The End Arrives Like a Lion

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I knew that my Henro pilgrimage was over when I spent more on conveyances in a day than I had spent in total on accommodations in the previous 2 weeks. Not to say I hadn’t boarded a bus or two along the way; the rules of the walking pilgrim are a little fuzzy.

 

Most modern pilgrims do the path by bus, in large groups. After that, traveling by car is also popular. Walkers make up a small portion of the total number that travel the old path. But what makes someone a “walking pilgrim”? For example, is it permissible to take a bus or train at the end of the day to one’s accommodations, especially if the place is off the established path? What about when typhoon(s) come? We had two typhoons during my trip, and I can say without embarrassment that each time, I found the biggest, strongest-looking, well-stocked hotel that had a good restaurant and bunkered myself inside.

 

One night, unable to move my legs after having accidentally attached myself to a 60+ year-old Japanese man walking (racing?) up and down mountains, I found an inn a town away that was in different direction than the Henro road. I decided a train would not violate the authenticity of my walking path and headed for the station. As I did, I ran into a man with whom I had shared a room last night and asked where he was going. As it turned out, he was headed to the same town. “Headed to the train station?” I asked. “No, I am a walking pilgrim”, he replied, and started on his way. It was 5 p.m. and it would be 3 hours before he would arrive.

 

I took the train. I lack the Hasidic-level purity of the true pilgrim. On the other hand, I always arrived before dinner. Still, the desire to be authentic drove me to make dumb decisions, like the day I decided I needed to cover 25 miles in one day on foot to make up for time lost due to the typhoon. I made it, though I could not no longer walk once I arrived. 

 

In fact, there is no “right” way to do this journey. Most pilgrims wear a traditional hat that I think I mentioned before, the 菅笠 (Sugegasa). You don’t have to, of course – none of the garb, accoutrements, or rituals are mandatory. But if you decide to wear it, the hat always comes with a few phrases in Sanskrit and old Japanese. One of them reads:

 

“In essence, there is no east and west.

Where, then, is there a north and south?”

 

Part of the pilgrimage is about learning to let go of the meaningless things we construct to control our movements, thoughts, and feelings. Sometimes that takes time, reflection, and a little bit of exertion and sore feet. Sometimes it takes a giant dose of beautiful surroundings. In fear of my dreaded foe, boredom, I downloaded over 100 hours of books, podcasts, and music to pass the time while I walked. I barely listened to 8 hours of it. The sounds of the forest and the ocean were my companions when I was alone, and the steady beat of my walking staff kept the rhythm.

 

In a world with no rules, it might be a surprise to learn that there ARE rules for the pilgrimage: No lying, stealing, duplicity, defamation, sexual misconduct, anger, greed, flattery, or killing living things (on that last one, I ate A LOT of things that once had been alive, so I’m not sure about my compliance). No one teaches you these rules – I only found them on the internet while doing research. These rules are old Buddhist teachings – followed today by pilgrims who are usually not even practicing Buddhists.

 

It wasn’t until I returned to Tokyo that something struck me, but when it did, it was like a thunderclap: Not once in 3 weeks had I heard a word spoken in anger, in hate, in mistrust or prevarication. The seven deadly sins - envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath – a daily feature of my career – seemed to take a vacation during my journey. I hadn’t even taken notice of it until I returned to modernity in Tokyo, where these qualities are on full display.

 

The shock of returning to civilization was made more pronounced by the fact that it began with the breakfast buffet at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel in Roppongi, to which my friend S had treated me. Describing the buffet as resplendent does a disservice to the vastness and delicacy of the food. Heck, the first taste of actual, real cheese for the first time in 3 weeks felt like ice cream. The staggering beauty of the cornucopia could barely be shaken by the loud, repeated belching of the Chinese tourists, who also apparently found the buffet to be satisfying.

 

Perhaps it was a good thing, then, that in the evening I finally located a legendary old café called Lion in Shibuya. I’d heard about it for years, but never set out to find it – mostly because it means going into quarters that are less than desirable. But this night, I resolved to find it, for no other reason than that I could not handle any more bright lights, glamour, or commerce.

 

Lion is a funny place and Shibuya’s seedy red-light district is the last place you’d expect to find it. Nestled quietly among Dogenzaka’s love-hotels, “soaplands” (purveyors of erotic services), and sex shops, Lion has stood since 1926 and has barely changed in that time. Adorned in classic European design, an old chandelier, faded heavy drapes, wall-sconces, and dark wood, Lion has two simple rules: No Talking, No Photos.

 

Lion is not a place you go to talk. You go to Lion to listen to music – no, listen is not the right word. Worship. Worship, not in the Western sense, but in the Japanese sense – pay tribute, enjoy, absorb, and respect the classical recordings that resound like a church organ, soft but all-consuming. Like a church, all the seats face forward, towards a raised dais surrounded by old vinyl records and vintage stereo equipment. In place of the tabernacle stands a giant set of wooden loudspeakers - the entire café seems built around these enormous monuments, which themselves are preceded by a large bust of Beethoven – and they pour out the music programmed for the day: Brahms, Mendelssohn, Faure...

I did not take this picture!!! The credit/blame for this photo goes to   
  
   
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  Tosh Berman and his lovely blog,   
  
   
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   http://tamtambooks-tosh.blogspot.jp  . So if anyone is getting banned from Lion, it's not me...

I did not take this picture!!! The credit/blame for this photo goes to Tosh Berman and his lovely blog, http://tamtambooks-tosh.blogspot.jp. So if anyone is getting banned from Lion, it's not me...

I said programmed and I mean it – when you arrive, you receive a menu and a program, and while there is room for requests, the café proprietor keeps the music moving by softly announcing each new piece through an ancient microphone.

 

Like so many places upon which I’ve stumbled in Japan, I wondered why everyone doesn’t come here all the time. It is a museum to an age when people just sat and listened to classical music while reading and drinking coffee. Admission is free. Open 7 days a week. And, it seems, there is always a seat.

 

Plus, you don’t need to know Japanese because there’s no talking allowed – just point at the bilingual menu, which simple: coffee, tea, lemonade, and ice cream, although I’m not sure we are agreed on the meaning of certain terms. I ordered a milk shake and received a glass of heavy cream poured over ice. I would have tried to ask the waiter about this issue, but again: No Talking.

 

Long before I left on this journey, I wondered if the pilgrimage would change me. Of course, it had short-term effects. Blisters, soreness, (temporary?) weight-loss, plus every time I walk across a bridge I try to remember to pick my walking stick off the ground, even when I'm not carrying it – legend has it that one night, Kobo-Daishi could not find a place to stay while walking the pilgrimage and had to sleep under a bridge. Now, pilgrims are expected to carry their staffs off the ground without tapping while crossing bridges, so as to avoid waking Kobo-Daishi.

 

I missed the staff more than I thought I would. I actually felt anxiety watching the ANA check-in desk staff at Kochi Airport pack up my 金剛杖 (Kongo Tsue, or walking staff) and send it into baggage. I understood that I couldn’t take it with me on the plane, but I hadn’t been ready for the fact that we (the staff and I) would have to part for the first time in 3 weeks. The staff is said to be the embodiment of Kobo-Daishi, and with it, one never walks the pilgrimage alone. Dogyo Ninin – One Path, Two People - is written on many of them. Seeing the care and respect the women behind the airport counter showed for it just made it worse, and as they carefully placed it in a special ANA box provided for fragile and valuable items, I teared-up and ran off like a parent leaving a child at her first day of school.

 

Such foolishness will fade, of course, and it will be easy to fall back into old habits. But sitting within the ancient walls of Lion, listening to a 1950’s recording of David Oistrakh playing the Franck violin sonata, I thought maybe the pilgrimage had changed me, at least a little.

 

As I sat there, I felt no need to read, or write, to surf the net or check email. I felt no worries about tomorrow and no regrets about yesterday. I had things to do, and things I should not have done, but they did not weigh on me like an albatross. Maybe it will last, maybe not. But for a few hours, at least, I got to experience life in a way I had not in a long, long time. It was worth it.

 

 

No Room at the Inn

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Taking life day by day, without worrying about the next meal, or place to stay, and learning to take life as it comes can have its downsides. Like discovering that the entire prefecture is sold out of hotel, motel, inn, and share-house rooms because it’s a national holiday and several sports teams have come to practice and be watched practicing. Oops. Guess it’s back to Tokyo for me. I could hack it in a manga café or love hotel, but I have to go back to the U.S. on Sunday anyway.

 

I brought equipment to sleep outside, but not on a city street. It is considered slightly honorable to sleep in the open in the woods as a pilgrim. I think you’ll be provided with mandatory state-run accommodations if you try to sleep on the street in Kochi City, if you know what I mean. As it turned out, my outdoor-sleeping gear is still in pristine condition, as are a few other useless items I over-packed into my 23-lb rucksack.

