Tag Archives: Japan

Truth and Lies and Consequences

I’ve been chronicling my month in Japan for months.  Part of me just wants to be done with it so I can move on to other topics, like living in the UK next year.

But after reading the article I referenced in my last post, about how many Japanese leaders spin the country’s involvement in WWII as passive or reactive or even as “Japan as victim,” I realize it took this much time of reflection and research to figure out what was going on and to know I wasn’t crazy.

It’s not like I expect to single handedly prevent WWIII, but if I can do even a tiny bit toward  encouraging people to be on the alert for and question nationalist narratives, well that’ll take as long as it takes.

Four years ago, I stood in a busy street in East Jerusalem with a Palestinian colleague.  He was giving me a walking tour during our time off.  I watched as flocks of school children streamed by and asked, “Do they learn about the Holocaust?”

“No,” he said bluntly.

So generations of Palestinian children are growing up thinking that Israelis—and Jews by extension—are occupying their land and coming down hard on them for no reason.  That’s a gross over simplification.  The Holocaust factored into the establishment of the State of Israel but it was only one factor.  Still.

Omar has a master’s in Conflict Studies from Coventry University in the UK.  So he got out of his local bubble for a few years.  While he is no fan of Israel, he has the background and context to critically analyze the very complicated situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which I am confident will soon become a nation state.

The Japan Times article describes the weird shrine I visited in Koyasan with all the military photos and paraphernalia.  I assumed it was the work of one eccentric.  But no, denial of Japanese fault during WWII is pervasive.

The shrine aims to influence Japanese visitors, in particular school children, with a narrative in which Japan is the heroic liberator of Burma and other countries.

“This version of Japanese wartime history is now shown to legions of Japanese schoolchildren visiting Mount Koya, proving Japan’s intent to liberate Asia. From [the shrine], school children proceed to the huge cemetery, where they receive a second introduction to the parallel universe. Here they encounter the “Hall for Heroic Spirits” fronted by a sign identifying more than 1,000 martyrs, better known to the ordinary world as convicted A-, B- and C-class war criminals.”

I really liked this paragraph:  “Why can’t Japan do what Germany did, i.e., admit it was wrong and that it did some horrible things, and make a sincere apology that isn’t almost immediately contradicted by other Japanese leaders?”

On Halloween I dressed up and went to an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art about art and the Vietnam War. Or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it.  It included pieces by American and Vietnamese and Hmong artists …

… and one Japanese artist—Yoko Ono.  This was a performance piece where members of the audience were invited to come up and cut off her clothes.

Here’s me in my Halloween threads.

Yoko Ono survived the WWII fire bombing of Tokyo, in a bunker, when she was 12 years old.  Her father spent time in a prison camp.  She and her family almost starved after the war.

Back in Okunoin cemetery, I arrived at the shrine where I had cried over my aunt the night before.  It was open now, and the thousands of lanterns created an eerie feel like being inside a holy computer or nuclear reactor.  I’ve never dropped acid, but I imagine this place would give you a good feel for what it was like.

I slept 1.5 hours that night.  Thought flashes marched through my mind: the underground tunnel in the shrine, the military photos, images from Birdsong of men being crushed underground, the Japan self-defense forces becoming an unfettered military again, Australians sent on forced marches by the Japanese in the south Pacific, the shrine with thousands of lanterns ….

So much for monasteries being peaceful.

Tunnels and Rabbit Holes

There was a shrine with a prominent sign that said, “Free Entry.”  I am normally leery of offers like this.  One time Vince and I went to the free Museum of Woodcarving in the north woods of Wisconsin somewhere and it turned out to be a collection of bible scenes which in which the wood carver attempted to convert us to Christianity. We declined his offer to see “much more” in the basement.

I don’t set out to write posts with themes; it just happens, as you’ll see.

