Saturday, May 1, 2021

2020 Olympic Torch Relay: Japan Brings Multiple Torches, Forgets to Bring the Olympic Spirit


I’m the kind of dad who will take the family on a month-long road trip and then ruin it with a bunch of rules like “No screaming back there!” (because I don’t want to crash); “The driver picks the music!” (because I don’t want to go insane); and “Hey, no junk food before lunch!” (unless you give half to the driver).

But even up in Akita, in Japan’s pretty-far north, the summer days can be blistering hot by 11am. And after a couple hours cramped in the back seat with no escape from dad’s previous-century music, my kids were likely to start screaming at each other.

I pulled into a convenience store parking lot and said “Nobody wants ice-cream, right?” or something equally corny. The kids exploded out of the car and ran for the air conditioning and the ice-cream coolers. My wife almost beat them there. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her run so fast.

I stayed outside, absorbed in the poster in the window.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Yakushima Island: A Voyage of Choices & Luck

What a quirk of human nature that we dream of faraway places yet fail to go out and take in parts of the world closest to us. I'm from New Jersey. Not a big place in relative terms. Yet in the course of traveling a good bit of the world there remains plenty for me to explore in my own home state.

I'm similarly guilty regarding my eight years in Washington, DC and my subsequent five years in Colorado. Not that I didn't get out. It was just that when it came time to leave I felt like I still had unfinished business.

Things changed in 2001. I signed up for a charity bike ride in Alaska and, remembering I had no bike, bought one. At the end of the ride I shipped that bike to Fukushima, Japan. I met up with it a few weeks later in this brand new home of mine and immediately set out to see every town, mountain and river on the map of Japan hanging on the western wall of my shoebox apartment.

Fast forward to 2015: in a fortuitous turn of events I snagged a side gig as a tour guide, leading groups of Slovenians by train and bus from Nagasaki to Tokyo and a dozen cities in between. The next year, in  a sleepy bed and breakfast at the bottom of the Izu Peninsula I picked up a local magazine and muddled through an article about a guy in the area who ran a cycling tour operation. Back home I spent an hour and a half pecking out an email in Japanese, asking him if he was looking for extra hands.

He was.

Since then I've had opportunity to go on a dozen cycling tours through the beautiful, scarcely-traveled Japanese countryside and on some of the archipelago's furthest-flung islands, including the one called Yakushima.

Luck comes in the course of the choices we make.

In 2004 I was considering spending my two-week winter vacation cycling to Yakushima from my place in Osaka. The trip would have involved several ferries and, now that I think about it, considerably more than two weeks. For better or for worse, I opted instead to go back to Fukushima and ask my girlfriend's father for his permission to marry his daughter.

She would, a few years later, introduce me to a Slovenian guy who owned a tour guide company.

Guiding with that gent brought me to Yakushima in two ways. The experience I gained with him got me the cycling tour gig, through which I've been able to go to Yakushima three times on two different tours. Tasked with booking hotels for our Slovenian guests, I became friends with some hotel owners who invited me to spend this past winter break working at their recently-acquired hotel on Yakushima.

Cycling tours, I have to say, are infinitely more fun than working in a hotel.

I'm sure I'd still be dreaming of Yakushima if it weren't for the work that fell into my lap. Same with Rishiri Island way up north, part of a cycling tour of Hokkaido. Most visitors to Japan don't make it to the far ends of the country. Heck, most Japanese never see these places.

Moving to Japan back in 2001 was a conscious decision. But even that was helped along by my luck in finding, quite accidentally, an Internet ad for a job teaching English in Japan - a discovery I would not have made if the poor customer service rep on the other end of the line hadn't given into my pleadings for one more free trial month of dial-up AOL.

Not knowing what life in Japan would bring only added to the allure of the place. Not knowing how long I'd be sticking around, I hit the road as soon as I'd put my bike back together.

We make our choices. Then we do our best with what they bring.

