Ame ame fure fure*

The incense hangs thick in the air and stings my eyes as I enter the dark room. I hardly finish my prostrations before the priest begins,

“You perceive the world through the six senses. Each perception you treat favorably, unfavorably or don’t care about. Each are perceived as past, present or future. Each you believe brings happiness or unhappiness. Multiply these combinations, 6 x 3 x 3 x 2, and you have 108 ways to perceive the world.”

I nod. Math is my home ground, and I feel clever. Then he cuts me down.

“All of them are false. Count them, your false perceptions, one to one hundred and eight. This is the alphabet of zen.”

He rings the bell at his side. I must leave.


It’s been raining for weeks. Lightning has kissed the city almost every day, an unprecedented number of storms. The percussion wave hits the building a few seconds after each flash, and I can almost imagine a mighty war raging at the fringes of the metropolis.

The mountains are out of bounds. Each weekend carries reports of more deaths of the unwary, be it by lightning, flash floods or landslides. Friends send messages, “How is it where you are?”, “Is there anywhere safe to climb?”, “I’m going to go crazy if I can’t get to the mountains!”, and I cannot give them advice of any use.

I count my breaths, one to one hundred of eight, and try to enumerate all those false perceptions. But I’m going crazy too. I need to move. I pile 20kg into my pack, and try to find a vertical world where my quads can pound and my lungs can bellow for air. The metal door to the emergency stairs of the building opens and I perceive a pale immitation of the world I seek.

I plunge into the bowels of the building, then start the climb to the top. Boots clang on the metal stairs, but otherwise this world is silent apart from the occasional swoop of the elevators that rush past outside. There are two sets of stairs per floor; I push, and make the top in twenty minutes. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I make out the sign on the top door of the building: Floor 54.

Two sets of stairs per floor. Fifty four floors. One hundred and eight sets of stairs. So I perceived them.

The mountains are calling. It won’t be long. As the 108th Psalm of the New Testament has it, “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready”.


*from a Japanese nursery rhyme:

Ame, ame, fure, fure kasan ga
Janome de omukae
Ureshii na
Pichi, pichi, chapu, chapu, ran, ran, ran

Rain rain, pour pour!
I’m glad Mother’s coming for me with her umbrella.
Drip drip, drop drop, pour pour pour!

In search of sunrise

I run through the dark, through Mt Mizugaki’s primordial forest. A Freudian nightmare of a pitch black mountain. I’m all alone, and unseen creatures scream and howl in the night. The forest beats a tachycardic rhythm of raindrops as it shakes the last of the rain from its leaves. On and on I run, praying for that first turn of the sky from deep black to dark wine. Suddenly it was upon me, and the dawn reaches for my shoulders and seems to pull me to the summit just as the sun clears the nearby ranges.

I’d come through the nightmare and been reborn here while the mountains gathered to witness the event. Fuji showed her outline briefly before pulling the clouds back around herself, and for a short while the Southern Alps loomed above the plain. The Yatsu-ga-take range maintained its steady watch. The sky was a jagged mess of mares’ tails, the remnants of last night’s storm, with no portent of what was to come.

Mizugaki’s spiritual connections to the region run deep. Early on the people made the obvious connection between the fertility of their rice crop and the proud granite spires that adorn the summit and so rent the clouds. Even in modern times, the mountain has a power and presence that belie its stature.

The mountain holds mysteries too. Under many of the boulders which lie strewn across its face, sticks have been placed as if to prevent the boulder from rolling away. They range from the biggest branches to innumerable twigs. For what end? Who places them? A joke, or something more serious? In the pre-dawn glow they loomed, anthropomorphic figures of decaying matter trying desperately to hold back the inevitable.

But this beautiful day took a dark turn by mid morning. From Mizugaki I decided to climb on to Mt Kinpu. Fast and felt strong I made the final ridge which leads to the summit. Forty minutes, maybe an hour on that exposed ridge. I was ten minutes into it when I saw the thunderheads on Mt Kobushi a few miles away. They were black, except when they ignited for a millisecond to arc out the summit. The flash was blinding; the rending of the air ten seconds later was worse, and they were moving this way. I didn’t need to think. I turned back in a split second.

Off the ridge I tried to outrun the coming storm, crashing ever closer, and ran straight into a team of four who were still moving up. I could scarcely believe what they were doing. Deaf, blind and stupid they continued. I told them the storm was coming up on the ridge fast, and was roundly ignored. I continued to run down. Flash – one, two, three, four, five – boom! Fifteen minutes later the lightning hit Kinpo. Flash – one, two, three – boom! then it hit the ridge repeatedly. Then the storm overtook me in a war of hailstones and turned its attention to Mizugaki.

It sickened me to watch those men go. How wantonly they gambled with their lives. Taking risks when you have some control over the parameters is one thing. Running headlong into obvious danger is another. I hope they came to their senses and turned back. But something tells me they didn’t.

They say zen is a cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire. My yoga is a vrksasana tree on a 100 foot column of granite.

Carbohydrate days

The great Snickers famine of 2008 in Japan had me looking round for alternatives. Those 68g bars packed a much needed 350kcal. They weren’t ideal, but they were cheap, plentiful and convenient. When they disappeared from Japan’s shelves in early 2008, I was at a loss.

