Sunday, June 25, 2006

Walls of Stone, Roof-Top Fish, & Plenty of Stairs

My cousin Emiri and her husband are stationed in Okinawa. Emiri's husband was away in Florida doing Secret Squirrel stuff for the Army, so Emiri came to visit me for a few days. For those of you who don't know, I'm the oldest grandchild, and Emiri is one of the youngest. Age-wise, she could be my daughter if I'd started early! But despite the age difference (or maybe because of it!) I really enjoy her company.

Emiri has been in Okinawa for about a year and a half, and she loves it! She started learning Japanese in January, and she puts me to absolute shame. She's not only able to speak a LOT of Japanese, she can read and write in hiragana and katakana, and is learning kanji! She even e-mails her Japanese friends in Japanese on her little Japanese cell phone. She's just amazing!

I went to pick her up in Fukuoka on May 22. I was nervous about driving directions and dealing with parking (I have a parking phobia, dunno why!), so I took the bus. Emiri met me at the International terminal, complete with gifts from Okinawa. It's the Japanese custom to always bring gifts when visiting, and to take gifts home to your friends when you return. Usually, the gifts are something to eat (yeah, just what I need!) and preferably something specific to the area. Em brought me wonderful pineapple pastries and purple sweet potato pastries (both pineapple and purple sweet potatoes are specific to Oki). She even had a gift for my friend Miyuki, as she knew we'd be seeing Miyuki at least once during Em's visit. We took the bus back to Sasebo in the rain, talking nonstop and catching up on life. That evening we spent at home, looking at photos Emiri brought of her birthday with her Japanese friends (amazing..check out her blog at for more!), having a glass of wine, and generally getting to know one another again!

The next day, we headed to Kumamoto by train. We got sort of a late start, but that's par for the course when you get women in our family together, I guess. We might have gotten to Kumamoto earlier, but we both panicked and got off the train one stop too early--I think the station before ours was called Kama-Kumamoto, and we should have waited for just plain Kumamoto. So we waited for the next train, and eventually got to the right place. Once in Kumamoto, we got on the streetcar and headed for Kumamoto Castle. We bought "day passes" on the street car, but it turned out we would've been better off to just get regular tickets, as we ended up not using the streetcar again until the end of the day to get back to the train station. Oh well...hindsight's 20/20!

We walked for a while, and I was beginning to regret the adventure, as it was very humid and sticky. But then the castle grounds and the statue of Kato Kiyomasa appeared ahead, and a cool breeze seemed to hurry us along. From a distance the statue made me smile. The tall commander's hat and bowed legs made the figure look a little like a garden gnome. When we got closer though, we read the plaque, and discovered the figure was the feudal lord who built Kumamoto Castle between 1600 and 1607 A.D. He is sculpted wearing snake-eye patterned armor, a battle surcoat, bellflower patterned footwear, and holding a fan. Nope, the fan isn't just a pretty accessory--it signifies battle command. Kiyomasa was equally famous for his prowess in war, castle construction and civil engineering (as we were about to witness!)

The castle and the castle walls were simply amazing. Kumamoto Castle is one of the "three great castles of Japan." The castle itself perched high on the hill (anything worthwhile in Japan is worth climbing to achieve...). It wasn't the fantasy Bavarian/Disney tower I always envision when I hear the word "castle", nor the heavy medieval fortress. Instead, it was a layer-cake of wood and plaster, with the ubiquitous upturned roof corners of Japan. On either end of the roof rested huge, curled fish decorations called shachihoko, which are legendary dolphin-like roof decorations throughout Japan. They ward off bad luck, especially fire (a big fear in a country of wooden structures!) But there was nothing flimsy or precious about the castle--the whole structure was definitely masculine, and though it was created with an eye for beauty, it was definitely a case of "form follows function." This was a FORTRESS. The stone walls are absolutely huge, and sharply sloped to repell invaders--and there is no mortar! The construction was fascinating, and beautiful.

