Message from Rob Clarke
On the Hempen Trail in Japan
 

Yo Homies!

Well, I returned to Japan once again, one of my
increasingly productive stops along the Hempen Road.
As I sit eating a wonderful meal in the Kyoto train
station I write this humble missive in the hope you
will share my fascination with this wild and wacky
culture. Yes, food is great in Japan even in train
stations and although ităs about twice the price of
eating Japanese almost anywhere else in the world it
is of the highest quality. Everyone pays a lot for
everything in Japan, but mostly we get what we pay
for!

Tourists also get some special breaks such as a
three-week Japan Rail Pass, available for purchase
only overseas by visitors. US$500 may seem exorbitant
even for unlimited train travel, yet it has saved me
at least three times that much compared to what the
locals pay. If Japanese buy a train ticket and fail to
use it for any reason they have to eat it, whereas we
generally confused foreigners can skip a reserved seat
and make another reservation without penalty. It is,
however, rude to waste a reservation and travelers
should cancel reservations when possible to allow
another to occupy your unused seat. The ability to
spontaneously alter travel plans is key to my research
as whenever I set out for a proposed destination I am
never really sure where I am going until I arrive.
Yet, wherever you go, that's where you are! The
corollary in my travels is that invariably the farther
off the map I go the better it gets!

Traversing Japan would be roughly equivalent to
traveling the Pacific Coast states from San Diego to
Seattle if California, Oregon and Washington occupied
separate islands. Most urban centers can be reached by
the super-fast Shinkansen trains, the trains run
precisely on time and a trip equivalent to driving
from Los Angeles to San Francisco consumes just over
two hours. I spend a lot of time on trains, either
commuting to the Japanese National Museum of Ethnology
in Osaka or wandering the extensive rail system to the
hinterlands tracking down obscure Shinto shrines
dedicated to hemp (tai-ma-asa jinja). I am staying in
Kyoto, an hour from Osaka, in my museum colleague's
extra apartment. Peter is a first rate ethnobotanist
hailing from Kiwiland, a leading expert on taro, a
self-ascribed"scruffy yob" and most definitely my
kindred spirit. His wonderful hospitality has made all
the difference in my research and travels and he
provides a sentient reference point amongst all the
Asian madness. 

My core studies in Japan revolve around hemp
production, traditional hemp textiles (and other
hempen artifacts) and Shinto traditions. The links
between hemp and Shinto ritual worship are deeply
important to Japanese culture, yet escape the majority
of Japanese people, even the myriad worshippers who
visit Shinto shrines regularly. Basically, rope and
dope have been massively confused ever since WWII,
first by the oppressive U.S. efforts to suppress
nationalistic fervor and most recently by the naïve UN
supported anti-drug campaigns. Hemp is certainly my
favored fiber and has led me to a new appreciation of
Shinto. Shinto's shamanist roots and naturist focus
are highly appealing to me. I worship at each Shinto
hemp shrine, praying for world environmental harmony
and a brighter future for hemp. Besides satisfying
some of my more esoteric hempen interests, shrines are
often surrounded by groves of immense cedar and oak
trees. Large caliper beauties as large as Coastal
Redwoods or Indiana first growth oaks, spared from
rampant logging and reforestation (Japan is over 75%
wooded, but it is almost all replanted) by the tree's
sacred association to the ancient shrines. Hemp is
seminal to Shinto culture, and Shintoăs respect for
nature has preserved trees - so in a way, hemp HAS
saved the trees, and that warms the cockles of my
hempen tree hugger's heart!

After the ever so cute and helpful girls employed at
the train station information counters (Employed for
the benefit of Japanese tourists, yet who also speak
fluent English and always sport lovely crisp
uniforms.) have located my target shrine and assisted
me graciously with determining how to get there and
back, they often politely ask,"How do you know of
this place?" Well babe, it's a long story! Only once I
tried to explain that I study Shinto and hemp, etc.
and find shrines very interesting. She replied, "I
donăt think so.", dismissing me as the craziest old
fart she had ever seen! Well, probably so, eh?

