(dedicated to M and J)
Japan was a revelation. Wandering the country with a merry band of Brits and Aussies, following the guidance of Tyler, an expat from Colorado now living in Tokyo, I came face to face with myself. In other words, this was not the tour I expected. What did I expect?
For one thing I expected to see the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, a jewel of a Buddhist Temple about which I have read and fantasized since my days reading Yukio Mishima. But I'm getting ahead of myself. In the beginning it was all about Tokyo. I arrived a day early to sleep, get over the 14 hour flight from Atlanta, and stroll the area called Asakusa. Yet, even as I made the easy walk over to the Sensoji temple, I sensed that this was not a trip about sightseeing or taking in the different culture. I felt as if I were walking around in a dream, mindful of a morning of rituals, of people encountering their own gods, or ancestors, or sacred values, just as I was meeting my own sense of the sacred, of the holy ghosts of my own idealism.
Maybe it was the scent of the incense, the deep sound of temple bells, the simple bows of local inhabitants to whoever or whatever they imagined inhabited the inner spaces of the temples that affected me so strongly. Maybe it was nothing more than the cool morning air and the blossoms of this or that cherry tree still in bloom. Maybe it was the serenity of each Buddha presence I met or the way one man touched and embraced this figure:
Nonetheless, sensing the extraordinary, I rested briefly back at the hotel and then launched out for Ueno Park. I walked everywhere, up and down stairs and through subway stations, past various shrines, temples, and cemeteries inhabited by golden cats.
The park was lovely, filled with the Japanese, with blooming trees, and more shrines and temples, with space and water and contemplation. I arrived back at the hotel, worn, but eager for the first tour meal. The meal turned out to be a sampling of Japanese food at a local, busy restaurant. I ate the sushi and I loved the dumplings.
Photographed and Strolled the Kiyomizu Kannon Temple in Ueno Park on my first full day in Japan. Pretty much the same as it was when Hiroshige depicted it. — at 上野恩賜公園.
There is no point in repeating what is already listed in the itinerary for this tour. We did all the things listed the next day for a whirlwind look at Tokyo, as the wind literally whipped and whirled around us. The ride up the river to the Hama-Rikyu Garden saturated my senses. Four of us ventured out for our own lunch in a bohemian cafe called Cafe Bohemia. It was a touch of Left bank Paris in Tokyo. Over wine I revealed a hint of how different my life is from the others of our group, and I'm not just talking about being bisexual. In the afternoon we chanced upon a traditional wedding at the Meiji Shinto shrine and atop some Metro skyscraper I caught in the late afternoon, blinding sunlight, my first glimpse of solitary Mt. Fuji floating over the open sea of buildings that make up Tokyo. At last, we returned to the hotel, I more fatigued than the rest of the troop, more than I knew.
The next morning took us to Nikko in a private bus. My own private dragon had awakened in my knee and it bit discretely as I climbed the steps, the many steps, of the temples and shrines of Nikko. Most moving to me were the rising sacred grounds filled with firs as in a forest and the colorful detailed figures of birds, monkeys, elephants, and monks adorning the shrines of Tosho-gu and Taiyuin-byo. The entire area blended the Buddhist and Shinto images and values beautifully. I could not do it all, but as others ascended the last shrine, I purified myself by washing my hands in one of the holy springs...
When we returned to the peaceful, Zen-like Ryokan, I soaked with a Brit or two naked in the healing hot mineral spring of the Onsen, indoor and out by the garden and warbling stream. We all dined in our Yukatas and made quite a costume party of exotic Japanese delicacies, soups, sushi and beef we cooked ourselves in hot oil.
On the morning of April 9, I awoke feeling refreshed, the aches of the dragon knee gone for the moment, and eased away more by a morning soak with a few Japanese men in the Onsen. A single bird sang out in the morning air by the creek that had flowed into my sweet dreams all the night long on my futon in the room of flower arrangements, cushions, and zen simplicity. It was not easy to depart this brief experience approaching Satori.
Leaving behind the Shinkyo Bridge of Nikko, we headed out on the road through the Japan Alps to
Karuizawa, favorite town of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was there that we dined two consecutive nights on exquisite French food at the hotel restaurant. There was also a soothing Onsen, indoor and out, where one morning I bathed with a Japanese father teaching his young son about the ways of the Onsen, and on my second morning, sat in the outdoor hot spring, fed by a bamboo pipe of steaming water, as snowflakes floated one after another down to the pool.
Our big day trip took us to a garden spot where we made soba noodles. The experience was fun, but I questioned the value of spending so much precious time doing something so frivolous. The complimentary tempura we had with our noodles at lunch dispelled some of my criticism. The rest of the day, before and after lunch was dedicated to the mountains, to Kegon Falls and the dramatic view of it from an overlook, and to Mount Asama and the temple there seemingly floating in the terrain of black rock magma and twisted pine trees. It was there that the light snow began as we made our way down to the Hotel Mampei to have the royal milk tea John Lennon invented in his and Yoko's "hideaway."
