Nine years ago today I composed my first Dear Family and Friends letter. In the early afternoon, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit this region with a force that changed our lives forever.
Because of the significance of that traumatic event, and because of the Japanese belief that souls come back to earth at specific times for blessing, I decided to mark this day with remembrance and prayer. I had thought of going to the coast to honor the deceased where most of them had departed, but the high winds of today made that problematic. So, instead I headed to a nearby forest park to be in nature, where I could attune more readily to visiting spirits.
Part way home after circling the park, I began to hear temple gongs. I checked my watch. Sure enough, it was 14:46, the exact moment when the earthquake had hit nine years before. Just at that time an old lady acquaintance was passing by. I called to her and said, “Can you hear the temple bells? They are for remembrance of March 11, 2011.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” she replied. “We must face East.” So, together in the middle of a side street, she and I bowed as we made salutations of prayer. A taxi, trying to work its way down that very narrow alleyway, stopped, not so much because of us, but for his own moment of silence and respect.
“Nine years ago, it was the earthquake. Now it is the Coronavirus. We are being challenged again. We are always living on the edge. You take care of yourself,” my friend said in parting.
The temple gong continued, but then stopped. Stillness. Silence permeated everything. I slowly made my way home, lit incense, bowed East, yes, and also West, North and South, wanting to include everyone, no matter where, and no matter when.
After my most recent letter that mentioned a fire festival, several people have written asking for more information about it. That is why this message is coming so close on the heels of the last one.
For Japan, the temple complex Yakushido is not particularly old, at about 400 years. But for Sendai it is very important. That is because its history is closely connected to her founder, Masamune Date. Although most of the original edifices no longer stand, the temple is still active. And every year on Founding of the Nation Day, February 11, a highly significant festival is held.
For this event Yamabushi, or mountain ascetic hermits, congregate in order to perform a very powerful ritual.
The Yamabushi form a circle around a large pile of green pine branches. They chant and blow conch shell horns that moan across the ritual field.
Before long the fire becomes a raging blaze of madness, shooting flames to the farthest edges of the ritualistic circle. At that point, two Yamabushi grab buckets of water and hurl it at the blaze, frantically repeating the process again and again. Smoke billows everywhere, as onlookers hold their hands in prayer, receiving the sacred energy of the barely controlled flames.
From there, the Yamabushi take wooden sticks with visitors’ prayers and throw them into the fire. As they burn, the hopes and wishes of the devotees ascend upward, where they, hopefully, will be heard and answered.
The fire is raked, salt is thrown into it, and gradually a taming emerges.
The Yamabushi begin the spiritual challenge, followed by visitors who wish to participate. People come locally and from neighboring prefectures. Everyone fully trusts the process.
Just then, my foot hit one lone piece of coal that was still brightly burning. The pain shot through me, but I dared not stop. I kept up my even pace, got to the end, walked through several trays of water, over salt and pine branches, finally to a shelter to dry my feet and put on my shoes. I never gave any indication of my burn. It was mine alone. Happily, no one else seemed to have had that sort of mishap. Later at home, I put ice on it and the next day it was fine.
Even now, several days after that experience, I can feel the profound effect it has had, and is still having on me. It is hard to verbalize, but deep within I know there is a change. And for that I am grateful.
In Sendai at the moment there is an exhibition of Ainu artifacts. Most items in the show are textiles, but there are also useful containers carved from wood. Each piece is handcrafted from purely natural materials. Despite the intricacy of design and precision of craftmanship, these artistic wonders were mainly for daily use. Yet, for the Ainu, everyday life and the sacred are one.
These days I am filled with questioning and often wonder how Cosmic patterns are manifesting in the world today, despite the upheavals happening almost everywhere. The Ainu show seemed to give me some answers. Each room was filled with magnificent specimens of fine workmanship. Each stitch on their appliqued outfits reflected a tender, precise exactness that honored not only the craftsperson, but also the ones who wore them, and even more so, the natural world that offered itself for human use. As I sensed the energy emitted from each piece, I could feel the essence of the earth, the plants that provided the fibers and wood, and the oneness of humanity with the natural world. There was no separation. There was a continuous flow of life between the two.
What struck me on a more overt level, though, were the designs themselves. They consisted of interlocking geometric shapes of swirls and curves that formed cohesive patterns that perfectly united the background and the applique. Each piece was breathtakingly magnificent. But they did not shout. Rather, they spoke with the quiet dignity of their majestic presence. It was as if the owners both knew and yet did not realize the immensity of their own power and that of their robes.
I mulled over the idea that these harmonious, unifying patterns might somehow be the Ainu’s way of manifesting Cosmic energies as they felt and understood them. Seeing their fine work, I felt reassured that even today the world is held together safely and strongly, that there are certain archetypal energies that are universal and eternal. The world felt more unified and stable.
I went to yet another fire ritual this month. This time one that entailed smoke and drums, rhythmic chanting and the moaning of conch shell horns. There was fire walking. Not only by the priests, but by any layperson who wanted to brave the dangers of walking on burning ash and coal. I decided to try. This year I want to push myself beyond what is comfortable and easy, even as I remain acutely aware and respectful of Cosmic laws. I feel time ticking, my age increasing. And so, I want to stretch in ways that evoke both challenge and trust. And in so doing, in my own small life, I want to somehow manifest Cosmic patterns that fit together intricately and harmoniously, both to express cohesiveness, as Ainu craftwork does, and yet to push me into the courage of unchartered territories, as fire walking surely did.
