Sunday, November 29, 2009
Moments like this make me just so happy I decided to come to Japan for a year. Seeing something with your own eyes that is just so spectacular that it defies description.
Every year the Kenrokuen (one of the most famous gardens in Japan) host a 2 week long "Autumn Light Up" event where the richly coloured autumnal trees, waterfalls, yukitsuri and fountains within the Kenrokuen are lit up to create some seriously breathtaking scenery. I met Kari & gang and we set off.
I'll let the pictures speak for themselves and stop yapping for a bit!
Amazing! Just as I thought I couldn't be any more astounded we walked around the corner and were greeted by a towering almost outerspace looking landscape of Karasaki pine trees all covered in these wooden teepee looking structures called yukitsuri (literally meaning "snow suspension"). This teepee framework actually has an important purpose in protecting the precious branches from the weight of the forthcoming heavy snow.
The sight of yukitsuri at the Kenrokuen is famous across Japan (I've heard!) since we apparently have "heavy wet snow" in Ishikawa and Toyama Prefectures. Here you'll see the structures everywhere (as well as Toyama where I work, see other post.)
We reached the lake and it just got better. The beautiful sound of a string quartet was playing in the distance. it turned out that the music was coming from a traditional Chaya (tea) house right next to the lake. Had I been with a guy it would have been SO wonderfully romantic, unfortunately I was with Kari and friends so my feet were kept firmly on the ground!
I did my best to take piccies but without a tripod it was near impossible so I actually ended up going back to the Kenrokuen armed with tripod a few days later. Typical my luck it was peeing down with rain, I lost a glove en route, my waterproof trousers split and it was sooooo freezing!
Soaked, cold and looking bedraggled I took a few last pictures of Kanazawa castle and the beautiful lights they put up in Katamatchi. By then my fingers (especially on one hand) had frozen around the camera so I decided to call it a day!
Ps I got details about the Kenrokuen Autumn Light Up from the following website in the "What's New" section. It took some hunting to find out finer details of the event I must admit (but worth it)
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
I'm sure I've covered this before somewhere but after 8 months of living in Japan I STILL can't get over the fact that everyone passes out on the train in the morning. I mean yes I'm a bit tired and yawny but these lot just completely pass out for dead. How the heck do they know when it's their stop?! I'd worry far too much...
(PS it's not that dark in the morning, the train was going through a tunnel at the time!)
A few weeks ago my overused cheapy DVD player broke so I reluctantly resorted to watching Japanese TV. It's not that I don't like it, it's more that my Japanese just isn't good enough to know what's going on!
Sometimes though TV can transcend all language barriers as it did in this TV clip that I saw the other night. It was some sort of show where contestants had to take it in turns to see how long it'd take them to reach the finishing line of a running track EXCEPT they had to first sit on their knees for a few hours beforehand.......it just tickled my sense of humour.....just like me after zazen, hahaha
The Kanazawa Ryokan (hotel) Association had been looking for eager volunteers to trial out a day excursion to one of the main temples of the Zen Soto sect, called Daijoji, to practice meditation. The day would include return travel, lunch, the zazen session followed by a talk with hot tea & cake, all for free. I jumped at the chance to take part (and no not because of the free cake)
I had recently read "Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple" by Kaoru Nonomura about a 30 yr old Tokyo salary man who decides to leave the comfort of his contemporary lifestyle and put himself through the toughest physical and emotional limits in training to be monk at the head temple of the Zen Buddhist sect, Eiheiji. It was such a compelling read and great insight into the world of Zen Buddhism; their beliefs, their way of life and practices. This was a unique opportunity to see it with my own eyes.
Daijoji is actually just on the outskirts of Kanazawa. The temple was founded by zen master Tettsu Gikai about 700 years ago. What's interesting to note is that Tettsu practice under the guidance of Dogen, THE founder of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism and was the 3rd Abbott of Eiheiji. Daijoji is also the third oldest temple in Japan after the two main temples of Eiheiji and Sojiji.
It was a cold, rainy and blustery mid November afternoon. After a 10 min walk through modern suburbia from our bus stop we walked up a long driveway to the temple. Soon we hit the two huge wooden temple gates of Daijoji, the primary gate (So-mon) and a further main gate guarded by the guardian Niō（deva kings who act as protectors against evil spirits.）
You would certainly not stumble upon Daijoji. Although on the fringes of the city, the temple is hidden away by a forest, grave stones and beautiful autumn foliage, it felt totally isolated.
We piled into a toasty warm tatami mat guest room (it was so cold outside and it was so kind for the monks to put the gas heater on- NB I’m discovering the Japanese are very hardy people rarely putting the heating on despite plummeting temperatures)
Hadyn, the Aussie training monk
We sat down to a quick sushi pack lunch and were given some leaflets as well as a freebie cotton bag.
