GAME ON (38)



So between the three of us - see the last but one 'GAME ON' - Tommy Wrede, Anders Delbom and I had solved the numerical code that On Kawara came up with in 1969, called
Code: Eight quintillion…. To derive the code, On had made use of a double-page in MAD Magazine for source material, and he used the result again in 1995 to code the transcript of the conversation that took place between Apollo 11 astronauts and ground control. Good.

But as well as that, there was a significant colour code that was first used in 1965, four years earlier, for the works
Love Letter and Traveler's Song. I dare say I - or we - will come back to Love Letter, which clearly came first, because the coloured strokes are less consistent and so difficult to decipher. But there is no problem with the legibility of the strokes in Traveler's Song, so let's give that a go. All good so far.

Page one:

Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Page two follows. But if one thinks of the 'song' as consisting of two verses, then that first page includes the first line of verse 2.

Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

So I spent an afternoon de-cyphering as best I could. But I had to travel the next day, so I did a very sensible thing and attempted to get the rest of the team on board. I wrote to Anders Delbom:

Hi 5,

I had a look at the code 'Traveler’s Song' which is reproduced in 'Whole and Parts'. It’s another coloured strokes job like ‘Voice from Moon’. It’s quite short, just a few lines over two pages. I spent a few hours on it today and I know it’s not in English.

I had got to the stage of realising that the same 11-letter word crops up three times. Two of the same letters crop up repeatedly in this word: x y _ y x _ _ _ _ y x. Now both these letters crop up in a three-letter word on page two: x y x.

I really explored this in English and it doesn’t work. (The word ‘Reversioner’ was the only one that fitted. Where x = r and y = e. But that doesn’t work, as ‘rer’ is not a word, nor when one then applies the known letters from ‘reversioner' to other parts of the code.) So I suspect it's either Spanish or French as it’s from 1965 when On Kawara had come back to New York from a tour of Europe. What I mean is the original song will have been in Japanese but then translated into a Roman language, but not English.

Guggenheim Gallery website gives a caption that says ('Traveler’s Song' or 'traveler no uta'). That’s what told me (at the end of the day) that it was originally Japanese and that translation was involved.

Another clue is that on the second page there is a single letter that stands for a word. If in English, that would mean ‘I' or ‘a'. But that doesn’t seem to work.

I only send you this message in case you and 7 are looking for something else to do. Really we should all be resting on our laurels!!!

The Isle of Bute calls, and first thing tomorrow morn I'm out of here,


I wrote that on March 1. On March 5 I heard from Anders that Tommy had solved it. 'Go Tommy!' as Anders put it. But I think Tommy had still to work on a few details, because it wasn't until March 12, today, that Anders was able to forward me the following document:

On Kawara’s Traveler’s Song, 1965
(Traveler no uta)

Before we get started:
So after we (Anders Delbom, Duncan McLaren and I) cracked On Kawara’s Code from 1969, Duncan sent Anders and myself a little bit of information and his thoughts on another code. Written, or perhaps drawn, by On in 1965. It is a similar cipher to Voice from Moon that was cracked by a Guggenheim gallery guide, and later by Duncan himself. The way these codes are structured is by lining two strokes of colored lines slightly above one another to represent a letter from the alphabet. There are five different colors, two colors in each character, which makes up 25 possible combinations. Since the alphabet contains 26 letters, you actually have to spell out W with a set of two Vs. In fact, I believe that this actually makes the code easier to decipher, because words containing double letters stick out a bit more. Anyway, I began to look at Traveler’s Song and also familiarized myself with the Voice from Moon solution on Duncan’s website. Moving on. A quick look tells me that it is not the same cipher-key, but the same colors are used. Red, green, yellow, blue and black. So what does it say? And, is it even in English? Only one way to find out.