Was this “free shrine” really a shrine? The walls were packed floor to ceiling with military photos and there were museum-like displays with more of the same.  The structure was octagonal, and half way around there was a sign indicating an underground maze.  I’m usually game to try anything quirky but at the bottom of the steps I realized this was a pitch black maze.  Why would anyone want to grope their way along cement basement walls in a pseudo shrine?  Would there be a sudden drop into a fattening pen?

I quickly retreated.  The omnipresent shrine attendant followed me around until I exited.

I bought some wasabi peas and Calpis, a yogurty beverage I was growing fond of, then stopped in at the inn.  My room had been cleaned and there was a new snack which had little fish in it.  I don’t mean crackers shaped like fish, like Goldfish.  I mean real, dried whole fish.  They were tiny, so eating fish heads wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  I can’t say they added anything to my enjoyment of the snack.

I piled up eight cushions to sit on and leaned against the wall to read for a bit.  I was struck by an article about the Japan self defense forces in the newspaper.  “Self-defense forces” may sound tame, but they are the “world’s fourth most-powerful military in conventional capabilities” and Japan has the world’s eighth-largest military budget, according to Credit Suisse.

While Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party may have a cute logo …

… it has an objective of amending Article 9 of the Japanese constitution “to remove prohibitions on use of military power in resolving international disputes.”

I had been working my way through the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  It’s a WWII love and war story and I now resumed reading a detailed account of the underground warfare conducted in Europe between the allies and Germans.  The Brits recruited miners to dig tunnels far underground.  The Germans did the same. They met somewhere in this real underground maze and fought hand-to-hand combat.  They were often in complete darkness for days and had to crawl to get through the low tunnels.  Sometimes the tunnels collapsed.  Sometimes men suffocated or were crushed or died in accidental explosions.

Why would anyone want to repeat the nightmares of WWII or any other war?

I had to set the book down a couple times and think about whether I would continue reading because it was so horrific.

After another amazing dinner, I returned to the cemetery.

There was a monument to one of the handful of woman buried in Okunoin.  She had also donated her hair, so I guess that’s a thing.  There was another magical rock; if you held your ear to it and listened closely you could hear “screams from hell.”  The woman’s screams?  If so, why—what had she done?

I hiked on and came to a memorial to “Japanese and Australians who were sent to east Borneo (Malaysia) during WWII.”  WTF?  I had seen several memorials in Australia to the Aussies who died on Japanese death marches in Borneo and elsewhere.  Was this another attempt to make a Japanese-perpetrated atrocity sound two-sided?

Just now, I researched what the weird shrine was, and falling down that rabbit hole led me to a Japan Times opinion article titled, “Mount Koya sites exemplify ‘parallel universe’ where war criminals are martyrs.” It describes how the shrine portrays Japan as liberating Burma and other countries.

But of course, as the old song by The Who goes, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  The Japanese just became the new colonizers.

A Woman’s Place, a Woman’s Watch

A sign in the hall said, “Take valuables with you.” I would normally stash my laptop out of sight in my room but it was now my only means of communication so I stuffed it into my backpack.  It only weighed four pounds when I left for the day but it felt like it weighed 20 by the time I returned.

There is a bus that covers all of Koyasan, but I felt like walking. My destination was Nyonindo, the only surviving women’s monastery of seven that used to exist.  Since it was for women, naturally Nyonindo had to be outside the city walls.  Women were granted permission to enter Koyasan in 1872.

It was still early so the tourist buses and day trippers hadn’t arrived. Nyonindo was about a 20-minute walk from “my” monastery.  I left the shops and restaurants behind and there were only monastery walls on either side as I walked up the long roadway.  It was a beautiful morning, although already getting hot.  Massive cedars loomed over the walls, and jays called back and forth. Old men with straw brooms were sweeping pine needles into heaps.  They ignored me, which was fine.

For the first but not last time, I was glad I didn’t have a camera.  If I had, I would have been tempted to surreptitiously capture the old men with their rustic brooms.

