An Island in Japan 1981
A trip to a little-visited island made in 1981 with Diana Herrington
Text, drawings and photos by Chinmaya Dunster
Tokyo, 8-12 October 1981
Arriving at Tokyo airport from Vancouver. Not a single sign in English. We scrabble through our phrasebook looking for the kanji character for Exit and head for the nearest one. How to use the payphone? No-one around speaks more than a few words of English, though they eagerly come over to offer their help. I manage to get through to our Servas (a pre-internetequivalent of Couchsurfing) host’s number to be greeted with a distressed-sounding female voice, until finally I hear our host’s name spoken and a single English word: „Dead.“
So much for our accommodation for the night! We ride the monorail through pouring rain into the city, escaping the tidal waves of people at the central railway station and make our way through the downpour to the tourist office around the corner. On our return it takes us half an hour of searching to find the left luggage office where we had left our bags. We crash out in a miniscule room for sixteen hours and awake to even harder rainfall. Out under a borrowed umbrella to a nearby cafe recommended by our hotel owner where, for 760 Yen (less than four US dollars) we each get a whole herring, bowls of soup and rice and green tea. It’s a real local joint: no plastic models of the food behind glass that we saw displayed outside other Japanese restaraunts yesterday and no menus. Our fellow customers stare at us while we eat and nod appreciatively when we point to sentences in our phrase book and garble a few words.
In the nearby supermarket we can’t even identify most of the strange foods on offer in their crinkly plastic wrappings. The train station ticket office uses an abacus; a peasant woman hawks dried squid right outside a swanky store on Ginza, Tokyo’s premier shopping street; blue-suited businessmen use chopsticks as they stand to bolt down watery noodles outside a fastfood kiosk. Automatic vending machines offer everything from beer to batteries and the discount electronic stores are stuffed with futuristic-looking devices that as far as we know haven’t yet made it to shops in the West, while and families, rich and poor, are picking bagfulls of acorns from beneath the trees in a city park.
There are shops that sell nothing but varieties of pickles; others that sell a thousand kinds of crackers. Little shrines composed of water dripping into a pool or onto a mossy rock, with miniature images of animals and deities, are found by the roadside, in porches, under the escalator inside a department store. Advertising hordings, signs, goods, usually start with an English phrase, eg „Shoppers Information“ and then proceed in Japanese. The shopping bag we buy proclaims „Hysteric Mica“ on the outside: what is that supposed to mean?
A woman with two children and all her shopping onboard wobbles down the main thoroughfare at the covered market in Asakusa on her bicycle; an old man in a booth makes waffles on an iron, his whole body involved in the movements, his face ecstatic with concentration; the shopkeeper who sells us a cheap comb barely allows us to leave, so busy is he with his smiles and bows and thanks; being early entrants into a department store one morning is a harrowing experience as we walk down a long aisle lined with immaculately-dressed shop assistants bowing deeply to us from the waist. Are we meant to bow back? And from every streetcorner kiosk, within easy reach of children, pornographic comics blare out a message of such sweat-drenched violence and abuse that Diana and I are simply stunned. Is this what all these quiet andmild-mannered Japanese men on the streets around us are fantasising about behind their bland countenances?
Kawaguchi-ko, 13-15th October
Drab Tokyo goes on and on until suddenly outside our bus’s window there are steep, forested hills and Fuji, its perfect silhuette rising above the clouds hiding its base. The truck ahead of us sports a painting of a couple having sexual intercourse over its rear window. We pass a long row of life-sized mannequins in police uniforms beside the road, one of them, arm upraised, leaning out at a precarious 45-degree angle; others are employed singly at various junctions. We have heard how Japan is almost crime-free, so perhaps there’s no need for real police? At our minchiku (B&B) – no English spoken needless to say – where we are the only guests, we are provided with a spotless room bare of furniture except a futon. The toilet is so tiny I can hardly squeeze my knees into it once I’m seated on the bowl. Throughout a vast dinner (at the heart of it three kinds of fish plus eggs and tofu) we struggle with our phrasebook, anxious to respond appropriately to our hostess’s breathless ministrations.
Out into the drizzle next morning early on my own, and up into forest on a misty path. In a clearing at the top I am greeted by two half life-sized statues, male and female, palms raised in ‚namaste’. Behind them is a locked shrine building with commanding views south over to a shrouded Mount Fuji, and east over a lake to where distant mountain ranges are shrugging off cloud. I go back down to fetch Diana, and we return in hot sun to find the clearing buzzing with insects, huge red dragonflies and birdsong.
The stone figures smile with equinamity, butterflies sunning themselves on their shoulders, and gaze out over the village below towards the green folded hills. What a beautiful couple and how beautiful their lives, standing together on this hilltop watching the seasons change and the world below them bustle!
Further on a second shrine, bulky and thatch-roofed, is set in a grove of towering pines. Peering through bars into the gloom inside, we make out a carved wooden altar decorated with birds, dragons, a bearded man; at its center a padlocked wooden box. Around us the walls are painted with cows and horses, done in bright, childish strokes. The sun’s rays steal through cracks in the roof and light up a big red drum suspended from the rafters, a bronze vase, offerings of fresh flowers and one-yen coins (so they do have a use after all!) and a clutter of iron tridents. Strips of twisted paper hang from every nook. We are in the presence of kami here I know, and realise that these spirits dwelling in trees, rocks and the forces of nature, worshipped and appeased since time immemorial, must be still very much alive for the people who use this place. We head down and pass through the jumbly village below – a ramshackle mix of houses new and old, cow stalls, middens and tiny fields of maize and cabbage – and curiously unacknowlaged by the inhabitants, who don’t even raise their heads to glance at us – find a spot to sit and watch Fuji tower above the midday haze.
Tamata, Ito 16-18th October
Our Servas host, Haruki, is the first person we’ve really spoken to since the tourist office staff in Tokyo. Not that this means that travelling in Japan is suddenly without difficulty. After picking us up from the bus, Haruki takes himself off to his adjoining electrical store and we are left at his home with his wife (no English) and find ourselves with absolutely no idea what to expect. Sevas protocol asures us that we will be staying the night, but we can’t quite imagine where in this place which – apart from wife and two small, bouncy children – seems to be composed of a single room plus kitchen. Nor do we know if we can assume we are eating there. We play with the kids awhile, take ourselves off for a beach stroll and come back to find ourselves presented with a kobe steak dinner. As we are served, Haruki proudly describes the cosseted life of the chosen calves, who are massaged daily, blanketed against winter and prepared in every luxurious way for a death that will result in the tenderest marbled steak in the world. The thing is that neither Diana or I have eaten meat in six years, but is this really the moment to be pernickety? I hesitate, manage half of it and leave the rest, whereupon a mortified-looking Haruki exclaims: „You’re not a vegetarian are you? You should have told me before!“
Next we are bundled into his car with all our baggage to „Go for a bath.“ The town’s public baths, Haruki explains, have recently been split by a partition into segregated men’s and women’s sections, so Diana and I part and he leads me into the hottest water I’ve ever encountered. I do my best to follow a complicated routine involving soaps, buckets, low-slung taps, slippery floors and even more slippery towels. We hear a great deal of loud frivolity coming from the other side of the screen and on our reunion Diana leads me to believe that she has had a high old time partying with the maidens.
We have been given Haruki’s father’s house. As geijin (foreigners) we are a matter for a sort of grudging curiosity in a village composed entirely of fishermen, especially since events yesterday. I had gone alone to the beach to body surf, to find myself summoned out of the water by uniformed police who couldn’t speak a word of English. In fear that I was to be arrested for something, I was hurried back home, to find Diana amidst a big crowd of agitated neighbours. It turns out that she had left the house to search for a pharmacy and then spent one and a half hours failing to find her way back. Co-operative locals had shown her to varied hotels and guesthouses, and in increasing frustration called in more and more re-inforcements.
