Monday, October 31, 2011

Friends Met Along the Road to Mount Doom and Walking to the Lonely Mountain

I am a fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, mainly the Middle Earth tales which concern hobbits. One could say I’m a hobbit fan; they have a plain-spokenness and efficiency that mirrors the best in rural culture. While they do have their small-town peccadillos, they are mostly clear-headed and won’t tolerate injustice or prolonged oppression.

The Shire and the surrounding hobbit-realms of Eriador in Middle Earth are a blueprint for what I wish rural life was. I live in very rural southern middle Tennessee, and I can tell you, things don’t happen here like they do in Middle Earth. But the scenery is similar, and, if I close my eyes to the heavy farm equipment, planes flying overhead and the postman who speeds down our road like it’s the Indy 500, I can almost imagine I live in the mounded hill behind my cabin, like the huge extended family of Peregrin Took does in Middle Earth.

In the heady days when the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films were being released, there seemed to be a lot of Tolkien fans, although most were Viggo Mortenson or Liv Tyler fans. It didn’t matter though; I could finally talk to others online who enjoyed and thought about matters in Middle Earth. I went online to a serious forum (i.e., one where they actually talk about the books) and signed in.

On one section of that forum was a curiously long thread entitled: Walk to Rivendell. I learned that this was actually an idea that Weight Watchers had come up with, and it had spread to many LOTR fan sites, ending up on its own site, the Eowyn Challenge (see the site for the explanation of the name).  Thousands of fans of Lord of the Rings were taking to the streets daily and logging miles on a website. A map or app would then tell you where you were according to the progress of Frodo Baggins and his hobbit companions from Hobbiton to Rivendell, the stronghold of Elrond. It was a trek of 458 miles.

So I signed up and started walking. I walked about 3-4 miles every day, and by the deadline, which was the release of Return of the King in December of 2003, I had made it past the Ford of Bruinen, waving my sword at the Ringwraiths and shouting, “By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!” The neighbors peered nervously out of their screen doors, but since I had been tromping the road for months with a replica of Frodo’s sword, I don’t think they were too surprised.

So, once the hoopla was over and everyone had made it to Rivendell, I knew the next step. I was going to Mount Doom, come Hell or the crazy postman. So every day for over a year (I think it was more like a year and a half), I walked 3 miles a day, enduring a hellish case of bronchitis, two sprained ankles and an encounter with a rabid raccoon. By the time I had entered Mordor, I had two companions.

They were the neighbor’s boxer dogs, a mother and her very frisky daughter. They followed me every day, and eventually they started following me home. The neighbor was never at home. I began to wonder if he fed them properly. The daughter was a spitfire; she knocked over planters on our porch, ate a chair and killed a possum. Needless to say, my father-in-law ran them off most angrily.

Then one day, I made it to Mount Doom, a total of 1800 miles. Strangely, it didn’t have the feeling of accomplishment that making it to Rivendell had. I had gotten used to the walk, but I had a hard time at the end, having had to refrain for weeks at a time while my sprained ankle knitted back together. Finally, after the weary last step, I decided to join a health club so I could swim for exercise instead of walking. I wanted to keep my ankles, and my knees were threatening me with rebellion as well. 

Walking from Nagakubo Post Station on the Kisokaido to the Lonely Mountain? Not bloody likely! Apologies to Ando Hiroshige.

The most lasting and rewarding part of the walk was a friendship forged and fulfilled. The older boxer girl appeared one day in the neighbor’s front yard, long after he had moved. Apparently, he had abandoned her, and she was gnawing on a deer head. She was obviously nursing as well. The horrid neighbor had taken the feisty daughter and abandoned the pregnant mother.

So we rescued the lot—mom and 6 pups. We found homes for 5 pups and kept one for mom to play with. Mrs. Prettypaws and her tiny son Kamikaze (who is now huge) reside here still, our dearest family members, found along the road to Mount Doom so long ago, at least in dog years.

So, now that Peter Jackson is making The Hobbit into two films, the whole “Walk to Rivendell” challenge idea has returned in places. Of course it is now the Walk to the Lonely Mountain . Come to find out, it’s a total of 1934 miles from Bag End to the Lonely Mountain and back again. I’m not sure this old hobbit has it in her. What do you think, ankles? Knees? I’ll get back to you on this one!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Hardest Part About Trying to Clean in a Hoarder House

I'm married to a hoarder, albeit a hoarder with taste (well, sometimes). He collects everything if it is older than about 1975 or so. I have a huge 1950's furniture-grade television (nonworking) and a Victrola (working) in the living room. Today, I tried to organize the living room, and I had to move these monstrosities, along with a large set of metal shelves. The problem is that the house is full of crap! So, in order to move these three pieces of vintage/antique furniture, which took all of about 10 minutes total, I had to clear about 20 boxes, repack some of them, vacuum around and under many structures and wipe away the residual dust that didn't respond to the vacuum. The project took about 3 hours, but I can see floor space I haven't laid eyes on in over a year, and I got the HUGE Sentinel television in the corner where it belongs (until the unlikely event of its being fixed). The Victrola is now much more accessible, so I can listen to those many pre-1925 78 records that now sit next to the unit instead of underneath an intricate do-it-yourself clock kit and several items of discarded clothing.

I'm not a neat freak, which is probably helpful when one is married to a hoarder. In fact, I've found the tendency kind of wears off on me. I have far more items of oriental decor than I can ever display in this rather small, one-bedroom log cabin. But I work hard to keep the clutter at bay, and I almost never stop cleaning, unless of course I'm mowing the lawn. But then that's a form of cleaning too, isn't it?

