April, 2010 Archive

Japan Trip 2010–Day 16

Monday, April 26th, 2010


Just as Jan and I woke up, You-ki returned home from driving the youngsters to the Shin Osaka station and started preparing us a breakfast of omelette and fresh greens. We shared a little sadness at their departure but also an afterglow in the quiet. The kitchen stereo played Tibetan monk chant. You-ki spoke of the value of a slow pace in early morning and of her regular meditation schedule, particularly important during her Noh training regimen. Conversation alternated comfortably with silence.  There was a lot of eye contact.  It was Easter.  Tomorrow we would leave.  She said she would miss us.   Though we were sitting around a kitchen table drinking coffee, it felt like the way of tea.

Jan and I were to meet Stephen P. at Tennoji station for a day’s excursion to Nara, Japan’s earliest capital and the site of one of its most celebrated temple and garden preserves. When he called to say he’d be half an hour late, we roamed endless walkways above a busy surface traffic intersection and several underground levels of train and subway tracks.


Even in the midst of this staggering urban infrastructure, the cherry blossoms claimed their space.


The train was packed this beautiful Sunday at the height of sakura.  We were swept by the crowd up the long walk from the Nara station through an ugly downtown to the ancient city precincts.  The steps to the Kokuru temple lifted us into another world of ringing bells, clouds of incense, and freely wandering deer.


But soon we felt swamped by the uncharacteristic noise”motorcycles and trucks roaring in traffic on thoroughfares inexplicably routed through the middle of the park, power tools clanking in buildings covered with scaffolding, people shouting while picnicking and playing  Frisbee. Stephen mentioned that a friend had recommended going to Isuien gardens to escape the clamor. It was worth the long walk and hefty admission.

Coming through the gateway and around the teahouse a prospect opened like an unfolding screen.


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I wanted to just stop and stare at this perfect static panorama of pond and shore, hillock and isle, creek and bridge, tree and shrub, mountain and sky, light and shade–guarded at its center by a discreetly positioned residence of gods.  And yet I wanted even more to enter its openings, wander its pathways, mount its rises, descend into its hollows, hear its birds, smell its flowers, feel the flow of its moving waters.




We spent an exalted hour in what turned out to be a surprisingly small area, walled off in back from a busy boulevard that separated the garden from the temple in the view.  Driven by hunger we returned to the packed streets and located the restaurant recommended by Ryoko as a place to eat kudzu, a sweet made from the vine which, in the southern U.S., is feared as an invasive pest.  Over lunch Stephen told us of his impending plan to enroll in an online  Master’s Program leading to a degree that would allow him to teach English in a University in Japan providing a good job for an indefinite stay.

Fortified we headed uphill to the most famous attraction of Nara, Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building, which houses Daibutsu, the world’s largest statue of Buddha, both originally built in the eighth century, but since then reconstructed several times after earthquake and fire. As we approached Jan reminded me of the story of our old friend and my former student at Columbia, Taigen Dan, whose life was changed by an experience in the presence of the statue that led to his remaining in Japan for years, training as a Zen monk, publishing several translations of Zen classic texts into English, and founding his own thriving Zendo in Chicago.

The crowd was thicker than ever approaching the Temple’s outer gate but neither loud nor unruly.


At a cascade nearby children frolicked in a scene reminding me of the creek in San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza.


The outer gate introduced the scale of construction of the temple itself.


Even at a great distance, the wide-angle lens of my camera could not contain the whole building, whose image required multiple stitches.


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Though size seems to be the temple’s most prominent feature, its immense scale, like that of European cathedrals, is intended to produce the sensation of humility before the magnificence of the sublime in those who enter.  Notwithstanding my own scholarly claims about the intimidating psychology of priestly power, I enjoyed giving myself over to the very human grandeur of this edifice.


As we headed down the long route toward the train station passing close to Isuien gardens, I looked back at Todaiji and suddenly realized that the discreet centerpiece of the garden’s serene prospect was its roof viewed from a half mile away.

Stephen joined us for dinner with You-ki, who for the last time treated us all for a fine meal at a simple Chinese restaurant not far from her house owned by another friend.

