Dear Family and Friends,
Niigata Prefecture is southwest of Miyagi. It is not far, but it never held my interest enough to consider a visit. However, for the past few months I have been supporting a friend, helping-hoping to keep her travel agency alive. Together she and I decided Niigata was off the beaten track enough to allow for a safe trip. So, I went, armored with my two vaccinations, double masks, a teeny spray jar of alcohol, and the year-long habit of following social distancing.
Niigata is indeed rural. At this time of year, everywhere is green: sharp thanks to paddies, complemented by lush home gardens, and beautifully contrasted with the dark mountains serving as a perfect backdrop or frame for the entire verdant setting. The vast paddies produce Koshihikari rice, famous for feeding locals and Tokyo residents in abundance.
Along with that, there are thermal baths scattered throughout. Spa towns are everywhere, as are free footbaths, which farmers enjoy together, drinking sake and laughing, after a hard day of work.
Besides the ski slopes that attract people from all over the country in winter, there are a few other tourist attractions. Two very old Buddhist temples are particularly famous. They have carvings by Ishikawa Uncho. Saifukuji has an elaborate, rather gaudy ceiling.
Eirinji is more humble and gracious, probably made when the sculptor was older with years of experience behind him. Photos of either temple were not allowed, so I captured the images from the brochures I received.
What I loved most in the latter was a series of teeny carved monks, not being reverent or pious, but rather showing their delightful humanity. One was scrubbing clothes, another grating a daikon, one was patting a rabbit, another bellowing out songs to his heart’s content, while yet another was falling head over heels in an unexpected tumble.
One town boasted millennium-old metal working.
Another had stunningly handsome weaving, also a well over-1000-year-old tradition. The quality was superb An obi, or kimono sash, could easily cost the equivalent of $20,000.
The food, of course, we outrageously delicious.
But what struck me the most were the people. They live in small communities, need each other, trust each other, help each other. They are open, friendly, curious, and extremely helpful.
The transport system was frustratingly inconvenient, with trains or buses coming very irregularly, most trips requiring several changes, fast running to catch the once-every-two-hour train, and then waiting for 45 minutes or longer in the next village for a connecting train to arrive. It was confusing at best for me, but the locals, from grandmas to young school kids, were eager to get me to where I needed to go.
And aboard, older people would want to chat, sitting across from me for social distance.
Once when I missed a train and had to wait over an hour for the next one, a man laughed and said, “Isn’t this kind of time wonderful? It gives you a chance to reflect and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.” The station was wooden and small, surrounded by paddies. It was indeed peaceful and graciously stunning.
I had to take a taxi to get to Saifukuji Temple. The driver had marvelously slicked back hair, shiny as if it were lacquered. He had pointed black shoes and a trim suit, despite the relentless heat. He told me everyone there was a farmer, including himself. He reassured me many in the younger generation were choosing to stay on the land, rather than flock to cities. Later I found a flyer, “Know the Future”, praising the work of farmers. I was relieved to know that essential tradition was proud and continuing.
Other people either drew or printed out maps so I could find my way. Some were along very circuitous roads that had once been pathways through paddies.
One bus driver even got off the bus when he saw me at a stop and asked where I was going. “This is holiday time, so buses are really scarce. Get onto my bus because it is here. I will help you make the connection you need.”
The people are used to very hot summers and bitterly cold winters. It is common for summer temperatures to reach 38º C or higher (over 100º F), as they were when I was there.
But you could tell winters were fierce because roads were lined with high poles to mark their location when snows became exceedingly deep.
After a rain, a grandmother said to me, “Today’s cool weather is such a welcomed break. It is only 34º today. What a relief!” I laughed and agreed. In fact, when I got back to unusually-hot-for-Sendai’s 28º, it almost felt chilly.
My final stop was back in urban Niigata City to a kite museum. It was an hour bus ride out, then an hour’s walk along horrendous major highways, with trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles roaring past. Of course, it was made of infernal blacktop, and bordered by huge parking lots, shopping malls, and chain stores. There was even a kitch golden Buddha with two cute stone owls. What a shock anytime, but much more so after the few days I had just spent.
But the museum was superb, so I was glad to have made the effort to get there.
Before heading back along the hell that had brought me there, I sat down to munch on a rice ball. While there, one of the museum staff stepped outside and politely came to chat. “We don’t get foreigners here much. So, it is a privilege and very exciting having you here. Thank you for coming, especially since it took so much effort. That means a lot to us.” I smiled and said I was the one who should thank them. My stay in Niigata had been wonderful.
My four days there reassured me that the world has tremendous potential for living in harmony with nature, for human kindness, openness, and trust. Surely, we humans can be larger, deeper, and more thoughtful than what many of us in recent years have come to expect.
To start, I believe this section of the city was once rice paddies. The soil in neighbors’ yards is very dark brown and lush. Vegetables and flowers grow in abundance. Now, though, there is one ugly main road curving through it, with no side walk to speak of. People take turns going down it.
Side streets twist and turn, suggesting walking paths at one point. Many of the houses on those streets are humble and the neighbors like family.
Since the 2011 earthquake, however, Sendai has been getting a serious face-lift. So, many of the sweet narrow paths and traditional homes with open space, and maybe a few trees, are being replaced with “danchi”, or housing developments. House / parking lot / not a tree or garden in sight. It is depressing, needless to say. And sadly, only adds to fast-approaching, far-worse environmental extremes to come.
