Sunday, 16 August 2015

On Pain - or, No, Happiness is Not a Choice

In the video game Planescape: Torment, the following question (in potent iambic pentameter) emerges.

What can change the nature of a man?

(For “man”, read “human”.)

It is the work's central question, and the story unfolds in such a way as to imply there is no single correct answer; it is different for everybody.

Take a moment to think about this question for yourself. If you can answer it in one word, all the more elegant.

As for me, right now I can only give one answer.


* * * * *

The following may be hard to stomach, but treat it as a learning exercise and it might well make a great difference to somebody you meet someday. Perhaps even the difference between life and death.

Think back to all the times you tried to help somebody who was deeply depressed or consumed by suffering, especially the sufferings of the mind or heart that cannot be physically seen. What did you say to them?

Did you tell them that everyone goes through it?
Shame. Most types of pain today come from power abuses or hurtful social arrangements: things we have created. They are pains that nobody should have to go through.

Did you tell them that you've been there, so you know how it feels?
Shame. You have not been there as them. You have only been there as you. So you do not know how it feels.

Did you tell them to stop being dramatic?
Shame. Pain is different for everyone, and without strong evidence to the contrary, expressions of pain are to be taken as proportionate to the pain itself. Maybe the same problem would not cause you that much pain if it were you, but it is not you. It's a different person.

Did you tell them to think about how lucky they are? Or that they should be more grateful?
Shame. You are in no position to judge that, nor to read how much gratitude they do or do not feel. In a certain amount of pain you can hardly express gratitude, or much else for that matter.

Did you tell them it's all in their head?
Shame. Money, law, and most of everything that modern society is built on are also all in our heads. That doesn't make them any less real.

Did you tell them they should think about those who are in worse positions?
Shame. How does that address the causes of their pain? And what kind of person is it who feels better, rather than worse, by thinking of other people's misfortune?

Did you tell them that they do not listen?
Shame. Maybe they have good reasons for being unwilling or unable to follow your advice. Maybe what you are telling them is simply wrong.

Worst of all: did you get frustrated, and conclude that they simply do not want to be happy? That they are choosing to suffer?

Shame and degradation. These words are villainy.

Because pain removes choice. We have had so many occasions to learn this.

Spikes of pain can deprive you of choice momentarily. Perpetual pain can suppress it for hours, days, months or years. Perpetual, agonising pain can destroy it completely and never give it back – that is, madness. Pain can change the nature of a (hu)man.

It can change you dramatically. It can make you do things you would never in your right mind do. It can drive you to do things you categorically believe are wrong. That does not make them any less wrong. But it means if we want to stop them from happening, we must stop the pretence that they are nothing but the individual's choice, choice, choice.

Maya ritual blood-letting. The woman on the right is drawing a rope with thorns through her tongue. This pain appears to be chosen. Most pain today is not.

Our societies today, sad to say, are awful when it comes to matters of pain. The salts in the wounds we just looked at are words spoken repeatedly over many years both to myself and to people I have known in deplorable circumstances. For the humankind of today, these are no longer opinions. They are an atmosphere.

An atmosphere that could be called many things, but at its core is but one. Arrogance. We come to believe that we, and our societies, are right, and thus that people are wrong to suffer and suffer because they are wrong. We forget what actually matters.

We forget, for instance, that we are all flawed. None of us are in total control of all of our actions all of the time. We are all breakable. So we are each responsible for making a society that does not break people.

We forget we have created societies which do break people. Oppression, coercion, exclusion, reduction and arrogance: we have raised these engines of pain as the pillars of our communities and nations. We serve gender, which creates incredible pain. We encourage each other to not care about people, and take pride in it. Most pain today, and most of the above reactions to it, are a structural consequence of a social order that inflicts and normalises pain then buries people who suffer it under shame, guilt and stigma.

We forget that we are social creatures, and so for most of us our happiness and well-being are bound to our interdependence with others and the world around us. Happiness is not a choice. It is not something that relies only on factors inside you as an individual. We saturate the internet with a thousand photoshopped quotations and statements each day to drive it through our hearts that if a person is not happy, it is his or her own fault. This is an error and a delusion.

We forget that in a decent world, people matter. Not the egos of our nations. Not the commands of our authorities. Not the selfish accumulation of material stuff. People.

