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Thursday, May 26, 2011

ZEN AND A GLIMPSE OF JAPAN: A TRAVELOGUE




2010 © zen Wolfgang B. Sperlich Iitsu


For any European traveler of ordinary means (scraped together as a working-class resident of New Zealand), Japan must rate as an exotic destination one must see at least once in a lifetime. Personally I had an additional reason: having had a youthful infatuation with Zen-Buddhism, and having read all the Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki books on the subject, I felt I had a spiritual déjà vu, if not of Japan but at least of the Zen gardens of Kyoto. Naturally Kyoto would have to be on itinerary. Facilitating this desire was the additional good luck of having one of our nephews – married to a Japanese – being resident there.

Chances further increased via a stint of work in Taiwan. My round trip ticket Auckland-Osaka-Taipei-Osaka-Auckland seemed a good chance to include a two week stop-over in Japan on the way back to Auckland, especially as the ticket was booked with Japan Airlines, JAL. A phone call to their Taipei office produced a number of language difficulties – the staff being fluent in Chinese but not in English – but eventually it was resolved that at a small surcharge I could stop over for the two weeks I wanted. I made my plans accordingly, including the forewarning of my nephew in Kyoto that I would be on my way. A few days later I received a panic phone call from JAL to say that it all had been a terrible mistake and that I would have to purchase new tickets if I wanted to stay in Japan. The new tickets would cost thousands of US dollars and I wouldn’t get a refund for my existing tickets. What the hell was that? I protested endlessly, trying out the range from very polite down to very irritable but to no avail. In the spirit of Zen I forgave the people involved, feeling sorry for them in not having achieved even the first step towards satori. Furthermore I imagined that my name popped up on a list of soft security risks since my proposed visit coincided with the 2008 G7 meeting in Osaka. After all I am publicly associated with the likes of Noam Chomsky. Who knows?

Such fears were put to rest when the next chance arose. Our son’s wedding ceremony in Taiwan would allow us to do a NZ-Taiwan-Japan-NZ trip. My wife – henceforth queen-bee (q-b) in imitation of D H Lawrence’s travel writing practice – and I booked accordingly and, lo and behold, all was OK with AKL-Tokyo-Taipei-Tokyo+12 days-AKL. Perhaps the inclusion of q-b had allayed any residual fears on the part of secretive Japanese border officials.

Q-b’s interest in Japan was based on romantic notions to do with beautiful artifacts, such as receiving a Japanese fan from her grandmother, which in turn had been acquired by her seafaring husband who had been to Japan on a commercial vessel a long, long time ago. Then there was the fabled Japanese food, and as a fabulous cook q-b looked forward to sampling the real thing. And there was her nephew and his family to visit in Kyoto.

When we disembarked at Narita Airport in middle of July 2009 we came well-equipped with a 10 day Japanese Rail pass, and accommodation booked for the first night near Narita, and subsequent bookings for Hakone at Lake Ashi, for Shirahama, and for Kyoto (as arranged by our nephew). As we made our way through the labyrinth to find the bus to the hotel, we didn’t really feel we had arrived. Major airports around the world are pretty much the same: gleaming glass facades that diminish to concrete alleyways the further one gets to the plebeian reaches, such as bus stops where a designated bus picks up travelers and dumps them at various hotels. As it was night already, we could merely admire the convoluted motorways that criss-crossed the landscape otherwise dominated by illuminated, monstrous airport hotel and warehouse complexes.  The bus driver was immaculately decked out in uniform and gloves, driving his not so modern bus up and down hotel entrances and we were told to get off at one of them. The only difficulty in checking in was that our booking slip showed ‘breakfast included’ whilst their desk copy didn’t: it’s an old trick by 3-star hotels to bully travelers, who think they are of 5-star quality, into paying extra: after all a 5-star person doesn’t quibble about such things. Q-b however – as a descendant of the Black Prince (Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, 1330 – 1376)  – doesn’t go for such rudeness, and in no time did we get our free breakfast tickets.

After breakfast next day – certainly not a Japanese breakfast – we took the bus back to the airport from where we’d jump on the train at the airport railway station. Prior to this we had to validate our Japan Rail pass, which took a long time and got us close to missing our train to Hakone – having to change trains at Tokyo. The bureaucracy involved looked suspiciously like the one practiced in Germany, which brings me to the first caveat of this piece: having been brought up in (West)-Germany one carries a horrific historical baggage, as must the Japanese, and as such one must offload a few bits and pieces first. OK, let’s not talk about the war, especially as the Japanese got punished more than the Germans, what with atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (neither place on our itinerary). Second, let’s not talk about killing whales, especially as
q-b and I now reside in New Zealand where many people love whales as much as cats and dogs. Also let’s not talk about the extremes of Japanese consumerism such as the tamagotchi (digital pets). Finally lets not talk about the slave-like workers mentality inflicted upon the Western capitalist world, such as developed and enforced by the likes of Toyota and sold to management types as kaizen (continuous improvement). Seeing hordes of salary men getting on and off the shinkansen (bullet train) we were traveling on gives me the opportunity to make a few comments later on.

Let’s forget the unpleasant comparisons between Germany and Japan, the notorious saying of ‘you are so clean for your poisonous gases can’t be seen’, let’s focus on what happened instead.

Once the Japan Rail clerks had laboriously copied data from our passports and transferred it to ledgers from the 19th century, having obvious difficulties with the Roman alphabet, one would have liked to tell them that most of the world’s photocopiers are Japanese brands. In any case they also issued the tickets we were after, and we rushed off to catch the commuter train to Tokyo Central Railway Station. What with allocated seats and our minimalist luggage there was no problem and we settled in for the 1 hour or so trip to Tokyo. The landscape looked a lush green, dotted with human habitation and road transport systems that increased with ever more alarming intensity, as the greater Tokyo environs turned into a vast sea of concrete and mind-boggling tenement high rises that were often so close to the railway line you could see into their living rooms. We were spared the more gruesome details as we descended underground and eventually we were disgorged into an absolute mass of humanity at the underground Central Railway Station. We had 45 minutes to connect to our first shinkansen (bullet train). With five million signs every 10 meters we were lost in a vast cavern that appeared to be more like a huge underground shopping mall than a railway station. Every now and then we passed information stands and were shown the direction. 45 minutes suddenly seemed a race against time, as there was no telling how much further it was. Q-b of course had no such fears and suggested we stop to buy provisions for the forthcoming train journey of more than three hours (we only had had breakfast to that point). I managed to convince her that we should find the train first, and then get some food. There were levels up and down to navigate, corners to take, terminal exits to avoid and finally, in good time, we came upon the right platform, having checked with various official looking railway people who all verified with a bow that we were on track. The train hadn’t arrived yet so there was time to check out the kiosk on the platform. There was nothing much edible and such as there was, was packaged in clear hard plastic that needed either a sledgehammer or surgical equipment to open it. Single items of fruit were similarly packaged. Soft drinks of every conceivable flavor and artificial color were neatly stacked in vending machines and for which we didn’t have the correct change – not yet having gotten used to the Yen currency that is a bit like what Italian Lira used to be. Everything costs hundreds and thousands. After much thought q-b acquired various strange food packages as well as bottles of water. I could not be persuaded to quickly run down the stairs to see if there were any proper food shops down there – lest I got lost and miss the train.

The platform was now populated by what seemed to be all Japanese passengers as well as railway workers, cleaners and sundry. No foreigners to be see at all. Still, nobody paid any attention to us, save a quick glimpse, as if to say, ah, tourists on the way to see Mt. Fuji. The waiting passengers all seemed to be dressed in business suits, making us look like characters from another planet, what with me sporting jeans, a T-shirt, long hair and a beard. Every now and then we would see a sleek shinkansen breeze through the station, with a sort of woosh that takes the breath away. Having just come from Taiwan where we rode the brand new bullet train made by the Japanese, we were not totally overawed, but after all Taiwan only had one such high-speed line. Here there seemed to be millions of such bullet trains coming and going.