Sculpting my high here requires drawing on as much
local weirdness as possible and consuming sufficient
caffeine and ethanolÓ iced coffee and tea to jack me
up to the energy level of the ambient frantic flow
balanced by enough cold beer to round the jagged edges
and chill a bit. I speed along well lubricated until
the inevitable caffeine crash leaves me floating about
searching for a toilet and another round of
inebriants. Considering the local legal statutes of
zero tolerance (Of course I never drive.), the acute
lack of privacy, and the pervasive informant society,
I refrain from smoking in Japan. Besides, my friends
in the know tell me herb is US$50 or more a gram and
openly available on the streets of entertainment
neighborhoods in all major cities, sold by Iranian
dealers working for the Yakuza. Dodgy, dangerous and
distasteful, heh? 

The contradiction of it all amazes me. A country where
getting high on pot is increasingly popular despite
the draconian penalties and social retribution, the
extremely high prices for herb (But not for E, Ice and
other speeds!) and the general confusion about rope
and dope are indeed intriguing. Rasta-theme shops
selling clothing covered in hemp leaf motifs, "hemp"
jewelery and accessories (actually most often jute)
abound in this relatively Cannabis-free society.
Shinto shrines equipped with hemp bell ropes to send
prayers to the gods can be found most anywhere, even
in urban shopping malls. What a topsy-turvy world!

Yesterday I bought a delicious blueberry Danish from a
train station bakery, chomped into it while awaiting
my train, and after wolfing down a couple of bites
found it suddenly impossible to swallow. Upon choking
up a masticated wad of plastic I realized that the
girl in the bakery had courteously covered the filling
with a small square of stiff plastic film (I failed to
notice that my pastry didnăt stick to the plastic
bag.). Duuh, delicious yet dangerous. My personal
lesson for yesterday was, (No matter what I do within
18 inches of my face I should wear reading glasses.
They sure ainăt convenient or sexy, but they just
might save my life some day!! 

My unconscious mind constantly reaches for even more
ironic twists turns in the hempen trail. Yesterday,
after nearly choking on my blueberry pastry (Remember,
blueberries are good for you!) as I sat waiting for
the "Toki Max 420" train to take me to the Blue Hemp
Shrine, "One Toke Over the Line" comes blaring over
the PA system. I was certainly sitting downtown in a
railway station, but far from one toke over the line
and no where near Jesus! My biggest hazard here may be
laughing myself to death!

The fashion sense (Or lack thereof, I am not sure
which.) of young Japanese women constantly amuses me.
There are many specific fashion trends here,
especially visible in urban areas and readily
taxonomically categorized (I just canăt help mă sef),
each with their own local Japanese names and
characteristic elements. I will comment on only two
that particularly intrigue me, what I call the ňI
Never Get Out of Bedă and the (Rude and Crude
Hyper-Tramp) styles. The former affliction is
characterized by pale-skinned girls wrapped in layers
of gossamer lace-frilled petticoats and wearing black
leather studded wrist-bands, high-laced black platform
shoes with totally unkempt hair - while the latter
group display artificial tans (too dark and slightly
orange-tinted), tight tank tops emblazoned across
their breasts with absurdly crude slogans (such as
"Fuck Milk, Got any Pot?"), pre- torn denim hotpants
(often cut severely close to their private parts, tied
around the hips with a bright scarf with the fly
pulled wide open revealing the lacey waistline of
their bright red panties), oversized purses suspended
on gold chains, all as they totter along balanced on
undersize spike-heeled shoes and constantly adjusting
their over-tinted layered hairdos. All of course with
obvious intent, if I take notice so must Japanese men.
I just canăt imagine these girl's parents ever see
them dressed this way!

My perpetually peripatetic lifestyle refreshes my mind
and sooths my soul, but as I grow older it exacts an
increasing toll on my aging body. Physical life has
become one long series of aches and pains. My stiff
neck is constantly troubling and my left elbow aches
from what the more athletic would term "tennis elbow"
and in my case is more accurately termed "luggage
elbow". So ităs an elastic bandage for the elbow and
Tiger Balm pads for the neck as long as they continue
to work. At least sleeping on the floor has relieved
ALL of my back pains. One up for the Asian lifestyle!

