A Travellerspoint blog

THE BEGINNING

or, "WTF My Pillow is Full of Beans"

Here is a literal transcript of the entirety of my first journal entry after arriving at the temple hostel in Kyoto.

"23 August 2012

It ... I ... oh god. I was totally fine and feeling confident until we got to the hostel and they sent me to figure out the shower by myself.
I DON'T UNDERSTAND LIFE ANYMORE."

And that is all I felt emotionally equipped to write.

Living across the street from this would probably inhibit your vocabulary for a while, too.

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You will be pleased to know that I have since changed my attitude. I will never ever ever be happy in an American shower again. I will be lonely, bored, near-sighted and claustrophobic. I will be sick to my very heart with the knowledge of the egregious inferiority of American systems of bathing. The hostel bathing area is a room that can hold three to five people at once, and the other four girls in the program and I always bathe together. It has three detachable shower heads and a large tub that is kept covered and always filled with very hot water. The ceiling is arched and the whole room is beautifully tiled. There are little plastic stools to sit on and shallow plastic buckets so that after you shower, you can sit on the stools and pour hot water over yourself. Or you can just get in the tub. If my future house does not have a shower room like this, I will die unfulfilled.

The toilet situation is slightly less utopian. There are western-style toilets some places, and these toilets are like universal remotes. They have LOTS AND LOTS OF BUTTONS. They do everything, from heating your butt to squirting your butt with water to spraying air freshener to playing music so other people don't have to hear the horrifying sound of you peeing. And then they do lots of other things I haven't figured out yet. It is all very civilized and reminds me constantly that all of my ancestors still stank horribly when the Japanese did not.
However, there are no western-style toilets in the hostel where we stay (which is actually okay with me now that I've figured out the Japanese-style toilets). A picture is worth a thousand words, so again I wish I could figure out my damn photo situation. In any case, Japanese-style toilets require you to have somewhat muscular thighs, as they are kind of like urinals laid flat on the ground. Thank god for fencing muscles.

IMG_2893.jpg <This is the symbol for western-style toilets, for some inscrutable reason. I put it to you than Japanese graphic designers are really into absurdism.
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See? UNIVERSAL. HYGIENE. REMOTE.

We sleep on futons which we roll up and put away in a closet every morning, in a traditional Japanese room with sliding doors and tatami mats. The pillows are ... well ... full of beans. Which I kind of like. The tatami smells glorious. If I wanted I could just stop using perfume and roll around on the floor every morning before I go out. But I suspect that would be frowned upon.

Our first full day was interesting in that, for breakfast, we had a traditional Zen monastic breakfast of rice gruel (which I actually really LIKE, because it reminds me of grits), takuan (pickled radish), and umeboshi (dried pickled plum). We've been having this every morning for the last six days and I still like it. In the evening of the first day, however, we went to a restaurant that for several hundred years has served the Emperor and his family when he comes to Kyoto. Yeah. Way to achieve contrast. Needless to say, the food was glorious. And we are learning how to behave so well that when I come back, everyone will probably think I am mute, paranoid, a religious fanatic, and obsessive-compulsive. We are held to much stricter standards of behavior than the average young Japanese because we go to a lot of places that require special permission and meet a lot of religious officials.

For the first two days we woke up at six to attend Shin Pure Land services at the Higashi-Honganji temple (with which our temple hostel is affiliated). The place is giant, the wood is almost like old stone. At the sister temple, Nishi-Honganji, we walked on a nightingale floor (which is built to creak on purpose to warn of intruders -- Buddhist temples used to engage in frequent mini-wars with each other).

I don't actually have time to list all the things we've been doing -- our days are PACKED. We've visited old Kyoto, where we saw a maiko (geisha-in-training) on the street and walked down the alleys where samurai's mistresses and aspiring mistresses lived shut up in houses with tiny windows and hidden gardens. Old Kyoto is incredible, like a wooden maze, with wooded areas sitting right next to the city. I never noticed when we pass from a grassy, tree-filled area to an urban area or vice versa, because somehow the transition feels seamless. We visited an enormous Shinto shrine complex with hanging paper lanterns bigger than people, where you ring bells the size of your head to ask the Kami (animistic nature spirits, the deities of the Shinto tradition) for favors. We went to a huge covered market hundreds of years old where they sold everything from live squid to Louis Vuitton. We visited Kiyomizu-dera temple (dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon), which was too incredible to even try to describe. It was like a little city all by itself. There was a platform that samurai used to arrange duels on and the loser would jump off (but apparently if he made the jump safely his wishes would come true).

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(I have to leave the computer lab in fifteen minutes, and I can see I'm not even going to get halfway through the entries I have in my journal so far. Oh well. I will write another post soon).

The funny thing in all this is, though ... the full impact of what I was seeing kept refusing to hit me. I waited and waited for that feeling of being in a completely different world. But there's been almost no shock at all. In Japan, I don't feel that weird sense I felt in France, the constant awareness that I'm walking on the soil of another country. It feels like as seamless a transition as the meshing of Kyoto's trees and buildings. But I think part of it is this -- all these things I'm seeing ... I, privately, personally have dreamed about them for so long that the act of seeing them felt like an experience that SHOULD have been private. But as I'm finally seeing them now, I'm sharing the experience with seven people who are as new to me as Japan itself. It's a really interesting dynamic, the choosing between when to get to know Kyoto and when to get to know the rest of my sangha. It requires constant mindfulness of where I'm concentrating my energies. But I'm getting better at it, and getting to know them, and trying to open my eyes to every inch and every second of Kyoto.

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Next time: Zazen meditation at 5:30 AM, the Kama river, and a Shinto shrine market (plus a reflection on why the hell a culture that places so much emphasis on conformity needs twenty thousand different choices of wide-screen TV).

TILL NEXT TIME. Ja ne!

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Posted by Niadra 20:15 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan temple old hostel arrival

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Comments

Glorious. Glorious, glorious, glorious.

your last paragraph is really interesting, and not and all what I'd expect. For me, India was WAY more foreign-seeming than France, which in comparison practically felt like another US state. But Japan is more developed, for one thing, and as you mention, it's been on your mind in a big way for a long time. Or maybe you just get along with the kami better than with the spirits in France.

by cageissler

It's funny that you should say that, because the first time I really felt like "I'M IN JAPAN" was when I visited a Shinto shrine (Kamigamo) and got a couple minutes to myself to pray. That was the best thing that's happened to me so far. It was kind of an incredible experience. Somehow I relate to Shinto better than any religion I've ever known, even though some people say it's something you just have to be born into. I feel like the Kami explain my personal way of relating to the world really well.

by Niadra

Nice!

At least some Jews say you can't really convert to Judaism, because even if you were born into a different family you were really Jewish all along... so you never know. Spending lots of time with Tibetans has loosened me up about this sort of thing, though my base worldview is still science, not spirits.

by cageissler

Well, Shinto is in no way mutually exclusive to science. In fact, when they briefly instated "secular" or State Shinto the nationalists argued that it was highly compatible with and a necessary supplement to "Western" science.

by Niadra

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