After saying goodbye to Stephen at the train station, we returned to You-ki’s home and she brought out gifts she’d purchased that day for us to take back:  green tea, cups and a little pot, which I drink from now as I write. I staged a final picture with the camera on timer.


Jan gave her one of the boards that Kano had calligraphed for us:


One Life One Encounter.

Japan Trip–Day 15

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010


Morning in Tomonoura greeted us with sunshine and a breakfast of fish, tempura and miso soup.  A cup of coffee in the lobby cost five dollars extra.  We wandered along the shore to the central harbor, watching some small fishboats return with the morning catch


and mingled with a group of Japanese tourists led by a guide through ancient shops offering artfully designed mysterious products. I asked a woman if the brazier over which she was boiling a pot held “ocha” (tea) and she laughed and pointed to a rack of medicinal saki bottles.  After tasting a sample we bought one for Stephen to take to Kayoko.


A tiny alley led to a steep stairway mounting a promontory above the harbor upon which stood a temple overlooking the offshore islands of the Inland sea.  Our guidebook said that the view from this spot was famously described by the sixteenth century Korean ambassador as the best in Japan.


The place was empty of people, a little run-down, but furnished with treasures everywhere the eye could rest.




In front of a little building beside the temple, a plaque in Japanese and English reported that this was the location of the juniper tree mentioned in a poem written by Otomo no Tabito in 731 and collected in the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry:

This juniper tree
Still stands at Tomo no ura
My wife is gone
Who once saw it too.

Heading inland through narrow alleys we found evidence of an older style of community: a hand pump for water on a corner



and a tiny hardware store, which Jan suggested might carry some of the small pruning tools I’d been looking for


Inside, the wizened old lady cramped behind a counter had no trouble understanding my sign language for saws and took me to a cabinet in the back holding a large selection at corner-store prices. For my son, I got an exact replica of the little springsteel foldup saw I’d bought in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1973 that he’s always coveted.  As I paid, her husband came out and gave us two tiny animals he’d carved out of bamboo, which we brought home for the grandsons.

Back toward the hills we entered the graveyard gardens of a temple and sat on the porch looking at its blossoming trees and listening to the chants coming from inside its locked doors.


We hiked a little further to a large Shinto shrine complex up the hill, drank coffee from a vending machine and noticed the boarded up but intact Noh theatre preserved on its grounds, wishing again that we could have a chance to watch You-ki perform.



By way of another temple complex and museum perched on a hillock in the middle of the village, we made our way back to the hotel and boarded the bus for Fukuyama and the return train to Osaka.

Back at Tennoji Station we were greeted by Ryoko, composed and serene in full kimono outfit, an island of wabi in the hubbub of commuters, shoppers and traffic.


She ushered us into a cab back to her mother’s house, where we would have some quiet time with her before meeting up with You-ki, Taylor and Marie who had gone together for the day to Kyoto, and with Emma and Travis, who had spent it shopping in Osaka.

We drank tea and told about our adventures in transportation and then learned something about Ryoko’s life.  Much less extroverted than her mother, she shared many of her graces.  She said she loved to dress in kimono whenever she could find an excuse.  She’d been spending a good deal of time with her father traveling back and forth to Jeju Island, the ancestral home of both sides of the family, where he was tending the ancestors’ graves and preparing his own.  If I understood correctly she said he was planning to retire from a career of working brutally long hours and to spend most of his time there.


Her husband too worked hard and long to support their family, which they hoped would soon be expanded.

Ryoko had learned Korean, both at home and while she lived in Korea studying at University and working at the Japanese consulate in Busan.  Now she taught Korean several hours a week.  She had also studied  English, which was evident in her speaking and writing.  Having seen the copy of my book translated into Japanese, she told me that she loved Shakespeare, especially A Midsummernight’s Dream, in which she had once taken a part.  I told her about the Max Rheinhardt 1930’s film version of the play whose operatic splendor I thought would appeal to her.

Our conversation was ended by a call from You-ki who told Ryoko where to meet  for dinner.  She drove her mother’s car to the middle of downtown through rush hour traffic that moved smoothly on the tollways, and got off near the most impressive building I had seen in Osaka.


“What’s that,” I asked, and she said, “the Hilton,” and pulled into the garage.  This was our rendezvous.  The ostentatious luxury of the atrium was the kind of thing that would both offend my egalitarian sensibilities and make me feel unworthy, but as our entourage assembled under the 30-story hanging sculpture following You-ki’s confident lead, I felt as if I belonged.


