With that in mind, maybe it is not too farfetched, even as daily news continually shreds our hearts and challenges the limits of what is credible, that I wish to share some reflections on Japanese reverence for the bath. Actually, probably the time is perfect. Who does not need inner and outer realignment and purifying in these very troubled times?
Since time out of mind, and stretching equally far into the future, bathing for Japanese reaches the level of the sacred. Both blessed and cursed by a fiery arc of volcanic jewels, Japan is a paradise of abundant water, often directed into hot springs, foot baths, health resorts, and spas. Young and old, fat and thin, strong and infirm, pretty and plain. All dualistic perceptions of outer identity are shed as the daily ritual of cleansing unfolds.
“Our bodies are natural. Being with others who feel the same is reassuring and community affirming. How ridiculous it was in California where they wanted us to wear bathing suits in the bath. How unnatural is that! We Japanese didn’t follow those silly rules. How could we?” remarked a student coming back from her stint in the USA.
“The bath is a return to our original purity,” said an older friend. “It cleanses not only the body, but more importantly the mind and spirit. You mask the deep purpose of bathing if you cover yourself. Literally by having clothing or tattoos. Symbolically by closing yourself in defensiveness or shame.”
The oldsters’ community center where I often go for deep baths is a wonderful blossoming of folks at one with their bodies. The very old and not so, the extremely wrinkled, wobbly, sagging, and less so, we are all there. Some stay all day. “I need the friendship,” they say. “I appreciate the flux of people.” And “I feel part of society when I am here.”
We chat, we scrub, we soak. But more than anything we appreciate. The place, the people, the sense of belonging, the mutual concern.
“Of course, we come to purify our whole being, but in reality, aren’t we already pure? These days most people don’t know that, so don’t act that way. But we are pure. It just takes a lifetime to recognize it. In fact, most of us oldsters realize that the greatest task of our life has been to remember what we have forgotten.
Love in purity,
Dear Family and Friends,
Last week I was in Brazil. I had not been in a Latin culture literally for decades. It was a welcome return, thanks to the effervescent expansiveness of Brazilian warmth and their embrace of the immediate, of life itself. Coming from the tidy restraints of Japan, I found myself literally staring at the voluptuous physicality on proud display everywhere.
Sadly, upon my return I was greeted by news of North Korea’s latest flaunting of power, its assertive drive to display even more threatening capacities of self-protection / self-destruction. That immediately evoked the necessity of practicing what the Brazilian conference was all about: seeing differently. But can we stop wars by compassionately putting ourselves, as fully as we are able, in the place of those who most oppose us or whom we most resist?
“Seeing Differently” Yes. We must if we wish to survive. But how does that skill eventually become an integral part of us, so innate we use it as our primary tool for relating to others? How can that ability actually change, even save, the world?
How much do our beliefs influence the world? And if they do, how can we truly live what we say we believe?
One of the greatest challenges I find is to be fully immersed in life and at the same time maintain a positive outlook. I listen to an array of news every morning, and each site resonates with despair beyond measure.
One American friend sent a particularly poignant message, explaining her point of view. “I give dollar bills to homeless people who sit at stop lights at freeway exits. It provides a momentary connection when I can acknowledge their humanity and the tragedy and injustice of their situation but I understand completely that I am not helping them . . .
“There are so many grassroots organizations, everywhere you look, it’s fragmented, disorganized, and there are duplicative efforts covering the same ground over and over.
“My job gets harder and more demanding — patients are needier as the social safety net frays and breaks, AND corporatization is gobbling up the health care industry as every day we get “one more thing” that we are required to do along with the disingenuous and hypocritical exhortation to practice “work-life balance” and “self care” (new buzz phrases that make my skin crawl.)
“I don’t have hope.”
Today I finally had time to volunteer with Imai Sensei’s Yomawari group. It was good to be back with those gentle souls, both the regular volunteers and the homeless. This time there was a rather large group of high school students with their teacher, gaining firsthand experience in helping those in need.
After lunch had been served
“You have seen firsthand that these are good folks. They have just had a hard time. When you are young, you think of life as a progression that moves forward, one step up after another. But sometimes misfortune happens and things change. Or you reach a certain age and then you no longer climb higher on the social ladder. In fact, you start going down. These people used to have good jobs. But one got sick and was fired. Another was laid off because the factory where he worked closed down. Another could never get a foothold after he lost everything in the 2011 disaster.
“It is not these people who are at fault. It is the system. It works against them. Changing the political and economic systems is a huge task, too large for any one of us. But we do what we can do. We address what is immediately before us. We clothe and feed the homeless. We get them medical attention, housing when we can, jobs if possible. But maybe the greatest gift we can give them is a sense of dignity, of being recognized as human beings worthy of our respect.
“Don’t forget what you learned today. Carry it in your hearts always. Keep your mind large. And always be on the lookout for how you can be of service to others.”
There are certain things I love about the friendly neighborhood where I live. First, I suppose is the city-sponsored senior center with its multitude of opportunities for oldsters. There are exercise and dance classes, a small kitchen and socializing lounge, shogi boards and a library. But best of all for me is the large spa-bath that welcomes all city residents over 65. I go there several times a week and enjoy being with older women of all shapes, sizes, and physical conditions.