The plaques on the grounds were fascinating as well, explaining about the "Six Flowers of Kumamoto", the 600-year-old cinnamon camphora trees, and the samurai ideals that encouraged warriors to be as well versed in things such things as botany, poetry and the tea ceremony as they were in the art of warfare. The "Six Flowers" were developed in the 18th century, when the feudal lord Hosokawa Shigekata encouraged his retainers to take up gardening for their "spiritual education." A pursuit of the samurai, care and propagation methods for these flowers were handed down for generations, and several of the species in the garden have never been cross-bred, and remain genetically pure. (Sounds a little like Japanese isolationist politics to me!)

After exploring the grounds, we decided to go inside the castle itself. The courtyard was awash with school groups, each group in a different uniform. I've never seen so many variations on a navy blue school uniform! There was almost no male-female interaction though. The girls hung all over other girls, and the boys hung all over other boys, wrestling, hugging, standing with arms around each other--not at all in a sexual fashion, more uninhibited and innocent. It was the sort of behavior I expect to see in American kindergarteners, not in junior high school students. Some groups were waiting to go into the castle, others were waiting as small groups visited the souvenir shop, still others were making pyramids or careful sitting/kneeling/standing rows for class photographs, with the castle as the backdrop. They were boisterous and happy, giggling and hanging on one another, but exceedingly well-behaved. I flashed back to our flight into Japan, back in January. I can't imagine seeing that many American students in one place behave so well, with so few adults to hold order!

When M and I went into the castle to brave the steps, one skinny little girl elbowed her way through her classmates and spoke directly to M in Japanese. At first, M thought the child was asking for M to take a photograph of the child...then she realized the student wanted a photo taken of herself WITH the American tourist! We're in a relatively rural area of Japan, and M supposed the students don't see many Americans. How cool that M could communicate with the child--in Japanese! I think that student was the star of her class for the rest of the day! The stairs up to each level were divided into an "up" lane and a "down" lane, and for the rest of the afternoon, every time we passed this particular group of schoolgirls, they all shouted "Hello! Hello!" and waved at M and me.

I didn't think the inside would be very interesting at first, as there are few windows, but the inside was made into a museum. We weren't sure how high we would climb, but we didn't have much choice..once one starts up, there is no way to get into the "down lane" of the stairs without going up at least four floors. Well, we could've crawled under the chains, but it would've been awkward, and who wants to disobey the rules in front of all those students? So up we went. There was a huge, scale model of the whole castle on display, and another larger model consisting of several rooms. A mirror was positioned so the viewer could see the hand-painted ceiling squares, each a different flower and beautifully executed. Unfortunately, my photo turned out badly.

Another level housed displays of samurai armor, and the insanely small, ornate gilded boxes that were the litters for the high-born ladies. They were about as big as my cat carrier, but much more beautiful. We peeked out an open window (more of a levered-out shutter) and the view was spectacular. When one spends so much time driving through the crowded, narrow streets, sometimes one forgets about the amazing vistas and views, with the lumpy volcanic mountains that are so very "Japanese".

We finally climbed down from the tower and made our way back out to the street. It was pretty late, so we hurried to try to get to the Folk Art Museum and Natsume Soseki's house, which M really wanted to see, as she'd studied his writings in college. Unfortunately, both were already closed! I snapped a couple of shots of M looking despondent beside the house's sign, and we went in search of food, weary and footsore.

A bowl of meat and rice helped immensely, and we wandered briefly through the big shopping arcade on our way back to the streetcar line. M decided she wanted something sweet, so she went off to hunt down a banana popsicle-type thing. I waited on a bench, and was approached by two Japanese women. I wasn't sure what they wanted, but one spoke English. She wanted to know if I had any pains or problems. How weird, I thought! My hesitation and apprehension must have shown in my face, so she tried to explain that she and her friend were providing a free service for anyone and everyone, where they would pray and send "positive energy and healing". They would not touch me. It was good for the person they were "healing" and I think it also was of some spiritual benefit for the two women--karma or merit or something. I wasn't sure what to say, so I cautiously admitted that yes, I had some issues with my shoulder.