The other day I listened to a TEDTalk given by a Turkish writer. Among many things, she mentioned her grandmother. Even though the younger generations of the family had adopted Western ways, the grandmother had remained very traditional. She was also well known in the neighborhood as a healer. People would come to her with skin problems: moles, warts, rough areas, and scars. She would draw a circle around each problem area, take an apple, and pierce it with a needle the number of times there were places to be healed: five warts, five times, for example. About a week later each and every one of her patients would return, healed, grateful, singing her praises. She was 100% successful.
The author, steeped in Western logic, asked her grandmother the secret of her healing talents. “It is the power of the circle,” she would say. “You focus inward, clearly visualize a perfect globe around the aberration, and everything within it gets cut off from life, and soon it dies.”
Several months ago I sprained an ankle, and just when it was starting to heal, I sprained it again. Doing whatever I can to get back to normal, I have been regularly going for massage and acupuncture treatments. Several sessions ago the masseur asked if I wanted to try a burning technique. He explained that it would hurt, but would force the Chi energy to intensely come to the damaged area. That would speed the healing. I decided to give it a try.
He took an incense stick, lit it, placed it on my ankle, and broke off the teeny burning tip. The pain was searing. Even though it was confined to a very small area for a very short time, my entire body reacted. I screamed, stiffened, writhed in agony, but let him perform this torture the required five times.
During the second session a week later, I asked him if I, his sole foreign client, were the only one reacting so violently. “No, there is one other woman who is even noisier than you,” he replied. “How do the others do it?” I asked. “They use the Japanese mind.” “The Japanese mind?”
“You use your mental powers to make a circle around the pain. That way you can contain it. You also breathe slowly and deeply, while visualizing your body as being very calm.”
I tried it. It worked. I still felt the pain, but I also sensed the rest of my body relaxing and working with the process. I realized my mental attitude was allowing the Chi to flow more smoothly to the problem area. At the end of the session, I could walk without pain. A day later, my ankle remained weak, but pain-free.
Yesterday, too, was Setsubun, the change of seasons in the old calendar. Traditionally on that day, people throw beans to keep Oni demons away. This makes a circle of protection around their homes, allowing everyone inside to be safe. As the Oni retreat, so does the harshness of winter, ushering in the promise of spring.
Mental powers focused on healing, circles, the promise of hope. A traditional belief system that maybe we need now more than ever.
Why do rituals both disturb and reassure? Are they designed to awaken parts of ourselves that we might not want to see, yet at the same time offer a stabilizing familiarity? Probably both, maybe neither.
The Japanese are renowned for their love of order and predictability. Even when the world seems to be disintegrating before our very eyes, within our very hearts, the Japanese have ways that seem to hold things together. There is the exact timing of the bullet trains, for example, which run to the second. Or the precise dates of natural phenomena, such as the progressive arrival of cherry blossoms from south to north.
Listening to the news, I am often pulled apart by the dangerous, far-reaching choices of only a few world leaders or the devastating consequences of climate change. I wonder where we are headed. And more importantly, I ponder what can unify us, both as a group and as individuals worldwide.
January 14 is Dontosai, a New Year’s ritual here in Japan. It is based on fire, on burning the old to purify the new. It demands challenges of fending off the cold, of walking through the city scantily clad, shivering, carrying lanterns, ringing bells, winding one’s way to shrines for warmth and blessing.
It is important that company members join this ritual, this test of strength, this demand to put group cohesiveness over individual comfort and desire. And people come, year after year. Groups join to be tested and purified. Individuals come to pray, to hope for a year of good fortune and of luck.
It is a happy ritual. It challenges, yes, but also reassures. It draws our hearts and minds to an intangible center that is cohesive and eternal. This ritual reminds us that no matter what is going on in the world, there is a place, a condition where there is peace and trust, stillness and an infinite sense of belonging. What more could we ask in this age of upheaval and ever increasing distrust?
“If you can, then do. If you can’t, then rest. But whichever, count your blessings.” Such were the wise words of my orthopedic doctor when I lamented about the narrowing physical circumference that comes with age. And sure enough, when I returned to the waiting room, I noticed a woman who stood like a jack-knife and a man with knees that looked like melons. Aging is hard. So, yes, do what you can when you can, and be grateful.
Several of my friends in their 70s and 80s obviously have the same philosophy. Today was sunny and the air was crisp. So, they called and said, “Let’s go for a hike. Not difficult, but we can’t miss this precious opportunity.” Six of us headed to a nearby mountain, each with a condition that makes “do what you can when you can” a perfect mantra to follow. And we did.
The hike was short, the slopes gentle. All six of us walked slowly, at the pace we could manage. It was lovely to have a chance to stop when we wanted to admire the colors, the lighting, the freshness of the air.