Haruki has been kind and helpful, imbetween his long hours (9am to 8pm every day except Thursday) at his shop. He tells us how he travelled „as a hippy“ in Europe five years ago, staying with over fifty Servas hosts. Now the wild youth seems to have settled into a conservative lifestyle. Kiko, his wife, is left to cook, wash up, clean and deal with the kids. She plays the submissive wife and mother perfectly, right down to the way she says dozo (please) when settling food down in front of us, her husband or even her children: with a long quiet space inside do….zo, rising slightly on the second syllable. She doesn’t seem to have any complaints, (not that we would hear any, or be shown even a hint of them on her immaculate face, I’m sure) and she was pleased as pie when I presented her with a sketch of herself watching TV. Her four-year old daughter has her same placid vibe, whilst her two-year old son is a wrecker who amazes me at his capacity to take hard knocks without crying: he just rubs his head and laughs. Haruki’s business is obviously doing well, the room is full of electronic toys and he tells us he is planning to buy a house large enough for his parents to live with them. I wonder how Kiko feels about that? Diana and I swim in the warm breakers, watch the anglers on the breakwater and the fishing boats pottering in and out of harbour. In the orange groves on the terraces above the bay, hand-sized moths sip nectar, while hawks soar in long swoops from above our heads far out to sea. We agree how lucky we feel to be here, on the edge of the unknown.
Awaji-shima, 19th October
We are met off the Kobe ferry this evening by Jane, an old schoolfriend of mine (who is halfway through a year’s teaching English here and as far as she knows is the only geijin on the whole island) in the company of her landlady, Keiko. We are immediately whisked away, and within ten minutes of landing, are being ushered into the precincts of a temple, past a great bronze bell, through a doorway that forces us to bend over double and into a miniature room containing eight kimono-clad Japanese ladies and a pregnant silence. From outside comes the chanting of gravelly male voices. Jane indicates in a whisper that we should prostrate before an altar of flowers, a hanging calligraphy and the implements that will be used in o-cha (tea ceremony).
Feeling filthy after our journey and terrified of blundering, we then settle back on our knees like the others. The tea-maker goes through her elaborate ritual preparations – rinsing, ladling, whisking, folding napkins. We are required to admire the pottery vessels from which we will drink, rotating them gently in our hands an exact number of times before sipping the green, frothy liquid with appropriate slurping noises. I find myself having an unusual sensation of being at the same time both bewitched and nerve-racked.
We are then taken outside into the dimly-lit temple coutryard, where hundreds of curious heads turn to watch as Keiko ushers us right to the front row of a crowd seated on the ground. There are extravagantly-robed priests, an altar glittering with gold and colour, clouds of incense, and deep chanting broken with the discordant clash of gongs, cymbals and drums. A moment of light relief in this overwhelming atmosphere is provided during a reading of sutras by an old shaven-headed monk, who seems to need frequent prompting and twice stumbles to a halt as if finished. Both times a younger priest promptly starts up his chant and is in turn brought up short. There follow lively discussions – wepresume about what is supposed to happen next – until several of the priests and a good part of the crowd can no longer supress their laughter. The whole event begins to take on lighter, more flexible and human feel. After much bowing, namaste-ing and arigatos (thank yous) we are finally allowed home and gratefully into bed at 1am.
Jane has been given a wing of Keiko’s large traditional Japanese house in the town of Shizuki. The eight tatami mat-sized rooms are big for Japan, with sliding wood and paper walls that are used to re-arrange the interior space as required. They open out onto a garden of rockeries, stone lanterns, shrubs and treeferns. The house is full of antiques: painted screens, exquisite vases, furniture and crockery.
Jane fills us in on how she ended up here, and a gives us a briefing on what to expect. Keiko’s husband committed suicide three years ago, she warns us, and one room is reserved as a shrine to him. We must therefore leave the house between 11 and 11.30 every morning so that his parents can worship at the shrine, which is for some reason inconveniently situated on the main thoroughfare to the kitchen we share with Keiko. She has been studying the language and culture hard and emphasises how important obligations and politeness are here and how careful we will have to be not to offend. Our arrival is known all over town it seems and anybody who is anybody is going to want to be a part of the action. Already Keiko, who speaks no English and talks to us through Jane, has been busy plying us with little gifts and scheduling in what sounds like it is going to become a social whirl.
Jane has left for Kyoto for the weekend. Diana and I spend a lively evening with Keiko, with a young University student translating. Our hostess tells us how happy she is that we can speak to each other properly now for the first time since we arrived. She talks to us enthusiastically about her home island: how in in Japanese mythology the first gods Izanami and Izanagi stirred the ocean and spilled a drop which became Awaji-shima, the first of Japan’s islands; and how it is also home to the temples of the seven lucky gods of Shinto, kitschy models of whom she hurries out for us to admire. She also shows us her valuable collection of paintings by the recently-deceased Awaji artist Fudo Ritsuzan. She is obviously a lover of beauty and her eyes are shining with pleasure as we go on to talk about all the things she is involved in here: pottery, tea ceremony, calligraphy and flower arranging. Our translator, clearly fond of making jokes (which she follows with: „That was a joke.“) offers herself as a guide to the island: („Very good guide……..joke.“).
Keiko’s care and concern for us are touching. She seems happy, yet there are worry creases on her forehead. We speculate on what life must be like for her, with three young and very rambunctious children and a husband dead by his own hand, leaving her his cement business to run. If what Jane tells us about so many Japanese husbands is true –that they stay out drinking late with their workmates most evenings, sleep with hostesses regularly and don’t come home at all, and expect their wives to run for them whenever they snap their fingers; that marriage is mainly a business and childbearing partnership without much joy in either companionship or sex- if all this is true, then perhaps Keiko is better off without him! She has money after all, and seems to be enjoying, without the distraction of a husband, the experience of having visiting foreigners around.
A whistle-stop tour beginning at Izanagi-Izanami jinja (shrine), set amongst tall oaks riotous with the songs of birds and deserted except for an enormous shiny mechanical digger which is maneuvering through the wooden pi-shaped toro gateway, we assume to do some digging. This assumption illustrates just how difficult Japan is for a Westerner to ‚read’, as Keiko tells us that this is in fact a ‚lucky’ day on which new pieces of equipment or possessions generally are brought into shrines to be blessed with long and useful lives. We watch Keiko make her offerings and admire a mighty oak, rival to any tree I’ve ever seen.
Then past some attractive but highly spoilt coastline, including a reknowned group of pines at Keino, knee-deep in garbage, and on to view the famous Naruto whirlpools (reputedly the fourth fastest in the world). Here over one and a half meters of difference between the high tide of the inland sea and the low tide of the Pacific ocean creates a furious current. Actually it is hard to see much in view of the gigantic suspension bridge being built above them, a link in the new superhighway from Honshu to Shikoku that when completed will leave Awaji-shima no longer an island.
As we drive we are pointed out various temples and shrines, and a long tree-crowned hump sticking out from the ricefields that Keiko tells is an Emperor’s tomb. We pass below towering Mount Senzan with the island’s largest Buddhist temple perched on top; and through the capital Sumoto, where the main square boasts a large statue of Tanuki, a raccoon sporting a pair of swollen testicles reaching to his toes. One of Jane’s English teacher colleages, Mr Y (who Jane says is in love with her and tried to kiss her in the kitchen at eight in the morning one day!) has left us a detailed map of the island, on which I spend much time figuring out today’s route. And here in Shizuki they deliver milk to the door, like in England, but in one third pint bottles!
I walk alone along the rubbish-strewn beach north of the town and then head inland and ascend into a little tucked-away valley. It rises in terraces of miniature rice fields and up towards a forest. Just below the crest, a white bird takes off over my head from a small pond. Here I sit in the hot sun, listening to the croak and whirr of busy insect life, a praying mantis basking on the stubble beside me through which grass snakes rustle, and watch a solitary farmer harvesting rice with a scythe. A more tranquil place I cannot imagine, with its long views over the rice harvest drying on racks and down to the sea, beyond which rise distant capes, rugged and enticing. It all adds up to a sense of timelessness that I find quite overpowering and I fall asleep.
