Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My other bike

Before I got back into motorcycling, I was already enamoured of the 2-wheel way of going about things. This was with the mountain bike method and the machine you see below has been in my possession for about thirteen years now.

She was on sale at the local bicycle emporium at a hefty discount because something had fallen on her during the Great Hanshin Earthquake (January 17 1995) causing a minor blemish somewhere to her paintwork. I had eyes only for her suspension fork and aluminium alloy handlebar and gladly ponied up the necesssary yen.

The picture was taken yesterday in the forecourt of Koumei-ji, one of the many Buddhist temples to be found in the town of Akashi, due south of us, near the end of a 50-km ride I sometimes do for health and spiritual enhancement. Koumei-ji sustained a severe clattering in said seismic event but I am pleased to note that it has finally been fully restored.

My destination though, was a much older temple, called Suma-dera, said to have been established in 886 by the saint Monkyo, which is the headquarters of the Sumadera School of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It is almost exactly 25 km from our front door, which makes for a satisfying pedal-powered outing.

To get there I first head south, towards the Akashi Straits and one of the first things I encounter is a long downhill stretch where I can free-wheel for about half a kilometer. When I used to have one fitted, the speedometer once registered 34 mph towards the bottom of this section of the route.

Henry Charles Beeching knew all about it:

WITH lifted feet, hands still,
I am poised, and down the hill
Dart, with heedful mind;

The air goes by in a wind.

Swifter and yet more swift,

Till the heart with a mighty lift

Makes the lungs laugh, the throat cry:--

'O bird, see; see, bird, I fly.

'Is this, is this your joy?
O bird, then I, though a boy

For a golden moment share

Your feathery life in air!'

Say, heart, is there aught like this
In a world that is full of bliss?
Tis more than skating, bound

Steel-shod to the level ground.

Speed slackens now, I float
Awhile in my airy boat;

Till, when the wheels scarce crawl,

My feet to the treadles fall.

Alas, that the longest hill

Must end in a vale; but still,

Who climbs with toil, wheresoe'er,

Shall find wings waiting there.

‘Going down Hill on a Bicycle, a Boy’s Song’ was written in joy to celebrate one of life’s simple pleasures. As long as I can appreciate things like that, I feel I will never grow old.

At the end of the incline there is a fairly sharp right-hander and I am pleased that I adjusted the front brake cable prior to departure. The ears ‘pop’ as I enter the Ikawa valley, I am now almost at sea-level having just descended over 200 metres in less than half a minute. From here the track follows the course of the Ikawa river until its confluence with the Akashi river and then into the somewhat scruffy township of Tamatsu. This place used to be a colony of eta or burakumin – the former untouchables of pre-modern Japanese society, who specialised in butchery of cattle and horses and also leather-tanning. As the Buddha forbade the killing of living things, these poor unfortunates were placed at the very lowest rank on the totem-pole and were obliged to make their dwelling places in the least desirable areas.

We are soon pedalling through the leafy entrance to Akashi Park in the lee of the castle wall and I hear the ‘clack’ of shogi pieces where the old men vie with each other to win at Japanese chess. As today, April 29th—Showa Day-- is the official start of Golden Week and is a fine spring day, the park has plenty of visitors, so progress is somewhat slower.

I am soon through the town and on to the sea front, with the heady tang of salt air and the magnificent sight of the Akashi Straits Bridge.

Cycling is more pleasurable now, away from busy roads and I am soon wafting past the artificial beaches of Okura Kaigan and Maiko Azur to the fishing port of Tarumi, where we spent the first five years of our life in Kobe.

Before very much longer I reach Shioya, where Somerset Maugham once lived as a noted foreign celebrity and guest of the Japanese Empire, in the heady days (for some) of the nineteen-thirties. Now I am back beside the coastal highway which is thick with traffic and I try to breathe in as little as possible.

Before the final uphill approach to Suma-Dera I pause for a swig from the water-bottle which is refreshing. Almost all the houses are new-looking, as this place resembled post-war Dresden after the 1995 disaster. I park the bicycle and lock it up, then enter the temple grounds.

There is a lot to see here, but one of my favourite places is the garden with its statues of the samurai horsemen, Taira no Atsumori and Naozane Kumagai at the battle of Ichi-no-Tani.

I also like the two-level pagoda with the five wise monkeys at its base.

During the course of my visit I get through about ¥125 in votive offerings and purchases of candles and incense sticks, set to burn in special places in hope of good favour from Siddartha Gotama, who in the fullness of time became the Buddha.
My final stop before departure is before the statue of the Thousand-armed Kannon, or Guan Yin--the Goddess of Mercy.

