Why Do You Love Japan?

I’m leaving Japan tomorrow, returning to America after 364 days living in Tokyo. I’m delighted to be returning to the home where my family, oldest, deepest friendships, and beloved girlfriend are waiting on me. I’m mournful to be leaving so soon the country that has truly become my second home. It’s a strange feeling to have one event trigger such opposing emotions.

“Why do you love Japan?”

I’ve been asked that question a lot over the last year or two, and never been able to find the answer.

Sometimes I try to explain the abundance of beauty here. Paper fortunes tied to trees at a temple, or thin white strips of it fluttering at the bottom of a small softly chiming bell; summer cicadas kreeing in the trees; the gentle sloping tile roofs of buildings; artfully sculpted pine trees lining narrow roads. Japanese women. Japanese fashion. The ineffable melody of the Japanese language. But this explanation inevitably reduces to a long list of minutia that describe what I find beautiful but doesn’t explain why it’s beautiful to me. How does one explain the why of beauty?

Other times I try to find the answer in the Japanese attitude of harmonious living, respect for the group and others over oneself. Or sometimes in the sense of safety one finds here as an extension of that harmony. Friends and I have forgotten things but always been reunited with them. I never fear being robbed or attacked, or that a lost thing will not be returned to the nearest police box. The other night I actually said to some friends, “Lets go down this alley and see what’s back there,” without sarcasm — in the absence of fear, adventure is the natural result. Still, magnificent as it is, I did not come to Japan for the freedom of true safety.

Then there is the spiritual history of the place. In Zen I find hints of something I’ve been reaching for my whole life. In the many gods of Shinto I find not superstition but mythology informing a veneration of every aspect of the corner of the world one lives in. And in Japan I have found a home in a culture shaped by centuries of the combination of those religions. The result is a people and place inconspicuously founded on reverence for the mundane.

All of these things are bound together, inseparable and still only a small part of what I’ve come to think of as the real reason I love Japan: peace.

In Japan, I have peace like I have never had before.

A Long Goodbye

I’ve had quite a few goodbyes in the past week. It’s been pretty rough.

First, a lunch on my next to last day where 11 of my coworkers from all over the company surprised me with a lunch organized by my good friend Jacob. That evening, Jacob took me out for sake tasting and dinner and for the first time I had fresh edamame. It was delicious, I had no idea. Japanese cuisine has definitely changed my palette for the better.

On my last day, people who couldn’t make it to my goodbye dinner that night came to my desk and gave me gifts! Many tasty treats to eat on the plane and a couple of charms for my phone or backpack. :’) I’m surrounded by such thoughtful people.

 


 

That night, my team took me out for a dinner party: lots of pizza and LOTS OF DRINKING.

Soon the time came for gift giving. First Sasamon presented me with a plastic cap that made me look like a samurai, which I of course wore all night.

My best samurai face.
My best samurai face.

Many times over the last year I had remarked to Sasamon how much I loved his backpack. He told me it was love at first sight for him when he saw it, but it was very expensive, hand-made in the US. I looked it up online and saw he was right, definitely pricey (but so cool!).

The second gift came out and when I opened it I was speechless even in English – they had pitched together and gotten me that backpack!

I have his backpack but I'll never be as cool as Sasamon!
I have his backpack but I’ll never be as cool as Sasamon!

The thoughtfulness of these people moved me. Even now as I write this they are a true inspiration–I want to try to be like them in the future and create the feeling in others that their kindness has had in me.

In my short goodbye speech I told them I would in no way forget Japan or my friends here, and that they had become my true friends. Yoshimura-chan began to cry.

Afterward, when I thought the party was over (I should have known better) it was time for a smaller group to out for karaoke AND MORE DRINKING!

We sang Michael Jackson, Oasis, and Stand By Me arm-in-arm. Matsumoto-kun told me he was sad to see me go because we were douki, members of the team who joined at the same time. The outpouring of this night made me feel so incredibly loved.

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Finally we said good night. Later, alone on the train, I was the drunk gaijin staring out the window, tears running down his cheeks.

Here’s a little slideshow with some more pictures of these people who have so quickly entered my heart.

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I already miss them.

終わり
終わり

Ramen Hurrah! A Final Trip to Fukuoka

The weekend of June 20 & 21st, I caught a plane to Southwest Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture with two of my favorite people in Japan, Hal and Alex. It was Alex who, upon hearing that I had not even had proper ramen since arriving in Tokyo and would be leaving soon, made it his duty to ensure my final weeks here were spent truly appreciating the country’s culinary magnificence. He and Hal introduced me to some ramen so good it has changed some lifelong-held feelings about food, so it was only fitting that my last big trip here in Japan be a “ramen for every meal for an entire weekend” tour of Hakata, originator of the astoundingly delicious tonkotsu ramen.

 

 

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We saw the results of a kid’s art competition to make signs about safety and manners on the trains. We stood in the train station looking at these for half an hour like we were in a museum.

