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.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Mitō-san (三頭山): Three-Headed Mountain

Mount Fuji from the summit of Mitō-san.

Mitō-san (三頭, 1525m), the highest of the 'Three Mountains of Oku-Tama' in western Tokyo, is trickier to reach than the others. For one thing it is scarcely in Oku-Tama at all; it stands in the far southwest corner, on the boundary with Hinohara village and Yamanashi Prefecture. On the other hand, if you go there on a day with nice weather, you can get to see things like this.

Mitō-san – so named because of its clump of three summits – was apparently closed off to people in the Edo Period. This left it in peace to grow a splendid forest of huge beeches (buna, ブナ) and maples (kaede, カエデ), which still stand despite the dominance of sugi plantations in the area and display impressive colours in the autumn. This rich mixed forest also supports a thriving diversity of plant and bird life.

In a reversal of its former status, Mitō-san is now the centrepiece of the Hinohara Citizens' Forest (tomin no mori, 都民の森). The mountain and its surroundings are now open to everyone, with a well-equipped and well-maintained network of hiking trails and facilities which attract large numbers of people, although its relative remoteness stops it from getting overcrowded or detracting too much from immersion in nature.

There are multiple hiking routes to choose from, and they are generally quite easy – occasionally steep, but never punishingly so. This is definitely a mountain suitable for beginners, with a lot of cabins and information boards making it easy to navigate, rest or find support if needed. For more advanced walkers, longer routes out of the Citizens' Forest are also an option – you can go down to Oku-Tama Lake, or even up to Gozenyama if you are feeling ambitious enough.

The Citizens' Forest occupies the northwest corner of Hinohara Village, Tokyo. Mitō-san is in the top-left corner. To the north is Oku-Tama, to the west Yamanashi.

The biggest challenge lies in getting there. Hinohara, the last part of Tokyo still designated as a village (mura, ), is a sleepy place, whose mountain and forest coverage far exceeds its rail coverage. Unless you have a car, take the Itsukaichi Line (which branches off the Ōme Line) from Tachikawa to Musashi-Itsukaichi Station (武蔵五日市駅). From there, ride the Nishi Tokyo Bus (2014-5 timetable here) to tomin no mori (都民の森), although it may only run to Kazuma (数馬) where another bus will be waiting to take you the rest of the way. That's about 1 hour 10 minutes and 910 yen one-way, incidentally.

Click below for the full article.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Aizu (会津) - The Other Fukushima

This is Fukushima.

Yes, that Fukushima (福島). The prefecture in northern Japan brought to such suffering by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011, since when it has joined a very long list in the company of places like Chernobyl, or Hiroshima, or Jonestown, wherein the very mention of the name evokes fear and disquiet. Wherein its entire story, its entire identity, in the eyes of those not in the know, is reduced to one defining calamity.

But let us get some perspective. Fukushima is large and diverse, the third largest prefecture in Japan, and is divided into three regions: to the west, historic and mountainous Aizu; in the centre, the well-connected Nakadōri; and to the east, the coastal Hamadōri. Of these, the nuclear disaster exclusion zone covers a segment of Hamadōri, and the vast majority of the prefecture is still safe to visit.

Aizu (red), Nakadōri (green), and Hamadōri (blue).

I recently had the good fortune of a weekend visit to Aizu (会津), which warrants special discussion in its own right. Historically Aizu was not only a separate domain, but a leading power in its neighbourhood overshadowed only by the rise of nearby Sendai under Date Masamune, who briefly occupied parts of it during his conquests. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, the Aizu lords became very close to the Tokugawa family and turned Aizu into one of the shogunate's most dedicated and loyal domains in the country. It was – and is – a proud territory, whose heritage reverberates to this day with echoes of the samurai and bushido warrior spirit.

This close relationship with the shoguns, however, transpired to Aizu's great sadness. Aizu is perhaps best known for its bloody defeat during the 1868-9 Boshin War, during the Meiji Restoration, in which the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and the Japanese emperor restored to power. Even after Edo (Tokyo) fell to the imperial forces, whose leaders and members came mostly from the southwestern domains of Chōshū and Satsuma, Aizu continued to fight on the shogunate's behalf at the core of a coalition of northern domains. Long one of the revolutionaries' bitterest enemies due to its extreme loyalty to the Tokugawas, Aizu put up ferocious resistance until it was crushed after a month-long siege of its capital at Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松).

