Plum Blossoms and Snow

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One of the good things about living on a temperate plain on Japan’s Pacific coast is that you’re never too far away from the mountains. Thus, you can enjoy two seasons at the same time.

170319_plum_blossoms_6_600The plum’s in my garden started blooming before the New Year began, and the blossoms have long disappeared here around town now that it’s mid-March, but just today, up in the mountains, in the town of Umegashima, they were holding their plum blossom festival.

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We got there about eight—when the skies were bright and clear.

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Plum blossoms love to pose.  Raise their chins. Flutter their eyelashes.

In town today, the temperature went up to about 17 degrees Celsius (about 62 degrees Fahrenheit).

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But the hike we took up from the town of Umegashima to the Abe Pass was snow most of the way.

In March, in the snow, you’re bound to meet a lot of hearty snow hikers.

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As we were walking the creek up toward the pass, two deer jogged down the slope to our left, down to the creek, saw us, then tore up the slope to our right, up to the ridge.

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When they were down by the creek, they were terrified of us. When they were up on the ridge, they stood nonchalantly, studying us leisurely. They knew we weren’t going to run them down up that slope. Everyone feels better on a mountain. Everyone likes to see things spreading out beneath them.

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Everyone feels a part of everything—and safe—atop a mountain, or at least, up on a ridge.

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Of course, the hot springs were ready for us when we came down—and because we’d only been on the trails for about four hours, we had plenty of daylight on the way home.

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Plenty of time to walk among the plums again.   170319_plum_blossoms_4_450

 

Bursting open

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Plum blossoms . . .

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. . . are . . . 

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. . . bursting open . . .

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. . . now.

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White-eyed birds . . .

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. . . are sucking at the source.

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Cherry petals soon will paint the sky.

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The yashio will give us reasons why.

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Red-tipped leaves will glisten . . .

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. . . like the stars.

It’s bound to give your closed-up heart a jar.

Open it, pump in that mountain air.

Then you’ll see it’s not all so unfair.

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You can find so much happiness—just open your heart—

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—just live with your heart—

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—just light up your heart.

Lyrics courtesy of Shizuoka Duo (from “The End of Me”)

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Snow hike

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From Shizuoka City, the closest place to find a snow hike is probably Aozasa Mountain. There you can be pretty sure that there will be a bit of snow, but that it won’t be so deep.

We’d walked Aozasa recently, though, so we decided to drive all the way up to Umegashima, where it’s a bit colder, and where you’re a little closer to the snow blowing in from Yamanashi. The snow’s usually a bit deeper along the trails above Umegashima.

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We had hoped to enter the town of Umegashima, turn right, and drive another three or four minutes to the trailhead . . . but we had neither chains nor special snow tires, and we came to a slippery stop halfway up the climb into the town, maybe a hundred meters short of the right turn.

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Well, it seemed like a good place to park.

So we walked to the trailhead and started into the woods at 8:53.

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It wasn’t snowing, but  with the wind, snow dust would drift down from the cypress trees and glitter in the sunlight—and highlight how the sun was slipping into the woods.

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Admiring the sun dust and sunshine slowed us down quite a bit.

The first leg took about an hour, then we had to decide whether to head up to Hakkorei Mountain, or up to the Abe Pass.  We took the trail up toward Hakkorei, thinking we’d go as high as Fujimidai, “The Mt. Fuji Lookout,” and then re-consider our options.

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We were the first ones up that way, so the snow was fresh, about 20 cm of it . . . the first ones up except for the kamoshika (Japanese antelope-goat). Their prints, and the prints of some small animals (weasels???) were pretty much everywhere. The kamoshika prints were a bit difficult to discern at first, because it kind of looked like one kamoshika had been running and another had been riding a bicycle, but then we realized the “bicycle” tracks must have just been the way their hooves dragged through the snow, step by step.

The tree below is a famous “climbing tree.” We’ll be back in the spring.

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We got to Fujimidai around 11. Which meant our pace had been about half what it usually was. It wasn’t really so hard to walk in the snow—mainly we just took a lot of pictures.

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We decided, rather than go on up to the top of Hakkorei, we’d cut over to the Abe Pass. The woods were a little more open there, not so steep, so we could imagine larger sweeps of pristine snow.

