In the Monastery

I waited on the platform for the train to Gokurakubashi, from whence I would take a cable car, and then a bus, to the monastery.  It was unclear to me, and still is, why I would take a cable car—not a train—directly to Koyasan station.

I had to hold myself back from jumping onto a waiting train. I must not have been the only one to feel this impulse, because a recorded announcement kept repeating in English, “Do Not board the train on platform x.  If you are going to Koyasan, there will be a later train.”

The monastery registration had stated that “visitors must arrive by 5:00 pm.”  It was only 3:00, so I wasn’t worried.  Who am I kidding?  My mind was busily generating worst-case scenarios.  But then the train came, and the scenery was vertiginous and spectacular, and I forgot to worry.

These signs were everywhere.  I’m not sure to what they referred.

I had imagined a rickety old gondola creaking and swaying up the mountain.  Instead I boarded a sleek, very expensive-looking car—as it should be, since it held dozens of people and their luggage.

In five minutes, it lifted us up a thousand feet. Or maybe it was 300.  I have no idea but it was steep and high. Whee!

The station at the top was decked out with glass globes and strips of paper fluttering in the breeze—maybe for the Tanabata festival?

Spiffy uniformed guides waited at the exit and efficiently pointed us to our respective buses.  Twenty minutes later I stepped into the monastery, where a man in black led me on a march around the facility.  In staccato English, he pointed—“Shoes, no!”—then point elsewhere—“Shoes okay!

“Meals seven in morning, six thirty evening.  You come down.  Women bath open, four to seven.  Gates close nine o’clock.  Meditation six a.m.  Yukata, no!”

This last part I would screw up the next morning.

He led me to my room which was up a steep flight of stairs.

The room was quiet and spacious and there was a view of the koi pond.  The man in black left me and I inspected the features.

There was a sink!  This small amenity would save trips down the hall to the shared bathroom area to fill the kettle, and I’d be able to wash my clothes, which by now were crunchy with dried sweat.

But why, why couldn’t pink champagne come out?

The internet was easy and fast, and there was a bean bun snack.  By now I was famished, and the snack fueled my hunger.  I rooted around in my suitcase, wondering if maybe I’d forgotten I had a pizza in there.  I came across a gift box of yuba, the specialty tofu I had been toting around since I left Nikko two weeks before.  It was heavy, so why not do myself a favor and just eat it now?  Turned out it was heavy because it was vacuum packed in broth.  I wolfed it down.

The best food is when you’re really hungry, which most of us aren’t, very often.

Several hours later the man in black served me dinner in a private room.  As someone who loves fruits and vegetables and beans and tofu, I was almost so enthralled I forgot to eat.  Except I didn’t, of course.

I tucked in to the 15 foods in 24 dishes.  The food was fab but I felt a bit isolated.  I had imagined a communal dining hall where I would meet interesting fellow travelers.  I could hear a pair of Aussies talking on the other side of this screen.

But never mind.  I had exploring to do.

In real time, I attended a training last night to volunteer as an election judge. I didn’t realize that part of it could involve “challenging” people who may not be eligible to vote, including felons.  I felt very sad, imagining anyone with a record caring enough to vote, then being questioned in front of dozens of his fellow citizens.

I hope I don’t have to do it, but if I do, maybe I am about the most empathetic person for the job.

To the Mountain

Day 19 in Japan.  Today I would say farewell to Lynn and travel to Koyasan, where I would spend three nights in a mountaintop monastery.

At 3am my legs woke me and thoughts of my return journey from Koyasan ran through my head.  Why won’t my brain shut up?

Lynn and I breakfasted at Le Bon Vie in the train station, where we were serenaded by ACDC, Ozzy Osborne, and Disney on muzak.  I loaded my backpack with creamer cups, just in case there wasn’t any at the monastery.

At the gate, there was a train in five minutes or an hour, so I said a quick goodbye to Lynn and rolled my bag onto the platform and into a train car.  Neither of us is into emotional displays.  We know we’ll see each other somewhere again.  If one of us kicks the bucket before we make it to our next trip, it will be very sad but we’ll deal with it.