Later Keiko takes us, together with her nine-year old son Tashtaka, to a flower arranging exhibition in Sumoto, where we almost become exhibits ourselves and have to do a great deal of bowing, smiling and arigato-ing. Then to a tempura restaurant where Tashtara eventually tires of terrorising the place and, overcoming his shyness, presents us with a dandy little frog he fashions out of a table napkin. His mother’s ever-present smile, neat, petite figure and daily generosity has charmed both Diana and me completely. In the kitchen this morning – her brown face more ‚homey’ without its usual layers of make-up – she presented us with a pair of tea cups and blurted out the first English we have heard from her: „For couple!“ She has been coming over to perform tea ceremony for us every day. At this rate, we note, we are going to run out of things to give her back, so we hit upon the idea of inviting her and her in-laws for a homecooked Western-style meal later this week.
Diana and I return to the uplands behind the town again, rambling the patchwork of ricefields, orange groves and forest along tiny lanes bordered by profuse vegetation, bamboos and head-high goldenrod. At each twisty turn of the road a new vista opens up over the terraces to the coastline, past the circling hawks and out across the sea to where the crowded shipping lanes lead to Kobe harbour. Except the occasional farmer at harvest with either scythe or mechanical device, we meet nobody and – as a result of the previously-noted lack of curiosity towards us that these rural folk display – we are left completely undisturbed to enjoy the sense that time has passed us by. Our lazy walking pace under the warm sun, together with the gently winding lanes going on and on without reaching anywhere in particular, seem to cause time to gradually cease to flow, until the whole world feels like it just is and always has been.
Jane’s teacher, Mori-sensei (sensei = teacher), came over to play koto (Japanese harp) for us yesterday, and, after her departure, Jane and Diana foolishly stumbled without knocking into the bathroom for a bath (family communal bathing being quite acceptable here in Japan and the household bath being accommodatingly large). To discover Keiko in there with a man. There was an embarassed reaction and in the fluster of their retreat Jane tells us she thinks she understood Keiko explaining that the man was her brother. She points out that Keiko’s status on the island as a respectable widow would be under threat if this is not true and it were ever to come out that she might be having an affair. Consequently we have been worrying here all day while we make our preparations for our dinner party tonight. Keiko has been unusually cool towards us, and of course none of us dare refer to the incident. We just hope she realises that she can trust us never to refer to it, and especially not in front of her mother-in-law tonight!
All this paranoia is of course the result of the language difficulties, and from our extreme sensitivity towards the ‚politeness’ that will not allow for honesty about personal matters here. But as it turns out our dinner is a marvellous success. Keiko’s mother-in-law, the Mayor’s wife and another lady dignitory make up our high-society guest list, and once the children tire of their rampage we eat, present hand-written copies of the menu to be taken away by our guests, take photos and watch the Mayor’s wife and Keiko arrange vases of flowers. I play guitar for them, and we end up joking and talking until 11pm (which Jane assures us is an unheard-of hour for such guests to stay to in Japan), and by the end I’m feeling so into the flow that I completely forget that I can’t understand Japanese and just understand anyway!
We have been suffering the formal circuit of engagements demanded by island protocol over the past days: a stuffy party of Jane’s fellow teachers from her school; Keiko’s calligraphy class, where we are presented with examples of their brushwork by a group of ladies clearly titillated to be in the presence of foreigners; a long extra-formal tea ceremony, a flower arranging exhibition and a cultural festival of koto, country dancing and singing in the company of the Mayor’s wife (at which in response to the Mayor mentioning her in a speech, Jane has to stand up from her place in the audience and take a bow); and various speciality restaraunts for oden (fish-paste delicacies), shōjin ryōri (‚Temple Food’ – everything vegetarian but made to look like meat and fish) etc etc. Now having been photographed, presented with gifts, bowed to and arigato-ed at so many times my face is frozen into a rictus smile.
Nevertheless, a quick morning’s sketching in the hills is all the relief I get. Now we are off to Mori-sensei, who has prepared the most delectable food for us, but in traditional style stays in the kitchen while we eat and leaves us in the boring company of some non-English speaking men. The atmosphere changes, however, with the arrival of a man of natural presence and authority who is introduced as her ikebana (flower arranging) teacher. Resonant in voice and gesture, he tells us through translation that as a male flower-arranger he is proud to be a rarety and – showing us his calloused hands – in a land where they are widely ridiculed as bumpkins, proud to be a country-dweller and farmer too. A shy young woman, into natural foods and weaving, joins us. „I love nature…“(points to chest) „…it make heart open!“ Then Mori’s husband arrives and lets me try his $1000 shakuhachi flute (without success, I must admit!). There follows a husband and wife shakuhachi and koto duet, a lot of sake drinking and we finally roll up back at home, tipsy and jolly, at 1am.
A mini-typhoon today. I walk the seafront and watch the sea boil. Terrifying! I continue my explorations up in the hills and am rewarded with another hidden lake, overhung with heaving bamboos and crowded with herons, egrets and storks skydiving the wild wind. Today is Keiko’s daughter Norrie’s fourth birthday and all day long she wanders around clutching the present and home-made card we give her. Keiko cooks up a special meal, including mushrooms that cost $20 each (we share one between four of us). It’s a joy to sit en famille with them, surrounded by cards, cake, candles and sing ‚Happy Birthday’ together. Afterwards Keiko accepts our offer to join her in the clearing up (an unheard of breach of etiquette naturally). It feels like a sign of increasing intimacy and trust that she can be honest enough with us to admit a need for help.
I’m twenty-seven today. Diana and I visit the jinja (shrine) of Jurojin, our first of Shinto’s seven lucky gods, which is situated inside a Buddhist temple – a puzzle we will have to leave for another time. Even though we are the only people there, the main shrine has a cold and commercial feel, but nearby, beside a rough stone lantern entwined by a fantasically-shaped palm tree, is another more appealing in its scale. It is presided over by a bizzare clay figurine of a man with ferocious expression and no arms, in front of which have been left dozens of tiny china models of a fox (Kitsune, magical shape-shifting messenger of the god of rice, we later learn). Its washing basin is formed from a shallow depression in a huge stone fed by a sinuous copper dragon, green with verdigris. At this place I feel for the first time a sense of wanting to be involved, of invitation – from its genius loci perhaps? – and as I complete the ritual of rinsing mouth and hands, ringing the bell, clapping twice and leaving a few one-yen pieces on the offering rock, I feel as if I have in some mysterious way been accepted.
I spend the afternoon alone in the warm sun of the coutryard of Shizuki’s temple, sketching a gorinto (stupa formed of five geometrical shapes) a small shrine and stone lantern beside the main building. The cleaning lady is much amused and peers over my shoulder, indicating that she’d like to see more from my sketch pad. „Ah, Champion-sensei!“ she exclaims, on recognising Jane’s portrait. „Buddha, Buddha“ she insists, pointing into the temple’s Hall with a gesture of drawing. She watches as I produce a pretty miserable attempt at capturing the statue’s elegant curves and ambiguous smile in pencil. „Mutskashi!“ (difficult) I apologise. She finds this hilarious.
The evenings are getting colder. We sit wrapped in blankets at the low table with a charcoal fire beneath warming out feet, while Keiko, dressed in stunning kimono serves us an extra- formal ocha ceremony with special adzuki bean dessert as a birthday celebration for me. Her slow deliberate movements, the ordered elegance of her reception room, and the bitter taste of the tea bring goosebumps to my skin.
Today we walk up Senzan, the 500m (1500 ft) mountain dominating the center of the island. The path gradually leaves the industrial plain, then the fields, and heads into thick forest, twisting steeply up over rocks and roots and earthbanks, shadowed by giant trees in a riot of autumn colours. We pass little kami shrines with their offerings, stones draped in bits of cloth, rocks carved in labyrinthine lines. The Buddhist temple and pagoda at the top are impressively large, but have little to seduce us to stay. We are just doing a fortune lucky dip, when suddenly Diana remembers that she has left a pot of beans cooking back at home. Panic: four hours have passed and we are miles away! A house made of wood and paper and full of priceless things, with no-one due home until late afternoon to rescue it!!! We race downhill to the road, visions of charred, stinking interiors haunting us, hitch-hike the first car we can and are back inside an hour. To discover that a miracle has occurred: at 2pm – precisely the moment when Diana remembered – feeling unwell and planning to take the afternoon off, Jane came home from school. To find the beans cooked to perfection!
