Good morning, Japan.
Land of interwoven ways, tradition and modernity, peace and bustle. And poetic odes to ramen soup.
The last time I was in Japan, I visited Tokyo, Kyoto (I just realized those are anagrams and also a simple reversal of syllables – in English) and Hiroshima. All urban, all large, and I recall wishing I could have stopped between the cities to see the countryside. This time I did. South of Tokyo, in the hills of Kamakura, ancient stairs lead to samurai hideouts and bamboo forests. Northwest of Tokyo, the residents of Karuisawa Village are reviving the practice of growing food locally and thinking about small community. Far up the east coast of Japan, communities continue the difficult work of recovering from the tsunami of March 2011, but are still warmly welcoming. And far to the west of Tokyo the spas of Yugawara and monasteries of Gifu Prefecture instill a peaceful mindset.
Let’s start with Tokyo, though. Time in rural Japan means more contrasted with its massive cityscape and buzz.
Most of anything in Tokyo starts with a subway ride, comfortably crowded. Tokyo is a pedestrian city, much like New York, and not vehicle centric. (I wonder what the ratio of square acreage is for vehicle streetscape and parking versus pedestrian sidewalks and buildings in various downtowns of the world…) And towering above us all, is the grand, open, spacious architecture.
Of course, not all of Tokyo’s architecture is tall. Some of it is very small and short.
And some things in Tokyo bring quiet to mind…
|Slightly south of Tokyo is the quiet of Kamakura. After 20 years living in Vancouver BC, then Seattle, I considered myself a big city boy. I love a big city’s energy and concentration of arts, its small alleyways and beautiful buildings. However, the last four years I’ve been mostly based in (well, near, since I’m not even in downtown) the tiny town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 22 thousand people, a small neighbourhood of Tokyo or Mumbai or San Francisco. And I have been enjoying the quieter, older places.
In Kamakura, ancient traditions are the main attraction: silent samurai temples with dragons guarding bell towers and ancient stones, turtles soaking up sun and practicing Tokyo-style living, bamboo forests that make those kung fu floating-through-bamboo-forest scenes in movies more believable. I’ve seen bamboo used for construction scaffolding in China (on skyscrapers, no less), but none of it was this big.
|As with any tradition, it can become just a tourist attraction, or modernize its trappings.
And speaking of traditions, I was introduced to a new one. At a 7-Eleven in North America, you’d be hard pressed to create a healthy, real meal but in Japan most convenience stores have shelves full of rice pockets. In traditional Japanese fashion, they are wrapped perfectly so with three easy pulls your dry nori joins the moist rice filled with something tasty. I couldn’t tell you what all those tasty things were, but rice pockets became a regular treat at any hour of the day or night.
|Up the coast, away from Tokyo, away from the quiet of Kamakura and north to a different quiet. One that comes from utter awe.
I was in Japan with iLEAP as a photographer for a reunion of four SIFJ (Social Innovation Forum Japan) groups and a tour with two cinematographers (Eric Becker and Gabriel Bienczycki) and Izumi (iLEAP's Associate Director) to film three SIFJ graduates working to revitalize Japan’s tsunami-damaged social fabric. It’s an experience that many months later I still don’t have the right words for, and so all I’ll say here is that it was joyful, bewildering, and humanizing.
|The Shinkansen. The famed bullet train. More amazing than the speed of these trains, though, is the clockwork service that can allow some stations to accept a 16-car train every three minutes for all of rush hour.
Of course we had to take pictures, but we weren’t the only ones. You can see a lot, and very little, at 300 kilometers per hour (185 mph). I had to wait until we were on a slower train (like one from Inshinomaki, home of the Cartoon Museum) to capture the extent of Digerati and also rice fields outside the train that were wedged into every corner, pocket, and valley.
|Amidst tsunami stories, lots of just plain fun things showed up around us: in-dash TVs to ease the pain of congestion, very small bathrooms, 5-toed socks, plastic food, luminescent-green melon soda, little green men, almost artistic concrete installations that keep the hillsides from falling on our heads, electrical mazes, a rock and roll museum, very vertical parking, traveling salesmen… and American Grills?|
|We had some amazing food on our travels, but one of the most memorable culinary experiences was actually rather difficult.
In Yugawara, we were served abalone in the shell, and told when the fire underneath the grate goes out, it is ready to eat. Okay. Until we realized that the abalone was still alive, and being cooked slowly as it writhed in it's shell. It was an uncomfortable challenge to enjoy that. Many thoughts about what being part of a food chain is all about and how to mercifully participate…
|Yugawara and Gifu also offer comforting Japanese experiences. Indoor/outdoor hot bath onsens (no pictures, sorry), kimono dressing, and meditating with a Zen monk.
This was a perfect finale to ease the stuttering brain back into a gentle gear after the previous week. Notice, but do not notice. Hear, but do not hear. Feel inwards falling and rising. Breathe. And don’t forget to watch fireflies and walk to mountain temples and find odd things in the forest. Our monk (Ittetsu Nemoto) took us to the monastery he trained at, and we walked the stairs that every initiate walks three times before they are accepted through the gate and into the Zen fold. Echoes of India for me, when I stayed at a Buddhist monastery in Lingshed village.
|I am impressed with the resilience of humanity. Somehow, we’re still here and generally happy after millennia of scrounging and farming, warring and loving, inventing brain surgery but also atomic bombs, gossiping and connecting, shunning and sharing, teaching and torturing, destroying forests and practicing Leave No Trace wilderness travel. We still want the company of others, still want to cook for crowds, still want to talk with strangers. And we still want to hold each other's hand.
Thank you, Japan, for such a vibrant dose of being human.
|A deep breath, and a return to the swirl of Tokyo.
In exchange for sleeping in a monastery, I did have the pleasure of staying in a real honest-to-goodness capsule hotel (bunk beds for grownups?). I wandered Tokyo, sliding between floating peace and pulsing energy, being one of the crowd, and yet not of the crowd. Thankfully, my time in Japan taught me that you can experience the world as whomever you are, knowing that the blurred, tumultuous pace of humanity will not slow down.
Just bring peace with you on the inside.