After only a day or two separation we all seemed to share the excitement of reunion.  The wine and beer flowed and the sushi kept coming until even the young men said enough.  After dinner You-ki insisted on arranging for a cab to take her and Jan and me along with Ryoko and the others in her car for a lengthy ride to Osaka Castle, which I proudly recognized, because of recently watching  Shogun, as the scene of the defeat of Lord Hideyoshi and the founding of the Tokugawa dynasty.


We got out briefly to admire the illuminated  moat and then dropped Ryoko off at the station. There was no compunction about her taking the subway home across town dressed as she was.

Back at her house, You-ki brought out more wine, though never wetting her lips with alcohol, and suggested that we contine the party with a three part musical “collaboration.”  This was even more out of my league than sushi in the Hilton.  I gulped down my drink and for fifteen minutes felt like an undeserving soul awakening in paradise.

Afterwards You-ki sang us some of the unearthly songs she performed in her various Noh roles.

She brought out her own masks, which appeared as striking and precious as those we’d seen in the museum.



She gave Jan instruction on holding the Noh drum.


By 12:30 I was ready to turn in, but Travis and Emma spent another hour packing their bags for their next day’s voyage to visit her grandmother in Hokkaido.

Japan 2010–Day 14

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010


I woke up in time to watch sunrise paint the distant mainland pastel pink and the beach just below fluorescent orange.



While meditating, I felt a serenity that recalled moments by the stove in the morning before our young children started stirring for the day. When I opened my eyes, I noticed that the wind had come up and a small boat was coming ashore.


Four men walked down a little gangplank, two dressed in the white flowing robes and black headdresses of Shinto priests.  They stuck  cut saplings into the sand, but only through the telescopic viewfinder on my little camera could I see what else they were up to: making an offering of small dishes, bowing and praying.


Then, leaving one man behind at the boat, the others walked off down the beach and disappeared behind a row of trees.


I felt as if the ritual had been carried out just for my benefit, an invitation to the great Itsukushima shrine we were about to visit.  After fifteen minutes back they marched, climbed into the boat and headed out into the waves.


The ryokan hotel ushered the six of us out punctually at 10:00 A.M.  We checked bags at the ferry terminal and mingled with the crowds browsing the dense cluster of shops and restaurants that by now was an expected adjunct of every large temple.


We made no effort to resist taking portraits framed by familiar features of the floating shrine.




Promenading along its winding wooden arcades suspended above the high tide reminded me of the dreamlike sensation of wandering in Venice.  Here too there were arched bridges, tree-lined canals, and plazas that opened on an unending succession of towers and altars.




The shrine’s identifying artifact was a rice paddle, supposedly invented here.  As I took a photo of Jan buying several of these wooden gifts packed in beautiful boxes for only two dollars each from a pretty young monk, one of her colleagues exclaimed “no pictures please,” and  I felt ashamed but triumphant.


The three couples went separate ways and kept reassembling with wondrous exclamations: Look at that¦and that¦and that¦




However we had a schedule to follow.  We stopped for a lunch of the local specialty”a kind of cabbage omelet.


Marie gave Jan a lesson in reading kanji instead of paying attention to the hour, so  back in Hiroshima we missed the Shinkasen that would take the two of us to Fukuyama in time to catch the hotel shuttle heading for our anniversary hideaway in Tomonoura. Emma phoned and told them we’d catch the next train forty minutes later, they said OK, but when Jan and I got there, no shuttle was to be found. Instead, Stephen’s friend Kayoko, who’d made the reservation, phoned us extremely upset to say the hotel phoned her to say they wouldnt wait. We assured her we could find the way ourselves.  This was the only time during the trip we’d been left to our own devices, and I enjoyed trying with sign language to get five people on the bus to interpret between us and the driver, who couldn’t understand that we simply wanted to get off at the last stop.

Our destination, which we’d selected from the guidebook a couple of months earlier, was Tomo no ura, a small village on the coast. We learned from an internet site that this last well-preserved ancient port had  been slated for large-scale demolition by a government plan to run a highway and bridge project through its center and was recently rescued by efforts of local activists.