A CITY INTERLUDE
We take the ferry over to Kobe on the mainland, in the company of many varied craft from decrepit fishing boats to supertankers making their way to and from the busiest port in Asia. We spend a couple of days there in the company of Amano, an Osho disciple, who has travelled to India and spend time with Western ‚seekers’ there. At the disco he takes us to most of the dancers dance alone, or in front of mirrors, occasionally with a friend of the same sex. There are a few shy, hesitant glances between the groups of boys (awkward and self-conscious) and the girls (sexily dressed and made-up, but seeming to wear it all as a costume they are not at all sure how to fit).
There is none of the agressive sexuality of such a scene in the West and afterwards in a cafe we ask Amano about sex in Japan. He tells us that he himself started at fifteen with a girl of the same age, but that this was highly unusual amongst his peers. They were too shy to discuss the subject together at all and this, he says, is typical: even in adulthood Japanese have no concept of sex as a form of communication and treat it as a secret that can never be mentioned. He emphasises how for Japanese women marriage is still overwhelmingly their primary goal in life, and ruefully admits that, as a bachelor of twenty-nine, there are simply no single women around older than about twenty-five for him to date. We have already been noting how nobody ever holds hands on the streets, or touches each other in public, but whether or not the Japanese are hung up about sex in the same way as the West is still not clear to us. At a gift shop at the Awaji ferry terminal today we bought a little pottery figure of a man and woman bonking away, on display in full view of groups of passing schoolchildren!
We take the bus to Gokuku-ji tera (temple), home to another of Shinto’s seven lucky gods, the jovial Hotei. But the place is a scene of chaos and noise, with building operations and a coachload of off-island tourists arriving just as we do, so we move on. We pass the dark tree-clad mound that has previously been pointed out as the Emperor’s tomb and, my curiosity piqued, I can’t resist calling a halt. It is several hundred meters long and rises island-like from a flat plain, crammed with horticulture and people. Not to be deterred by the obvious lack of entrance, nor the encircling moat (fortunately dried up in places) I plunge in alone through the undergrowth and beat my way up to and along the crest, avoiding giant green and red spiders which, as if they were guarding the place, have strung their webs at head-height.
I don’t know what I’m expecting to find: a monument or sign of this long-dead Emperor; even ‚buried treasure’ perhaps? At least something to explain this mute mound lying undisturbed in the fields. All I do find is a forbidding atmosphere of desolation. Birds caw their displeasure overhead, while I crash past huge twisted treetrunks and retreat sweating back to the road, my heart pounding. Later I learn some fragments of the story of this thousand-year old tomb: of the Emperor Jungning, who may or may not actually be buried there; of bad luck in his life and disasters after his death that were only resolved by the removal of his corpse from Kyoto to Awaji. For the first time on the island I understand that there are places here to which I may not be invited, especially if I bring a gate-crashing, goal-orientated attitude with me!
We go on to Ebisu’s temple at Manpuku-ji, the next of our lucky seven. The priest there enters the temple stamp and calligraphy in my sketch book. The result is a work of art rather than a mere souvenir, so back we go to Hotei to collect another. The chaos there has subsided and Hotei’s young priest puts in a big and bold calligraphy. In good English he then introduces himself as Gien and goes off to fetch his stunning wife, Kiyoko (who doesn’t). It is her birthday, he announces, as she brings out slices of birthday cake to share.
Their two little children join us and we sit together while he relates how ten years ago he travelled in the USA for a month; how he first met Kiyoko and then decided to become a priest; how he left for two years training on Mount Koya on the mainland and then came back to marry her. She nods and smiles, though it’s plain she understands only that she is part of the story he is telling. He also explains at length about his temple, the present buildings and gardens three hundred years old, their predecessors having burnt to the ground many times in their thousand-year history; and attempts to answer our mystification about why these seven Shinto gods are housed in Buddhist temples: „Shin-Butzu, the oldest form of Buddhism in Japan, “ he begins „The front of the gods are Shinto and the back Buddhist.“ He ploughs on for a while before giving up: „It’s complicated!“ He and Kiyoko accompany us back down to the bus stop; there are sincere arigatos all round and it is with genuine warmth that we all promise to meet up again.
Kouho Nakao, the charismatic ikebana teacher and Ryoko, the young English-speaking nature lover that we met the other evening, drive us to see the ancient wizened tree at Tenjing-jinja, one of the three most important shrines on the island, where the island’s students come when they need to pray for good luck in their exams. We then go on through twisting lanes in the bright sunlight of a glorious day, and up a series of hairpin bends to the grassy site of Shirasu (Bee-hive) Castle, utterly destroyed, Kouho relates, by Hideyashi, the first Shogun. He shows us where to look in the remains of what had once been the castle’s grain store, where scraping at the soil through the grass I come across a perfectly recognisable blackened 400-year old rice grain, the only survivor of the destruction. On the way down Ryoko hunts us out tiny chestnuts and some purplish wild figs to eat.
On to Kouho’s farmhouse and into his magnificent kare san sui (dry-mountain-water) garden, where rocks and plants are combined with a curving bed of pebbles to give the impression of a river flowing through hills. The stream bed is made with Awaji’s goshiki, five-coloured pebbles, which when sprinkled with water show up in marvellous marbled hues. Chinese bamboo, cactuses and groundcovers ‚flow’ over the rocks; around them are placed stone lanterns, a moss-covered stone water container, a palm tree, a variegated holly bush….the eye keeps discovering new details. Kouho points out the centerpiece, a convoluted black rock he brought down from the mountains himself and invites us to ‚ see’ the ox in it that had inspired him to carry it down.
We pass inside past an array of bonsai trees, some of which Kouho tells us are more than a hundred years old, and many of which he and his father (who was an ikebana teacher before him) brought down from the mountains and bonsai-ed themselves. Once inside, and having been greeted with the lowest of low bows by Kouho’s wife, Kiko, we look around wonderstruck. The eye simply can’t fall anywhere without lighting on something extraordinary: a portrait of the Zen-monk landscape painter Sesshu; a bees nest suspended above a spiraled cone-shaped pot; a carving of a hawk perched on a tree root; wood and paper screens delicately carved in vegetative swirls and painted with botanical studies; a spray of orchids in an exquisite vase…..
We turn our attention to the table and the beautiful things appearing there. Ryoko translates as Kouho tells us that his wife has been out collecting a wild leaf called yomogi, from which she has made special adzuki bean sweets. She also serves us the farm’s own nagaimo (mountain potato, a kind of yam) served uncooked in two ways: deliciously marinated in rice vinegar; and whipped into a slimy and extremely difficult-to-get-down liquid. We also pile into persimmon from their orchards, home-made cakes and the inevitable green tea. Kouho then regales us with stories, press clippings and photos from his numerous visits to Korea, including one showing him disembarking from a plane and being greeted by a crowd of his ikebana fans sporting a banner of welcome. In fact he tells us he merits ‚protection’ from the Korean CIA! As he drives us home, a huge full moon just rising above blue silhuetted hills, I see his strong hands on the wheel, their fingernails split and worn, and reflect on this extraordinary figure, who manages to be at the same time farmer and teacher, gardener and renowned artist. Is there anywhere in the West today where such a man could be found?
Feeling like I badly need the exercise and some extended time alone, I head off early for a long strenuous walk, aiming for Getsu Yama (Moon Mountain) which is marked on my map as the highest point in the north of the island. The map doesn’t show any way of reaching it however, so I point myself upwards and follow a path that dwindles and disappears into bamboo thickets. I’m on my hands and knees before long, and even when I relocate the path it leads me into chest-high brambles. I’m forced to retreat downhill and stop for a break in the woods. Over an apple and cigarette (which taste like the best I’ve ever had in my life) I recall the Emperor’s tomb and reflect on this morning’s two-hour battle with vegetation. Why are we so disatisfied with where we are and always trying to reach somewhere else? The comforting solidity of ground on which I sit, the tangle of trees which I overlook, the sun falling on me and my apple and cigarette are here and all I need. My little Zen platitude is absorbed, the colours around me seem to grow richer and I sing a little song and am at peace.
