Thursday, May 14, 2009

In Search of the Real Japan: Wakayama Wanderings

“Sometimes reality is bigger than your dreams.” A friend wrote me these words years ago, speaking about hard-learned lessons in her young life. But somehow they kept echoing in my head while I was facing a very different struggle: how to describe the unimaginable force of an experience that I can’t quite explain to myself?

What is it about a still forest path fading around a bend that touches my soul? Why do stray wisps of clouds dancing on a mountainside make me more content than all the company and possessions I could desire? How can a subtle shift of self-perception so slight that it falls into the dark crack between words seem to light up the world with new colors and shades? I may never know, just as I may never really be able to explain the momentous non-events of the past two weeks.

In my teenage years I used to hang from a bar for two minutes every night for chiropractic reasons. Quickly I learned that being able to see the timer count down the slow seconds was the worst kind of torture, that the task was significantly less difficult if I just closed my eyes and waited for the beep. When I knew exactly when I could let go, somehow it seems like I couldn't have held on a second longer.

I had a relapse of this lesson in the weeks before my recent vacation. I just had to get out, had to get time to breathe, and I was counting the days, the hours even, watching freedom drift imperceptible closer. Tick...Tck...Tick... By the time the final beep came I exploded out of the office with the speed of gravity yanking my twitching fingers off that bar. “Mountains,” my soul sang, “mountains mountains mountains!” It’s strange how loneliness can make me yearn for solitude. I guess humans are prepared to adapt to almost any circumstances; it’s half-life that kills us. The majority of my time in Japan is spent alone, but only in the worst way. Every minute of the work day is spent surrounded by people with whom I can’t communicate or who don’t have time to communicate with me, and I can find neither the opportunity for company nor the freedom to be alone. Ironically I was about to use my two weeks of freedom in an attempt to seize both ends of the spectrum. Along with planning a long awaited soul-cleansing trek though the majestic mountains to the south, I’d also invited one of my closest friends to come down from Tokyo and join me during the time that our holidays overlapped. I had a few days before she was free, however, so on a whim I decided to head for a monastic center called Koya-san, by way of Osaka. Osaka was, as always, the perfect launching pad for a quest for “Serene Japan,” for the simply reason that Osaka is anything, absolutely anything, but serene. A showcase for the modern “Real Japan” in all it’s glorious facsimile and impenetrable superficiality, this city makes my head spin every time. After this, I reasoned, almost any place would seem peaceful and simple.

I then headed to Koya-san, with very few expectations. Koya-san filled me with two very strong and diametrically opposed reactions. Wandering through the vast mossy lantern-lit cemetery long after dark, for the first time I was suddenly seized with the thought that I don’t want to leaveJapan. The cemetery overwhelmed me, and quite defeated my camera at all times of day or night. I could have spent days there, and this is to say nothing of the 100+ temples nestled into the mountains nearby. Rooms full of golden lanterns and thick incense, massive pagodas housing enchanted goddesses, monks robes swishing over tatami, bells at dawn and dusk; and to think I nearly didn’t come. The rub is that there are so many places in Japan that could be equally inspiring, and yet I have plans that pull on me and very little time or money to see much more than I’ve already seen. I’ve been killing time, waiting for the real adventure to begin (much by necessity, the majority of my time is killed at work whether I assist in the “mercy killing” or not). Now I realize that I need more time, that I’ve missed so much.

It’s more than sightseeing that I’m talking about. As I walked past wave after wave of unique Buddhist statues, some barely peeking their noses out of dark knotholes, others towering over me in the gloom, most standing quiet guard over the glint of scattered coins, cups of sake, oranges small and big, vases of flowers, I felt myself being confronted with devotion. Japan is anything but a country of religious fervor. The most pronounced spiritual characteristics are an adherence to tradition and a passive tolerance that comes not from an acceptance of all, but a happy indifference to all. But here, with every chisel mark, every fresh flower, every chanted prayer, I could feel faith. It’s different than any faith I’ve known before, the material and function is different, but it’s real faith. The temple where I slept welcomed its visitors to morning prayers, and in the candle-lit room shrouded in incense, as I listened to the chants and prayers of these mostly young men, I realized that I was looking at them as a kind of living museum, put on display in an “historically-accurate” environment, fulfilling tradition and duty with their lives. Just as quickly I realized that they in no way see themselves this way. Unlike the geisha in Kyoto, living a life of history for those who want a taste of the past, these monks have a sense of their own value and meaningfulness in the here and now. They live in sincere devotion to a belief in something they cannot see or touch. In the face of the tourist’s camera their eyes do not flit away as do the geisha’s, who knows she’s on display; they smile, ignore, frown, in essence they react as someone who lives a real life in a real world, not a prop for historical reenactment. They live lives of devotion, of faith. Back in the cemetery after morning prayers row after row of stone figures roll out of sight beyond the towering trees, chronicling age upon age of that faith and devotion. And the visitors to these monuments come, wearing dark ropes or “well-worn style” jeans, carrying a pilgrim’s staff or the newest digital camera, they walk, they ride, they fly, covering the distance in hours or weeks, but the sounds of a splash, a clap, a chant are the same in this place as they have been for a thousand years, perhaps for a thousand years more.

These revelations crowded my mind, and I am overwhelmed by what more this country could reveal to me, if only time were not running out.

At the same time, other thoughts balance my awe. No site of any note in Japan can fully escape the country’s compulsive “Will to Convenience.” Never mind that some things were intended to be difficult; I suppose nothing feels cheapened as long as the price-tag stays high. In Koya-san the primary manifestation of Modern Japan’s restless tentacles is a road. It’s the only main road, can’t be too old, and it runs right through the middle of the temples, literally past their front doors, and the sound of engines can be heard everywhere: the raked rock gardens, the painted tea rooms, the inner sanctuaries, none escape the roar of traffic. Kobo-Daishi, the founding monk of the 8th century, hunted for years to find this place far from the distractions of the ancient capitals in Kyoto and Nara. It would have taken weeks to get here from anywhere in those days, and all would be left behind in the process. Now it’s a day trip, there and back again within hours, and the accessibility of all the world has to offer is as impossible to ignore as the ever-flowing river of cars.

Could not the region’s inter-city highway be built away from this place of serenity? Would it be impossible to ask visitors seeking peace to park their cars a few blocks away and walk into a refuge from noise and commotion? But I’m sure that when the road was prepared for automobiles that no thought was given to this, only to convenience and access. And with that access other elements of the world have infiltrated as well. Every guest room in the temple I slept at was fitted with a T.V. Yes, if we want to stay at the temple we must respect the monastic lifestyle by getting up for prayers at 5:30, but we can spend the rest of the time soaking up Japanese game shows and American sitcoms. The austere temple hallways include barely-concealed vending-machines and “western style” toilets with heated seats and an array of buttons, and down the street lines of shops sell “collectable” Buddha key-chains and “vegetarian snacks.”

Somehow these worlds live side-by-side, and let’s not forget that I myself am a tourist here, but somehow it feels diluted, and much that the location and history of this place intended has not escaped the world of “all things to all people, at a fair price and a convenient time.” Enlightenment out for sampling with the pickled ginger, spiritual pilgrimage by way of a weekend package bus tour, a soothing escape from all we bring with us. This is a place of strength, a real place, and it seems that Koya-san has managed to use its spirit of vitality as a selling point without selling its soul. But something is missing. No matter how deep I breathe there’s still a tightness in my heart, and the simple darkness behind my eyelids is inevitably invaded by the noise of complexity. The world was held back, but it never seemed very far away, reminding me that my escape is temporary. Now I know more clearly what I am looking for, and I’m ready to go deeper.


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