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And that’s what we did indeed find.

The trail that connects the Hakkorei trail with the Abe Pass provides one of my favorite views (below).

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And then, the Abe Pass (below).

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Heading back down from the Abe Pass, along the Sakasa River, we were still walking in pristine snow, making our own path. I think it got about 50 cm deep. As long as you’ve got leg covers to keep the snow out of your boots, there is no problem!

We got back to the trailhead at about 2:15.

Our usual hot springs, Kogane no yu, was closed for repairs, so we stopped by Onogiso. 500 yen a person. A very nice, peaceful rotenburo (outdoor bath).

Please join us next time!

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Persimmon Light

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Christmas Day, 2016, we strolled along the ridge connecting Kita Kamakura Station with downtown Kamakura. Along the way, we stopped at an outdoor restaurant for clam chowder and sausages. At the table next to ours was sitting a single flower.

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Just a flower. No people. No plates, no bowls, no coffee cups.

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It looked a bit like a dahlia—or maybe a chrysanthemum—but for sure it was a vivid, energetic lavender-pink (Pink! my companion said), and had, I thought a certain lotus-like quality to it—it didn’t burn but stayed ablaze.

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We hadn’t ordered so much food (we were sharing a single bowl of chowder and a single order of sausages), but compared to the flower’s table, ours seemed jammed pack.

So I couldn’t help myself. I turned to the flower and said, “You’re a light eater, aren’t you?”

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Yes, it’s a terrible joke—but it’s a joke, a line, that I can’t get out of my head.

Most of us, in so many ways, could benefit from becoming light eaters. And there is so much we can learn from the flowers in the fields and the trees in the forests.

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And just what do they know? Well, they’ve learned to get the bulk of their sustaining energy directly from the sun—something our scientists are trying to mimic, though in a much more humble way. Yes, the trees and flowers take essential minerals from the soil, but the vast bulk of their intake is water and light. We, on the other hand, tend to consume—eating, playing, working—bigger chunks of solid things, heavier things, and we surely have to wonder how long these big, heavy chunks of things, at our current rate of consumption, can sustain seven billion of us.

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So one small piece of advice: From time to time, think a bit about the “light” eaters. They help us a lot, and they help to keep things in balance. They will keep things in balance, if we let them.

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Winter, especially, is good for contemplating light. As I go for walks beneath the trees or out about town, I feel, maybe imagine, at least three different types of light. One I call New Year’s Light. This is the light that warms you to the bone, that makes you ask yourself, “Wow, is it really January?” Maybe this light cannot be experienced everywhere, but it certainly can be here in Shizuoka.

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And then there is what I call December Light. This is, to me, a somewhat melancholic light. You can feel the cool all around. Just before twilight, you feel the temperature dropping. You wish your gloves were doing a little better job. You know it’s going to be a cold night, but just then, you are happy to be there beneath the maple tree, the tree that has kept its leaves longer than any maple tree anywhere else in town. You are happy to see the December sun slice into the yellow and red, setting it ablaze. This light, you know all so well, is one you can only hold your palms up to for a few more minutes.

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And then there is something I call Persimmon Light. This light is warming, certainly, at least a little bit, but that is not its main appeal. Persimmon Light is something I feel must stay in the sky. There’s something spiritual and mystical about it, something that seems to connect me, here on Earth, with something far out in the universe. I’ve never actually seen a persimmon tree, leafless, full of fruit, atop a mountain, but I can imagine pretty clearly the feeling I would have if I hiked up a snowy trail, beneath the bare-branched hardwoods and the shimmering evergreens—here and there, the sun lighting up the bamboo grass—

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—and came out into the open air, the sky azure, and there a single persimmon tree, its dark, spidery branches seemingly etched into the sky, the hundreds of translucent-skinned, orange fruit glowing.

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Oh, man.

So I’m happy to have this opportunity to say thank you to the light.

Light, thank you.

You sustain me—and give me joy—all the year round.

Ah, and now I’m imagining the lovely komorebi (more or less, sunlight filtered through green leaves, the lighter green the better) that is to be had (for free!) this spring on the trail up Yambushi. I can see myself bathing in it.

Hearty Hikers, get ready!