Our shinkansen arrived at the appointed time – trains in Japan, as in Germany, are always on time. We took our allocated seats and attacked the plastic packages that contained plastic food. Q-b had commented that she found it odd that there were no sushi packages, such as one can get in every food stall and supermarket in Auckland. I was so hungry at that stage that I would have eaten plastic display food, packages inside the packages included. In flight service came around with tea and coffee and we were foolish enough to get the coffee. It tasted anything but.

Since this shinkansen line didn’t go underground at all, we were given a view of various parts of Tokyo, passing by with dizzying speeds. Vast industrial complexes merged with residential blocks, reminiscent of Taiwan but all very orderly and organized as opposed to the architectural chaos that dominates Taiwan’s rapid development. As we progressed to the countryside – at least according to our flimsy tourist map – we became aware of the more low-rise settlements, closely stacked housing units with tiny gardens, again reminiscent of German post-war development whereby the more rural middle classes congregated in mass produced housing units that were made to look like Hansel and Gretel cottages. Occasionally one could discern what looked like more ancient structures with pagoda-like roofs and wooden walls.

With only a few stops to our destination at Odawara, there was not much movement in our carriage except a change of groups of businessmen who treated each other with seemingly artificial deference depending on rank – known only to them as they all looked very much alike. Only the trained eye would perceive small but vitally important differences in the size of the briefcase, laptop, cell phone and other gadgets common to a highly stratified business culture. At appointed times they would consume food packaged exactly the same way as ours. There were no businesswomen to be seen at all. Females only seemed to come in the shape of appendages to retired gentlemen who garnered highest respect from ticket inspectors and all aboard. Obligatory bowing became very deep indeed. Given my advanced age, with long white hair and white beard, I was looking forward to equal treatment.

Given that this was our first full day in Japan, we were full of anticipation, as to what was to come next. From Odawara station we were to get into a bus provided by the Hakone Prince Hotel and take us to the shores of Lake Ashi, fabled as a retreat and onsen (natural hot spring baths) for royals and lesser mortals, and from where one could admire Mt. Fuji as a backdrop. Q-b and I were in agreement that we needed a bit of luxury and rest and recreation after our hectic week in Taiwan. When we alighted at Odawara station we were struck by the fact that we had landed in Japan: this was the real thing. A sort of small town feeling with a mixture of old and new, a few narrow lanes and shops that seemed to sell real things. After locating our hotel bus and having time before departure we frequented a bakery-café that served real coffee and delicious croissants – funny how one goes for the things one knows! In anticipation of fantastic fare at the hotel we didn’t do any shopping. Big mistake! Of note was the sudden change in temperatures: we had counted on a Japanese summer and came equipped accordingly. Now there was a chill in the air. 

There were only a few elderly Japanese on the bus. The driver, decked out in hotel uniform, navigated the elderly bus along narrow streets and up into wooded hills. It was late afternoon and the mist started to roll in – the temperatures plummeted. Beautiful tall fir trees hugged the step hill sides, and one got the feeling of an ancient landscape, wild but tended to by thousands of years, the roads and fords constructed to take in the scenery rather than just to get from A to B.  As the evening set in, the shadows grew longer, and the mist made visibility quite restricted. As we came upon villages and small hamlets one could only make out streetlights and the houses along the street – a mysterious wonderland, half expecting a shogun or two to emerge from the shadows. These habitations, as we saw them seemed lifeless. Well, it was quite chilly and it was sensible to be indoor, hidden from view of the tourist bus speeding through the countryside. It took just over an hour to reach our destination. Approaching the Prince Hakone resort hotel we could just make out Lake Ashi shrouded in mist. The whole complex seemed enormous but strangely empty.

The vast parking areas had only a few cars in it. Nobody to be seen. Situated in what looked like a botanical garden in the evening gloom, there appeared the main entrance and various bellboys appeared to take our luggage to the front desk. After the bureaucratic formalities we were taken along a fantastic lobby hall down to a rotund looking building, and up the lift to a sumptuous room with a balcony that looked across fantastic trees to the shore of Lake Ashi. What a place! Quite cold though. We played with the remote air-conditioning control and put up the room temperature. However, in the first instance we were starving. The hotel boasted several eateries and we put on two layers of summer clothing to explore. It turned out that all were closed, bar one. The desk staff explained that this was off-season. Aha! Shivering with cold and hunger we went off to the ‘French’ Restaurant. We looked inside and it was devoid of patrons. A sleepy waiter assured us that the place was open and French cuisine was ready to be served à la Carte. Then we looked at the prices. Over one hundred US dollars for the cheapest dish. Q-b refused immediately. There must be some other place where we can get some food. We wondered around outside and came upon various shops attached to the resort complex – all closed. Q-b says that when I get hungry without a solution in sight, I can get very irritable. Maybe we can order something reasonable via room service. We retreat to our room that hasn’t become any warmer. We ring room service to be told that we’d have to choose from the menu of the French restaurant plus a hefty surcharge for room service. “Forget it” proclaimed q-b and made me ring the desk to find out why the room temperature hasn’t increased from freezing levels. They desk staff seem to have difficulty in understanding what I want. They will send someone. After a long while and still nothing to eat – I am beginning to eye the snacks in the mini bar – a bellboy comes and looks at the remote control for the air-conditioning. We use body language to indicate we are freezing. He nods wisely and leaves. Desk staff subsequently informs us that this is the summer season and air-conditioning is set permanently to a maximum of 19 degrees. But it’s winter out there and there is ice forming in our bathroom. They do not understand my playful exaggeration. I attack a snack from the mini bar – something unspeakably artificial. Q-b disapproves and points out the price for such rubbish. My irritability increases. Maybe we should have a hot shower to warm up. Maybe we should go for a walk and check out Lake Ashi and then check out the famous onsen – if still open. In the heavy mist we wonder to the shore. The walkways are manicured in the way of a Zen garden – or so I imagine – and nature all around is perfect in every way. Since one cannot see more than a few meters across the lake one can only guess at the wonders on the other side. The brochures show Mt. Fuji rising at the far end of the lake. The serenity is overwhelming and we are the only people here. Let’s check out the onsen to see if we can warm ourselves in the hot water. We find the entrance and the good news is, it is open until 10 pm. Quick, run back to our room and get changed. The rules say that one has to turn up in hotel-provided bathrobes, which turn out to be some hilarious pajama-style uniform that makes me look like a clown. No matter, as the onsen experience is famously in the nude, who cares, or so I read in all the tourist literature on this subject. So we saunter down the hotel corridors in our ridiculous garb, and we have to separate, as there are separate entrances for Ladies and Gentlemen. At the desk I’m given towels and a small flannelette that according to instructions can be used to cover private parts. When sitting in the water one can fold it up and put it on one’s head. Wow! I disrobe in the locker room and venture into the fore-chamber where one should wash oneself before entering the onsen proper. There are many open cubicles with a sort of shower contraption and there are small stools. I see one old, boney looking person crouched on the stool, facing the wall, and vigorously scrubbing himself. There is no one to be seen in the onsen which has a roof with open sides to the Zen garden that stretches down to the shores of Lake Ashi. I have a shower and then enter the deliciously hot onsen. It is not advised to stay in the water for more than 10 minutes at a time. I cool down on the paving stones that surround the pool complex. Looking into the mist that is illuminated by the lamps of the walkways, I can make out the carefully arranged natural scenery. The various mosses that cover the ground particularly attract me. One is tempted to lie down on them. I go back into the water and put my flannelette on my head. The old guy in the shower cubicle never showed up. A high wall separated the pool complex between male and female but one could hear voices and splashing from the other side. I called out to q-b. Did she have any company in the water? ‘Yes’ came the rather shy and muffled answer. ‘Some old ladies’.

It was approaching 10 pm closing time and we got out, returning in our funny clothes to our room. It was cold and I was getting very hungry. We brewed tea (provided for free) and q-b allowed me two snacks from the mini bar. The toilet provided some amusement in that it had various gadgets attached to it, one that washed one’s bum and one that heated up the toilet seat to an agreeable temperature. If we got cold in the room we could always have a nap on the toilet. TV was all in Japanese except for a baseball channel.