Nyonindo was tiny.  I wouldn’t have even taken notice of it if I hadn’t been looking for it.  As usual, even in the smallest shrines, there was a guy sitting behind a counter ready to sell you a lucky charm.  He ignored me, which was great.  There was a water cooler and I gratefully partook,  then threw a coin in the donation box and walked out.

Now, supposedly there was a “nature path” that started near Nyonindo.  I wandered back and forth along the road looking for it, then used the toilet and discovered that it began behind the toilet.  Nice!  There were some dilapidated signs and maps on boards that didn’t help much, so I just plunged into the forest.  Surely I couldn’t get lost if I kept track of my turns.  But I didn’t go far, because the path was like climbing muddy stairs.  I could imagine myself slipping and tearing my ACL, and then where would I be?  Alone with no phone on a deserted path in the deep woods.

I used to love this kind of hike and am still tempted to follow the lure, sometimes.  I relish being alone in nature.  I get a little thrill out of the slight feeling of danger.  But about five years ago I slipped on a muddy path along the Mississippi and sprained my MCL.  There was nothing for it but to walk home—about a mile—which made it much worse.  I was on crutches for six weeks and couldn’t drive my car because I couldn’t engage the clutch.  So now I use common sense.

I walked back down the long hill to two tiny mausoleums built by the third Tokugawa shogun in 1643.  I paid Y200 ($2) and mounted the obligatory steep set of stone steps.  The mausoleums were ornate “on the inside,” I read, and visitors weren’t allowed inside.

The next logical attraction would have been the Daniyo Garan complex.  Built in the ninth century, it is the “second most important” area in Koyasan, after the cemetery.  I walked to it.  I walked around it.  I walked through the courtyard.  I went back outside.  I walked in again and looked around.  I just couldn’t get excited about another temple complex.  Besides, busloads of tourists were beginning to fill up the adjacent massive parking lot.

Maybe tomorrow.

I was bothered by not knowing what time it was, so I stepped into a clock shop smaller than my living room in which it appeared time had stopped.  The walls were covered with ticking clocks and the display cases full of watches.  It wasn’t dusty, but it felt dusty.  The proprietor suggested a mandala-themed watch, but I chose a $50 water resistant model.  He suggested I take the pink version, and I acquiesced.

So now I have a pink Japanese watch.

Yukatas for Dummies

The night I dropped my phone in the toilet, I wrote a post which demonstrates my frantic thoughts and feelings about its potential loss.

Is that sad, to be so distraught about losing a phone?  It’s just a thing, right?  But it was my means of communicating with my people; it was my online community, for better or worse; it stored all my memories—in the form of photos that had not yet been backed up.

It would cost hundreds of dollars to replace … and how would I get to the Apple store again?  I was only planning to spend 12 more hours in Tokyo, and the store would be closed during that window.

Blah, blah, blah, my mind went on, wearing a groove in my brain, undoubtedly.

Using my laptop, I read that putting your cell phone in rice may be a short-term fix, but that the minerals in the rice can cause longer term problems.  So I wrapped my phone up like a baby, put it on top of the TV for warmth, and tried to not look at it.

That night I got about three hours of sleep.  It was the usual boring Restless Legs.  I had piled up six futons in an attempt to create some padding.  They were all firm around the edges and saggy in the middle.  My head and feet were well supported while the rest of me drooped down to the hard tatami floor. Turning over was a major operation.

Finally, I couldn’t stop wondering what time it was and if I’d wake up in time for the meditation.

I needn’t have worried about not having an alarm.  A gong began to sound for the morning meditation at 5:30.  I rolled off the futon onto my knees, then slowly rose to a standing position.  Yep, I could still walk.  I hobbled to the sink and brushed my teeth, slurped down a cup of instant coffee, threw on the yukata, and half slid, half stumbled down the steep stairs.

A half dozen people stood on one side of the cavernous main hall, where the man in black was collecting visitors to lead us to the inner shrine.  From across the hall, he spotted me and shouted, “Yukata, no!” while making dramatic gestures with his arms in case I didn’t understand.  Everyone stared.  I did a 180 and scurried back up to my room.  How could I have made such a mistake?!  I threw on some clothes and joined the group, keeping my head down.

