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A visit to Mount Ōmine, the headquarters of Shugendō

WELL, I'm sure everyone is utterly shocked at this, but let me tell you a secret.

I procrastinated again.

Yes, I dropped the ball during my last month and a half in Japan. In my defense, we were all VERY, VERY BUSY. Writing research papers and going to class and attending Buddhist services. And ... a bit of aimless street-wandering. But I can promise you one thing; I WASN'T sleeping. Don't worry; I now intend to finish out this blog, aided by my extremely detailed travel journal. Which nobody else on earth can read, by the way. Pharmacists aren't the only ones with their own impenetrable fonts.

In early October, we visited Mount Ōmine to supplement our study of Shugendō, a Shinto-Buddhist syncretic religion centering around mountain asceticism. Shugendō is sometimes called the oldest surviving religion of Japan, since Shinto was never much of a conscious religious movement till the late 19th century, and Buddhist statuary and ideas made their way to Japan before the actual Buddhist texts. Ōminesan (Mount Ōmine) is the "headquarters" of the religion, the place where it was founded, and it's actually more of a mountain range. Its Gongen (Shugendō's kami-like mountain deities) is named Zao Gongen; the Ōminesan temple was founded in pre-feudal Japan by En-no-Gyoji, a devotee of Zao Gongen.

We stayed at a traditional pilgrim's inn called Hanaya Tokubei, located in the mountain village of Tenkawamura. It. Was. DECADENT. Aimee-Sensei's childhood friend was the owner. Of course. Its ofuro (bath) had big glass doors that opened onto a garden with a small shrine; the water came from a natural hotspring, and the bath was overseen by a statue of a friendly demon. The entire building was gorgeous and smelled like only the most amazing kind of wood -- which made sense because everything was made of amazing wood that was smooth and shiny and it all looked a bit like a very Japanese ski lodge. It was by far the nicest place we stayed during the program. You know what? I hate adjectives like "stunning." They are lame and don't mean much of anything. But god damnit, WHAT ELSE AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY. WORDS don't mean much of anything.


It was easy to see, especially after visiting Koyasan, that there was a great deal of Shingon Buddhist influence in the Shugendō sect. The most noticeable example was Fudo Myo-o, a wrathful Shingon deity -- there were more images of him in the Shugendō temples than of any Buddha.
The village was small, charming, and surrounded by mountains. The view from any given spot would blow your mind.


After dropping our stuff at the ryokan, we were immediately taken to the Shugendō temple grounds for the waterfall purification ritual -- wearing giant wooden clogs ingeniously engineered to make one fall on one's face. There they gave us very thin white robes (I take note of this because it was already pretty cold out). The waterfall was behind a wooden partition, and the men and women had to perform the ritual separately.


The boys went first and the screaming made it all sound PRETTY HORRIBLE. Now, I love cold water, but the keening coming from behind that partition made me eeeever-so-slightly anxious, especially during the part where Sam started hollering like twenty ninjas were stabbing him in the face without asking first. For some reason when it was the girls' turn, nobody seemed to particularly want to go first, so I went ahead and did it.

The waterfall ritual serves to purify the yamabushi (mountain ascetic) or Shugendō practitioner before he/she/they goes into the mountains. The idea is to enter the pool, bow to the stone statue of Fudo Myo-o carved into the rock wall, then back into the waterfall and stay under as long as you can while reciting screeching Fudo Myo-o's dharani: "Nomaku samanda bazaradan / Senda makaro shada / sowataya un tarata kanman."

The water wasn't actually as cold as I expected, once I got under there. The troublesome part was that it was hammering down on my head so hard I could only remember the first line of the dharani. So I just screamed that out over and over again, until somewhere past the point of brain freeze to all-over HEAD freeze, when the sounds I was making no longer sounded like words because I wasn't quite sure I even HAD a tongue anymore. Also my head felt like death. But specifically the kind of death where somebody accidentally sets a whale down on your head and it kills you.

Aimee-sensei claims I was under there for five minutes; I don't know if that's true, but all SHE cared about was that I was under longer than any of the boys, thus proving definitively what she was telling everybody all along: women are just BETTER than men. She pushed this point especially when we were talking to the Shugendō priest, who she trapped in a verbal corner and demanded for an explanation of why women are still not allowed to enter the holiest part of the mountain.