The picture at the top of this post was taken from the lobby of the Yakushima hotel where I worked. The picture below shows the incongruous snows of sub-tropical Yakushima and 60-meter Senpiro Falls. Note that sixty meters is about two hundred feet, the approximate height of a 20-story building.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Deciphering Japan's Side Street Mysteries: Tsuki-Izumi Shrine

I'm trying to come up with a lofty philosophical phrase to encapsulate what I saw the other day. 

And I am failing miserably.

Along one of Matsumoto's million back streets is a shrine that manages to look like a dolled-up woman waiting nervously for her date to show. I've biked past this shrine at least a hundred times, in each direction, cycling to and from downtown, but until last week I never once stopped or even slowed down to check it out.

It stands in the shadows, set behind a remarkable tree whose stout, gnarled trunk makes it look like something out of a Grimm Brothers tale - or, for those living in this century, a Harry Potter movie. Out front a vermillion-painted bridge arches gracefully over a small cement pond. A smooth stone walkway leads to a stone torii gate, much more Disney than gruesome fairy tale. A short set of stairs leads to a lacquered donation box and the latticed doors of this one-room god-apartment.

Next to that ancient, lordly tree it all looks new and neat and utterly uninspiring.

Years ago, when I was much more a stranger in this strangely wonderful land, I would have stopped at this shrine the first time I noticed it. I would have gazed in stupid awe, not knowing what any of it meant but loving it all just the same. The new and the strange; the mysterious and unknown; this was what I'd come here for.

In the past two decades I've seen countless gates and vermillion bridges and sacred structures big and small, and have yet to grow tired of any of it. Yet there's no denying the dullness that familiarity breeds. Gazing in stupid awe can get old.

Thanks to a semi-career as a tour guide, I've taken to trying to figure things out.

With a bit of time and mental sweat I can usually figure out the elegant Japanese brush strokes telling the story of the shrine (or temple or stone or tree) standing timelessly before me. It turns out that this nondescript little shrine, sitting in the shade of old man tree, has been here, in one form or another, since at least the 9th Century.

It is actually not known when Tsuki-izumi Jinja was established. The earliest mention of it is in the "Sandai Jitsuroku" written in the 5th year of the Gangyo Era (881AD). Back then this shrine was apparently a much larger and more elaborate affair, used for rituals and ceremonial purposes and, possibly, sake tastings. The shrine stood within a large forest, near a natural spring that has flowed continuously up from its subterranean source for over a millennium.

We are further told that for a time government roads (whatever that may mean) were built to pass by this shrine. Common folk as well came here to pray, and to avail themselves of the eternally-flowing water. The deity of the spring waters, Gyoi-no-kami (御井の神), is, predictably, one of the gods enshrined here in Tsuki-izumi Jinja.

You can find sparkling clean spring water flowing up from underground all over downtown Matsumoto. The water here, though, might have been something special as it was this part of town that was named Shimizu (清水), meaning 'pure water'.

That big, gnarled old tree, by the way, is a keyaki (欅), or Zelkova tree. It measures 20 meters tall, is a Matsumoto City Special Natural Monument, and looks like it has been around about as long as the shrine itself. Unfortunately the sign doesn't give any indication. As a sort of consolation there is the following sentiment:

「まだ知らぬ人を恋うれば信濃なる清水の里に袖ぞぬれける」which means, I think, "If you fall in love with someone you have not yet met you'll wet your sleeves (i.e. wipe your tears on your sleeves) in Shimizu."

Which is certainly not the lofty philosophical phrase I am looking for. But it does encapsulate the sense that no matter how long I live here, and how many shrines I visit, no matter how many signs I read or how much I might eventually learn, there will always be that element of mystery here, leaving me to gaze forever in stupid, wonderful awe.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Who's Your Daddy: Japan's Seiwa-Genji Bloodline

I have something like thirty-four cousins. (Don’t ask me to name them all.) My memories of them are varied and numerous: the loud, swirling Christmas parties at my Uncle Vinny’s; road trips to visit far-flung family in Chicago, Texas and Colorado; and one massive family reunion that probably took more planning than a space shuttle launch.

Growing up I thought an extended family could hardly be any larger. My own kids have eleven cousins. Not a bad tally these days.