We were ready to spend our first night in Japan, and rise and shine early so as to secure a substantial breakfast somewhere along the line.

The morning was as misty and chilly as the evening before. However one could make out the other side of Lake Ashi – a hilly, forested area. No sign of Mt Fuji though, as the further reaches of the lake were shrouded in mist and cloud. We waited at the door of the nearby bakery cum café for the doors to open at 8 am. The choices seemed to be restricted to American donuts and other sickly sweet and sticky items – mind you, the coffee was drinkable.

We determined to take the tourist boat to the nearby lakeside town of Motohakone where we surely could get a decent lunch and buy provisions for our food-deprived stay. On the lake we saw a couple of boats dressed up as Disney pirate vessels, presumably a tourist attraction for young and old for when the season kicks in. The little seaside town proved to be as sleepy as the resort hotel, and as we walked up and down the length of the main street, we just made out two eateries that were actually open for business. The main point of interest seemed to be the tori gate at one end of the town and since we had seen another one on lake’s edge that – according to our tourist brochure – was the gate to a Shinto shrine, we determined to check out the real thing after lunch.

We ordered hot sake with our noodles, which was just as well, as the noodles were served cold. There was no sushi on the menu either. Still the sake put us in a good mood (we bought two more bottles for enjoyment in the privacy of our hotel room) and we set off to the other tori gate, having to walk along a pretty lakeside path to get there. The gate was right on the edge of the water and if one positioned oneself under it in a particular way, the resulting snapshot would show one suspended on water. Two young Japanese tourists asked us to take their picture, and I obliged with making nice comments about their digital camera which was much more up-to-date than ours. After they disappeared we were all alone again. Stairs led up the hill, past some magnificent trees, leading to the Shinto shrine that was carved into the hillside, affording a spectacular view across the lake. Along the path there were a variety of small shrines.

This reminded me of my former home in southern Bavaria where the main church had a number of small chapels and covered statues dotted in the landscape – one could make a small pilgrimage from place to place, pray here and there, make a donation in the money box for your favorite deity, and end up in the main church to make yet another donation so that one’s sins might be forgiven forthwith. Having never experienced a Shinto shrine before in our lives, we were quite taken by the serene surroundings, although the main shrine proved to be a bit of a disappointment. The main temple was augmented by a shabby looking administration building, and there were various kiosks that sold religious paraphernalia. One was used to the commercial side of religion but this salesmanship of cheap trinkets seemed to cheapen the whole scenario. As we went around taking photographs, we came across the main door of the admin building and saw an interesting exhibit in the lobby. The door was open and we entered, and no sooner than pointing the camera were we accosted by admin people who told us to get out. No explanation given. At the kiosk we saw a Shinto nun all dressed up and we asked if we could take a picture of her. She refused. I got the feeling that Shinto shrines, like Chinese temples, like Catholic churches, like all spiritual edifices in the world, are nothing but cheap attempts to fool the foolhardy into believing that supernatural power is on your side, if you only make adequate donations to keep the enterprise rolling over.  The greater the temple the greater the donation must be. Still, we could only marvel at the surroundings. There is a definite Japanese art form to make the natural surroundings as stunningly natural as can be. None of this European nonsense of presenting nature as artificial symmetry, what with the ridiculously square gardens of Versailles being considered the epitome of natural design. I was beginning to wonder how the Zen gardens in Kyoto were to stack up in this competition of the natural best. I didn’t have any great hopes for the Zen temples for reasons given above.

We sauntered down the steps, back along the path, and back to the sleepy town. At the other end was an art gallery we wanted to see. Situated on a little hill, again in stunning gardens, it sported an inside viewing platform from where Mt Fuji could be seen in all its splendor rising far above the northern side of Lake Ashi – or so many a postcard and tourist brochure showed. Today unfortunately nothing at all could be seen, not even the entirety of the lake.  The exhibition of modern paintings was nothing very famous but the faithful copies of a few classical Zen paintings on scrolls were very tempting. This idea of making ‘true’ copies of ancient masterpieces was known to us from Taiwan, where there was a veritable industry in vases, statues, and other artifacts – all made to perfection and commanding prices that were almost as expensive as the original in some cases. The Zen paintings of the perfect brush-stroked bamboo or of the bald-headed, rough-looking Zen master are legend, and the one life-sized copy I liked cost some 80,000 Yen (which at the time was close to 1,000 US dollars). Q-b said it was worth it and an investment. I procrastinated for an hour and then decided it wasn’t worth it.

It was evening now and we debated whether or not to try another eatery for dinner. Just then, around a corner we came across a Seven-Eleven – just the same as they have in Taiwan. This US convenience store is still pretty much unknown in New Zealand, but is surely to conquer the planet along with McDonalds and Coca Cola. We were in seventh heaven, as we had not seen any other food shop at all here in Motohakone. We determined to buy ingredients for our own dinner we could make in our hotel room, remembering that we already has two bottles of the finest sake in our bag. Fully laden with semi-plastic food in plastic shopping bags, we realized we had missed the boat back to the hotel, so we hailed a taxi. It was an ancient black Toyota decked out in the inside in white upholstery fabric, the driver wearing white gloves. He drove very slowly so as not to give the engine any grief, and once we got back to the Hakone Prince he announced that there was a 200 Yen surcharge on the metered fare, due to the time of the night or something or other. He tried his best not to look sheepish, and even q-b relented, she who usually resents such rip-offs with great gusto.

We tore into our food packages once in our room, and rigged up a system with the hot water kettle, for making the sake hot. Soon we were happy as Larry, and ready for the onsen. This time the male compartment had quite a few customers, all behaving very serenely, nobody speaking, moving in and out of the water quietly, flannelette on head as prescribed. Being in a mischievous mood due to intake of sake, I splashed around a bit until I got a filthy look from a muscular looking gentlemen, who, I could swear, was missing a finger, and as such was most likely a member of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia whose membership sign is a missing finger). I put on a stupid grin and behaved myself. On the other side of the wall one could hear giggling and much splashing of the water. I didn’t dare call out to q-b as to what the occasion was and whether or not she could detect any female Yakuza. She later told me that there was a gaggle of old ladies who relived their childhood. She thought it was a bit embarrassing, especially in their state of nudity.

Following onsen, we wandered around the resort grounds, getting wet in the heavy mist that rolled in from the lake. We bravely jumped over a chain at the entrance of a jetty and sat at the end dangling our feet in the ice-cold water – considering that it was summer. Further down the line there was tied up a whole raft of paddleboats in the shape of giant plastic ducks. One shudders to think what the place looks like when in full swing later in August to October (the official summer season). Imagine touring groups of Yakuza engaged in duck fights. Somewhere along the lake there was also an imperial summer palace for royals to contemplate Mt Fuji, and perhaps they too charter the pirate boat and a duck or two for their entertainment. We were feeling quite resentful that hitherto we had missed out on such sights.  Maybe tomorrow Mt Fuji at least will reveal himself. In fact it was the last chance, from this vantage point in any case, as we were on our way, around lunchtime. True enough, early in the morning we saw something from our window.

Yes, yes, this must be Mt Fuji peering through a small break in the clouds. Not very distinct but nevertheless. As we waited for further clouds to shift we could make out further bits and pieces, and yes, according to our hotel picture postcards of views of Mt Fuji, this must be it. Still after peering intently through the clouds, we never saw Mt Fuji revealed in its glorious entirety. Maybe as the morning progressed we might have a better chance, especially as we planned a trip on a gondola up a big hill. The gondola departed from the hotel grounds. Well, it didn’t depart as it was under maintenance. Instead we wandered along the lakeshore to catch further furtive glimpses of Mt Fuji. Soon it was time to get on the hotel shuttle bus back to Odawara station. The landscape was now much clearer even though the sun never broke through the clouds. The misty, mysterious Lake Ashi and its hilly, forested environment left a deep impression: a quintessential Japanese Zen landscape, naturally crafted, more natural than nature intended, with a very long history of travelers having traversed this region in search of onsen and stunning views of Mt. Fuji – or so the literature claimed without fail - not that we could verify the latter.