Persimmon Light

 You led the way

Through the sunlit day

For me.

Through the powdered snow

Bamboo grass aglow

Beneath the trees.

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The truth was in your hand,

I heard no stern command,

I felt so pleased.

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We climbed up through the glare

Gleaned through crisp, clean air

Persimmon light.

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All discord fell mute

As we gazed up at the fruit

Shining bright.

What comes next I am not sure.

But we dreamed of the azure

That night.

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Can you conceive

Why I believe

Persimmon light?

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Can you conceive

Why I believe

Persimmon light?

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Can you conceive

Why I believe

Persimmon light?

NOTE: Only the pink flower pic and Buddha pic are from Kamakura. The snow pics are all from Aozasa Mountain, Shizuoka. The persimmon pics are from here and there in Shizuoka City.

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Christmas day with the Big Buddha

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The Hearty Hikers have had a great year with  lots of great hikes. As 2016 was coming to an end, we decided to take an “easier” walk, a two-day sightseeing tour of Kamakura. Actually, “sightseeing” is not the best word for what we were up to. Our trip to Kamakura was a chance to relax and reflect—to consider how all our time this year in nature had affected us. If you’ve read The Tao of Pooh, you can just imagine that we were up to the same thing that Pooh was up to about every day: effortless action. (This involves listening to your “inner nature.”)

Kamakura, of course, was the capital of Japan from the end of the 12th Century and into the 14th, an important period for the development of Buddhism—and temples from that period still dot the area, nestling up against mountains, or spreading up mountainsides.

Thus, our two-day trip was a somewhat spiritual opportunity.

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We ended up walking about eight hours each day, so it wasn’t so “easy,” but it was more relaxed and slow paced than usual, and as soon as we got off the train at Kita Kamakura Station (about two hours from Shizuoka and about 6 km from the town of Kamakura), our eyes were open to everything.

The side of a house.

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A rain spout.

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Daffodils.

I think it was a day or two before the trip that I read a New York Times article, actually a conversation between a columnist and his perhaps pastor, the gist of which was, the columnist esteemed Jesus greatly, but had trouble accepting some aspects of Christian thought, specifically the virgin birth and the resurrection. Unwilling to accept the truth of those two things, he wondered, could he still be considered a Christian? His pastor’s answer was pretty clear: No, he could not. Other pastors may have answered differently, or given a more nuanced answer.

But what struck me was how the columnist (and he may have played this up a bit), still wished, despite his serious problems with the basic beliefs of Christianity, that he could be a Christian. This seems strange to me. There are probably lots of “religious” groups with views on existence more closely aligned with what he feels true in his heart. Why insist on being a Christian? Is it just a tribal instinct to belong? Is it what makes a square peg think it can fit snugly in a round hole? If you’re comfortable with your faith, then that’s fine, but if you’re uncomfortable?

But if he is sincerely scared of doctrine and specific beliefs that are (no matter from what religion) a bit hard for his rational mind to accept, well, he may have enjoyed Christmas Day with us.  All we did was reflect and breathe and walk and see and feel the world around as best we could. I should have invited him in a comment.

Anyway, we enjoyed Christmas Day with us.

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The first stop was Jochi-ji.

Basically, from what I’ve seen over the years, a Buddhist temple is a few buildings, often quite simple, surrounded by a lot of nature. More or less, Buddhism is (he says) nature—or an awareness of all nature is.

At Jochi-ji, the three statues of Buddha, past, present, future, are the most valuable assets, but another statue intrigued me more. What would you think if you came across the below sign?

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  1. Let’s go!
  2. Ha, ha, ha.
  3. Wait, it could be dangerous!
  4. Thank goodness history fell out the way it did and we’ve got a sign in English!
  5. Hey! they’ve got Aerosmith!

We went with #1, and this is the fellow we met. Hotei is his name.

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The sign said the God of Happiness, but to be honest, I don’t know what the word “God” means in Buddhism. I don’t think there are gods (he says), only folks who are completely enlightened (Buddha) and those who are well on the way to enlightenment but still wanting to stick around and see how they can help out (bodhisattva). The guy above is obviously still hanging around, and he seems, jolly as he is, able to help you be content even if you’re poor. (Benjamin Franklin had something to say about that, too.) Some people believe you can rub his belly for good luck, but I  think it is more likely that an awareness of an idea that he brings to mind can lead to contentment.