Given the southern domains' special hatred for it, Aizu was dealt exceptional brutality during and after this conflict, with many of its people massacred, tortured, imprisoned or sent into exile. Furthermore, in an insult as unpardonable as insults came, the survivors were prohibited from tending to the bodies of their fallen, and these were left to decay in the streets. Aizu' defeat made the northern coalition untenable, and what remained of the Tokugawa loyalists fled Sendai for Hokkaido by sea, pursued by the imperial forces to their final destiny at Hakodate.

Tō no Hetsuri (塔のへつり), in Shimogō, southern Aizu.

I have seen it written that to this day, significant enmity, or even hostility, towards Chōshū and Satsuma remains in the hearts of many people in Aizu, who find it hard to forgive this ruthless treatment. For example, in 2006, this commentator observed the following:

A few weeks ago when I was in the city of Aizu in Fukushima, Japan, there was a panel discussion which included the mayor of Aizu...(involving) a letter from the mayor of the city that would have been the capital of Choshu (presumably Hagi) asking the governor of Aizu whether they could forget the past and just get along. The incidents were over 130 years ago. There was a heated debate that involved a lot of cheering and jeering from the audience, but it was clear that Aizu would not forgive these two clans...The panel pointed out that it was the victim that should reach out for peace, not the aggressors...The conclusion of the panel was that there would be no “forgiveness” but that “dialog” should continue.


The same account goes on to mention that because tending to the bodies of fallen Aizu soldiers had been forbidden, they were never commemorated at the Yasukuni Shrine, as is the custom for Japanese war dead. This supposedly gives many people in Aizu a uniquely negative view of government officials' visits to the controversial shrine; including by the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who in a further twist, happens to come from Yamaguchi Prefecture – that is, Chōshū.

Under the Meiji government, the old system of feudal domains was abolished, and replaced by what would become today's prefectural system. This was the end of Aizu as an independent domain, for it was joined to the rest of what would become Fukushima Prefecture, but to this day it remains highly conscious of its historical clout. It tells its stories and exhibits its identity at every opportunity, retains the name of Aizu in many place names and railway stations, and has built up a very strong tourism sector upon this heritage.

Akabeko, a symbol of the Aizu region.

Alas for unforeseen consequences. When Aizu was incorporated as part of Fukushima, nobody could have predicted that some hundred and forty years later the March 2011 Triple Disaster, in particular the spectre of nuclear radiation, would batter that tourism sector in the stomach for no more reason than this mere association of names. Even though Aizu was not so directly affected by the disaster – indeed, Aizu-Wakamatsu now shelters some thousands of people evacuated from the nuclear exclusion zone – its status beneath the very name of Fukushima has frightened off hundreds of thousands of visitors, both Japanese and foreign, especially because of the lack of rigour and transparency in how radiation safety was assessed and communicated.

Nonetheless, I hope that this article can provide a few insights and images, and help persuade you that a journey to Aizu, Fukushima is not only quite safe but certainly worth your while. Unfortunately my own trip was short; time and resources limited me to a small exploration of its south (Minami-Aizu, 南会津), and I did not get the chance to go to Aizu-Wakamatsu. Nevertheless, I saw splendid things. Click below for the full article.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The 10 Game Challenge

Recently, my honourable friend Kunal Mathur of Quixotic Quagmires issued a challenge to several persons, myself among them, to list the ten books that have most influenced their thinking.

It occurred to me, however, that although I have the highest respect and admiration for good literature, not least as a writer myself, my own path has been shaped to a far profounder degree by video games. I could certainly have listed the books from which I have derived greatest influence, but a list of the most influential video games appeared more fitting to my circumstances. It would also be an opportunity to challenge anti-videogame prejudices, and show that games, as much as books, have the worthiest contributions to make to a person's growth and thought. This article, therefore, is my response.

It took me some time to narrow down the list. I should point out that these are not necessarily my favourite video games, though I consider them all splendid or better. Nor is this list like the other I have compiled here, which gives ten examples of video games' excellence as an art form and potential for socio-political commentary. These, here, are simply the eleven games which I believe have had the greatest influence on my thinking, my values, and the person I have become.

You read that right, by the way. Not ten. Eleven.

The list is as follows:

1) Rallo Gump
2) Loom
3) Star Control 2
4) Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
5) Command and Conquer series
6) Discworld
7) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
8) Pokémon Blue
9) Ultima 7 & 8
10) World of Warcraft
11) Monster Girl Quest

I should also give honourable mention to the following, among others: Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy; Theme Hospital; the Metroid Prime series; Bioshock; the Legend of Zelda games Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess; the Advance Wars series; Little King's Story; Planescape – Torment; and the two games that most directly oriented my path towards Japan: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon and Okami.

Click below for the specifics.