One woman in particular made the day very special. Of course, on the national stage today was highly significant because of the final ceremony involving the start of the new Reiwa Era. There was a slow, formal motor parade taking the Emperor and Empress to their new home in the Akasaka area of Tokyo. While the adoring crowds were waving flags and snapping photos as the Emperor and Empress passed by, the six of us were up on a mountain having a small tea ceremony. My friend had brought tea bowls, a whisk, hot water, and powdered green tea.
Sendai is a comfortable-sized city to live in. It has enough people to allow for good schools and hospitals, healthy public transportation systems, and a wide variety of entertainment. Even though it tries to present a cosmopolitan face, many of Sendai’s residents grew up on neighboring farms or along the coast as fishermen. So, in their bones they are still closely connected to the seasons and what they have offer.
A marvelous woman in my apartment complex was raised in the Miyagi countryside with her four siblings, parents and grandparents. She often goes back to her family farm, returning with copious amounts of vegetables and rice. But most days she stays in Sendai and heads out almost pre-dawn to find what edibles she can in the neighborhood forest park or near the railway tracks or small river below our home.
“Ah, it is spring,” she will say, “time for fiddleheads and bamboo shoots.”
“Now summer has come and I can get mushrooms, plums for pickling, dandelion greens and cresson.”
“Autumn, beautiful autumn and its persimmons, what could be more vivid in color and sweet in taste?”
“Winter, I will scrounge around for whatever roots I can find. On some days I am lucky, some days not.”
The other morning she banged on my door very early to display the clutch of branches laden with persimmons she had just nicked from the neighbor’s tree. Later in the day when I returned home, she was on her veranda hard at work removing the precious fruit. She had been at it all day.
“Little Kazuki helped me this afternoon,” she proudly told me. “He’s only five, but he scrambled up the tree like a pro. He helped me break branches and hand down hundreds of of golden gems. He was wonderful,” she said, obviously impressed.
“This year is really good for persimmons,” she continued. “I have 800 so far. I am not sure where I will hang them to dry. My balcony has a lot and I need space for my laundry. My apartment is already pretty full, too. What am I going to do?” she asks with a sigh. But knowing this imaginative woman, she will find a way.
And also knowing her big-hearted generosity, I am sure in a few weeks many folks in the neighborhood will get a fine share of dried persimmons, enough for themselves, and plenty to share.
Japanese fruits are renowned for their quality, taste, and sheer beauty. Grapes are huge, juicy, and round. Strawberries are lush and vibrantly red. Peaches are perfectly shaped and sweet. And apples come in many varieties and sizes, all year round.
My friend Noriko knows a farmer who needs help on his apple farm at this time of year. Noriko loves rural Japan, just as I do, so she readily offered her services. Would I like to join her? Of course.
As you know, last weekend Hagibis marched her relentless way through our lives, followed by more torrential rain, with still more to come this week. But this weekend offered a hiatus of sunshine and warm weather. “We have to do this work now between the storms,” the farmer explained. “Come quickly.”
I had thought we were going to pick apples. But I was mistaken. Fuji and certain green apples will be ready later in the season. Our job today was to make conditions just right for these gorgeous balls of tart wonder to reach their perfect peak. We had to clip back leaves near each apple, then turn the fruit slightly so that sunshine could directly hit the side that had not been exposed. In other words, we were to work our way from apple to apple, tree to tree, cutting off leaves, making sure not to pierce the fruit or to cut the tip of branches, which were wombs for next year’s produce.
Each apple was treated with the greatest of reverence and care. Everything was hand done. No machines, only very sharp clippers and ladders.
There were only four of us working today. Besides Noriko and me, there were two elderly gentlemen who did farm work as a way to supplement their meager pensions. At first, they were shy and barely talked, but later they warmed up to us and chatted a bit. But not much. Rural Japanese men are most often sturdy, quiet folk who work long and impressively hard.
In fact, much of today was spent in silence. But there were many reassuring sounds. The snip, snip of the clippers, the chatter of birds, the distant laughter of children at play, and the subtle hum of traffic on a nearby road. It was very peaceful and relaxing, even as we stretched to reach high branches, or bent low to pick up fallen tools.
Mama came just at noon with an unexpected lunch for us, delicious homemade soup.
“Are you all right?”
“Is everything OK?”
We were reaching out to friends as Hagibis marched her relentless way up the backbone of eastern Japan. First in the south, then the center, then here in the northeast. The news gave live reportage, so we knew minute by minute what was happening, what to expect. Thousands were evacuated into well prepared centers, listening, waiting, feeling safe, but anxious.
“Anne, do you want to come to my house the way you did in 2011 after the devastating earthquake and tsunami? Aren’t you afraid?” my thoughtful Japanese friend and “sister” asked.
“I am fine, thank you,” I replied, knowing my small apartment was much better built than the rickety old house I had lived in before. The house that collapsed in the quake, forcing me to live with Izumi and her mom for weeks.
Remembering 2011, though, I began my queries to friends, from south to north, many right here in Miyagi Prefecture, even parts of Sendai. “Has the storm hit where you are yet? Are you safe?” Replies of all sorts came flooding in.
* * *
We have battened down the hatches, like the rest of Japan.