The young families who buy the large trendy homes feel they must have enormous cars to match. It is quite an art to maneuver these monsters down narrow alleyways. Pedestrians have to lean against walls to let them pass, often getting their noses brushed by the wing-like side mirrors. But so far, we have stayed accepting and gracious neighbors.
There are many small shops and businesses, even a family-run mental hospital, dotting this neighborhood. Most have been here for years. The buildings they are in may have seen better days, but the places themselves are alive and well. Here are just a few.
Another favorite is “The Barber Lady”, who lives in my small, family-owned apartment complex. She has her shop in the front building, where she lives upstairs. She, too, has been here a long time and knows everyone’s news. Periodically, she pops over with something she has cooked. “You live alone, so I worry about you,” she says. “Actually, I give food to five single people nearby. We have to take care of the vulnerable,” she adds. I have given up telling her I am fine, and she should focus on the others. She is insistent, so I simply accept her generous offer, and then get her something special in return. Recently, she gave me a wild vegetable and fish stew. The vegetables came from a forest-park nearby with signs saying not to collect any wild plants. She goes at the crack of dawn so as to keep her transgression a secret.
Several months ago, a friend sent me an article about “Shinrin Yoku” (森林浴), or “Forest Bathing” here in Japan. It was a very idealized account of people immersing themselves in nature, releasing all their stress, and returning to their daily lives feeling rejuvenated and whole. Although I agree with the concept, and each morning practice a form of “Shinrin Yoku” with my one brave tree, I must admit I laughed at the time. Many of the Japanese I know say they love nature, but cut down trees with abandon, shriek if a fly passes by, and choose a blacktop parking lot over a home garden or a shopping mall to replace rice paddies. But the other day a friend who owns a travel agency asked me to please join her “Immerse Yourself in the Energy of Trees” tour. She needed another member to make the trip viable. I agreed to go, even though I prefer private trips to group outings.
We went to the Mogami area of Yamagata Prefecture. It is renowned for its natural beauty, where for centuries humans have blended seamlessly with the natural world. High mountains surround lush valleys with small villages and numerous fields of rice, garlic, and soba. Grandmas in big straw hats bend over their vegetable gardens, while men work diligently to keep their farms humming smoothly.
That region served the elegant Kyoto area for hundreds of years with its safflower and silk. It is more humble now, but still boasts spa towns, the Mogami River, and a large cedar forest in its center. That is where we were heading.
Our group consisted of seven women, some young, some old, most in between. The rented bus was small, but we could social distance easily. Ito San, the tour leader, told everyone not to panic with me there. She reassured them that I understood enough Japanese to hold a conversation. I smiled and said nothing.
Our first stop was at a small shrine nestled between rice paddies. It was called “Isurugi Shrine” (石動神社), which translated literally means “Moving Stone Shrine”. It was old and simple, blending in perfectly with the surroundings. Towering behind it was a huge cedar tree, said to be over 1200 years old. People have come to worship before it and ask for healing since it first showed signs of becoming a grandmother tree.
Akiko, one of the group members, was particularly taken with this Mother of Trees. She had spent the past thirty-six years taking care of her husband’s grandparents and parents. It was a very traditional family, so she had been the servant of all. She hated every second of it. But recently the last in both of those older generations had died. She felt emancipated. She was so grateful that she lay back against the tree, arms wide open, saying, “I am free. I am free. I am free.” Later she said to me, “I sense I have known you in past lives. I felt comfortable as soon as I saw you. I can tell you anything.” And then she told me the living hell she had endured, but now she was proud that she had done her best to the very end. “I succeeded. I am stronger. I am satisfied,” she said. Later I invited her to join my English discussion class for adults. So, her world is starting to open up, and I am glad.
From there we went to the Kagikakemori (かぎ掛森), which is indeed a lovely forest. It was raining rather heavily by then, but we ventured forth anyway.
But that annoyance was balanced by the guide who helped me. I explained that I had broken my arm and this was my first time using a backpack since then. I told him I still had no confidence in my balance, especially in forests with wet leaves. So, when we reached slippery log bridges, he said, “Anne Sensei, shake hand”, and firmly took my hand in his huge paw and guided me to the other side with ease. He was the kind of person who was solid and sure, a tree of sorts, and one I truly appreciated and admired.
We were a motley crew. And that made the day fun. I cannot say I experienced the blissful “Shinrin Yoku” that my friend’s article promised. But I did come home amused and happy, and wondering what another tour with my friend’s group would bring. Maybe someday I will find out.
Did you know that Japan has mummies? I didn’t until very recently. Of course, the history of this land extends back tens of thousands of years. But unlike Egyptian mummies, these Japanese preserved beings are relatively recent. In fact, the last one occurred in the 19th century, the first about 800 years ago in the Heian Era.
Besides age, another way the two differ is that in Egypt the pharaoh was mummified after death, probably as a way to preserve the god that he represented, or even the splendor and ego of the man himself. He was also laid to rest in a coffin.
In Japan, however, the mummies were monks of the Shingon Buddhist sect. They chose to become mummies while they were living. These men were very devoted believers and became mountain ascetics, living many years in isolation and prayer as a way to purify themselves.