We have nothing on the old Japanese emperors.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Goddess, Two Cows, and a Chinese Man on a Mission: Matsumoto's Gofuku-ji Temple


About a year ago I landed a writing gig with the Japan Tourism Agency. This was right up my alley as it involved a paid weekend of travel. But there was a catch. JTA wasn't going to let me bullshit the 20 million foreign visitors they were expecting to soon attract annually. I had to write stuff that was factually accurate and free of sarcasm.

There's a first time for everything I guess.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Soji-ji Soin: Buddhism in the Noto Boondocks

The Noto Peninsula looks like a hitchhiker’s thumb that has been run over a couple of times. Hilly in the middle and lined with some of the country’s most varied and alluring coastline, this quiet, crooked, 75-mile spit of land sticking out into the Sea of Japan is littered with treasures that demand time and effort if they are to be enjoyed.

One of these treasures is Soji-ji Soin, a Zen Buddhist temple born from pursuits of benevolence, raised in juvenile conflict, and now standing with long-time rival Eihei-ji at the center of the largest school of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

The Costs and Rewards of Being Nice

In 683 a fifteen-year-old boy named Gyōki traveled from his home in the Kawachi Province (near present-day Osaka) to Nara’s Asuka-dera, one of Japan’s oldest temples, to begin his life as a monk. Twenty years later he returned home to share the teachings of Buddhism while actively practicing what he preached: with the help of an army of volunteers, Gyōki built nearly fifty Buddhist monasteries and nunneries that doubled as hospitals for the poor.

From there Gyōki and his followers began roaming the countryside, bringing Buddhism to people who had only ever known Shinto; building more temples (which also served as community centers); and spearheading public works projects (irrigation systems were his thing).

Sounds like a great guy to have around – unless you are the government and can’t handle monks doing anything outside the walls of their monasteries because hey that is against the law and besides who wants robed men freely walking the city streets being nice to people without authorization?

'Kyo-zo' - The Sutra Depository

Gyōki bypassed the government's childishness by going out and raising hell wherever he pleased as an unofficial, private monk. This bent the local officials all out of shape, raising cries of damnation for him not being registered as a Buddhist priest on some list at some sham bureaucratic entity called the Office of Priestly Affairs.

Power to the people, Gyōki beat the beat-down thanks to his popularity among the commoners not to mention his skill in developing public works. (Then, as now, it seems, citizens were only as good as their usefulness to the government.)

The 'San-mon' Temple Gate

Among the temples Gyoki built was Morooka-dera, a Shingon Buddhist temple that actually sat on the grounds of a Shinto shrine, Morooka Hiko Jinja. Once called Tetsukawa-jinja, Morooka Hiko Jinja sat way out in the sticks, up where the thumb of Noto bends east.

Over the years Morooka-dera grew, and by the end of the 13th Century it had built up enough mojo to afford a full-time priest and a master ajari whose task it was to teach students the Way of Furthering the Mojo.

In 1321 the shrine was moved a couple of kilometers west, noticeably closer to the beach. The ajari at the time was a priest (and, rumor has it, an avid surfer) named Joken. So excited was he to live closer to the break that when he moved to the shrine's new digs he forgot all about Morooka-dera, leaving it behind for a monk named Keizan Jōkin to deal with. Upon inheriting Morooka-dera, Keizan turned it into a Soto Zen temple, renaming it Shogakuzan Soji-ji.

In 1322 Emperor Go-Daigo, in all his Imperial magnanimity, bestowed upon Soji-ji the honorary title of chokuganjo, meaning a temple built at the request of the emperor – which, according the math, is bullshit.

The Dento-in, the most sacred building of Soji-ji, preserves the spirit of Keizan.

