Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet


Angelica is a member of the Apiaceae, the parsley or celery family, all of which have hollow stems and tiny flowers that present themselves in circular bunches or umbels. From this they get the fine title of umbellifer, umbrella-bearers. In the same family are anise, dill, chervil, celery, caraway, cilantro, cumin, carrot, fennel, parsnip, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace. Many of the umbellifers are delicious, some are contraceptive, and at least one, hemlock, is deadly poison, best known as the cup of hemlock that killed Socrates.

Angelica can grow immensely tall, nine or ten feet. In Northern Europe, the stalks are candied; in Iceland, they are eaten raw with butter; in Norway, the roots are made into bread. The herb has long held pride of place in folk medicine. In Earthly Paradise (1629), Parkinson extols the virtues of angelica to ease the stomach and “to expel any windy or noysome vapours.” It was also supposed to inspire disgust for alcohol – doubtfully, since it also provides one of the key flavors in gin, vermouth, Chartreuse and absinthe. Chinese Angelica, or dong quai, has recently been touted as a supplement for menopausal women. It seems also to speed the healing of ulcers, so Parkinson may have been on to something. The plant takes its name from the angel who is supposed to have revealed its medicinal properties to a dozing monk. Or from St. Michael the Archangel, around whose feast-day, May 8, it blooms.

In Japan the plant is called ashitaba, tomorrow leaf. They say it grows so quickly that leaves picked in the evening will be replaced the next morning. Or it may bring more tomorrows. During the Edo period, many of the Izu Islands served as penal colonies. Sent to investigate why the prisoners were stubbornly refusing to starve to death, officials found them subsisting quite healthily on wild angelica. The islanders still attribute their long lives to a diet of ashitaba. On Miyakejima you will see old ladies, impossibly old ladies, creaking their way home from the gardens, heads in kerchiefs, feet in two-toed tabi socks, dirt packed under their fingernails, their baskets filled with angelica, covered in white cloth.

Crushed in the hands, the fresh leaves are sweet, slightly musky – not quite mint, not quite juniper. It is a clean, windswept smell, the smell of meadow, of England, of green, the smell of a road after rain. It is the smell of a world in which there is nothing rotten or putrid or sulfurous, a world in which all of those things have been rinsed away.


In the parking lot of the restaurant, the island’s only restaurant, a crow is perched on the hatchback of a pickup truck. A cat leaps out from under the truck, makes a grab for it, but the crow is too quick, launches itself into the branches with two flaps of its enormous wings. As the crow is almost as big as the cat, with a wicked sharp beak, it is not clear which has been luckier to escape.

Your lunch arrives. You have no idea what you ordered, as you cannot read the menu, and neither of women working speaks any English, so you pointed and grunted and hope that you haven’t ordered entrails or sea cucumber.


            Afloat in my soup

                        sweetbitter leaves – a flavor

                                    I’ve never tasted


The same leaves have also made their way into the tempura. You have eaten deep-fried flowers before, but never a deep-fried leaf. What is this? you ask. The server smiles, pleased at last to have been asked a recognizable question. Ashitaba. Your phrasebook is entirely useless for conversation, but it does have a good glossary of food terms, and there you find it – ashitaba, angelica. It seems like a fine thing to eat in spring.


You feel like you are seeing everything now. Nothing was happening, and now everything is happening. Why does your sight seem now so sharp and clear?


      The raspberry vine

            puts out first five white petals

                  then a bright green leaf


At the bottom of your shoulder bag you find the apple, Keiko’s parting gift to you, and as you make short work of it as you walk, enjoying the crunch and the sweet juice of it, pitching the core into the bushes without shame.


      Chewing a big bite

            of a big yellow apple –

                  the taste of kindness


Sitting on the curb, waiting for some sort of bus to come, at your feet you find a dried-out snail shell at the end of a long scribble of glittering snail-slime.


      A snail went this way

            and that over the pavement

                  looking for some shade


There is a rustle in the canes, and out comes a long lean tawny body, rippling squirrel-like over the sidewalk: a mongoose or a weasel. Clearly it is thinking about crossing the road, and a car is coming. You click your tongue at it, tsk-tsk, and it stops and gives you a look before ducking back into the brush. If nothing else you have saved a life today.

A life other than your own, that is. Danger has a way of cutting through melancholy, the real fear blinding you to the fear dimly imagined. If you could only always just have escaped death, you would never be sad again.


You had not expected this to be so easy. In less than an hour you have found the road that circles the base of the volcano. All that remains is to walk around to the south face where, judging by the map, another road squiggles its way up the crater. You could be to the top and back down to the port long before the boat departs for Tokyo at two-thirty, with time for lunch.