Hagibis on the way. Lessons at Toyo cancelled (😁), my Japanese lesson also cancelled (🙂). Trains are stopping, shops closing, even hospitals will be closed. Locally, people have taped up their windows, tied their bikes up and taken their pot plants in.
Now we wait; and it is still many hours away.
It is already raining hard here, but not so windy yet.
A day indoors, and NO rugby today!
* * *
Yes, I’m good.
No evacuation alert was issued for the area I live in.
I don’t think the river’s water will reach here.
* * *
Thank you very much for asking. We are fine.
Here, at home it’s almost as in Sendai. Strong winds and heavy rain, but no more. We haven’t been out also.
In Ise, sadly, things are not good.
Yuki and Takumi seem to be well. But the whole thing is terrifying and we feel for the affected areas.
* * *
Hagibis arrived in Sendai right on schedule, about 9 pm, although she had been announcing her impending arrival with rain and wind for several days before. When her demanding presence was fully here, she was unbelievable. Sheets of rain so thick and solid they were like a raging wall of water, winds so strong they were like madmen of whirling insanity. Anything that had not been tied down or bolted shut was at their mercy. The pounding was so loud it was impossible to concentrate or hear much of anything else. Somehow we made it through the night.
The next day, bright and sunny, I went out to see what the world was like. Wet still, people repairing leaky roofs, hardly anyone on the streets.
Later I re-contacted friends to see how they had fared.
* * *
Here the sun is shining, a light breeze, birds a flying (even happy to see a crow), the dragonflies are back and I saw a butterfly.
Maria evacuated downstairs, we had some mopping up to do around leaking windows, but apart from that all is well.
Terrible, terrible flooding in many places, poor people!
* * *
We survived! How was the typhoon in Sendai?? I wonder how it affected Fukushima? That’s probably top secret:(
The books are mostly OK and I’m drying them in the sun.
During the worst of the typhoon, we and our neighbors had a typhoon party!
* * *
I went back to Yamagata on Friday and stayed with my family. And we are safe!
How about you? Is your home okay?
My family were planing to go to Ibaraki this weekend, but it was canceled. My grandmother in Ibaraki was fine, but, unfortunately, my cousins’ house in Tochigi is flooded.
The typhoon was so strong and many people in the Honshu area are in trouble like my cousins’ family, but, at least, I hope the people are safe.
* * *
I walked as close as I could to the Tama River last night to survey the scene, but water had filled the streets long before I could reach the banks. I don’t know if any homes were actually submerged, but I fear that quite a few were.
Will find out more today when I take my walk.
There was a dog that was having the time of its life last night as its owners tossed a ball into the flooded (but not dangerously so) street. The owner told me they usually go to the river for that but had to make do. The dog was treating it like Christmas morning 🙂
* * *
Now I watch the news and see the devastation. Thousands of homes flooded, years and billions of yen ahead of repair work. Life goes on. But I hold images of the first responders immersed in the floods and mudslides searching for people, taking them to safety. Such care, such courage. And the victims, such bravery, resolve and determination. These precious traits, surely, will be what carry us through, as they always have.
One thing that can be said with certainty about Sendai since its 2011 disaster, rebuilding has been constant. Consequently, nothing much has stayed the same. All this reconstruction, unfortunately, means nature is done away with as deliberately and rapidly as possible. What were once lush gardens are now parking lots or cement driveways. Not a tree or a shrub in sight. Apartment buildings, one after another, are clogging every inch of land, without, it seems, any thought of enough people to fill them. I find this depressing to say the least. So, I treasure all the more my little haven of earth with its minuscule garden and lone tree, with a backdrop of cedar trees and edge of sky.
The other day I headed back to my old neighborhood, wondering if the bike shop I used to go to would still be there. To my amazement it was. Suzuki San, same but older, now 78, was flexibly squatting next to a motorbike changing a tire.
“Well, well, look who’s here. Come on in,” he greeted me. His wife appeared from around the corner. “Sit down. Tell us how you are,” she said.
“Here’s the bill, but I won’t charge you tax since we’re friends.” Business as usual. Business with heart.
Mr. Suzuki has been at his shop for fifty years. “I plan on being here for a while longer. Until I am eighty at least,” he says with a proud smile. He is so healthy, friendly, and professional, I hope he will be there much longer, even as the world around him transforms into parking lots and apartments with neighbors hardly saying hello to one another.
Some wandering thoughts today. Evil and karma, so much to consider in these days of upheaval and uncertainty.
What happens on a Cosmic level to a person who has done great harm to others? Is the response tit-for-tat? “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Is karma-as-revenge part of a divine plan, or is it human, providing a bullying sense of fairness and justice?
And in reverse, “When bad things happen to good people.” Why isn’t good always and immediately rewarded with good?
What if karma, if it does indeed emerge out of Cosmic law, and not human desire, had a different, less direct method of operating? What if we came to believe that karma’s purpose is neither to reward nor to punish, but rather to teach, to uplift individuals and humanity at large?
What if a Hitler, for example, or any other infamously destructive character, were reborn not into a life of punishment, but one of profound love and disciplined compassion? What if his future family were role models of fairness, consideration of others, kindness and dignity? What if life after life he was reborn into circumstances that offered understanding, guidance, and opportunities for greater self-awareness and compassionate sensitivity towards others?