Once the shrieks of encouragement died down, the first thing I heard from the rest of the girls was "*extended stare* ..... YOUR LIPS ARE BLUE." I did not believe that for a second until I looked in the mirror and HOLY SHIT IT WAS TRUE THEY WERE SUPER BLUE and then I started to shiver and then I went back to the inn and got in the ofuro and I was still shivering after ten minutes of sitting in 104-degrees-Fahrenheit water.

Probably I shouldn't do that very often in my life.

That night the group was actually encouraged to get the craziness out of its collective system because this was probably the most laid-back place we would ever stay, so there was accidentally far too much sake and plum wine in my life and I MAY have decided it was totally okay for me to sneak into the men's ofuro at midnight because at the time I was feeling like a righteous champion of the war against gender segregation but I DON'T REALLY WANT TO GO INTO THAT STORY because that was ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED. AT ALL EVER. So let's go with "I didn't actually do that."

Do you know what it's like to wake up in the morning with the only hangover you've ever had, realize that today it is your turn to assume the responsibilities of Program Assistant, and then attend a lavish formal Japanese breakfast that requires you to sit in seza position staring down a slab of raw salmon? Someone inadvertently took a picture of me doing exactly that. I look MISERABLE. No, I am not posting it. I'm posting these NICE ones instead. (Photo credit: Melanie Pawlyszyn).


After breakfast, we went on a hike through the mountains that followed one of the yamabushi trails. I think Zao Gongen took pity on me and suppressed my gag reflex as I groggily tramped up his mountain, trying (and SUCCEEDING!) to appreciate the beautiful scenery without retching all over the shrubbery. The path was tough, full of roots and rocks and steep slopes, and the more I exerted myself the better I stated to feel. Funnily enough, the least sick I felt was on a 50-meter-high suspension bridge that swayed ponderously underneath us. The whole village was visible from there, and the range of sacred mountains surrounded us on all sides.


Side-tracking for just a second, I wanted to show this picture of the yamabushi's traditional outfit. Strangely enough, pretty much every part of this flamboyant thing has a practical purpose -- for example, there's an odd little black hat you strap to your forehead, but which also doubles as a drinking cup. There is also a pelt that hangs down from the back of the belt so the yamabushi can sit down comfortably anywhere. Yamabushi are AWESOME, you guys. I wanna be one.


Shugendō practitioners have a practice where two yamabushi hold another off of a certain cliff, face-first over the edge. The one being dangled over that lethal drop makes a promise to Zao Gongen to improve him/her/their self in some way. If they don't swear convincingly enough to hold to their vow, they are pushed further over the edge. They are only pulled up again when their promises ring true. Sadly, Americans have a reputation for suing everybody for everything, so we weren't allowed to do this ritual. But I made a promise to Zao Gongen anyway, and talked to the kami continually as we walked. By the time our hike was over, I felt teeth-baringly, maniacally alive.

One of these cliffs is the one they hang each other off of!

No. Effing. Regrets.

Posted by Niadra 17:53 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto mount hiking japan mountain buddhism bridge waterfall hike ryokan shinto shugendo ascetic omine asceticism ominesan syncretic tenkawamura Comments (2)


A two-day retreat at Myoshin-ji, a Rinzai Zen-do

Although a variety of events have conspired to keep me from writing this post for two weeks -- no free time, lost USB drive, forgot travel journal, kidnapped by brigands -- today I say Fuck it I am ad-libbing this thing.

Two weekends ago, the eight of us plus Brian-sensei headed off to Myoshinji, a Rinzai Zen monastery where a two-day retreat for lay practitioners was being held. I would really like to describe it to you in rich and vivid detail, you know, set the scene so you could be just as in the moment as I was. Well what actually took place is that everything happened so comically fast, I am going to have to provide you with weird, disconnected, blurry details and you will have just as good an idea of what went on as I did while I was experiencing it. I would say close your eyes and let your imagination take over, but that would be awkward because then you couldn't read the screen, and you would probably just be watching The Last Samurai behind your eyelids and I'm sorry but that would be wrong.

