I got on the train before eight am and off just after seven in the evening.

In the afternoon we climbed into more rocky, rugged land that had been brutally clear-cut for sheep pasture. Trees’ grey bodies lay about on the land, decomposing. Erosion was apparent in horizontal lines on hills where sheep had grazed. As we climbed there were more sheep, fewer cows. We came down through tunnels and over several deep, narrow gorges, with sides barren as a Nepali landslide.

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From the station I took a share taxi to my hotel. The driver gave a tour of the earthquake aftermath, pointing out injured buildings and those under reconstruction. In my Spartan hotel, my room had no window, but there was endless hot water which considering the chill outside was very welcome.

Waking early, I dawdled, thinking probably there wouldn’t be many places open for breakfast until at least 8. I found a terrific cafe with eggs Benedict over fried potatoes and a large serving of bacon. Their cappuccino was enormous.

I have no sense of direction but I do have an early warning system that tells me I am off course. I asked my way to the Ta Papa Museum, curious to see their Maori carvings and exhibits. What they have is not as extensive, I think, or as fine as what is displayed in Auckland, however, there is a fascinating modern meetinghouse in a room of its own. The carvings, more delicate than the old ones, include female figures and are painted in fantasy shades of purple, green, the prism’s colors.

There is a small, frank, factual display about the Waitangi Treaty of 1840, its physical fate and how it affected lives for the next century and more. It is reminiscent of various treaties with the Native Americans in the U.S.

L and K had recommended an exhibit about the Anzac troops at Gallipoli. The figures of soldiers, two to three times life size, were accompanied by films, photos, recordings by men who had survived the massacre. It recreates the horror and is immensely moving.

After a yogurt lunch at the museum I walked back to the hotel to find the City Gallery. It was close but I managed to go the long way round.  I am directionally impossible.

There was an exhibition of sculpture by Eva Rothschild, fine but unexceptional—open triangles welded together into a tower, for instance. Upstairs, however, was an exhibit, I doubt the word “art” applies, I found upsetting and shattering to mind and emotions. Called “Semiconductor: The Technological Sublime”, the first part consisted of a long curving video installation entitled, “Earthworks” that is a “five channel computer generated animation— (that) processes seismic data to represent the folding, faulting and forging of the land, encompassing millennia in mere moments.” Waves of apparently multi-colored matter—green, pink, yellow, red, purple—surge and recede accompanied by rumblings and detonations. The brochure describes the video as “immersive and entertaining”. Definitely immersive! I watched for a half an hour but terrifying rather than entertaining. It made me feel the raw power of the geologic earth intensely. It was deeply disturbing. I never really got beyond the first installation.

I walked back to my Spartan hotel, unpleasantly conscious of the earth beneath my feet, investigating shops as I went along and restaurants of all nations, including Iran. But I ended up having a beef cheek pie for lunch at a small café.

The next morning out of anxiousness I rose too early, went to the rail station too early and, therefore, spent too much time in the cold. From the station a bus took me to the Inter Island Ferry. I have not been on a long ferry ride since I was in Denmark, 45 years ago. As I came onto the ferry I saw a notice about a special lounge. I decided to upgrade. There was lots of food—eggs, bacon, croissants, sausages, muesli and passable coffee, in a warm room with great views.

We nosed our way between green islands, many with houses and villages on them. It was calm and pleasant with the addition of scones. We went through a short passage of open sea, followed by more islands, but these were different, higher, more precipitous to the sea, less populated and frequently unpopulated, no beaches, just rock.

We came into Picton, tiny, not very populous, with big, pined hills about it.  After a short wait, I climbed onto the bus. The scenery became, immediately, more dramatic, big barren hills—sheep and cows—sandblasted areas of erosion. It is dryer than the Palouse of Idaho but similar. We came down to the coast and the drama heightened. Hills became white peaked mountains with rivulets of snow down their sides, while on the left, after a stretch of black beach, a wild, rock-bound coast developed where white manes of waves threw themselves in foaming profusion.

I got out at Kaikoura but had trouble finding the Dolphin Lodge, a slightly fancy backpacker’s hotel. Having dragged my two cases up the street I decided I’d better ask because what was ahead was not promising.  First I asked a man with two hearing aids behind his ears. But even with them he couldn’t understand me until the third repetition.  Since I too have hearing aids I understood. However, he had never heard of the Dolphin Lodge. I went into the museum where a charming woman not only knew of the Lodge but let me use the museum elevator up to the next level, allowing me to skip an extremely steep hill. She then dragged my bigger case the rest of the way up and pointed at the Lodge’s sign.

The Lodge was freezing and the young woman who gave me my key seemed to be wishing that I would disappear. But she was informative about the radiator in the room.  The room was slightly larger than the bed. It was like being back in Japan but that meant the room heated up quickly. There was a bathroom and the water was hot. I asked about the location of the supermarket.  She said vaguely, “Oh, it´s just down the street. “ It was quite a way down the highway but was a good supermarket and I bought what I would need for both dinners and breakfasts. I was planning on going whale watching the next morning.

By the time I came home from the supermarket, however, I was beginning to feel ill—sore throat accompanied by a decided bodily malaise. I had dinner, letting my room warm while I tried to think my situation through. I WhatsApped L, telling her how I felt. She came right back with the information that the town hospital was ten houses from where I was staying. I decided to go to bed and see how I felt in the morning. There was one couple and one young man who stoked the wood-stove in the living room besides me. I felt decidedly alone, isolated and frightened. But I went to bed and had no difficulty sleeping. The room was warm.

L canceled my whale watch and in the morning I walked a hundred meters or so to a reassuringly modern, clean and efficient hospital where I received an appointment. When I saw the doctor, whose first name was Anders; I asked if he was of Scandinavian descent.  He was. This was quite irrationally reassuring. Not reassuring was that he couldn’t tell anything; probably I was too early in the process. This meant I had to decide whether to trust myself or decide I was being psychosomatic. I decided to trust myself. I had the receptionist at the hospital call a taxi. When I asked the woman driver where to eat she recommended a place on the highway that had a good lamb lunch. I returned to the Lodge. L cancelled my whale watch, they gave me a refund, but I hated giving this up. She had communicated with her sister-in-law S in Christchurch that I would be arriving to stay and then fly back to Auckland. I had originally planned to stay with S but the circumstances had changed slightly.

Coming back to the Lodge I found the young man who stoked the fire in residence. He is a New Zealander. I asked if he had ever been outside New Zealand. He seemed shocked at the idea. I was surprised because I have met a lot of New Zealanders on the road. He explained he came from a large family and he couldn´t leave them. I said I knew lots of big families that are scattered in interesting places around the world and visit each other. He considered this bizarre. I had dinner and went to bed. My sinuses were beginning to feel as if someone had recently injected them with large quantities of lead, but my throat wasn’t any worse, maybe better.

The next morning I got up packed and had breakfast with two delightful Netherlanders who were going to a conference way south and having a wonderful time driving the coast. We were both puzzled by the lack of warmth of many of the New Zealanders because New Zealanders we had met on the road had invariably been wonderful people.  Maybe only the nice ones leave the country?

I braked my bags down the steep hill to the bus stop and caught the bus to Christchurch. The scenery is dramatic with steep mountains on one side and either black sand or rocks among the froth of tumultuous surf on the other.

On the bus two women behind me were speaking something that was not English. I tuned in and could separate a word or two. It was Spanish. Then I began to understand the Spanish, sentence after sentence and with such clarity that I thought, “They have to be speaking Mexican Spanish.”

Whatever the dialect, accent in which you first learn a language it will, forever, be clearer more easily understood, than any other variation. It is your home in the language

When we all got off the bus at Christchurch and waited for the driver to pull our bags out of its belly I asked, “Estás de Mexico?” Delighted, they responded, “Si. Si.” One was from Oaxaca, the other from a town I have heard of but not visited when I lived in Mexico. We talked as we went into the station, I to get a taxi, they to find out about their next bus.

The young woman at the information counter was made up to the enth degree–flounces of eyelashes and lips painted in a many colored design with slender vines separating one hue from the next. This was startling but I had seen something similar when out to lunch with L in Auckland at my favorite restaurant, the Blue Breeze.  We were served by a young woman with a navy blue pout. One wondered if her boy friend was an embalmer. I was fascinated since most women eat their lipstick off in 20 minutes or less. I do it in less. Made up like this one would have to make a constant conscious effort NOT to eat your lipstick.

With her extraordinary lips she told me to find a taxi at the curb outside. I waited a minute while one of the Mexican women asked about their next bus. The girl asked her name but it was already obvious that she was put off, probably frightened, at having to speak to a foreigner. She asked the woman’s name and immediately said she had no reservation.  I have to admit I couldn’t understand the name either. She then asked their booking number. I translated; my Mexican friend nodded and went to get it from her friend. I followed her. They had the number. I thought it would be all right. I felt like death so I left them to their fates and climbed into a taxi, which for 50US took me to S´s house.

The attitude of “You don’t speak my language, therefore, I am going to block you,” is fairly universal. It happen to me at the rail station in Xining, China; I was lucky to have a Chinese speaker with me. But the woman overcharged for my ticket, a statement of her opposition to my foreignness.

Once out of the taxi, I discovered that S’s gate had a combination. I didn’t know the combination and my phone was only good for WhatsApp and email. I had no New Zealand sim. I looked about, went up the next door neighbor’s drive where I heard dogs yapping. There was a car in the driveway beyond the gate. I thought, “Maybe this is the extra car. I hope not but those dogs, if I ring the bell, are going to yap until Hell grows tulips.” I pressed the bell firmly. The dogs, there were two, went into small dog hysteria.  Sure enough a woman wearing a violent pink bathrobe and a scowl and came down the drive. At first she was unwilling to help even when I explained my predicament. There is evidently a strong, automatic distrust of strangers in New Zealand. I stood there looking friendly and impeccably respectable with my bright red Tumi suitcase next to me. After I explained a second time making it clear via body language that I was not going away, she gave in, called S, and transmitted the combination.

I let myself in after carrying the red case since the driveway was gravel and the little wheels wouldn’t work. Inside I immediately made myself ginger tea from a root I was in my pocket and a meal out of what I was carrying with me. The house was cold but there was a warm welcome from a small, boney, elderly, black and white cat who delivered short, aphoristic lectures and was delighted to see me. S arrived, turned on the heat and, well beyond the call of duty, carried my suitcase upstairs. The house is airy, beautiful with bare, black lacquered floors and huge windows looking onto Sumner beach and its surfers. It is full of S’s individual art collection. I drank cups of ginger tea as we talked.

She was going out to dinner. I went upstairs, got into bed accompanied by the elderly black and white cat still delivering lectures, and went to sleep.

In the morning I found L and S had arranged everything. I had a flight to Auckland. Sue delivered me to the airport. I was fine until we had been in the air about 15 minutes when my sinuses exploded. I was in pain and my ears, never the best part of my anatomy, blocked. I grit my molars. Luckily it was only an hour and twenty minute flight. K and L took me to their warm home where I collapsed, drank ginger tea, collapsed and continued with that routine for two days.

My sinuses had improved on the third day and L made an appointment for me at a clinic where a doctor from Malaga, Spain prescribed prednisone and a mild antibiotic. With this I took an elixir prescribed by A. You boil a three-fingered pinch of the leaves in a mug and a half of water for an hour and drink it twice a day. A had said it tasted foul. It was bitter but not bad; in 48 hours it had done the trick.  I was coughing up stuff. The prednisone is like taking speed and a bit scary but it also worked well in union with the antibiotic.

At the end of four days of this treatment and sleeping after breakfast and after lunch I began to have energy so I went to the gym, which gave me more energy with which I walked, one day, to the zoo. It was about 11 kilometers.

The Auckland zoo is an excellent zoo, although the walk is along very busy roads. The animals are housed in big natural settings. A lion on a hill looked about him while his buddies lay on their backs, paws in the air, in the sun. A serval cat in an enclosure full of trees and ferns with superbly striped ears provokingly lay with his back to his audience. You knew he knew he had an audience, his ears twitched and turned.

The New Zealand section is wonderful for its birds and lizards. There were whios, a startlingly blue duck, quacking and being gregarious in the fubsy way of ducks. A kia with greenish, gold feathers seemed attentive, looking over its tightly curved beak. Even more interested were kias, a burrowing parrot, bright green, bright eyed, full of ‘satiable curiosity, and wise cracks. I could not see the kiwis in their nocturnal enclosure. I was glad I had seen the one by the side of the road when driving up north around A’s house. I took a taxi home, having done my 11 km getting to the zoo.

Otherwise I did nothing but lunch at the Blue Breeze on Tuatua clams, big juicy clams cooked in an excellent Thai influenced sauce, luscious dim sum, heavenly fried noodles, lamb curry and salmon salad. All of which worked because by June 30th I felt ready to go on to French Polynesia.

Although this blog is too long, I want to do a quick assessment of what I have learned about living with my newly old body.

  1. I have learned to STOP. My reflex is to go on and that’s wrong. STOP is right.
  2. Sleep. Those naps after breakfast and lunch worked. They meant I healed. I never take naps because “old people” take naps. Welcome to being and “old person,” Karen
  3. Go see a doctor.  I have always done that.

I hope this knowledge will help me continue to travel.

So when June 29th arrived, I was hale, hearty and ready to leave for Tahiti.

2019, BLOG XI: Auckland, New Zealand

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L, bless her, met me at the airport. The first flight, coming in close to midnight, was relatively short from Tokyo to Beijing. A modern version of Dante’s Inferno, with an entirely female cast, the Duty Free in Beijing was, in lurid half light, a scene of hysterical anguish with women clutching jars, perfume bottles and waving credit cards as the shop was about to close. The second flight was 11 hours to Auckland. Air China does not believe in providing much oxygen to dilute its recycled germs even in business class. When I stumbled out of customs my sinuses felt as though they had been immersed in Thai chili sauce for those hours but over the next few days at K and L’s they seemed to quiet down. This is despite Dr. F’s many pills. Going to the gym helped.

One day L and I went downtown to Queens Street to look at black pearls, since I am going on to Tahiti. Every shop was Chinese staffed and I would suppose Chinese owned. It was an education. At one store the owner, when I showed interest in an opera length strand, started at over 17,000 NZ and came down in less than five minutes to 7,000 NZ.  This does not inspire confidence; it inspires terror.

It was an education and the owner of the Gallery Pacific, which had no black pearls but wonderful nephrite carvings and small statues in bone, wood and bronze, educated us further. He told us that in Tahiti the Chinese dredge freshwater ponds, seed them with oysters and then dye the pearls they harvest from these man made puddles. The Chinese are extraordinary at dying things. If I buy anything jade from the Jade Market in HK, I always presume it is dyed. No one else knows how to dye jade successfully but the Chinese.

The nephrite carvings at the Gallery Pacific are much more skillful than any others available in Auckland. Also he has artists who produce quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes haunted two-inch high statues of men and beasts.

The racial mix of downtown Auckland is exhilarating, heavily Asian, of course, but a mix that Europeans or Americans are not used to because of the addition of the South Pacific islands—Maori, Polynesian, Samoan, Fijian and on it hopes from island to island across the expanse of the ocean. These are faces that are completely unfamiliar to most westerners. I love walking among their unknown colors and features. I am thrilled to the core to come up behind two squarely shouldered young men and realize that they are speaking a Maori dialect.

The next day the three of us went out on L and K’s boat. We went not at all far from Auckland harbor—the skyline was behind us—to anchor in a bay, not more than a half an hour out. There were two rather nondescript modern houses at the top of the ridge but otherwise there were just outcroppings of yellow rock below overhanging trees as we were rocked by the passage of other boats. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon with L’s excellent feta and spinach pie.

That night I used their new hot tub cut from cedar which perfumes the air around you as you lie in the water looking up at palms or across at the small lemon tree pendant with heavy ovals of bumpy yellow fruit. Above a few stars can be glimpsed despite the ambient light of the city.

I had promised myself a return to the War Memorial Museum which houses exhibits about the white history of New Zealand, grim in its deprivations, and the most magnificent Maori art I have seen anywhere. The “meeting house”, the war canoe, the tiki entrance arch, the New Guinea and New Ireland masks are viscerally thrilling. Unfortunately the Madonna and Child carved by a recently baptized Maori two hundred years ago was on loan to a museum in London. It is not “beautiful” but it is vigorous. The pastor refused to accept it as a gift.

In the morning L and I left with a little roar and a long purr in her black, 1992 Saab, low slung convertible. We drove to Muriwai where far below us were surfers and a swath of black sand beach. A core of rock, flat on top, towered to the right. We walked on a narrow path with scrub trees beside it a fantail following us companionably for a while fluttering and spreading, scissoring its tail from tree to tree. It has a white clerical collar, a belly and breast of a color similar to the American robin and a fan for a tail. Looking down I could see the hummocks of the gannet nesting grounds. Beyond was a shorter outcropping of rock, flat as a table on top, on which two men were fishing in very dangerous conditions.  A good wave would have wiped them off into the sea like a hand sweeping crumbs from a table.

Further right from that short rock is a stretch of black beach. You can see the rip tides that form a line like a zipper from beach into sea.

We stopped for lunch at Wellsford at the sort of cheerful neighborhood restaurant where waitresses serve big portions followed by lots of coffee.

In Kawakawa we stopped to see and use the Hundertwasser Toilets on Gilles Street. They were designed by the Austrian artist, a recluse, who came to Kawakawa to live in 1975. It was completed before his death in 2000 at the age of 71 and is as eccentric as its creator. A tree sprouts through a hole in the corridor ceiling. Grass that was uprooted for the construction continues to happily thrive on its roof. Sculptures, ceramic tiles, discarded bottles and bricks from a former bank have all been incorporated into it. It is a huge amount of fun. It reminded me in its whimsy and use of the broken and rejected of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia in Los Angeles. The outside pillars resemble children’s wooden beads, although much more irregular, with their brilliant primary colors. It is a great place.  Busloads of tourist come but L and I had it to ourselves.

We then continued on our drive to A’s at Totara North, a long drive through rolling hills with copses of trees in their dimples, some stands of planted timber, cows, cows and sheep, sheep. It is an occasionally three-lane road, which is most of the time a two-lane road, frequently winding and definitely dangerous. There are warnings about crash areas and about speeds on curves.

An anomaly of the New Zealand countryside is that it frequently looks like the English countryside—rolling hills and dells full of most un-English vegetation, tree ferns, for instance. It is not England also because it is Big Sky country with huge, goose down billows of cumulus. There is as well something un-Englishly edgy about those hills.  They are a little aggressive, too intense.

I have known L since she was 8 and I was about 27. Her family lived across the courtyard from me at 319 St. John’s Place in Brooklyn. We became and stayed friends, although we have not seen each other for many years at a time. When she lived in Bella Coola, British Columbia, living in the dorm of a salmon-canning factory, I was teaching at the University of Idaho, Moscow. At her suggestion I drove up for a visit.

It was an epic journey in my little red Honda hatchback, which I drove back and forth across the U.S. 10 times in 6 years. I drove up into Canada, then over to the coast to follow 97 to Williams Lake where, as instructed, I made a left onto a road that turned, within a mile, to dirt and stayed dirt. I drove all day with mountains flanking me, with a cattle herd surrounding me until I honked at them, stopping at and providing entertainment at a school just by my unexpected appearance. There were no signs. As the day progressed I became more and more nervous. I was, apparently the only person on this road. When I was going up a rise two young Native Americans in a flatbed Ford came toward me. I braked and honked. Leaning out my window I asked, “How far is it to Bella Coola?”

“We don’t think like that,” the young couple replied grinning. “You go up this rise, then down a bit. Then there is a big rise and you come down and down from that.  When you are down you are in Bella Coola.”

The down and down was on a gravel and dirt road that serpented its descent on the mountain edge. I hugged the cliff wall as eighteen-wheelers charged up past me snorting like wild boar.

When I arrived in Bella Coola, L was waiting for me. As I remember I got out of my little red car and gave her the following curse.  “I hope when you are almost 50 someone gets you to do a day’s driving like this.”

Bella Coola is on a fjord.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.

When, in their sixties, L and K finally married I came to New Zealand for the first time. Both of them were in the film industry in New Zealand. K was a grip. L still is in the industry and has won awards for her work as a producer.

