Friday, June 13, 2003

Last Stop: Japan!

Dear Ones:

Japan has many things I like, from Zen to macrobiotic food, tofu, futon, onsens (hot springs/baths), shiatzu massage and fabulous tea. The fast public trains and onsen tradition reflect a society foccused more on the comunity than the individual, on efficiency and health. It is also a perfect blend of east and west, offering modern comforts and ancient eastern knowledge and tradition.

Kyoto Train Station Posted by Hello
Some cities are easier to arrive at, there is something in the air, on peoples faces, the way the place is layed out, the energy. Kyoto was one of those places. I immediately felt at home there and was not disappointed. Not that the city is all old and gorgeous. There are plenty of modern buildings, large avenues, efficient buses, subways, a very modern railway station and neon lights. Only a couple of districts kept their old buildings and their narrow streets. People are also very very nice and often get out of their way to try to communicate or walk a few extra blocks to show you a place you are looking for. I love the series of "brisk" bows they often do with a bright smile. This is a contrast with the indian languid, slow and sultry bow which I also enjoy very much.

Kyoto is not only about temples and shrines, castles and museums either, although there are over 2,000 of them. I picked a few to explore and spent the rest of my time walking around, eating at restaurants, going to teahouses and onsens. I had no idea how good the food was here but I had to budge on the fish and sake. I could not have had a true Japan experience without savoring both.

I favored the Zen temples and the sites with garden to visit, and I could often combine the two. Gorgeous gardens, I must say, specially at the Ninjo Castle, conveniently located near the Gion Heihachi Shinsen-En a really nice traditional restaurant. Shinsen-En is a legendary garden founded in 794 and the Gion Heihachi restaurant is right next to it. Eating in a private room just for myself (it would have been better to have company though), served by a woman in kymono announcing herself behing the wood panel every time she would come into the room and knealing on the floor to serve me or explain the food in broken english was a new experience for me.

Then, still buzzed by the sake I went to Ryoanji Temple, which has a misterious zen garden arranged in the Kare-Sansui style of dry landscape, stones and gravel. I could not count the fifteen stones though no matter where I stood. I left thinking about what part of my personality I was keeping in the shadow. I thought the Kyoyo-eni (pond) was more impressive though, with thousands of lotus flowers. The guide book warned about the crowds, but there were only a couple of other people there when I went. It must have been because of the light rain.

Ryonji Mae Posted by Hello
The next day I went to Nanzenji, the headquarters for the Rinzai school of zen situated in a huge complex with waterfalls, walking trails, ponds including Hojo a classic zen garden called Toranokowatashi or young tigers crossing the water in the same typical dry landscape style as at Ryoanji . I also saw screens painted with depiction of tigers there.

In the heart of Gion (a lively geisha district) I visited the Yasaka Shrine, the guardian shrine of Gion. Also, Ginkakuji-michi and Kinkakuji-michi, the silver and gold pavillions in the northeastern and northwestern part of town. Except for the latter two, where the school kids were in abundance, I had really good luck staying away from crowds and tourists.

I also took a walking tour with Hajime Hirooka, aka Johnnie Hillwalker, a sweet japonese man in his seventies. It was much better than I thought. He took us to many handycraft places in the back streets where the handmade wood fan for all Japan is made, rosary places, tatami maker, candy maker, tofu maker and several pottery shops. These are businesses passed down by several generations and everything is done by hand, small operations that supply to all Japan if not the world.

We went to the Higashi Honganji Temple, also a mausoleum of Shrinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism and mother temple of the Shinshu Otani-ha, one of the largest buddhist denominations in Japan. There is a really sweet garden close to it, the Shosei En garden. Then we went to the old dying Gojo Geisha district, several shinto shrines, a kimono place and of course we stooped for tea time at a local tea house. Everything is done with so much care and attention here. It was really nice visiting all these places!

There is a real zen quality not only at the temples but everywhere I go. The serenity of the bathroom sandals neatly lined up at the bathroom entrance, the way sushi pieces are arranged in a bento box, the care shown in making the crafts, the way they pause to think of word in english. After the tour, Christine (an english aikido teacher who lives in CA) and I went to a local tatami floor japonese "bar", had lots of beer with a bite to eat and headed towards the Kiyomizu temple (it was becoming a habit to go to temples buzzed). A real pleasant area overlooking the city with a jam packed cemitary at its entrance.

