Monday, October 18, 2010

They have eyes, but don't see

This is one more entry about my recent trip to Kyoto. If you’re tired of reading about it, you can stop now.

Most people who know me say I’m a nice guy. Let me prove them wrong.

On Sun Oct 10 I went to Kiyomizu-dera, interesting place from an architectonical point of view and a great window into Japanese folk religion. The place was packed to the gills with tourists and pilgrims, (as per pic 2 above) so after getting caught in a bottleneck I decided not to proceed and return the following morning (indeed the following day at 6 am very few people were there - as per pic 1 - and the beauty of the area was overwhelming ).

Another neighboring sacred space, not recorded in my map nor in my guide book, had caught my eye. In front of the gate stood two pillars with kanji I couldn’t read so I inquired about the place with a small group of Japanese who looked like tourists and were standing in front of them. I could see they had no clue of what the place was, but still they answered that it was a garden. It was not a garden, even though there were trees and grass and a pond and koi and lanterns. Rather it was the Nishi Otani, a temple with a cemetery and a mausoleum containing the remains of Shinran, the founder of one of the major sects of Japanese Buddhism.

Now at the Otani there was not one word in English, not one sign explaining what the place was. I had found out where we were only by chance. Hearing sutras chanted in the hondo, the main hall, I approached the building and found a little sign that explained how to open the lock in one of the sliding paper doors. So I joined what must have been a memorial service, at the end of which I picked up an explanation sheet (typed but not with a PC).

But it was not Shinran’s mausoleum and the story of the accidental discovery of his remains that made this little side trip interesting and amusing. As I am standing in the courtyard in front of the hondo reading the explanatory sheet I hear a known accent, a familiar intonation: ah, mameloshn, Italian. And there they were, four landsmen of mine! As always in these circumstances I never identify myself as Italian and if asked I say I’m either Israeli or Greek. Rapid check of what I was wearing: all items had been bought in the US, no chance that my clothes would give me away.

What were the four landsmen of mine doing at the Otani? They had mistaken it for Kiyomizu-dera, and they were now reading their guide book looking for the different components of Kiyomizu-dera in the precinct of the Otani. For those of you who haven’t been at Kiyomizu-dera nor the Otani Mausoleum, imagine mistaking an apple for a pineapple. Imagine looking at the apple while reading the description of the pineapple and trying to match that description with what you have in front of you.

One of them approached the booth of the security guard to purchase the tickets but was told that there were no tickets to pay. His joy for saving the group 1200 Yen (15$) could not be contained. In the quiet of the temple he had to shout it to his friends , just a few meters away, that there was no ticket for this one. I checked again what I was wearing.

All Buddhist temples have more or less a similar structure, the same elements located approximately in the same way. But Kiyomizu-dera and the Otani are so different from each other, that I don’t know how they could possibly not realize they were in the wrong place. In the Otani there are enough smaller buildings that could pass for something from the other temple, but how could they not see that the wooden structure for which Kiyomizu-dera is famous was nowhere to be found?! Walking behind or next to them, while pretending to read my guide book, I would shake my head and think that if they were really so dumb, they did not deserve to see the real Kiyomizu.

At the end of the tour, coming down a tiny street that runs next to the wall of the temple, one of them exclaimed in Roman dialect: “Aò che culo! Nun ce stava nessuno. That was lucky! No one else was here!”

I could have told them that Kiyomizu-dera was further up the hill, couldn’t I? But it was too much fun.

I know, I’ll burn in hell for this one.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Then Noach built an altar to the Lord.

The day had started with a glorious morning, crowned by the Dai-Butsu’s triumphant splendor. It did not matter if now thick clouds were riding the skies, as the sun had shined uninterruptedly on my first day of vacation. Shortly past 3:30 pm a light drizzle reminded me I had to leave Nara and be back to Kyoto before Shabbat. In a couple of hours it would have been Shabbat Noach, of course it was supposed to rain.

It had been another early day as I wanted to get the most out of it. Arriving at Nara I had rented a bike and had biked my way around the usual tourist attractions. At the Dai-Butsu I had one of those experiences that make living in Japan unique.