My other connection to L is through travel.  She is a thoroughly intrepid traveler. Once she hired on as a cook on a yacht with the understanding that she could leave, instantly whenever she wanted to. They came down the U.S. coast and then along the coast of Mexico. Somewhere along the shore of Central America L saw some people on an island, told the owner she was leaving them, bundled her clothes up and swam to the island.  She spent months living with the islanders until they returned to the mainland. She left them shortly after than to go to Belize and design shoes.  She was one of my original traveler role models.

I met A, who is unforgettable, at the wedding. She’s about as unique a personality as one is likely to find, gifted with her hands and her heart—part tomboy, part shaman, seasoned by some Maori in the blood. She worked as grip coordinator on Lord of the Rings. She was the first woman grip in New Zealand

We had a glimpse of a harbor before we turned into A’s. Her house is a huge, but plain, villa, the New Zealand name for a wooden, colonial house, pre 1910, surrounded by trees. There are six rooms plus a long kitchen opening onto a verandah lacy with Victorian gingerbread, fretwork, hung with small, mirrored, disco balls and elaborate spider webs. There is also a bathroom, its window propped open so that Mr. Black, A’s cat, can enter and exit at his convenience.

The rooms are large with twelve-foot ceilings. The man who built it around 1900 was a cabinetmaker; everything fits. The ceiling is paneled. The entire house is made from one tree. It is up on posts. The windows, like the windows in my Brooklyn house, have rippled glass because it was poured, not rolled. There are two fireplaces, wood burning, surround by tiles, in one room yellow-orange chrysanthemums with fern leaves in the corners. The other has unidentifiable bluey-green flowers.

The front door has panels of yellow to mustard stained glass in a pattern of raised daisies. There is a worn front porch with Victorian gingerbread. There are palms in her front yard and a tree covered with purple blooms. I felt it an honor to be asked to stay at A’s house.

Starting out in A’s car, we drove through mostly rolling but occasionally craggy country and stopped at a supermarket at Coopers Beach. We had coffee, and a ginger cookie, at a little coffee bar next door. There is a Vermont feeling about this area, of people having difficulty getting the two ends to meet.

We went on to Mangonui, a harbor with a simple fried fish restaurant where you eat outside. I had oysters. A and L had fried fish. We were greeted at the door by a grey shag, a largish cormorant, who talked a lot, getting out of the door way reluctantly. Sparrows hung out inside the open air eating area, the gulls, small ones, outside. The sparrows also were not at all afraid. The oysters were delicious.

While we ate we watched men fishing on the pier. One pulled in a big fish, over two feet long, a kingi fish, or king fish. It did not come in easily; it was heavy. When we walked over to the pier it was slowly, painfully drowning in air. Why not finish it with a strong blow? A two year old watching its death pushed on its eye causing it to convulse–a gesture of both curiosity and unconscious cruelty.

We drove on to Taupo Bay with a gorgeous bulge of rock on one side. There were twenty or so youngsters out in the surf paddling and coasting small waves. It is a dramatic coast.

Driving back to Auckland from A’s on roads along the coast we suddenly had to slow and stop for a funeral at the roadside. At first L thought it was a protest as it was largely Maori with lots of children. The cemetery was by the side of the road. A truck had hit a ten year old. The crowd was both sorrowful and angry. A Maori warden with embroidery on her hat slowed us and then waved us through. It was terrible to see those clenched, dark faces in the green graveyard—grey tombstones against green, black clothes against green.

We had a late lunch at Waipu Cove at the Cove Café, another outdoor restaurant, but not as successful as at Mangonui. I had adequate venison but I have had more tasty and tender in New York. L had some good tuna and luscious squid. The restaurant was right off the beach, full of people of all ages, with a tiny playground next to it with a slide.

All day we drove in and out of rain accompanied by rainbows.


2019, BLOG X: A Castle and a Samurai

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I was excited because the site I was headed for was something I had planned to see from the moment I began thinking of my trip to Japan. I started at the front desk. The receptionist gave me instructions to the JR Motomachi station. There I asked the people behind the counter by the turnstile who helped me buy the right ticket. I had a big bill and discovered that the machine gives paper as well as coin change. The people in charge of Barcelona’s Metro should learn about this. I was going to have to change trains. I explained my problem to a couple on the platform that were obviously on a day’s outing. They too were going Himeji. We traveled together largely speechless.

When you exit the station the castle is directly ahead of you and just becomes more and more stunning as you approach. As I walked a passing man told me of a covered street with shops I could take. When I turned this down he was amused.

I noted restaurant possibilities as I walked in the hot sun. The castle is White Heron Castle with grey blue roofs that rise up in a layering of wings. You can come in on the side at Hishi-no-mon Gate and walk the long connecting corridors coming out to walk through a series of gates. The walls do not rise up straight but in a fan curve. Once in the main keep you climb stair after stair. Huge trees supplied the timbers of the rafters that have a ponderous presence in the soft gloom of the small windowed spaces on each floor. One climbs looking down through arrow slits that became musket slits, at the pitch of the roofs below. The lifted eaves are decorated with toothy fish with flashy tails.

It is beautiful from every possible angle outside. Inside it is magnificent but has that grim quality that all castles, of whatever nationality, have. Coming down the stairs was worse than going up but there were plenty of handrails and lots of equally scared, elderly Japanese with me.

Walking back to the station I found the restaurant I’d picked was closed. I went to a family sushi place, very nice. They were horrified when I wanted to stir extra wasabi into my soy sauce. Apparently that practice, accepted in the US and, I believe, Europe is, in Japan, a solecism the equivalent of twirling up your spaghetti in a soupspoon.

On the train home, I discovered my morning’s companions also on their way back, eating chicken and drinking beer. I got out at the intermediate station for a train to Kobe and when I changed boarded a car labeled “Women Only”. This was a total surprise. I had no idea such a thing existed in Japan. There was a pleasant air of relaxation in this car.

In Kobe I found the shop of the samurai with no difficulty. The woman wasn’t there, but the girl called her. The price was still 70,000Y, about 640US. I asked the girl to call the woman again to ask if she would take 60,000Y in cash. I wasn’t sure I could get that sum, not knowing the withdrawal limit. She said, “Yes.” I headed for the nearest Family Mart to withdraw 60,000Y. We packed him in a box surrounded by bubble wrap and wads of newspaper.  He is elderly, as least my age, and it is a long journey.

The next day I took the train to the Hyogo Prefecture Museum, the one with the frog on the roof. They have two floors of their permanent collection. It is interesting if not thrilling. There are a lot of Japanese painters imitating various Western painters and styles. The most interesting, I thought, was Oiwa who is a surrealist. In one painting a ship cuts across layers of green leaves of different varieties and green stripes in two hues, another is of the outside of a butcher’s in a meat packing district with a conveyor belt from whose hooks hang sides of meat in the shape of various countries—France, Italy and yes, Japan.

Among the European works were some terrifying Katha Kollwitz drawings. The Mothers shows a tight, compressed huddle of women their arms around each other, their faces desperate with fear and determination. A wary looking boy gazes out from under their arms.