No one of us can change these huge social forces overnight. But you can still make a difference. When faced with those who suffer, resist the urge to judge, to trivialise, and to offer impossible advice. However frustrating it gets, however painful for you as well – remember you are human. Remember it is human to love.

So listen to them. Be there for them. Respect them for who they are. Respect their values for what they are, even if you cannot understand or relate to them; we are all different. Give them words and deeds of warmth and compassion. Hug them, if they let you. Maybe you cannot take their pain away, or solve their problems, or make them happy, but you can prove to them that at least some part of the world – that part that is you – does care. At the very least you will not make it more painful or alienating. In the depths of pain they may not be able to well show appreciation, but believe it: they will remember your kindness for the rest of their lives. And as for you, you will have set an example, improved the condition of humanity, added care to this world and so made it a better place. You will be heroic.

'Evil is just a word. Under the skin, it's simple pain.' This was the conclusion reached by Eleanor Lamb in Bioshock 2.

Perhaps not all evil. From time to time there may be the inherently monstrous Saurons or Gul'dans or Ganondorfs. But most villains in our world do not spawn that way. Rather they are people who have been broken – changed – by pain, or by its close allies: fear, or rage, or loneliness, or despair.

Video games provide many good studies in how this can happen. Consider for example the stories of Count Blumiere (Super Paper Mario); the Ur-Quan (Star Control); Sargeras (World of Warcraft); or Erubetie (Monster Girl Quest). Note that in each of these cases their pain was inflicted by society, be it their own or others. Pain can crush the love from the kindest and strongest of hearts, and in its place raise the will to do what each of these individuals either did or got very close to doing: annihilating worlds or killing millions of people.

Yes. It seems plausible that each of us, if subjected to a specific type and amount of pain, could be turned into an omnicidal maniac.

Dare we deny it? Looking at the history of our world, we can probably add many of our very worst tyrants and criminals to this category. This does not mean their cruelties were any less horrible. What it means is that we might want to stop comforting ourselves with the delusion they were just devils from birth and 100% to blame, and instead, start critiquing and changing the conditions that drove them down those paths. Because otherwise new devils will never stop coming.

To refuse to understand the causes and consequences of pain, thus to condemn so many and leave so many behind: that, now, is a choice our societies seem happy to make. They just haven't yet realised what it will cost them.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


Odawara is a coastal city of around 200,000 people and the main urban centre in the west of Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour from Tokyo by train. Like Kawagoe up in Saitama, it is a historic and attractive part of the Kantō Region whose out-of-the-way feel belies its importance in the story of how Japan became what it is today. For people in or near Tokyo it makes an excellent day trip, not least in spring when the grounds of its castle are fantastic for cherry blossoms (sakura).

Odawara's location relative to Tokyo, in the Odakyu Railway Access Map.

Odawara has been settled for thousands of years, but really grew up and flourished in two capacities: as a massively fortified castle town during the ~1467-~1603 Warring States (sengoku) period, and as a post station on the Tōkaidō road during the 1603-1868 Edo period. Both roles reflected its geography, which as in many places has had a major hand in its destiny. Odawara occupies the low ground between the Tanzawa mountains to the north and Sagami Bay to the south, and for anyone travelling west towards the imperial capital Kyoto, it would have been the last place to rest before entering the Hakone caldera, considered the most difficult section of the journey. Odawara's strategic power over the entire Kantō plain was therefore immense.

As these pictures suggest, the castle is a popular site nowadays, not least because of its beautiful sakura and great views of the surrounding mountains, towns and sea from atop the castle keep. Do not think to enjoy these however without some appreciation for Odawara's story, in which many people suffered.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Ōtama Trail, Oku-Tama, Tokyo: Up the Tama River

The return of spring to Japan brings ideal conditions for exploring the mountains and forests. Being several kinds of tired lately (one reason this blog has been slow of late), I started with a very straightforward back-to-basics route in Oku-Tama (奥多摩).

This is an easy and accessible walk, only three to four hours long, with a few gentle ups and downs but nothing really strenuous. It follows the upstream Tama river (Tamagawa, 多摩川), snaking up the beautiful Hatonosu Valley and Kazuma Gorge over bridges, sleepy village lanes and woodland trails. Refreshing views and the sound of flowing water are a constant for most of the way, and unique highlights include a dam with a special “fish passage”, some charming local cafés, and Oku-Tama's celebrated fresh wasabi.