But my muscles are not going to let me rest long and, joining a road alongside a steep valley, I decide to take the upwards direction. After a while there is a sign for Joryuji Temple, which at 515 meters, my map confirms to be only slightly lower than my original goal. The summit road there commands the most incredible view over the inland sea and the main islands of Honshu and Shikkoku on the horizons, with Awaji itself spread out below me. At the temple in its forest clearing two men are fixing the roof. An old woman caretaker presents me with oranges and hands me ink, brush and stamps, indicating that I will have to do my own calligraphy. I am aware of her eyes on me while I eat and then begin clumsily wielding the fat brush, and of something stirring in me just below consciousness. These temples, I suddenly realise, looking up to meet her approving gaze, are just excuses! It is the journeying, the beauty of nature at this special place, and the contact with a human being who feeds me oranges that really matter I run light-hearted back down the mountain alongside a bubbling stream, in and out of forest, with no sign of habitation or traffic until the coast road nears. With aching legs to satisfy my need I reach home in time to make dinner for the household. My first efforts with the calligraphy brush are undeservedly admired.
Today is Shichigosan Day, when girls aged 3 and 7 and boys aged 5 are taken to the shrine to be blessed. Keiko takes us to Shizuki’s Haijman-jinja, with Norrie (who is four, but apparantly missed the ceremony last year because she was asleep) looking cute in a tiny kimono. While a priest chants and Keiko takes the girl up to offer folded white papers to the kami image, her brother and sister run about screaming and climbing all over everything. Neither mother nor priest seem to care. Keiko then seems to feel obliged to take us on somewhere else, even though it is clear none of us really feel up to it (but that can’t be said in Japan of course…..) and we are dragged off to another shrine and then an awful cultural event full of men standing around smoking. Norrie is feeling sick, her kimono and wooden sandles are bothering her and the whole thing turns into an undignified retreat for home. Diana’s and my mood is not improved when we get back to learn that our planned two weeks of teaching English here (the payment for which we were relying on to help fund the rest of our stay on the island) is not going to happen. This means we can only afford to remain on Awaji one week more.
Jane, Geraldine (an Australian we have met who is studying Awaji’s famous puppet theatre, and who has also been labouring under the impression that she is the only foreigner on the island) and the two of us makes four geijin together taking the bus down the island: something for our fellow-passengers to stare at indeed! Diana and I get off at Kakujuji to add a stamp for our collection at the temple of Bishamonyen, the next of our lucky seven, and then make for Gien and Kiyoko’s temple at Gokuji. They are surprised and delighted to see us and we drink tea with them and their two young children in their three hundred-year old garden. An atmosphere of easy familiarity is building, with Gien and Kiyoko exchanging the first glances of real intimacy between a couple I’ve seen here.
He invites us to write our names and wishes for the future on some terracotta tiles destined for the new roof of the temple, and his daughter, Mitomi, as gorgeous as her mother, peers intently over our shoulders as we write and then, grabbing the chalk, does her utmost to copy the shapes of our lettering. „What is the purpose of your visit to Japan?“ Kiyoko suddenly enounces carefully and joins in our laughter at her clearly well-rehearsed and probably first-ever attempt to pronounce English. I find my heart absolutely charmed by the intense femininity with which she – like most women I’ve seen here in Japan – makes her presence felt. As we do our best to put into words what we hardly know ourselves, we have to keep reminding Gien to translate, for Kiyoko is leaning forward, head slightly atilt, intent on understanding.
Gien drives us to two old temples, neither of them marked on my map. The first, Nariari, is set back a long drive into the hills on a bad road. A wind is starting up and a late-autumn evening rain threatening. The Buddha, an eleven hundred-year old, life-sized, standing Yakushi (healing Buddha) has lost most of its coating of gold leaf and looks, somewhat sadly, as if it feels its age. Gien tells us it stood in an important temple in Kyoto until seven hundred years ago before being moved to the newly-built one here. A priest brings out his stamps, including one that displays ‚National Treasure’; yet the whole atmosphere here is one that says ‚little-visited’ and I can’t imagine anyone except locals penetrating to this obscure spot. Perhaps, I muse, the image rests out his days here nostalgic for his past glories in the capital?
We hurry, while the light is still with us, to reach the second temple, Kokobunji. This, Gien tells us as he drives, was the first Buddhist temple on the island, established by the Emperor Shomu as one of the first fifty temples in Japan in the 8th century, and stirs us with the promise that we are about to see the most beautiful Buddha on Awaji.
While we wait outside the heavy wooden doors, he goes off to find the keys, which come back in the wrinkled hand of an old nun, mala (rosary) in other hand, who unlocks for us. At our backs the sun has just set as the doors swing open and it is with a gasp of astonishment that we see what is revealed: the last of its glow burnishing a huge golden Shakya Buddha. Relaxed on his lotus base and blessing us with upraised palm, he feels big enough physically to carry the three of us on his shoulders with ease and, with his reassuring smile, big enough spiritually to remind many more than us of the message of Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya tribe, the man who became Buddha: ‚Everything is as it is meant to be’, is how I hear it and with tears in my eyes, I can only stare at this great being who has radiated his blessing from this place for nigh on twelve hundred years. Back outside the ordinariness of this temple strikes me; if we had chanced on it by ourselves, we probably wouldn’t even have bothered to enter into its precincts. And the place isn’t even marked on my map! On the way out the old nun shows us the stone base of a long-vanished pagoda, and Gien starts up on some tale about ancient scrolls believed to be buried beneath it. But the first drops of rain are falling and we scurry for the shelter of the car without hearing him out.
„Is this place special for you?“ Diana asks and for once Gien only smiles and shrugs. „I’m happy you loved it,“ he says. How grateful I feel to him for opening these doors for us! He got the right job with that joker Hotei, god of contentment and happiness, to look after!
Diana and I collect stamps from two more of the lucky seven, Benten and Fukurokuju. Both temples being gaudy and commercialised and undergoing visits by bus tours of supplicants, we begin to wonder why we are bothering. We spend the rest of the day moping around at home feeling unhappy at the thought of having to leave so soon, until at 7pm a call comes: „Why aren’t you in class?“ Turns out that seven people have turned up for our English lesson despite the cancellation. We dash off completely unprepared, to find a group of chatty fourteen and fifteen-year old girls. It is a comic sight to see them introduce themselves: whereas most Westerners would point to the region of our chests when we refer to me or mine, the Japanese point to their head, and even touch their noses! They ask us lots of difficult to answer questions („What Japanese movies are popular in your country?“ and „Do students there find learning Japanese difficult?“) and giggle a lot, hand covering mouth, as they struggle with pronounciation. Later Jane tells us how lucky we are, as the students in the Government school where she teaches by day are mainly interested only in passing the exam and, although they have a pretty good command of written English, daren’t speak a single word of it aloud.
Gien takes us up to Nanbeiji, the second temple at which he is priest. It was once important, he tells us, but now he is only required occasionally, when, on the fifth week after the death of a relative, someone wants to pay homage to its Buddha, Jizo. At that time they roll little rice cakes down the hill but Gien’s English is not up to clarifying exactly why. His Shingon sect believe that, after death, souls cross a river and have to face the fierce Buddha, Fudo for a week, he informs us, followed by twelve more weeks in front of different Buddhas until finally they are judged by Ama Dai, who sends them to heaven or hell. „What about re-incarnation“ Jane asks him „Aren’t Buddhists supposed to believe in that?“ We get a rambling discourse about the Japanese version of the Sanskrit letter A (a rather angular and distorted om sign), which is inscribed on graves and considered to be an eye through which paradise may be glimpsed; and about gorinto, the five-wheel-towers composed of geometrical shapes found in temple courtyards. But Gien is obviously no theologian and we are sorely taxing his English. An old lady appears, her face a mass of lines and wrinkles through which a bright pair of eyes gleam. „She’s very religious,“ Gien pronounces. “Lives up here alone. Each day her son brings her up a little food.“ She mumbles something to him through toothless gums. „She’s asking you to come and stay up here with her sometime.“ „Hai, hai“ we intone in reply (who ever says ‚no’ here in Japan?) and the old woman beams.