If this “Hitler” were able to transform, thanks to lifetimes of loving direction and self-determination, might that not provide karmic balance? Could the horrific evil he did eventually pierce his heart and psyche, not through punishment, but rather through enlightenment and acute awareness of the suffering of others? Could this deeply felt connection to humanity open his heart wide enough so that he, too, might experience what he had, in his ignorance, inflicted upon others? Might that severing inner pain be a profoundly wise method of karmic compensation for the unspeakably destructive deeds of his past?
In other words, could a Hitler eventually evolve to become a Thich Nhat Hanh, a Dalai Lama, a Buddha, a Christ? — Through infinite patience and guidance, through changed circumstances and his own free will.
Yet, could humanity tolerate such embracing, loving ways of dealing with evil? Are we ready for that brave step to an entirely different level of understanding and behavior: a karma of compassion and learning under all circumstances. How would society change if we believed and acted so?
These thoughts come after a trip visiting several sacred places in Japan. These havens are pools of peace and stillness amid the loud bustle of contemporary life. In them there is a sense of eternal understanding, guidance, and patience. Maybe they are symbolic of the way karma ceaselessly invites us to learn and to grow towards greater inner and outer Light.
PS. In rereading this letter, I realize how simplistic these thoughts are. They barely touch the nuanced, complex, and liberating dynamic that karma promises.
Kazuki Obata is 24 and is doing something remarkable. He is a rather shy young man, and when he was in high school, he often felt overwhelmed. He also experienced bullying and ostracism from classmates. Unlike American kids who, according to recent news, often take out their frustrations through violence on others, Kazuki followed his culture’s pattern of turning inward and shutting down. He refused to go to school, closed himself in his room, and wallowed in his confusion and lack of direction. So many youngsters do this in Japan that there is a name for it: hiki-komori.
A friend’s daughter is going through this, too. Her counselor told her parents to leave their child alone until she herself became ready to come out of her shell. No guidance, no demands, no expectations. Just leave her alone “until she is ready to emerge”. Sadly, because of lack of attendance, this young woman failed every class in high school and was not able to graduate. She is still unapproachable and the parents are still waiting for her “readiness”.
Who knows what caused Kazuki to break out of his shell? But emerge he did. And what he has done since then is remarkable. “I suffered so much,” he reflects, “and I don’t want others to be as lonely and confused as I was. That’s why I started this NPO called Kids’ Door.”
This group offers a safe space for school-resisting youngsters to get together and share their problems, their thoughts, and their struggles. It allows them to know they are not alone, that there are many others all over the country suffering as they are. This NPO does not pretend to answer all problems or even to get kids back into school. But it does promise a place of reassurance and community for those lacking support elsewhere.
A friend of mine volunteers to help these youngsters. And today she and I went to a special event organized by five very impressive high school aged kids.
Today’s program was beautifully organized. After very brief self-introductions, we were divided into small groups and directed in playing a guessing game. That was to melt barriers of shyness. Then things became a bit more serious. Again, in groups of three, we were asked to brainstorm ideas on how people learn. In my trio, no one even mentioned formal schooling.
Break time, good for chatting causally. Then re-introducing ourselves, this time in more detail. The response was incredible. Usually Japanese are extremely private and seldom talk about themselves. But in this now-safe environment, floodgates opened. People poured out their stories. Kids talked about being bullied or verbally abused by teachers. Parents, some almost on the verge of tears, expressed their worries and lack of direction in how to help the beloved children. Everyone respectfully listened or nodded in understanding. Group bonds were growing deeper.
The next task was to discuss in small groups education in the past and now. Happily, I learned there is a school new in Sendai, but with branches all over the country. It is called the En School. No one could tell me what En stood for, but the school itself is a very admirable attempt to help kids that are victims of their school experiences and overwhelming fears. It also opens its doors to youngsters who simply find no meaning in a regular education, or who are sports pros and cannot attend school regularly because of frequently going to tournaments.
Indeed, this institution gives its students a great deal of control over their education. For example, there might not be set classes to graduate, but rather students themselves decide what to study and how many days a week they will attend. They can design their own homework and can hand it in whenever they are ready. Several of the five organizers of today’s program were students in En School and seemed to be doing well. In fact, each one of them had a dream for their future.
Those five young adults were very impressive. They organized and ran today’s entire program. It took over two months. No adult was involved. These leaders were intelligent, motivated, polite, and very caring. They carried themselves with dignity and confidence. They worked together well as a team and showed genuine interest in what all the participants had to say. Each one of them said they were involved in this work because they had suffered so much and wanted to help others who were in circumstances similar to their own. And in the future, they would like work that would allow them to continue supporting those in trouble.
The atmosphere those five young persons created was that of total trust and deep respect. The love generated in that room today was palpable. If people like those five will be accepted in Japan’s often overly rigid society, everyone will benefit, and the world, without any doubt, will become a much better place.
“My heart is very cluttered. I need a break. Would you go on a day trip with me?” my friend Noriko asked the other day. I do not have a car and am usually busy with one thing or another, so seldom get out of Sendai. So, a day outing was a privilege I could not refuse.
