Ten years ago, I spent three months in Japan, living in Osaka. (Some of the first draft of Why Buddha Touched the Earth was written during that time.) It was long enough to make me feel something more than a tourist, though less than a true expat.
I got used to living here. I got used to traffic moving on the left, to the sounds of the language (even if I didn’t understand it). I learned how to move in the crowd, how to be in a world designed a little smaller. (Not that I’m a big guy, even by Japanese standards, but things are built on a different scale here.) I thought nothing of using a Japanese style toilet. I knew to put the receipt from the convenience store in the little box right by the register for disposal. And I could instantly spot someone trying to hustle me into an overpriced bar. (As a side note, at least in Osaka that was always a pretty lady. Nagoya and Tokyo sending guys at me? Step up your game.)
Those brain circuits haven’t been used in a while, and it’s interesting to see them switch back on. And it reminds me of one of the spiritual functions of travel: to shake up our neurological imprints. I have heard (and it may be BS, but it’s a good story) that in ancient China Taoist masters would hang out in inns, looking for travellers whose minds had been a little unsettled, and slip a little transcendental wisdom into their cracked-open minds.
With the karate events all done. I had today to myself. Did a little shopping, got a samu-e for myself (work clothes that are sort of in the style of a martial arts gi, good for doing shiatsu in or for comfortable lounging around the house) and a Mothers Day gift. Since Mom doesn’t read much on-line, not even her eldest son’s blog, I can reveal that I got her a sarubobo, a sort of good luck doll that is a Takayama tradition.
When I stopped by the historic Buddhist temple that’s right next to my hotel (!), I found a stone “Sarubobo Jizo”, mixing our patron deity here at TZP with the local sarubobo tradition plus one I’ve seen in other contexts, where a statue is touched or petted on the area pertaining to the petitioner’s wish or need.
Later in the afternoon I walked over to the Hida Folk Village, an outdoor museum of farmhouses. It’s somewhat along the same line as the Museum of Old Farmhouses in Osaka, though with a more local spin and in a more scenic environment.
This whole town is almost disgustingly scenic, with the Japanese Alps off in the distance. I am reminded again and again of a line from Gary Snyder’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra”: ‘All true paths lead through mountains.”Anyway, these museums are a great way to get a feel for how ordinary people, not just the emperors and the samurai, lived in days gone by.
But before I got there, along the way I found the “Forest of the Seven Lucky Gods”, a collection of huge statues of the Shichi-fuku-jin made from wood from thousand-year-old trees. Very beautiful, and a little off the beaten path. I had the place to myself, and the magnificent statues and the quiet of the woods made for a wonderful experience. The place seems to be the creation of one determined and slightly eccentric sculptor rather than any big enterprise. (I wonder if the American Visionary Art museum knows about him.)
These seven deities have roots in Shinto, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These days, of course, we’d call that “cultural appropriation” and demand segregation of the pantheons, but the Japanese religious tradition seems to have never met a god it didn’t like. (Give it another century or two and I will not be surprised to see syncretic versions of Jesus, Athena, and Thor enter the pantheon.) I’ve mentioned two of these seven here before, Hotei and Benzaiten. (I picked myself up a little plastic Benzaiten in the souvenir shop there.)
Also along the way was the “Teddy Bear Eco Village”. While I didn’t stop in, they had a Smokey the Bear display outside; given my love of Snyder’s poem, I take any Smokey sighting as a sign from the Great Sun Buddha.
After the Folk Village, I stopped for a beer at a little gallery cafe run by a couple of long-haired artist types — my kind of people. (I was lured in by a vegan sandwich on the menu, but the chef was away, so I just had a beer.) We commiserated about our respective nations’ crazy leaders.
So, it was a rather eclectic day.