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Or, "why does everything about me make so much more sense in Japan"

The 26th was our first totally free day. Nevertheless, shameless try-hards that we all are (god I hate Broadwater slang), we got up at 7 AM having slept about 5 hours to go see another shrine! It was by far the best thing that had happened to me on this trip. I mentioned before that I had been kind of frustrated with my lack of ability to fully grasp and respond to everything I was seeing -- well, this was the first time I felt something close to the full impact of the situation.

Kamigamo-jinja is a huge Shinto shrine complex, starting with the obligatory huge torii gate and including spacious grassy grounds and buildings of various sizes. I didn't even get to see much of the main building because we wandered through a market that was happening on the grounds this particular day. Everything was handmade Japanese crafts, art, and food or drinks. It was pretty amazing, but also very familiar since arts and crafts fairs are a thing that happens all the time at home.


Two of the other girls and I, having walked through the bazaar, wandered up a narrow path leading up through small torii gates to a smaller, quiet shrine away from the main structures. There was no one else around, and it was right on the edge of a small cliff. Looking out from the cliff in one direction you could see the shrine grounds, and in the other direction was a crowded urban residential area. But still it felt totally silent in front of that shrine.


It was everything I needed to see and more. That finally got through to me. I really felt I had to make an offering, so I put some yen in the offertory box, rang the bell, and bowed to pray. My head was a mess. It was all white noise. I had no idea what I wanted to say to the Kami, except "Thank you for letting me find you here." I think it was all I really could have said. I stayed like that for a while, then sat down and just stared. There were three small shrines, one of which I recognized as being dedicated to Inari because of the fox statues (Inari was originally responsible for the rice harvest, but is now also seen as a Kami for business and commerce). I took a lot of pictures. I realized as I was sitting there something I hadn't even considered before. And that was that I think my main intention in coming to Japan was to touch the Kami.


Anyway, I've been trying to write this post forever, but every time I tried something happened and by now my blog is so far behind what is actually happening to me that I'd like to paraphrase a few things in order to write my next post about our Zen retreat.

In a nutshell, here are things that have been going on, as things are wont to do:

-We began practicing zazen meditation at our hostel a few days after starting the program. We get up at 5 AM and begin meditating together in the butsuma (Buddha Room) at 5:30 for about forty minutes, followed by sutra recitations.
It fucking hurts. That is most of the information I can give you about zazen because I am mostly preoccupied with disciplining myself not to move even though my left leg is so far asleep I am having phantom limb syndrome in a limb that is (supposedly) still attached to my body. Also, do you know how much spit your mouth decides to make when your brain knows you aren't supposed to swallow because it makes too loud of a noise in the meditation hall? The answer is seven. I'm sorry, I know it doesn't make sense, but this is my brain on Zen.
Also, I really enjoy chanting sutras, but I have to admit that we are all pretty bad at it. Maybe it's that we're not fluent in Japanese, maybe it's that we're not monks, maybe it's that our voices are simply not deep and sonorous enough, but it is kind of like a bunch of forgetful kindergarteners trying to say the pledge of allegiance.

-Kyoto-Yodobashi. It is an electronics mall. A mall full of electronics. Like eight floors of them. There are two whole floors just of flatscreen HD TVs. And I tell you something: even the shittiest ones are a hundred times better than any TV in the US ever, even though they are made by the same Japanese companies. I just thought I should inform you all that Japan purposely keeps us in the dark ages and laughs about it.

-I would like to speak in further praise of group bathing, following my experience of a traditional Japanese public bathhouse. It was nothing short of a perfect fusion of indulgence and hilarity. There was NO ONE in the whole place but us and a large number of old naked Japanese ladies who stared at us in unrestrained disbelief as we threw our clothes off and proceeded to be young English-speaking foreigners in THEIR bathhouse (supervised by Eimi-sensei, one of our program directors, but that hardly mattered to the old ladies). You could tell by the stares and the utter lack of any other gaijin that we were in the RIGHT KIND OF PLACE.
The baths were kind of a bigger and more decadent version of our hostel's bath. There were lots of little shower heads ranged around the walls and you sat on little stools in front of low mirrors and made sure you were DAMN WELL SPARKLING CLEAN before getting into one of six large baths -- three variously hot ones, one hot one with indigo-colored violet/chamomile-infused water, one ice-cold one (my favorite, no one else's), and one natural sulfur bath the color of milk.
The old ladies retaliated for our presence by terrorizing us at every opportunity. One came over and rapped me on the head really hard when I let my hair touch the water.
We felt SO GOOD when we got out of there. I felt like I had just been issued a new body. I do not think the timing of this was a coincidence, as the next day was when we left for our two-day Rinzai Zen retreat at Myoshinji. The difference between how we felt after these two activities is the funniest joke ever.

-I guess I really haven't said anything about what our classes are like, but the truth is they are far from the most interesting thing about this program and it really wouldn't entertain you to hear about them. They mostly exist to provide us with historical and social context for the things we experience, and also to teach us enough Japanese for us not to implode in delicate social situations. The classes I take/audit are Theory and Practice of Buddhism in Japan; Japanese Religions; Beginning Japanese; and Japanese Society and Cultural Traditions.

NEXT TIME: Getting hit with sticks and doing everything in fast-forward at a Rinzai monastery!

Posted by Niadra 20:37 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto meditation house spa bath japanese shrine public shinto zen jinja rinzai kamigamo zazen kami

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Zazen at your hostel--is it obligatory, and how many participate? I'd be interested to hear about the distribution of how your classmates fall on the identifying-as-Buddhist spectrum.

"main intention in coming to Japan was to touch the Kami."

by cageissler

Morning zazen was mandatory when we were studying Zen, yes. Soon though we're going to be starting visualization meditation for Shingon. That should be interesting.
And I don't actually think any of my classmates identify as Buddhist. There is one guy who regularly practices zazen at a center in Ithaca, but I wouldn't call him a Buddhist "devotee."

by Niadra

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