We left behind the snow covered streets of Karuizawa, and headed over more mountains to Nagano, once home of the Winter Olympics. The city is another modern one, and from my tiny room I looked out over what looked like black ants swarming over the concrete to and from the train station. Like Tokyo, there is plenty of neon to color the nights.
Our stay in Nagano meant two things to me-- the long hike through the evergreen forest to see the snow monkeys and the sunrise Buddhist procession and ceremony, complete with chanting of the Buddhist Sutras at the Zenkō-ji temple.
I suppose this would be a good place to insert one of the cute photos of the snow monkeys. Yet in reality it was not really so much that they are "cute," as they are tame and unconcerned with the gawkers who come every day to see them. Hundreds of monkeys do what they do over and over, feed themselves, play, fight, have sex, soak in the onsen, chase one another, grow up and old and follow their instincts. The humans spoil them with food and attention. They are enjoyable to behold and perhaps we long for such simplicity in our own complicated, rule filled lives.
On the other hand, the ceremony at the temple, with its chanting and its ornate ritual, was as beautiful in its own dignified way as the walk through the forest. The high monk's tapping me on my bowed head with his beads as he and the others marched by was truly a blessing, zen-like, unpretentious, just what it is and nothing more. Monk or monkey, I have no idea who was more enlightened...
Our next destination, Kanazawa, should have been about one thing only: The Kenrokuen Garden. When I finally got to visit this garden, late afternoon, it was unquestionably one of the finest I have ever seen, up there with the Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island. The cherry blossoms were spectacular as were the old pines, waterways, a large stone with a haiku by Basho, and I finally saw plum blossoms on a late blooming plum tree in a grove.
Unfortunately, a well meaning guide awoke the dragon in my knee. She guided our troop onto buses and took us for various "experiences" like using gold leaf. She marched us over the castle park to an expensive lunch that no one wanted just hours after breakfast where I sat for an hour sipping a $5 cup of "English" tea. Up and down steps, long walks, standing bus rides that took us, after six hours to the place I would not miss, the transcendent garden. It was she, bless her, who pointed out to me the Basho haiku.
That night the dragon breathed fire on both my knees, whether it was bursitis or arthritis or whatever, I couldn't walk. I had to cancel the reserved dinner in Kyoto much to Tyler's dismay. I drank Darjeeling tea and ate a boiled egg and some seaweed sheets I had taken at breakfast. I was filled with panic at the thought of going to Kyoto by train and not being able to walk at all. If only, I thought, if only I had taken the $5 taxi to Kenrokuen that afternoon, as I had taken a taxi back, breaking off from the group, the dragon would still be asleep...
Somehow I got to Kyoto. The hotel, located atop the train station sent staff with a wheel chair to roll me to my room. Helen of Australia showered me with pain pills. Another member of our troop gave me anti-inflammatory meds. I went to bed and slept at least 12 hours, waking in a soaking sweat, but one knee seemingly healed and the other simply sore. I missed breakfast the second day and I missed the walking tours of several sacred temples and shrines of Kyoto, but not the Golden Pavilion, which Tyler had removed from the itinerary days before. I have no idea why, but at this point it no longer mattered, since I had missed so many other places I had longed to see.
Of course, when afternoon arrived and I knew that I would not have to go to a hospital or see a doctor, that the dragon had curled up once again and forgotten about me, I could have figured out how to take a bus, or splurged and paid some $120 for a taxi to the temple I sought. I just let it go. I went with Tyler and the troop to the scheduled performance of the Geishas. It was rather like what I imagined a Kabuki theater performance would be like. The live music was haunting and the enacted story sad. It was a story of not having the beautiful ending we all want.
My final day at the heart of Japan culture and history began with the crucial decision whether to spend the day seeing the holy places of Kyoto that had yet eluded me, or to go to the city I had longed to see ever since I first read about Japan, Nara. I chose Nara.
It had surprised me when I had told others of our troop about wanting to go there and only one person had ever heard of it, and he only because he had already gone on a previous tour. How I wondered could anyone come to Japan to learn about its culture, history, and beauty not know about Nara. Most wanted to spend their day training to Hiroshima, the city Truman chose to destroy, killing so many, in order to end a war. Could he have not chosen some other place, less populated? Was a nuclear attack on two cities highly populated with innocent civilians the only way to end the war? Wasn't it a miracle that these cities recovered so quickly to become the prosperous places they are today? I don't know. Seriously.
I went instead to Nara, took the hour long train ride on my own, got off in the middle of a small modern city, and took a taxi to Todai-ji. There began my experience of the Japan I had imagined as I bowed before the 53 foot high figure, the largest cast bronze Buddha on Earth, whose outstretched hand has held as many as five monks at a time. Dating back to 752 this Buddha, whose head had to be recast in 1692 after an earthquake, was pure stillness and meditation at the very center of a nation moving rapidly everywhere, with bullet trains, and stations emptying with thousands of people like swarms of ants, of subway cars, of boats on rivers, of dancing Geishas and Sumo wrestlers, of Cherry trees swaying in the wind, petals of cherry blossoms scattering on the garden paths. Pure stillness at the navel of the universe calmed us all and gave us pause. School children lit incense, stood and imitated the Buddha's gesture, wriggled themselves through a hole in one of the vast wooden pillars the size of of the Buddha's nostril. Golden Buddhas sat on either side of the Great Buddha. Tall standing guardians protected the vast hall of the largest wooden structure on earth, not one nail used to hold it together.