Lunch was followed by a talk (in Japanese but was translated) by an older monk who covered elements of meditation including breathing technique and practice. We were shown the one hand position called GASSHO which is basically putting together so they make a V shape (exactly like the houses in Shirakawago are shaped- see my post about Shirakawago). This is an expression of respect, faith and devotion. See picture of Gassho hands below.
He told us not to try and control our thoughts during zazen, just to let them come up and go away freely. Concentrate on breathing and when this settles the mind will become tranquil. Easier said than done I guarantee, my mind is like Tokyo on pro plus at the best of times.
He also covered the Kanki-Issoku. This is a breathing technique, with your mouth slightly open make a deep exhalation expelling all the air out of your lungs and exhale from your abdomen. Then close your mouth and inhale through your nose.
He told us the eyes should remain slightly open, cast downward at a 45 degree angle and the hands should be in the cosmic mudra (hokkai-join) pose. See below.
So much to remember! I was getting nervous that I’d do it all wrong. After his talk, we all headed down the long dark wooden corridors of Daijoji to the zendo (the zen meditation hall) in anticipated silence. We had been allocated a spot just outside of the main hall. This was basically a waist high wooden elevated ledge with small velvet cushions lined up about a metre apart.
I chose a spot on the end (which I’m now thankful for since at least I’d only be seen wobbling about by one person to my right instead of being in between two people) We then stood in front of the elevated ledge in front of a cushion, we bowed once with hands in gassho form and then again facing outwards. The monk then demonstrated the really awkward looking backwards technique of sliding onto the ledge; right leg first goes up onto the ledge (whilst you’re facing away from the ledge) and then the other leg comes up. It’s not the easiest of moves especially since the ledge is pretty high, I’m certainly not the most flexible of people.
I sat in a half half lotus (I’ll call it) Not a full lotus but I had my legs crossed with one foot resting on my thigh but the other one was free. Typical that a seasoned professional sat next to me, legs in perfect lotus, back perfectly straight and no wobbling whatsoever (he was from India so I'll let him off). The session was split into two 30 minute meditation sessions with a 5 min break in the middle. The bell was struck 3 times to indicate the start of the first session. It was time to meditate!
So they did say to let the thoughts come and go and wow mine did in their hoards. Here is (in brief) what went through my mind in the first 5 minutes of meditation:
1) Wow there’s such a strong wind blowing out there its making the wooden partitions in this temple rattle so hard…
2) …that reminds me of the double lounge doors at home that rattle so badly and where a mini gale force wind blows through the gap in between them…
3) Oooh that fire at home, it’s so cold here I can feel my nose getting numb…to be in front of that lovely warm fire…
4) ..thinking of fire, if there was a fire place the temple would be burnt down in minutes…
5) CONCENTRATE ON BREATHING JESS, in, out, in out….and try a Kanki-Issoku?
6) Wow, I’m struggling to keep my eyes open, it’s so difficult focusing on one spot, I’ll think I’ll close them for a bit..
7) Ooh I think I’m wobbling, I’ve definitely started slouching, the Indian is still sat totally upright, I can see him out of the corner of my eye!
8) Aggggh the monk’s coming, I can see the shadow behind me, he’s probably seeing if anyone’s slouching, I’d better straighten up a bit..
9) I can hear what sounds like a mower or strimmer in the distance, someone cutting grass? Reminds me of the old days when I used to play at the village hall…
10) Oooh I’m so cold, nose is going numb…
11) Ouch my feet are starting to get sore and my coccyx is burning
12) I wonder how much time left?
As you can see, I really don’t have a mind apt for the practice of Buddhist zazen! It’d obviously take quite a few more sessions to reach inner calm. I wonder how many other volunteers had so many thoughts running through their heads?
After 30 minutes the bell was struck again indicating break time. Phew. During break we had a quick peak in the zendo hall which they explained was their eating and sleeping quarters. Each tatami mat (85.5cm wide and 179cm in length) had a wooden kanji name tag hanging above and represented a single living space. That towering Aussie monk MUST struggle! I suddenly really appreciated the luxury of my 23m sq pad back in Nishi Izumi.
Next 30 min zazen session. Less ridiculously distracting thoughts running through my mind this time so my mind must have calmed down a bit although I still struggled to keep my eyes open.
I did get distracted however for a second when I heard a loud smack of a what sounded like a ruler. I later found out that this was the “Kyosaku” or in English “the encouragement stick”, a stick that the monks use to give monks a blow on the shoulder during meditation to keep them alert. If you need to be struck by the kyosaku you must signal by putting the palms together in gassho. Thank god (or the Supreme Buddha?!) that wasn't me.