Back at Gokokuji we are joined for a family dinner by their kids, Kiyoko’s brother Ichiro from Kyoto (who speaks good English) and Jane and Geraldine, so it turns into a party. Dinner is ‚Western style’, meaning that Kiyoko sits and eats with us instead of remaining in the kitchen and appearing only to serve us food; and ‚serve yourself’, from a table piled high with arrays of salads, pickles, fish dishes, mountain potatoes etc etc. Accompanied by plenty of sake, we all pile in. This is the first time that I feel completely relaxed and without inhibitions in the company of Japanese. Gien and Kiyoko’s relationship is the most equal we’ve seen here and there is much joking and teasing all evening about him washing up, fetching dishes and being generally at her beck and call. Kiyoko is trying hard to keep up in this English-dominated milieu and when we produce a calandar of scenes from British Columbia for her, we learn how desperate she is to travel. After dinner I do her portrait as she sits in zazen for twenty minutes, while I tussle with the first Japanese face I’ve attempted. The result, which I present to her, is not very good from my perspective, but is a tremendous success from hers, and for the rest of the evening the sketch is repeatedly brought out and I’m showered with gratitude. In those moments her face would require a Rembrandt to do justice to!
Gien presents us with another piece for our jigsaw puzzle about the Japanese and sex, when in response to Diana referring to me as her „central heating in bed“, he turns to Jane and in plain view of his wife and kids says: „Let me be your central heating tonight!“ Laughter all round, especially once Gien has provided Kiyoko with the translation she demands. We are up until after midnight, accept our hosts’ offer to stay the night (jokes and fantasies apart in conventional fashion!) and bed down in the front room.
I go to see the Christian minister to pick up some acrylic paints that Ryoko has left there for me. He tells me how he converted to Christianity in college and how difficult it is to be different, to think for oneself, here in Japan. There’s something sad about him as he tells me that since his conversion he feels a foreigner among his own people; that he is ‚studying’ Buddhism to find out what people believe, and that there are just forty Christians in the town. I sympathise but feel only pity for him that he has become so divorced from his environment. I know well how it feels to be born into a culture that I no longer feel particularly at home in, but it hasn’t led me to feel alienated and lonely in the way this man seems to feel.
Suppertime before our class and, having been so busy all afternoon preparing for it, there is nothing ready to eat. The fridge too is empty and we really can’t spare cash for eating out. As we wonder what to do there is a knock at the door and there is one of Jane’s colleagues with a big plate of home-made sushi. It’s a gift for Jane, she announces, but naturally, on hearing that Jane is away in Kobe, relinquishes it to us. For the record, I’m having trouble getting through the class because my knees are now almost perpetually sore from all this kneeling on floors.
Inexplicably Keiko has been very cool and remote for days now, so it was nice yesterday when she suddenly warmed up and took us to a hip young potter in Sumoto. His brown tenmoku wares looked the very essence of zen chic. „Very wabi-sabi!“ (untranslatable, Jane tells me –but roughly combining the meanings of rustic, asymetrical and spiritually inspiring) Keiko cried as she sought out some pieces she fancied. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the potter pressed them on her and wouldn’t take a single yen for them! We left to bows, Keiko absolutely chuffed at her gifts.
Picking oranges and wild figs as we go, Diana and I spend the afternoon in the hills behind town. I stop to draw a wabi-sabi stone lantern in the fields: three crude magalithic blocks sandwiching a hollowed cube in which a lamp can be placed. An old man is ploughing his acre nearby with an ox and single blade ploughshare and waves in greeting when he sees us take his picture. „Tosan-ji tera?“ he queries, so we follow the direction of his outstretched arm to the temple at the top, where cars are parked and a crowd of people are milling around. The site overlooks the steepest gorge we have yet seen on Awaji and, leaving the crowd to its devices, we follow the bare rock faces round to be hit with the most stupendous view we have yet seen on the island: a great panorama of mountains and sea, streaked with rapidly-changing light as a high altitude wind flings clouds across the sun. How I wish I could converse with someone like that old ploughman, I realise, as we head down through the fields again. Did he lay one those twenty-yen coins on that lantern in a moment of homage? Perhaps he, or his ancestors, muscled those stones one on another to create it? And why there? I would like to ask him. Just what does it shed light on when it is lit, if it ever is?
Nara, 23rd November
We join Keiko and fifty or so mostly middle-aged Japanese on a hired coach for the ferry and then four-hour drive to Nara. A guide speaks at volume into a mike almost non-stop, in what we recognise to be the most elaborate ultra-polite Japanese, while heads dutifully turn left and then right in response to whatever it is we are whizzing past outside the windows. Inbetween her commentary she sings slushy romantic ballads to taped music.
At Nara’s deer park our group joins a zillion other people clustered around ‚leaders’ carrying flags. Ours is green and has ‚Izanagi’ blazoned on it. We stop twenty meters or so from various objects while our leader shouts into his mike and everybody flashes out their cameras. If we attempt to steal any closer we get nervously ushered back. We are set up for innumerable group portraits in front of statues, pagodas etc, while other groups come over to try to get us to join them for photos, or snap our pictures individually. We are whisked through various shrines and temples and occasionally get a moment to ourselves to take in what glimpses we can catch through the throngs, of the park with its tame deer loitering on the sward around trees in riotous colour.
Lunch in a restaurant with beer and sake gives our spinning heads a little relief before our group’s Zxhaustive searches of the kitschy souvenir shops. Finally the moment we have been waiting for comes and we are led together with a flowing tide of others into Todai-ji temple, home of the Dai-butsu and the world’s largest wooden building. Eyes adjust to semi-darkness and peer upwards; find they need to peer a lot further upwards than expected; then hey – shock –that’s only his chest they’ve reached so far! As its bronze form emerges from the gloom, the colossal scale (fifteen meters, fifty feet) of the Buddha statue lifts me for a moment above the crowds and noise. But I quickly fall back: each tour group arriving has its leader with megaphone; it’s a cacophony in there! Just one thought occurs before we leave: ‚I’d love to stand in his palm.’ Outside, Diana confirms she had the same one.
On the bus on the way back other passengers take turns at the mike until we too are requested (pressurized more like!) to participate and give them a rendition of ‚Twinkle twinkle little star’ (the only song I know guaranteed to be recognised and capable of being joined-in-with in every single corner of our planet). I feel the group bond strengthening and begin to see what the Japanese get out of doing everything in company. There’s warmth in our collective goodbyes and thank yous and I’m bewildered to realise that I actually enjoyed myself today.
Awaji, 24th November
On a walk of a mere few hundred paces just beyond the edge of town I discover so much! First a little altar at the edge of a field with a collection of images carved on tablets, at which I light an incense stick and add a few coins to those already there; as I leave a woman approaches and I watch for a sort while as she offers her devotions, then straightens up and gazes for a moment at the view before passing on. A short stroll and I come upon a stone lantern set on a platform amidst ferns, a single one-yen coin and freshly-plucked leaves set before it, a clean white folded paper suspended above; another woman passes and I follow her as she carries flowers up to a group of moss-covered graves, secreted in a bamboo grove. Further on there is a shrine in the forest with a dilapidated tile roof, a brand new bell and bell-rope and a crudely-carved statue barely recognisable as human. All this, and yet there were many paths I didn’t take that I’m sure led to much, much more. I am astounded at the cultural (or do I mean spiritual?) depths that lie, intricate as banyan roots, beneath the day-to-day life of this small country.
I then crash my way up to the summit of Miyoken San, at 519 meters a point that has been dominating our views north from the town with its two tall crowning cedars, and which Diana and I have been calling ‚half moon mountain’ because of its distincive concave profile. My map shows a road, but if there is one I never see any sign of it. Instead a path walled in by dense forest leads to a broken down and neglected shrine surrounded by a semicircular wall of stones. The kami image, which I glimpse through locked doors, is a simple round mirror. Strange, that our nicknaming was so appropriate!
Rainy days keep us indoors packing. Our class, which has grown larger as the days pass, finishes this evening. Everybody has fun doing role plays, singing English songs from songsheets we made for them, having tea and sweets and exchanging addresses, and we end with ‚Auld Lang Syne’ (a slightly garbled version of which they already seem to be familaiar with). Maniko, a sweet eighteen-year old, drives us home as usual and is delighted with the little present we have for her. She is typical of the joyful and refreshingly naive way in which so many people here want to be our friends, and are so grateful for our company. „Everybody sad if class is ending“ she tells us and there are tears on her cheeks when we part.