When you round the bend of the road and catch your first glimpse of the summit, you see your mistake. It is as if you have wandered into some post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. There is the husk of what must have been the visitor’s center. There is a backhoe, resting on its side, yellow paint pitted with rust. Whatever road once went to the summit is now under a lot of dirt and rockfall and dark gray ash.


       Stubs of dead tree-trunks

             standing around a crater –

                   ashtray at last call


And something is beeping, loud and piercing, on the minute, a pair of beeps, short-long, dit-dah. Is it an alarm of some sort? A warning? Is it the movie soundtrack telling you that you are about to be attacked by a ragtag band of inbred knuckle-dragging mutants?

No, but the danger is real, if not quite so melodramatic. Since the eruption nine years ago, Oyama has been venting vast quantities of sulfur dioxide gas, a tall white plume that – if you had landed in daylight – you would have seen from miles away. Now it is hard to miss, indeed it is practically in your face. And, right on cue, the wind changes, bearing the column of sulfurous death straight down toward you.

This seems like an opportune moment to reconsider your plans for the morning. Luckily there is another road down, and you take it. The metal guardrails have been eaten half-away, and they twist off easily in your hand.


Miyakejima, or Miyake Island, is one of the Izu-shoto, the chain of islands that begins just beyond of Tokyo Bay and continues south along the juncture of two continental plates. All are to some degree volcanic. Miyake in most cases means “royal estate,” but here it probably remembers an older word, yake, that means “burning.” Like Stromboli, the island is essentially one big volcano, Mount Oyama.

During the last century, the volcano was fairly regular in its habits. Every twenty-odd years, a vent would open and pour lava down one face of the mountain, or a new cinder cone would be thrown up. This happened in 1940, 1962 and 1983. Lava flows are not good if they happen to end up in your backyard, but they move slowly and can usually be seen coming. At the old summit, all was relatively quiet. The crater lake became a tourist site, with a visitor’s center, pathways to scenic views, a gently steaming fumarole surrounded by tropical flowers.

But in 2000 the volcano broke character. The pressure in the magma chamber had built up faster than any small pressure valve could relieve, and the result was what volcanologists call a Plinian eruption – sudden, violent, voluminous, and with a bang. (There are also super-Plinian eruptions, but records of these, as well as of the populations that experience them, tend not to survive).

Between June and August, there were three such major eruptions. Luckily, they all went up rather than sideways, or the result would have been catastrophic. As it was, no one died, but authorities were taking no chances, and the evacuation began. It was not until five years later that any of the island’s nearly four thousand residents were permitted to return. Not all of them did.


Among the things that endear you to Japan are drink vending machines. They carry soda and juice and water, to be sure, but also green tea, and – best of all – cans of coffee, with various amounts of milk and sugar, both cold and hot. The most common is Boss Coffee, whose logo features a mustachio’d man with a jut of jaw and a pipe clamped firmly in it. Others carry the face of actor Tommy Lee Jones, who does not look happy to be the boss, looks too sad to be in charge of anything.

These vending machines are everywhere. You might be on a small barely-populated island, seven hours south of Tokyo, at five-thirty in the morning, after having slept very little, and in your clothes. You might be hiking a long twisted road up a mountain, for reasons you cannot clearly remember.


      The day is breaking –

              one side of the mountain pink

                     one in cold shadow


And there in the distance, gleaming red and white, a beacon of all that is bright and welcoming about consumer capitalism, will be a vending machine.

Sitting on a concrete block, sipping a café au lait, enjoying the feel of warm metal between your hands, you listen to another announcement broadcast on the PA system. The entire island is wired for sound. Every now and then a set of speakers will hum into life, as if clearing its throat to say something, but then thinking better of it and falling quiet again. This bulletin is the fourth since you landed two hours ago, but all you catch is good morning. Presumably none of them has been urgent. You cannot imagine an evacuation order beginning with good morning, but in Japan, who knows?

But the hot coffee has helped you reach a kind of resolution. There is nothing for you to do but to walk, following the slope of the roads upward, to see how far you can get before something or someone makes you stop.


On the night boat to Miyakejima, a second-class ticket gets you a bed-sized strip of carpet in a communal cabin, and a blanket to lie on or under as the mood takes you. Even in such a public place, you are pleased to see how the no-shoe rule is observed. In most other parts of the world, you would not leave out a pair of shoes and expect ever to see them again. Except in Switzerland, where the shoes would probably come back cleaned and polished.

You are pleased, also, finally to have an excuse to roll out your sleeping bag and inflatable sleeping pad. Their weight, bulk and uselessness have begun to make you feel sheepish. It is entirely backward, trying to find occasions to use things that you brought along just in case. Someday you will learn to pack what you actually need, and not what some ideal version of yourself would need – cold-weather camping gear, for example. Someday you will learn what it is you need.

You have made no plans, have no reservations, no place to go or stay. You do not speak the language. What you do not need, right now, is to think about these things, but to sleep.