 

It’s not that I’m snobby – Ok I mean I am REALLY snobby but I’ve dropped that somewhat walking around in Japan. This trip is not your neighbor’s visit to Japan – I’ve often walked for more than 9 hours in a day and not once seen a convenience store; the small towns and villages of Japan are a far cry from the Blade-Runner-esque edifices of Shibuya and Shinjuku. Many homes I’ve encountered are barely more than shacks in long shanty-towns on the coastline, hardly recognizable as residences. If your image of Japan is gleaming, high-tech and sparkling clean streets and homes, I can take you on a journey to see another way, assuming you don't have an aversion to blisters and exhaustion.

 

Along the way, I’ve stayed at some fairly low-brow places – places without a modern toilet, or proper heating (actually, most of Japan has awful heating and A/C), places you might run to if you were being hunted by a secret government faction who had framed you for an assassination and you end up on the run with the scrappy but beautiful reporter who uncovered the scheme. But, despite a few exceptions, even the lowbrow places usually have heated toilets and fantastic breakfasts. And everyone is welcoming, proud of their place along the path, and embodies the spirit of generosity that permeates this island.  

 

Plus, almost everywhere I stayed had a washer and dryer. I mention this fact for two reasons: First, everyone else appeared to know that fact and therefore packed lightly. Second, I did not anticipate that fact and OVERPACKED. Like, a lot.

 

I postulate that almost every dryer in Japan is in Shikoku. I had seen dryers in Japan before, of course, on TV shows and even in large appliance stores. Once I stayed at a place that had an actual dryer. Otherwise, in Japan dryers are as rare as rudeness. Yet in Shikoku, I can stay at a place that has cigarette burns on the floor and strange stains on the tatami mats and it will have a dryer. Of course, that’s almost certainly because of the pilgrims, who wash their clothes nearly every day. I walked nearly 200 miles in less than 3 weeks and I am now an expert in foot-bandages.

 

Ok, so - Bandages: WTF, America? How can you not get this right? “We have the greatest medical system in the world” – yet we can’t make a band-aid or bandage that sticks to human skin. Just try the Japanese ones and tell me we haven’t failed miserably at something that should be simple.

 

While I’m on the topic, here’s a brief list, in no particular order, of things from Japan that I can’t believe we haven’t imported to the US for widespread use:

 

Well-stocked convenience stores: While I’m thankful for the wide variety of carbonated sugar water available at my local Quick-e-Mart, I’m talking about a place with an honest variety of beverages, sushi, healthy prepared meals, and desirable hot foods. We ate most meals at convenience stores along the path. I ate better than I do on most business trips. 

 

Thoughtful hotel amenities: Even the $50/night places have a machine that will press your clothes, a shoe-horn, pajamas or a change of clothes of some type, slippers, a clothes-freshening spray, a toothbrush, toothpaste – it’s awesome.

 

The washlet-toilet: Ok, seriously America, there is no excuse here. The hotel Kitano in New York has them. Japanese restaurants in NYC have them. Put aside the fact that people don’t understand why a functional bidet is crucial. How are people not INSTANTLY buying heated toilet seats?! I feel like I’m taking CRAZY PILLS!!!

 

Onsen/Sento/O-Fuyu: I get the discomfort with public nudity, but honestly I am starting to feel like a stand-up shower stall is barbaric. In a Japanese bath you have your own dedicated place to wash, complete with a seat and full control of the water to your own personal temperature, plus one or more large, luxurious hot baths to forget the searing pain in your legs and feet.

 

Blankets at movie theaters: Japan has them. We don’t. FAIL.

 

Recycling in general and trash separation at fast-food restaurants in particular: Here, self-interest ALONE should drive this innovation. Anyone who worked at a restaurant and had to carry a trash bag full of ½ empty soda cups should love the idea of a separate bin into which to pour ice and discarded beverages. See Also: Having a little sink in the dining area to wash your hands.

 

Well-marked pathways: Signage is clear, often posted in multiple languages, and generally makes sense. Heck, the way through the woods on this 1200 year-old pathway is better marked than the signs to JFK in the New York City Subway.

 

 

New York City's attempt to care that tourists and visitors easily find their way to JFK.

New York City's attempt to care that tourists and visitors easily find their way to JFK.

Don’t get me wrong – there are A LOT of things that Japan does not do well, and I’m a proud citizen and resident of the United States. But seriously, we’ve got to get our act together…

 

Like most people who enjoy visiting Japan, there is a part of me that wonders how long all this will last. Since I began visiting Japan 10 years ago, I've seen massive changes in a short time. Even Shikoku itself has changed - in the last 5 years, giant metal towers have come to dot the skyline almost every mile along the coast, set in each village as a refuge from potential tsunami. Called Hinan Towers, these are a direct response to the staggering loss of life in the 3/11 Tsunami. 

 

 

A Tsunami refuge, called a Hinan Tower, towers over a tiny farming village along the coast of Kochi Prefecture. These dot the landscape all along the coast now.

A Tsunami refuge, called a Hinan Tower, towers over a tiny farming village along the coast of Kochi Prefecture. These dot the landscape all along the coast now.

So much is changing around me as I travel this country. The diet is visibly changing - more starch, red meat, fried and fatty foods; the effect is visible. I'm still noticeably fat in this country, but I'm not the fattest guy around anymore.  I find trash littering the little sideways and byways, a product of the highways and fast-moving cars that race by all day, perhaps. 

 

Everything new has a price. Every new way consumes the old one. Knowledge is power, but it comes at the cost of wisdom. In turn, wisdom is a gift, but you trade it for youth. In the face of inevitable change, I wonder about the future of the O-Henro Pilgrimage. 

 

I thought about that while I took one last visit to a neighborhood sento in Tokyo. It was my last night in Japan and this public bath house was just a few minutes from my rented apartment in Yoyogi-Uehara. There are few sento left nowadays; 60 years ago they were part of every neighborhood. Few houses had running hot water and enough space for a personal bath. Instead, families would head to the neighborhood sento to bathe, and talk, and meet, and share the details of their days. 

 

As technology, wealth, and progress spread, families began to get their own private baths in their own homes, and the neighborhood sento became a thing of the past. Few public baths still remain, slowly yielding to modernity and the rising value of the real estate upon which they sit.

 

I visited the sento in Yoyogi-Uehara late at night - maybe 10:30 p.m. - on a Saturday, after a long day of collecting souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. The entry might have been a Tardis, because I walked into 1964 Tokyo. The Obaa-san behind the desk might actually have been there since 1964 (and clearly did not give a SHIT about anything because when I couldn't figure out where the lockers were, she just led me directly into the locker room and showed me how to unlock the locker, despite the numerous naked men standing around, who also did not notice her). The fixtures, interior, even the music, were vintage Japan. It smelled of lost times and faded memories. It made me reflect on what I had experienced and what the future would hold for Japan. 

 

And yet, as I looked around me (carefully - everyone is naked and you don't want to see too much), I noticed something odd. All the men were young - 20's, maybe early 30's - one carrying a skateboard, one with non-Yakuza-specific tattoos, others clearly musicians or athletes or artists. I was the oldest man there by far. When I left, a young shopgirl getting off work checked into the women's section next door. Here, in this piece of old Japan, a new generation is making the place their own. 

 

The pilgrimage, too, was a mix of young and old, Japanese and foreign - a place where everyone shared Japan's past. And, perhaps, sent ripples into its future. 

Captured Along the Road

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

People warned me that if I walked this trail long enough, I’d become superstitious. I think it’s being close to nature, away from technology, and constantly aware of the odd coincidences and natural serendipity of life. Chance meetings start to appear destined, lucky finds become gifts, a near-injury in the woods becomes the will of forest spirits, angry or pleased with your presence.

 

And so it was, that I encountered a woodland trickster-apparition that I couldn’t shake for several kilometers.

 

In Japan, the idea of gods or spirits being “good” or “evil” isn’t really inherent in the concept. They exist. We exist. Sometimes the spirits do things that help us, sometimes not. We can offer things to them, respect them, and be wary of them, but worshiping them as a “God” the way that people do in the West is really not what’s going on. It’s a good example of attempting to cram a Japanese concept into a western word and accidentally merging it with a bunch of extraneous and inapplicable meanings.

 

But you should still be careful, for example, of going into the woods if rain is falling while the sun shines: you might accidentally stumble upon the fox-spirits’ wedding procession. They’ll make you regret discovering them, I’ve heard. And in my case, be careful of a guy running towards you in a small town saying “Pilgrim: stop stop!”