The first woman explained (I guess) to the second woman in Japanese. Then they both squatted down on either side of where I sat on the bench, bowed their heads, closed their eyes, spread their arms to encircle me without touching me, and began to chant very softly in Japanese. They did this for about two minutes, then got up, smiled sweetly, bowed in unison, and walked away before I could say a word. M arrived just as they left. What a strange and wonderful experience! I have no idea why these women were doing what they were doing, nor exactly what it was they were doing, but it made me think of Reiki. I don't know if they were Buddhist or Christian or what.

M and I made our way back to the train station in the twilight on a street car packed with schoolgirls, salarimen, shopping matrons and one adorable elderly couple, and from there back home to Sasebo. It was a long day, but certainly an interesting one! More soon, about the rest of our jam-packed mini-tour--two days for Arita, Kashimae Pier, an amazing dinner out with Miyuki, and Fukuoka City! (The cat photo is just a picture of three little cats happily snoozing on a plank across one of the city's canals...I couldn't help myself!)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Big Buddha, the Lucky God & the Goddess of Eloquence, Beauty & Wisdom

I'm sorry it's been so long between updates--it's been a busy few weeks! My trip to Yokosuka was a bigger deal than I anticpated, and I was a little sorry we hadn't taken the Navy up on their offer to let Fearless Husband come with me. However, we both decided it was better for his career for him to ship out at the beginning of May rather than have him stay home and travel to Yokosuka with me. So, off he went to Singapore and Thailand.

The Navy gave me a plane ticket to Haneda Airport outside Tokyo, and instructions on how to get a train ticket to Yokosuka once my plane landed. After some confusion and the help of the costumed "airport helpers"--I boarded the train. The airport helpers are a particularly Japanese custom...young women in their early 20s drift around the airport, wearing powder-blue skirts, jackets, cute little hats with ribbons, and dainty white gloves right out of the 1950s. They're paid to look pretty and seek out confused tourists to aid. The helper who approached me had very little English, but more English than I had Japanese! She called out in her high, clear voice, and two more dainty blue-wrapped girls came running to join us (working women in Japan seem to ALWAYS run with tightly clasped knees and teeny little steps, giving the impression of eagerness and hurry even when they don't move particularly fast!) Between the four of us, we managed to navigate the train ticket machine. I'd found the button to convert the screen text to English, but the train line name I was given was not on the screen, nor was the station name I'd been told. I kept repeating "Yokosuka! Yokosuka!" in desperation, and the three girls figured out how to get me there, pushed the right buttons, and handed me the ticket that the machine spit out. All three were eager to show me the right escalator to find my train, and I was escorted like royalty to the train platform.

I struck up a conversation with a couple on the train--he was miltary, she was Japanese, and they were also on their way to the hospital at Yokosuka. I was grateful, as the wife was able to read the signs, of course, and told me I'd lucked out and gotten onto an express, and would not have to change trains. They showed me how to get to the base from the station, which saved me taxi fare, and I was grateful. Once on the base, I had to take a taxi though--it's a BIG base! The housing folks tried to put me in a shared room with a young female sailor, but I wasn't having any of that. I checked myself into the Navy Lodge (which is where I would've stayed if FH had come with me) and got permission for reimbursement afterwards.

The medical stuff went extremely well--I've never had such attentive, professional, courteous care in my life! I guess I expected the Navy hospital not to be on par with a private hospital, but I was proven wrong very quickly. I am so grateful to have such wonderful medical service available! I had a great time talking with the Lieutenant who was the head nurse. She and her husband have adopted two Japanese babies, and of course, I had lots of questions! The whole experience was great, despite being a lot more involved than I first thought. The doctor decided he didn't want me going home to Sasebo the day after the procedure, so my "orders" were extended several days. So...I decided that rather than make this a trip all about medical stuff, I would treat it as a mini-vacation and a chance to see a little more of Japan on the Navy's dime!