Going to teahouses was one of my favorite things here.@Sipping the delicious green tea and savoring the delicious desserts on a tatami mat (but sometimes regular tables), served by a smiling japonese woman knealing on the tatami was a delight. They also sell all kinds of sweets in neatly organized boxes. They are often colorful, but mostly green and brown (from green tea and bean paste I think) and guey/mushy, jelly like things usually from the kuzu root. I really liked having Hon Kuzukiri at a place I can`t even go back to because the card is in japonese (kanji-characters) including the address and my sense of direction is attrocious to say the least. I stumbled upon the place conveniently located on my way to a temple.

Dessert Store Posted by Hello
They served me a jelly made of kuzu root cut like fettuchini and carefully placed in a large bowl under ice along with two small square bowls, one filled with a thick green liquid and the other with a brown liquid (sweet)- they called brown sugar but I tasted more healthy than that, more like molasses. We are supposed to dip the jelly into the liquid and eat it. It is quite delicious accompanied with matcha, a powered green tea whisked into koicha, the equivalent of the thick italian expresso but green. To get all of it from the bow, water is added to it a the end and it becomes usucha, a lighter foamy tea more or less like green capuccino.

For each temple visited I would go to a tea house. If the temple was big I would raise the ratio to 2 to 1 (before and after). Sometimes I would get lucky and combine temple and tea as it was the case at Hojo as they had a tatami floor facing a waterfall where they served the powdered green tea with a sweet desert. Going to some restaurants were also such a pleasure! The sushi is sold like hot dogs in the US, or crepe in Paris, everywhere, in every corner. They are often sold in neat bento boxes for the japonese on the go, or the traveller on their way to a temple. I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality and amount of desserts here and plenty of french patisserie too!

And then there is the Nishiki Food Market, an incredible place filled with all kinds of weird and delicious things. All kinds of tofu (Kyoto is famous for it), miso paste, fish prepared in thousands different ways, served on sticks, leaves, boxes or paper, all kinds of vegetable pickles neatley prepared with a brown paste, desserts of all colors, shapes and textures. Wow, so much fun and so fatening. The service here is also very efficient and friendly without being excessive and intrusive. I love this stern serenity and japonese efficiency!

The public baths were also owesome and in some cases much cheaper than I am used to and offered more although the surroundings were very simple, no nonsese funcional like everything here. At Funaoka Onsen, there was an herbal pool, an electric pool (electricity coming out into the water, I think it was for arthitis) a sauna with a TV (in japonese) a beautiful cypress wood bath next to a little garden with pond with carps, and really strong jets of water in a jacuzzi like pool. The temperature of the water also varied from very hot to very cold.

It was such fun to hang out with the japonese women at the public baths while enjoying this ancient tradition of soaking and taking care of the body. There are hundreds of onsens in the center of Kyoto. No wonder I liked the place-it had about everything I like- baths, healthy food, desserts, temples and eastern culture. I even went to a kimono show room at Nishijin Textile Center with professional models showing them to a small public. I also wanted to see some traditional japonese music and dance but the season for the good stuff had just ended.

Kyoto is layed out in a grid, so it was not so bad finding my way around. The japonese don`t really cater to tourists or foreigners necessarily and many things are not translated, including most of the tours at temples. They advise foreigners to bring their own translators-now how practical is that? But in a way I like this purity, something about this homogeneity is actually good, it keeps things very pure. Some streets have names in english though and the maps are fairly good. Even with my difficulties finding my way around even at home, I was pretty comfortable going everywhere, I needed by bus with ease after a few days, always getting friendly help from the gentle japonese people .

Bukkoku Ji Monastery Posted by Hello
After a week in Kyoto I went to Bukkoku-ji a small Zen Monastery at the foot of a green hill in Obama, a small town two hours from Kyoto for a seven days sesshin (meditation retreat). My unprepared body indulged in food, sleep and lack of practice was a ball of pain after the daily 11 fourty minutes periods of zazen counting my breath and trying to find emptiness. I expressed my anxiety to Cisca, talking a mile a minute to this dutch resident of four years at the afternoon tea an hour after I arrived and she responded in the only way a zen person would: "just eat your cookie and drink your tea."