At four thirty in the morning, the ship’s PA begins to play lilting, wakeful music, the volume gradually increasing. At four forty-five, the lights flicker on. You are beginning to like these soft nudges, which question and suggest rather than announce or demand. Why don’t you think about getting up? Wouldn’t it feel nice to brush your teeth? It would be so wonderful if you could have your things packed and ready to disembark in five minutes.

Outside on deck there is a lot of dark. Dark sky, glittering dark of the harbor, somewhere above you the paler dark of a new volcano.


       Asleep on my feet –

              a sudden whiff of seaweed

                     and fishnets drying


You have a few hours to kill before taking the overnight boat to the Izu Islands, so you set off to explore Ueno Park.

Ueno is famous for its cherry trees, but the blossoms will not open for another week. People have already begun to claim their spots for hanami, blossom-viewing parties, laying out blue tarps on the sidewalk in much the same way that Americans reserve park pavilions, or lay down blankets in the grass, for Fourth of July barbecues and fireworks. The tarps are the same that the homeless use to construct their foursquare shelters, at the other end of the park near the train station. Clearly they are resistant to wear and weather.

The park is a paradise of cheap greasy food. There is a stand frying up okonomyaki, the Osaka omelet or a pancake, topped with cabbage, dried shrimp or squid, egg and onion, and served up with lashings of mayonnaise. There are skewers of chicken yakitori, looking a bit dry. There are tubs of oden, tofu and radish and fishcake and mystery meats, slowly burbling in broth. There are cuttlefish grilled whole and sliced into rings. There are noodles sautéed with cabbage and Worcestershire sauce, served with hot pink pickled ginger. There are sweet potato fries, and whole potatoes cut into a long spiral, deep-fried and salted and served on a stick.

You watch the man making takoyaki, octopus balls. The griddle for these is like a non-stick muffin tin with hemispherical depressions. Into these the cook pours the batter, thick with chunks of octopus tentacle, ginger, onions and cabbage. Then, with a pair of immense chopsticks, he actually turns the batter over in the mold, like spinning a globe of the world, to create a perfect sphere, golden brown and without apparent joint or seam.

In praise of his skill you buy some for your lunch, six balls to a plastic box, daubed with a thick sweet soy sauce and a topped with a fistful of bonito fish-flakes. Inside they are gooey and incredibly hot – your first bite burns off most of the roof of your mouth, and you will be working off bits of skin with your tongue for hours.

Wandering around the pond, its obscene swan-boats, its small islands with dead reeds and sad birds, the gray slightly soiled quality of late winter, you feel lost.


      March in Ueno Park –

            even the night-herons hunch

                  down in their collars


Once you took refuge in the world, the this-ness and that-ness of it, the radiant actuality of its just being there. All these new sights and smells, all these flavors for you to sample, would once have distracted you from yourself. But now –

      An tall man in bed

            trying to cover himself

                  with a child’s blanket


On the train, contemplating the forest path in Hakushu’s poem. The characters oku “inner part, interior” and michi “road,” recall Basho, the title of his last travel diary, Oku-no hosomichi. It is usually translated into something like “narrow road of the interior.” One could also say “the backwoods.”

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, writes Dante. In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.

Cold and windy, or dark and pathless, what is this forest in which we find ourselves? Or rather, where we lose ourselves, in order to find out way out of it? Going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it, where do we hope to end up?

A destination needs desire. To reach it requires will. The wanderer has will without desire, to move without getting anywhere, but to keep moving.  One is always closer by not keeping still, says Thom Gunn. The wanderer tells himself that his aimless errancy is better than the inverse, desire without will. That would be simply to yearn, boundlessly longing for what can never be reached. Perhaps he feels that to keep moving is more heroic, less worthy of pity. It is not.

Rather it is like the shark who must keep moving, moving to breathe, moving to stay afloat, or else sink, into the dark blue depths, under the weight of endless tons of water, where even the light of the sun, if it could reach that far down, would be pale and cold.


At breakfast, before driving you back to the train and Tokyo, Tomoko gives you a present. It is a postcard, a blue woodblock print of Asama-yama puffing smoke, seen through a vista of trees so skeletal and sketchy that they look like kanji. Above it is printed what seems, from its layout, to be a poem.

It is Kitahara Hakushu, Tomoko tells you, a famous Japanese poet. He stayed here in Karuizawa, wrote this poem about the karamatsu, those are the pine trees that drop their leaves. It is the very forest you trudged through on your way up the valley.

Karamatsu, you discover, means Chinese pine – what in English we would call larches. What is printed on the postcard is only one stanza of a longer poem; here is your first stab at translating it:


       Deep in the forest of China pine

       also a road of my own I took –

       a road to pass the misty rain

       a road to take the mountain wind