 

I mentioned before that the Japanese respect privacy and value peace and quiet. I have walked with fellow pilgrims for almost an hour without anyone saying anything. But everything has its opposite, and sometimes the exception proves the rule. (Aside: I HATE that saying). For example, at Sumo matches you are forbidden from drinking alcohol, eating, taking pictures, or throwing your cushion at the ring if the Ozeki loses. All of these things happen regularly. I have watched Japanese people run red lights like they were from Rhode Island. The highways and byways of the pilgrim’s path have a shocking amount of carelessly discarded trash.

 

Back to my trickster-spirit, who runs over to me and wants to talk and ask lots of questions and he does not mind that I’m walking because he’s going to walk too he’s from Osaka but boy isn’t Kochi prefecture beautiful and the place is great for surfing and did I know that he was a surfer because he is a surfer and he is also Buddhist but he doesn’t follow any organized Buddhism because Japanese Buddhism is corrupt so he follows his own and lives his life between life and death every day which is how everyone should live because we could be killed at any time just by a passing car and isn’t it beautiful here well except for the Tsunami walls those are ugly but it can’t be helped and he has lots of friends from around the world did I want to see them they are on Facebook.

 

<phew>

 

That was the first couple of minutes. It was followed by him running into the road to pick up dead raccoon-dogs and lay them to rest in the woods nearby and did I want to see his tattoos?

 

Tattoos are also a strange topic in Japan. For centuries, they were marks of lower-class people and symbols of poverty or criminality. Tattoos aren’t exactly legal here – but they aren’t exactly illegal either. Japanese tattoo artists are treasured around the world, but have been the subject of numerous and even recent crackdowns here in Japan. You cannot stay at many hotels or enter most onsen baths or gyms if you have a tattoo. This guy had A LOT of tattoos and he was proud of them. I got to see them. All of them. I didn’t even have to ask.

 

I might not have mentioned that this guy is apparently descended from a Samurai family and is a modern-day Samurai, trained in kickboxing and other styles. It was a long trip – we walked together for about 4 km on the road to Muroto along the ocean. I have no idea where he came from but he was going to have to walk that whole way back, I think, though he didn’t seem to mind. 

 

I wondered if I hallucinated the whole thing. Fortunately, I took a picture to document the whole experience.

If I hadn't taken a picture I probably would have considered the whole thing a hallucination

If I hadn't taken a picture I probably would have considered the whole thing a hallucination

The fun part about the pilgrimage is that, even when you are alone, you are never really alone. Someone else is ahead of you, and other maybe behind, though out of sight. In the coming days, I would sit with other pilgrims along the road, and eventually someone would ask “Hey, did anyone met that crazy guy from Osaka?” Then, one after another, someone would share a  story about him. Since I had a picture, some people who managed to get away before he captured them even recognized his photo.

 

It’s a little cruel to call this guy crazy, and strange too, since I was sitting with a bunch of people who had decided to put on white coats and walk, on foot, along a 1200 year old path for weeks on end, even in the driving rain, past wild snakes, boar, bears, deadly stinging bees (also NOT a joke) – a fun topic of conversation was how many blisters you have and where (in Japanese, a blister is a 豆、”mame”, which is the same word as “bean”).  I personally had several, including two the size of Chicken McNuggets (Morningstar Farms Nuggets, for my vegan friends).

 

While I’ve been exploring the fascinating world of foot-tape and bandaging techniques, I’m not exactly qualified to call someone else crazy. But crazy is fun, if you are crazy together. And we are crazy together, sharing stories of the people we met and things we saw along the way, and learning that others had the same experiences.

 

Early on, for example, while walking alone through a tiny village, the last thing I expected was for a young boy to run over and beckon me to come into his school. But that’s exactly what happened. I was walking in my pilgrim’s gear but clearly recognizable as a foreigner.

 

When I arrived in the courtyard, another pilgrim was already there – they must have corralled him a few minutes earlier. Of course, I recognized him. I had stolen his kongo tsue by accident at an early temple, mistaking it for mine. Since then we had joined two other pilgrims for dinner and breakfast the next day at a local inn along the road.

 

The children launched into a presentation about their community, local fruits and vegetables, and local industry. I got to sample a local fruit juice and grilled mushrooms – which, I have to say, were kindof delicious. The kids seemed to be about 5th grade, but did a great job with their presentation – like all Japanese explanations, theirs included posters and diagrams. A few have the potential to be successful newscasters; the Japanese news always seems to employ physical charts and exhibits, finding them more compelling than computerized displays for some reason.

 

Then they invited me to stay for one more presentation – a demonstration of their local version of the Awa-dori, a popular Tokushima festival dance. The Awa-dance is part of O-Bon and literally draws over a million people every year. It is famous for its exuberance, energy, and frankly, pure chaos. The lyrics to a famous Awa-song go:

“The dancers are fools

The watchers are fools

Both are fools alike so

Why not dance?”

 

When they invited us to dance with them, I couldn’t very well say no, could I?

These kids put on a fantastic presentation about their local village for us.

These kids put on a fantastic presentation about their local village for us.

That was two weeks ago, and just yesterday I discovered, by accident, that the children had corralled another pilgrim I know just a few minutes later, and told her the story of the Japanese-speaking American lawyer who had visited with them. In a world without constant TV and noise and the fast pace of daily life, these stories become the connections between all of us.

 

Probably every few days, the process resets, and as pilgrims move on, new pilgrims start walking again, sharing their stories and experiences with one another, building connections and learning from each other along the way. Soon our stories will fade and new stories will come, just as they have come and gone for over a thousand years. Those that came before, and those that will come after, will know only the spirit of the pilgrimage itself, which will outlast us all. 

Musubi

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Privacy is key in Japan. Not privacy like we think about it - privacy of space, for example. The bathroom in the little Inn where I'm staying is unisex, and I remember the first time I found a woman cleaning in the bathroom that me, and about 10 other men, were using. During my first flight in Japan, a woman next to me fell asleep on my shoulder. Privacy of thought and privacy of the moment, though, are sacred here. 

 

Although loudspeakers loudly advocate for candidates from roving trucks and posters adorn the streets for these office-seekers, you will never find a house with a "Vote Tanaka" sign, or a car with a "Don't blame me, I voted for Miyaki" sticker. One's personal political positions are considered quintessentially private, as private as your time at a restaurant or cafe - no one will come by and ask you how you are doing, or if you want something. If you want something, just yell. Seriously - I mean YELL. It's totally polite to do so. 

 

Japanese is one of the 3 hardest languages for Americans to learn, I’ve heard. For me, it’s true, for a few reasons. First, the writing system, grammar, and even fundamental sounds of the language are completely different than English. Second, practicing it is very difficult. But lastly, speaking Japanese also means understanding the Japanese way of approaching, comprehending, and expressing the world.

 

In weak moments, I let myself think that I more or less understand it. But a trip like this reinforces just how little I understand about how to communicate in Japanese. Japanese is like Jazz – you have to listen to the words that people are not saying.

 

Each day, along the path, it seems like I find a new friend to walk with. I start most days intending to walk alone, but inevitably some other pilgrim links up with me and we spend the day together. A lot of it is about pace – it’s hard to find someone who has the same walking speed. No one wants to be held back, but no one wants to be dead weight either. But the strange thing is that there has never been a time when someone has said “let’s walk together.” It just happens. 

My two companions for the day, debating about the next location. Not pictured: Me, happy to get a much-needed break from walking all day in the rain

My two companions for the day, debating about the next location. Not pictured: Me, happy to get a much-needed break from walking all day in the rain

Invisible, unspoken communications and connections are essential to Japanese. To communicate, you must be able to 空気くうきを読よむ – Kuuki o Yomero, “read the air.” That means reading subtle facial expressions, body language, or just words that aren’t being said. Japanese has more sounds per minute than English – a very fast language, at its fastest. But it also has long silences – long periods where no one says anything. In English we might fill that space with idle chatter. In Japan it is almost treasured.

 

The words people don’t say are crucial. I’ve been on this journey for almost 2 weeks and not one time has anyone ever asked me why I am doing it. I have also never asked anyone else that question, nor have I heard anyone asking that question of anyone. One morning at breakfast a fellow pilgrim wondered aloud why someone we had met the day before was walking. I instinctively responded: “Well, you certainly can’t ask her”, and he emphatically agreed. “Never ask”, he said. Of course, I’d already figured that out, but it was interesting to hear it said.

 

On the other hand, for example, Italians might be more forward, like the Italian guy I met in Minami who asked me why, if I had been walking for 2 weeks, I still had my fat gut hanging over my belt. He was not wrong. I’ve done about 134 miles over 10 days of walking, and most of what I have to show for it consists of well- bandaged feet.

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My goodness keeping up with this man almost killed me. Not pictured: the fact that he was 62, carrying a pack, and kicking my ass.

