Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet


A woman is kneeling upright on the floor, back straight, arms by her sides, waiting to be beheaded. It will be done with a nodachi, one of the two-handed blades used by samurai against cavalry, horse-killing swords they called them. It is the plot of something like The Seven Samurai, and one of the men lounging about on the tatami mats is the most skilled swordsman, and will volunteer. You cannot bear to see her head cut off, do not want to see the moment her life leaves her body, irretrievably gone, and so you retreat to the edges of your dream, behind dream-walls and around dream-corners.

Now afraid to sleep, you lie staring for hours until you are roused by a call from the front desk. There is a delivery for you, a package, it is the notebook you left on the airplane, the airline found it and has mailed it to you. You turn to the last written pages, hoping to find a record of your dream of the week before, a dream to chase away this dream, but there is nothing. You only dreamed that you’d written it down. Perhaps you only dreamed that you dreamed it. If this is what your dreams are like, you are glad to forget them.


In the middle of Hibiya Park there is a long white tent, the sort set up to provide medical attention at outdoor festivals. On the map it is labeled Shelter for People Who Cannot Get Home. Probably it is meant for commuters who have one drink too many and miss the last train, but there is something touchingly literal about this, and ironic.

Tokyo seems filled with people who cannot get home. You have never seen so many street people, lying out on benches or pavement, bare feet thick as hooves. Others have pitched what seem like more permanent shelters, cubes of blue plastic tarp, their sides plumb straight. Some have laid down little yards of cardboard, others have hung their clothes out on the park railing to dry. Someone has crunched a line of beer cans around a rail, but neatly, turning each one at a right angle to the next, to form a pleasing pattern. Even the homeless in Japan have a sense of design.

The Imperial Palace Gardens are bare and beautiful, a composition of dwarf pine trees, raked gravel, smooth-clipped lawn.

             Nothing so empty

                         as an army parade ground

                                     without an army


At Tokyo Station, you are at last hungry enough to overcome your shyness and sit down at ramen counter. It makes it easier that noodle soup is the only thing on the menu. The only contribution asked of you is your choice of broth: soy or miso? The noodles are tasty, especially when doctored with pickled ginger, red bean paste, hot sesame oil and ground sesame seeds, and for a few minutes you are absorbed by their taste and texture, warm and full and complete. Halfway back to your hotel, though, the sadness catches up to you again, as you gradually remember how it feels to move through the world alone.


            In a tiny room

                        the paper squares of window

                                    blue in the twilight


At Zojoji Temple you drop a handful of thin coins into the offering box, put a pinch of incense on the brazier, bow, and immediately wish you hadn’t. It is a performance, an American’s affected openness toward a faith you do not belong to and which does not much mind what you think of it.

Around the altar the floor is raised, polished wood, over which priests and worshippers slide to and fro in their socks. It is all gold, gold paint on the Buddha and the altar and the pillars, long gold chandeliers reaching halfway to the ground. You take a seat at the back, sit and rest.


            How the eyes water

                        through a blue haze of incense

                                    the glitter of gold


The problem, Buddhism teaches us, is attachment. We attach ourselves to our desires – for power, for possessions, for other people – to assert our selves, the illusion of our own permanence. The enlightened person understands that such attachments are ephemeral, lets them go.

But looked at another way, the enlightened person is entirely selfish, for among these attachments are responsibilities. To truly overcome the self would be to submit to these responsibilities – this, at least, is what Christ and Confucius seem to teach us.

Some responsibilities are given to you – parents, children, your own survival. Others are chosen. One may chose to have a child, or not. One may chose to have a partner, or not. Might it be better to choose not to take on such responsibilities? Or is that choice simply another form of selfishness?

Perhaps we do not make these choices; we make them without deliberation, or they are made for us, by our history and our circumstances. And perhaps to think this way is also selfish, avoiding the responsibility of making a choice.

You want to live honestly, and responsibly, and you do not want to be unhappy all the time, and you are trying to imagine a life in which all are possible. What you fear most is that you can or will not place anyone else before yourself, that you are simply not capable of love. This is the fear that more than anything brings you to despair.


            Zojoji Temple

                        the scritch-scratch of a twig broom

                                    on a dry flagstone


Today you attend a lecture about the history of fires.

Until the 19th century Tokyo – or Edo as it was known then – was made mostly of wood and paper. The most common houses were framed in cedar or cypress, sometimes finished with clay, mud or plaster, with paper windows, paper sliding doors, paper paneling for walls. The mild climate made such light construction possible. But there is nothing so good for starting a fire as paper, and the city was famous for burning down on a regular basis, especially in winter when the warming braziers burned charcoal at all hours, and the stray embers multiplied. The saying went: Fires and fistfights are the flowers of Edo.

When entire neighborhoods burned, as they often did, many people died. Still, the sense of dislocation was less than what a Westerner might imagine. Edo was a city of renters, and their homes were largely what Wemmick (of Great Expectations) would have called portable property. For floors, they had reed straw tatami mats, futon for beds, folding shoji screens for walls. At the first lick of smoke, the city-dwellers would fold up floors, beds and walls and flee for safer ground. Then, once the ashes settled, they would return, rent another paper box, and put their home back together inside it. Their furnishings did not so much fill the space as create it. Until the Napoleonic law codes were adopted and translated, Japanese had no term for real estate.

So perhaps the saying about fires and flowers was not completely ironic. Japan loves its flowers, its paper, all things ephemeral that fold and unfold, that bloom for a week and wither. There is something wistful about this, living in a paper box, nothing more to home than what you can carry. We are all tenants of the lives we inhabit. What is it that makes us belong there?