A few of my previous Oku-Tama mountain walks have featured in this blog, such as Mitake-san/Ōdake-san, Takamizu Sanzan and the more serious Takanosu-yama (two others, Kawanori-yama and Gozen-yama, I am saving for my hiking guidebook). But today's route stays in the valley, paralleling the far end of the Ōme Line across its last four stations. As such, it gives you more exposure to the human side of Oku-Tama, to which it offers an excellent introduction for first-timers in the area.

Oku-Tama (yellow, far left) within Tokyo metropolis. Central Tokyo is the purple area on the right.

It may come as a surprise that Oku-Tama is part of Tokyo at all. Although the metropolis's largest subdivision, only about 6,500 people live in it, mostly concentrated into little villages or towns amidst its expansive mountains and forests. Despite its contrast with the world of concrete further east, the two have been connected for quite some time: typically hikers, fishers, campers and pilgrims have come one way, while timber, limestone, drinking water and hydroelectric power have gone the other.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Ogawa-machi (小川町), Saitama: Mountains, Temples, Forests, Farms

The mountains of Chichibu and Oku-Musashi in Saitama, north of Tokyo, recede into clusters of lowland hills around the centre of the prefecture, giving way towards the great Kanto Plain in the east. The settlement of Ogawa-machi (小川町), nestled amidst this transition zone, is a historic Japanese countryside town of about 35,000 people known for its long traditions of washi paper-making and sake brewing, both nourished by the area's high-quality mountain water. In recent decades Ogawa has also emerged as one of Japan's leading organic agriculture centres, with certain farms gaining high national profile for their pursuit of sustainable systems in energy, waste management, and food production.

It was here that I opened my hiking for the year 2015 with this restful walk through Ogawa's surrounding lowlands and neighbourhoods. The first half crosses a couple of low peaks overlooking the town, offering two consecutive 360-degree views for a really not so demanding climb. The second half winds through the outskirts of the town and lets you soak in the flavour of its farms, shrines, temples and peaceful neighbourhoods.

This is an easy walk, about 8km long, and requires only 3 to 4 hours to complete. There is only one significant uphill stretch, to get onto the adjacent peaks of Kannokura-yama (官ノ倉山) and Sekison-san (石尊山), both less than 350m high. Do be prepared though for one or two scrambles down gravelly slopes, including one that involves holding a chain for support.

To get there, go to Ikebukuro and take a Tōbu Tōjō line express train all the way to the end to Ogawamachi station, a ride of about 1 hour. Change onto a local train (on the same line) to go one stop further to bu Takezawa (東部竹沢) station. The walk ends back at Ogawamachi station, in the town centre.

Click the link below for more photos and route guidance.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Bukō-san (武甲山), Chichibu, Saitama: The Mountain That Built Tokyo

To round off this year's hiking, here is a mountain which will be familiar to anyone connected with Chichibu. Bukō-san (武甲山) stands at 1304 metres high, towering over Chichibu town independent of all other mountains. Its northern face has been completely carved out into terraces, making it instantly recognisable.

From these terraces come limestone which dates back 200 million years, and which over the last 100 has been quarried at an escalating rate on account of its service as a key ingredient in cement. More specifically, it is this cement that has fed the eruptive growth of the thousands of roads, apartments and skyscrapers of Tokyo, first during the Taisho period (1912-26) but most dramatically following the post-World War II economic explosion.

Limestone from the quarries is transported to the many concrete plants that have sprung up below, evidently centrepieces in the local economy, and there it is processed to feed the Tokyo construction industry.

Perhaps surprisingly, this has not reduced the mountain to some devastated, mined-out wasteland. On the contrary, the southern flanks offer an refreshing hiking experience where aside from the odd industrial siren, the quarries rarely intrude on your day. Admittedly demand for wood has done to the south what demand for concrete has done to the north: much of Bukō-san's forest is young sugi plantation rather than true wild woods. That said, these forests tingle with the whispers of sacred sites and secrets from a mysterious, more spiritual era gone by; at the large shrine on the summit, for example, the evidence of devout observances goes back centuries. And at the peak, if you plan well enough to make it there on a clear day, there unfolds a glorious mountainscape that surely ranks among the finest views in the region.

This walk is just over 9km long, takes about 4-5 hours, and is a navigationally straightforward up-and-then-down concern. There is no major technical challenge, but it can get rather steep in places and presents a good workout for anyone of reasonable fitness.