The Creation of a Soto Zen Master

Keizan Jōkin was, according to records, born in 1268, exactly six hundred years after Gyoki. Unlike Gyoki, Keizan didn’t wait until his teenage years to get his Buddhist mojo on. How could he? First of all, his mother Ekan was the founder and abbess of Jōju-ji, a temple of Soto Zen, a school of Buddhism derived from teachings brought to Japan from China by a monk named Dōgen. She was an active proponent of teaching Buddhism to women, and as such was also a fan of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

Busy as Ekan was, founding Jōju-ji and another temple, Hōō-ji, it fell to Grandma Myōchi to take care of Keizan during his youngest years. Like Ekan, Myōchi was hooked on Soto Zen. This one-two punch of devout Buddhist influence led Keizan to quickly embark on his own road to monkhood, entering the temple of Eihei-ji at the grizzled old age of eight.

The aforementioned Dōgen had traveled to China in search of a better brand of Buddhism, and found it in a man named Rujing. Dōgen returned to Japan around 1227 and tried to assimilate what he learned in China into the current Buddhist teachings. Kyoto, however, was at the time overrun by holy robes entrenched in their Tendai school of Buddhism, and Dōgen was less than welcome to show up and tell everyone to start practicing zazen.

After a time he left, and in 1244 established Eihei-ji temple in the Echizen countryside near present-day Fukui. Eihei-ji would thus become the head temple of the new and growing Soto school of Zen.

The Butsu-den, where the Buddhist deity Shakamuni-Nyorai is enshrined.

But not for long. Keizan had already founded another Soto temple, Yoko-ji, and the priests there were basically fighting the priests of Soji-ji for spiritual preeminence. (Fighting may not be the right word. I can’t imagine a bunch of bald men in flowing robes brawling.) (Actually yes I can. It’s kind of funny.)

Over time Soji-ji won out, having grown its influence through the monks’ practice of traveling the countryside and bringing small village temples from (usually) Shingon and Tendai over to the Soto mojo, much like Gyoki did six centuries prior.

Meanwhile Soji-ji was also competing with Eihei-ji, which perhaps rightfully considered itself the true head of Soto Zen since it was established by Dōgen, father of the Soto school. But the monks of Eihei-ji carried out their teaching of and instruction in Buddhism strictly within the confines of their temple. Once again, with Keizan's priests out there pounding the dirt paths of the surrounding countryside, Soji-ji’s mojo spread further across the region.

Dōgen’s death in 1253 led to infighting over who should assume abbotship (i.e. control) of Eihei-ji. The pillow fights went on for two centuries until 1468 (exactly eight hundred years after Gyoki’s birth, and exactly two hundred years after Keizan’s) when the lineage of Keizan’s Soji-ji took over Eihei-ji. This would make Soji-ji the Grand Poobah of the thousands of Soto Zen temples now spread throughout Japan.

By the end of the 16th Century Soji-ji was officially recognized by the Imperial Court as Japan's head Soto Zen Buddhist temple. Yet the slap fights between Soji-ji and Eihei-ji would continue, until the Meiji Restoration (and the end of meaningful imperial influence) brought a sort of truce. It was agreed, at least on paper, that Soto Zen Buddhism would follow the maxims of Dōgen and the inspiration of Keizan, and Soji-ji and Eihei-ji would stand as equals at the head of what had become Japan's largest school of Buddhism.

Soji-ji was completely destroyed by fire in 1898. The temple was rebuilt in 1911 in Tsurumi, Yokohama, to bring more of that Soto mojo to eastern Japan. The Soji-ji here in Noto remains a training ground for Soto monks, and is called Soji-ji Soin, the ‘father’ temple.

For all its history and aesthetic allure, Soji-ji Soin rarely makes it onto anyone's list of must-see places. Must have something to do with its location out in the boondocks of Noto. But as a part of an exploratory expedition around the peninsula it's worth seeking out.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Higashi Chaya-gai: Cultural Standout with an Identity Crisis

In fifteen years of living and traveling all over Japan that wondrous and fleeting sense of having gone back in time has hit me exactly... twice.

The first time was when I stayed the night in Shirakawa-go, a semi-remote UNESCO World Heritage site flooded with busloads of tourists by day and all but deserted by dark. Under a moonlit sky hemmed in only by the surrounding steep mountains, walking along a strip of rough-cut grass between two rice fields, I paused to look around. 

