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. 


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. 


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.