Outside of the temple, deer wandered the grounds and the adjoining park. Children petted them. Old men fed them special wafers. Now and then a monk would wander down a path alone across the deer park, past the branches of wisteria, under the sacred trees. I wandered and strolled at my own leisure, no specific direction but up, up to more temples, up to one of the most sacred shrines in Japan, though I didn't know it.
My mind took in what I was experiencing here, and my mindfulness was enhanced with thoughts of those I love and who love me in return. I thought too of those on the other side, of lovers murdered, killed by AIDs, and dead by suicide, one as recent as this year. Were they now essences like the ancestors the Japanese revere and pay homage to? Mostly, I thought of those living I love, who gave me this journey to Japan, who live with me, who are my lovers yet and my closest friends, my chosen family. Even the wife and child of Buddha, whom he left to find enlightenment, became his followers. Genuine love in my view does not diminish with circumstances, and it is one key to enlightenment, one station of the path, the Tao, or whatever you want to call the way.
The path I had wandered along took me to the Kasuga Grand Shrine. More forest, more ambling deer, more flowering trees, more Tori gates, and 3000 lanterns guided me to yet another holy of holy places. Unlit lanterns in broad daylight somehow managed to light up my awareness of how rich my life has been, how fortunate I was to experience such a day of peacefulness, interacting only with the deer and with school children who waved at me and said hello and who cheered me when I said my one word, Arigato. And so I was, thankful for everything that day in that magical, sacred park.
Hakone was the beginning of the transition back to the West; and added to the package was an afternoon of sculpture, from the splendid Henry Moores, reclining in the foothills of Fuji to Rodin's Balzac, caped and arrogant and Manzu's stripper standing outside of a room dedicated to some Pope of the past. Here is a link to the amazing, unexpected park and garden
Tyler saved the place from being anything but pure Japanese by taking us all, drunk on champagne, to a local home/restaurant. I had ample ginger pork and we all had ample plum wine. As the evening turned into laughter and tears (Laughter and crying, you know it's the same release-Joni Mitchell), we all shared our confessions, of children had, of children denied, husbands left, wives never had, long and short marriages, betrayals, and a few of my own gay and bi experiences for variety. Fortunately none of us could remember anything the next day.
The next day, I chose a late breakfast, the onsen, where I talked with a man from Thailand, and meditation on my private terrace as almost all the others left at "dawn" for funiculars, pirate ships, and glimpses of the ever elusive Fuji. I never shed my Yukata all day. As I avoided the International Herald Tribune left at my door with its horrors from the USA about various attacks... I let the news fly away from me like, as I imagined, the crows of Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Van Gogh.
Last night in Tokyo
At the Dragon Bar
in Ni-Chome, the gay district
On our last day and night in Japan we made the easy bullet train to Tokyo from Hakone (after descending the mountain on the local) and found our last lux hotel in Shinjuku, the hip side of Tokyo. As the sun set we followed Tyler to our Sayonara dinner in a very local eaterie filled with business men in suits, and locals of both sexes, many smoking and laughing loudly and drinking with abandon. Wine was on the house and plentiful, though the food trickled out slowly, sometimes exotic, sometime not. Again I savored the dumplings.
After dinner most went to bed at the hotel. Not I. The dragon that inhabited my knees was sound asleep; so I took to the streets of Shinjuku. Thanks not to the internet or Tyler's gay friend, but to sheer luck in hearing some English, an expat from the U.S. and his gay friends from the Philippines welcomed me to join them in the hunt for gay Tokyo and the natural choice for me of a club, the Dragon Bar. Once we located our quest, the three of them went for Mexican dinner and I entered the bar alone. Alone but not for long. The place was super-friendly and I had hardly ordered my beer before a cute local couple asked me to dance with them. We spent some time talking and taking photos before they finally decided to pull their intoxicated and passed out friend up from the sofa and depart-- well after midnight. The three I had met earlier showed up and I sat and talked with them awhile about the friendliness of the area, about the boy with the buck teeth who had accosted me and asked if I was attracted to boys with buck teeth...
It was a joyous, slightly absurd, last night in Japan and I relish it to this day for it was as much interaction with those who inhabit Japan as I had had.
When I arrived back at the lux hotel, it was past 2 A.M.-- too late to order a massage, something else I had wanted to experience in Japan, one more thing to join the list with the Golden Pavilion, something to remain in my imagination alone. Buddhism teaches us not to desire what cannot bring lasting satisfaction, or more, not to desire at all, to transcend desire. I haven't achieved that state of being. Yet Japan changed me; now, I value, strangely perhaps, precious things I am not able to have.
Let me conclude with a haiku from the Master, from Basho, on departures in springtime, on leaving --
the birds cry out
the eyes of the fish
are full of tears
Note: all photos on this page are mine... except of course the photo of the Golden Pavilion.
There are more photographs of my stay in Japan here: