My winter vacation
These are excerpts from my travel journal (the parts that I wrote with an audience in mind). I hope you enjoy.
December 23rd, Kyoto
If you visit Japan, the only city you must see is Kyoto. Kyoto is the only major city that wasn’t bombed during the war, so it is packed full with old wooden house and temples. There are over 1,700 Buddhist temples here, incredible, and over 300 shrines, and over 20% of Japan’s national treasures, so says the guidebook, and at the same time the city has a very modern feel (just look at the station!) So, the juxtaposition of old and new. [A theme that will run throughout my entire trip, along side a continuous line of absolutely divine people, old and new, and a constant current of art, the best of live music, dance, architecture, and sculpture. A true artist’s pilgrimage.) Today I met up with Ian, my old college roommate (and friend form grade school!) and his girlfriend Julia, from Brazil, who I knew from painting class. We met at our hostel “K’s house.” Great place. Cheap, and full of great friendly minds. I met a brilliant, beautiful Ben from Berlin (see pic), as well as other JETS. [I fell in love with Ben at once and we ended up spending a lot of time together.]
After we checked in we took a walk through Gion, the district where all the Geisha work. I saw three. We found an old bathhouse, and old temples and shrines secretly placed hidden within the rusting activity of cars and shoppers and Christmas lights and retail workers dressed as elves, reindeer, and Santas (I learned that Christmas is actually a couples holiday in Japan, just like Valentine's day in the states. I never understood why they made such a big deal about it on TV and the radio. Now I do.) Right now I am drinking free coffee at K’s House and looking out across the thin blanket of snow covered tile rooftops of Kyoto, thinking a lot about Mary Anne and Bubba and how happy I am to witness my family expanding. There is so much love in the air. And for the first time in my life I get an older brother! Something I always asked Santa for and never ever got! Whoopee! I also get another older sister. yeah. No, im kidding. Lindsey is a beautiful angel that I feel humbled to even get to look at.
First day, we visit the one temple I came to Kyoto to visit: Sanjusangendo, the temple of 1001 Kannon Bodhisattvas. Kannon is the bodhisattva of compassion. This is the deity the Dalai Lama is thought to be a pure emanation of, and the one I bought a painting of in India, and the one I visualize living in the center of my chest aspiring to benefit all beings. In the Buddhist tradition I follow, Kannon (Tibetan: Chinrizig, Chinese: Kwanyin, Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara) is the part of YOU that is pure compassion, the part of your being that wants to alleviate the suffering of others. And the the eleven headed, thousand armed form of Kannon represents the part of you that does not discriminate at all who or what is given compassion. Its thousand hands reach out to every being in a compassionate embrace and helping hand. This is the personification of Christ consciousness or Christ love (a perfect symbol for the Christ, in my opinion). A pure deity with a thousand hands, each one with an eye aware of and yearning to take on and alleviate all the suffering in the world. So, this temple hallway has 1001 of these images, all carved out of wood and painted with gold leaf, each one standing about five feet tall. 70 artists spent over a hundred years building these beings. When school children visit this temple they will search for the Bodhisattva that looks like them, for every sculpture has a different face. Just one of them would be the highlighted treasure of a museum. It was snowing when we got there. Inside; cold silence, everyone moving slowly and silently through the hall, and yet, the singing chorus of the deities, the loud gold hands and light, the juxtaposition was magnificent! I almost burst into teas when I reached the central image, a large sitting Kannon. [pictures were not aloud; these are from the guidebook. I bought some of the temple incense and you know how smell is our most vivid memory)
Next we went to Sanzenin, a temple in the mountains, secret and holy. I found this little Jizo-san with a snow cap.
My friend Kouji took us around. Very generous, beautiful man. I am sleeping over at his house tonight.
I am currently listening to rocknroll Christmas music at Kouji’s family’s house. He must have put it on because he knew I would like it. He insists I take a bath; his family has already drawn the bath for me and put in special tea crystals. He then gave me a special sleeping robe and some icecream. We talked deep into the night about reincarnation, meditation, and love.
Today I went to Nara (an hour train ride form Kyoto) with Ben (from Germany), Ian and Julia. This is the city I wanted to teach in, the Buddhist capital of Japan and home to Todaiji, the largest wooden building in the world, housing the largest Buddha in Japan, the great Daibutsu. This city preserved its temples by surrounding them in a 1,300-acre park complete with over a thousand free roaming friendly deer. I just thought of something. Kyoto and Nara are home to Japan’s treasures in the same way that Rome, Italy, and Paris are home to the treasures of the West (like the David and Mona Lisa). Today I get to see Japan’s David….