Later she quickly showed me around, my spot at the zendo, a place with my name in japonese characters (very funny) in a piece of black wood neatly painted in white, where my oriyoki bowls (used for formal meals) and tea cup for the week were, everything ready for me with my name at the proper places, even at the wall where my futon at the tatami floor was between two other women in the back room. Cisca also gave me a little black blanket for the cold mornings at the zendo and a little white towel to wipe myself clean if I felt too dirty as baths were not allowed for a week. She finally explained the schedule and procedures of the sesshin and orioky meals. For my relief, the latter was much more straigth forward than at the SF Zen Center.

The week of silence would start at 3:50am with the wake up bell and I needed to know all the details before that. Although I felt very welcomed there, it didn`t make the practice any easier. There was such stillness at the place when the official sesshin started, such foccus and seriousness in the zendo. There were 60 of us, a third were ordained priests and the rest lay practicioners. Some people were sitting during all breaks and through the night and there was no single movement or shift in position except for me. Oh my God, how can these people sit for so long in such stillness!

Roshi Sama`s teicho (dharma talks, sometimes translated) were so profound and inspiring tears would roll down my cheeks. His words touched the core of my being, the truth I long to realize. His patience with a beginner like me at dokusan (private meetings to discuss practice, half in english, half in japonese), taking as much time as I needed no matter how long the line was, this luminous man in his late seventies showed me the "true mind" zen master that he is.

Neddless to say, I did not find emptiness but couldn`t wait to leave the monastery, soak in an onsen, take care of my numb tingling legs, swollen knees and painful body. But already in the train back to Kyoto, Roshi Sama`s words kept coming back to me and the feeling of stillness was definetely there, inside of me. I even missed my stop at Kyoto and was one stop from Shin-Osaka when I realized I needed to back track. I think this is a path of no return. Maybe it is crazy to go into something like this by choice, but there is something to this. I think Bukkoki-Ji is a place I would like to return, better prepared next time.

Back in Kyoto I went to the Taisho-yu onsen for a nice soak but the place was kind of shaby for me so I just walked around Kyoto limping on my left leg, on a beautiful warm evening of a perfectly split moon right in the middle. The atmosphere of the city was very festive, people shopping, music being played a the Kyoto station arcade, perfect warrm weather. The salespeople would say a happy, vibrant irassyaimase(welcome!) whenever I walked in a dessert store to check out the sweets. On the way to my ryokan(japonese inn) in eastern Kyoto I stoppped at the local "pub" (actually a real japonese joint with a japonese only menu and zero english from the servers) around the corner for a beer and something to eat and ended up meeting Jumpei, a japonese man who spoke english so I could order all kinds of goodies and have a nice conversation. I stayed there until the place closed, trying out things people would pass around. Someone even bought me warm sake to try, these japonese people are so friendly, I am telling you. The place closed at 10pm and by then I was complety drank on beer and sake. Jumpei showed me a nice onsen three minutes from my ryokan (it hurts me to know there are probably a million of them I don`t know about) and I soaked there until close to midnight totally blissed out.

Nara Kasuga Grand Shrine Posted by Hello
The following day I visited Nara and Himeji in the Kansai area, but I could not endure limping around temples and castles any longer. I was also curious to see other parts of Japan, especially the countryside, so I went into a sort of shinkansen (bullet train) binge crossing Japan all the way to Sapporo in the Hokkaido island. I could not resist the call of the green area in the map sprinkled with hot springs and spas. I went to a few awesome resorts there and on the way and came back to Kyoto after close to 4,000 km in less than a week, which was not a hard task travelling at 200km per hour most of the way.

Jozankei Onsen Posted by Hello
Back at my home base at the ryokan in eastern Kyoto this evening, I just finished my laundry, took a bath, and will soon go to bed after I pack. I am taking a plane to San Francisco tomorrow at 2:30pm from the Osaka airport and arrive in SF at 8:30am the same day! Magical isn`t it?

Dear ones the travels are ending but the journey continues. Thank you so much for being there for me and for your patience with my sometimes "ad nausea" travel reports. In many ways you all supported me in my travels, those I met on the way, those at home that did big and small favors when I needed the most, making things so much better and easier for me, those I could call anytime and feel less lonely and so happy that you were there and for all the nice emails and letters!

Hotel at Jozankei Posted by Hello
For those I left on the way, I hope we cross paths again very soon, for those I will be seeing soon, a tout a l`heure.


God Bless you all, Om namah shivaya, buddha`s blessings, gassho, jay ma, jaya guru datta, Om Shanti, Namaste!



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