After an early morning spent up in the hills painting the sunrise on the bays and capes along the coast, I come down to find Keiko and her friend Tadzuko dressed up and ready to leave for one of our typical island mystery tours. We start off at a private pottery collection viewing works by the famous nineteenth-century Awaji craftsman Minpei Kashu. From there we drive out into the countryside on a lonely road, park the car and start walking a long muddy path lined with trees towards a ramshackle house tucked into the forest. We must be in for something special because who could ever imagine Keiko risking her kimono in mud? We follow the ladies in through ancient wooden sliding doors and duck to avoid the bamboo stems that support the low upper floor. An old couple appear to greet us: her face is textured with countless lines and bears a look that is proud and almost regal; his is timeless, it could be young or old beneath his thick head of long grey hair. „Kida-sama ninety-one,“ Tadzuko whispers as we are led further in. „Wife eighty-six.“
Keiko has brought all the makings for tea ceremony and we kneel in the formal reception room with the screen doors open to the sunlit forest to watch Tadzuko perform it. The old couple are still and silent, intent on the ceremony, barely seeming to breathe. In their tokonoma (alcove in which works of art are placed to be admired) is a scroll in Zen style, portraying her in long robes sitting beside a mountain stream, and an intricate bronze of Kannon (the female Bodhisattva of compassion). Above the door hangs another Zen-style ink and wash of a wrathful Bodhidharma. The tea is drunk in a spell so profound it feels like none of us will ever be able to break it, until finally the man reaches for something and presents us with a watercolour of Mount Fuji. „I paint every day and that is why I am so healthy at my age. “ he says later in answer to our question, as Tadzuko translates. His eyes crinkle: „Plus sake three times a day and a whisky before bed!“
I feel slightly mesmerized by the pair of them, their dignity, their slow, spare movements that seem effortless but complete themselves so precisely. Keiko and Tadzuko are far too involved in chatting with them to be bothered with much translation, but it doesn’t seem to matter at all. There is a lot of laughter. And are those tears or just tiredness that I see the old woman wipe gracefully from her eyes at one moment? In the middle of all this there emerges an apparition from the garden: a blue-suited gentleman clutching a briefcase. It turns out he is on his rounds from the local bank, persuading people to open an account and offers a box of tissues as a free promotional gift. After his speedy and disappointed despatch, while Jane and Diana doze in the sun on the porch, I explore the farm buildings, heaped with dusty junk, piles of lumber, persimmon drying on racks, and stacks of logs with huge brown cultivated mushrooms growing on them, and try to imagine my bank in England sending a rep to some lonely farmhouse on the Isle of Wight.
In view of our imminant departure, more essential visits are being closely packed into our schedule for us. Today it is the turn of the Kado family (he arranged our English classes for us) to receive us, in an unusual surprise visit. He and his wife admire the Rocky Mountain calendar we present to them, and share photos of their family trips (only three days possible) to Fuji and the Japanese Alps. After the inevitable green tea they show us their flower farm, present us with a big bunch and leave us in the company of their eighteen-year old daughter, Miyuki, who is just back from an exam (on a Sunday!). On a walk through the fields she shares her hopes and dreams with us. She has to work too hard, she tells us, for she plans to study sociology at Kobe University next year. Then she will have to live away from home and this is „very frighten for me“. I’m not surprised really, because for all her eighteen years she doesn’t look, or sound, more than about thirteen, and being charmingly naive on a flower farm in the hills is hardly preparation for the big city!
She leads us down a stream to where a filmy waterfall drops into a deep, tree-shaded hollow overshadowed by a rockface. At the foot of the falls, glistening in the damp moss and lightly dusted with fallen leaves, a small image is carved into the cliff. It is Fudo (the fierce guardian Buddha) ringed by flames and sword in hand.
A vase of flowers and offering box is placed on a boulder on the near side of the pool where the path ends. Behind us is a little temple still in sunlight containing the usual altar but no image. The living rock itself must be the real temple here. A new moon and Venus light the evening sky as we head out into the twilight from the Kado house for the short walk home.
Back in Shizuki we are intruduced to Taroi, a photographer specializing in temples, the grandson of Taikichi Irie, one of Japan’s most famous photographers. We sit in their little shop with him and his wife Yasuko, both shy but clearly tickled to have us there, surrounded by an untidy pot-pourri of junk, cameras, books and pictures. We buy an extravagently gorgeous book by his grandfather and are presented with a Heart Sutra he has hand-written in kanji, „To put in your shrine at home in Canada!“. He shows us a photo he was invited to take of the ‚Secret Fudo’ at Ryuho-ji on the west of the island. This twelve hundred-year old image, at a hilltop temple at the end of a long hike, is only opened for viewing for one day in every sixteen years! He knows the waterfall Fudo we saw yesterday too, Kotaki-ji, he calls it, ‚Water Dragon’. He and I go out to buy sushi and sake, and suddenly his reserve is gone. Somehow we get on to the subject of geomancy.
Britain’s ‚ley’ lines are new to him but Feng Shui’s ‚dragon’ lines he knows. There are currents of power from the Grand Shrine of Amaterasu at Ise, through the Daibtsu Temple at Nara, Kurime-jinja on the north of Awaji and on to Shikoku island, it seems, but he’s telling me so much, so fast, in a mixture of Japanese and English, that I can hardly take it in. Back at home I draw Keiko and her daughter Mie. We are interrupted while Keiko talks on the phone. She doesn’t appear to find anything strange in me being poised, pencil in hand, waiting to resume while she gabbles away in front of me for half an hour. She’s hard to work out sometimes!
Our last day with Gien and Kiyoko, and at the end of it I feel unexpectedly sad about this parting. We start the day with them over lunch in Shizuki and then drive north to collect the stamp of Daikoku, completing our lucky seven. Then on to view a garden where the four of us can just manage to girdle the trunk of a twisted old camphor tree in the graveyard. „Look like Senju Kannon!“ Kiyoko jokes, referring to the popular thousand-armed goddess. She is trying hard with her English today, and Gien is doing his best to give her space to talk, patiently helping her with a word here and there and letting her try to explain slowly the things that he could have translated for us much faster.
Back for tea at our place and then off on a real adventure, with storm clouds darkening the sky and rain starting as we drive up to Tosan-ji. When we walked this hill a couple of weeks ago it had seemed easy going, but now it reveals itself as positively hair-raising! „Don’t worry,“ Gien shouts into the rear, as we take another hairpin, cliffs dropping away dramatically beneath our wheels. „I’m a Buddhist priest. there are ten thousand Buddhas in the back of this car with me!“ „Very interesting“, Kiyoko comments after each particularly hairy moment, bringing on fits of laughter all round.
A plump nun opens up for us and we watch Gien as he chants some sutras before the wooden Yakushi statue. „Husband tortoise,“ Kiyoko says pointing to him and then to herself. „Strong. Every person like. Kiyoko hare. Hare live one island want go another island need to walk on back of tortoises.“ „Hare?“ Gien, joining us, teases her. „Hare more tricky than fox even!“ Then to us: „And the animals our old story says the hare tricked into letting him use their backs as a bridge were crocodiles, not tortoises.“ He leads us off to see the twelve statues of the gods of the old Chinese astrological year, explaining how they and the Buddha statue were brought here for safekeeping from Kyoto during the Meiji Restoration, a time of fanatical pro-Shinto, anti-Buddhist sects.
„What animal you?“ I overhear Kiyoko ask Diana, as they trail behind. Then more hilarity in the car as Gien shows off on the rollercoaster road back down in the dark and we are all thrown helplessly from side to side. „Let’s keep driving until we get to Canada!“ he cries. „The moon!“ Kiyoko shouts. A screech from the brakes. „Very interesting!“ Is he driving recklessly? „It’s the ten thousand Buddhas. They want me to drive them to the stars!“ Where is all this hysterical laughter coming from? Are we drunk? On what –love?
So we part, in the driving rain, hugs all round. First time I’ve hugged a Japanese. In fact first time I’ve ever seen a Japanese hug! „Come and live near us when you return!“ they call out as the car door slams and we are gone from each others lives.