To my surprise one of the temples held my all-time favorite sculpture of Kannon. I had totally forgotten that it lived in Nara. A great surprise. It also shook me that even though this sculpture is over a thousand years old (WOW!) and is a national treasure, it is Kept in an old temple, open to the air and elements. My western mind screams, “This should be in a museum! (Like Indiana Jones says to the Nazis in the last crusade) but the Japanese will not do such a ridiculous thing. They even still burn candles and incense around these treasures, now dark and dirty from all the devotion. Makes me think of the Amida Buddha in the cold stairwell at the Nelson. It belongs in a temple.
Back in Kyoto We went to the Phoenix Temple, Byodoin, to see the most beautiful Buddha in all Japan, the Amida by Jocho. The Phoenix Temple (featured on the back of the 10-yen coin) is the oldest wooded building in the whole world, dating back to 998.
The moment my eyes fell across Amida's face, I swallowed my breath and gazed at its eyes, completely transfixed. For an instant all thought and sound stopped. The walls of the temple seemed to ripple slightly and softly hum inaudible hymns, my heart was gone. The Voices and movements of the other onlookers grew in size out of silence, the ocean of stillness his eyes like a portal placed me within or injected into me returned suddenly to carved wood. Then I returned to normal, looked at Ian, who was softly laughing.
Never had I feasted my eyes on such a sculpture as this. The delicate fingers just barely touching, The elegant curves and contours of the shoulders and breasts and eyelids and lips and fingers and ripples of robe all rhyming with one another, all singing together the silent song of the sculpture. The soft light reflecting off the curves making my eyes dance from here to there, the eyes of the Buddha gazing outside with what seems like a complete contentment and satisfaction. This is high art. I should mention that this tiny temple was designed by looking at old Chinese paintings of heaven (I learned that at College).
My Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket cost about 120 dollars. I fell asleep on the smooth ride, waking up now and again to see the hills and mountains and farms and forests fly by, waking up also just in time to see Mt. Fuji skate past in the distance.
At the station I saw a girl dressed up as a maid, or maybe a nurse, talking excitedly to friends. Kazu [my friend I met in America who now lives in Tokyo] met me and took me to his apartment, where I will be staying. I will be staying with Kazu my entire time in Tokyo. His apartment is very small. 1/8th the size of mine, and he pays twice as much as I do. (It reminds me of Mary Anne's first apartment in Chicago). He works two jobs, 10-12 hours a day, no days off, except the ones he got off for my visit. He only eats one meal a day, “scraping by.”
The first thing we did was go to a bookstore to look at art books. I discovered the artist Michel Butor-Pierre Emmanuel Cremonini. This stuff blew me away. Next we went to his neighborhood’s Internet café. This place also blew me away. Even though they are all over Japan I had never been to one before. Here you order a room/cubical at the counter. They give you a room number and point you to the drink bar. FREE DRINKS. Coffee, tea, soda pop, latte, whatever non-alcoholic mainstream drink you want, and as many as you want for free. This is a big deal in Japan where the only place that will give you free refills on coffee is Mr. Donut. AND, the Internet café charges about $2.50 an hour. Yeah. One drink and its paid for. AND, you can stay over night for about 10 dollars (they have couches) making it the cheapest motel ever. An extra $4.50 for a shower. Oh, AND, if you are hungry, you can order cheap Denny’s like food. They give you free icecream if you order more than $5 worth.
So I checked my email and sipped on my coffee and looked at the pictures from Christmas that my cousin Paul posted on his Facebook site, and that made me extra happy. Thank you Paul.
After that we went to a public bathhouse to bathe, so spacious (we used this bathhouse every other day to bathe, his bathroom is just so small that this made a lot more sense.)
Then, walking home we passed by a police officer hitting woodblocks together in a dan, dan, dandan rhythm, beautifully echoing off all the buildings in the quite neighborhood, and I asked Kazu why he does this for I had seen (and heard happily) the police officers in Kyoto doing the same thing and he said that it is tradition in winter for the police to go through the streets “reminding people to turn off their heaters.” I love Japan and the police here. Woodblock music beat across the cold night.
Lying in bed with Kazu the apartment begins to shake slightly. My first earthquake. “Be careful,” he says. I don’t know how I can be careful lying in bed, but I say Ok and enjoy the ride. He says 80% of the world’s earthquakes are in Japan. ..
Everything is closed, museums, so we walked around the city spending money on food and karaoke. I saw a girl with diamonds on her fingernails.
Kazu went to work today and I went to Shinjuku, the world’s busiest station, to meet up with Dave, James, and a few other friends form the states. Seeing James brought so much warmth. Besides Ian he was my first contact with my old circle of friends in America (James lives with Eli). So that felt wonderful. [A prequel to what I will experience upon seeing my family in Shanghai, as we continue along this story.]