“Let’s take a local ferry and visit the farthest island on that route,” she suggested. Of course, I agreed.
The ferry was indeed carrying local fishermen.
And also a group of wonderfully precocious little boys on a school trip.
The island we selected was very small. All the houses were obliterated in the 2011 tsunami, but seventeen brave souls decided to return and rebuild their lives there. Thanks to the Red Cross and other admirable NGOs, the islanders were given money for new homes and a dock. The people we talked to were proud oyster fishermen and doing very well.
My friend and I returned home relaxed and filled with the delight of a day spent appreciating the beauty of ordinary life.
A few days later, Noriko contacted me again. “I need to go hiking. I hunger for it for my spiritual wellbeing. Everyone else is busy, but maybe you have time to join me. Will you?” she queried.
How could I say no? So, again we set off together, the second time in one week. That in itself was surprising since we usually make day excursions together about twice a year.
Unlike south Sendai, which is built up with factories, highways with huge trucks, the port with enormous freighters, the north side of the city immediately tumbles into thick forests and vivid green paddies. We both felt immediately soothed.
The hike we took was not difficult. And the charm of the setting was enhanced by mist that turned trees into ghosts or spirits beckoning us to join them. With pleasure we did.
Recently my art pieces have begun with only a vague idea. I put a color here, a line there, slowly unfolding where I want to go. Throughout the entire process I let the work instruct me. That way together we create something that speaks to us both. For me that seems to more authentically express my relationship to life at this stage.
Today’s beautiful outing seemed to mirror back to me what I have been working on for months in my art. Without hesitation, but with deep respect, I walked into the mist, the mystery, and slowly, encouraged by the forest, found my way.
One of my greatest joys as a foreign language teacher is when I am able to entice my students to a curiosity about a world wider than the rather provincial one many of them exclusively know. I have had luck in the past, and so am rewarded in many ways. A few former students, for example, work in international airports or as airline stewardesses; one is inundated with foreigners in Shinjuku Station in Tokyo; and several, after graduating, have lived overseas and return fluent in English. I am always honored when any of my students keep in touch with me, enabling us to become friends and equals as we continue to share our many life’s adventures, some exotic, most very mundane.
The other day I asked a student-now friend to come talk to one of my current university English classes. This remarkable woman is a major buyer of wines for a large chain store in Japan. She uses English everyday with clients, either on the Internet or the phone, and travels all over the world checking out vineyards and wineries. I am always impressed when I hear she is off to France or Spain, California or Chile, and sometime in the future South Africa.
My current students listened enraptured by Junko’s tales of how she further developed her English after graduating and how she uses it constantly in her work today. Of course, there were many questions after the lecture. One student’s stood out the most poignantly for me, probably because it related so closely to my own reality of living in a foreign country.
“I have never been overseas, and I want to go. But I can’t decide whether to take a tour or to live in another country. What do you suggest?”
Junko, with her years of experience, said, “Listen, when you are in your 20s, you should challenge yourself to everything you can. Some things will be really tough, but you will learn so much. And having the chance to live overseas gets harder the older you get. So, I say, do it now!”
Since I have my own store of foreign adventures, I took the liberty to add to Junko’s wise advice. “When you take a tour, things are all planned. You see the pretty places and take picture-perfect photos. But most often you don’t really have any contact with local people. But when you actually live overseas, you have lots of opportunities to do that. There are fun things like festivals . . .
“But you also have to deal with everyday things in a foreign language and culture. You have to go to the post office and supermarket. You might have to see a dentist or go to the hospital. You struggle to decipher forms that come in the mail. And you have to pay bills and go to the bank.
“Good luck. It is challenging, but always rewarding. And you can return to Japan anytime. But your overseas experiences will always be part of who you. They can never be taken away.”
Trump is in Japan today. And curiously, there is also a very intriguing art show of World Heritage treasures just outside Sendai. This exhibit features magnificent pieces found along the Silk Road, running from Japan all the way into Western Europe. Is there a synchronicity? How could there possibly be a connection between Donald Trump and some of the finest, most admirable creativity the world has ever known?
The start of this show begins in Japan. This country, being at the far eastern limit of the Silk Road, was the recipient of explorations further west. But we viewers are grounded here, and so appropriately this artistic journey originates from where we are, Japan.
To welcome us, a breathtaking triad of Buddha Shakyamuni and two attendants are at the threshold. They entice us with their subtle, yet majestic 1,400-year-old presence. This remarkable piece is found in Horyuji, considered the oldest temple in Japan. The Buddha’s robes flow like oceans or clouds, and the hundreds of circular knots in his hair are symbols of the infinity of universes contained in his being. On the surrounding walls are murals that hold this triad in their sacred rituals and protection.
From this profound experience, all contained in one dimly-lit room, we follow the route westward. In China we are allowed glimpses into the superb Dunhuang Mogao temple carved into a shadowy rock cave. The focal point of this holy space is centered on a sculpted Buddha and one attendant. Again, exquisite murals are womb-like around him, inviting the eye to roam across other painted Buddhas and hundreds of small saintly figures supporting the work of the Enlightenment in our mundane world.