Among the deers and the equally annoying loud Chinese tourists, a swarm of sweet third graders from Kyoto approached me. Tiny, cute, wearing yellow hats and off-white shirts, each holding a pencil and a notebook. They introduced themselves with sounds that sounded familiar but I could not really make out. They had to repeat the introductory sentence more than once before I could understand it: “Good morning. We are studying English in school. May we ask you some questions?” I accepted. “Where do you come from?” “I come from Italy.” One of them asked the others in Japanese: And how can he speak English? A few second of perplexity on my interviewer’s side and then the questions started again: “Where do you live?” “I live in Tokyo.” My interviewer lowered her notebook and looked at me: is the gaijin making fun of me? I repeated my answer: “Yes, I live in Tokyo. Where do you live?” They were not interested in taking questions from me. “Do you like Japan?” “Yes, I like Japan very much.” It seemed to me that my interviewer did not understand the ‘very much’ part, so I repeated my answer in Japanese. They wrote it down, but then they looked at one another, with eyes wide open: how on earth does the gaijin speak Japanese?!?! Their teacher encouraged them to continue the interview. “Do you like sushi?” “I like sushi. I eat sushi every day.” They did not understand the second part of my response, which I again said in Japanese. They giggled: no one eats sushi every day, only gaijin do. “What is your name?” That was the final question. At that point they gave me a little present: a bag with three origami bookmarks and asked if we could take a picture together. Each one of them took a picture of the group and me using old-fashioned disposable cameras. Also in this there was something sweet and innocent: they were not using some newfangled, electronic camera, but just a simple, green disposable Fuji, cost 700 Yen at any of the stalls along the way. That’s all 3rd graders need. I bet they don’t own cell-phones either. From the way they were holding their cameras I am sure no pictures came out. We kept crossing paths during the tour of the Dai-Butsu and every time they waved at me, smiling, giggling, covering their little mouths while whispering something to each other.

When I arrived at Kyoto station heavy rain was coming down, really as if the cataracts of heaven had open over Japan. On my way to the bus that would take me to the monastery where I was lodging I stopped at a Buddhist temple to take a few pictures of the pouring rain. One of which is at the beginning of this post (I would like to know how to move it down here)

It rained until 5 pm on Shabbat, which meant I couldn’t even go out for a stroll, but I had to stay in my ark, the monk-cell. What I originally thought would be a wasted day turned out to be the most relaxing day of my life. No worries, no commitments, no rush. Just a small Chumash Koren, a book by Daisetz Suzuki and a text about Japanese architecture. In front of my cell there was a small, quiet, green patio, with a roof under which I could sit and read. From time to time the echo of chants from any of the halls of the temple would reach my ears, making me once again wonder with gratitude at where life has taken me.

At motsa’e Shabbat after it had stopped raining, as I was biking in a quiet Kyoto enveloped in a cloud of incense, I couldn’t help but smile thinking about the smell of the sacrifice Noach offered after the flood.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And the earth was one language…

When words travel during their journey sometimes their meaning changes, and their original sound has no connection with the new thing they now describe. One of these is the word 'pizza.' In my trips around Japan most times piza (with Japanese spelling) seems to be the safest option so that’s what I end up eating. But that’s what it just is: piza, not pizza.
First there were the two piza in Shikoku, the mothers of all bad piza. After them there were: the piza made of nuked frozen dough, subsequently pressed with a machine and sprinkled with ketchup; the hexagonal-ish piza; the tube piza; the onion piza (with onion and garlic in the dough); the dry piza that had a very large flat rim and only a spoonful of topping at the center.
Thursday evening, after a day that started at 5 am, at around 6 pm I found myself in Kyoto hungry and sleepy, and with not much energy nor desire to go around looking for food. The area where I was staying, not a touristy one and a 20 minutes train ride to downtown, offered four food options only. Guess which plastic food display caught my eye in one of the windows… Piza!!!
Not any piza, a “mountain potato piza.”
As I did not have my camera with me, your eyes won’t feast on the mountain potato piza but, hopefully, its description will be enough to make your mouths water.
Instead of dough there were two thick slices of sandwich bread, roasted on the bottom but watery in the core, covered by a generous layer of grated raw mountain potato, and all topped by a thick coating of melted, golden, slightly crunchy, tasteless cheese.
I ate it, of course.