Acer palmatum

Acer palmatum is the technical name for the Japanese maple. A Swedish botanist named it in the 18th century after the hand-like shape of its leaves. Most maples’ leaves are hand-like: Canadian sugar maples (of the flag and the syrup) have broad palms flatly spread. The Acer palmatum, however, has small dainty palms with tiny tapered fingers curling like a child’s hand (the Japanese had already variously named it after the hands of babies and even frogs). And they seem especially alive, these little maple-hands, lifting and shifting and shyly beckoning.

But what do they offer? The fruit of this palm-maple is “a pair of winged samaras,” each holding one seed. A samara? “A samara is a winged achene,” a flat papery thing, shaped to allow the wind to carry the seed far from its parent tree.

“A samara is sometimes called a key,” (wikipedia continues) “and is often referred to as a wingnut, helicopter, whirlibird…” And they do travel. I was always picking up green sugar and silver maple keys as they parachuted around the sidewalks when I lived in Montreal. Their fine veined forms intrigued me. I collected them superstitiously, as if they might actually unlock something: open something, lighten something, transport me through a new sky. You’d find them in all sorts of places, birled around by the warm breezes, often with no maple tree in sight.

The little red keys, achenes, samaras of this Japanese maple are so much more delicate though. They could take off on the faintest breath of wind. Indeed, I plucked one from this tree in this garden last spring and carried it with me until I flew to Japan in the autumn and let the seed fall. The seed itself wasn’t so old but the dream was, long-carried and finally coming to fruition, as maybe a wee many-handed maple is now, in the wooded grounds of an old Shinto shrine somewhere in deepest Tokyo…

red winged keys of a Japanese maple against green lotus leaves

Bryngarw Country Park, Glamorgan, South Wales
9th June 2015


Nantai means ‘man’s body’ and the body of the mountain is varied. I climb through tree roots and torii (shrine gates), clamber over boulders, and slip on muddy sand and sharp rubble. The mountain is a volcanic cone, much like Mount Fuji, and it is a sacred mountain, a shintai, something which holds kami, spirits.

The path to its summit is difficult yet popular. By mid-morning, I’m meeting many elderly Japanese who are already on their way down, and several younger (middle-aged) men. The latter are dressed all in white, the colour traditionally worn by mountain pilgrims and the yamabushi, the mountain ascetics who lived here in earlier centuries.

Whiteness appears regularly on the path. The torii at the foot of the mountain, which I passed through to ascend, were dressed in strands of straw rope and hung with the folded zigzags of white paper which indicate a sacred place; and beside the path white plastic strips are tied around occasional tree trunks at eye level.

As I make my way up, I also start noticing fine curls of pale birch skin lying intermittently beside the trail. At first I pocket them as miniature mementos then realise they’re too regularly placed to be chance arboreal sheddings, and start myself dropping them along the way as I continue. The trees themselves are changing as I get higher and white birch trees become more frequent until, at the edge of the trail, on a steep curve of the mountainside, stand a line of them, their loose peels of bark unfurling, and as the breeze catches them, they flutter in the sunlight like the paper strips on the torii.

At a tiny shrine set into a rock face a few hundred feet short of the summit, the birch disappear completely, and the world becomes comprised of twisted pines, bleached dead limbs and stumps, and reddish volcanic soil. A sudden cold wind arrives and, as I climb, the trees and soil finally give out until there’s only sharp lumpy black and red rock, and a steep open rubble slope to the summit.

It’s a surprisingly difficult scramble up but, along with the old lady who’s appeared beside me, I get there. The summit is graced by one main shrine and two smaller ones, and I find a sheltered place to nestle by one of these subsidiary shrines, on the far end of a ridge slanting off to the north.

Lines and lines of blue hills rise and fall into the haze of the western sun (Fuji-san hiding somewhere to the south) and the north is full of steep peaks pointing and spearing the mat of thick grey cloud above them. I’m sitting behind some lumpy black rock, having daifuku (sweet red bean patties) and green tea, when I notice tiny white particles drifting around me. At first I think it’s tiny flies, then I think it’s dust, then I’m sure it’s ash, then, as a tearing wind sets in, I realise it’s snow. I barely get back across the ridge and down to the treeline. The wind is like walls of ice, scouring and freezing. I have never been at this altitude before. The world whitens, sharpens. I am blown away!

Shinto Torii gate at top of Nantai-San

Nantai-san, Nikkō, Tochigi, Japan (2486m/8156 feet though I start from Chuzenji at 1269m/4163 feet)
17th October 2014


wee backyard shrine in Nikko

Wandering around the back streets and alleys of Nikko, I notice every second or third house hosts a small shrine in its tiny walled grounds. Most are red-painted, often with complete with a small torii (gate) as well. Even on a patch of wasteground between houses, there’s a miniature stone shrine. Two white porcelain beckoning cats, which bring good fortune, sit either side of its narrow portal, and a glass of sake appears one morning as well.

I love the flashes of red, the glimpses of gateways, crimson thresholds. At the edge of town is a wooden bridge so sacred you have to pay 300 yen to cross it. It’s also red and curves gently across the green-blue river, bringing out the vermillion tints emerging in the forests which rise steeply above it. Red times, times of changing. We are on the cusp.

Nikko, Tochigi, Japan
16th October 2014

Shiraito no Taki

A turquoise-pooled paradise
in a bowl, a basin
hung with white strings

myself at Shiraito no Taki

Shiraito no Taki (‘waterfall of white threads’), Fujinomiya, Shizuoka, Japan
14th October 2014 (photograph by Uemura Katsuhiro)


Rising naked at dawn
gathering a soft shawl for the morning

At sunset
held aloft on a shrug of rosy white cloud

Fuji-san from Fujinomiya

Fuji-san from Fujinomiya, Shizuoka, Japan
14th October 2014


Leaving in the early morning,
moisture rises off the rice fields,
the blue ridges of the mountains dissolve.

Fukui, Japan
9th October 2014


I am folded within the green mountains of Miyama. The weather is warm. A light rain has just fallen, diffusing the thick wall of cedar-green foliage that fills the window. We are in the Kurumaya Taiko Dojo. Dojo means ‘the place of the way’ and it is a beautiful place: a large high-ceilinged low-windowed room with a warm hinoki, cypress, floor. The walls are wood-panelled as well, and hung with prints and scrolls of Kurumaya-sensei’s calligraphy, and photographs he has taken of Miyama in snowy and summer seasons.

It feels very natural to be here, perhaps because the room itself feels natural, perhaps because natural elements gather here. It is a room made of wood and paper after all, and a room made of skin, with taiko, drums, lining all its walls.

Asano nagados

There are taiko of many forms and sizes – small taut shime and little hand-held uchiwa fan drums, as well as huge uchiwa, and an odaiko (‘big drum’). There are also several light barrel-construction okedos and – my favourites – rows and rows of nagado, ‘long-bodied’ drums made from one piece of hollowed wood with the skin tacked tightly around.

The skin of the taiko is cleaned cow skin and the room reverberates with it as we draw the drums into a circle and, pulling our own skins taut over our muscles, beat and sweat and beat.

Out the window, beneath the green cedars, the mineral-blue river gurgles slowly along the valley floor. Above it, just visible in the rock of the facing mountain, are three little stone Buddhas. They sit all day long, as we come and go, in their fading red bibs in their little hand-carved holy place. It’s good to have a home.

Asano shime daiko

Kurumaya Taiko Dojo, Miyama, Fukui, Japan (taiko made by Asano Taiko)
8th October 2014