“One Buddhist legend presents Guan Yin as vowing to never rest until she had freed all sentient beings from samsara, reincarnation. Despite strenuous effort, she realized that still many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, her head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing her plight, gave her eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokitesvara attempted to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that her two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitabha came to her aid and appointed her a thousand arms with which to aid the many. Many Himalayan versions of the tale include eight arms with which Avalokitesvara skillfully upholds the Dharma, each possessing its own particular implement, while more Chinese-specific versions give varying accounts of this number. In China, it is said that fishermen used to pray to her to ensure safe voyages. The titles Guan Yin of the Southern Ocean and 'Guan Yin (of/on) the Island' stem from this tradition”

Quotation from Wikipedia.

It is now 15:40 and time to roll. As I reach Tarumi again I begin to feel somewhat fatigued and realise that it has been a long time since brunch. I notice a road sign indicating respite is at hand, only two kilometres ahead, and at the outskirts of Akashi pull into the human gasoline stand.

A Big Mac has never tasted better – good calorific value at ¥290 a time.

I take a slightly different route through Akashi, to avoid pedalling up the incline which gave such pleasure earlier in the day. In days gone by this slope was the final challenge, but at 53 years of age, you know, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.

A final snap of some automotive eye-candy....

One of these days, if I can align a certain set of six numbers, an Alfa-Romeo Spider 2.2 will definitely be on the wish-list. Gorgeous bit of Italian kit.

I arrive home, exhausted, to find the house deserted. I make a welcome cup of tea—the staff of life. As I thankfully swill the last tangy remnants, the telephone rings. It is shewhomustbeobeyed aka spousal unit and daughter who want picking up from the station, now, at once, don’t spare the horses.

So I fire up the Toyota without further ado and do my duty, sweat drying on me, which invokes flaring nostrils and comments as the womenfolk get in the car. Well, they did say NOW...

I enjoyed this little jaunt so much I have resolved to try and do it at least once a month from now on. Can’t do me any harm...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Writing that I like

As I'm a little stuck for something to write about, I thought it might be a good idea to put some of my favourite writing in this blog--my influences if you like. The first of these dates from 1871 or 2 (the precise date is unclear) and is one of those poems that everyone can recite a little bit of:

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might;
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done—
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky;
No birds were flying overhead—
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand.
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach;
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said;
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head—
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat;
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat—
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more—
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low;
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
And cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need;
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said,
"Do you admire the view?"

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice.
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said;
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

From Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) a work of children's literature by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) whose main job was that of mathematician at Christ Church college, Oxford.

The second of these is a lot shorter and contains what I consider to be sage advice for a young person.

Mary's Son

If you stop to find out what your wages will be
And how they will clothe and feed you,
Willie, my son, don't you go on the Sea.
For the Sea will never need you.

If you ask for the reason of every command,
And argue with people about you,
Willie, my son, don't you go on the Land,
For the Land will do better without you.

If you stop to consider the work you have done
And to boast what your labour is worth, dear,
Angels may come for you, Willie, my son,
But you'll never be wanted on Earth, dear!

Rudyard Kipling 1911. My copy is in a collection of poetry titled Songs for Youth published by Hodder and Stoughton. It is so old the spine is actually decorated with a Buddhist swastika--published long before the National Socialists demonised the image.

The third piece is one of the most famous poems penned by Dylan Thomas:

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air

And playing, lovely and watery

And fire green as grass.

And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

The sky gathered again

And the sun grew round that very day.

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm

Out of the whinnying green stable

On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,

In the sun born over and over,

I ran my heedless ways,

My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows

In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Before the children green and golden

Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

In the moon that is always rising,

Nor that riding to sleep

I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

1946 Dylan Thomas
The last poem in the collection known as Deaths and Entrances, it is probably one of the most fabulous pieces of verse ever written. It inspired a young American boy from Duluth, Minnesota to adopt a new performing name for himself--Bob Dylan.

A Hard rain's gonna fall

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin',
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world,
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin',
Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin',
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin',
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter,
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony,
I met a white man who walked a black dog,
I met a young woman whose body was burning,
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow,
I met one man who was wounded in love,
I met another man who was wounded with hatred,
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Oh, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

Columbia Records

This is a 7-minute anti nuclear war anthem. It was one of 3 social protest songs Dylan recorded on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The others were "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Masters of War."
Ten years after Dylan recorded his version, Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry recorded a dark, claustrophobic cover as his first ever solo single. In the UK it climbed to #10 in the charts.

Bob Dylan once introduced this song by saying hard rain meant something big was about to happen.

In the liner notes to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Dylan said: "Hard Rain is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it, is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one."