How I cracked it:
I found a great picture of the code on the Guggenheim website and I printed it out so I could write on it. Then I started with the shortest words, only one single letter. I just assumed they would be either “I” or “A”, and I actually went back and forth between them a few times before it all made sense. Moving on with two letter words and also words containing double letters. Hours went by, and not many words made sense yet. At least that’s what I thought at the moment. Late at night, on March 4th, I got into the zone. I couldn’t stop looking at the code, I tried everything I could imagine. Spanish? Esperanto? Or maybe…Could it be Japanese? After a few hours I finally had a breakthrough. English words made sense. But only some of them. I gave up for the evening and went to bed. Next day, when my alarm told me it was time to go to work (4:45 am) I was beat. I'd literally had nightmares about colored lines and letters not making sense. But I went to work and the day went by like any other. But then, in the afternoon on March 5th, it all added up. It turns out the code was actually both English and Japanese. I’ll admit, it looks a bit strange. But it works. Here is the text:

Oh Kiso no pilgrims, boatmen,
nakanorisan coming down the Kiso,
how is it Kiso no nakanorisan wa
on mount Ontake, nanjarahoi, up the Kiso?
It is natsu demo cold there in summer,
samui oh yoi, oh yoi, oh yoi!

Oh awase na pilgrims, boatmen,
nakanorisan coming down the Kiso,
I wish I could awase yaritaya!
Do you give winter clothes, nanjarahoi?
Socks and tabi wa soete to warm your
toes-yoi, toes-yoi, toes-yoi.
As you can see, it looks a bit odd. But I found an old folk song from Japan called “Kisobushi”, or “Nakanorisan” even further back in history, and this is definitely it. Or at least one stanza from it. It seems like it's a mix of the original song and maybe a translation to English as well. But I can't find an actual translation. Many of the words that I found in the code are also in the song, spelled the same way, but using Google translate gives me nothing. So I am not sure what it actually says, but I feel certain it is this old song. To be honest I think much is lost when translated from original Japanese to romanized Japanese, and then to English. Some things just can’t be properly translated. You can, however, listen to part of the song on another website, or on spotify. Thank you for reading this document, I hope it gave you some pleasure!


I have indeed taken pleasure from that document. So that's where we've got to as of March 12, 2024. The hard work is done, by which I mean the deciphering. Here is the key to turning coloured strokes into words, the key that Tommy Wrede has used in order to get the two stanzas as above. The missing letters are simply letters that don't come up in the work:


Now all I have to do is float down the River Kiso from Mount Ontake on a raft. Why do I say that? You'll soon see. And you'll soon

One of the links that Tommy provided in an addendum to his document takes us to this verse, which seems to summarise both of the verses we're concerned with:

Raftsmen of Kiso
That great peak in Kiso
Is freezing even in summer
We wish we could give it
Some warm clothing
And warm stockings, too.

That 11-letter word which I mentioned that crops up repeatedly in the code is 'nakanorisan', which in Romanised Japanese translates into 'raftsmen'. Most of the other words translate into English as well, I've discovered. So if the coloured lines are the coded piece (version 1); Tommy's version of a mixture of Romanised Japanese and English is the traditional poem translated the way On Kawara wanted it to be translated (version 2); and the following is the 2-verse song completely translated (as best I can) into English (version 3).

Verse one
Oh Kiso no pilgrims, boatmen,
raftsmen coming down the Kiso,
how is it Kiso no happy raftsmen
on mount Ontake, nanjarahoi, up the Kiso?
It is summer but cold there in summer,
Chilly oh-good, oh-good, oh-good!


Verse two
Oh don't copy pilgrims, boatmen,
raftsmen coming down the Kiso,
I wish I could take your sadness away
Do you give winter clothes, nanjarahoi?
Traveling with Japanese socks to warm your
toes-good, toes-good, toes-good.

The only Japanese word I haven't translated is 'nanjarahoi'. It seems to be an interjection, something like 'what is it?' But I'm not sure, so until I get some Japanese speaker's input I'll leave it untranslated.

And the image? Version 4, I like to think. Well, that was the proposed cover of my book,
Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality, that David Bowie was going to have published. It's an old Chinese image from an album in the collection of the British Library called 'Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery' (1750). It shows Zhao Bing floating across a river on a mat, blown by the wind. Zhao Bing was of the Later Han (A.D. 25 - 220) and he used to enjoy travel. He could turn water into wine and floated across rivers on a mat. He could make a dried tree-root sprout flowers by placing a speck of cinnabar on it. It's always been a favourite image of mine, never more so than today when I realise it has such close associations with On Kawara.