I wrote several posts about Koyasan already—the odyssey of getting there, getting in trouble for dressing inappropriately for the morning meditation, dropping my phone in a toilet, my Resltess Legs jumping off the charts since I’d run out of medication, and attending a fire ceremony.

There was a moment in my journey from Nara to Koyasan that is emblematic of my inner traveler.  I was on a train from Osaka to Hashimoto. We traveled about 10 stops, sat on the tracks for 10 minutes, then began to move backwards.  The knee-jerk, worry-wort part of me started to panic.  Had I accidentally boarded a train that didn’t really go to Hashimoto, even though it said “Hashimoto” on the engine? Would I miss the train I really needed, and never get to Hashimoto, or Koyasan, and end up dead in a rice paddy?!

Simultaneously, the rational me resisted the urge to jump off the train and just … waited. In a few minutes it became clear we had switched tracks.  We were moving backwards at an angle; the train had performed a kind of boomerang. I had snapped a photo of the overhead map (they are too hard to read from one’s seat while the train is in motion) and I consulted it now—we were definitely headed to Hashimoto.

Obsessive planning can cause more stress than letting things unfold.  I couldn’t have known ahead of time that the train would perform a 180.  Many things are only clear on the ground.  This was the day I had fretted about the most of the entire month, and it was easy once I was actually doing it.

The weather was perfect, for me.  Hot and humid and sunny.  The words “Mildly Air Conditioned” were stenciled on the train windows.  I appreciated this—in Minnesota people generally like it cold, so I am forever shivering in over-air-conned rooms.

I appreciated the scenery, which consisted of rice fields and low-lying farm buildings.  Even though I’m a city person, I felt joy at being in the country.

In Hashimoto, I Skyped with Keiko and What’sApp’d with Lynn, who was on the train to Tokyo.  I fortified myself with a vending machine iced café au lait.  I was not drinking water or stopping for lunch because I didn’t know how tight the connections would be.

Some westerners walked by and greeted me with “How ya goin?”  I grinned to myself; I knew they were Aussies because that’s what Aussies say.

That reminds me.  My Aussie friend Heidi just sent these photos.

The first one was taken in July, Australia’s winter, on her parents’ farm.  It must have been about the same time I was on my way to Koyasan on the mildly air-conditioned train.  The second snap is a recent one of Eric Beethoven, which is what they’ve named the echidna who comes to drink from puddles in their driveway.

I find myself daydreaming about Australia.  I loved it.  I have not had similar feelings about Japan.  I think that’s because Heidi made my month in Australia so easy.  The one time I was left to my own devices, my passport disappeared.  But the police found, it so everything turned out okay in the end.

Next Steps

As we were leaving our last museum of the day, the kindly volunteer gestured to a shelf with books for sale and invited us to take a work of origami made by her and other volunteers, gratis.  I realize they didn’t have many visitors this time of year and so they have time on their hands, but still—these works were really impressive.

For some reason I would have felt guilty taking, literally, a whole boatload, so I selected a deer, the symbol of Nara.  Here it is, in my curio cabinet, where it will remain the only item until I sell this behemoth.

The volunteer waved us back over to her desk, where she informed us of an approaching typhoon.  It turned out to be nothing, but it’s weird that I’m writing about it now, when there was actually a typhoon in Tokyo and the surrounding areas just last week that killed 60 people.

Back at the hotel, Lynn and I decided we would be too embarrassed to partake in the All You Can Drink menu for a third night.  So we ordered room service and had doughy, crustless cucumber sandwiches again, with corn nuts and vending machine beers.

The next day, I would journey on to Koyasan and Lynn would return to Tokyo, where she would spend a night and then fly back to Scotland the following day.

Since we met in 2006, Lynn and I have visited Prague, Italy, Berlin, Colombia, New Orleans, Spain, New York, Minnesota, many places in the UK, and now Japan.  As is our habit on our last night, we packed and talked travel.

