(Top photo: Zen garden, Zuiho-in temple, Kyoto. Bottom photo: View from Miyajima island of Hiroshima)
It’s my fourth day in Japan and I am standing on the raised wooden walkway of Kyoto’s Zuiho-in Zen Buddhist temple. An older gentleman, dressed in a traditional black robe, engages me in conversation. I ask if he is a priest. Laughing, he shakes his head and in halting but fluent English explains that he is preparing for a traditional tea ceremony. Then he asks, “Tell me, is the reality of Japan different from the Japan that you anticipated in your head? Are you disappointed by the reality?”
These honest questions have reverberated through my mind ever since. I contemplate them while sitting by the Zaiho-in Zen garden, as I climb the 12,000 steps of the Fushimiinari shrine and pass through its 10,000 red Torii gates, and while searching the faces of elderly shopkeepers and the impassive countenance of the giant bronze Buddha in the great Todai-ji temple in Nara.
(Photo: Giant bronze Buddha, Nara. Originally gold covered, it has seen several reconstructions over the centuries due to disaster.)
But as I wander and listen and touch and see, the questions change, for in reality it is not Japan that is under scrutiny, rather it is my own heart. So here is my attempt at philosophy – as I experience this bountiful feast, these incredible opportunities which compose my life in Japan – what do I bring to the table and what do I take from it? I think I can only answer for here, today, this moment, and this one – now. Today I offer gratitude and joy for everything I have received from Japan.
This is a country bursting with natural beauty. Plum trees blossom and birds twitter (don’t ask me the lyrics – they are singing in Japanese) in immaculately sculpted serene gardens. Ancient trees are nurtured and supported.
(Photo: Tree supports, Imperial Palace garden, Kyoto)
Probably I am most surprised by the devotion of Japanese people. Officially, 4% Shinto, 35% Buddhist, and 2% Christian, the prayers and incense rise here with a devotion I can learn from.
(Photo: prayers offered at Fushiminarii Shinto shrine. Fox revered here as messenger from God)
Yesterday, while visiting Nara’s Todai- ji Temple, I took advantage of the offer of a free personal guided tour. The aptly named Sachiko (“Happiness”) was my smiling guide and together we roamed the grounds – two middle-aged women from different cultures, sharing laughter and learning, together. It felt very real.
(Massive gateway to Todai-ji Temple, Nara. The temple has been rebuilt 3 times after destruction by natural disasters, each time on a smaller scale)
(Japanese school girls who asked me for assistance with a school project)