Awareness. I think that basically (he says) that’s what Buddhism is all about.

We Hearty Hikers are keen on awareness.

After Jochi-ji, we headed up the hill into the woods and hit the ridge we’d follow over to the main town of Kamakura.

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Yep, camellias were everywhere.

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And we were having such a nice walk that it never occurred to me that I might be cold—but this guy sure seemed to be.

Before descending down into the town, we came to a restaurant—yes, a restaurant, up there on the mountain, you can only walk up, and we enjoyed a hedonistic hour—clam chowder and sausages.

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A cute purple flower sat across from us. A light eater, apparently. (That’s a joke.)

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And then we descended into town and made our way to Kotoku-in . . .

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. . . the home of the Big Buddha.

Construction on the Big Buddha began in 1252 and was completed in about ten years. He? is 13.4 meters tall and weighs 121 tons, all bronze. He lived in houses for a good many years, but strong winds (kamikaze?????) blew them down. From the 15th Century, he’s been out in the elements.

But that’s good. He seems to have nothing to hide.

But who is he? What is he?

The universe. Awareness. An enlightened educator of non-dualism.

That’s it. And you got it right here, on this blog, knowledge acquired after a long day (single day that it was) of contemplation. Any Buddhist priests out there, please correct me if I’m wrong.

Knowledge? Contemplation? Oh, dear.

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In front of the statue is a prayer pot, a round ball, that you can place incense inside of. I don’t know about anyone else, but in a temple like this, with that big guy right there in front of me, it didn’t seem right to pray for something. It only seemed right to try to feel as calm and aware and compassionate as the Buddha himself. That is, as calm and aware and compassionate as I thought the Buddha was.

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A Hearty Hiker! Feeling more content already!

But I’d like to hear everyone’s opinion. What do you see in this face?

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  1. Calm
  2. Love
  3. Awareness
  4. Compassion
  5. False Prophet
  6. Evil
  7. A bore
  8. Something else

You can step into the Big Buddha for a mere 20 yen (18 cents, US). Well worth it.

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The hole is his neck. And you can see that putting him together was quite the task in the 13th Century.

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Two windows in the back, necessary for construction way back when, “enlighten” the inside of the Buddha.

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I pledge to you on my Hearty Hiker’s heart that this is a sincerely peaceful moment.

And then we walked through town, toward the ocean, and made our way to the day’s third temple, Hasedera.

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If you’ve seen some of our hiking pictures, you might know that up on the trails we sometimes come across little Jizo statues. Often they’re wearing red bibs, as they keep an eye on children, especially. 161225_hasedera_jizo_600 At Hasedera, there were thousands (literally) of Jizo. I think, technically, they may rank as bodhisattva.

The pride of the temple, though is the eleven-headed Hase Kannon statue, about 9 meters tall.

No pictures allowed. No pictures taken. So no pictures here. Kannon (literally “see” and “sound”) is often translated into English as “the Goddess of Mercy” but is strictly, as I’ve suggested, neither masculine or feminine. She? is destined for enlightenment, but has promised to stick around a while longer to offer compassion, mercy, and love to all.

Good for her.

Kannon and others, often have lots of heads and arms. That’s because it is a wide, wide world with lots of stuff going on, some of it not so nice. Extraordinary awareness is necessary to take it all in.

Lesson to be learned: Do your best.

Housed in the building next to the Hase Kannon is the Buddha.

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The gardens are lovely.

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Nature, nature, nature.

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There’s a walk through a stretch of hydrangeas (nope, neither blooming nor greening in December) that leads up to a view of the bay.

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Should you stumble and fall? Don’t worry? Someone will see you. Someone will lend you a hand.

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A lovely, lovely Jizo family!!!

And then off to Hase train station . . .

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. . . where it is still Christmas.

See you guys later.

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We

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Christmas and the New Year are upon us. Among the good memories of my first year in my new house, are those of all the people from a variety of countries who’ve spent at least one night here.  I feel so blessed to have had so many bright-eyed young folks stay over—from Hungary, China, Sri Lanka, and Korea.