They had a special exhibit of Impressionists and later painters collected by a particleboard manufacturer. I think one sees one’s own culture a little differently when it is exhibited in another culture. It focuses it in a different way. I found myself thinking how “sweet” the Impressionists often are. There were Degas and Renoirs, two Monet’s. A Van Gogh of peasants trudging home at sunset with heavy loads of wood through the snow was less sweet.

I regretted leaving Kobe and the Okura hotel that I enjoyed despite an argument with the chambermaid I never met.  I would put my toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss in a glass in the bathroom. When I came home at the end of the day all my dental accessories had been removed from the glass and lined up neatly on a clean washcloth. We did this every day. According to her rules the use of the bathroom glass for your dental implements was not acceptable.

I am not against rules. They are an important part of life and art. They make social life possible in civilization and they enhance art. Social contact can be difficult between widely varying personalities and rules make easy bridges. I think the rules have made art immensely inventive in Japan. In poetry you have 17 syllables to say what you want. You are given a small box and have to figure out how to expand your creativity within those bounds. Art is to the Japanese about finding freedom in a confined space.

Quite the opposite is true in the US where it is often believed that art is doing whatever you want. This may be as self-indulgent as it is self-defeating. The mastery, even the partial mastery, of rhyme and meter often makes for better poems. Form increases creativity. I suspect Thomas Hardy was right when he thought Walt Whitman didn’t write in rhyme and meter because he couldn’t master the techniques or was too impatient to learn them. Making a posture of superiority out of an inability is a bit of a con trick. Not that he didn’t write interesting poems. I’m just suspicious of all that bombast about creating something totally new.

From toothpaste to poetry in one paragraph. It does seem to me that the Japanese are rule bound in a way that makes them unhappy. I often found myself feeling sorry for the people I met.

I was up and out of the Okura Kobe long before breakfast to catch a 7:05 flight to Tokyo and my old hotel where I couldn’t get into my room until 3 pm. I had the hotel breakfast and met an American from Texas who was with an interesting young American, interesting because one sensed he knew his way around. This is unusual.

I had planned to use this time parenthesis to go to the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints. It took half the neighborhood, none of whom had heard of it, to get me close. But they did get me close. I looked down a hill and saw a sign I could not read but which, heaven knows why, looked right. As I started down, a man coming up was queried by one of the women helping me.  He said, “Yes,” in English. I waved goodbye to everyone and went down the hill.

Just as I entered the shop another woman came zipping around the corner, breathless on her bicycle, to tell me it was the right place.

There was one young man in the shop, whose walls were lined with prints, mostly by Hokusai. I knew what I wanted; prices were reasonable. The problem was not buying more. That was difficult. I managed to buy only two.

I went back to the hotel on the subway, had a late sushi lunch and went to bed early to make up for rising at 5 am.

The next day, my last, I realized the Texans, there were five of them, were a church group. The young man who knew his way about was a translator of the Bible from Hebrew. I asked if he knew Greek but his answer was equivocal.

I went to the Nezu Museum, a treat in itself. It was raining, as it had been the first time I went there unsuccessfully. I found the displays disappointing, not that they weren’t very fine, but they were of Chinese art showing the basis of Japanese painting and sculpture. A scroll painting of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, was beautiful in its serene spirituality. There was also a scroll of sparrows, vigorous in its display of these cheery, gregarious, small singers.

I ate at the museum restaurant, crowded, limited in selection but with pleasant views into the rainy, dripping woods.

Going home I became muddled as I changed lines. A young couple rescued me, steered me to the right platform, waited until my train came, and as it pulled out we waved to each other. I thought, “This is, indeed, my goodbye to Japan.”

I dutifully washed and ironed, packing as much as I could.

The next day, after emails from Amsterdam and Japan, Madoka and I finally met. She is as beautiful as Moon said she was. We both had worked on human rights in Burma. We talked about the different ways one can lead one’s life. Madoka is a yoga practitioner and has become interested in Zen as a way of living. We had coffee, before she helped me find an open post office; it was Saturday. The cards went off and I mailed my Japanese guidebook back to Carrer Hospital.

2019, BLOG IX: Kobe, a frog and a Samurai

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Breakfast at the Hotel Okura-Kobe was even more expensive than at the Piazza in Nara but it was a better breakfast with a handmade omelet and dainty little pastries in all kinds of flavors that you can eat while looking out at the sea. Also it was a long walk into town to a place that served breakfast. I went, on a full stomach, to the Maritime Museum, not as nice as the Barcelona Maritime Museum, although the building is a treat, as are many of the museums in Kobe, indeed, in Japan. It faces the sea and wears on its roof a set of white sails of steel netting. The signage is not good if you are an English speaker, very little is explained in English. A Japanese man talked to me on and off as I wended my way through the displays. I was disappointed because I wanted to know about those Emperors and Shoguns who were interested in Japan’s naval power.

Walking out of the Museum, along the broad promenade facing the harbor, passing a vigorous, leaping fish statue, something began to nudge for my attention, something subtle and familiar. I paid attention to it and realized it was the smell of the sea, an odor that means home to me. It was part of my life in NYC, in Barcelona and now, here in Kobe it was telling me I was here; it was here. I liked Kobe I think because of this and because like Barcelona it has mountains at its back and the sea before it.

I walked through Chinatown, a continuous string of restaurants, many offering dim sum. I tried to locate the Kobe City Museum but could not find it, although I asked and asked. A middle-aged Japanese couple joined me in my search. I even had it written out in Japanese. When at long last we found it in a fashionable part of town where all the international clones are—Gucci, Kate Spade, Dior—we found it was closed for renovation. The other place I wanted to get to was up hill in Kitano-Cho where foreigners in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s built houses. This is the time period when Kobe opened its port to the world.

The couple was still with me as we headed up hill through endless covered markets that finally ended. At that point things became less cluttered, buildings were older, shorter, more eccentric. I suggested to the couple who were admiring my walking ability, I did over 10 kilometers that day, that I buy them lunch. But they had to go back down to catch a train to somewhere around Hamomatsu. They had a passing man take out picture together. We shook hands. I headed up hill going in and out of shops—one was Russian with babushka dolls and some very good looking oversized blue and white cups.

I was looking for a kind of Japanese doll made in the late 19th or early 20th century. I had seen some contemporary ones in Kyoto but I wanted an old one. These are not children’s toys but art objects. The quality of the face, the expression, is of particular importance.

Years ago I gave one, a flute player, to friends as a wedding present. He had the most beautiful, wistful expression on his gentle face. You knew that his life had been hard but that his playing was exquisitely emotional. Because they were artists, I thought they would understand him. But they put him in the sun and the next time I saw him was bleached out of existence. A lesson. Don’t give people things you treasure and expect them to treasure them. That is egotistical. But ever since I have had a little hole in my heart the size of the flute player.