Japanese food is great, but restaurants are by-and
large totally sterile venues - not simply in the
hygienic sense, which is appreciated - but simply
butt-as boring. Formal food served by grandmothers,
mothers and mothers-to-be in over-decorated, brightly
lit culinary mausoleums wears me out. Beyond the basic
courtesies which I respect, I hate having to be
constantly on personal politeness patrol while trying
to relax and enjoy a meal. But then and again, one
stumbles (Often literally in my case.) into a relaxed
environment like last nightăs Barbeque Bar. (Gee, what
a no-brainer. Rob loves both BBQ and beeru Ó just a
reminder in case you have lost track of two additional
quintessential facets of my life quest.). The BBQ Bar
is a tiny establishment with only three four-tops and
a narrow sushi-style bar seating six, all on stools
cut from tree rounds. Ice-cold Asahi Dry, bowls of
boiled edimame and peanuts in the shell and BBQ
skewers of all sorts served in freakish décor Ó a male
version of |Ms. Pinky laying face down in a net
hammock with erection poking through, another
inflatable of Spiderman and a big stuffed python, all
suspended overhead from the low ceiling and snowboards
with 35mm Polaroid contact prints of their myriad
satisfied customers (me included) adorning the
corrugated iron walls. Full Bore Freaks - ya gotta
love these guys!

My additional observations of Japanese culture are as
follows,

Japanese Conveniences: 24 hour ice-cold beer machines
on the street at the same price as the liquor store
(The beer is always ice cold everywhere. In fact, the
machine nearest my abode dispenses frozen cylinders
and I mst wait for them to thaw!); an extensive and
highly efficient public transport system; helpful
English language travel advice; high-protein and fresh
produce foods (|I just skip the rice and noodles even
when the matrons try to force it on me.); communal
reading glasses at banks; ticket counters, post
offices and just about anywhere else they are commonly
required and hundreds of 7-11 stores that sell
Haagen-Daz all night long!!!!

Japanese Inconveniences: Rural hotels often provide
only thin micro-sized towels (My bandana is larger and
works just as well!) and have only room names rather
than room numbers (Imagine returning to a quiet rural
hotel after many hours, three sheets to the wind,
having dashed out immediately upon arriving in search
of some abstract destination and returning in the
darkness with no clue which room is yours.); the
frequent and unpredictable use of slippers in hotels,
restaurants, shops etc. (They are always too small and
made of slippery (yet hygienic) plastic. In concert
with my native uncoordination wearing slippers makes
stairs a real health hazard.); ketchup on breakfast
eggs and mayonnaise on everything from salad to pizza
(I try to avoid K&M while traveling, having had
super-toxic near-death experiences from eating each in
my past.) and frequently no napkins in restaurants (I
suppose Japanese are not as messy eaters as I am, but
after all, toilet tissue is also often lacking, so I
am always prepared!).

Appropriate Tech and Indigenous Ideas: Truly
ubiquitous segregated trash bins for recycling. A
small round hole for cans and PET bottles, a larger
round hole for glass bottles, a narrow slot for
newspapers and sometimes another one for magazines, a
wide oval slot for burnable trash and a large square
portal for all other refuse.); personal ear excavators
(Stiff sticks with a tightly wrapped cotton swab on
one end and a wax scoop on the other. No more paper
clips, match sticks or pencil erasers and no
irritating Q-tip disclaimer warning not to stick one
in your ear. What are Americans supposed to do with
Q-tips anyway?); public restroom sinks with combined
hand soap, wash water and blow dry; home toilets with
wash basins atop the cistern utilizing the same water
to rinse your hands that also fills the toilet tank;
and toilets that wash your privates so you donăt need
TP (far too exciting for me!) (The previous three
ideas are environmentally sound, but no substitute for
toilet paper.) and deep urinals and river pebbles in
the sink to avoid splashing on your trousers.
(Obviously, bathrooms offer some of my most intriguing
and satisfying Japanese distractions!)

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this diatribe as much as
I did my sashimi, tempura and beeru Ó even though
lunch cost $50 bucks Ó and left me hungry and not
anywhere near loaded enough. So, Iăm off to Mr. Donut
for a dose of caffeine and greasy carbos. (Some bad
habits are hard to break!) Until I manage to write a
popular book my friends will remain my only audience.
Thank you for your patience!

Be safe, live clean and keep your heads down!!

One Love,

Rob reporting from the Hempen Trail

PS I would appreciate e-messages from y'all if'n ya
gots the feelin'!
 
 

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