Where were we going next?  What were the top three destinations on our travel wish lists?  Where should we try to meet up next?

I already had a round trip ticket to Panama for December. Lynn said she and Richard might have a holiday in Crete in spring 2020.  We talked about going to Vietnam.  It’s something we’ve discussed for a few years but between our work schedules and Vietnam’s rainy season, it hasn’t panned out so far.

We had the news on.  At the G20 Summit in nearby Osaka, Trump was insulting his host and our US ally, Japan.

“I know I talk about moving to another country all the time,” I said, wincing at the news.  “But this shit really, really makes me want to flee.”

“Well now you’re self-employed, you can work anywhere,” Lynn responded.

True.  But not so easy, with my mother declining and my son’s family growing.

There’s all my stuff. And my US friends

And inertia.

We went round and round about the bill for the hotel.  I had been tracking our shared expenses in an Excel spreadsheet, at which Lynn rolled her eyes.  In the end I snuck up to the front desk and paid the whole thing, and she wired me a few hundred quid once she was home.

Today is October 20 and here is an update before I wind up my Japan narrative.

I cancelled my trip to Panama.  It’s the first time in my life I’ve done this, but I didn’t have enough financial certainty to feel comfortable paying for two weeks there.  But also, the Rough Guide was full of statements like, “Avoid the scar slum,” and “The museum costs $2 and isn’t worth it,” and “This cathedral has been closed for renovation since 2010.”  So I wasn’t feelin’ it anyway.

As soon as I cancelled, I learned that my main contract would renew next year.

That’s good news, because I’ll be housesitting in Oxford for three months this winter and won’t be able to work in a job job.    I’ll be chicken and cat sitting, and working remotely on contract.  I’ve found a sub-letter for my duplex, so I won’t be losing money.

Then, I will traverse Europe by train and boat—an experiment to see if I can produce zero carbon emissions by not flying.  I’ll meet Lynn and Richard in Crete, where they will be with some other friends.

In the meantime, I’ll be working all the hours I can get at the YMCA, and substitute para-teaching, to save, save, save.

Nature, Inside and Out

“How can we possibly top the mosquito nets for excitement?” Lynn asked.

“I was disappointed it wasn’t actually a museum,” I replied.

We had two more small museums to see; both period houses.  We passed a store selling exquisite paper lanterns, one of which was decorated with a swastika.  I realize the symbol predates the Nazi era by hundreds—or thousands?—of years—I don’t want to Google swastika to find out.  It symbolizes good luck or some such, not “let’s kill all the Jews!”

But it was still disconcerting to see it here and there throughout Japan.

The houses are blended in my memory now.  They were built around a central courtyard with a garden; you could see the garden from almost every room.

As in the Imperial Palace in Nikko, I was struck by the simplicity. These alcoves, or tokonoma, are found in reception rooms—in America we would say living rooms. They contain a calligraphy verse and a flower arrangement for your guests to admire and contemplate.

Right now I am looking around my living room.  The focal point is probably the TV.  I don’t like having a TV in my living room but there’s nowhere else to put it.  There are 13 plants, a couch with six colorful throw pillows and a blanket, two chairs, three lamps, end tables, three mismatched area rugs, about 20 pieces of art, and piles of newspapers, magazines, and books.  There’s my desk, my bike, four pairs of footwear, a bag of plastic bags, a bag for the Goodwill, and a coat thrown over a chair.

And the bloody curio cabinet, still standing empty.  I’m trying to sell it on Craig’s List but so far no takers.

My house isn’t particularly “American” in style.  If it was, the TV would be twice as large and there would be oversized reclining chairs.  I like my place, but Japan did make me wonder if I could get rid of more stuff.

The second house had a deer painted on the screens in the front room.  We were the only visitors and the volunteer staffing the place insisted on taking photos of us.  I’m glad she did.  Neither Lynn nor I are in to selfies, which you may appreciate.  But sometimes I’ve returned from a trip and realized I haven’t got one photo of the two of us.