I was in need of lunch and found a very modern restaurant where Kobe beef was cooked before you and served over fat bean sprouts with rice, soup and a miniscule dish of pickles.  There was an elderly couple across the way with their daughter laughing over their lunch. When I got up to leave, the daughter on the way to the toilet, stopped and asked where I was from. Only then did I realize that she was so drunk she could barely speak or keep her eyes open. There is a different attitude toward public intoxication in Japan-

As it began to rain I went on up hill and saw two houses.  One was built by an Englishman, very Victorian, full of coal fireplaces lined with English tiles, a piano in the living room and a balcony cum veranda with, what must have been at the time, a superb view down to the port. Now, of course, it is totally obstructed by buildings

The second, Weathercock House, was built by a German, G. Thomas, with red brick walls, and the eponymous weathercock on its tower’s steeple. There are Art Nouveau tidbits—curved door levers, stained glass, chandeliers. But there is also a lot of dark wood giving a medieval castle feeling. There are Western bathrooms in each of these houses that must have elicited a sigh of relief from the owners and their guests.

I walked down, looking into shops as I came along into the center of town. I went into a very cluttered, dusty, dark shop, and there, behind some candlesticks and a carved wooden bear was an old head with wrinkled brow, bushy, white eyebrows, tangled grey hair, a disintegrating black hat and broad shoulders covered in armor. I looked more closely–an elderly samurai, about eight inches tall with a chipped grin and an expression that suggested canniness.

The price was high, close to 800US, but he was obviously early 20th century and possibly 19th. I walked home to the hotel in turmoil.

The next day I talked to the young Japanese woman sitting next to me at breakfast. Our conversation obviously made her happy. I then went to the reception desk for instructions.  They are not as good as the women at my Tokyo hotel or in Kyoto but by asking my way I arrived at the Motomachi Station, got on the right train and out at the right stop. Now I had no idea where I was in relationship to my goal the Hyogo Prefecture Museum. I asked and followed those directions. I asked again and received more interesting directions. “One light, left. Second light, right. Frog on roof.  That is building.” Those worked very well.

There was a frog on the roof with one green leg over its edge. I was enchanted by him and the building designed by Tadao Ando that incorporates green and the sea into its structure. It is a great piece of work. You walk along a passage arched with tree branches, pass through a rectangular opening, here three people were doing tai chi, and come out at a channel of the sea with the building behind you. This is a brilliant museum particularly in comparison to that mediocrity erected at enormous expense between 53rd and 54th Street in Manhattan.

However, it was closed because it was Monday. The receptionist should have caught that. I started back to the train station. One of the tai-chi-ers ran after me to tell me to come the next day.

I asked a woman in the station which track to take to get back to Motomachi. We got into conversation about Barcelona, why I liked Kobe, about her desire to travel.

I came into Motomachi and tried to find the samurai’s store. I could find the area but not the store. I walked up hill. Finally I went into a store and asked for Tor Street. The clerk was mystified but the manager said, “One light,” and pointed. I went over to Tor and there it was as I walked down. The man wasn’t there but there was a woman. I had thought I would ask for a smaller one. I looked up and there were, on a high shelf, a number of small dolls, not as old but in much better shape. Why didn’t the man show me these? The woman took them down but only one had real expression in his face. Then I asked to see the samurai who, although I looked about, I could not find. He was there. Seeing him again, I knew I didn’t want a small one. The man the day before had given me a price of 80,000Y. She gave me the price on the price tag, 88,000 but came down quickly to 70,000Y.

I said I would think about it and return tomorrow.  She said she would think about a further discount. I floated back to the hotel. I was going the next day to see something I had planned for, something I did not want to leave Japan without seeing.

2019 BLOG VIII: A Little More Nara Plus Kobe

I knew my way, a big help, over to the Nara Koen, the walled park of the Todai-ji Temple. You enter through Nandai-mon, a huge rectangular gate over 62 feet high, dating from 1199, about the time Beowulf may have been composed. Beyond the monumental opening one looks across lawn to the even more monumental Diabutou-den, the largest wooden structure, it is claimed, in the world.  It is also high with huge beams.  The front door framed the dark body and face of the Daibutsu, a 53-foot bronze Buddha with his hand raised in the Fear Not mudra. Emperor Shomu commissioned him in 741. The casting of the statue was part of the Emperor’s attempt to unite Japan. Union requires symbols. A bronze casting of this size is an enormous engineering feat for a civilization.

There are a number of other statues, all on a grand scale inside the temple. Some stand, as do Tibetan deities on the bodies of animals or demons. One frowns at you, balanced on a beast with a brush in his right hand.  His name is Koumokuten. I thought he must be one of the Four Heavenly Kings but they all have weapons, not a brush among them. But he is one of four statues.

I was suffering from iconographic dissolution. There was a gold Kannon to the Buddha’s left with gold rays about her. I spent a lot of time here, as it is a lofty interesting structure that absorbs people well.  There were lots of Indian tourists, having a good time and photographing each other.

Many children of various nationalities were having a giggle wriggling through a hole in the base of a pillar, which, if you can wriggle to the other side, proves you are something or other.

I climbed up to Ni-garsu-do, uncrowded and pleasant but I missed nearby San-gatsu-do and its Kannon. If I hadn’t been traveling alone that wouldn’t have happened. The other person would have caught my slip; also as one person’s adventurousness flags, the other’s quickens, creating a balance.

I then went in search of Kaidan-in. But first I went to the small museum that has a fantastic Kannon, 9th century, many armed and gentle faced in wood. There was also a Bodhisattva with a Tang dynasty face. One could see it was a stranger among its fellows.

Then on to the Kaiden-in Temple, not easily found. My query was brushed irritably aside when I asked a deer-cracker seller for help. Then I tried a Frenchman, who tried his GPS, which had never heard of the Kaiden-in. I moved quickly on because I could see that his command of his GPS was going to become a masculinity issue. An issue of this sort can eat up a half hour. I did find the temple down a lane where there was a garden serving teas, houses with tile roofs peaking over their walls, that ended in a mossy, grass-sprouting stair.  It climbed to the hall where ordinations used to occur. At the four corners are clay images of the Four Heavenly Kings.

Rather than going to the garden I went to a Starbucks for lunch—chicken-root-veg-wrap, potato chips, a serious chocolate something and a cappuccino.  Then home having walked 11 kilometers.

Over breakfast I met a delightful couple, he Spanish, she Dutch with their six month old. I think people who travel with babies are outrageously courageous. We had a good talk before they went down to the supermarket because their baby likes that supermarket’s baby food best.

I spent the day walking. I was at first way off course.  Stopping two English cyclists I asked, “Do you know where you are?”

“Yes,” they replied and showed me on their map. I now knew where I was.

I walked a while and then asked at a hostel also picking up their flyer. I was now close to where I wanted to be and stopped at a museum of a family’s house. It was airy with small gardens between rooms. I should think it would be cold in winter but lovely in summer.