There are sixteen self-mummified monks, or soku-shin-butsu, in Japan. Eight of them are in the Tohoku region, in Yamagata Prefecture. I recently visited a temple in Sakata City that has two of them: the Venerable Chukai and the Venerable Emmyokai. Their stories are truly astonishing and very thought-provoking. At different times, these two had been abbots of the Kaikoji Temple. But at age 50, both of them knew they wanted a more rigorous involvement with their Buddhist practices. So, they went to Mount Yudono, one of the three most sacred mountains in Yamagata. There they would live very austere, isolated lives dedicated to prayer and meditation.
After several years of this, each in his own way realized he wanted to give his physical life to help alleviate the suffering of humanity. So, they started the long ordeal to become a mummy. First, they reduced their physical selves as much as possible. They ate only nuts from the mountain and buckwheat mash, and drank only water. Venerable Chukai did this for eight years, Venerable Emmyokai for five. In some cases, the monk would also drink mild doses of lacquer. This, of course, encouraged their death, but would also preserve their body, which the monks wanted to do.
When these brave souls realized they were close to dying, they had devotees dig a narrow hole about three meters deep and lined with stones. They would sit in a lotus position and be lowered into this “tomb”. Then the top would be sealed off. But a small opening was left with a bamboo pole protruding through the surface.
I spoke to several locals about soku-shin-butsu. Every time they would become silent, bow their heads, and place their hands in prayer. “They were such selfless people,” they would say. “I ask them for help when I need it most. I always feel assured my prayers are answered.”
And sure enough, when I was ushered into the temple and stood before these Buddha-mummies, I felt a sense of the deep devotion of the thousands of believers who had been there before me and those who would come after. I also deeply pondered the ordeal those men had endured in order to perform the greatest sacrifice they could offer: their lives. And like them, I hope their choice will enable our troubled world, and individuals in it, to find hope, inner guidance, and stability, so we, in turn, can serve others in our own particular ways.
Writing about myself seems so small, even petty, in this day of global concerns. Even in my own world, I have friends in the hospital for knee replacements, brain surgery, and an unknown illness that causes severe swelling and robs the face of flexibility. I have another friend suffering from depression as she claws her way through her Dark Night of the Soul, and another rigid with anxiety arising from ugly abuses in her past.
With one disturbing incident after another, I finally decided to shift focus. I wanted to see beauty and delight in my daily life. Or rather, let them blossom, in both my outer and inner worlds. Curiously, just as I made that decision, both of my physical therapists encouraged me to go to a spa for a few days. “Despite Corona, if you take necessary precautions, you will be fine,” they promised. “And it will be really good for your broken arm. Go!”
So, I did. I need not have worried about Corona. There were about five people on the trains and in both hotels, I was the only guest. The first place, Naruko, was delightfully shabby, despite being a famous spa town with a history extending over 1000 years. People come from as far away as Tokyo to enjoy the soothing waters, and to enjoy the rural atmosphere still very much in tact in the region. No doubt it is the Sulphur in the water that causes the corrosion everywhere.
I love the practical nature of Japanese rural folk, even as they have a high regard for aesthetics. I mean, why not use a metal kitchen rack against a Shinto Shrine to block out rodents? How about drying rubber gloves over the heater in the hotel entranceway?
Yet, even in yards full of farm equipment and the day’s laundry, there will be a cluster of bright flowers to brighten the soul and give charm to the home.
When I left that town for another, on one of the rare trains passing through, I ended up chatting with another lone traveler as we waited. We were very involved in our conversation when suddenly a round man in uniform came running to us. “Aren’t you ladies going to Shinjo? This is the train. I am the conductor and I don’t want you to miss it. Please hurry and climb aboard.” Later he drove the train very slowly through a stunning gorge and announced, “OK, everyone, go to the right side of the train and get some good photos.” This, by the way, was a regular train, not one for tourists.
The second spa town was high in the mountains. It was called “Hiji-Ori Onsen”. That translates as “Bent Elbow Spa”. For centuries samurai and oldsters have gone there with broken bones that beg for healing. It was cold. And had snow. In fact, both days I was there, intermittent rain and snow, plus sharp winds, were constant companions. Of course, we used heat. And took deliciously warm baths.
The owners of my Meiji Era hotel were fifth generation. They were delightful and very welcoming. The stairs were like a ladder in steepness, so they brought me dinner in my room, fearing I might fall and break another bone if I climbed them too often. The day I left, I walked down the only street of the charming village, full of traditional inns, savoring the atmosphere one last time. Then, to my surprise and delight, as the bus tooted past the hotel, I saw the owner and his wife outside waving to me. “Please come back. Please come back,” their warm smiles seemed to be saying.
Given a chance, I surely will.
In Sendai there is a museum that honors The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Currently there is an arrangement of small figures made of kimono material. They represent the souls of those lost on March 11, 2011.
There is also a piece called I remember: memories of the disaster and a parenting for 10 years. It consists of a simple platform with smooth wooden eggs placed at regular intervals. The surrounding walls have a parade of dates stretching thousands of years into the past and forward into the future. It subtly reminds us that we are truly part of an eternal process, continuously expressed through the tragic and beautiful vicissitudes of life.
People here believe the souls of the departed return to earth at special times. The deceased long to communicate with the living, and to both give and receive blessings. And indeed, the feeling here has been quietly different the past few weeks. Because of that, I felt an urge to visit several areas close to sea. I have gone to connect to others, living and dead, and to my own inner need for remembering.
A friend told me she had been feeling the same way. So, recently, she went to Fukushima, to the very edge permitted for visitors, close to the devastated nuclear energy station. She was especially struck by the bareness of it all, with homes left empty for ten years, yet one lone temple gate still standing.