This was the cooking set up in the larger house.  There was no signage so I don’t know what to say except it resembles an Aga, the British range that has no dials, just hot and warm burners and ovens.

You won’t be able to read this wall calendar that was hanging near the front door, but delineates the 24 seasons of the year.  That’s right—each season is measured in weeks instead of months.

From Nippon.com: The 24 divisions are split again into three for a total of 72  that last around five days. The names were originally taken from China, but they did not always match up with the local climate. In Japan, they were eventually rewritten in 1685 by the court astronomer. They offer a poetic journey through the Japanese year in which the land awakens and blooms with life and activity before returning to slumber.

There was also a tree festooned with colorful ribbons and origami and trinkets; we had noticed these here and there.

Keiko’s mom would explain to me the following week that this was for the upcoming Tanabata festival.  Again, thanks to Nippon.com, this charming explanation:

Tanabata is one of Japan’s five traditional seasonal festivals, originating in China and first observed in Japan by the ancient imperial court. The stellar holiday centers on the stars Vega and Altair in the constellations Lyra and Aquila. Following the ancient Chinese lunar calendar, the festival marks the meeting of Orihime (Vega), the weaver star and patron of silk farming, and Hikoboshi (Altair), the cowherd star and agricultural messenger.  In Japan, the lovers are celebrated with lively decorations and wishes written on long, narrow strips of colored paper. As the date approaches, these and other vibrant decorations hung from tree branches enliven the decor of homes, shopping arcades, train stations, and other public spaces.

Decorated trees … sound familiar?

Museums and Mosquitos

“A mosquito net museum?”  Lynn had just rattled that off along with a number of other museums in Naramachi.

“It’s called a mosquito net museum on this map, but a mosquito net shop on this one,” she explained, gesturing to the area map and her own paper version.  “Either way it sounds terribly exciting.”

“Let’s go to whichever museum we can find first,” I suggested.  It was pouring—one of those hard, slanting rains that soaks your feet and legs despite your umbrella.

We found the calligraphy museum, a low, modern building obviously purpose-built to protect its contents.  We paid the paltry admission fee—I think it was $1.50—and were directed to the first floor—what we Americans call the second floor.  We were the only visitors.

A table laden with colorful posters about art exhibits and performances around town caught our eye.  We each slid a couple in our bags.

“I always do this—pick up beautiful free things and take them home, only to find it will cost $100 to get them framed.”  Knowing this, I later slipped them into a recycling bin.

The exhibit room was dark but lighted up as we entered.

“Oh, I see, it’s just one room,” Lynn remarked.  And it was—just one room with about 10 pieces of calligraphy by “the great calligrapher Kason Sugioka.”  The whole building was dedicated to him.  No photos were allowed but I found this image of one of his works online.

My impulse was to say, “Check!” turn on my heels, and move on to the next museum.  But that would have felt disrespectful.  So we sat on benches and looked at the pieces—really tried to see them.  It was weird to be in a small silent room contemplating what—to me—looked like scribbles.

“I’m trying to see what is so special or different about his work,” I whispered to Lynn, “But I am obviously too much of a philistine.”

“Me too,” she replied.

I was being serious.  If enough people went to the trouble of building and maintaining a whole building in honor of this guy, he must be something very special.  I wondered how many years it would take of practicing or looking at calligraphy in order to appreciate the differences.  Maybe some people walked into this room and went “Wow!  These are so obviously superior!”

There was a second room downstairs that displayed works by other calligraphers in honor of Sugioka.  One was a woman, that’s all I remember.

There was a reference library, and a children’s corner where kids could try their hands at calligraphy.  Lynn and I hovered over it and exchanged glances that said, “Should we try it?  No!!”

“At this rate we’ll be done for the day by noon,” Lynn said as we exited.

But then we found the toy museum, which was delightful.  We were the only visitors.  This museum, which was free, had two rooms.  Low tables were set up with antique toys.

A volunteer demonstrated each toy.  Some were extremely simple, like the cup and ball.

