Part I: Sawanobori, or, basically, river climbing, is a very old Japanese pastime. It involves following a river or stream, up a mountain, to its source.  The climber ascends a tributary of a river, negotiates its features (swimming gorges, and climbing walls and waterfalls), and seeks to run that tributary until they have reached the river’s source.  That source is, generally, near the originating mountain peak.

This pastime is old. And, rife with spiritual metaphors, is connected to the native Japanese wilderness ascetic discipline Shugendo (The Way of Training and Testing).  Though sawanobori is still somewhat practiced today, the spiritual anchors have been cut loose, and the traditional straw flip-flops (waraji) and robes have been replaced by state-of-the-art gear and equipment.

(As an aside, this was one of my personal pastimes while I lived in Japan. I have followed a number of Japan’s 33,000 rivers from saltwater to summit.  And in no case has a steep-water route ceased to completely amaze me.)

Benzaiten is a Japanese Buddhist goddess. She originated as the Hindu goddess Saraswatî Devî. Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows: water, words, speech, eloquence, music, and knowledge.  She is also connected to military prowess, as traditional martial knowledge in Japan is passed down through schools known as ryu (“to flow; flowing from”, or in this case, “system or school [of knowledge]”; Linguistics, fuck yeah). Comparative mythologists will tell you that Benzaiten is directly connected to the Hellenic Athena, Roman Minerva, and Etruscan Menrva, from Saraswatî. I wouldn’t argue against that.


So this is where this particular journey begins. Standing before a shrine to Benzaiten. From here, I aimed to move upriver. Follow against the flow. Climb. Find the source.

In no small coincidence, I was also on a small island. This start-point was deliberate. From there I went to other shrines and temples, spoke with priests. I checked into the MoD headquarters to sip tea and chat with SOF staff. I hunted down dive bars near certain posts to drink and bullshit with men from the units. I bowed into a backstreet dojo to interview and get old-schooled by various octogenarian sensei. I found quiet libraries filled with the studying saplings of the modern Japanese intelligence machine.