Yes, of course, we took them all hiking.

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They didn’t seem to mind so much.

I’m also lucky to have the opportunity at my job to meet people from all over: Indonesia, Thailand, Slovokia, Viet Nam, Malaysia, Brazil.

A week or so ago, I hosted a lecture by a magnificent Japanese painter, Nobuaki-san, who explained how he had moved from painting still lifes to painting people’s faces. It was a fascinating talk.

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Near the end, he told us that he couldn’t paint a person until he felt he understood who they were and what they were about. I asked him how exactly he went about doing that. After all, he was living in Ghana at the time he started focusing on portraits—and with ordinary spoken language, at least, could hardly communicate with his models at all.

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He said it was easy, and just took a few seconds. He said he could see who they were by looking into their eyes. He said when he looked into their eyes, he could see their souls. At least with children and elderly folks, he said, it was usually pretty easy.

Some folks may think that sounds a little dreamy, but I think it is about as real as it gets.

I knew exactly what he meant. You can see people’s souls in their eyes. I saw it in the eyes of all those folks who visited my house, all those who have joined us on the mountains.

I sometimes read on Facebook how important it is for us (any us will do) to identify the enemy clearly. I wonder. It seems to me that that’s the best way to create more enemies. Look for something hard enough, and you’ll surely find it.

For better or worse, I’ll choose to keep looking into eyes—and meeting all those fellow souls.

And I hope to have more visitors in the year to come. And I hope to take them all up into the mountains, maybe along a ridge, or up a slope, where we can look over our shoulder and see, at any moment, our dear friend, Fuji, trudging along with us.

I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t like having Fuji-kun along on a hike. Actually, that’s one of the best times to gaze into their eyes.

A few days ago, I told Shizuoka Duo about these thoughts of mine. Here’s what they gave me back. I love those guys. I wish, though, that they’d stop using that recording studio  they keep in one of their back pockets.

Happy holidays.

WE

We’ve gathered here at Christmas time from all around the globe.

We look into each other’s eyes—we see no xenophobes.

Together we can feel so much hope.

Hope. Hope. Hope. Hope. Ho-o-ope.

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In your eyes I see a light that really, really shines.

Makes me feel that all of us are something quite divine.

You’ve got me feeling mighty fine.

Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fi-i-ine.

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Sri Lanka and Germany might be represented here.

Malaysia and Shizuoka’s spirit is feeling awful near.

What can you possibly see that anyone would ever have to fear?

Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear. Fe-ea-ear.

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Maybe we’ve got some Christians here, a couple of Muslims, too.

A Buddhist, a Hindi, might be sitting next to you.

You are they, and they are you, you know it’s oh so true.

True. True. True. True. Tru-u-ue.

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People from Indonesia might be here by chance.

From China, Florida, Vietnam, Ghana and France.

From Thailand and Slovokia, it makes me want to dance.

Dance. Dance. Dance. Dance. Da-an-ance.

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Well, I’m really just so happy that you are sitting here with me.

So look into my eyes and tell me what you see.

I see you and you see me—and we are really we.

We. We. We. We. We-ee-ee.

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Persimmons hung and dried

161210_star_persimmon_450The love was coming through the blue.

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The trees were full.

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The melody was delicious.

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Visions of persimmon stars danced in my head.

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And many of the neighbors were doing it. Hanging and drying persimmons.

Once a man on a mountain gave me two dried persimmons. It changed my life.

So if you’ve got a tree full of astringent persimmons and don’t know what to do with them, why don’t you hang them out to dry? Unlike some creatures, they don’t mind being hung out to dry.

For those of you in Japan, this is common sense.

And it’s simple. Peel the fruit. Sterilize it with alcohol or boiling water. Tie it to a string. Hang it up outside. Preferably, in a sunny spot with a good breeze.

Then wait. Watch the fruit grow translucent and sweet. For a couple of weeks. Depends on the weather—how dry or not. If you get some dark spots on the fruit, don’t worry. If you get a touch of mold, dab it with alcohol and all will be fine.

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Don’t forget to massage the persimmons every now and then. Will make them less tough, a bit gummier. You can sort of flatten them out that way, too.161205_star_persimmon_298

Soon, on any given day, you’ll need two shots, a frontal view and a side view, to see how things are coming along.