My day trips were near Sendai. Arahama, or Rough Coast, is renowned for the middle school where students and faculty fled to the roof and watched the tsunami roar through the rooms where they had just been studying. Miraculously, the building was strong enough to withstand the onslaught, and was left intact to become a museum.
When I went this time, however, the school was closed. But nearby was a small open-air museum consisting of the actual ruins of devastated houses. There was also a tsunami wall, more a barrier to give people a fraction more time to escape, rather than a guarantee of no harm. Now it is used for recreation: walking, jogging, bike riding. The beach, now clean of debris, is enjoyed by fishermen and families, school kids and young sweethearts.
Today I headed to the newly planted forest near Sendai Airport. I had been there a few days after the tsunami. At that time, I was shocked by the amount of damage and debris everywhere. But now the forests are growing nicely. There is also a wide park that stretches along the coast. There used to be farms, but they are no longer allowed so close to the sea.
The tsunami hit at exactly 14:46. I wanted to be there at that time. I went early and was almost the only one there. Compared to Arahama and despite the newly made park, this place at first seemed severe and unwelcoming. But gradually people began to arrive. Soon there was a steady stream of them, all coming to sound the bell of prayer and to remember.
Then without a word, worshippers stopped queuing and quietly formed a semi-circle around the bell. There was complete silence as people reverently waited. On the dot of 14:46 a short siren sounded, and in unison everyone bowed their heads. For a moment it was as if time stood still.
After a few minutes the spell was broken. Some people turned to leave, others went forward to pray. Some remained reflective, a few resumed their interrupted conversations.
Disasters are ingrained in the Japanese DNA. They come, cause havoc, and leave. But people always say, “We are here. So, let’s help wherever is needed, and enjoy whenever we can.” And in that spirit, they continuously “Build Back Better” for a safer, hope-filled tomorrow.
Landscape that Weaves Memories by Nakagawa Kazutoshi
PS. NHK made a very touching documentary on how people in one small town coped emotionally after March 11, 2011. It was filmed five years ago. But what they did then is probably still happening now. Processing grief takes a long time. This film also gives very interesting insights into Japanese rural culture.
It has been several months since I started physical therapy for my arm. The Japanese take a gentle approach, which means extended time for rehabilitation. I like my therapist a lot and the hospital is very pleasant. However, I am finding this long, ongoing process has become rather tedious.
Today, though, as I approached the entrance to the hospital, I was greeted by something very unusual. Nurses were wheeling an ancient man in a bed outside. He was so old and frail that he seemed to be teetering on the edge between this life and the next. Despite his fragility, however, he was alert.
There, eagerly waiting for him was a lovely young mother, holding her newborn. “Grandfather, Grandfather, I want to introduce you to my baby,” she said, as she held her swaddled infant up for this great-great grandfather to see.
The old man slowly lifted his stick-like arms and touched the cheeks of the wide-eyed baby. “Ah, ah,” he kept repeating. Love and joy radiated everywhere around them. It was obvious the new mother loved her (great) grandfather very much, and he her. And now there was a new generation of the family to love.
I was deeply stuck not only by the warmth of the scene, but also how it so poignantly and neatly expressed the entire cycle of life. I have had a lot of “big” questions as I work with my arm and wait for it to heal. Yet, somehow what I witnessed today explained everything. It also gave me the courage to continue my efforts to transform my thinking as I enter the early stages of my own aging.
Every year Sendai has a traditional crafts fair. Despite Corona worries, it was held this year, too, but on a much smaller scale. Being a gorgeous Saturday, I decided to head downtown to enjoy the day and the fine works, all crafted locally.
Since it is a traditional fair, the items have been made here for centuries. Among many others on display, there were good-fortune Daruma, kokeshi dolls, and zori sandals.
But a modern flair was also allowed. Startlingly, wooden “Tansu” chests, renowned for their dark natural color, appeared in pink and light violet. Other options were green and bright blue! Was that to ensure their continuation by luring young women, who seem to have huge spending power these days?
It was wonderful being out, so after appreciating each piece in the show, I decided to take a long route home. Totally unexpectedly, I saw a young man diligently cutting ice outside a rather exquisite hotel near Sendai Station. Next to him was a glimmering ice sculpture. I was intrigued, so went for a closer look.
It turns out this young craftsman worked in the hotel’s restaurant. However, every Saturday in winter the manager allowed him to pursue his hobby outside the main entrance. He designed and executed stunning pieces of ice art each week. Even though today had hints of warmth, his work was holding up nicely.
The large island in the north of Japan, Hokkaido, has a famous Snow Festival every year (not this year, though). During that time, huge snow and ice sculptures are displayed all over downtown Sapporo. This Sendai artist hopes to go there someday to compete with other individuals worldwide. When he goes, I am sure he will do well.
Since my world is rather limited these days, from my broken arm and Corona concerns, this day’s outing, seeing beautiful handcrafted items, was a gift to be treasured for a long time to come.
 This Tohoku region has far fewer cases than other areas of the country. And this week, inoculations began nationwide, including here in Tohoku. It has started with healthcare workers and will gradually become available to the entire population. Japan wants to clear the way for safe Olympics Games this summer, so is seriously and methodically making the shots available for everyone.
The challenges of the past year have been so complex and far-reaching that they stretch to the dimension of the archetypal. Ongoing tragedies abound. But through them, maybe because of them, many beautiful and inspiring stories also continue to unfold.