At Odawara station we were told that we could take an earlier bullet train and they re-issued the tickets all the way to Shirahama accordingly – the shinkansen taking us to Osaka, and then a local express train to Shirahama. All sounded very efficient and helpful. We bought provisions for the journey. Still no sushi in sight though. Maybe it was invented by KFC and is sold only in English-speaking countries. The train trip to Osaka was to be about 3 hours. From there on a slower train, going south for over an hour, to the seaside resort of Shirahama. If you follow the Tokaido shinkansen line, you will see that it actually gets a bit closer to Mt. Fuji than the distance is from Lake Ashi to Mt. Fuji. Maybe we could catch another glimpse as we passed. No such luck. A friendly passenger told us that it is very unusual not to see Mt Fuji during this time of the year.

The landscape whizzing past regularly changed from urban industrial to rural agricultural, and after a while it was all a blur. The passengers, again mostly groups of salary men clutching their cell phones and laptops, carefully observed the hierarchy with subtle degrees of bowing, even when sitting down. The boss man dispensed words of wisdom and the occasional joke, the juniors laughing politely. When we got to Nagoya the whole train emptied and we guessed correctly that we had to change trains. It wasn’t at all clear from the tickets we were holding. Looking for an official in rail uniform, we were to ascertain that the train to Osaka was to leave from the same platform. Hmmm, what if we had ignored the procedure and stayed in our compartment; or what if the compartment had been quite empty and we would not have noticed that everyone was getting off. The announcements in the train only mentioned the name of the station – maybe there was an announcement in Japanese. Such may be the dangers of not speaking Japanese. Anyway, we made it and resolved to carefully watch out for similar happenings, lest we get left behind on a train to nowhere. On the shinkansen from Nagoya to Osaka we noticed that the time of arrival for Osaka on our tickets did not coincide with the real time – we would get there half an hour or so later. We showed the tickets to the conductor who looked perplexed. It also meant that we would not be able to catch the appointed train to Shirahama on time. He didn’t speak English and his explanations in Japanese seemed to indicate that there was nothing to worry, as we would simply catch the next train half an hour later – in handwriting he changed the time on the ticket to Shirahama. He also wrote something in Japanese on a note pad with a Japan Rail letterhead, and gave it to us, bowing deeply, and assuring us that “all OK, all OK”.

Given that the route to Osaka went via Kyoto, we were very excited to see the city we would come back to from Shirahama. Well, from the perspective of the train window the place looked rather flat, surrounded by hills and mountains. The main station of Kyoto didn’t look any different from any other railway station, and the industrial complexes were no different from those in the neighborhoods in Tokyo and Nagoya. It is kind of surreal to be in the centre of all that is Zen, and pass by vast and ugly factories that bear names ever so familiar in the Western world of consumerism: Omron, Kyocera, Nintendo and Shimadzu. The short ride to Osaka continued in the same vein, only on an even larger scale, what with signage of well-known Osaka based companies such as Matsushita, Kubota, Sharp, Daihatsu, Daikin, Obayashi, Sanyo and Sumitomo. Osaka as one of the most important commercial gateways to Japan certainly has that nondescript feel about it – at least as seem from our train window. It all seems well ordered, if only a tad shoddy, such as factories are all over the world. Only the administrative headquarters are fantastic glass tower monstrosities, belching power and money, providing the captains of industry with suitable offices in the sky, carefully shielded from the rusty ramparts of the factories, where the armies of workers toil their life away. To avoid embarrassment, the CEOs should be advised to remove their signs from the factory chimneys, lest by passers-by on trains get the wrong impression.  

At Osaka‘s main railway station we had to transverse vast distances to get to the platform of the regional train to take us to Shirahama. As predicted by the previous conductor, the next train was on time and we boarded accordingly. We sat down on our designated seats, and then the drama began. A Japanese gentleman who seemed to be followed by a middle-aged Japanese lady all dressed up like a Geisha – and never having seen one in the flesh, and so close, I was duly distracted. The gentleman brandished a ticket saying we were sitting in his seat. I showed him ours and explained that the conductor in the previous train had noticed the discrepancy of the time, and had amended it accordingly and had assured us that it was all OK. The gentleman looked at our ticket and saw the handwritten changes, assuming, I presume, that we had changed it ourselves, due to perhaps missing the earlier train, or whatever devious plans we may have had. He insisted that we move. He spoke tolerably good English. I explained our situation and then the conductor arrived, bowing profusely to the gentleman, and to the lady who had taken a single seat opposite us. In fact the compartment was largely empty, and as such there was no shortage of seats. Triumphantly I produced the note from the previous conductor, which the present conductor studied carefully while the gentleman raved at him waving his ticket about. I explained that the tickets were re-issued at Odawara and obviously the clerk there made a mistake in the timing of the tickets, which was rectified by the conductor in his note. The gentleman wouldn’t have a bar of it and insisted that we move. In return I insisted that we remain in our seats. The conductor bowed and bowed, and seemed unable to convince the gentleman that we were bona fide travelers, and had the Odawara clerk not made a mistake, he would not have been issued with this seat number. But he had! We came to a bit of a standoff. I kept looking at the middle aged Geisha woman, thinking that he was somehow her consort – or rather she was his – and as such had to save face and stand his ground. Since I made no sign of moving despite him getting angrier and angrier, and the conductor unwilling to use force to evict us, the gentleman gave up, and magnanimously declared with utter contempt that he would let us have the seat. The conductor must have agreed with him in Japanese that we were a bunch of stupid foreigners, who lack all decency, and go around the world on falsified train tickets. He sat down a few rows from us. Only then did I realize that the Geisha woman, who had studiously ignored all the goings-on, had in fact nothing to do with the Gentleman in question. She remained seated in her solitary seat while the Gentleman, in a huff and a puff, had meandered to another seat at the front of the compartment. He left the train long before we got to Shirahama, and so did the mysterious Geisha woman. Q-b reckoned that I had been rather rude to the Japanese gentleman, and that in principle he had been right. We should have moved – well, one of us should have moved as only one seat was in dispute. I argued that Japan Rail was to blame in giving us the wrong ticket, and that we should not have to suffer for it. Q-b argued that I should have checked the tickets and noticed the incorrect timing. Well, we did check and notice, I said, even if it was some time later. Sure but it was too late for Japan Rail to issue another ticket to the Japanese gentleman, who bought his ‘correct’ ticket in good faith, checked it and found it all correct. I tried the following scenario: if I’m in a near-empty train in New Zealand and a foreign looking tourist, say, an elderly Japanese gentleman – accompanied by his beautiful wife – is sitting in my assigned seat, I wouldn’t even blink an eye-lid, and simply sit somewhere else. I might mention it to the conductor when he comes around. That’s all. That seemed to work.

For the rest of the journey we were busy snapping photographs through the window, especially along stretches of the coast. The environment certainly seemed to be of a regional flavor, what with a succession of small towns and villages, a welcome, relative lack of high-rise buildings, rice paddies and other small scale agricultural uses of the land, winding roads and fishing boats in the small harbors. The train stations also were scaled back to manageable proportions, now busy with school children in uniform who seemed to behave like school children usually do: more than happy that school is out for the day. One reads a lot about the intolerable pressures faced by Japanese high school students, forced to compete as if it is a question between life and death. Coming from New Zealand with a population of some 4 million, one can only wonder how some 120 million Japanese on a landmass only one third bigger than New Zealand’s manage the stratification of their society. New Zealand is quite blasé about failing more than one third of its student population any given year, pouring instead all its resources into making sure that the small elite gets a far superior education. Japan must have a far greater elitist spread, and what with the middle classes pushing for spots in the upper classes, one can imagine the dog eat dog mentality when it comes to success in education – meaning national examinations that are designed to confound the intelligent poor and reward the dumb, whose parents can afford to buy the exam before it is administered. Japan after all, after WWII, embraced the US system of education that is equally structured. Being a long-time teacher, I felt great empathy with these exhausted looking school kids scampering on and off of the train, seeing how they are being manipulated by a viscous system that manufactures a labor force of willing slaves. Of course, as I assured q-b, I could be entirely wrong. Q-b assured me in return that most probably I was not. We make a good team when it comes to analyzing the shortcomings of this world, Japan included.