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We bought fireworks and sake and got drunk and shot fireworks until the cops kicked us out for shooting some that went into the air (against the rules). “Sayonara,” the cop said to us as we left, which isn’t really a “farewell” but rather an absolutely final “good bye forever.” Good riddance. hah! Next we ran into some Nepali dudes in a conbini who really wanted us to “come jam” with them. They had one guitar on which to jam. Somehow, as drunk folks do, we all ended up sitting on steps playing that guitar and singing together for about an hour while a tiny crowd of Japanese college students still awake at 1am gathered and listened with applause. Good times.

The next morning, Alex had lost his phone. We retraced our steps like the movie The Hangover, and after hours of searching and literally being one step away from giving up, we tried one more Koban (“police box” — a tiny police station you can find just about anywhere) and true to Japanese fashion, someone had turned it in. You just about never lose anything or have anything stolen in Japan.

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Saw another of the literally hundreds of gorgeous temples in this country…

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And when we weren’t eating ramen it was yatai (street vendor food).

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Best ramen in Japan? It’s a tie for first between Ichiran and Ippudo, and the snobs out there will quickly say “This guy is such a tourist, those are the most popular places everybody says.” But the fact is those incredible restaurants made it out of Hakata for a reason – they’re incredibly good.

PS: I almost forgot to mention the tea ceremony we had at the culture center. 🙂

Thanks Alex & Hal for an incredible trip!!

 

Kyoto Zen

zen garden circle

I have loved my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones since the day I first read it at my friend Robbie’s house. I bought a new copy and he traded with me for his pocket-sized version.

Often tales with religious significance are myth; they can still carry deep meaning, but in all the telling and retelling, much of the original truth of the story was lost. So this weekend I visited Kyoto, a true place of legend for Zen Buddhism, where many of its classic stories take place. There I was lucky enough to see with my own eyes some of the landmarks of those Zen stories which I’ve grown to love, and make them a bit more real and less mythical in my own mind…

The First Principle

(Manpuku-ji)

the first principle

When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle” (義一第). The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workmen made the larger carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize his master’s work.

“That is not good,” he told Kosen after the first effort.

“How is that one?”

“Poor. Worse than before,” pronounced the pupil.

Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had been accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

Then, when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now is my chance to escape his keen eye,” and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction. “The First Principle.”

“A masterpiece,” pronounced the pupil.

Not only was I able to see Kosan's work from this story in person, the temple is off the beaten path and not so busy. I had the pleasure of sitting in this spot all by myself, watching the sun set over the courtyard.
Not only was I able to see Kosan’s work from this story in person, the temple is off the beaten path and not so busy. I had the pleasure of sitting in this spot all by myself, watching the sun set over the courtyard.

The Tea-Master and the Assassin

(Kennin-ji)

A teahouse said to have been designed by Sen no Rikyū, legendary tea master.
A teahouse said to have been designed by Sen no Rikyū, legendary tea master.

Taiko, a warrior who lived in Japan before the Tokugawa era, studied Cha-no-yu, tea etiquette, with Sen no Rikyu, a teacher of that aesthetical expression of calmness and contentment.

Taiko’s attendant warrior Kato interpreted his superior’s enthusiasm for tea etiquette as negligence of state affairs, so he decided to kill Sen no Rikyu. He pretended to make a social call upon the tea-master and was invited to drink tea.

The master, who was well skilled in his art, saw at a glance the warrior’s intention, so he invited Kato to leave his sword outside before entering the room for the ceremony, explaining that Cha-no-yu represents peacefulness itself.

Kato would not listen to this. “I am a warrior,” he said. “I always have my sword with me. Cha-no-yu or no Cha-no-yu, I have my sword.”

“Very well. Bring your sword in and have some tea,” consented Sen no Rikyu.

The kettle was boiling on the charcoal fire. Suddenly Sen no Rikyu tipped it over. Hissing steam arose, filling the room with smoke and ashes. The startled warrior ran outside.

The tea-master apologized. “It was my mistake. Come back in and have some tea. I have your sword here covered with ashes and will clean it and give it to you.”

In this predicament the warrior realized he could not very well kill the tea-master, so he gave up the idea.

More photos of this old, tiny teahouse, said to have been designed by the tea master:

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Happy Chinaman

One of the innumerable statues of the beloved Hotei. This one was at Ryōan-ji I think.
One of the innumerable statues of the beloved Hotei. This one was at Kennin-ji I think.

Anyone walking about Chinatowns in America will observe statues of a stout fellow carrying a linen sack. Chinese merchants call him Happy Chinaman or Laughing Buddha.

This Hotei lived in the T’ang dynasty. He had no desire to call himself a Zen master or to gather many disciples about him. Instead he walked the streets with a big sack into which he would put gifts of candy, fruit, or doughnuts. These he would give to children who gathered around him in play. He established a kindergarten of the streets.

Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say: “Give me one penny.” And if anyone asked him to return to a temple to teach others, again he would reply: “Give me one penny.”

Once he was about his play-work when another Zen master happened along and inquired: “What is the significance of Zen?”

Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer.

“Then,” asked the other, “what is the actualization of Zen?”

At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way.