I have already described the meditation, which was intense, beautiful, and really did take me away from my stinkin’ thinkin’ for at least part of the hour.

No one made mention of The Yukata Incident.  They’re focused on the meditation, not me, I thought.  It’s not about me.

Afterwards, I wandered through the shrine with the Aussie wife who had dined next to me the previous evening and a young woman from Chicago who had blue hair.  I could tell the Aussie woman wanted to hang out more.

I felt a familiar internal tug-of-war.  I want to be with people but I also want to be alone.

But it was time for breakfast, so we all retired to our respective private dining room.  Breks was every bit as spectacular as dinner but you’ll have to take my word for it since I no longer had a camera.

On the positive side, you won’t be subjected to my horrid photos for a while.

As I passed Mick and Mary’s dining room—for those were their names, I would learn—they hailed through their open door.  I hesitated, then did what I do when I’ve been traveling alone for a few days—started babbling about everything I’d seen and done and not done.  They took it in stride.

I let them get a few words in and learned this was their fourth time in Japan and second time at the monastery.

I knew if I hesitated a bit, they might invite me to spend the day sightseeing with them.

“I have to run to a Skype call,” I lied.

“Be sure to attend the fire meditation,” Mary called after me.

Stupa-fied

Okunoin, as you might imagine from the fact that it has 200,000 graves, is vast.  There are two main paths that traverse its length, and I walked up one of them.  It’s mostly level, so one is able to take in the jumble of headstones, jizos, toriis, statues, and stupas, which in Okunoin are composed of large hewn stones representing the five elements.

You can see stupas in the background of this shot of Kobo Daishi.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of Kobo D statues.  I liked this one where he’s got what looks like a bowl on his head.

I stopped at a small wooden structure that contained, according to a sign, “a stone that is heavy or light” depending on whether the person trying to lift it is evil or good.  I stuck my hand in the opening and tried to lift it; it was heavy.

After 20 minutes I arrived at the lantern hall. It contains many … lanterns, 10,000 as a matter of fact.  Someone must have kept a log as they were donated over the centuries.  One in particular was called out in my brochure: “In 1016, a woman sold her hair to buy a lantern to pray for the rest of her parents.”  Why that one lantern, I wondered?  Surely over the course of millennia there must be other stories to rival the selling of hair.

The hall was closed so I walked around to see what, if anything, was beyond it.  And here was the very modest mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Meals are served to him twice a day and from what I read that’s a tourist sight kind of like the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.

I lighted a candle in memory of my aunt.  If Kobo Daishi could still be alive but in a trance state, praying for the liberation of all beings, maybe my aunt could still be “alive” too, praying for the discovery of a new Tater Tot hotdish recipe.

Suddenly sadness welled up and I started sobbing.  Where had that come from?

Well, I told myself: if you can’t cry in a cemetery with 200,000 dead people, where can you?

I heard a shuffling noise nearby and turned to see a young monk sitting on a bench in the gloaming.  I hadn’t noticed him, and I don’t like anyone seeing me cry.  I walked on.

At the midpoint of the path there was a sign that said it was good luck to walk the path clockwise.  Interesting.  I recalled walking around a lake in Minnesota with a Native American friend once, who had insisted on walking clockwise.  “It’s good medicine,” she had told me.

I had walked counterclockwise.  Which way should I walk back?  I got all confused, plus my stuffed emotions were still simmering.  There was a row of exquisite statues dedicated to the dead, one more fantastic than the next.  The drill was, you threw an offering (of course) into the water at their feet and said a prayer for your loved one.  What I really wanted was to take photos of these statues—they were the most beautiful in Okunoin, in my estimation.

But first I thought I’d step into the bathroom and that’s when I dropped my phone in the toilet and … no more photos.

Was it bad juju?  Was I being punished for not walking clockwise, or for being a smarty pants about all this mystical stuff?  No.  My cell fell in the loo because I was wearing a jacket for the first time in weeks, I wasn’t used to it and I wasn’t paying attention, and the cell slipped out of the pocket.

