As you may have read, in February and March, we were in Japan. I have told several stories about that trip, but one story has been waiting on the shelf, unfinished, for a while: Tatou's latest travel account. First delayed by unforeseen circumstances, then by work obligations, but here it finally is.
Tatou had been to many Asian countries, but never to Japan. She was very excited about going there. I had told her many things about the country, and she couldn’t wait to see it with her own eyes. She was particularly curious about Japanese gardens, as the pictures she had seen looked beautiful. She was also looking forward to learning more about Zen, as she occasionally practised Zen meditation herself; and Shinto, as she had been told that it is an animistic religious tradition whose followers worship trees, rocks and mountains. I may have expressed some of my skepticism regarding this aspect of the tradition at some point - nevertheless, being a professing animist herself, Tatou was quite curious to find out more about it. And of course, she couldn’t wait to take a bath in one of those famous Japanese hot springs.
First, she spent two weeks in Tokyo. She had never been fond of big cities, so she didn’t particularly like it. As I was busy with my workshop, I had little time for sightseeing, so Tatou didn’t get to see much of the city either. There were two things she liked, however. The first thing was the fact that the hotel where we stayed had a beautiful traditional Japanese garden. While I was attending lectures at the national library, she spent many hours wandering around the garden, listening to the quiet voices of the trees and rocks, and talking to the koi carp in the pond.
The second thing she liked was the forest around Meiji Shrine. It was in the middle of the city, but it felt like another world, and there were many big old trees. The ceremony that was being conducted at the shrine when we visited was also interesting, but unfortunately we couldn’t see clearly what the priests were doing as we were not allowed inside the building. But the traditional dance looked beautiful, even though the music made her a bit sleepy.
The trip really became interesting when we left Tokyo and went to Kamakura, a small town with hundreds of Zen temples. We arrived late because of some problem with the train, so we didn’t have time to see many temples on the first day, but the first one we saw was absolutely amazing. It had a huge wooden gate, and many lovely plum trees that were all in bloom. It was still a bit chilly, but spring had undeniably come, and made the place look very beautiful. The temple also had many small stone statues of Guanyin, Tatou's favourite bodhisattva, whom she had once met while she was living in Vietnam. And it had a nice garden, including a pond where a shiny blue kingfisher was fishing. The place made her very happy.
We visited two more Zen temples that day, and Tatou liked both. They all had plum trees and flowers and nice old buildings, and the second one had a strange statue of the happy Buddha of the future. She thought she could feel his presence.
The second day was also nice. I went to some sort of Shinto seminar, but as it was in Japanese Tatou didn’t join me. Instead, she went to see more temples with her friend Nhung, our Japanese friend Katsuo, and his father. First, they saw the Daibutsu: a famous, high statue of Amida Buddha, who once promised to save mankind. It was wonderful; even bigger than she had expected. They even went inside the statue - inside the Buddha’s body! It was a bit strange, but they had a lot of fun. Afterwards, they visited one more temple, where they saw a beautiful wooden statue of Guanyin, as well as many small statues of another bodhisattva called Jizō that all had small toys near them. But when Tatou heard they were for dead babies, she got a little bit sad.
The next day, we went to Ise, a provincial town which houses two of the most famous Shinto shrines in the country. Both are surrounded by a small forest. Tatou loved the forests, especially the second one. It was full of trees that were very old and powerful, and she could hear them whisper and sing their songs, very low and slow. The shrines were special, too – beautifully simple wooden buildings that vaguely reminded her of the houses she had seen in Tana Toraja. Sadly, as we weren’t allowed inside she could not hear the high gods very well. But then, high gods are usually distant, and most of the time they are too busy thinking about abstract matters to be able to communicate with individual people or animals. Very different from local nature spirits.
We also went to a famous shrine standing in front of two rocks in the sea, that were married by means of a long rope tied between them. Tatou liked the rocks, but she was a bit afraid of the statues of frogs standing everywhere. They looked like they were made of stone, but of course that was just outer appearance as they were actually guardian spirits. Their eyes followed us suspiciously, and although Tatou told them they need not worry, she wasn’t sure whether they understood her language.
The best part of the trip were perhaps the three shrines of Kumano, an ancient pilgrimage centre in a gorgeous mountainous area; a traditional mix of Shinto, Buddhism and mountain worship. Tatou liked all three, especially the second one, which was located next to an old Buddhist temple and pagoda, and an impressive high waterfall. But in her opinion the most special place was the small shrine on top of a mountain, overlooking the town where we were staying. It had a big rock with a rope around it, and it housed a very old mountain spirit, who had once been very powerful and angry but had become friendly and gentle now that he was old – except for once a year, during the fire festival, when he would get excited and wild again.
Finally, after we had visited the third shrine of Kumano, we went to hot springs. The first one was very special. According to the explanation it was the world’s only hot spring on the Unesco World Heritage list. It was a small wooden cabin, which individuals or couples could use for up to half an hour. The bath itself was made of stone. The water was green as jade, smelled of sulfur, and was so hot that it made Tatou feel as if she was being boiled! In fact, just ten meters further down the road people were boiling eggs in the same hot spring water… After we had put some cold water in the bath, it wasn’t so extremely hot anymore, and we enjoyed a nice, relaxing bath.
Later that day, we went to another famous place, where we could take a bath in the open air right next to a river, together with playing children and a group of old men. Eagles were flying above us, it was raining softly, and the hot water made us feel calm and sleepy. Tatou was beginning to really like Japan.
We left Kumano and went to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, famous for its many temples and gardens. I was quite busy, so most of the time Tatou and Nhung went out to explore the city together. They went to an old castle with a beautiful garden, and to some famous Buddhist temples with sand gardens, arranged in such a way that it reminded Tatou of the sea. She thought she could see waves, and small islands of mossy stones in the middle of the sand. She wasn't sure her interpretation was right, though.
They saw beautiful flowers and trees in the botanic garden. They visited an unknown shrine, inhabited by a group of majestic herons. They even went to a temple with a magic well - according to the sign, those who drank from it would have their wishes fulfilled. Kyoto is a rich and fascinating city, and they barely scratched the surface. But Tatou loved the many temples, gardens and picturesque alleyways she and Nhung explored. It would be great to stay here a bit longer, she thought. It would be nice to live here for a while.
Then, as everybody knows, many tragic things happened. Not to us - we were safe in Kyoto - but to many other people in Japan. When she saw the images, Tatou was very sad. We went home a little bit earlier than planned.
These past six weeks, media worldwide have published and shown pictures of Japan. Many pictures, most of which show sadness and destruction. Having seen all those pictures of violent tidal waves and broken buildings, one would almost forget what a beautiful country Japan still is. Therefore, Tatou has asked me to post some of her Japanese pictures on my weblog - to show you some of Japan's beauty.