Thanks to crystal sharp photography, we enter into Afghanistan. Here we are permitted thought-provoking images of the cliff Buddhas of Bamian before they were so deplorably bombed by Islamic fundamentalists, who sadly confuse literal with metaphorical readings of the Koran. This rugged country is blessed with deposits of lapis lazuli, so murals in surrounding regions still hold suggestions of faded blue skies and elegant azure clothing.
From there, this fascinating tour continues westward, abruptly becoming secular and European. But before entering that continent, it behooves us to consider why this entire show is unique. Surprisingly, each piece in it is a 3-D printed clone. None is the actual original, but rather a copy so well executed that it is barely distinguishable from its parent.
“Cloned Cultural Properties” is an official term coined by the Tokyo University of the Arts. Its purpose is to preserve masterpieces that are fragile and in danger of disappearing. It also greatly expands their exposure, allowing people everywhere to contemplate their varied messages. The tedious task of cloning happily combines art, culture, science and technology. It is so important that faculty and students from TUofA go to sites around the world and painstakingly clone the originals.
By the time this exhibit portrays a cloned Europe, a sense of imaginative play has entered the equation. Paintings have become sculptures, Van Gogh’s eyes glitter as his shirt ripples. Ukiyo-e prints, so adored by 19th century Europeans, have become short videos or even contain exotic scents. Cats frolic and chase each other, while ocean scenes evoke salty air, gardens emit floral aromas, and gorgeous damsels seduce, using perfume to add to their allure.
As we reach the western extreme of this Silk Road journey, what is cloned and what is original are barely distinguishable. Real has become a clone. And a clone had earned its own dignity by being exactly what it was: a prefect replica, a treasure in its own right.
Each clone in this exhibit was purposefully created to honor art worthy of our greatest respect and humility. And in that regard, it succeeds admirably. However, even this noble undertaking must be vigilantly monitored. Original becomes clone, can easily degrade into fake. What is made to perpetuate respect for truth can slide almost unnoticeably into ego-inflated falseness that only degrades all of humanity.
And that is where Trump’s current visit to Japan touches very closely with this exquisite exhibit of clones. He is the master of fake news. Surely, his present juxtaposition to this respect-deserving show gives a dire warning of what our world, actual and cloned, can become if we are not acutely aware.
Dear Family and Friends,
Japan is a culture of mystery. So much is hidden. Yet so much is revealed. Not necessarily overtly, but profoundly and powerfully. Subtlety and suggestion seep through every aspect of this land so deeply imbued with honor and respect.
令和 Reiwa. The new Japanese era starts today, May 1, 2019. The name itself haunts, calls from deep within. It offers wonder, mystery, and potential.
Rei 令 has a complex assemblage of meanings. “Order”, “rule”, “decree”. Those are the translations most often used. But it can also mean “comely” or “resplendent”.
Wa 和 suggests “peace”, “harmony”, “gentle”, “relief” even “Japan”.
Combined, what could those two characters imply? “Orderly peace”? “Reassurance through adhering to rules”? “Gentle rule of order”?
Maybe. However, those seem too harsh, too strict, far too severe.
After several transformations, the official translation has become “Comely Peace”, or more often, “Beautiful Harmony.”
The Man’yōshū poem that contains Rei and Wa reads:
It is now the choice month of early spring;
the weather is fine, the wind is soft.
The plum blossoms open . . .
The choice month, 令月 (Rei) The wind is soft, 風和 (Wa)
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe interpreted this by saying, “We hope to create a Japan brimming with hope, where all people can see their own flowers bloom to the fullest.”
(Nippon.com, April 1, 2019)
This morning, May 1, Naruhito became the new emperor. His ceremony was dignified and silent. He received two of the three regalia that symbolize his position and also two official seals. No one spoke. Yet, the ceremony was deeply moving.
Although Japan’s constitution clearly separates religion and government, rituals connected to the royal family are closely connected to Shinto.
Yata no Kagami, the Sacred Mirror, is believed to be in Ise, the most sacred and mother shrine of Shinto. It is said to emit divine power and to reveal truth. It could symbolize the mirror of the soul. This most holy of the holies was not used in today’s ritual. It is too sacred, too fragile to be moved.
Yasakani no Magatama, the Sacred Jewel, is a curved bead suggests that the Emperor is to rule with benevolence and generosity. This sacred item is kept in Tokyo.
Surely, these combined are a much-needed inspiration for not only Japan, but for the entire world.
Most of my working life I have been a teacher. Even though I greatly value life experiences, I also am keenly aware of the benefits that a formal education can give. Because of that, when one of my students consistently slept in class this past year, I sat down to have a chat with her. It turned out she had a part-time job in a restaurant where she worked very late hours. She often got home at 3 or 4 in the morning, and then had to get up around 7 to get to her first class on time. I know the kind of pressure bosses here put on their employees, especially since they are usually short staffed. Even so, I told my student that the choice was hers: to put her efforts into work or into her studies.
“But Sensei, I learn so much at my job.”
“I know you do and life will give you valuable lessons for as long as you are alive. But now, these four short years may be the only window of time you have for this sort of guided education into other cultures, other mentalities, and other languages.”