I have to say, this place elicited my inner kid, which is not a frequent occurrence and felt great.

After a half hour of play, it was time for lunch.  Since it was still pouring, we stepped into the first place we found.

“I wouldn’t recommend the hot sand and pizza,” Lynn cautioned.

“No … sounds hard on the teeth.”

But they had a great set lunch for about $12.  I would call it “Japanese nouveau cuisine meets antioxidant blowout.”

 

We drank tea and talked for an hour, then stumbled upon the mosquito net shop.  As the name implies, it sold mosquito nets of all shapes and colors.  The one below is similar to ones Lynn and I have slept under in malarial regions.

“Which makes me wonder,” I said, “I understood I wouldn’t need Malarone in Japan.  And I haven’t noticed any mosquitoes here.”

“Yes, why is there a whole shop dedicated to mosquito nets?” Lynn asked.  The owner lurked behind a mosquito net, keeping an eye on us but making clear he was not interested in talking, so we will never know.

Signs and Mysteries

3am.  Lynn was snoring lightly.  I crammed in some earplugs and eventually got back to sleep, my mind awhirl with thoughts about my next move.

7am.  Lynn was calling, “Anne, wake up, your alarm is going.”

“Aww, I’m sorry!” I said as I rolled out of bed for a scheduled call with my family. I made a mental note to change my alarm from harp music to something easier to hear with earplugs.

The family was gathered for a birthday, and they passed Vince’s phone around.  I got to see an extreme close-up of my mom’s nose and then of her husband’s ear.  They don’t quite get how it works.  Some day that will be me.

A couple hours later Lynn and I were in a covered mall in Naramachi, the neighborhood near our hotel.  On our first day, we hadn’t found the “atmospheric” sections but after wandering farther we got why the guides promoted it.  Like most places except Disneyland, it is a patchwork of old and new.

Most everything was closed.  We tried to decipher the directory.

“I hope they don’t really sell owls,” Lynn the animal lover said.

“Tofu n’ donuts,” I read.  “‘The tofu donuts incident’? What the…”

“Maybe it means the tofu donuts experience?” Lynn posited, “or maybe it’s a reference to the war of the tofu and donuts, much like they refer to World War II as the ‘unfortunate period.’”

“That’s pants!” I riffed, using the British slang word for something that’s all wrong.  “And what do pants have to do with having a golden day?”

“It doesn’t bear thinking about!” Lynn shuddered as she walked away.

The only place open was a grocery, so we had a gander and I bought seaweed and bonito and a giant sushi takeaway for breakfast.  We sat in an area with picnic tables while I ate.  “Sushi for breakfast would be a fish too far,” Lynn said.  “Give me kippers or nothing.”

There were three coffee shops on the periphery of the seating area, but none were open and no signs indicated opening hours.

After I ate my sushi like a starving shark, we walked until we found a restaurant that was open.

“The selection doesn’t look very appetizing,” I commented.

“But it’s open,” Lynn said.  “How bad could it be?

The place was run by a husband and wife team; he was the cook and server and she worked the register, which was festooned with tree branches decorated with tiny colorful ribbons and flags.  There was only one other customer; he was smoking and reading a newspaper.

The proprietor handed us menus, saying, “No English,” apologetically.  “No worries,” Lynn replied, giving him a big smile.

The pictures were the same as on the sign board outside.  “So do you want red, tan, or white food this morning?” I asked her.  The proprietor returned and Lynn pointed to sandwiches, then coffee.  I only wanted coffee, which caused confusion.  There was much holding up of fingers and nodding and smiling and pointing.  Five minutes later he brought two huge plates of sandwiches and two bitter coffees and a tiny pitcher of gooey sugary white stuff.

The sandwiches were like the ones we’d been served on our first day at the Nara Hotel—they seemed to manifest the Japanese idea of what westerners liked—soft, white bread with the thinnest slices of cucumber and ham slathered with mayonnaise, crusts removed and cut into triangles.