Massive wooden farmhouses slept like thatch-roofed mammoths among the fields. The paved streets and the power lines inescapable in the daylight were gone, vanished in the night as if they’d yet to even exist. All I heard were my own inane whispers of goodness and god. I didn’t want to move. I wanted the world to stay like this.

One year after my evening with the mammoths I found myself up the road in Kanazawa, in the old teahouse entertainment district of Higashi Chaya-gai. Here too, under the dark of night, the only thing younger than Kane Tanaka seemed to be me. 

Through much of the Edo Era these teahouses sat scattered across central Kanazawa. Frequented by the wealthy and privileged classes, these subtly-named chaya were actually dining and entertainment establishments featuring geishas who would dance, sing and play traditional Japanese instruments while serving food and pouring drinks and laughing at wealthy and privileged men’s stupid jokes (a far cry from the modern Japanese hostess, whose talents begin and end with pouring drinks and laughing at salarymen's stupid jokes).

Distinctive of these old teahouses are the vertical lattices, called kimusuko, that adorn the buildings’ facades. Sometimes referred to as kimushiko (written 木虫籠, meaning 'woodworm basket'), they are as functional as they are attractive.

A cross-section of the slats forming these lattices reveals that they are not rectangular but trapezoidal; the wider sides of the slats face outward, making it more difficult for passersby to see the chaya's interior while maintaining a view of outside for those on the inside.

Personally this whole visibility arrangement seems counterintuitive to me. Think about it: When you finish your ice cream cone, if you bite a hole in the bottom of the cone and look through one end then the other, which way do you think you'll see more of the world before you get drips of leftover mint chocolate chip in your eye?

Another bit of trivia regarding these chaya is the fact that in the Edo Era these were the only residences (as they were classified) that were allowed a second story. All other homes were limited to one floor.

I can't claim to know what really went on up there in those second-floor rooms, but perhaps trapezoidal slats weren't enough to keep it all hidden from the prying eyes of the passersby down on the street.

In 1820 these scattered-about teahouses were moved and placed in three separate, tightly-regulated districts. Two of these districts, Higashi Chaya-gai and Kazue-machi, have since been designated as Cultural Assets of Japan. They sit near the banks of the Asanogawa River, on either side of the Asanogawa Bridge.

Kanazawa’s third teahouse district, Nishi Chaya-gai, consists of a single street located near the southern bank of the Saigawa, another river running right through town.

As an interesting side note, only one other chaya-gai in all of Japan has been afforded such lofty Cultural Asset status: Kyoto’s famed Gion district, along a side street that, oddly, many tourists never see.

But back to Kanazawa and Higashi Chaya-gai.

Though surrounded by a world made by human hands, under the magical blanket of another clear night time had ceased to be relevant. All the moment was missing was a geisha, clip-clopping through the shadows in her wooden geta sandals, disappearing down a dark alley, away from all but her client's privileged eyes.

Such a fleeting sight is still possible. Higashi Chaya-gai remains in part an entertainment district for an exclusive few, adorned by the  stubbornly-continuing existence of one of Japan’s most iconic art forms. There are, however, opportunities for the common folk to explore the inside of this traditionally secretive world

For all its charm and history and aesthetic appeal, Higashi Chaya-gai seems to suffer from an odd identity crisis. Sources of info give varying names for the area. To wit: 
- Higashi Geisha District
Higashi Chaya District
- Higashi Teahouse Street
- Higashi Chaya-gai Geisha District
- East Teahouse Geisha District

None of course are to be confused with the Chaya-gai Geisha District Teahouse Streets of Kazue-machi and Nishi. 

Higashiyama, meanwhile, is the larger area of town encompassing Higashi Chaya-gai, while Higashinagae-machi and Higashinagae-machi, two neighborhoods just to the east (higashi is the Japanese word for east in case that hasn't become apparent by now) may be nice in their own forested way but hardly evoke images of geishas clip-clopping around.

Japan is often described as a land of old and new, with the common juxtaposition of the two amounting to something wildly appealing.

The Japan of old, with no sign of the new, seems much more elusive.