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Cut the string. Put the persimmon in your mouth. Chew. Don’t swallow the seeds.

Know unbound joy.

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Something New

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At the foot of the trail up to the Jizo Pass, we greeted, as usual, Mr. Red-Coat Jizo.

“Dear Mr. Jizo,” we said, “Once again please let us borrow this trail  for the day.”

“Sure,” he said. He always does.

But being asked makes him happy. He’s glad to know that we know that the trail, the ridge, and the view from atop Aozasayama can only be borrowed.

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Just above the pass, as we headed across the ridge, we came through patches of frost.

Ms. Six Pence (that’s what I’ll call her) and her friend Mr. Six Pence (perhaps, in the future, sometime in the not-so-distant future) had joined the Hearty Hikers for the first time.

“Oh!” Ms. Six Pence called out suddenly. “I’ve got something in my boot.”

“It’s probably a one-yen coin,” Mr. Six Pence said.

She pulled off her shoe—and what do you know!—she did have a one-yen coin in her shoe.

“How did you know that?!” she asked him.

They shared a look. Then Tamiko and I shared a look—we both knew what their look was all about. There was magic in the air.

But then again, in the woods, as the trees feel all that moves among them, as they converse with their buddies about all that’s going on, magic is always in the air.

“Well, that’s certainly something new!” she said.

Up we went, me and Mr. Six Pence a little ahead. He said to me, “She spilled a purseful of change as she was going out her door. But don’t tell her—I mean, don’t remind her. I wanted to tell you, though. I don’t have special powers.”

“Oh,” I said, “but I’m afraid you do.”

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“Diamonds!” we heard Ms. Six Pence call out.

“Diamonds, already?” I said to Mr. SP. He blushed.

The two ladies scrambled up to where we were waiting.

“You didn’t see the diamonds?” Tamiko asked me.

Ms. SP invited me to look into her camera’s viewer.

“Wow, where were those?”

“Just back there! You walked right past them!”

Indeed I had. But it’s always this way. When you’re with someone new, you see new stuff. I’d seen all kinds of frost formations, foot-tall frost flowers, but never these cute little green fellows.

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“Waaahhh!” Ms. Six Pence exclaimed. “Fuji. There’s Fuji. And look at all that blue!”

Indeed, there was our old, old friend Fuji. We’d borrowed him for the day, too, and all the ridges between us and him. All this was ours and ours alone—do you see anyone else?—though, of course, only on loan.

And she was right. It was mighty blue. It’s often really blue looking out from the Aozasawa ridge, but it seemed especially so this day. I’m not sure whether it was the sky, or Ms. Six Pence, or both, that made it that blue.

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Regardless, up into that blue we went.

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And soon we were atop Aozasa. Fuji had stayed with us the whole time. As old friends do.

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And just like the winter branches, we reached for spring, up into that amazing blue.

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There was something soft and peaceful about the journey back.

And as I drove back toward town, and imagined how much Mr. SP must be aching to take Ms. SP’s hand, I remembered that old song:

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue—

and a silver sixpence in her shoe.

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Rainy Day Persimmons

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On the way home, I took a little detour, parked beside a narrow stream, stepped out under the grey skies and into a light rain—and took a little walk. When it’s not so bright, things that are bright of and by themselves sometimes look a little special.

There were a lot of flowers growing in and around garden patches. And of course, the persimmons. And behind the persimmons, in the misty distance, our dearest of friends, Ryuso Mountain.

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I wasn’t surprised, back home, that Shizuoka Duo showed up on my doorstep. Just one look in their faces—and I could tell they’d had a day pretty much like mine.

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They’d sung this one for me before, but as you might imagine, on a day like today, when everything is so grey, it really touched me.

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Mist fills the grey

Grey fills the cloud

Cloud fills the sky

Sky fills my eyes

Eyes fill our mind

Mind fills with dreams

Dreams make our world

World all so grey.

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Grey is our play

On a day like today

Grey is just grey

As we go on our way.

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I saw a girl

Turn a cartwheel twirl

Leaping through the grey

Laughing at the day

She calls out to me

Up soars my heart

But then she fades away

And all I feel is grey.

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