It was towards evening as we approached the Shirahama station. In fact it was the end of the line for this train. All get off. Our Lonely Planet travel book told us that we have to catch a bus to the seaside hotels. We had already booked one from New Zealand, however we were advised to confirm our booking the day before arrival. Hence we had placed a phone call from our royal digs in Hakone the night before. It was a very odd conversation, since one end could only speak English but not Japanese, while the other end could only speak Japanese with a few odd expressions in English, like ‘welcome in Japan’ and ‘what is your passport?’. In the end we went to the front desk of our Hakone Prince hotel and asked the relatively better English-speaking personnel to place the call for us. Of course we didn’t understand a word but were reassured that everything is ‘OK’. ‘OK’ we said in return. As a linguist I was beginning to feel quite ashamed for expecting all the world to speak English.

We were the only tourists in sight but the bus driver seemed to understand where our hotel was, and that he would tell us when and where to get off. All decked out in a neat uniform and white gloves, he steered his rickety bus as if in charge of a royal carriage. He ignored us totally despite me looking at him intently at every bus stop. One disheveled old lady came on board without a fare, ranting and raving all the way to the next stop. Shirahama is quite a sizable little seaside town of some 23,000 inhabitants, and it took quite a while to get where we wanted to go. We could see that we were getting close to the actual sea side – and to our horror made out the concrete palaces on the hill sides (all as pre-viewed these days on the Internet, Google Earth, Youtube and what have you) – and finally the bus driver made a triumphant gesture that this was it. Opposite the bus stop we could see the beach. Great! The bus driver could have dropped us off a 100 meters earlier, right in front of the hotel Shirahamakan, especially as no one else was on the bus by that time. But no, regulations clearly forbade such a courtesy. As we rolled our cabin luggage along the footpath to said hotel, we were certainly very pleased with ourselves for having booked a relatively cheap hotel – with Japanese style-rooms and in-house onsen – right in front of the beach, as opposed to the mega hotels that were perched all around the neighborhood. We were welcomed by the reception staff and after the obligatory filling out of forms, and inspecting of passports, we were informed that we would have to take dinner immediately, it now being 7.00 pm, the exact time for dinner. We could see our room after dinner. Since we were hungry as wolves, we did not object. We were seated in a dining room that looked like an attempt to recreate a Viennese boudoir, what with drapes and continental furniture in odd combinations. There appeared a waitress all decked out in traditional dress, not quite as accomplished as the Geisha lady in the train, and proceeded to fill our table with the most exotic looking dishes, explaining all the way – in Japanese – how to eat and in what order, standing by our side, smiling with delight, as we assure her that this is the most delicious food we have ever tasted.

Some of the items that q-b identified as octopus and other unmentionables were left on the ornate collection of porcelain dishes, exclaiming that we love these things but were already so full as not being able to eat another mouthful. Q-b was most impressed with what must have been ten courses or so, and insisted that we take at least as many pictures of the waitress and the food in front of her. There was some exceedingly delicious desert to top it all off, and after many compliments to the waitress and the chef, we were led along many mysterious corridors to our room. Wow, a real Japanese room, futon mattress on tatami floor mats, screens and all that! The shower and toilet was in a funny position but never mind. The window allowed for a peep of the sea. Time for an evening walk.

We crossed the road from the hotel and up a few steps and there we were: the Shirahama beach. Quite a beautiful bay, white sand stretching down to the water (an Internet site had reported that the sand was actually imported from Australia). There was hardly anyone to be seen. What could be seen was the large waterfront hotel to the right, all lit up in its dubious glory, and to the left at the end of the bay were more monstrosities to be seen.

The beach boardwalk in between had all sorts of recreational nooks and crannies – all deserted. The temperature was balmy but the sea temperature seemed a bit cool, i.e. not inviting enough for a midnight dip. It all seemed quite bizarre: by all accounts a major seaside resort in Japan, not exactly off-season (mid-July) but devoid of seaside revelers. Must be true what we had read: the season is strictly between August and September, not a day earlier and not a day later. We certainly didn’t complain about having the whole place to ourselves. Having seen pictures of mass occupation of the beach during the high season, one could only shudder at the thought of the loudspeakers suspended from high poles entertaining the crowds with Japanese pop music late into the night. Now it was almost romantic.

Time to call it a day with a late bath in the onsen at the hotel. Luckily there were no silly uniforms to be worn, so we got into our bathrobes and entered through the separate little gates – blue for males, red for females – and, lo and behold, this looked like the real thing – not like the Hakone Prince affair, what with stylish modern architecture and conveniences. The initial locker room was combined with the shower room (with wash basins) and then there was a sliding door into the pool area. The far end was all enclosed by natural looking rocks, and the partially open air section had a tree that reached up to the high walls that enclosed the bath area. Through the greenery one could make out a few windows from nearby high rises and wonder if peeping Toms were at work. Set aside was another enclosed area – with roof – that sported several big wooden tubs. It all looked very authentic, maybe in need of a bit of maintenance here and there – and again not a soul to be seen. The water in the tubs was much hotter than the water in the pool, hence one could sit in one for a few minutes, go to the next and sort of cool off on the smooth rocks of the pool – all stark naked of course. Indeed a most relaxing affair in an onsen that seemed to have a Zen quality all of its own. As we learnt later from the hotel manager, the hotel and onsen were one of the original establishments of Shirahama, hence it retained some of its charm by refusing to be torn down to make way for another hotel monstrosity. One wonders what this whole place looked and felt like around the turns of the 19th and 20th centuries. Shirahama also boasted an ancient public onsen that is located in the rocks of the foreshore further down the line, and when we saw it on the next day we weren’t game enough to go in, seeing that it was not segregated, and actually frequented by quite a number of local patrons. In fact I wouldn’t have minded but q-b didn’t fancy showing off her foreign body to all and sundry. Q-b was very happy with her very private hotel onsen which she described in similar terms to mine. No need to be self-conscious.

Our first night in Shirahama was very authentic, what with sleeping on the futon mattress on the floor - at home we too have a futon mattress but it rests on slats – after a long soak in the onsen. We recommend it.

Next morning 8am breakfast: same cheerful waitress but today in Western garb and serving a mixture of continental breakfast and what looks like left-overs from dinner last night. We go for the toast, bacon and egg, and coffee. I conveniently forget about my vegetarian ambitions. Strange how one’s enthusiasm for native cuisine fades. Familiarity can be comforting in that one doesn’t have to strain one’s intellect in deciding what new thing to try next. In any case there was still no sushi to be seen.

It was a sunny day and we got ready for the beach. There were only a few people milling around and the odd body in the water. They were mainly young people and we saw at least one European male doing his thing to impress the girlfriend who was only interested in herself. We went for a few dips in the water but it was rather cool. We wandered up and down the beach to survey the picture postcard scenery. Once you got to the further end, the (imported) sand seemed to run out and change to a more blackened variety, and the shore turning rocky. There were also various cranes and earth moving machines ready to extend the foreshore, perhaps to create an artificial peninsula to plonk a resort hotel onto it. The idea of ecologically minded construction, or even pseudo attempts in this direction seemed a long way off. One of the concrete monstrosities across the road looked like it had seen better times what with bits of the façade in grisly disrepair. Naked commerce giving way to any remnants of Zen.

Returning to the better side of the bay, we found it’s time for lunch. Since our hotel provided only breakfast and dinner we were faced with the difficult decision on how to handle this. Since no restaurants were to be seen in the vicinity we decided on the sea-side convenience store and bought things like fruit and juice for a beach picnic.