The animated film Kimi no Na wa (君の名は) destroyed Japanese box-office records last year, and explored the idea of memory, experience, and connections between people. If you want to sit through a movie about a teenage boy and a girl who swap bodies, and then end up sobbing uncontrollably in a dark theater like a child, that’s the movie for you. But the idea of an invisible thread connecting people is a wonderful metaphor for the connection between pilgrims across space and time here on Shikoku. 

In a crude way, it’s like the first day of college again – you can walk up to anyone and talk to them. There are no social strata, no cliques, no fashions, no pretension. Everyone dresses the same, no one has a pre-set identity, and there are no divisions between walking pilgrims. We are all connected, although we all travel alone. 

Stormed-In

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Typhoon #2 (#29 for Japan this year) is smashing Pacific waves into the rocks of the Muroto Cape outside my room, so I’m not going anywhere today. That said, I decided to write for the first time on this journey.

 

About 1,200 years ago, Kobo Daishi is said to have sat in a cave on the Muroto coast of Shikoku, called the Mikurodo Cave, chanting relentlessly for weeks until he reached enlightenment. As it happens, I’m just a 5-minute walk from there, also trapped alone with my thoughts in a shelter along the ocean. It’s the second typhoon of my journey but this time I’m not in a big city – I’m in a tiny hotel along the highway surrounded by, well, ocean and highway.

 

I tried to walk to Kobo Daishi’s cave, but the wind was literally so strong I couldn’t reach it. The sedge hat, which is iconic for pilgrims and is a cone-shaped hat that you’ve seen in countless Asian movies and cartoons, is a brilliant piece of engineering – protecting me from sun, rain, and the occasional blasts of road-dust flawlessly, yet remaining breathable and comfortable. However, it also has a bad habit of catching gusts like a sail, and I decided that rather than Mary Poppins-ing my way into the ocean, I’d come back to the hotel.

 

I walked through the start of the first Typhoon. It rained all day, as it had for days, and when I finally reached my hotel I was soaked through. The relentless rain had made everything wet, not least of which my hands, so when my phone went sliding out of my hand and into a puddle on the stone steps to a statute of Kobo Daishi on along the way to Shosanji, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The path itself is called the Henro-korogashi, which basically means “pilgrims fall.” Still, I realized as I quickly powered it down and wrapped it in a handkerchief (thanks Marie!!!) that it was a hint to put away the smartphone and start experiencing the Henro experience.

 

Still, I think everyone should try to explain to a guy in a store in a tiny mountain village that you need a small bag of rice into which you plan to insert your phone, so that the rice will absorb the water, and do all of that in Japanese, and then watch the look on the guy’s face as you do exactly that. I’m certain that he believed me to be COMPLETELY INSANE.

 

But the phone works now, so, joke’s on him, I guess? Since then, however, I’ve tried to keep the devices stashed deep in my bag and instead attempted to experience everything as it came, save for the days spent fleeing typhoons.

 

Fortunately, the contents of my Goruck-brand backback were bone-dry (hooray Goruck!) but the contents of my Hazard4 satchel were entirely soaked (boo Hazard4!). Ok - to be fair the satchel was never intended to be water-proof, water-resistant, or even water-soluble. But all pilgrims carry a little satchel, which is part of the kit if you will. 

The standard Henro pilgrim’s gear includes:

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Oddly Creepy Mannequin, modeling a Henro Pilgrim's kit, outside temple #1, Ryozenji.

1.     The hat (mentioned above), called a Sugegasa. Brilliant, useful for lots of things, as mentioned.

2.     A Hakui – which is a white vest or jacket that, for my martial arts readers, is basically a Gi top. Most have a Sanskrit phrase written on the back. The chief advantage of it is that if you die on the trip, you can be buried in it right on the spot. That is not a joke.

3.     A Staff – called a kongo tsue. This is essential gear, much like the hat. First of all, walking up and down steep mountain ranges all day is brutal enough and the staff is your best friend on those. Plus, it came in handy when I met a GIANT BLACK WILD BOAR in the middle of the woods. Slamming that staff on the ground a few times send him bounding off up the mountain. Also good for shooing away snakes, which I had to do as well.

4.     A Bag of Holding – or fudabasami. Ok it’s not really a bag of holding but you carry a bunch of quasi-magical items in it, including incense, candles, and a few o-fuda, which are name cards. You leave one at each temple, and also give them to anyone who gives you Ossettai.

 

 

 

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So, Ossettai. How to explain this? People have been walking this pilgrimage around Shikoku for over 1200 years. Pilgrims sometimes died along the journey. Helping pilgrims is considered to be virtuous – and you never know what you will get. My first gift was a banana and a hard-boiled egg that a nice old woman gave me. She could not have known that, on this planet, there are two smells that will literally drive me fleeing from a room in revulsion: Bananas, and hard-boiled eggs. I smiled and thanked her in the traditional: “Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo” (Homage to teacher Kobo Daishi).

The next Ossettai I received blew my mind. A woman in a parking lot ran over and gave me a tiny envelope and then ran off. It contained the equivalent of $20. Since then I’ve received a can of juice, fruit, tea, and a container of ginger candy that I LITERALLY CANNOT GIVE AWAY. No one can eat more than one. I’ve tried, believe me. It’s been in my bag for a week. Want some? I’m certain I’ll have some left when I get home.

 

The island is full of huts and rest areas for pilgrims. Some are just a bench along a wooded path. Some are multi-story wooden structures suitable for spending the night. I visited one run by local retired women, offering tea and snacks and light conversation to pilgrims. Others have blankets and mats for sleeping. 

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The welcoming spirit of this island is infectious. I’ve stayed at all sorts of places along the way – business hotels, traditional inns, guest houses – everywhere, pilgrims act like they are part of a family. While the Henro is a lonely prospect, setting out on your own to walk for almost 2 months around an island, it seems like pilgrims make connections all along the way. I’ll write more about that later, I think. For now, I need to get some rest. Tomorrow is at least 9 hours of walking along the coast and I need some rest…

 

 

Henro Bound

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I’m back in Japan! Don’t act so surprised.

But as always, I am doing something different. I will be walking the first 3 weeks of the 8-week long Henro, a 1200-year-old pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku that takes you along 1100 kilometers to visit 88 sacred temples throughout the island. Along the way, there are inns, business hotels, guest houses, huts, and campgrounds for pilgrims, who are a regular feature of this island. The pilgrimage follows the path of Kobo Daishi, who was sort of a cross between Joseph Smith and Thomas Jefferson and walked this path in his quest for enlightenment over 1200 years ago.

I’ve wanted to do the pilgrimage since I first heard about it about 6 years ago. But trying to figure out a way to make it happen Finding 2 months of leave is nigh-impossible, but my Korean teacher J just asked me one day why I didn’t just do what I could in the time that I had. I had no good answer to that, and started this plan instead.

My wife, by the way, had a very good answer when I asked her if she wanted to go. “Hell no.” We tried a walking pilgrimage through the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture earlier this year and, how do I put this? She HATED it. While she loved the fantastic views, lush forests, and amazing food, she rather disliked the constant foot pain and misery of carrying one’s belongings up and down various and innumerable mountains. Thus, this trip will be a solo venture.

How does it work? Basically, like the Appalachian Trail. You start walking, follow the signposts, and march from temple to temple, making little offerings along the way and earning calligraphed-stamps in a little book. When it gets dark, you’re done, you sleep it off, and then hit the road again in the morning. Nowadays, most people do it by bus or car, but the hardcore psychopaths walk it.

What does one bring if you are living out of a backpack for 3 weeks? If I wanted to bore you into throwing your computer or internet-enabled device across the room, I could regale you with those quotidian details. Heck, hearing the fascinating story of me trying various boots over the course of 6 months would be a glimpse into the madness of darkest infinity. It’s enough to know that on the Henro, you must be autarkic, but not autonomous. Meals, showers, laundry, and even relatively comfortable lodgings are available if you can speak a little Japanese and have some money. At least, I think so…

Technically my Japanese adventure has already begun. I spent Saturday night at the Hotel Kitano, a lovely Japanese hotel in Murray Hill on Park Avenue, Manhattan. The rooms were western, but had little Japanese touches, including a Japanese-style toilet. How has this device not caught on here, I will never understand.

I’ve hopped a plane to Haneda Airport in Tokyo from JFK in NYC. (Fun trivia for the day: Did you know that JFK Airport is, in fact, a raging garbage fire?) From there, I’m in a capsule hotel for the night, breakfast with a former student, then a flight to Shikoku, and a train to begin the journey.

So, more updates to come along the way!

 

32 Hours to Tokyo

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

He fell like a tree would fall – first slow, then with a dull thud, but straight as a reed all the way.   In the dark, 14 hours into a 13 hour flight, it didn’t seem as strange as you might think.  Waiting by the tiny 777 bathroom, the dark silhouette of one of my fellow 300+ passengers on board our cursed vessel seemed oddly peaceful as he fell. 

It really wasn’t a surprise, or it shouldn’t have been – after waiting 2 hours in this tiny flying tube, then being ejected due to a mechanical problem, then re-inserted an hour later, then another hour waiting for a “fresh” crew, then another hour for weather to break, the first 5 hours of our journey merely moved us like chess pieces around Dulles International.  Finally in the air, it was another 13 hours of flying before we would arrive in Tokyo, so the fact that a diabetic passenger like him, low on food, water, rest, and energy would pass out getting up in the middle of the night/day/morning/evening/whatever it is – it really wasn’t a surprise.

I wondered if he was dead, at first, or having a heart attack, next, or maybe a seizure.  The selfish concern that we might have to land immediately to attend to him, further delaying our trip, evaporated when I remembered we were over the North Pole.  Unless Santa Claus knows CPR we were bound for Tokyo either way. But when we got him off the ground, he was conscious and alive, although his face bore streaks of blood indicative of his impact.

He did better than my father, really, who had taken such a fall only to wake up in the ICU one day, jaw wired-shut and injured far worse than our patient tonight.  But I guess having grown up in the 1970’s/early 1980’s, I imagined every flight has a Doctor or nurse who will suddenly appear in times of need and tend to the newly wounded/sick.  One who, preferably, had the lasagna. 

But as I cast about in the dark and began to give orders, I realized there was no such person.  When a flight attendant arrived, she had a tiny, personally-assembled med kit that even my own exceeded.  As she and I worked on our friend, she asked if I was a Doctor.   This question did not instill confidence, as the skills I was demonstrating were mostly drawn from watching police in-car camera recordings and episodes of “Cops.”  Still, together we patched up our new friend and got him back on his feet. 

Presumably, an entire medical team was waiting at Narita to scoop him up and give him the royal treatment upon arrival – I didn’t wait to find out.  We were late as it was, and if I missed the last train out of Narita that night, I would get a chance to try out Narita’s new capsule hotel, something I dearly wanted to avoid.  My nice, warm AirBnB in Setagaya awaited. 

And frankly, the remaining 4 hours of my journey, which would have taken 1 hour if not for the earthquake delays, was entirely delightful.  Being stuck on a stalled train during an earthquake-related track-inspection is just a nice chance to chat up some strangers and admire the infinite patience of Japanese travelers.  And finally, 32 hours after I left home, I was home.  

Seemed a rather routine display for the Yamanote Line, it appears. &nbsp;

Seemed a rather routine display for the Yamanote Line, it appears.  


Tea Is For Closers

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

When in Japan, I often I wonder what in the world could possibly happen that would be worth writing about.  I’ve written about the funny features of every day life, chance encounters, accidental dives into rivers and nighttime sword fighting lessons, and I often fear I’ll never experience anything worth writing about again.  My great fear is to become boring, the chief sin of most travel blogs.  

 

The fact is, that after 5 trips to Japan, I repeatedly fail to accept the inevitability of impending peril.  

 

And so it was that A lost her eyeglasses in a taxicab in central Kanazawa.  

 

We had visited Myoruiji, a small shrine known colloquially as the “ninja temple,” in view of its many hidden trap doors, secret stairwells, and mysterious passageways.  The Maeda clan had built Myoruji as an outpost to hide spies and maintain a lookout for Kanazawa castle.  It is said there is a tunnel that leads from Myoruji under the city and all the way to the Castle.  I say “it is said” because when listening to the tour guide explain the possibility that the claim is true, it was completely obvious to me that it is false.  Perhaps it is my training as a lawyer and prosecutor, but there is a way to tell a lie and pretend it might be true that is transparent even in a foreign language.  

 

The tour was entirely in Japanese and the staff were notoriously unwelcoming and rigid.  True to form, they instructed me not to translate for Annie, as it would distract the tour guide.  Instead we were given an English guidebook, A was just as well, because I needed it almost as much as A, not because I didn’t understand, but because I spent most of the time trying to stay warm in the un-heated, centuries-old structure.  There is something about temples and shrines that renders them colder than the outside.  

 

It was on the ride back that A apparently decided to leave her glasses in the one place we would never be able to find them again, a Taxicab..

 

It is crucial to understand how uniquely poor a choice of location this was to lose an item in Japan.  If she had left them nearly anywhere else in the island nation of Japan, we stood a chance of getting them back.  The street?  A passerby would turn them in to the Police Station (I swear, it happens ALL THE TIME - ask a former resident).  A museum or train car?  They have lost-and-founds.  A hotel?  They would mail them to us, along with a note apologizing for not trying hard enough to make sure we did not leave anything behind.  

 

No, she had to pick a continuously mobile form of transportation whose driver would never figure out who left them behind.  And, of course, we had no idea what cab company we rode from the Ninja Temple to Mr. Donut.  So forget calling the company.  (Believe me, I tried, with entirely unhelpful results).  Her eyeglasses were gone the second we stepped out of the cab.  We were, in a word, screwed.  

 

Now, you might be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about this seemingly minor problem.  I should begin by explaining that my wife suffers from rare but medically documented disphasia of the hippocampus called Topographical Agnosia.  People who have this disorder lack the ability to visualize spatial relationships in a grid, the way most of us do when we navigate the world.  

 

Imagine the route from your home to the grocery store.  Got it?  When you imagined it, you probably imagined a series of images laid out in a pattern, one after the other, related to each other by right or left turns, maybe in a grid or in a series of picture images.  If I asked you to imagine that you were coming from a different direction, you could switch up the map.  

 

She cannot.  She actually gets lost in her office at work if she goes out the wrong door.  I’m not making this up for purposes of humor, this is a real thing.  My brother’s friend has it too, and apparently there are all sorts of jokes about him.  (Did you hear about the march they organized for Topographical Agnosia?  It was 2 weeks ago.  Some of them still haven’t made it home).  

 

So our big plan to split up in Tokyo for the last 3 days and wander the city was in jeopardy.  We each have a Japanese and an American cellphone and a wifi hotspot but there is no way I can get her out of being lost if she cannot see.  And forget finding someone to help.  Most Japanese people learned English in school but would rather commit seppuku than risk embarrassment by trying to speak English.  

 

Sitting in a tiny booth of the 3rd floor of Mr. Donut in Katamachi, I chewed on my frustration, vainly hoping to see the cabdriver come running in and hand us our lost property and bowing profusely.   “Well, hell, this is why I carry a wi-fi hotspot,” I thought, and googled “buying new eyeglasses Japan.” Having determined it was possible, we set out to accomplish what the internet warned was difficult, but not impossible.  And the first attempts we made, where we were told the wait would be 2 weeks, were not promising.  

 

The final exam in my Japanese class did not include obtaining a new eye prescription for another person in a foreign city.  But then again, I'm sure that the exam our eyeglass shop proprietor took to obtain his license included a section how to deal with people who could barely communicate beyond "yes" and "no."  Remember when you last took an eye exam?  And how you needed to know how to read letters?  You need to be able to do that in Japan too, only the letters are called Hiragana and they look a little different.  And if you don’t know how to read them it’s a little hard to tell the examiner what you see.  I’m sure that when he was in eye-examiner school and his teacher taught him how to administer an eye exam to an illiterate person, he probably thought to himself: 

 

"Japan has a 99% literacy rate [true].  Why in the world would I have to administer this test to someone who cannot read?”

 

Well, we all were going to have a tough evening.  

 

Not having glasses myself, I never paid much attention to the machinery behind the eye exam.  But as a translator, I watched the proprieter’s opearations carefully and realized that the machine actually has a setting for “illiterate.”  It’s a series of simple shapes that my wife could draw and convey basic information.  Pretty ingenious, I must say.  Finally he issued a prescription and Annie selected a pair of frames (finding, of course, the section of expensive frames that did not carry a discount with a new prescription).  They would be ready in just over an hour.  

 

I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down to complete the transaction.  The proprieter led us to a set of chairs where we would settle the bill and arrange pick-up.  It was then, perfectly on cue, that his assistant entered the room with a tiny tray carrying two cups of hot green tea.  Two cups, to celebrate and mark the conclusion of our transaction.  We quietly sipped tea and settled the bill.  Tea is for Closers.  

 

It being Japan, of course, the glasses fit her better than any glasses she has ever had.  Part of it was the proprieter’s fastidious attention to detail.  Part of it was the elaborate computerized machine he had that he used to analyze her head shape.  And, of course, part of it was that the glasses were made for Asian people, and not big Americans.  In short, size matters.  