In 1965, On Kawara was on the threshold of embarking on his Date Painting series. He had the idea to Date Paint in the autumn of 1965 and waited patiently through the final months of the old year until the start of the new year. Then he went for it.

Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.

Traveler's Song tells us, is how well On Kawara was grounded when he set out on his uniquely ambitious Date Painting project. The old song takes the reader through On Kawara's own country. As you can see from the next map, the town of Kariya (bottom right), where On Kawara was born, is close to where the River Kiso joins the sea.


As a boy, On Kawara would have been taken up the river towards Mount Ontake (marked in purple towards the top left of the following map) by his parents. There would have come a point when he would have been encouraged to put his toe-hugging tabi socks on. Perhaps when the river became a lake towards the top of the Kiso Valley.


Tabi is a word actually used in the second verse (word three in line five) of the song: // // // //

On: "Can I put my tabi socks on yet?"

On's mother: "Only if you can see the shining mountain."


And in the fullness of time the grounded boy became a cosmic man. On Kawara could travel the world and the Kiso River went with him. Wherever he was on the planet, all he had to do was pull on his tabi socks, carefully clinging to each toe, and he was home, that place of safety, care and love.
Toes-yoi, toes-yoi, toes-yoi.

As On continued to Date Paint, he never left his parents side or abandoned the traditions they had taught him. He was in the moment while at the same time understanding and appreciating the arc of his own life. Thirty-three years old and counting.

Reproduced thanks to the understanding of the One Million Years Foundation.


That's it really, gentle reader. I've only added this second section because I can't stop.

Anders Delbom sent me Tommy Wrede's code-cracking document yesterday. I did the writing bit last night. That didn't take long at all. So now I am rafting up the Kiso River.
Oh-yoi, oh-yoi, oh-yoi.


It was thought that On Kawara had to escape Japan in order to become the timeless international master he became. But it was the aftermath of the Second World War that he was escaping. The nihilism and despair that he associated with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When he did escape from a host of negative feelings, and emigrated to Mexico in 1956 with the help of his father's engineering firm, it was the best thing he could have done. Because the geography, history, mythology and wisdom he'd inherited from his parents went with him.

Back to
Traveler's Song. That combination of English and Romanised Japanese that would have made sense to himself and himself alone. Or maybe Hiroko, Nobu, Aoki and Soroku could understand it too. I'm remembering now that Nobu Fukui published a book in the same year that On Kawara died and it was called The Tama River. The Tama being the river that flowed past Nobu's home when he was growing up.

Oh Kiso no pilgrims, boatmen,
raftsmen coming down the Kiso.

Oh Tama no pilgrims, boatmen,
raftsmen coming down the Tama.

I am making good progress with my Date Painting, but you can't see it just yet. Let's wait until it's completely dry. In the meantime, let's catch up on what Anders Delbom was up to yesterday. That means going into Instagram:


The first dice rolled, determined that Anders would paint an ice-cream rather than a skull. Oh, happy day! The next two die decided that it would be a cone, and that the cone would be in a cup. Then he tossed three metal discs to determine whether the cone was to be soft or not, bitten or not, and dripping or not. Then he rolled a dice to determine whether the painting would be red, blue or black (On Kawara colours, natch). He has gone through this routine for 609 days in a row. A well-grounded man; a meticulous artist. I wonder which slow-flowing, life-giving river he was brought up in the vicinity of.

The ice-cream made on March 12, 2024, looks like this:


I wonder if today's Date Painting can hold its own against the creamy, blueberry cone. The Date is in the colours of the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes. But that's not why I've chosen the blue and the red. Can you crack the code? I bet Tommy could.


It really is an ice-cream day, so I take the Date Painting out into the landscape.


And I sit down. These days I live in Perthshire, or Tayside. And this is also where I was brought up, by the River Tay, a tributary of which flows through Blairgowrie. I think my parents made a good job, certainly I am the most stable of individuals, completely at ease in my own company. Well able to live my life, serenely, one day at a time.

'LET TIME PASS' it says on the bench. Well, I am doing. Last words to On Kawara:

Oh don't copy pilgrims, boatmen,
raftsmen coming down the Kiso,
I wish I could take your sadness away
Do you give winter clothes, nanjarahoi?
Traveling with Japanese socks to warm your
toes-good, toes-good, toes-good.