To balance that, right down the street from my home is a marvelous city-offered play center for kids. It has a long building full of puzzles and wooden toys, and a stupendously large yard of trees and mud and sand. The children love it. Usually Japanese are excessively fastidious about cleanliness, but here it is permissible – and expected – to dig holes and build forts, construct sand castles or huge jumping mounds. There are slides and swings, flip poles and places for skipping rope or playing tag. No one has a cell phone or wears earplugs. It all about being alive and connected – to the earth, to each other, to creativity, and to joy.
Right next to my apartment is a small family-run mental hospital. It is renown for its kindness to patients and support for family members. Sometimes nurses take a line of patients out for a morning walk. We local residents step aside graciously, making way for this delightful blend of human possibility.
I love the young ones who live close by. They play ball in the parking lot, ride bikes in circles or back and forth, or scurry off to after school activities.
And upstairs is 2-year old Kazuki. He is loud and naughty, confident and radiant with life. I got to hold him when he came home for the first time.
Recently I met a man who had volunteered with an NPO in Myanmar. He worked with the poorest of the poor. And yet, when the March 2011 earthquake devastated Northeast Japan, those humble souls gathered all they could spare and offered it to him, saying, “Your people need this. Please send it to them.” The Japanese man was so touched, so humbled, he cried. And does so even now in the telling, over six years later.
Then he added, “How can anyone talk about ‘my country first’? We survive because we love, because we connect, because we appreciate, and because we help each other.”
The way life operates in parallels always fascinates me. One big simultaneous happening of life and death, joy and sorrow, growth and decline. Metgala in New York, famine in Yemen. All at the same time.
Like so many, I acutely watch and wonder the news these days. Super powers vying for control, some subtly and long term, others ostentatiously and immediate. Xi here, Putin there, Trump all over the place. I see people suffer, others rejoice. Dance and horror going hand-in-hand.
Sometimes in order to survive it seems it is essential to simply surrender to transparency and to beauty.
In the long run, won’t millions of small endeavors like these hold in check the monstrous forces of insanity obsessing the world today? We must hope.
Parallel worlds are becoming so intertwined they become hardly distinguishable. Yet, without horrors, how could we ever expect to approach the depth of Light?
Minami San Riku Cho is a village adjacent to Kesen-numa. Both are in Miyagi Prefecture, but far north of Sendai. Like every other place along the coast, Minami San Riku Cho, has many stories about its uneasy relationship with the tsunami of 03/11. Of course, the port was totally damaged, houses were smashed to oblivion, and thousands of people were displaced or drowned. Yet, despite the overwhelming devastation and ongoing challenges of rebuilding, there are some very beautiful touches of hope and of humanity. Several of them lie in the courage that can come from honoring heroes. Others are found in deep respect for the people working against all odds to urge life forward.
Naoto Matsumura is a well-known name among animal advocates worldwide. He is the brave soul who defied Japanese government orders to leave his hometown, Tomioka, after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant explosion. He stayed on and now cares for the animals left behind.
Recently a friend of mine, Nanci Caron, started a fundraiser to support Matsumura San and his cause. Although she was not a member of any particular animal advocacy group, she asked her friends, family members, and colleagues for “coffee money”. Many gladly gave. In fact, some gave much more. Soon, individuals from all over the globe became aware of the Chip In Fund, and also sent contributions.Read More»
One of the most unsettling and surprising things in eastern Tohoku is the unevenness of the clean up work. A once damaged area may be pretty much bare by now. But even so, there might be an apartment building still standing with people living on the top floors. The rest of the structure might be broken and smashed up, but the second or third stories might have laundry hanging out on the veranda. Or a bicycle might be leaning against a wobbly pole that more or less held up the entire building.
I went to Ishinomaki last September and was shocked by the extent of the destruction in the area near the port. The hospital was in complete shambles and next to it a pharmacy tilted knee deep in water. There were frames of houses and piles of debris everywhere. And along one whole side of this expansive, tragic mess was a wall of bent and crunched vehicles. There were cranes and backhoes working constantly to gather rubbish, as trucks plied back and forth removing what had been collected.Read More»
Dear Family and Friends,
Recently a friend and I went north of Sendai to Kesennuma to learn firsthand how things were almost one year after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. This week different friends and I ventured closer to home to hear stories of people who used to have homes and work near the sea. We went to Arahama, one section of widely spread out Sendai City. We talked with four courageous souls. Each person had a story. Each tale was unique. But the underlying theme was the same: “We lost everything. The future is uncertain. We can only do what we can today.”Read More»
February 11, 2012
Dear Family and Friends,
It has been a long time since I wrote to you. For me personally life has resumed a degree of normalcy. I go to work, I shop for food, I write, and I try in my own ways to be involved in the relief efforts going on here. Those activities are time and energy consuming, so my letters to all of you have become far less frequent.
When I have time I go out to areas still struggling, more so even that Sendai, to get their feet back on the ground. We have come very far, but we still have much to do. In fact, amazingly just the other day a cluster of bodies from the tsunami were found and identified. So, yes, our work is far from over.Read More»