Fish fresh from the incoming boats were displayed on the sidewalks skewered through the eyes, eagles fluttered  above the docks, small wooded islands just offshore paraded in front of one another as we walked along the embankment, and little temples and gardens perched on rock outcrops thrusting above the street.




The hotel, along with several others built in the 1960’s, was out of scale, and its jagged rectangular profile disrupted the rest of the village’s waterfront views, but our room’s was unimpeded.  Dinner was specialties of the region”at least eight varieties of fish: raw, smoked, dried, barbequed, spiced, pickled and sweetened.  We found the rubbery-slimey texture of baby squid beyond our tolerance, but we ate everything else including julienned and sauteed jellyfish, which tasted a bit like grilled onions. Bathing in the hotspring tubs on the top floor deck brought our festive day to luxurious conclusion.



Japan Trip 2010–Day 13

Sunday, April 18th, 2010


We gladly deferred to Emma and Marie for planning our overnight excursion together.  I didn’t expect that of all possible places they’d choose Hiroshima. We were to take the train to the Atomic Bomb Memorial in the morning and then in the late afternoon continue on to the Isle of Miyajima, whose Tori gate in the water was as familiar a tourist icon as Mt. Fuji.

Before we left, You-ki worked on healing Marie’s headache with a little tool she’d been given by her “shaman” and gave me and Jan a pungent herb concoction from her acupuncturist to clear our sinuses.


She insisted on escorting the six of us in two cabs to the ShinOsaka station and on treating us to breakfast.  Jan ordered the specialty of the house, which lived up to its name, Morning Dog.


When we arrived in Hiroshima it was raining, fitting weather for this destination. Stepping off the trolley we came upon the restored ruin of a large building that had miraculously escaped incineration at ground zero, surrounded by posters and engraved stones that told some of the story.



I walked away from the others to experience fully the heaviness of this place: the destruction of a city, the agony of men, women and children who’d been bombed, the ruthlessness of those who’d inflicted it, the national aggression that brought it on, the sadness of all those who’d come to it afterward.

I felt the history of our parents’ generation converging here with the generation of our children.  Jan’s purebred American mother and father, who met in the war against Germany and Japan, bearing one child who married the son of German refugees, and another who married a woman from Japan. Both linked families had themselves been victims in their homelands, mine as Jews persecuted by Hitler, Emma and Marie’s grandparents as Korean nationals kidnapped by the Emperor, their grandmother eyewitnessing both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Straddling the river, a sprawling complex of gardens and heavy concrete monuments extended in all directions.  In the distance stood the Museum, two blocky gray buildings joined by an elevated upper story suspended for 100 yards between them.  We joined busloads of other visitors streaming into a darkened hall filled with dioramas of the incinerated city, film loops of atomic explosions and display cases with posters showing Hiroshima’s past history and a chronology of the war. A mournful symphonic dirge repeated relentlessly on the P.A.

I found myself focusing more on the exhibit’s sanitizing of Japanese war crimes than on its graphic and strangely redundant representations of local suffering.


My curiosity was piqued by the brackets surrounding parts of the story of the Nanking massacre, whose recurrent Japanese denials I remembered had caused international outrage, similar to that produced by Holocaust deniers.


The tears warranted by this pilgrimage were finally released by accounts of the decision-making process of American leaders.


I found the exhibits of Hiroshima’s citizens’ fifty five year commitment to work for international nuclear disarmament genuinely inspiring.


One of them recalled the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which I lived through in terror during my senior year in college. I wondered how facing this evidence of the folly of military-industrial-political influence in the world was affecting the young people whose futures it could determine.


After three hours at the memorial and museum, the six of us agreed to move on and the rain stopped.  We trollied back to the train station, bought snacks and a bottle of whiskey, and horsed around till the departure for Miyajima.


The ferry approached the island in the late afternoon mist and the young people took advantage of low tide to walk to the Tori gate to place coins on it for good luck.



Jan and I checked into the hotel fronting a secluded bay on the other side of the landing.


Three adjoining rooms were reserved for the three couples, and we passed the bottle of Scotch back and forth across balconies while waiting for dinner to be served in another room next door.


There we reveled as the sun went down and then happily retired to our mats.