I picked up a map and more instructions. I was now beginning to come across small shops. I bought some abalone buttons at one. Being unsure of my directions I stopped the next young man I came across who also turned out to be English. When I asked him, “Do you know where you are?” he replied, “I don’t think so.” So we huddled over the map and figured it out. I told him about the museum that was close adding, “ I think it would by nice to live in but if you lived in it you would have to live by the rules and I couldn’t do that.”

We parted company and not far away I found Kai, a complex of shops where I bought some exquisitely delicate, hand-blown glass beads. I put together a necklace and the girl strung them for me. I had lunch next door for 13 dollars, a pork cutlet, with a bit of omelet, black rice, a cup of soup and potato salad.

Then I hunted down Yu Nakagawa, which sells beautiful linens but is the sort of shop you have to visit every few weeks to see what they have. They had nothing for me. I asked about the linen fabric they were selling by the meter but she said it wasn’t suitable for wearing. They sent me to another shop but it wasn’t the hand printed blue and white fabric I was looking for.

While asking my way I found a Turkish woman, her baby stomach crawling about on the floor, selling things I’d seen in Istanbul.

That night I looked at my left eye, the one that was operated on over a year ago, because it felt irritated and found the white was wrapped in a sort of white blanket. I thought first I would find a doctor in Nara. Then I thought I would wait until Kobe where I might have a contact. Then I got a Skype from my friend V who worked with the top eye surgeons in NYC. She had a name for it, conjunctiva, not conjunctivitis, and said it was common.

I ran into the rules twice that day. While on line for my breakfast croissant at the Deli France I saw a young American woman with two new, canary yellow suitcases, whose partner was running back and forth between her and the store saying, “There are doughnuts, croissants, all kinds of Danish.” I said to her, “You can come in with the cases if you’re discrete.” She looked at me, shaking her head. “Have you been intimidated by the rule culture?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied with round eyes and a smile.  They never did come in.

Still worried about my eye, despite V’s reassurances, I decided to call my NYC ophthalmologist. The elderly mind moves slowly.  Dr. O. responded immediately, asking for a picture of my eye. Taking a picture of your eye with your I-Phone is not easy.  Besides that I took, in my nervousness, a picture of the wrong eye. I was scared.

I was leaving for Kobe because with the rigidity of the Japanese I couldn’t face rearranging hotel reservations in Kobe and Nara. I went to the train station, took the train to Osaka and then changed for the train for Kobe. I took a taxi to my hotel where I left my bags. They weren’t going to let me into the room until 3 anyway. I had Goggled hospitals in Kobe and found the university hospital.

As I was in my sumptuous lobby trying to gather my wits, I heard an Australian woman, middle-aged, next to me say something about traveling alone. I turned to her, poor unsuspecting creature, and said, “I need to talk to someone.  I am about to take a taxi to a hospital. This is what it’s about.” I explained.  She and her friend were reassuring about Japanese health care.  I got a taxi.

The university hospital, or at least the section I arrived at, was closed on Saturday and Sunday. I did find a reception desk with a man behind it. I had to be adhesively persistent, I even lassoed a passing young man in a navy blue suit into helping me—but at last the receptionist Xeroxed and then scissored out what looked like an ad with an address and phone number. I explained that I had no phone, a half-truth—so he called, gave them my name, even more difficult for the Japanese than for the Spanish. Accompanied by my suited young man I went out to a taxi. He saw me into it, explained things to the driver and said a formal goodbye. The driver dropped me at the foot of an alley where I could see a green cross above a door half way down the alley.

Inside the door was a room largely occupied by people with grey hair.

The young woman behind the desk bravely pronounced my name and was appropriately impressed by my birthdate. The doctor asked me to speak English slowly. I understand this problem. He took my pressure, the main factor if you have glaucoma, admired the result of my trabeculectomy performed at Barraquer Hospital in Barcelona. I love how doctors admire each other’s work. He handed me on to a younger man who did other tests and was much more sympathetic. The result of it all was that I was fine and I had a new bottle of drops for dry eye.

I flagged down a taxi, got to the hotel and was impatient with the bellboy who wanted me to admire my room’s view.  I just wanted to collapse.  When he left I did.

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2019 BLOG VII: Nara


I was helped up the stairs to the platform for the train to Nara by two young people, one male, one female. I was very grateful. There must have been an elevator somewhere. On the train I talked in Spanish and English with a couple who, just finishing their trip, were about to fly home to Tarragona. In Nara station I ran into two Mexicans for a quick Spanish chat.

The hotel, although quite luxe, is next door to the station. It was not at all noisy and faces the mountains. What’s between it and the mountains looked pretty ugly. This turned out to be quite untrue.

I discovered the next morning that breakfast, not included in my reservation, was around 20US. Since the hotel was steps from the station I had a choice of places to breakfast at. That morning, however, I had breakfast in the hotel. It was a high sodium Japanese breakfast but there were delicious tiny pastries, good yogurt, salad and scrambled eggs I suspect came out of a plastic bag.

I bought stamps at 7 Eleven, almost wiping out their supply of postcard stamps. I received directions to the bus that would take me to Kasuga Taisha Shrine on the other side of town. I could have walked it but I didn’t know that then. There were a few Westerners on the bus but no one who wanted to talk or join up. It was a hot day. I acquired my first prickly-heat rash; it is with me still.

You come into Kasuga Taisha through an orange torii gate, tori means “bird abode”. D tells me the orange color means the institution is Shinto.  I don’t think I went inside anything except a darkened room full of lit lanterns. It was serene to stand in the dark surrounded by lanterns each with its own pattern silhouetted by its light. Lanterns are the motif of Kasuga Taisha. People pray outside or at an open door. As you walk you are accompanied by the sharp clap people make at the end of a prayer or the sound of a bell announcing a prayer’s completion. Unlike other roofs, Kasuga’s have crossed sticks on their gable ends.

The paths are lined with moss-covered lanterns. They and the deer are a constant. The deer are everywhere being photographed, petted, not something they are very interested in, and fed, something they expect.

A wedding was going on in one court, the bride in a white kimono and white fabric hat like a folded flour tortilla. Then more lanterns, these were golden, hanging from chains in an orange corridor.

I went to a little museum that had an exhibit of Dadaiko, a pair of gigantic drums used in the performance of Bugaku, a traditional courtyard dance. The painting on the drum was worn off in the center. There were other musical instruments, strings and flutes. The masks were astonishing objects—I can only recall two—one in red lacquer descended in a series of folds from furrowed brow to his creased cheeks, to chin. The other was a bulgy eyed demon with a dragon curling over his brow, its tongue sticking out.  They were magnificent works of imagination.

I asked directions from the ticket taker at the museum for Shin-Yakushiji Temple, but it was too much for her. Japanese, it seems to me are not very good at directions. Luckily there were plenty of signs that lead me through the woods passing a blasted, enormous old tree, trunk largely stripped of bark, all branches amputated, but from one amputee sprang a bouquet of leaves. Out of the woods, across a large but empty road, and up a lane. Here I walked around a little temple that houses, I believe, a Kannon, but you need permission to see it.  A couple was worshiping despite the closed door.