When Westerners feel at home, we buy big, heavy things – houses, furniture, appliances – perhaps hoping that these will keep us in our lives, hold us down. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name, says Holly Golightly. But you are carrying more on your back now than what many people would have owned –


            Like an old turtle

                        the traveler stoops again

                                    to shoulder his pack


and it has not made you a home, or brought you any closer to one. You want a home, and you want not to need one.


Running the length of the subway floor, parallel to the wall, are four raised strips of yellow plastic, set in yellow tiles. What are these for? you ask Manami.  Manami works for your sponsoring agency, and as you speak only about ten words of Japanese, and read none at all, she has graciously offered to escort you to Minato city hall to help you apply for an alien registration card. For blind people, she says. She seems sleepy. Perhaps jet lag is contagious.

Coming up an escalator into the main station, the passageway is suddenly filled with the warm brown smell of cinnamon – someone, somewhere, has just opened an oven door and taken out a tray of fresh-baked buns. The two of you stop, sniff at the air, suddenly awake, then each of you catches the other doing the same thing, and you smile and laugh. But you cannot see a bakery, and you have no time to stop and look for it.


            Oh cinnamon buns

                        where on earth are you hiding

                                    Come and be eaten


You startle awake to an unseen bird calling outside your window. It goes suddenly hah, hah, hah, like a crow but deeper, pitched to the range of a human voice. If it is a crow it must be a big one. It calls again, but now it seems a lament more than a laugh, wah, wah, wah. It is three in the morning, the paper squares of your hotel window are still dim.

As you break the surface of whatever dream you were in the middle of, it comes to you suddenly that you have left some of your belongings on the plane, in the seat-back pocket: a thin notebook and a Japanese phrasebook. You do not even need to check; you are certain they are missing. The phrasebook can be replaced, but the notebook cannot. You struggle to recall the last thing you wrote in it, a note to yourself of your dream of the morning before, a dream that you cannot now remember. Or perhaps it is the dream just now that you cannot remember.

            First night of jet lag

                        I lie awake listening

                                    to the sleepless crows


Three hours into the flight to Tokyo, you wonder what might be outside the window. All the shades have been pulled down to dim the cabin, and when you slide yours up a few tentative inches, the light is as sudden and blinding as a flashbulb. As you blink the brightness away a landscape begins to emerge: an island, then a stretch of coastline, a spine of mountains, the furthest of which is clearly a volcanic cone. All is white and crisp, even the sea seems dusted white – not with wave-crests, for they do not move or change, but because the offshore water is thick with ice.

According to the real-time in-flight map you are passing over the Alaskan peninsula, and you have never seen a landscape so empty, so purely expressive of cold.


            Black ocean of ice

                        see what the night has left scratched

                                    on my windowpane


Which volcano is it? It cannot be Redoubt, which has been threatening to erupt for months, and surely air-traffic control would be routing flights far around it. Volcanic ash does to airplane engines roughly what a handful of rocks would do, thrown into a fan. When Redoubt erupted twenty years ago, a plane flying through the ash-plume stalled out and dropped two miles before righting itself and returning to Anchorage. Among the passengers on that flight was the father of the woman who is now your girlfriend. At the time they were living near San Francisco. On that same day you yourself, twenty years younger, were packing your things to move to San Francisco, to be with a woman who is no longer your girlfriend. It cannot possibly be Redoubt.

But your fellow passengers are stirring in annoyance, and so you slide the shade back down, and now the plane is dark again, darker than before.


Meeting an old college friend for dinner in the Richmond:

           I never noticed

                      how one of your eyes is brown

                                 the other hazel



What goes into the making of a good mood? A mild hangover with no shame, nothing said or done to regret.


           Drank one too many

                      slept through to the afternoon

                                 So who’s the wiser?


The herbs that San Francisco grows in the most unlikely places, in parks, along the footpaths, here a shrub of rosemary, there a tuft of wild fennel. The stencil of a red hummingbird on the sidewalk:


The stencil of two hands, thumbs and first fingers together, holding the shape of a heart:


In the coffeeshop someone is playing the old upright piano, a jaunty, jazzy little number. A woman’s voice joins in, following close beside the melody, and you drift along with the music for several timeless minutes before it occurs to you to look over.  You are pleasantly taken aback to see that singer and accompanist are the same person, a girl in jeans and a tracksuit top, skatting and noodling to a tune that starts nowhere and goes nowhere definite, and not a single note of which is sad.


           Girl and piano

                      making the sound of water

                                 over the pebbles






Mission Dolores Park has been taken over by the neighborhood’s newest hipsters, sprawled in the grass in their tight jeans and hoodies, with their bikes and their messenger bags. They are beautiful in the awkward way of kids who do not know how beautiful they are, they are telling the story of themselves to whoever will listen, sitting patiently through each other’s stories, waiting their turn. They seem so much younger than the kids you knew ten, twenty years ago, though it is only that you are older. You are leaving the world behind, or the world is leaving you, but the afternoon sun is warm and the sky clear and for once this seems right and fitting.


           In San Francisco

                      an afternoon without fog

                                 is a splendid thing


Later, at dinner, over the homemade pizza, the red wine and the white wine, you and your poet-companions swap your lists of Top Five Poets. The talk of poets is always obliquely about themselves—


           All of us sitting

                      around a table talking

                                 about the table


When your friend insists to you You’re like me, you like people, you know this to be is true, you do like people, you long for company and conversation. Only you wish that talking with them didn’t make you blink so much.