I researched, spent long nights reading arcane biochemistry texts. I know more about the subject now than I ever wanted to. Ask me anything. The Krebs cycle. The breakdown of aminos into acetly-CoA. Those slippery triglycerides. I am still stunned at what my body does with that Snickers bar. But all this knowledge didn’t help me feed this wonderful machine.

I gave in and bought Power Gel and GU, those 25g sachets of goopy carbs. They did the trick, but at a price – a few hundred yen a time, not to mention the voluminous litter they seemed to produce. There must be a better way. And there is. Make it yourself.

You will need:

Brown rice syrup
Sea salt
(Powdered coffee – optional)
The patience of a saint

Combine together, roughly 1/3rd honey to 2/3rds brown rice syrup. Both are viscous so getting exactly the right proportions is almost impossible. Get as close as possible. Add about 1 level teaspoon of salt for every 200ml of honey/syrup.

Put the mixture in a pan of hot water, and mix together as it heats. The powdered coffee can also go in at this stage.

Pour the resulting mess into some kind of dispenser, preferably a tube with a cap which will allow you to take mouthfuls while you are on the move. I use empty Weider energy gel packets. This is where you will need patience; pouring the liquid into the tube takes time. It helps to have a funnel.

The result: a bottle of well-balanced, pure carbohydrates. A 25g mouthful will deliver around 100kcal; 2 mouthfuls or so an hour should be enough to keep your blood glucose high enough to keep you moving and allow the body to metabolise its fat reserves. A kilogram of this for a body burning 35% carbs to 65% fats could take you through almost three days at a push (although not exactly recommended..).

The brown rice syrup is around 20% water, 30% complex carbs, 45% maltose (which gets broken down immediately into glucose) and 4% glucose. It also has vitamin B and some other trace minerals found in rice. The complex carbs give a steady background burn, while the glucose gets to work more immediately.

Honey is roughly 30% glucose, 40% fructose, 20% water. Combining glucose and fructose together may lead to more efficient carb burn and quicker takeup by the body; seemingly the pathways by which they are metabolised are different. Honey also has many vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxident and preservative properties. The potential downside may be, ahem, looser stools; not everyone metabolises fructose completely. I’ve never had a problem though.

The sea salt provides essential minerals, and also helps with water retention. The coffee, should you wish to add it, obviously gives you a caffeine hit; not only does it boost attention, but it may also help with the glucose metabolisation process.

So there you have it. For Y1000, well over 1kg of pure carb energy, 100% natural. And rather tasty.


Like newborn horses the stream of climbers reach the summit of Mt Ibuki, slick with sweat and on legs skittery from the short, steep climb. Some forget to stop climbing and continue to lift their feet high over non-existent boulders, so baked are their brains by the August sun. They soon disappear among the crowds of day-trippers who had driven, or been driven in enormous souless tours, to the summit via the road that has been shaved into the back of Ibuki’s head.

This head, and its rocky shoulders, rise dramatically above the fresh green rice fields that surround Lake Biwa to the northwest of Kyoto, much like Mt Buko of Yuka’s home town does over Chichibu. Like Mt Buko, the cement companies have done their best to defile Ibuki, digging deep into its right shoulder. On its tonsured scalp is an untidy mess of cheap souvenir shops, touting for business during the season when the alpine blossoms riot on the mountain. As if to hide its shame, Ibuki pulls a veil of clouds around its peak and refuses to show us the grand views over the Kansai plain which, the guide holding a poster sized photo of the view on a clear day assures us, lie below. Picnickers sit staring into the grey. I snap my usual one-handed summit proof, much the amusement of all present, and run back down the mountain to Kyoto as fast as I can.

The old capital boils in the midsummer. Seeking the cooling breezes of the high ground, we make our way up to Kurodani and give thanks at Konkaikomyo temple for safe passage so far this year. We watch children, limbs glazed by the sun, chase dragonflies and cicadas on the steps of the temple’s great black gate. I’m saddened though to find that the path from Konkaikomyo to the temple at Shinnyodo has been paved. I liked the hot, dusty yellow track that it used to be. Regardless, we follow it up the hill to Shinnyodo, to its pagoda and quiet, mossy gardens.

Yuka writes her journal on the great wooden steps. The heat makes me restless so I walk, stopping only to watch the fish swim through the trees reflected in the pond for a few cooling minutes.

I find myself in the forest of granite obelisks that fill the hot graveyard to the south. As I try to frame a shot of turning maple leaves against the azure sky, I hear a step on the path behind me and whirl around, camera in hand.

“I hope you’re not going to take a photo of me!”, comes a voice, heavy with the lilt of Kyoto. I look down, and I meet the lively eyes of an old lady, stooped double, her white hair scraped into a neat bun. She holds a water bucket in one hand and a ladle in the other; she’s here to tend the grave of a loved one.

I assure her I’m just taking photos of the trees.

“You see, I’m 94 years old. I used to be so beautiful. I was the queen of the festival round here when I was 16… I wouldn’t want people to think I didn’t used to be beautiful… So I don’t let anyone take my photograph these days!”. I felt the fire in her soul cut through her momentary melancholy.

I tell her I think she’s still beautiful. Coquettishly she sweeps a thin hand over her face as she turns away giggling, but flicks her eyes back to me in a sidelong glance at the last moment.

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword.
But these girls slay men with their eyes.

I wish I could have taken her photograph at that moment.

Suddenly she was 16 again.