A bit further along the lane was Shin-Yakushiji constructed in 747 by Empress Komyo in thanks for the recovery of Emperor Shomu’s health. All that remains is the main hall that now contains the seated Yakushi Nyorai, the Physician of the Soul. His body is carved from a block of Japanese nutmeg. His right hand forms the “Do Not Fear” mudra while in his left he holds a jar of medicine. Around him are the 12 Divine Generals whom I had never met before but who came to be more and more important in my feelings about Japanese sculpture.  Eleven of the Generals are original, made of clay, with some paint remaining on them—reds and gold. Very fierce looking, some are shouting with open mouths as they threaten with spears, swords and tridents.  They are in motion and are quite wonderful.

I was hungry, but the place I looked into only offered cakes and tea. I asked two sets of people for directions once I found the big road again. Then I realized that idiotically I was asking my fellow tourists for directions.

I came upon a restaurant by the side of the road where four or five women in my age group were having lunch together. Later I realized they live in the neighborhood. The chef-proprietor had some English. He drew me a map to the road I would need to get home. I ordered tempura and cold soba that came with the usual fixings. It was excellent. I told him so. He grinned ear to ear and said, “You make me very happy.”

I had no difficulty walking home.

The next morning I walked across to the train station and had a bacon, lettuce and tomato croissant at a sort of Deli France. Not bad. I followed that with an egg, a caramel something that was small, a regular croissant and several cups of coffee.

When I had looked out my window, it gave a fine view across town to the mountains, it was raining hard enough for me to take my poncho, the light one I’d brought with me, not the new one I’d bought in Kyoto. I also saw a woman doing her morning exercise, walking up and down, at least 20 times a long flight of stairs. Not a bad way of exercising when traveling.  I thought she was smart.

While I was eating my various croissants and coffee two Europeans came in, the man lean and a bit dour looking, the woman cheery, pretty with a mass of blond curls. They came and sat next to me. She is Dutch, he from Valencia. They live in Brussels. We talked about traveling, Japan, the Japanese, our various countries. He tried to get his morning tea in a cup with a handle, but the rule is you can have coffee in a cup with a handle but not tea. He was defeated by the rules. He noted with resignation that the Japanese are, “a little rigid.”

I walked, not a pleasant walk, beside a six lane highway, Sanjo-dori, but it got greener as I went along until on either side there was a park full of deer, the Celestial Messengers. You buy crackers at little stands to feed them. Their attitude is rather cat like, “The only reason for your existence is to buy crackers and feed them to us. If you don’t do that your have no reason to exist.” I did not buy crackers. My friend L had suggested buying carrots and I had yet to do that.

I had intended to go to the Todai-ji and its surrounding temples but was fed up enough with the rain to turn into Kofukuji Temple and the Five Story Pagoda, a 1426 rebuild of a 730 structure, very impressive even in rain. There are two other buildings the Eastern Golden Hall, rebuilt in the 15th century, and the Central Golden Hall, that my Frommer’s not-very-good guidebook doesn’t even mention.

This was my second splendiferous day but not because of mountains. This time it was a crescendo of sculptures that filled me head with dashing,, dancing leaping shapes. The experience was so intense I had to stop looking at statues because I wanted to retain and adding more was going to cause erasure.

In the Central Hall is a golden Medicine Buddha in the usual pose; behind him a leaf shaped filigree carved halo, what in Tibet is called a torana. He dates from 1877. He and the Bodhisattvas on either side of him are calm as they stand on lotuses whose petals curl up around their feet. Moving outward the Four Heavenly Kings come next—in Tibet these are the Kings of the Four Directions and some play musical instruments—with grimacing facial expressions, vigorous body movements, garments in a swirl about and behind them, all is in motion. Three have tridents and one a sword for weapons. One has a lion on his belt. They stand yelling and grimacing on rocky outcroppings. They may be 13th century by Unkei.

They are not as you might expect carved from one block of wood but parts of the body, arms, legs were carved from separate blocks, sometimes of different woods, and then joined together.

They are, and this was true of the other sculptures that overwhelmed me that day, all intense turmoil, all swirl.

Daikokuten, a version of Mahakala, is carved out of one block. In Tibet and Nepal this is a fanged, roaringly fierce god who wears a crown of skulls. Here in Japan in short trousers and tunic, carrying a sack, wearing a hood he is the protective deity of the kitchen.

The Eastern Golden Hall, besides its Medicine Buddha, accompanying Bodhisattvas, and Four Heavenly Generals, has Twelve Divine Generals fierce-faced as Kabuki masks. They are furiously theatrical.  I would love a book of photographs of the most famous carvings of these Generals in Japan.  Statues are static and still but I have never seen sculptures that more vividly portray movement, not just in arms, legs, and clothing but in facial expression. These are knock out art works. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that there is no prescribed iconography for the Generals.  The sculptor choses the posture, the expression, the weapons of each one.

I then wandered, still in the rain, into a small museum of exceptional old sculptures, unmentioned by Frommers. The first Buddha, small, of the Kamakura period, has hands and feet of exquisite delicacy. Next to him is his shrine box with shining paintings on it and above where his head would be if he were in the box, a number of small, dainty, floating spirits whether carved from wood or cast in brass I don’t know.

The Twelve Heavenly Generals here are portrayed in relief carving on cypress panels. One, Basara Taisho, glares at you with his tongue pushing out his lower lip. Nearby, Mekira Taisho, does a stomp dance brimming with ferocious glee, the sole of one foot pointing flat out at you like a kick boxer about to knock you out. I hope to carry the mental image of these carvings with me for the rest of my life.

There is as well a big room with super Buddha after awe inspiring Buddha. Shakija Nyorai from the 11th or 12th century has sinuous fingers. His left middle finger is impossibly long. There is a cast copper Buddha dating to 685.

The information on the wall says over and over of the temples of these objects, “Most recently lost to fire in 1181,” or “Most recently lost to fire in 1717.” It’s the “most recently” that gets to me.

There is a sweet-faced Kannon from the 13th century carved from wood with not 1,000 arms, but plenty, each hand grasping an object.  There are the Mythical Beings, one with a bird’s head but several with the fresh faces of young boys. A 13th century head of Shaka Nyorai by Unkei has full lips, unusually his ears are flat against his head, but the centuries have chipped away the curls on his head. Aside from the Generals, my favorite is someone called Kongo Rokish, whom you would want on your side in any conflict, portrayed with mouth open and in a second sculpture, closed. Veins protrude on his arms and legs. His eyes and eyebrows drawn together thrust a V down from his forehead. The protector of the Buddha he is all vigorous, fierce turbulence with his skirt swinging out behind him.

I went to the National Museum but could do no more sculpture. They had a special exhibit of tea bowls for which people were waiting an hour to see one in particular. I rested by looking at charming scroll paintings of the 7th century journey of the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, from Xian to India to bring back sutras. It is a wonder tale full of mountains to be climbed and rivers crossed with a successful homecoming.