In the end, this young woman chose her job over her school work. She wrote the worst research paper of the entire class, even though her English abilities were some of the highest. I do not begrudge her her choice, but I do feel only she is responsible for the consequences of what she values.
Yet I continue to ask myself, “What for her, and many others like her, is the meaning of a formal education?” “And what can I do to make my students’ university experiences more relevant to their daily lives?”
* * * * *
A second situation happened long before I came to Japan. When I was in my late twenties, I lived in Morocco. One vacation I chose to go by bus as far south as the road would take me. I went well beyond Marrakech, until I reached the outer fringes of the vast, unfathomable Sahara Desert. On that journey I met an older man who was making his annual trip home from France to see his two wives and many children. He told me there were no hotels in the teeny dusty village we both were heading to. But being steeped Arab hospitality, he offered to put me up. I had no choice, so accepted.
What, indeed, was the purpose of a formal education for this unhappily aware woman?
* * * * *
* * * * *
One of my favorite classes consists of adults. Their English varies, but basically it is high enough that we can have some good discussions. In fact, four of them have lived overseas and one goes to Europe frequently to attend the opera. Because of their good language skills, I have the freedom to choose class materials from a wide range of sources: magazines or newspapers, TEDTalks or art, science or literature. Luckily, too, everyone is eager to talk, to joke, to disagree, and being Japanese, to deeply listen. Without a doubt, that time with those enthusiastic people is one of the highlights of my week.
Recently I found a series of articles in Al Jeezera that were focused on chefs around the world. There were ten of them, so I decided to work with each separately. The first was called “The Pastry Chef from Kabul”.
Before each class, I always prepare warm-up questions to ignite the discussion, and also to invite students to form their own ideas before listening to the article. Since I divide the students into small groups, the conversations usually take very different tracts, which also adds to the flexibility and delight of the hour.
However, this time before breaking into separate discussions, one man raised his hand and very seriously asked, “What is dessert?” (Dessert was a word on the question sheet I had just handed out.) I was taken aback. First, I was surprised because dessert is so obvious to me that I did not think it needed explaining. And second, because this particular gentleman had lived in America. But then the rest of the class pipped in, “Yes, what is dessert?” I was not expecting that either.
After discussing “desserts”, another student was confused by “pastry”. “Is ice cream a pastry? And how about candy or chocolate?” Again, I was caught off guard. However, one class member had lived in the Netherlands, so she explained that pastry needed flour. “So, a tart, a cookie, a piece of pie or cake would be pastry,” she explained.
“Oh, now I get it,” the older gentleman said with relief spreading over his face. And with that everyone else could relax, too. Then each group went its separate way to discuss sweets of all sorts and to shape their own notions of the truly marvelous and admirable Pastry Chef from Kabul.
Every aspect of this festival is highly symbolic. People walk the streets in groups, scantily clothed, shivering, stretching their physical and mental abilities to the limit.
Usually I head to the most popular shrine after dark, when the roar of celebration is loudest. But this year I added another dimension by going in daylight to smaller shrines, before the merrymaking had really started. It was humble and gentle, very personal and deeply touching.
In many ways this festival symbolizes a peeling away, not only of things, but of all preconceived ideas and past, shameful behavior. It is also a letting go of what we have known and loved so as to make room for what is to come.
But even as we make personal promises, collect personal fortunes, and make personal efforts, we know that anything we do or have is part of a collective offering. Indeed, as all the individual decorations are united to become fuel for one huge bonfire, Dontosai reminds us that each of us in this life is privileged to work and serve a greater whole. Some people see that as family, others as community or society, and others as this vulnerable world we call home. Whatever the dimension, the work is always there for us to serve in purity, in courage, and in deepest love.
During the terrible 2011 disaster here in Tohoku, many Tokyo developers awakened to the realization that this area would be a haven for filling their pockets. And sure enough, since then parts of this city have been transformed into a (very mini) Tokyo with flashy avenues and exclusive shops, expensive restaurants and multi-tiered department stores. Equally as sadly, surrounding farms are devolving into shopping malls.
My own neighborhood, too, which used to have mostly old houses with gardens and winding streets, once walking paths, is being devoured by this relentless hunger for tearing apart and rebuilding. What was once a garden is now a parking lot with three houses or an apartment block.
And today I was fortunate to able to do just that. Every year the Wakabayashi-ku Community Center has its Vegetable Celebration, offering the produce locals have grown as delicious soup. Today, as always, the atmosphere was alive with enthusiastic volunteers and eager guests. The cooking was simple, traditional, and rural in feel and in taste.
Two folks near my home have their own vegetable patches. One is very homemade. It was constructed in a parking lot out of flower pots. Besides the parking lot garden, this clever man, once a farmer who lost everything in the 2011 tsunami, also turned his entrance area into an abundant patch. Currently he has a daikon hanging from a lone tree to dry.
The other gardener in this area is an old woman who has been here for ages. She is very poor materially, but strong and rich in her attitude. Her home is a shack, so shabby that the front door no longer closes. But out front she, too, has a garden that feeds her year round.
Yes, there is much beauty in this area. Even as homes become like unwelcoming fortresses, the hearts of so many are somehow able to remain extremely generous and profoundly kind.