I have practiced meditation from time to time in order to be more focused and able to stay in the moment.  Maybe it was time to get back to it.

That night I knelt at the kotatsu, which is what I have learned is the name of the blanket-covered heated table, and researched what to do when your cell phone gets wet.  Here’s a photo of one from an online store.

I received numerous suggestions from friends to dry my phone in rice. Hmmm … now where could I find rice?

Snap, Snap, Snap

Two more photos from my last supper before my phone died:

The little pink-striped balls in the soup had a light, springy texture.  I meditated on the artistic composition of tempura-battered leaf with sprig of crunchy something and a side of horseradish for about five seconds before devouring it.

The man in black came and went, kneeling down and serving me dish after dish.  It would have felt weird except that I assumed it was part of his practice of obliterating the ego.  Besides, the food was to die for.

Some people daydream of spending time in a mountaintop monastery.  Some think it’d be their worst nightmare. I didn’t know what to expect at Koyasan.  I hadn’t had time to dig into it beyond just finding a place to sleep, at Shojoshin-in monastery, one of 52 monasteries in Koyasan.

Some of the monasteries don’t accept any visitors, or women or couples, so that ruled out quite a few.  The process of finding a place was opaque.  I can’t even tell you how I found Shojoshin-in, which turned out to be quite deluxe and conveniently located right next to the entrance to Okunoin cemetery.

My only knowledge of Buddhist retreats was from Keiko, my sister in law.  As a grad student in public health, she had done an internship in Thailand.  Afterwards, she went to a Buddhist retreat center in the countryside for two weeks.  There was no internet or phone available, so my brother was kind of bent out of shape about not knowing what was going on with her.

Her description: She had a small cell with a hard, narrow bed.  Visitors were required to wake at 5am, meditate for an hour, then attend a two-hour group meditation, then they got a bowl of rice for breakfast.  Then they meditated off and on all day and ate more simple fare.  They never left the center to go sightseeing because there wasn’t anything to see in the surrounding area.  That’s as much as I retained of her story.  It sounded dreadful and I stopped listening because I knew I would never do that.  I knew Koyasan would be a step up, but not how much of a step up.

To paint a picture, here’s the intro from the glossy Guide to Koyasan brochure available in Japanese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese.

Koyasan is a center of Buddhist study and practice, located in Wakayama Prefecture at an elevation of about 900 meters [2,953 feet]. Koyasan is a highland valley extending 6km [3.7 miles] east to west and 3km [1.8 miles] north to south.  It has a circumference of 15km [9 miles] and is surrounded by eight low peaks. The topography is reminiscent of the center of a lotus flower surrounded by eight petals.

Koyasan was founded about 12 centuries ago by the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi as a center for Shingon Buddhist training.  His wish was to establish a monastery deep in the mountains.  He wanted it far from worldly distractions where Buddhist monks could practice and pray for peace and the welfare of the people.  Emperor Saga granted him the use of this land in 816.  From around the end of the tenth century, the belief arose that Kobo Daishi Kukai had not passed away, but had rather entered an eternal meditation at Okunoin for the liberation of all beings.  Faith in Kobo Daishi Kukai has sustained generations of people and drawn pilgrims for millennium.    

For me, Okunoin cemetery was the main event in Koyasan.  I visited it three times.

Right after my fabulous first-night dinner, I stepped next door into Okunoin.  It was twilight.  Silent.  I was the only visitor in this cemetery of 200,000 graves.

Did I take the opportunity to feel the serenity after my hectic day of travel?  No, I treated the place like one gigantic photo opp.

It was impossible to capture the scale of the thousand-year-old cedars.

I tried including statues that were about 12-feet tall (4 meters).

I took multiple photos of jizos, of which I already had 100 photos from visits to other shrines.

It only occurs to me now, in retrospect, to ask: why did I need to capture everything?

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.