To get there, take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line to Hannō (飯能), where you can change on the same platform to the Seibu-Chichibu Line as far as Seibu-Chichibu (西武秩父) station. From here, take a taxi for about 20 mins. (approx. 2500 yen) to Ichi-no-torii (一の鳥居), on the east side of the mountain. (You can also get off the train one stop earlier at Yokoze (横瀬) station and walk, but this takes an extra two hours along a road in frequent use, not least by trucks trundling in and out of the concrete plants on the way.) You'll finish on the west side at Urayamaguchi (浦山口) station on the Chichibu Main Line; note that this line does not accept PASMO or SUICA cards.

As an aside, like most walks in this part of Saitama, you will pass Musashi-Yokote station on the way. By means of a platform sign it proudly declares itself “the station with goats", so be sure to look out of the window for reference.

“House of Goats”.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Obscenity of Obscenity - or, Get Off My Ship

The Tokyo police, for the second time this year, have arrested a Japanese citizen, Megumi Igarashi, for expressing her plans to build a kayak modelled on her own vagina – or, as the official parlance refers to it, 'three-dimensional obscene data'.

Read that again, if you please. Three-dimensional obscene data.

No, I don't have a clue what that means either.

Let's try to unpack this a bit. Recall, if you will, that “obscenity” comes from the Latin obscenitas, meaning “impurity”, “immorality”, or “filthiness”.

Filth. A powerful concept. A dangerous concept.

Its evokes dirtiness; pollution; immorality. It carries a strong emotive charge of hatred and disgust, a roar to punish and forbid. It is that most sinister of things: a taboo. It does not describe its object, but rather projects on it a repulsive odour, such that we assume that it is to be taken for granted as foul without even bothering to think about it, and that anyone who thinks otherwise shares in its foulness.

Make no mistake. “Filth” is rarely an inherent quality of the object being described. It is more often a stain produced by the describer and splashed upon something he or she wishes to damage.

This makes it a concept less fitting, perhaps, to the realms of informed and sober reasoning, such as legislation – which is why it is all the more disturbing that any society should have ever seen fit to give it a place in its lawbooks. It is a subjective, not objective, judgement, measured not by harmful outcomes but by the tastes, instincts, prejudices and political interests of the person or society judging. It has nothing to do with the public good, and everything to do with that great shipwreck we humans call morality, which has proven a far less seaworthy vessel than that of Igarashi-san's design.

Take a few moments to think about what you consider immoral. Did you come to the conclusion that those things are immoral by yourself, in a way that satisfies your own critical reasoning, your emotions, your curiosity, and your concern for others? Or are you afraid of something that might happen if you think differently?

Any morality grounded in force and fear is no morality at all. It is slavery.

Humanity must correct its mistakes regarding obscenity. It must drop the arrogance by which for hundreds of years it has upheld systems of torture, murder and abusive power relations which it then has the gall to call morality. These concepts are only valuable if they relates to tangible, demonstrable outcomes of harm to human beings or the world around us.

To be clear. Vaginas are not obscene. Penises are not obscene. Sexuality is not obscene. Our bodies, and all parts thereof, are not obscene. There is nothing immoral, unclean or offensive about any of these things.

Igarashi-san makes exactly this case on her website, and further contends that while vaginas are uncompromisingly subject to taboo in Japan, penises, by contrast, are not. I have personally encountered evidence for the latter and documented it here. “Obscenity” thereby takes on an aspect of gendered discrimination, which magnifies the gravity of the problem many times over. This is mirrored, incidentally, by the unpardonable Euro-American terror at the female breast, whose consequences have included breastfeeding mothers being harassed, abused, or expelled from public premises.

So what is obscene?

For a start, the idea that parts of our bodies are obscene, is obscene. Obscenity laws are obscene. Censorship is obscene. Coercion is obscene. Political control over art is obscene. Sex-negativity – the notion that sex and sexuality carry a negative moral charge – is obscene. Moral panic is obscene. Gendered and heteronormative prejudice is obscene. The use of taboos to socially control people's bodies, especially women's bodies, is obscene. And cultural, ideological, political or religious forces which advocate sex-negativity and the persecution of those who challenge it, are obscene to the highest pinnacles of wickedness.