 

In a land the size of California with half the population of the United States, and still with large portions of the nation only lightly populated, space and size are at a unique premium.   She is perfectly sized for this nation.  I, only the other hand, am not an efficient use of space or size. 

 

I noted that fact first while taking a shower at a business hotel in Shibuya in a shower stall smaller than the shower on the tiny houseboat we rented in Newport.  The bathroom in our apartment in Harajuku is smaller than the bathroom on the airplane.  Certainly the tiny feet markers on the airport moving walkway are an immediate sign alterting you to your relative size.  The Shibuya hotel room mirror cut me off at about shoulder height, but was  perfect for Annie.  

 

Normally, she feels small and I feel normal.  Here, I feel enormous.  Perhaps this is what it felt like to be Andre the Giant.  I saw an American woman at a Narita Starbucks that had the stunned look of someone who was having that feeling for the first time.  I've felt it a million times before but it always feels new and uncomfortable.  Like being an elephant at a mouse convention. 

 

Annie says people watch me with one eye at all times, the way a flock of birds would watch a crocodile.  I don't notice the watching but I feel self conscious nonetheless, like I should be constantly apologizing for being a hulking meatbag.  On the other hand, she blends in so much I sometimes lose her in crowds.  I honestly wonder if I had to find her if I could even sufficiently describe her to anyone.  “umm…she’s Asian…short….black hair…wears glasses…well,that is, unless she’s lost them again…”

 

Still, obtaining a new eye prescription and buying new glasses for my wife in Kanazawa, Japan using virtually no English at all should earn me some kind of Japanese Merit Badge.  

 

Plus A left happy and said the eye exam was the most complete and precise she had ever had.  She exclaimed that the new glasses made everything look like it was in High Definition.  It had been a lucky day after all.  Good thing she didn't understand the slagging-off the proprietor and I gave her while she was selecting new frames….

 

Best Glasses Ever

Best Glasses Ever

Walking in Paradise with a Rock in my Shoe

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I venture that if I ever arrived in paradise, I'd still find some minor issue to consume my attention and distract me from the wonders to see in all directions.  It's as I’m walking in paradise and all I can focus on is the rock in my shoe.  We left Cville and all I cold think about was how Embarq had screwed up my Internet access again.   For 2 hours on the plane I was consumed with my missing eye mask, which had disappeared under the seat, but which I couldn't reach without also grabbing the toes of the man behind me (I tried it and failed twice, although I managed to determine that the man had really comfortable socks).  I found an amazing guide to Japanese food kanji and terminology that finally unlocked the secrets of otherwise inscrutable menus, only to discover that I left it in the US.  It drove me nuts for an hour. 

I sometimes wonder if this place is wasted on me. 

But that begs the question of why I come here in the first place.  Certainly this time around I questioned why I was doing this again.  Not that I'm an opponent of fun, mind you, but even I'll admit this is a lot of effort to go to just for a nice trip away from home. 

There are different levels of travel adventures.  Some of them involve death-defying feats like bungee jumping off a fantastically tall hotel in Dubai or diving in the deepest hole in the ocean.  For us they tend towards writing a complicated legal document on the back of a take-out menu as a favor for a friend in a conveyor-belt sushi shop by a sleepy commuter train station in Wakayama, Japan. 

I imagine that sitting on the beach all day and reading a nice paperback from Hudson News is a little less stressful than having to call the monks at your mountaintop temple and beg them to keep the doors open and leave the bath unlocked even though we were violating curfew by coming home after 10 PM.  Even the cab driver who drove us from the cable car station to our temple scolded us for being late. 

I'd have thanked them in the morning for accommodating us but I was too busy trying to unfreeze my toes, which had lost all circulation and body heat during the morning fire ceremony, a ritual that is held "inside" a small temple.  By "inside" I mean behind a lattice-work "door" that serves only to focus the wind more directly.  As it was at most 18 degrees outside, the snow had turned to ice rather quickly, but really, there is no way to better appreciate fire. 

Back in the summertime, I met a family from Japan who had been staying at the Ronald McDonald house in Cville.  Their daughter was being treated at Uva and they found our little Japanese conversation group, almost entirely by accident.  When they told us of their plans to see America, they explained that highlight of their tour was going to be Fashion Square Mall.  There are few things in life that have motivated me to skip work and drive 5 hours than this single statement.  They didn’t have a car and they had discovered that the American public transportation system is the equivalent of the Japanese system for having the deer you killed butchered and taxidermied.  Which is to say, barely extant. 

So a friend and I drove them to Washington D.C., where we toured the Lincoln Memorial, the Museum of Natural History, Air & Space (I probably didn’t even need to say that, as you assumed it) and the tidal basin, which surprisingly enough now includes a WWII memorial.  If you look “awkward” up in the dictionary there is a picture of a us together and their 11 year old Japanese girl running and laughing in front of the Pacific War section of the WWII  memorial. 

Of course, for the girl, her favorite part of D.C. was the ducks, something that I could have found 5 minutes from my house at FOREST FREAKIN’ LAKES, but the family was nonetheless appreciative.  They were equally delighted when I took them to the Natural Bridge Animal Safari Park (quick plug:  that place is actually really fun.  I thought it would be a bunch of donkeys and a diseased Alpaca, but it was awesome and totally worth it. You should go, whoever you are).  I was just happy that the highlight of their trip wasn’t a bunch of hideous rednecks buying bulk candy at the shopping mall food court. 

But for a Japanese person, a debt like that is a tumor that yearns to be cut out.  Fortuitously, when we arrived at Koyasan, a “mere” 2 hour drive from their home in Wakayama, we made a plan to meet on Tuesday and all would be well.  Except – where to go?  And I (thought that I) had the solution.  In Wakayama, next to their mother’s home town, was this amazing train station where they have named a local cat as the station master.  Station Master Tama now has his own train, painted with cats and decorated inside with all sorts of cat images and cat-themed train equipment.  Even the station itself was rebuilt in the image of a cat.  What could be more fun? 

Yet every time they asked what we wanted to do, and we replied that we wanted to go to the Tama Station, they replied with the same question: where do you want to go?  Clearly there was something wrong with my Japanese?  I kept writing the sentence in different ways in emails only to get the same basic reply.  It wasn’t until I was on the airplane and reading the ANA travel magazine that it struck me that I was basically asking them to take me to Fashion Square Mall.  And they were not having it. 

So we settled on Nara, which was the ancient capital from 710 to 784 and also served as the rival headquarters of Buddhism in Japan to Koyasan.  They ultimately suggested it and we agreed, which only took one email exchange before being settled.  I guess my Japanese is getting better.

Having settled the issue, I was surprised to get a call in the middle of a snow storm on Mt. Koya from Mr. M on Monday morning.  By get a call, I really mean that a monk came runnig to find me in the temple, because my cellphone didn’t exactly get a signal on the top of the mountain.  Mr. M had decided, due to the snow storm, that he wasn’t going to work on the farm today and instead would come and show visit us on Mount Koya.  I couldn’t much refuse and the plan was made.  And so it was that he drove 3 hours through the blinding snow with his wife and 2 children up a mountain so steep that they had to build a SPECIAL DIAGONAL TRAIN just to get up the side.  IN THE MIDDLE OF A SNOW STORM.  The trip usually takes 2 hours, but it was an extra hour just to arrive because of the snow.  As Japanese people are notorious liars about such things I have to guess that it was really 4 hours. 

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I felt horrible until I watched the children burst from the car and dive into the snow.  They don’t get much snow in their part of Wakayama, which is farmland just off the coast.  We performed our obligatory gift exchange (by the way, they grow amazing oranges, which we offered to share with them only to get the most pure and honest “No” I’ve ever gotten in Japan.  I guess if your job is growing oranges you lose your taste for them quickly) and then headed for the cemetary.  It was a great day (see previous post).

Having run ourselves into the ground on Monday, it was hard to believe they would drive back and give us another day of their lives.  Yet we met them the next day at Hashimoto Station (We decided to spare them the exciting mountain-climbing drive) and headed another 2 hours East to Nara. 

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As soon as I arrived, I realized that Nara is a combination between Washington D.C. and the Safari Park.  An old capital puncuated with monuments and museums and at the same time pupulated (infested?) with animals, in this case, deer, who wander freely among the tourists, eating snacks provided to them by tourists, the pamphlet you might have accidentally left sticking out of your pocket, or, apparently, chains.  Perhaps it is best that the shopkeepers sell a special cracker that you can feed to the deer, although by "feed" I really mean hold for 2 seconds until a pack of deer swarm and eat them out of your hands like ravenous dogs.  

 

In ancient times the deer were considered sacred and if you killed one, you were also killed.  The residents would sometimes get up early to make sure that there were no deer dead in front of their homes.  If there were, you could, of course, just move it to the neighbor’s house. Nowadays the deer are a fixture and omnipresent.  As are the tourists.

 

It was a pleasant surprise to run into a Korean tour group at the steps to Todai-ji, if only because the recent disputes between Japan and Korea have almost obliterated the real progress made between the two cultures in the last 10 years.  I’m not blaming anyone, but seriously, WTF.  When I attempted to switch from Japanese to Korean to speak to them, however, I actually saw the Blue Screen of Death appear in my brain.  “THIS PROGRAM HAS SUFFERED A FATAL ERROR AND WILL BE SHUT DOWN.” There I stood on the steps of the largest wooden structure in the world, first built in 743 A.D., and I could barely form the word for “bread.” 

 

Perhaps that is the point.  To experience something so completely under stress is to feel it more deeply and consume it more completely, like the first glass of water after a long, hot run. 

 

Or perhaps I'm slowly losing my mind.  After all, I did stare at A yesterday and blather at her in Japanese for about 30 seconds before remembering that she doesn't speak Japanese. 

 

We spent all day together, walking among the ancient monuments and temples and sharing stories and views of the world.  They spoke almost no English and my Japanese is horrible, second only to A's complete lack thereof.  But it worked, somehow.  I think they just enjoyed watching us enjoy Japan.  They could see they had given us a gift that we could treasure all of our lives but that could not be held in any package.  So much so that they wanted us to memorialize it and talked me into buying a memorial plaque at Todai-ji that would be used for roof re-construction.  The instructions were to put a date, our names, and a wish.  Too bad I suck at Japanese because I marked the date as January 50th, 2013. (If you speak/write Japanese/Chinese/Korean you will realize how deeply stupid a mistake this is.)

 

I didn’t need a memorial plaque, of course, to remember the day, but it was fun anyway.  Even when we realized that the last train home wasn’t going to get us to the temple before curfew.  Thankfully Mrs. M. called the temple and did the apologizing and begging for us, and even got them to hold the bath open for us.  The temple normally only keeps the bath open from 7 pm to 10 pm, so it was a big favor.  Having arrived after 10 I got to bathe with the monks instead, which was just as well, because they didn’t want to say anything to me and I didn’t have much to say to them.  There were no words for the day I had just experienced anyway. 

 

You can stop wishing now.

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I think Annie wished a little too hard for snow.  

She wanted to see snow in Japan, and I promised her I would show it to her.  After all, we had seen an ancient forest on a remote island in the dead of summer, we had seen Kyoto's temples lit up at night to celebrate the late fall, and seen big cities and small towns.  But then it didn't look good for snow - the forecast was clear except for rain.  

Well, our second night in Japan we got snow.  And then more snow.  I don't think my iPhone weather channel app covered the tiny mountaintop town where we were staying.  

Context can teach you alot about why something is desirable.  I never thought much about the kotatsu, a small table with a built-in blanket along the sides like a duvet (no, I'm not gay, I just happen to know what that is, not that there is anything wrong with being gay, it just would confuse the reader who has followed me so far, assuming they haven't gotten sick of the relentless and pointless asides, and noticed that I'm traveling with my wife) and has a built in heater.  (Admit it, you forgot what I was talking about because of the parens in the middle of the sentence.  It's ok, I forgive you).  

But spend some time in a temple that is hundreds of years old that lacks central heat and is made of paper, balsa wood, and cheap glass, and you will appreciate it very quickly.  Especially when the only sources of heat in your section of the temple are the tiny portable space heater, a kotatsu (see above (see, you already forgot)) and the heated toilet seat down the hall.  Nor did I see much use for the o-fuyu, the hot bath at the end of the night where the goal is to soak and, well, that's it.  You wash in a separate little shower area, and must enter totally clean, so what's the point?  Well, walk around in a snowstorm all day and you'll figure it out. I did.  All I can say is: Wow.  I just wish it was open hours other than 7 pm to 10 pm, which apparently are the only hours that anyone sees fit to take a bath or shower.  

And if you wonder what the point of having friends on the other side of the planet is, people that you hardly knew but showed around during the summer while their daughter was having an operation in America, then it's perhaps impossible to describe the pleasure of a day walking around a 1200 year old cemetery, blanketed in snow, and watching their children play.  They drove 3 hours through the blinding snow up a mountain so steep that a special cable car was built on an angle just to reach it.  But the kids almost never see snow and played like it was Christmas day.  They started to play as soon as they jumped out of the car and never stopped until it was time to leave.  Just a simple day - no ninjas, or sumo matches, or samurai training - and it was a day I'll never forget.  

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Back for 2013

by Kensatsukan Gaijin


It's been a while since I've posted, even though we've been here for days, but the wifi in this ancient temple we are staying at is really pathetic, and you wouldn't believe how poor of a signal I get on my portable Internet hotspot on the top of this mountain. When Kobo-Daishi founded this collection of temples 1300 years ago he probably didn't anticipate that it would really inhibit getting a cellphone signal.

Still, Japan is an amazing place. You know that you are riding a local train when you see the conductor hold the train for a couple that he can see in the station buying tickets. They were running like their lives depended on it but I've seen the VRE conductor pull away when someone was 10 feet from the door.

I spent five years riding a commuter train every day, a metal box that served as a rickety palanquin for an hour and ten minutes, and often longer, from home to work. Not once did it ever occur to me that every station could have its own theme music, to rouse the sleepy and exhausted commuter who might otherwise tune out the station announcement.

Nor, if I were choosing the theme music for my train station, would I consider it possible to select Anton Karas' zither-infused theme from Carol Reed's 1949 classic "The Third Man". Apparently, however, someone at the Ebisu station on the Yamanote line is a bit of a film buff.

Little touches make Japan so different. Airport Customs has its own mascot, a cute and friendly creature that advises you on what fruits, vegetables, and explosives are prohibited. The Shinkansen bullet train employs a uniformed woman whose entire job is to patrol the cars and hand out pre-packaged moist hand towels when you arrive and take your seat. When she leaves the train car, she turns, faces the car, and bows.

Every time I am here a new feature fascinates me. This time it is the silence. No doubt, the streets of Shibuya are innundated with sugar pop and boy-band blarings, layered with salespeople proclaiming the superiority of their establishment's karaoke offerings. Yet time after time I've noticed that people here are fastidiously quiet. The subway and train cars I've boarded could be mistaken for the Amtrak quiet car at 5 am, but for the absence of the one douchebag on his cellphone who "makes his own rules because that's how he rolls." The amazing complimentary breakfast in the lobby at the tiny business hotel was attended by children, travelers, and nary a sound over 40 db. Are we the only people who feel the need to tune the TV to Fox News and blast it through the dining area while eating our powdered eggs and Wonderbread toast?

The staff (well, monks really) at the temple we stayed at were almost uniquely lacking in a desire to please or attention to the guests. It was almost refreshing to be completely ignored for once. It must be part of their training, Annie speculated, to almost completely ignore the guests. Yet the temple was cleaner, the food was more delicious and exquisitely prepared, and the experience more meaningful that almost any other place we've stayed.

A word on words

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Japanese is similar to Spanish in the sense that you can drop pronouns from your sentences. In fact, the use of pronouns can be rude or discourteous – referring to someone as “You” is almost never done. However, in Spanish at least you can always tell who is doing the action because the verbs conjugate differently. “Voy afuera” and “Va afuera” both lack subjects, but it is easy to tell who is going outside.

On the other hand, when I called the ryokan to tell the owner that we would be home late but wanted to use the communal bathing facilities (in a ryokan there is traditionally a shared bathing area and we needed to reserve it in advance), I noted that “we are coming home at 10:30 p.m. and will take a bath” sounded a lot like “we are coming home at 10:30 p.m. so you will take a bath.”

It’s a good thing that most crimes are solved by confessions here, because interviewing witnesses is pointless when a report of a crime contains no pronoun. “He killed that guy” sounds exactly like “I killed that guy.” Now that I think about it, I wonder how many “confessions” there really are around here….

The real problem, of course, is that my Japanese is still terrible. I might feel like a native speaker when I successfully buy a bottle of Aquarius Vitamin Guard and order a bowl of noodles, but as soon as I start to attempt to read signs I might as well be a blind baboon. Driving on Yakushima Island confirmed I was functionally illiterate. I was able to determine that the kanji on the road sign I passed was something to the effect of “father-something-stop-something-…” before it had disappeared into my rear view mirror.

What sometimes confuses Japanese speakers is that my mannerisms, my “style”, sound more fluent than my actual vocabulary or grammar. Japanese has a number of different styles and one person can speak in many different voices depending upon the context. It’s as if a person had a southern accent when speaking to a stranger, an English accent at work, and a Brooklyn accent when going out to a bar with friends.