I never did go back to Awaji, or to Japan, nor had any contact with any of the people I met on that trip again. In those days before email, Facebook and Skype, didn’t it feel strange not to even send a postcard to people with whom we had spent such stimulating times? Perhaps I carried Gien and Kiyoko’s or Keiko’s address on a scrap of paper for a while; perhaps I meant to send a card at the next Post Office I came across? I don’t really remember. We were travellers, and the next destination beckoned. And life seemed so endless from the perspective of our late twenties. Surely there would be time enough for our next adventures and to return to revisit our old ones? Now more than thirty years have slipped by and time has not proved to be so compassionate. In the absence of their email addresses, I’m sending the people who made my trip to Japan so memorable love and gratitude by heartmail across the waters and the years.
Diana and my Japan trip didn’t end in the rain at a car park on Awaji of course, but the details of our last hectic days in Japan’s cities are too mundane and anti-climactic to recount in detail. The next morning we bade affectionate farewells to Keiko and Jane at the ferry and half an hour later we were in the crass commercialism of Kobe, musak blaring from the boutiques, the chic people’s fashions absolutely radical compared to the island’s (even if still pale and homogenous compared to the West). But those final days in Kobe, Kyoto and Tokyo helped me to make a little sense of what had so captivated me on Awaji and also led to many musings on past and future.
I spoke with Amano again, a man who had been exposed to India’s multifaceted cultures and the Western seekers there, for whom the past and old Japan –flower arranging, tea ceremony, Zen temples – preserve the form of Zen truth but not its heart. „There have been many enlightened Masters here in the past,“ he told me. „But no more. We honour them but we need to throw out even their memory now, so that when we throw out the rubbish – the supression of women, shame about sex, group-thinking, fear of authority – nothing will come creeping back under their robes!“ My brief visits to the famous Zen temples of Nankenji and Ryoanji in Kyoto certainly confirmed his hypothesis; what we get to see of them are shell-like museums for tourists and school trips of badly-behaved children, loudspeaker commentary bludgeoning out the silence.
The craftsmanship is stunning, and the blending of the man-made (buildings, walls, statues), with the man-engineered (trees trained to grow ‚just so’, rocks arranged with careful hapazardness, gravel precisely raked) and with Nature (the carpet of autumn leaves on the paths that are truly random) is a wonderful aesthetic. But I found myself longing for the working paths of Awaji: the ones taken by farmers on their ways to their fields, with ancient mossy steps that result from genuine disuse not cultivated neglect; the ones that lead to a tiny graveyard in a bamboo grove beside the forest, placed where it can be easily visited by hard-working farmers’ wives, rather than one arranged with its Buddhas set ‚just so’ for perfect viewing from an abbot’s quarters. The disorder in the real world is not carefully planned, and for me it cannot be stage-managed; to attempt to control the world is to lose contact with it.
I remember those many walks along the periphery of Shizuki, which revealed such a subtle touch in the hand of pre-modern man on the landscape. How special places, eiher intuited as intrinsically holy by virtue of some outstanding natural feature (a rock, a tree, a junction of streams), or particularly useful (a crossroads, a graveyard, an ownership boundary) are marked with the lightest of touches: a carved stone, a tiny shrine, a twist of paper hung from a branch. For sure, sunset on the great Buddha at Kokobunji was an goosebump-inspiring moment, but its impact has faded from my mind: it is the honouring of ordinary daily life at the tiny shrines in the fields that has stayed with me; an image of the people who are busy working the earth kneeling briefly in spontaneous homage before it and then passing on their way. As Osho has it: „Try to leave this Earth a little more beautiful than you found it. That is religion.“ Perhaps the polymathic Kouho Nakao, farmer and artist of flowers, who remains a bright beacon in my memory, would agree.
Of course there is more to those Zen temples than astounding architecture and gardening, as well as large sections that we visitors don’t get to see. We had dinner one evening in Kyoto with an artist friend of Jane’s, whose American husband was doing a PhD in Zen and practising fourteen hours of zazen (sitting meditation) per day at Ryoanji. I could pass no judgement of course on what he may have been getting out of it; though my personal experience since has confirmed, as Osho teaches, that it is practically impossible for man today to empty the mind and attain no-mind without first clearing out the centuries-worth of repressed traumas and sexuality with which it is burdened, through catharsis, dance, laughter and tears. Without, in other words, living this modern life of ours to the full.
„Chopping wood, carrying water: that is the whole of the Dharma“ as the Zen proverb has it. Old Kida-sama will be long gone by now and – in a world where ramshackle nooks out of the reach of bank managers are becoming increasingly hard to find – his reborn soul will have to partake in far more complex timber and water management if it is to discover the same equinamity and peace it achieved in the life I met him in.
So while we navigated Japan’s teeming cities and made our arrangements to leave the country, images of the ancient glimpsed in Awaji continued to haunt me, as they do still today. Modernity has meant such ugliness: the long queue for a taxi we had to stand in one night in Tokyo, full of drunk men going home after midnight to loveless homes; the mindless addiction to long working hours; the half-hearted aping of Western fashion, consumerism and mass entertainment, while the other half-heart blinds itself with a fanatical chauvinism that labels geijin as dangerously inferior and irrevocably other. Yet two women give me hope for what may emerge for the Japanese – for all of us- from the churning cauldren of tradition and novelty, taboo and innovation that is cooking beneath Japan – and the world: one just starting her journey, the other well advanced on it; both threatened with being torn apart in the strain that accompanies a new birth.
The first, Yuko, was a mother of two we were introduced to in Tokyo, who had met her husband Sui-ichi (a former left-wing student radical then in the process metamorphosing into a dedicated high-school teacher) in British Columbia while they were there holidaying with groups of friends. She spoke good English, had trekked alone in Nepal before her marriage, and was trying to save up for another visit to Canada, with her new family. She worked hard – two incomes were vital to survive in the city-devoted all her spare time to her children and got on well with her husband. „We are close like brother and sister!“ I remember her announcing proudly. Yet she had been seeing a doctor about depression, and every year the plans for the trip had been receding further.
The second was Kiyoko on Awaji, tentatively beginning with English and also longing to travel, who was opening to the realization that she had a voice to be heard. But who was there to hear it? Their role as women in this society was based on the age-old tradition of being in the role of giver without thought of self. (See how they allow their husbands to interrupt them – even if it be gently – to speak for them, to be the do-ers and deciders! And at the old Kida couple’s home, who even thought to ask the wife what the secret of her aged youthfullness was?). It allowed them to be at ease with their femininity, to express themselves with the grace that so charmed me throughout the journey. But their strong attachments to their children, and the massive pressure to conform to their society’s norms and become mere supports to their husbands and offspring –these leave me fearful that with every passing day their strong spirits would have found it easier not to resist. They needed the support of men who were open to the power and pleasure of giving, and to the dangers of too much doing; yet while both Shu-ichi and Gien were exceptional, neither came across as fully liberated from the expectations, as males, to receive and to dominate. My sense of hope is based on trusting they found it.
Get, dominate, control: this the language of the ‚head’ (albeit operating on the level of habit more often than as conscious thought). Japan gave me a chance to see how natural it is to start operating on a heart level when the ‚head’ level of communication is blocked by language barriers. It was mutual I’m sure. Our Japanese friends and aquaintances must have found us as charmingly naive and innocent as we found them. They must have tuned into our emotional messages, puzzled over our inconsistencies and laughed at our idiosyncracies as we did theirs. And with that contact to the other comes a strong attraction based on natural human curiosity, as well as a self-questioning based on natural human doubt. It was a gift we could give each other, a gift that travel can give to all those who are open to it; one that the whole world could probably benefit from if given the opportunity.
So is one of Japan’s messages for me simply: „Tear down the walls; book those flights; bump into strangers?“ I guess it is. As I wrote on the plane leaving Tokyo for Taipei thirty-odd years ago: „ We are all becoming exiles now, abroad on the seas of the world, drawing sap from every continent, leaving little pieces of ourselves in every country. On these journeys towards the true home, at the heart of each of us, we must abandon our temporary homes and live wherever we are called.“