Because all these things here identified as obscene, have an unambiguous historical record of generating, promoting, or coming associated with all forms of tyranny, conflict, social division and the most terrible atrocities in all societies in the world, past and present. They are things that bad or mad societies do. They are inherently villainous practices, because they hurt people. And we can all recognise them as such because we can all study and observe their roles in our collective heritage of crimes against humanity.

Now what does it say about us, when we are happy to entertain these terrors whose cruelties have bled and subjected people in a thousand civilisations, but tremble at the sight of a kayak?

This has not killed anybody. This has not hurt anybody. Therefore, it is not obscene and not immoral. This is not complicated.

Japan's arrest and re-arrest of Megumi Igarashi is shameful in the extreme. The ignominy is worsened in this case because this country, notwithstanding its share of problems with gender and prejudice, has done relatively well to protect itself from sex-negativity and moral panic. Its obscenity laws, which should never have existed, are an anachronistic artifact of foreign influence whose outcomes today are the very meaning of arbitrary. In an erotic art scene featuring all forms of tentacles or fantastic unimaginable paraphernalia, what is even the point of censoring mere genitals?

Perhaps the answer is straightforward. We do not have tentacles – as far as I know, and perhaps excepting some individuals in the UK Treasury – but we do have vaginas and penises. By coercively controlling our discussion and expression regarding these, society attempts to exert power over our bodies; to set the terms and the narratives of our sexual journeys. In other words, all sexual censorship is by definition political censorship.

Or, maybe that overestimates their intelligence. Maybe they are seriously just that terrified of sexuality, and so they spout and swing legislation around in the way that we instinctively scream or flail our arms wildly when in panic. In truth it is probably a combination of both, but either motivation is beneath us as a species.

So long as obscenity, as a concept, remains hijacked by social and political forces disgusted by sexuality and intent on controlling our bodies, it is a meaningless idea, a nothing wielded as a tool of wanton repression. Until we take it back, all laws based on obscenity are illegitimate, and all moral judgements that invoke obscenity are immoral. Our obligation is not to respect them, but to tear them down, and by all means necessary ensure their perfidious architects never construct such nightmares again.

Our bodies are ours, not theirs. Our bodies are our vessels for our journeys through a beautiful universe, and there is nothing obscene about them or any aspect of them. Hurl the hijackers overboard and bail out the bile of their broken moralising judgements. Tell them that we will have our bodies back. Tell them, to their faces: Get. Off. My. Ship.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Kōshū Takaō-san (甲州高尾山), Yamanashi - The Winelands

When you think of Japanese culture and industry, wine might not be the most iconic piece of heritage that comes to mind. Consider, however, Katsunuma (勝沼), in Kōshū (甲州), Yamanashi Prefecture, just west of Tokyo. Look closely at those buildings and fields.

The large buildings are wineries and wine-related facilities, and the fields are not rice paddies, but vineyards, producing Japan's most celebrated Kōshu variety of grapes. Katsunuma is the heart of Japanese wine production, responsible for almost half the country's total wine output, and if you believe the stories, this industry traces its origins back almost 1300 years.

Kōshū gets its name from an abbreviation for Kai (甲斐), the traditional province that became Yamanashi during the Meiji period (1868-1912). It is a landlocked zone centred upon the Kōfu Basin, which is ringed by towering mountains covered in forests. These rise to the north and west into the Japanese Alps; give way to the south to Mount Fuji; and extend east into the mountains of Oku-Tama (Tokyo) and Chichibu (Saitama).

Looking west across the Kōfu Basin. The large road is National Route 20, which roughly follows the old Edo-period Kōshū Kaidō (甲州街道) highway discussed here.
Katsunuma sits on the eastern edge of this basin, and above it rises 1,120m-high Kōshū Takaō-san (甲州高尾山) – not to be confused with the other Takaō-san in Tokyo. What follows here is a hiking route that takes in Kōshū's wine-making heritage, including a very old temple where it is said to have first begun, then launches into the bright mixed forests and breathtaking autumn ridges, where some more secretive shrines and temples hide in the deep wilds. This route can be walked in 5-6 hours, but be prepared for a punishingly strenuous climb from the temple to the Kōshū Takaō-san summit.

To get there, take the JR Chūō Line west out of Tokyo: past Tachikawa, past Hachiōji, past Takao (where you may have to change trains but on the same platform) and past Ōtsuki – but not as far as Kōfu. Get off at Katsunuma Budōkyō (勝沼ぶどう郷) station (“Katsunuma grape district”), where this walk begins and ends.