I arrived in Yokosuka on Wednesday afternoon. It poured rain on Thursday (and most of the day was taken up with medical stuff). My surgery was Friday, and then it poured all day Saturday. I was getting a little impatient! Luckily, Sunday was overcast but not rainy, so I headed back to the train station, armed with a photocopied map of Kamakura, directions to the Daibutsu (giant Buddha) and my meager handful of Japanese phrases. I got on the train to Kamakura (or so I thought!) A little worried that I couldn't find any signs on the train in Romanji (English alphabet), I spoke to a young man, pointing in the direction we were travelling and asking "Kamakura"? The answer was an emphatic NO! I'd gotten on the wrong train, going in the wrong direction!

So, I got off at the next stop, and figured I would just jump on the next train going in the opposite direction. While I waited, a little boy and his parents came onto the platform. He was running and laughing and jumping in puddles as his father chased after him, making sure he didn't overshoot and fall onto the tracks. The child's mother saw me watching her son, and smiled...and then spoke to me in great English. We talked, and I ruefully explained my mistake to her. I'm certainly glad I met Asoko! Turns out I could not just get on the train and go in the proper direction...I had to go back one stop, get off the train, and get on an entirely different train line! Oooops!

So...this young family offered to escort me. It wasn't until we'd gone back one stop, changed trains, travelled several stops and changed trains again that I found out they had changed their plans entirely, just to make sure I got where I was going! They left me there at the Hase train station in Kamakura, and promptly got on a train going back to where they'd come from. They all three hustled down to the end car, and waved and beamed at me from the back window of the train until it was out of sight.

Kamakura is a fascinating town. It's small--smaller than Sasebo--with lots of little restaurants and touristy shops. Their claim to fame is the plethora of shrines and temples, and the Daibutsu, which is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan. It's 13.35 meters high, of cast bronze, built in 1252. It was originally built inside a temple, but a tsunami washed away the temple walls and roof at the end of the 15th century, so now it stands in the open. Its official name is Taiisan Kotokuin Shojo Senji. One can pay to go inside it, but it was plenty hot enough without going into a giant metal windowless box, so I abstained.

My favorite part of Kamakura was not, surprisingly, the Daibutsu, but instead was the Hasadera Temple. Of course, one enters the temple grounds at the garden level, and begins to climb (anything worthwhile in Japan is worth climbing to reach...) On the first "level" there were literally hundreds and hundreds of little statues called sentai jizo, maybe 12 inches high. Each represents the soul of a child who was stillborn, miscarried or aborted. The men mostly kept moving up the stairs, but it seemed that every single woman had to stop here, to pour water with a bamboo dipper on the head of a child-like Buddha statue, and pray before the ranks and ranks of sentai jizo. Another, larger statue sat in the middle of them all, wearing a red cloth cap and cape on its stone head and shoulders. There were many candles being lit, and lots of incense, and more than one woman walked away weeping.

There was a tiny little temple with a wooden statue of Buddha inside, with the usual grid-topped box for donations...but surrounding the box and the feet of the Buddha were piles of toys and candy and sodas. A woman saw my puzzled expression and whispered to me "for the children, because they never got to play and be happy on this earth." So much for no tears!

Once I got myself together and stopped sniffling, I made my way further up the hill to the main temple halls. The Hasedera temple is of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, and is famous for its statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The statue shows Kannon with eleven heads, each representing a characteristic of the goddess. The gilded wooden statue is over 9 meters tall, and is regarded as the largest wooden sculpture in Japan. It was so serene and cool in the temple hall, and though there were plenty of tourists, almost all were Japanese, and everyone was very quiet and reverent. It was really beautiful! Go to for more info about the temple and the statue.