In light of the enormity of world changes, I often wonder where the vicissitudes of my teeny life fit into the larger scheme of things. How do any of us make a difference to the overall picture as we work our way through the demands and joys of each day?
A few weeks ago, I fell, severely hitting my upper arm and shoulder. Despite the fractured and dislocated femur, at first the doctor told me the bone should heal on its own and after that, with rehab, it would eventually find its way back into place. (A friend who broke her arm long before me was given the same advice by a different doctor. So, maybe this is common practice here.) I agreed to give it a try. But after a week, the bone had completely broken, twisted, and further removed itself from its shoulder home. I was immediately sent to the hospital.
And this is where small inspiring events began to unfold. The surgeon stayed late to meet me, explained what was in store, and sent me home to prepare for a rather lengthy hospital stay (long for foreign standards, rather short for Japanese). I checked in the following day.
A friend who lives in the apartment block I do said, “This is what it is. You have no choice. Just deal.” Her directness was solidifying. No complaining, no what if, no I shouldn’t have. Simply deal. That focus gave me tremendous courage, which I may not have otherwise had.
Another friend sent me daily short messages of encouragement. And once I was finally sent home, others filled my larder with food. Not once, but many times.
Back in the hospital, roommate was one of the warmest, most refined, yet genuine persons I have ever known. We kept the curtains around our beds open so we could chat, watch TV together, or silently appreciate the presence of one another.
The hospital itself was a world of its own. Of course, the staff worked on clock time, but the rest of us were definitely living in another dimension. I called it “God’s Time, the Wisdom of the Goddess”. Our job was to align ourselves with the forces of Nature so as to bring about our personal healing. Yet at the same time, we were like a team, holding each other together. There were no social boundaries, only a unified caring I had not experienced so fully since the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
And yes, the nurses were unbelievable. No matter what time of day, or how busy they were, they always had a smile and were ready to help. Their lives were shining examples of unified selfless service. I had always admired the nursing profession, but after what I experienced, I can truly say they are angels on earth.
The halls were filled with medical equipment and we each used what we needed to the limits of our abilities. It was so touching to see how everyone encouraged each other. “You’re doing so well. Yesterday you were in a wheel chair, today a roll walker, surely soon it will be a cane.”
Each morning I got up early to walk the lobby before the hospital opened for the day. Japanese feel that healing is as much an emotional and spiritual matter as physical. So, that reception area was always filled with things of beauty. New Year decorations, banners, traditional kites. Throughout the year the displays would change with each season.
Everyone and everything has inspired me during this personally challenging time. But maybe my physiotherapist offered me an insight that will last the longest. “Don’t cringe and turn in upon yourself. Don’t lock yourself into the pain, lamenting what you can no longer do. Instead look within your limits and see the possibilities. You can, and will, do much more than you realize.”
And so, for the next three to five months I will go to rehab several times a week. My wise therapist will massage, knead, pull and push. He will give me exercises that painfully stretch me further than I ever dreamed possible. And then he will tell me I am doing fine. And the next time will probably be better.
My friend was right. This is what it is. I have to accept where I am now, and move within the infinite possibilities it has to offer. These difficult challenges are indeed very inspiring.
Maybe this could also be a message for the world. We are where we are. We are in this together. What kind of inspiring future, for all, will each one of us in our daily lives create from the painful challenges we now face?
“Noriko, by chance, I have tomorrow off. Would you like to do something?”
“Sure, I’d love to. Where shall we go?”
At first, we thought of train hopping on local lines from Sendai to Fukushima in the south. But connections were both bad and infrequent. So, Noriko said, “If the south is not good, how about going in the opposite direction? Let’s go see birds.”
Being north, we figured it would be bitter cold, but to our delight it was warm in the sun. So much so we were able to have lunch outside. Noriko had bought a plant for her home, so we put it in the center of our table to add to the day’s beauty and joy.
And after lunch, we headed for a hot spring bath. Being in the countryside, where the locals know every field and road, there were no signs. Before leaving, we had asked in the Visitors’ Center. By using the floor map, the guide literally walked us through the route. We thought we were fine. But we weren’t. So, we stopped by a farm to ask. No one was home. But finally, we met an old man and asked him.
“What an honor to speak to such gorgeous women,” he said, whipping off his hat and smiling. In strong local dialect, he continued, “Now what was your question again. Oh, yes, that’s right. The spa is just down the road a piece. Now, if I walked it, it would take an hour or so, I imagine. So, in a car, ten minutes.” We giggled, thanked him, and drove off.
It was not ten minutes. Or twenty, for that matter. We drove and drove, figuring since it was the only road, it would have to be right. To reassure Noriko, I volunteered, “I get the feeling they don’t live by clocks here. Why bother if you have the sun, times of hunger, and the morning departure and evening return of birds to tell you the time of day?”
Eventually we came upon the spa, had a delicious bath, and reluctantly headed home. It was approaching dusk, with no road signs or lights, so we felt a bit vulnerable. But suddenly when we rounded a bend, we saw the sun setting and a cluster of birds magnificently silhouetted against the water and the sky.
On the other hand, despite this deluge of new housing developments since the 2011 earthquake, leaving no free space anywhere, there are also many abandoned homes sprinkled all over the city. It is as if the inhabitants simply walked out, closed the door, and never came back. You can even see kitchen utensils still hanging in windows, or clothes waiting for the next day of work. Being Japan, there is no question of vandalism. So, these buildings remain, getting older and shabbier as the years go by. Their age and emptiness give an eerie feeling. But at the same time, the wildly overgrown gardens and rusty walls yield a sense of life and of mystery. Surely that is good for the imagination and the soul, don’t you think?