Our afternoon plan was to walk around to another bay where one could see a rock formation on the sea that had a natural arch through which one could see the sun at sunset. It was a long walk. On the way we came across the curiosity of a little resting place that combined a few benches with a hot footbath: a sort of onsen for the feet. Very cute. On the other end of the bay there was a cave looking out to the rock formation. Having seen various rock arches around the world, this one wasn’t exactly the 7th wonder of the world, even though the many signs proclaimed so. There was even a boat that took onlookers out near the arch: it all looked rather desolate.

The little harbor with fishing vessels was all made of crumbling concrete and didn’t add to the charm. On the long way back along the road we had visions of some kind driver giving us a lift but no such luck. The onsen for the feet was a welcome stop. There was a shortcut to our bay via a Shinto temple, a rather forlorn affair with a few wells, statues and a few wooden structures amidst nice trees and bushes. Not a single soul was to be seen. Maybe the season for the temple hadn’t started either.

Our dinner at the hotel was on time and seemed to be an exact replica of the exotic fare we had on the first night. The waitress wore the same kimono garb and was as enthusiastic as before. We allowed ourselves a Japanese beer to go with it, and thus ate all sorts of things we might not have eaten otherwise. Q-b was most impressed with the teriyaki – still no sushi in sight. We asked our hostess about the strange absence of sushi in Japan and she laughed merrily, possibly not understanding our strange query. After a dip in the hotel onsen – still all to myself – we decided to look for the night life. Our Lonely Planet guide hinted at a street that was just behind our hotel. We didn’t expect much, considering that we were some two weeks early for the tourist season to start. Indeed there was a semblance of a nightlife along this narrow lane decked out with gaudy red lanterns and eateries – mostly closed – and, lo and behold, quite a number of red doors that seemed to suggest slightly nefarious goings on. Imagine our surprise on finding a sort of a street bar that had a feet onsen as its star attraction. One sits down and puts one’s feet – minus shoes and socks of course – into the hot pool under the table.

We ordered hot sake and settled down to observe what went on in the street. For a while the main action seemed to consist of women in aprons sitting on plastic chairs preparing food. The odd kid on a bicycle would peddle along. One sign read “Snack Liebe” but the establishment was closed as well. I would have liked to inquire as to the German “Liebe” and what was on sale.

After a few bottles of sake things seemed to hot up, what with a black Mercedes stopping in front one of the gaudy doors and men in black going in. After a while a woman dressed like a Geisha appeared and went off in the Mercedes. Aha, we thought. As this was the only excitement for the rest of the night – not that we stayed for too long – we didn’t really think that this was a red-light district in full swing. We also discovered a few slot machines along the road and q-b lost all the coins I had to get from the onsen foot bar. We then meandered back to the beach bathed in moonlight. A sake-induced romanticism overcame us and we thought that this was the most amazing place, sitting on the steps that lead down to the white sand, waves lapping gently, hotels all lit up without any guests: one wonders if Waikiki beach in Honolulu has the same feel two weeks before the main season. Most probably not. We returned for our last night in Shirahama.

Our train to Kyoto was booked to leave around lunchtime, so we had some time after breakfast to wander up to the famous public onsen in the rocks of the foreshore. All the tourist literature recommended it highly as an experience of a lifetime but it all seemed a bit less of a sensation. Sure, the sign at the entrance told us that many an ancient  Japanese emperor had bathed here, and that the pools were carved into the rocks, from which one could survey the ocean beneath. Having seen many rock pools in other parts of the world – as well as hot water beaches – we couldn’t muster all the required enthusiasm, nor did we feel game enough – as mentioned already – to disrobe and join the non-segregated pool areas that were frequented by the locals.

We walked back to our hotel and got ready for departure. We looked in the hotel shop for a souvenir, when the hotel manager showed us some photographs of what the hotel looked like some 100 years ago, and he made some photocopies for us. I asked him about the numerous laminated A4 size prints that adorned the corridors, consisting of a wood grain background and Japanese writing. “Koan?” I asked. He seemed to understand and offered me one for free. I asked him to select one that he liked best. To my amazement, he selected one that he said was composed by a former Prime Minister. Since koan are famous as paradoxical Zen sayings composed by the great Zen masters, I was amused to think that a former Japanese Prime Minster could be considered one of them. Japanese PMs since and before WWII to me seemed to belong to the global class of corrupt power politicians, not excluding the seemingly flamboyant Junichiro Koizumi and the recent non-LDP Yukio Hatoyama  I didn’t have the heart to point this out to the hotel manager ,who seemed sincere in his belief that the said PM had written a koan worthy to be displayed. It now hangs in a corner of my study as a non-Zen souvenir. Q-b purchased various items as gifts for our next stop.

The train journey from Shirahama to Kyoto was uneventful, and no Geishas or ladies in kimonos were to be seen. At the Kyoto central train station we were to meet our nephew, who had made Kyoto his home. Married to a Japanese lass, they have a cute daughter, all of whom we had met before in New Zealand. Our nephew works at a university in Kyoto, teaching English and looking after international students. His is fluent in Japanese. After some strenuous searches for the appointed meeting place – and us not carrying a cell phone – we saw his red Honda Jazz on the street corner, and there he was, explaining the difficulties of parking in Kyoto. Off we went to his digs in the northern parts of Kyoto, near the Ritsumeikan University (where he works). They were renting a skinny, three-story apartment in a narrow street. To have a designated parking space for the car was apparently a real bonus in these crowded environments. The street level entrance led to a sort of lobby cum office space, and then up the steep stairs to the kitchen and lounge. Further steep steps led to the bedrooms. Apparently such apartments are quite expensive to rent – with frequent rent reviews - and they were looking into the possibility of buying a house outside Kyoto. Since however our nephew’s wife had to consider her elderly parents who were living right in the centre of Kyoto, the present situation was just fine.

After some refreshments and exchange of news from New Zealand – and unwrapping of gifts for their cute daughter – we made our way to the accommodation our nephew had arranged for us. We had asked for a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and he had found the Three Sisters, a sort of budget ryokan near the Heian jingu Shrine, close to the centre of the city. Once we got there we were told that we were at the wrong place since there were two such establishments – the other one across the road and down an alley way. Subsequent research revealed that the famous three sisters had split – not quite in half - to start another inn. With further disagreements one might expect a third one to be opened soon. In any case we were now at the right place and our nephew left us to it – we were to meet for dinner later on.

This ryokan business seems to be quite a big story in Japan. This idea of staying in a traditional Japanese inn - with onsen and rooms like the one we already had in Shirahama – is not confined to foreign tourists who want to experience the ‘real’ Japan but is also very popular with the Japanese themselves. Indeed the very best and most expensive hotels are ryokan, some so exclusive that prior exclusive membership is required. Given that there is a very exclusive upper class in Japan, one can only imagine their delights to sleep on futon mattresses resting on tatami mats, what with a prior soaking in the private onsen, and exotic body works performed by accomplished Geishas, not to speak of refined tea ceremonies, and much reciting of prime ministerial Zen koans whilst conducting billion dollar deals on the side. Our humble ryokan on the other hand came equipped with a lot of rules, including: no shoes, no smoking, no drinking, no dropping any liquid whatsoever on the precious tatami mats, lest they get damaged – a new tatami mat costs the earth (although nowadays most likely mass produced in China) – and curfew is at 10 pm. The room with access to a tiny little garden outside was very much like the one we had in Shirahama, except for a life-sized mannequin that was wearing a traditional Japanese wedding dress. Waking up in the middle of the night, we might have to stay calm and collected, lest we thought we were being visited by a bridal ghost.

Our nephew and his family had invited us for dinner at a swanky restaurant that was in walking distance from our ryokan. We walked along a main street down to the river that runs through the centre of the city. There were all sorts of interesting shops along the way, notably an arts and crafts centre and a Samurai sword shop. We took a left turn before the bridge, leading to a walkway along the river. The riverbed is quite wide and the actual waterway snakes its way through it. It’s very picturesque: to the north one sees the mountains and to the south the city centre looms with its high rises along the banks. Quite a lot of people were about, enjoying the balmy evening. The river is shallow enough to have rows of flat rocks as a sort of bridge crossing, and kids were taking a dip from them. We too skipped across the rocks to get to the other side. Remarkably, the whole river area seemed clean and pristine, quite unlike many of the city waterways even in New Zealand. There was no rubbish to be seen, no plastic bags, no soft drink cans, no fast food wrappers, nothing unsavory drifting in the water. One must give credit where credit is due.