The bell is struck again and our zazen is over. We were instructed to sway our bodies forward and backwards and then unfold our dead legs gently and get up. I nearly fell over!
After plumping up the cushion and placing it in a certain way we had to put our hands in sanshu position and took half steps (kinhin) with each breath until we left the zendo.
We headed back to the toasty guest room for some serious thawing out and お茶 (O-cha) and cake. We discussed our experiences and I was so thankful that other volunteers also struggled to keep their eyes open and minds free of distracting thoughts.
Haydn explained a little bit about the different depths of meditation (beta/alpha/theta) and the science behind it. I don’t think I even hit alpha. He then opened up the Q&A. The strict training that Nonomura (Author of “Eat Sleep Sit”) had gone through during his Eiheji training had, at times, been so brutal that I wondered if it was the same here. So I asked. He told us it wasn’t although a lot of the practices are the same. They get up at 4am (Eihehji it was 3), their daily routines are similar and they have the same hierarchical type structure.
Their meals also sounded similar, breakfast consists of minimal portions of okayu (rice porridge), takuan (pickles) and condiments (such as roasted sesame and nori) For lunch, miso soup, vegetables and rice followed by the same for dinner. Haydn told us he lost 35kg (that’s about 5 stone) in 3 months! This guy must have been humongous when he arrived as he wasn't exactly small.
Haydn was a funny guy. He told us that for 6 months of the year there was a “lock down” period where trainee monks were forbidden to leave the temple grounds. However as he was learning Japanese he had special permission to leave the grounds for his Japanese classes and revealed that he had, on occasion, grabbed a pack of biccies from Lawsons on his way, hilarious!
I have so much more I could write but am fully aware that this blog post is turning into an epic novel of war & peace proportions. In summary, a fantastic experience for me. I can’t say I've experienced untold depths of inner peace but I’m happy that I got to see and experience Zen Buddhist zazen in one of the oldest temples in Japan as well as learn more about the faith.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Mouthful of a name isn't it? Well I call my assistant at work Nori for short. The other day he invited me over for dinner at his house. At 26 yrs old his household comprises of him, his father, both of his grandparent and his great grandmother (who is amazingly 100 yrs old this year)
The beautiful Butsudan at Nori's house
The house was soooo cold, so cold that I thought my fingers might freeze around my chopsticks. You see the Japanese DON'T have central heating. Can you believe it? A country whose winters are almost more brutal than in the UK and a country that is so technically advanced? What?!
Nori on the left, Nori's father in blue shirt, his uncle and grandmother
I then met Nori's father who returned late from work and his lovely grandmother. Neither of them spoke a word of English but I stumbled through using my terrible Japanese. At least I tried! I only met Nori's grandfather briefly and he later explained that his grandfather hated the Americans and the English. How bad did I then feel?! The war scars obviously never really healed. I did my best to promote international peace, gave countless bows and "dozo yoroshiku onegai shimases" ("nice to meet you" or more literally "please be kind to me")
Nori's uncle then appeared clutching a few bottles of Toyama's best sake. We laid out all of the Nabe ingredients on the low table, placed the camping gas stove in the middle of the table (yes camping stoves are very popular household item here!) and chucked everything into the bubbling pot.
The Nabe was so delicious and its the first time I've drank sake and actually liked the taste, hallelujah. I didn't particularly want to spend a whole year in Japan only drinking Chilean Cab Sav! I'm sure his father and uncle were trying to get me drunk. I did my best to stay sober but must admit was a bit wobbly when I left the house and didn't even feel the cold when I got outside. So that's why hot sake is so popular in the winter!
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Saigawa cycle path just by my house in Nishi Izumi
Me playing taiko with audience in the background....
At the end I bowed to the all Japanese audience gathered in the lobby, said "arigato gozaimasu" (thanks) and got a (non-standing) applause. Not bad for a beginner ey?
Before the performance, look at how I tower over everyone, stand out like a sore thumb...
Japanese cross dressers; Not quite matching the elegance of the traditional Japanese geisha...
Check out this performers eighties quiff..
Videos not allowed but managed to play the ignorant gaijin who didn't understand...
Different acts came on, one cross dresser who kept taking his arms out of his kimono sleeves and popping them up in front of his chest (I'm not sure if this is skilled or just random), one act with 2 cross dressers flipping and opening fans and another little boy, kindergarten age, fluttering around the stage effeminately.
During the show people from the audience were going up to the performers and wedging ￥10,000 notes (about £70) in their kimonos as tips. Unbelievable. They must have been doing something right. Fun performance all round, videos should be testament!
After the show we got to have our pictures taken with the performers. Brilliant, you can now see them close up.
The first time my head has EVER looked small, hahahaha
This little kid was so sweet, at primary school. The eigo sensei (English teacher) came out in me & I made him speak English...I'm so cruel.