This extreme contrast of inhabited, but lifeless homes, next to shacks or empty, but alive ones has led me on many photo explorations around my neighborhood. Here are a few of the shots so far. Maybe you will be as intrigued as I am in seeing of them, each with its unique presence and definite personality.
Where do the children play?
Uninhabited, but Alive
Even a bicycle is left as is
Barely Standing, but Inhabited
My grateful neighbor’s home and garden
My neighbor’s friend lives here.
These photos seem to show that Japan, too, is a very divided society. The differences are not as loudly broadcast as in America, but they are there, and for the most part, accepted. There are the rich and the poor. Those who live in newness and comfort, next to those who reside in poverty. There are small developments with soulless homes popping up like mushrooms coupled with shacks and empty places filled to the brim with life of one form or another. The unifier in all this, though, is a deep sense of national identity. “We are Japanese and we are very proud of it.” I hope very soon Americans, with maturity and no embarrassment, will be able to say the same.
Recently several of my friends have mentioned the need for more Feminine, Yin energy in the world. “There is so much aggression. So much bullying. So much competition. So much distrust. So many wars. So much arrogance storming over facts and common sense so as to dominate the storyline. We need a softer touch. We need to switch to something more intuitive, more along the line of Yin.”
I fully agree with the devastating extremes stalking the world at this precarious time. And “We need more Feminine” sounds like a much-needed alternative. But when I ask myself, “But what exactly is ‘the Feminine’?” I realize I really am not so sure. So, I decided to open myself to feeling and observing my way through each day, seeing if I could clearly define “the Feminine” in this mixed up world of ours.
Today two friends and I decided to go for a hike. None of us had gone this year because of Corona, but we figured we would be fine being out in the open, away from others. We also planned to have a nice spa bath after the rigors of climbing a mountain.
All of us get along, but my two friends are particularly fond of each other. As soon as they saw one another, which had been over a year, they started talking. Well, not really talking. It was so delicate and fluttery, punctuated with little-girl giggles, that it was more like tiny birds chirping. They were so light and happy that they radiated pure joy.
We had planned on taking a lift part way up the mountain, but when we arrived, we were told it was not working. But there was a nature center that we could check out for maps and information on trees, shrubs, birds, and other animals. So, we started there.
Immediately, my friends began oohing and aahing over absolutely every single thing we passed. Maybe it was teeny animals made out of forest seeds or comparative photos of male and female animals. Maybe it was stuffed specimens of local wildlife or maps of migratory routes of birds that go from Japan as far south as Australia or as far east as Hawaii. Then it was beetles and butterflies, an area for watching live birds coming to feed, and a computer program that had recordings of hundreds of local bird songs. No matter what, they stopped to inspect, push buttons, and play with every single thing in the entire building.
I soon realized our plan for a hike and getting home by 4 p.m. was out the window, so simply settled in to enjoy the slow pace, genuine curiosity, and delicate delight of my friends, while being interested in discovering what this hands-on museum had to offer. It was impressive and fun.
When we finally managed to pull ourselves away from the marvelous displays, my friends ceaselessly twittering the entire time, we decided to indeed take a short hike. But looking at the map took all three of us turning it this way and that, trying to figure what was in which direction. Happily for us, a group of 5th graders arrived with their digital map, doing a much better job of navigating than us.
“Time for lunch,” Noriko announced. So, we piled into her car and found a nice restaurant specializing in local cheese dishes. They ordered a sandwich because they would get free soup, but I could not resist braving the Japanese flavored pizza. It sounded so strange with its soy sauce and seaweed, making for an unusual East-West combination.
Then for the bath, where my friends sat neck deep, still chattering away, until Noriko lay back on a rock and fell asleep, fully immersed except for her nose. I went outside to enjoy an outdoor soak.
It was dark by then. Noriko and I headed home, after saying good-bye to Keito, and immediately got lost on the winding country roads with no lights or signs. “Don’t worry,” she said. “This happens to me all the time. But things always work out.” And sure enough, they did. We got to Sendai safely and I arrived home with a huge daikon from a roadside stand, and packages of cheese and Japanese bean cakes to give away as gifts. Noriko had bought an entire box of local eggs, and she gave me a few.
Today we did not follow a time schedule or a specific plan, but we were incredibly receptive and curious about everything that presented itself to us. No detail was missed or went unappreciated. We did not compete, but wove our comments into the general flow of the conversation. Each one of us felt part of a larger whole, whether that be our small group or the natural world around us. It was a beautiful day. And if that is, in part, what “the Feminine” means, I surely hope many will have the openness and sense of safety to enjoy it as we did today.
Japanese culture is a blend of almost everything and its opposite. Actions and reactions can range from the most rigid to the most spontaneous and free. Rules can be narrow and severe, but they are often balanced by unexpected lightness and humor. More than a 1000 years ago this equilibrium was well established, even to the point of how people laughed.
The Japanese alphabet, あ、い、う、え、お, (ah, ee, oo, eh, oh) is the basis for categorizing laughter.
あ becomes HaHaha
い makes HeHeHe
う produces WhoWhoWho
え yields HeyHeyHey
お is HoHoHo
How do these utterances correspond to proper etiquette?
あ HaHaHa is how we naturally laugh.