I suppose I'm proud of myself today, because, for once, you can actually tell that I've been laboring all day to make the house look better. On normal days, my activities only succeed in keeping the kitchen free of food waste, the entryways relatively free of the grass, dirt and straw the dogs drag in from outside and the mildew out of the shower. Now I'm exhausted. Just for a small treat, here's a mostly unobstructed view of my now-visible Victrola!

Oh yeah, if you look behind the Victrola, there can be seen the Sentinel television in all its grand, vintage non-working beauty. It's a pretty piece of furniture, but it'd be nicer if it was a working television! For now, it is a lamp stand. Cheers y'all!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Japan I Want To See: Nakasendo Post Towns and Haikyo

There’s nothing like standing inside a hollowed out stone structure, looking up into the exposed sky, to give one a sense of passed time. I live in rural Tennessee, and there is a small town about 10 miles away that has several buildings that are nothing more than ruins. A larger town about 20 miles away shows its age with a fading block-sized Coca-Cola logo on its brick façade. I find myself dreaming of finding places like this if I am ever blessed with the opportunity to visit Japan.

Having a penchant for late Tokugawa era history, I have an itch to walk the Nakasendo, the old post road that snaked through central Honshu. About halfway between Edo (yeah, sometimes I still call it “Edo”) and Kyoto is a preserved historical post town: Tsumago. After World War II, this post town was designated a historical preservation site, and care was taken to keep it looking much like it did in the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is partof the Japan I’d like to visit.  And I’d like to visit it before my knees prohibit my walking the old paths of the Nakasendo, in waraji (straw sandals), just like they did in the old days! Yes, I own a pair of waraji, and they are quite comfortable when worn with tabi. But they’re not very durable. I fancy sometimes as I walk down my barely paved rural road here in Tennessee that I am a traveler in the great Kiso forest, a rural commoner who perhaps has never seen Kyoto but would really like to go someday. If I can just make it up the Magome pass…

Out here in the sticks of Tennessee, the only hints of culture are the houses, and there are often long stretches of forest and field, with cows, goats and waving cropland. It is not too difficult to apply one’s imagination to bring this scene to Japan, especially after reading the detailed descriptions in Shimazaki Toson’s “Before the Dawn.”

Old Tsumago in the modern day: photo credit User: Bakkai, site

But the carefully maintained Tsumago post town is but a beautiful illusion created by careful craftsmanship. I also have a fondness for history in its ruined state. The most beautiful buildings I’ve seen in Alabama and Tennessee are often incomplete, open structures, many overgrown with vines of kudzu or wisteria. On my own land here in Southern Middle Tennessee are remains of ruined house foundations, only a small hint: 10-12 well-placed stones, with a collapsed barn a short ways away, broken jugs that speak to moonshine nights in the nameless and unrecorded past.

The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, photo credit Rie Shoji,

I imagine seeing analogous sights in the hidden places of Japan. I would love to take the “haikyo tour” and view the fallen houses, hidden shrines, the forgotten remembrances of emperors of antiquity whose memories almost disappeared before the Meiji Restoration. There is something evocative in ruins. See this wonderful site that contains many excellent photos of abandoned structures all across Japan. When one looks at ruins, ghosts arise, and they speak of the history that was not recorded in writing. Even the modern haikyo like abandoned amusement parks, such as the one represented in Miyazaki Hayao’s “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (“Spirited Away”). I am sure this ghostly presence is an aspect of wabi-sabi that I can never truly define. Instead, I dream of these images. I hope to visit Japan and see them firsthand someday. And I plan to have a good supply of waraji when I do!

Japan Blog Matsuri: "Reasons to Visit Japan" (let me count the reasons...oh wait, there are too many!)
A beautiful website that takes you down the Nakasendo Way!
Thanks to the Japan Blog Matsuri folks for giving me the wonderful idea for this post, and I only hope I'm not the late visitor to the party!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why on Earth is it called "Tennessee Terakoya?"

初めまして!First, let me tell you I didn't brainstorm or sit around trying out cool-sounding names before I came up with this. It was simply a matter of wishing for an alliterative descriptor to go with "Tennessee," which is my base of operations. A terakoya is a school run out of a Buddhist temple usually, that teaches boys, girls, and often young women the arts and sciences of feudal Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868): reading, writing, history, tea ceremony, ikebana, the use of the soroban (abacus) and such. Now I'm not really a soroban whiz, but I'm pretty good at algebra! I do have a soroban around here somewhere, so when I learn to use it, I'll post my experience here! While I'm not necessarily qualified to teach all subjects to all people, I find the idea of a rural online "terakoya" or Temple School to be appealing, as much of my online life is devoted to learning more about the world and especially about Japanese history and culture. So I'm both teacher and learner. For that purpose, I utilize this particularly helpful Japanese language learning site: Nihongoup . Also this wonderful, active forum for the pursuit of all things Japanese (especially the history of the Samurai) is here: Samurai-Archives Japanese History Forum. There are many more ways to connect with the history and culture of this most fascinating country, but, as I am, for the most part, stuck without a car in the deepest of rural Tennessee 'hollers, I rely on the internet, printed word and Netflix (for entertainment).

You can find my other internet hangouts here:
Sadie Heilemann's Yahoo! Contributor Network profile
Sadie's Twitter (as @NagasakiOsada)
Sadie's Facebook page
Sadie's Klout index (I'm rather pitiful, I'm afraid, but social status ain't everything! Don't tell those Tokugawa samurai I said that!)
Samurai Fiction on (I've published several stories here under the moniker "Onnamusha" )

Anyway, I hope you'll enjoy reading my blog, and feel free to contact me here if you have any suggestions for great subjects to pursue at the old rural Terakoya!