Part of the reason to take A to Japan was just to prove that the high-pitched, squeaky Minney- Mouse voices she heard in anime weren’t an American construct. As soon as we arrived in a department store she looked at me in shock after hearing “Irrashaimase!!! Ikaga Deshou Ka???” over and over from a million young ladies in the same high-pitched voice. These are the same girls who speak perfectly normally to their cram school teachers on Saturday morning, and growl “Majji De?? Chou Yabbai!!” to their friends in front of Shibuya 109.

There’s even a special style of speaking for comedy that, like vaudeville, has its own rhythm and attitude. I can always identify a comedy routine, even though I rarely understand it. So when I flipped through the channels last night and discovered a Japanese Saturday Night Live, I was pleasantly surprised that despite all the American tropes, it remained uniquely Japanese. The camera angles, the pans during the musical act, the frequent breaks in character by the host (in this case, Chiaki Kuriyama (“Kill Bill”’s Gogo) to laugh, the waving at the end of the show, even a Don-Pardo style voiceover during promos, all looked identical to the American version. But the comedy style was utterly Japanese.

The Way

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

“Chuo-Ku, Shirogane 1 chome 8-10, onegaishimasu” [take me to this inscrutable address, please]

“Doko?” [where?]

I show the cab driver the address, in English and in Japanese.

“Doko?” [where?] “I still don’t understand this address.” The driver switches to English, as if somehow the completely impossible to use Japanese address system would become easier if we spoke in English. I call up the address on my iPhone and even show it on google maps (thank goodness for the portable wifi hotspot which has already saved me on numerous occasions.) Still nothing.

The ryokan was in the middle of Fukuoka, a bustling city of over a million people, and was only ten minutes from the Hakata station, but it might has well have been in Burundi at that point.

“Denwa bango ga arun desu ka?” [Do you have the phone number?] I call the ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn where we will spend the rest of our vacation in Fukuoka. That however, leads to an entirely new confusing conversation between the taxi driver and the ryokan owner. “It’s by the Family Mart.” “No, not that Family Mart, the other Family Mart.” “Do you see a Lawson’s?” I cannot even believe that they used a Lawson’s convenience store as a landmark – it’s like saying “You should be able to see my house – it’s the one with the door in front.”

It’s easy to be stunned by Japanese hospitality and the intense devotion to customer service everywhere you go. Parking lot attendants race into the street to clear traffic as you pull out, the airport security staff load your bags into trays for you, attendants at the convenience store literally run to the front of the store if the line at the register is more than one person deep.

But there is something else at work here – more than just slavish devotion to you and your needs. In Japan, everything has a Way. A Way to serve food, a Way to pack your purchases at a store, a Way to use the bath.

And if you want to disturb the delicate balance that permeates your surroundings, try to go against that Way. I do not advise it. There is a Way to serve and eat sushi and sashimi, and if you try to upset it there will be consequences. At Sam’s friend’s sushi place, Annie’s request for a side of wasabi was met with consternation. The waitress did take the time to explain why wasabi was unnecessary, as it was already in the sushi, but Annie pointed out that she simply wanted more. This response was not appreciated and led to another explanation of why her request was inappropriate. Finally, of course, I pulled the confused Westerner card and prevailed.

It makes no difference whether another person notices or appreciates the Way or not. A train conductor will bow when entering and leaving the train car. An airline attendant will bow when opening the departure gate. The girl on Yakushima island who ran a tiny snack stand at the base of a mountain spent 10 minutes carefully cutting a slice of cake for Annie, washing the knife before each cut, then carefully wrapping it and arranging it on a plate. She was completely out of sight and had no idea I was watching her from the reflection on the glass. Even in a remote café, there is the Way.

The Way is sometimes looks like the it’s just the way it’s always been done, but do not be deceived into thinking that it is simply about making life easier or customer service. Korea abandoned its archaic address system and it has long ago become clear that Japan would be well-served to do the same. Our cab driver was not a moron – he asked local residents if they knew how to find the address and they couldn’t do it either.

But without the Way, and the old Ways, would Japan really still be Japan? No matter how much modern technology, English lexicography, and foreign fashion finds its way into Japan, they retain their unique identity. Sometimes they don’t even recognize that what they’ve taken from others was foreign in the first place. Like the hot dog. In Japan, a hot dog is Japanese. An American Dog? That’s a corn dog.

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Rules

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

One reason I will never figure this place out is that I will never understand the rules.

The sumo tournament rules said “No food, no drink, no cellphone use, and no pictures.” Other than being surrounded by people eating, drinking, using their cellphones and taking pictures, the entire event was quite orderly.

Picture a WWE event, put on by PBS. Most men wore suit jackets. My friend’s brother, a kind young Japanese man, bought us the tickets. When I asked for that favor, I assumed that it meant logging onto a website and pressing “order.” The tickets could only be ordered in Japan so I needed the help, but I had no idea he would end up spending an hour on the phone calling over and over until he was able to order tickets. Nor did I realize that he wouldn’t give up until he obtained seats 6 rows from ringside and 4 seats from the place where the wrestlers enter and leave.

But that’s Japan – to this day I am still astounded by the generosity of the Japanese people. At the end of the match a man with a camera bag who obviously felt bad for me for respecting the rules handed me some photos of previous matches he had taken. These were publication-worthy shots. He told me it was obvious I loved the match and he wanted me to have some good pictures as souvenirs.

Does the west have a sport where it is considered dishonorable to make any expression of emotion at victory? I’m not sure that there is even another one like it in Japan. Sumo has been practiced for over 1000 years and the judges and officials still dress in Kamakura period clothing, samurai fashions that are 800 years old.

It’s amazing. Like baseball, it is quite dull to watch on television but riveting to watch live. It’s impossible to convey the force deployed by these men as they crash into each other. Imagine being hit by a bus with a Saturn5 rocket attached at the back that’s got a steel battering ram on the front and is driven by Chuck Norris.

Yet they are the masters of their form, able to instantly turn it off and relax, to redirect an opponent’s energy to the ground right in front of them. I watched Balto, the #2 rikishi in Japan, end a match in 3 seconds by gracefully redirecting his opponent straight into the ground. It’s like watching two enormous, fat ninjas fight on a hotel balcony.

There are no weight classes – why should there be? Over and over I watched the smaller guy win. It’s tough to be a big guy in this country. Heck, I feel like a giant. I actually get self-conscious about my size here. And although I’ve never noticed it, A said people stare at me all day long. Kyushu, unlike Tokyo and Kyoto, isn’t used to the presence of Westerners yet. We’ve seen less than 10 since we’ve been here. A, on the other hand, fits right in.

Arrived

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I suppose I can sleep when I get back in Court.

The "kid-on Christmas morning" effect gave me 3 1/2 hours of sleep, so here I am at 7:30 a.m. in the hotel writing and planning my day instead of sleeping.

If I can make a travel suggestion, it would be to avoid American Airlines.

I’ve been studying Japanese for some time now, but apparently never learned that the word “Code-Share” is Japanese for “you are buying a JAL ticket but you will fly American Airlines.” This is the travel equivalent of “Welcome to The Ritz Carlton. You’ll be dining at our lovely McDonald’s.” A joked that for breakfast we would just get a ½ frozen sandwich with a slice of meat and a slice of cheese for breakfast. That joke was funny until we got breakfast. And it was a a ½ frozen sandwich with a slice of meat and a slice of cheese for breakfast. The condiment du jour was a packet of dijionaise and (I swear I am not making this up) a breath mint.

Perhaps it was a good way to set my mind into Japanese mode – in America, it is easy to take others’ negligence and discourtesy as a personal and intentional attack. For example, when someone cuts me off, I assume it is because they decided to almost cause an accident with me on purpose. I get the sense, however, that Japanese people view such behavior as what it is – negligence and impersonal discourtesy that is just a part of everyday life, not to be taken as a direct assault.

Still, this is the second time that AT&T has screwed up activating my phone in Japan, so it has to be something personal they have against me….

The airport is probably not the best place to reflect on human nature. However, it is an easy place to remember why one is going back to Japan. Japan, a land where people are almost universally polite to strangers, where people do not steal from each other, and where lost property is promptly turned into the police for recovery, even if it is cash found in the wasteland of a Tsunami ($70 million US turned in so far, at last count).

Plus, when this is the food you can get at the Food Court, it's a nice reminder.

However, it confuses me to no end to get repeatedly asked “why are you going back to Japan.” Especially considering my job is to deal with cheats, liars, and their clients.

Now, upon arrival, it is as if I am washing away a year and a half of vacation-less stress, anxiety, and tension. Considering most of that is probably self-inflicted, I've got a bit of work to do.

A 2 a.m. visit to an Izakaya on Meiji Dori was a good start.