Naia's Memory:


5-something PM. Arrive at Myoshin-ji. Find that we are late because Brian had to stop and explain everything along the way as we were walking, such as "This is a rock and the inscription says Myoshin-ji" when there was in fact "Myoshin-ji" written in romanized letters under the Japanese. Try to put on awkward straw sandals as quickly as possible. Find that they are designed so that they can be worn on either the left or right foot and as a consequence feel horrible on both. Run up stairwell while attempting not to let shoes make flip-flop noise. Enter meditation hall, shooed insistently by stern old ladies who thrust teacups at you. Rush to find a seat on meditation platform. Sit down only to notice there is a monk zipping by with a cloth to dust the platform in front of you. Barely finish noticing that before noticing that there is another monk running at you with a teapot. Accept tea, notice everybody is prostrating selves. Prostrate self. Unaware that the people who know what they are doing have stopped bowing, look up to see old lady frantically miming drinking at you. Drink tea. Meditate for thirty minutes. Get rushed out of hall to attend information session.

Attend information session which is conducted in Japanese with Brian translating. Information session is patently unhelpful, both to us and to the bewildered Japanese teenagers also there for the first time. Get shown to small room which you are sharing with Alex (another girl from the program) and a terrifying lay woman who has been practicing at Myoshin-ji since the Buddha was an embryo. Attempt to decipher shouting and gesticulating of several lay women who do not speak English. Establish awkward Japanglish communication system. More yelling and commotion ensues from which we understand that we are all late for meditation again. Run back to hall, this time entering through a different door. Perform Three Prostrations so fast I swear nobody could have been doing it right but it didn't matter because if you're doing it slow enough to be right you're doing it wrong. Lots of clappers and bells happen. Thirty more minutes of meditation. Monk with large bamboo stick (keisaku) begins stalking around room.

At this point time slowed down to the point where I could actually notice things other than incomprehensible shouting and blurred Japanese people. The meditation hall was dark and totally silent. Across from me was a really intense layman wearing a track suit who could sit full-lotus with the pros. I swear he never twitched a muscle the whole time and I never saw him crack a smile the whole two days. While counting breaths and staring at a spot on the floor, I noticed a huge cockroach skittering around down there and briefly wondered if I should come up with a plan of action (inaction?) in case it decided to crawl up on me. It didn't.

The monitor walked with a strange cadence that was, oddly enough, perfectly suited to the stillness of the hall. If he had just sauntered around at a normal walking pace, it would have ruined the entire atmosphere of the place. Instead, he would step forward very quickly with one foot and then freeze, looking to either side while balancing on the ball of his foot, before taking a step with the other. In this way he was able to look individually at every meditator on each side of him and determine whether they needed to be whacked with the keisaku. Now in this lay retreat, nobody really got whacked unless they specifically requested it to help them focus (unless they were actually falling asleep or their posture was truly egregious). But even before we arrived at Myoshin-ji, I had decided to ask to be struck. I wanted to know what it felt like, and besides, getting thrashed by a Zen monk is not a thing that everybody gets the opportunity to experience. So when he came around to my side of the room, I put my hands together in a gassho to indicate I wanted to be hit. He stopped in front of me, held up the keisaku horizontally, and we bowed to each other. Then I leaned over till my head touched the platform, hugging myself with my arms.

He taps you on the shoulder once, first, to let you know he's about to strike you. Then he winds up like a baseball player and SMACKS THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF YOU. Twice. Then he does it to the other shoulder, twice. I have to say, I was wondering how much it would hurt, having heard the colossal cracking noise it makes. So yes, my discovery was, it hurt a fucking LOT. I straightened up we bowed to each other and he moved on, and it was the strangest thing: I. Felt. So. Much. Better. There was no more pain in my legs and the sting in my shoulders faded to almost nothing after a couple of minutes. And I could FOCUS. It was insane. The only thing is, I then proceeded to make the uncomfortable realization that the keisaku is kind of like coffee. It totally helps you wake up and focus, but it works so well, after a few minutes you're like "Man I need another one of those." There was a short break after which we meditated again and I asked for the keisaku that time too. The moral of the story is that I want a monk to follow me around with a keisaku every time I have to focus on anything, for the rest of my life. I am a little bit disturbed at how big a fan of it I was. And yes, you may now commence the BDSM jokes.