い HeHeHe is a response of ridicule, as if we are looking down on someone, making fun of him.
う WhoWhoWho is a very polite tittering, with your eyes lowered, your mouth covered with the tips of your fingers.
え HeyHeyHey is reserved for comedies and ridiculous situations.
お HoHoHo is for the highest levels of society, and hence the most subtle and polite. Of course, it is performed softly, with your head bowed, and the tips of your fingers covering your mouth.
In this era of much needed humor, I challenge you to find varieties of laughter among your friends and in your own culture. Some will be familiar and overt, others might be surprising, subtle and subdued. But each one, is surely an integral part and small reflection of these incredibly complex times we share.
Dear Family and Friends,
The museum was constructed over land that a farmer had hoped to turn into a rice paddy. Now it is fully within city limits, but remains an island of green surrounded by apartments, several bus stops, a subway station, and even a large shopping mall.
Several years ago, a farmer was opening land for planting when he hit a hard object. As he dug, he sensed he had come upon something extensive and very rare, and maybe important. So, he informed city officials of his find. Sure enough, it turned out he had encountered the 20,000-year-old remains of Paleolithic trees.
Soon scientists began the work of uncovering this remarkable discovery. And to their amazement, they found not only a maze of trees and their roots, but also the remains of a camp fire and a small hole filled with stone tools. They also found pine cones and animal spores containing seeds of flowers, grasses, and various trees. Those precious finds allowed them to piece together an understanding of life at that time.
People then were hunters-gatherers. The area was much cooler than it is now, so the vegetation was different. And since more land was exposed because of glaciers, there was more area for animals to roam and hunters to follow them.
Surely, on the exact spot where the museum stands today, a few hunters had paused, maybe to rest, maybe to make tools, maybe to spend the night. We cannot know. But they did leave a few traces, which now serve as a remarkable link to a mysterious part of the earth’s and humanity’s ancient past.
Now, on the museum grounds is a replicated Paleolithic forest with trees, shrubs, grasses, and marshes typical of that era. This natural environment adds greatly to the awe-inspiring experience of viewing such ancient remains.
And upstairs above the actual trees, there is a small, but informative museum of artifacts and other findings from the Paleolithic Era and later. It was very humbling to be standing over land that has known humans for over 20,000 years, to see the tools people of that time actually used, and to imagine the harsh life they lived.
This museum, small as it is, is an impressive reminder of nature’s and humanity’s remarkable evolving together through time. And thus, maybe now more so than ever, it remains a noteworthy wonder, not only for Japan, but for the entire world.
Dear Family and Friends,
Ito San is a friend. She has her own travel agency, which these days is suffering badly. Even so, she has kept her place open, works hard, and hopes for the best. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, before he resigned, started the “Go-To” program, making trips nationwide (except Tokyo) be half price. So, the government is on her side. I wanted to help her, too. But how? I listen to so much American news that I am rigid with concern about the Coronavirus, even though here in the northeast of Japan cases are very few.
I went to discuss with Ito San what I could do for her, where I could go and feel safe. “I know of two wonderful spas that you will love,” she told me. “One has an easy hiking course nearby and the other is renowned for its healing properties. Yes, I think they will be perfect for you.”
I was still a bit apprehensive, though. But Ito San reassured me. “First of all, not many will be traveling. And the ones that do will follow basic rules: masks, social distancing, hand washing. Buses now pump in fresh air from the outside every 5 or 10 minutes, plus you have stops when you can get out for more fresh air. Don’t worry. You will be fine.”
I hiked the second day through a gorgeous landscape dotted with small crater lakes.
Later I went over the mountain to the medicinal spa. It was very different because most of the guests were people with serious illnesses. Yet, they were also some of the most lovely. “We are all sick here,” one said to me, “so we must be kind to each other. We must help each other. Otherwise, how could we live with hope?”
I sat in those baths, in a building made of cedar wood, smelling both earthy and divine. This was my third day of soaking, and I began to realize that over that time, I myself had gradually started to heal. I sensed how my body had quietly opened up, releasing tensions so deep they had always seemed part of the make-up of who I was. I thought about all the people who had kindly helped me, either with confusing bus changes or with proper ways to drink sulfur water to cleanse my body inside, just as the baths were outside.
As I reflected on these things, I heard myself saying, “So, this is what healing means. It is people accepting basic guidelines for safety, and graciously working together to make sure everyone is all right and supported.
Then I thought of the spas themselves. Hot healing waters rising up from deep within the earth. Coupled with our openness to let go of what we thought defined us and fully accept what is offered so abundantly and graciously.
Can our very troubled world do this? Can we move into a consciousness of truly wanting healing, a healing that rises up from deep within? Can we grow in maturity enough to work hard for it together, and then allow it to happen?
Dear Family and Friends,
Please forgive me if this letter is a tad trite. However, for the past four years, I have been struggling to give some sort of understanding and order to the chaotic changes that have been happening worldwide. Viewing my own country in particular has been both embarrassing and alarming. But that, too, has motivated me to continually evolve a philosophy that sees what is happening, while attempting to incorporate the many shattered fragments into some sort of cohesive whole.
Adding to that endeavor, yesterday as I listened discussions analyzing the Democratic National Convention, I heard several commentators say, “It is going to get worse before it gets better.” Maybe such predictions are a way to steel us, to encourage us not to give up, as we, peoples everywhere, work towards the dream of a better future for all.