We met up amongst the high rises in front of the low-rise restaurant. The five of us were ushered into a separate cubicle – really more of a room by itself – with a window that showed a magnificent garden outside. The kimono-clad waitress let us take our seats which were at floor level but as there was a pit below the table, one didn’t need to engage in any contortions or lotus positions, i.e. one sat as if sitting on a chair. One assumes that this was a concession not only to clumsy Westerners but also an admission that the Japanese themselves are less and less inclined to follow the traditional sitting position with legs folded underneath one’s backside. Of course the waitress did so without effort as she took the orders. To our great delight we could order sushi amongst the many delicacies that were explained to us by our nephew, his wife and their daughter. The waitress spoke no English. After many courses and some fine Japanese beer we went out to the garden that could be seen through the window. It was a miniature Zen garden – or so it appeared to me - amongst the towering blocks all around us. Quite amazing.

After discussing our sightseeing plans for the next day we walked back the way we came – except using the bridge instead of the stepping-stones. It was nighttime now and far fewer people along the river walkway. One didn’t have the slightest feeling of fear, as one commonly has when walking at night along dimly lit walkways in other cities of the world. Once back on the main street to our ryokan, one didn’t see many pedestrians either but again one felt perfectly safe. We made it back just in time before the curfew. Since the shower was a tiny cubicle, it was difficult avoiding to step onto the tatami mats – with feet still wet – and as such we expected immediate sanctions. We assumed that in high-tech Japan every self-respecting ryokan would employ video surveillance to protect its tatami mats from wet feet – or else have a sophisticated wetness-detector installed under the mats, one that immediately informs the authorities when infractions occur.  We still wondered if the high-tech toilet at the Prince Hakone had analyzed and recorded our status, and which homeland security office would deal with it. Our fears proved unfounded. In any case we tried hard not to break any other rules even though we were tempted to disrobe the mannequin wearing the traditional wedding robe, and try it on ourselves.

Next morning – after a somewhat minimalist breakfast with toast, jam and coffee at the ryokan – we were picked up by our nephew to see one of the most famous picture postcard sights of Kyoto: the Zen Buddhist Kinkuku-ji – the temple of the Golden Pavilion.

As a Zen Buddhist one should always be suspicious of golden edifices, and as such I already knew that this was going to be yet another temple of orthodox Buddhism – Zen in name only. I had read many an account that the actual Zen temples and Zen sects of Japan were far removed from the radical resurrection of Zen in the West – the writings of Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki notwithstanding. Still I expected some sort of glimpse of Zen, particularly in the surrounding gardens. The first thing that struck me at the entrance to the temple complex, that this was indeed a huge tourist attraction, including an entrance fee. I also realized that this is a year-round attraction, hence the multitude of tourists before us. In joining the throng, I somehow doubted that many of them were ex-Zen Buddhist like me – in fact most of them were Chinese tour groups with guides explaining everything in rapid fire, moving along as fast as possible. Given the resurgence of religion in Mainland China, one can understand the sudden desire to check out a religion that in fact started out in China. Of course somewhere along the line, someone must have forgotten to tell them that true-blue Zen is not your common religion but more of an uncharted way of life, especially since “the establishment of Zen is credited to the South Indian prince-turned-monk Bodhidharma, who came to China to teach a special transmission outside scriptures, not founded on words or letters" (quote from the all-knowing Wikipedia on the subject of Zen). Given the Chinese predilection for ensuring good luck through all available means, one could not help be impressed by their sincerity with which they viewed the exhibits. It was impossible to snap a photograph of q-b standing in front of the Golden Pavilion without having other tourists in the picture. The stroll around the gardens proved equally impossible, as one was dragged along by the swarms of tour groups. The place where one could aim coins into a stone bowl, surrounded by ancient little Buddha statues, was most popular – never mind it being the ultimate antithesis of all that stands for Zen and its anti-materialist philosophy.

True, true, money makes the world go round, world go round – or so I wanted to sing in admiration of all and sundry. Perhaps I am the only one out of tune with modern times. What impressed me most, was what I had already noticed at the gardens surrounding the onsen at the Prince Hakone, namely the soft green moss that was cultivated as a ground cover between the trees and bushes. Here too were stands of trees with moss as ground cover. It looks absolutely fantastic, and I determined to undertake a planting of this sort in our garden in New Zealand. It looks very delicate and inviting for a lie down. On second thoughts, being trodden on might damage the exquisite moss. Quite sensibly the gardens here were well fenced off, so that visitors like me would not entertain such thoughts. Still one is reminded of classical painting with classical themes of bacchanalias performed on soft beds of moss. Possibly not a very politically correct Zen thought to have at that point but then again I was always impressed with that ultimate Zen story of a Zen Master being confronted by a prostitute with a child, saying she needed a husband. The good Zen Master had no choice and agreed on the spot. No doubt the Zen Master enlightened both his newly acquired woman-wife and adopted child by also asking them what the sound of one hand clapping is.

Our nephew could sense my disappointment, and suggested we leave for the other Zen temple on the menu for today. Actually it was in the same part of town, namely the Ryoan-ji Temple, as belonging to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The temple is most famous for its rock garden and is described in Wikipedia as follows:

The garden consists of raked gravel and fifteen moss-covered boulders, which are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder. (Also, if facing the garden from the far right and about 8 feet back a person of about 1.82m(6ft) in height can see all 15 boulders, though the small boulder farthest to the left appears to be part of the much larger boulder immediately next to it.)
Not having known about the observation given in brackets, I am now determined to revisit the temple and try this out. If indeed true, the logical conclusion is that tall people are inherently enlightened. Given my lesser height of 1.78m, I now know how futile my quest for sartori has been. At the time of our visit, there were again vast crowds taking aim for the garden, and as the temple itself was under renovation, there were various scaffoldings and other construction implements obscuring the remaining bits of serenity. It was impossible to try out looking at the rocks from all angles, as there were always other visitors in the way. This reduced the whole spectacle to some rocks in a sandpit, what with the far wall also looking worse for wear.  The surrounding gardens were as pretty as can be but as all the walkways were crammed, one was not in the mood for contemplative wanderings – also a light drizzle had developed. So much for Zen: one could always take a positive spin by claiming that the true experience of Zen is the non-experience of Zen in designated Zen areas. Perhaps an afternoon-evening stroll through downtown Kyoto followed by a restaurant dinner would deliver a different sort of enlightenment.

Hence we met up with our nephew again near the river, and then walked leisurely to the downtown area, culminating in a vast shopping area. For a treat we climbed down the narrow brick steps to an underground café cum beer cellar, all decked out in rustic chic and frequented by the young and glamorous alternative society.

While Japan has the reputation as an extremely conformist society there has always been a counter culture of one sort or another. Current Japanese cyberpunk and gothic has developed into a unique fashion that is copied all over Asia. Exuberant expressions of individuality give rise to all sorts of bohemian chic, as perhaps best embodied in the now already passé – and non-Japanese – Gorillaz who – hugely popular in Japan - were in part deeply influenced by the black and white serial manga or graphic novel, Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo. The idea of life as a comic strip is indeed a Japanese invention. Perhaps it is an expression of Zen. In any case, Kyoto with a large student population must have its share of small but vibrant counter culture. We saw another sign of such alternative cultures in a small café along the road to our ryokan. Small and cozy it had an emphasis on healthy and home-made cakes and other delicacies, and the pony-tailed young man and his partner were obviously proud owners, who had a genuine desire to provide good service rather than make pots of money with plastic coffee and cheap and nasty fast food. I had just acquired a book on an artist that sometimes signs off as zen Hokusai Iitsu hitsu – the ultimate print maker of waves, Mt Fuji scenes and manga – and the young man, on bringing us nice cups of coffee, commented favorably on my choice. Unlikely to happen further down at McDonald’s, especially if one were to discuss Hokusai (1770 – 1849) any further. While not a Zen artist as such, some of his figurative prints and drawings of actors, Kintarõ, and especially his self-portraits as an old man are reminiscent of the great Damura Zen characters and self-portraits of Fugai Ekun (1586 – 1664).