Then everything started to speed up again. The army has nothing on Rinzai temples in terms of efficiency. Scary old Japanese ladies start barking at us again, we brush our teeth and pee with a speed born of fear. The lay women are briefly super-impressed with us when they tell us we will have to wake up at 5 AM and we respond that we've been doing that every day for two weeks. Then we dive into some very thin bedrolls (these pillows do not have beans; I feel cheated. Instead they feel like they are semi-full of awkward pubic hair or something) and hit the lights. Alex and I have silent fits of hysterical laughter (for no particular reason) on the floor until the intense old laywoman comes back and gets in bed. About 20 minutes after we get in bed I open my eyes to see that the laywoman is sitting bolt upright in bed, her spine at a 90-degree angle to her legs, presumably meditating but all my sleep-confused brain can think is "JAPANESE HORROR MOVIE" (I mean give me a break my spine doesn't even do that). Then I got to sleep and wake up again, open my eyes; laywoman is walking across the room naked and squeaks when she sees me and I go "MAH! Gomen nasai" and hide under my blanket. After she is clothed she awakes us by turning the light on to its brightest setting and shouting "OHAYOGOZAIMASU" as if she were Thor, God of Thunder.

Then we go to the meditation hall, grab our zabuton (the round meditation pillows) and sutra books, and proceed out the door and across the temple complex in a long, silent line behind the priest, wearing yet another type of sandal that is designed to torment both feet equally. The moon is still out, and for some reason there are a ton of people out walking their dogs at 5 AM. It is a bizarre and surreal scene. Tramp through parking lots and cut across lawns of buildings that don't look like they belong in a temple complex at all. Then we come to the Buddha Hall where we meditate some more and chant some sutras none of us can read because the sutra books they gave us are in hiragana. I become confused and think we're leaving at one point because there is a bathroom break, and when I follow people back I end up walking around the Buddha Hall three times behind some guys who are obviously doing it for a reason but I just follow them because I don't know what the hell is going on. More sutras. One enthusiastic man points enthusiastically upward for our benefit and I notice that the ceiling is Fucking. Amazing. It's a giant painting of a Chinese dragon hundreds of feet square, and it is so incredible I basically gape at it for the rest of sutras.

Then it is breakfast. The time we had all been warned about, because if you drop your chopsticks you have to burn them and make a donation to the monastery. These people have got fear down to an art. It makes me tired just thinking about describing the whole process of eating breakfast here, so this will be choppy:
Everything is done at 5x its normal speed!
Do not eat until you have donated some grains of rice gruel to the hungry ghosts!
Never ever put your chopsticks down until the head priest is done eating!
Do not put any of your food into a different little bowl than the little bowl it came in! (Head priest broke this rule!)
Do not ever let your chopsticks point toward someone else!
Do not make noise when you eat your excessively crunchy takuan (daikon radish pickle)!
Yes everything is pickled in Japan. DEAL WITH IT!
Eat ALL THE THINGS because if you do not you are a bad person!
Remember all complicated hand gestures for asking/refusing/stopping the influx of more food, because you will not talk!
Whatever you do, DO NOT BE THE LAST PERSON LEFT EATING! No one wants to be that guy.
Accept the fact that the people who serve food and wipe tables will do everything running and you will have to cling to your little table to keep them from accidentally taking it with them as they whizz by!

Fortunately for us we have been having zen breakfasts every morning since we arrived in Japan, just with slightly less rigid rules, so we were pretty ready. The turning point for me was when I realized you actually CAN drink the rice gruel. Before that I was panicking because they made it so watery at Myoshin-ji that I was struggling to figure out how chopsticks could ever actually do the trick.

After breakfast time slowed down to normal speed again. There was a farewell tea at which all the lay participants introduced themselves and we presented a gift to the officiating monks and were allowed to ask them some questions. Suddenly everybody was nice instead of glaring at you. It was otherworldly.