I really wanted to take a photo of the statue of Kannon, and there were some tourists doing so, but there is a sign that specifically asks visitors NOT to take photos. I thought about how I'd feel if someone came into St. Peter's in the middle of a service and started snapping photos and talking, and I decided to respect the request. I did take a photo of the huge bell, and the giant tree trunk that is swung against it to ring it, and several photos of the gardens, the temple roof, the statues for the children, and of some of the toys and offerings for the souls of the children. I also took a photo of the revolving kyozo, which is a carved wooden storehouse for the sutras--the Issaikyo, which are all the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism (100 volumes, 900 pages each!) The whole thing revolves on an axle, like a huge, ponderous top. There were several very solemn-faced people struggling to push it around one complete revolution--an elderly couple, then two plump housewife-types, then three teenagers. If a pilgrim pushes it around in a full circle, he or she gets the same spiritual benefit as reading all the scriptures!

I really enjoyed the Daikokudo hall, the home of the Daikokuten. He's a fat, funny god with a huge smile, a bald head, and fat, pendulous earlobes. He stands on a sack of rice with a treasure bag over one shoulder and a mallet or mace over the other shoulder. He supposedly shakes his mace and treasure and goodies fall out, showering the good people. He used to be the god of grain, but is now considered one of the gods of good fortune--one of the seven lucky deities. In a little alcove off the Daikokudo sat a solemn priest. His job was to carefully paint beautiful calligraphy in the "pilgrimage books" of visitors, and to sell little trinkets. I bought a little Daikokuten charm, and he smiled and handed me a little tiny brass statue of the Daikokuten as a gift. While I was there, several people came in and rubbed the statue, including two very serious old ladies who approached the statue chanting something as they rubbed him all over, using both hands with great purpose, seriousness and intensity--his swollen earlobes, his knee, his fat cheeks, his eyebrows...and between his legs! I had a hard time keeping a straight face, especially as the fat statue was shorter than both women, but much wider, and his grin was so huge!

On my way back down the hill, I followed two elderly women from New Zealand (mostly so I could listen to their Japanese guide/friend!) They passed a little tatami-matted, glass-walled building filled with people kneeling in front of low desks, busily writing. The guide/friend explained that they were copying from an ancient sutra, which gave them spiritual benefits. Past the building, there was a torii in front of a little tiny cave. The NZ ladies stooped over and went straight in, so of course I followed. Inside the cool, low-ceilinged cave carved out of the hillside, water dripped and shadows loomed. The one large Benten statue (goddess of eloquence, music & wisdom--of course she's female!) was followed by 16 relief carvings of her followers and messengers. I was confused...the torii is Shinto, but the Benten statue is Buddhist. The guide/friend explained that this was an example of the overlap of the two beliefs, but I'm not really sure I understand. More reading for me, I guess.

The cave startled me, as it got so low at one point that we practically had to crawl to get through to the next part. There was a room with hundreds and hundreds of teeny tiny wooden Buddha figures about an inch and a half tall--tucked into nooks and crannies in the wall, on rock shelves, on the floor, teetering on the metal pipe through which the wires for the few electric bulbs run. The guide/friend said people bought these little figurines and left them, often with prayers written on the bottom. I asked her why these things were in a cave...was there persecution in the past? She smiled and said "it means more if your prayers are private and quiet, and not showing off for your neighbors." Made me think of "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...." (no, I don't have it memorized--I had to look it up).

I was so glad I made the effort to go to Kamakura. I wish FH had been with me, but maybe we'll get a chance to head in that direction together at some point in the next two and a half years. If you're anywhere near Tokyo for any reason, don't miss the little town of Kamakura.

More adventures to come. I still have to give you the lowdown on cousin M's visit...we went to Kumamoto, Arita, Fukuoka, Kashimae was great! But it will be a day or two, as FH is home (YIPPEE!) Seems they got halfway to Indonesia, and Indonesia decided they didn't want help. So they headed home. His hours are truly crazy right now, as the ship is doing some sort of important excercise/qualification/I don't really understand it, and so even though he's in port, he's on the ship more often than not. Though I won't see much of him (and nothing at all during the week!) at least he's close, and he gets to be home a few evenings in the next two or three weeks. He's working insanely hard and I'm really in awe of him right now.