I’ve been inspired by Hotei to always remember the difference between religious observance (study, devotion, piety, meditation, asceticism, etc.) and an actualization of truth, realized in a life well-lived.

Publishing the Sutras

(Manpuku-ji, slightly North of the main temple.)

tetsugen blocks

Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people.

For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.

I don’t know about Japanese telling their children this tale (it seems unlikely that Zen stories are told to Japanese kids at all based on my experience), but I like it. And I’ve read that this story of Tetsugen‘s door-to-door pursuit of funds may be a bit tall as well, but sure enough the blocks are still there today!

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A statue of Tetsugen.
A statue of Tetsugen.
This smiling, awesome guy still to this day is creating copies of the sutras using the blocks purchased with the money Tetsugen raised.
This smiling, awesome guy still to this day is creating copies of the sutras using the blocks purchased with the money Tetsugen raised.
Reading the story of Tetsugen from my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones! That's pretty amazing to me. (His English literacy was quite good, but we spoke only Japanese.)
Reading the story of Tetsugen, Publishing the Sutras, from my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones! That’s pretty amazing to me.
(His English literacy was quite good, but we spoke only Japanese.)

Etcetera

Well, those are some of the stories I made a bit more real with my trip to Kyoto. If you liked the stories and want more, they’re all from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which is a collection of four books actually. I count it among the few texts I would call holy; its contents continue to impact my life and spirituality.

Footnotes to my trip:

Another view of the Zen garden pictured at the top of this post. Kennin-ji.
Another view of the Zen garden pictured at the top of this post. Kennin-ji.

The characters on this wash basin at Ryōanji all use the square in the middle. They are 吾 (I), 唯 (solely), 知 (knowledge), 足 (sufficiency). The meaning can be translated as “I learn only to be contented,” or “I know only contentment.”

ryoanji learn to content

The rock garden at Ryōanji.
The rock garden at Ryōanji.

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Finally, nothing spoke more to me of the essence of life and Zen than watching this family enjoy one another’s company:

ryoanji family

Happy New Year!

So much happens in a month, and when I go without posting I don’t even know where to start.

Today I went to Rikugien. It’s a garden with a beautiful pond in the center and paths all around it. There are 88 scenes from classical Japanese/Chinese poetry reproduced in miniature throughout the park. For example “The rock splitting the river,” where a small pond to the side of one path was fed by a small waterfall that flowed down and parted into two streams.

The view as you approach the small lake at the garden’s center.

 

Matcha tea and a little sweet bean paste treat.

 

The view as I drank my tea
Originally used to protect tree branches from snow and frost, this support is now a common tree decoration. To be honest I wish it wasn’t there, obstructing the view of the tree itself.

My phone battery died shortly after that last picture. I spent the rest of the time contemplatively, considering my perpetual desperate need to capture moments instead of just living them. Even the desire to live mindfully, fully in the present, is just another manifestation of that need. One day I hope to be comfortable in the knowledge that all existence, even each moment, is impermanent, and then live in the true freedom of that awareness. Or, to put it another way, in the words of my hero:

WZ9DWp2

 

 

Recently I went to a drinking and eating establishment where you got to catch your own fish and eat it.
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My coworkers. These are such fun, good people.

 

 

 

Blah blah blog title

Hey look at this stuff:

This is what breafast at Denny's looks like in Japan. That's ice cream and caramel and the envy of friends and family drizzled on top.
This is what breafast at Denny’s looks like in Japan. That’s ice cream and caramel and the envy of friends and family drizzled on top.
This titan costume is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious
This titan costume is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious

Recently went to an izakaya (after-work drinking place) that was themed like a school. Lots of fun.

The walls had children's art
The walls had children’s art
Backpacks were hanging up
Backpacks were hanging up
Okkun got a drink with a fizzing popsicle in it.
Okkun got a drink with a fizzing popsicle in it.
Matsukiyo had a drink in a beaker that glowed (thanks to an led-lit ice cube).
Matsukiyo had a drink in a beaker that glowed (thanks to an led-lit ice cube).
Yoshimura-chan had a flask of orange juice that came with a test kit of ingredients you could add to it.
Yoshimura-chan had a flask of orange juice that came with a test kit of ingredients you could add to it.
My local bakery
My local bakery
Had a bartender make me a sword balloon recently.
Had a bartender make me a sword balloon recently.
The Bonenkai (company year-end drinking party)
The Bonenkai (company year-end drinking party)
My coworkers!
My coworkers!
My coworkers!
My coworkers!
Yoshimura-chan, Hashidume-chan, Sasamon, and Okkun. Love these people!
Yoshimura-chan, Hashizume-chan, Sasamon, and Okkun. Love these people!
Ate at a pancake cafe and of course had to order the limited time Christmas pancake.
Ate at a pancake cafe and of course had to order the limited time Christmas pancake.
Tonight, stood on the roof of a department store in Harajuku and watched the sun set. Fuji is visible in the distance.
Tonight, stood on the roof of a department store in Harajuku and watched the sun set. Fuji is visible in the distance.
Closer view of Fuji.
Closer view of Fuji.