The strange thing about this whole experience, I realized after we stepped out of the temple blinking, dazed, and physically unbalanced, was this: I had not been stressed out at any point during this whole experience. I, who have in the past, through sheer force of will, contracted high fevers to get out of summer camp. I was fine the whole time. I just drifted through it. Even when Japanese people were yelling instructions at me and I was just standing there trying to figure out what the hell they were saying, even when naked old ladies were squeaking at me, even when I was getting hit with sticks and watching cockroaches scurry across the floor in front of me... nothing. I just remember observing everything with a detached air of interest. "Oh, some intense lady is yelling at me and pointing and I have no idea what she wants me to do? That's really interesting; I'm sure the situation will resolve itself momentarily." And you know what? It always did. So now I understand why Rinzai Zen demands that you do everything so fast. There is really no time to be anywhere but in the moment. I'm not sure if I exactly agree with this approach to life, but I definitely understand the reasoning behind it now. So I guess next time I'm freaking out internally because I'm at a fencing tournament and experiencing performance anxiety, I will hearken back to this and probably paste that terrifying laywoman's face onto my first opponent. And I'll be all "YO I'm not afraid of you!" But also "Thank you for prodding me along." Because that's the thing -- no one there was the least bit cruel. Through the scowls and raised voices and wild gestures you could easily sense that no one was trying to humiliate you. They just didn't hold your hand every step of the way, and they didn't sugar-coat anything. And I will always be extremely grateful for that experience.

Back to the present:

So, that was a long post, and totally unpolished because I am writing at Rinzai-speed to get this done. Yeah. But I had a lot more even than that to say; there just isn't ever enough time.

Tomorrow we're leaving for Hokyo-ji, a Soto Zen monastery, for a five-day retreat. This time we are training not with lay practitioners but with the monks themselves, and it is going to be much longer and harder than Myoshin-ji. Soto practice does not insist everything be done in fast-forward, but it places much more emphasis on complicated ceremonies for every daily action, so we'll have a lot to memorize. Also I'm pretty sure getting hit with the stick (in Soto called a kyosaku instead of a keisaku) is not on an optional basis at this place... but let's be totally honest I am more than okay with that. We'll be working in the garden there and also walking out with the monks to collect alms from people (which I am UNREASONABLY excited about -- anybody can attend a lay Zen retreat if they really want to but how many people get to go out and 'beg' with monks? I'll tell you who -- only people who have Eimi-sensei's mad connections with every important person in Japan. I think she is secretly related to the imperial family).

And now, some pretty pictures of Myoshinji's grounds and gardens:


See you in five days!

Posted by Niadra 21:04 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto meditation lay retreat training zen rinzai zazen myoshinji monaster zendo Comments (5)


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 Comments (2)


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.

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.


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.

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).


(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.


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).



Posted by Niadra 20:15 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan temple old hostel arrival Comments (4)

What is the Sound of Procrastination Happening?

Here we see a feral Naia in her natural habitat (a haze of incense smoke and denial-ridden panic, attempting to foist her angry hedgehog on a friend and make painful clothing choices between efficiency and high Victorian style), two days away from a flight to Kyoto.

Do you UNDERSTAND the magnitude of my hedgehog-foisting guilt? NO. You DON'T, because you're LAUGHING. Asshole.

Is my bag packed? Sort of. Am I confident that my choices of attire will serve the double (and mutually-exclusive) purpose of neither offending the monks nor convincing the youth of Japan that I am a doofus? Totally, and by "totally," I mean "no." Do I know all the basic Japanese phrases I probably should? SNORT. No, but I can say "isn't that boy cute?".... and I don't remember why I know that.

I am so set, you guys. A Japrocrastinator of the highest caliber.

WILL Naia get her shit together and listen to some Japanese language cassettes from 1991? WILL her pants be too sexy, causing her expulsion from the monastery? WILL she be unable to resist the urge to teach Zen novices to pole dance, causing her expulsion from ANOTHER monastery? WILL she decide to squat in the corner of a Shingon temple for the rest of her life because it is "just too pretty"? WILL she be sent home for molesting the architecture?

Stay tuned for adventures and shenanigans and sexy meditation pants. AND MORE.

Posted by Niadra 15:31 Archived in USA Tagged kyoto flight usa packing plane getting ready departure preparing pre-departure Comments (2)

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