Part of today’s celebration was to go to a small, not well-known museum right near Sendai Station. A man named Bunzo Kamei was part of a family business called the Kamei Corporation. In fact, he was its third president. Of course, he was very involved in that all-consuming work, but his real love, a hobby since childhood, was collecting butterflies. And when he died, this kind gentleman left his entire collection to the company, which displays it on the top floor of its office building.
The collection is unbelievable.
As I was exploring in complete wonder and amazement, my breath taken away at every turn, I thought, why not reverse yesterday’s political comment? Instead of thinking that things have to get worse, why not start from a completely different place? “When we think things can’t get more beautiful, to our surprise, they do.”
And sure enough, at the exit of this impressive display of world splendor, there was an art piece called “A Hymn to Space”. It depicted the cosmos via an assemblage of butterfly wings. One hundred species, over 7,000 wings came together to make a gorgeous, harmonious, breathtaking whole.
What is the personal story behind this glowing creation? Many years ago, a young boy named Kunio Karasuyama, wrote to Buzno Kamei, asking him if they could exchange a few butterflies. Mr. Kamei kindly obliged. That happy exchange started a life-long friendship. When he grew up, that young boy became a Catholic priest in Nagasaki. But one year he came to Sendai to honor his friend. He created this truly stunning testament to what is possible when separate individuals come together with a common purpose for a higher beauty, a higher good, a higher standard for all.
I hope this reverse mantra — “When we think things can’t get more beautiful, to our surprise, they do.” — will catch hold of the world’s psyche. Then, out of distrust, destruction, and despair we can create something profoundly inspiring and hope-filled for many, many generations to come.
In a recent letter, I shared a few local treasures that always bring a smile. One of them was School Patrol Grandpa. I am sure you remember him.
One thing he appreciates about his daily, varied routine is that it allows him to regularly get out of his home, feel in circulation with society, and have a very important and meaningful purpose to his life. To add to the sense of connection and purpose, along with bugs or mushrooms, he always brings a diary, which the neighborhood adds to daily. And he proudly shows off all the signatures, pictures, origami, and photos that fill the pages.
The kids, too, benefit, of course. Besides always having something to marvel at or to share, Grandpa teaches them much more. Even without meaning to, he teaches not the duty of respect for elders, but the pleasure in doing so. Yes, he so beautifully offers the crucial perspective that acknowledging, appreciating, and conversing with an oldster need not be an obligation, but uplifting, genuine delight.
Dear Family and Friends,
The wisdom of the I Ching says, “When you cry, part of it is laughter.” (Hexagram 45). And it seems that is exactly what we need in this era of uncertainty and tumultuous upheaval. Laughter and tenderness, gentleness of understanding, enjoying the simple delights of life. So, here are few to share with you today.
My neighbors’ greeting at the front door
And from my veranda
Hitting the Road in Style at Any Age
(Can’t leave Mickey or Pooh behind!)
School Patrol Grandpa
(Always with a surprise for the kids — and adults)
And then there are signs.
West Meets East
Politeness on the Train
And on the Street
And in Train Stations
(This station is open-air. The light fixture is right over the platform where waiting passengers stand)
And Finally, the Buddha
And Gently So
Dear Family and Friends,
It is now the rainy season in Japan. Unlike in tropical climates, where storms thunder down, regular as clockwork, and then exit until the following day, here the season means clouds and very wet weather for almost six straight weeks. For us humans, it can become very heavy and draining, but the rice loves it. And so do the hydrangeas, renown here in Japan.
Even though Queen Corona is more-or-less under control here, we still take every precaution possible. That means, for one, most university classes are still online. My students and I are getting used to it, even when the system does not work very well and we can only get muffled voices and blurred faces on the screen. We are learning tolerance, probably they more with me, as I stumble along blindly, often asking for their help.
When I have a day ahead facing the computer, I like to bracket that focused, eye-straining experience with something that soothes. So, in the early morning I try to surround myself with beauty. I am fortunate to live near a Buddhist temple that at the moment is like a basket overflowing with huge round flowers. The varieties and colors are breathtaking. Even though I have been going there for years, many times a week in this season, I am always humbled by the sheer abundance and beauty of these gems. Nature can be so generous, give so freely. After wandering though corridors of these flowers, I return home calm and ready for the day.
In the evening, I most often have a headache, so am delighted to head out once again. This time I go down small side streets, enjoying gardens and the quietness of places off the beaten track. I usually swing up to a Shinto shrine that is on the other side of my home from the morning’s temple. It has a big red Tori gate, a long flight of stairs, two fierce guardians to pass between, and finally the main shrine. This evening I was confronted with something unexpected, a large circle made of bamboo and grasses. I have seen these before, but very rarely, usually for special occasions only. Of course, I went to inspect.
There was a sign.
Dear Family and Friends,
Last night I headed off to my recently reopened Tai Chi class. Queen Corona has not visited this prefecture of over six weeks, so we all feel confident going again, but of course, remain vigilant. Naturally, all of us are in a state of mild euphoria to be back together and to be able to stretch our limbs in ways we have not had privileged to for weeks.
I turned to her owner and said, “You are so blessed to live in a house filled with love because of this truly beautiful animal.” “Yes,” he replied. “She is so open, so friendly, so trusting. We are indeed a lucky family.”
And with that, I patted the truly Golden Retriever once more, and we went our separate ways. That evening, throughout the night, and even up to this very moment, I feel the gentle, yet radiant Light which that humble and loving creature so generously bestowed.