Hokusai’s The Great Wave has become synonymous with sophisticated Japanese art per se, and in many ways also expresses the quintessential dictum of Zen and Zen art, namely to practice and repeat one image until perfect or near-perfect abstraction is achieved. The classical idea is to represent the bamboo plant: the perfect image is the one where the artist ‘becomes’ a bamboo. Hokusai’s endless series of Mt Fuji images are a good example of that artistic process, embedded even in The Great Wave.

Back in contemporary Kyoto, the evening was spent in the company of our nephew’s family and his wife’s parents, at a downtown restaurant specializing in Chinese cuisine. The parents had lived in Kyoto all their lives, and it was tempting – as a German – to ask them about the war years. Since they spoke no English – and our complete lack of Japanese – this would have put considerable strain on our nephew, who already had a full time job translating the pleasantries typical of elderly folks. They presented us with beautiful gifts from Kyoto – fans and fabric – and after much polite bowing we parted. Q-b was enchanted by the graceful old gentleman, and on the way back we wondered what it all means to have lived in Kyoto for 80 odd years. The ever increasing speed of changing old to new must weigh heavily on the minds of people, who have lived through a period of contemporary history that has seen the most brutal warfare of all time. The demeanor of the old gentleman – just like the one depicted by Hokusai in his self-portrait as an old man – seemed to suggest that all is well at the moment but an uncertain wisdom accumulated throughout an uncertain lifetime gave you a glance, and a glimpse, of fateful frailty – who knows what tomorrow’s power and corruption will bring. Only old age can achieve artistic mastery and perfection, and the Zen knowledge that no-thing (satori) is very difficult to attain in a single lifetime.

In our case all was well the next morning, as we set off on our own to the nearby Heian Jingu shrine. The tori gate, as one of the largest in Japan, is truly impressive in its boastful way, and as the whole complex is said to be a ¾ copy of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, us tourists with little time on our hands could kills two birds with one stone. We must have gotten there just before opening time, as the adjoining gardens – for an extra fee – were devoid of people. This was indeed a Zen experience – despite the shrine being Shinto. The garden and water features were sublime, and wandering around with no one else in sight, we got a real sense of being one with perfect nature. The carps and turtles in the water were as divine as the water lilies, willows, moss, flowers, bushes, the bewildering variety of trees carefully pruned to fit the landscape perfectly.

In such surroundings it seemed all too easy to fall into a meditative state, to be without being, to surrender all thoughts, to sit and let nature take over all senses. Short of dissolving into nothingness, satori and nirvana, we roused ourselves and rejoined the now increasingly populated Shinto shrine. Imagine our horror to imagine all those people traipsing around in the gardens, in tour groups of twenty-five pushing each other out of the way, led by guides with military precision, a million cameras clicking, each tourist buying a packet of carp food and frantically dispersing the pellets in the water, and making a horrible mess, and in a second all the Zen there ever was has disappeared into a black hole of such proportions, it will never ever let it escape again. Kyoto, city of Zen.

Next we visited, more or less by chance, a large wooden hall (in the same area of the shrine) that turned out to be one of the oldest martial arts buildings in Japan. Indeed there were preparations underway for some sort of tournament, the competitors all dressed in martial arts gear, with some wearing kamikaze-like headbands, practicing various thrusts with hands and legs. As we stood in the large entrance to observe, we were met with many a non-deferential bow, and I was tempted to declare that I had a black belt in Karate – only joking, to see what the reaction would be. Given that our son in New Zealand is a martial arts expert, who does things with swords and long sticks, I was equally tempted to announce that Japanese martial arts are now practiced all over the world and that the leading exponents of Judo these days are likely to be non-Japanese as much as Japanese – at least by judging who wins gold medals in Judo at the Olympic Games.

As luck would have it – or predictably so – there was an up-market martial arts shop nearby, specializing in swords. Our son had instructed us to get some special sword oil to keep his swords in shape, and indeed the shopkeeper was most obliging. We also bought a book on how to maintain swords.

It was turning out to be a hot day. We saw a fruit shop and apart from fruit, I bought a big bottle of fruit juice. Back at the ryokan I opened the bottle and thirstily gulped down a big mouthful. I nearly died. A horrible taste and an acute burning sensation from mouth down to stomach nearly occasioned a big spill on the tatami mats. I gulped down a bottle of water and felt somewhat better. Q-b inspected the label of the bottle. It had images of what looked like grapes or plums on the label – scriptural information in Japanese only. Q-b took the bottle to the receptionist and was told – after checking a Japanese-English dictionary - it was plum-pickling sauce. It said so on the label. Why would anyone want to drink it? Read before you think. It pays to read Japanese. But why do they sell the stuff in such big bottles that look like fruit juice bottles? To trick unsuspecting tourists? Q-b thought it was all very funny. We presented the bottle to the receptionist as a gift. She seemed unimpressed. I swore to stick to Coca Cola and McDonalds in future – only joking!

The afternoon was to be our last rendezvous with our nephew before our return to Tokyo, Narita and Auckland. He took us to the Gion district. The tourist literature let it be known that this is one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. The medieval district with its narrow cobblestone lanes and nicely carved wooden housing structures seemed to have retained many of its traditional charms, even though it was now invaded by modernity in the shape of power and telephone lines, not to speak of the motorized one-way traffic. Unfortunately this was not the right time to run across even a single geisha, and we were left with the original design of the district, namely as an accommodation block for those visiting and attending to the near-by Yasaka shrine. After a walk around various corners we arrived at the Shinto temple. Initially the main sensation was a group of young women all dressed up in kimonos giving a vague impression of geisha girls. Having missed the real thing, we asked for a photo opportunity with them. They obliged with good humor.

At the main shrine there was an ensemble of monks playing various instruments, apparently in obeisance of some festivity. Q-b in the meantime had become quite exhausted and sat down on some steps leading to a temple annex. A monk appeared and made signs of shooing her away. Q-b first feigned ignorance and then pleaded compassion, pointing to her tired feet. The monk had none and became quite aggressive. She moved to another location in the shade that seemed a bit safer. Our nephew and I wandered off to check out the gardens leading up a hillside. There were lots of people about, and the park-like gardens were expansive but not on par with the one at Heian. We made our way down again and met up with q-b, who had been ejected from her resting place again, and had found sanctuary only on a garden bench. She was not very happy with the treatment. After all shrines and temples ought to be places that give refuge to poor, weary travelers. What a pity that modern tourism is solely an economic activity, measured only in tourist dollars. Not that tourism in days gone by was much better. D H Lawrence, the eternal traveler, in his Sea and Sardinia of 1923, complains that Sicilian locals at the railway station “view my arrival with a knapsack on my back with cold disapprobation, as unseemly as if I had arrived riding on a pig.” The tourist, the traveler without a suitcase of dollars in his hand, is always seen as a worthless intrusion, even by those who should know better.

That’s it now, and this was then, not the way of Zen.

Next morning we were fare welled by our nephew and his family and he took us to the railway station. We jumped on the shinkanzen all the way to Tokyo. This time we caught a better glimpse of Mt Fuji. At Tokyo we made a mad dash for the train to Narita airport. We made it on time for the flight back to Auckland, cattle class. A young woman in front of us was sick all the way. There is a story that you can reach satori anywhere, in a taxi, bus or plane. I certainly find the latter impossible, especially on long flights in economy-cattle class. Probably on par with the Zen rock garden in Kyoto, when full to the top with non-Zen tourists. Zen needs a state of perfect and natural abstraction. Zillions of people with cognitive dissonance tend to get in the way. Zen masters like all other enlightened ones tend to live in caves, carefully crafted to blend into the Zen garden that is home to no more than me and q-b – and two cats.






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