We went to Tokyo tower and on the way we saw some Christians with signs preaching at an intersection. Many people in our group got angry. “It pisses me off they are here.”
I felt all this negativity and wanted to say “who cares if they want to save us from eternal hell. Lets enjoy the nice weather!” But I also need to feel compassion for those who cannot yet feel compassion for those who cannot yet feel compassion.
One thing that is annoying me. Every night and every morning Kazu plays loud, poppy, crap rocknroll. Sometimes he plays other stuff, but in the morning its usually “wake up music” and for the past few years I have spent my morning sin quite meditation. I told him when I first arrived that I meditate in the morning and evenings and he said, “cool. I will sit with you.” But no. And when I ask for just five min he says “but this song is so cool.” So I work though it. Listening to the music, to the thoughts complaining about the music---God sent me another monkey to help me work on my patience. A wonderful God. I said my morning prayers:
“May I enter this new dream with kindness, compassion, and consciousness. May I not waste this day. May I use it to benefit others.”
If only Kazu liked classical music! And not loud, pop, Japanese, arg!..crap….
Well…its all just sound anyway, right. One big sound. One big uni-verse.
SO today is new years day. Many people in the states are going to get sick tonight. New years means, “Lets drink a lot.” But in Japan they stay up late to go to the Shrine. Its pretty quite here, actually.
You know I should remember that I am staying in Kazu’s home and I should respect how he likes to spend his mornings. I can always go for a walk if I really need that quiet time. (It’s just so early for loud rocknroll. Am I getting old?)
I spent the day wondering around the city, waiting for my friends to call me but they never did. I tried calling them but they didn’t pick up. Loneliness arose. I ate dinner at an expensive Italian restaurant, alone. And to top it off, my glasses just fell into my spaghetti.
When Kazu got home we went to the bathhouse, which really was wonderful. We then went to the local shrine where we waited in line to throw a coin into the offering box, bow, clap twice, and ask our ancestors for another healthy year. There was a big bonfire and old ladies handing out a strange hot tea with rice in it and it was dreamy and left me feeling great and fresh, not lonely and lame.
I took a train to Ueno (a city in Tokyo) to take another train to the Airport to head off to shanghai. I had an hour free time in ueno so I went to the park. There I found a temple surrounded by a dead lotus pond swarming with ducks. Ducks are my favorite animal I think. They woddle and quack and…I met an old lady there. She saw me taking pictures of the ducks and said, “Do you know the napoleon bird?” I sad no and so she showed pointed out the only duck in the place that had a neon-green head in the shape of napoleon’s hat. She then proceeded to tell me, in Japanese, the names of all the ducks we could see. “The name of the one with the yellow eyes and black head is…..and the one with the red eyes and the gray back is named…..and I have a name to. It is Grandmother.” I smiled and said, “well I have a name and its Older Boy.” And we said nice to meet you and laughed and she told me about her daughter who is a conductor and can I come to her performance next month and a duck stated pecking at my pant leg and she gave me some bread to feed the cute little guy and incense from the temple filled our noses, sunlight our faces, the wind in the reeds, the clapping at the shrines, the ringing of the temple bells, the towering buildings of Tokyo surrounding the ringing of the new year bells. She told me she was glad we met and that it is important for Japanese people to become friends with Americans and Chinese. She said after the war many people were sad but we need to get better. She walked me over to a line of stone statures representing different gods. “We give thanks to all these gods. We approached the statue of a fish. She bowed her head and said “Sorry to eat you. Thank you. Amen.” Then she took me to the jizo san. “Thank you for looking after out dead children. Amen.” Then a large stone Koto. “Thank you for wonderful music. Amen.” Then to a turtle, I didn’t understand the Japanese, “Amen.” Then to a large stone with writing on it. She didn’t know why but we both bowed our heads and said “amen.” Then she showed me the large granite sculpture of a pare of glasses. The Glasses god. “Thank you Glasses, for letting us see, Amen.” Amen indeed!
“See,” she said laughing, “In Japan we have gods for everything.” I said I think that is a good thing. She asked me where I am from. I said Kansas. She said she new of it because of the Wizard of Oz. Next thing I know we are both singing somewhere over the rainbow. Seriously. We sang as she walked me back to the station. “Keep warm. Take care. Being able to humbly meet you was a pleasure.” A Zen monk was chanting nearby, with a bell (like in baraka). She was a lovely woman. Could have been crazy. Could have been homeless. Doesn’t matter in the least.
And that is where we will end this story tonight. Please stay tuned for part two and three, Shanghai, and Tokyo part 2: Butoh Dance and Kamakura. Here is a preview.
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