I transferred half of mine onto Lynn’s plate when she was done so they would think we both ate half our food.

Outside, the mall was now bustling.  I found a knife shop where I bought what I hoped would be a good knife for Vince.  We stopped and ogled a bun-making operation which used something like the machine below.

I almost took a photo, then thought, “They’re not in the business of providing photo opps; they’re out to sell buns!”  So I bought a half dozen green buns filled with bean paste and ate one, then ate them all.

“Where to start?” Lynn mused as we consulted the area map. “The calligraphy museum, the toy museum, the period houses, or the mosquito net museum?”

Crusty and Wiped

The restaurant that my guidebook had recommended for lunch specialized in kamameshi, a local fare.  The place was packed and there were a dozen people crammed into the entry way waiting for a table.  A server thrust menus at us and ordered, “You pick food before you get table!”

The menu was simple; I ordered crab and Lynn ordered shrimp kamameshi.  What is kamameshi, you ask?  We too wondered as we read the eating instructions.

“It’s very complicated,” Lynn said.

“This is the important part,” I read, “after scooping out your first serving, make sure you place the lid back onto the iron pot. Remember to take the paddle out to ensure a tight seal—this is the key to delicious okoge!”

“What’s okoge?”

“I guess we’re going to find out.”

“There are certainly lots of exclamation marks,” Lynn counted, “I hope it lives up to the exciting taste experience implied herein.”

To be honest it was just okay.  Okoge turned out to be rice that is crusted onto the side of the pot.

A boy of around seven was sitting with his family at another table, playing a game on some device.  The device was not on silent and a constant refrain of “bloop, bloop, BLOOPITY BLING bing bing bing” filled the restaurant.  I won’t say what nationality the family was.  Everyone in the place, including the servers, were staring daggers at them but they were oblivious.

After lunch we found Isuin Garden, one of two “famous” gardens Lynn had bookmarked to visit in Nara.  At the entryway, a man in a pink hat bowed and introduced himself as a volunteer tour guide, then set off at a brisk pace.  Lynn and I barely had time to exchange glances that said, “Please, no!” before we were forced to march after him.

Now, when I speak Spanish it is at a very slow pace because I know my Spanish isn’t great.  Our guide, whose English was just okay, didn’t let that slow him down.  He spoke a blue streak while pointing and waving and telling jokes—we thought they were jokes because he laughed, so we laughed too—it would have felt rude not to.  He was delightful, and we got a bonus aerobic workout racing up and down hills and over bridges and across stepping stones.

After about 20 minutes he rather abruptly bowed and raced off, leaving us at the far end of the garden, presumably to return to the entry and collect another group of unsuspecting tourists.  Lynn and I wandered, off leash.

I was mesmerized by this 100-year-old glass in the tea house.  The photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was slightly wavy.  How wonderful that it has survived time, earthquakes, and war.

This lady seemed happy to have me include her in my photo, to give a sense of scale.  Exquisite, isn’t it?

Lynn picked up more bamboo tricks she can try in her Scottish garden.

We consulted our maps and decided to walk to the art museum.  The heat was stultifying so it was slow progress.  We passed Nara City Hall, which we thought looked vaguely like a samurai helmet.

There was a gigantic gift shop next to city hall.  The art museum was closed, so we returned to the gift shop, where Lynn found saki for Richard.  I bought some rice crackers and stood outside feeling the sweat roll down my back while I noshed.  It was only about 3pm, but I had hit a wall.

Some travel days are like that.  You just can’t force yourself to do one more thing.

“Would you be okay with going back to the hotel to veg?” I asked Lynn.

“We did hike a mountain this morning,” she reminded me.

I bought a beer in the vending machine outside our room and drank it while reading, scrolling through social media, and watching news of the G20 Summit.  True to form, Trump was insulting the Japanese—his hosts and our ally.

Later, we ventured back up to the rooftop lounge.

“You came back!” our server from the previous night exclaimed.

“I’m not sure if he was pleased to see us, or shocked,” Lynn said after he seated us at “our” table.