Journey To Japan

A fisherman is out early for the day’s catch.

I noted on the ride that lots of the homes seem to have been built during Japan’s boom period in the mid to late 1980s, giving the city and older atmosphere. Much like New Orleans, the people don’t easily cast out old things. Instead, things like temples—which can easily be many hundreds of years old— are gently restored and or are allowed to fall in to a sort of ruin, consistent with the wabi-sabi aesthetic native to Japan which accepts that which is in decay and imperfect as having value and or refinement. Unlike the images you might readily associate with Japan, Matsue doesn’t have a railway system to move about town or easy access to the Shinkansen (bullet-train). Instead, most everyone drives, carpools, or catches the bus, which I hear is unreliable.

Our New Orleans delegation dressed in kimono.

After Natsuko dropped me off, a sort of gravity took over the trip that and me and the other TOMODACHIs fell into, the precise machine that fuels Japanese planning and scheduling. That morning we visited city hall and were treated to beautiful lecture by Professor Bon Koizumi, the great-grandson of the international writer, Lafcadio Hearn, whose legacy links New Orleans and Matsue. In it, he told the story of Hearn’s life and how his curious, wandering spirit led him from his native Ireland, through America, and ultimately in Japan where he would go on to write series of books on the subject of Japan. We even visited his home in Matsue. As representatives from New Orleans, we were also invited to participate in “Little Mardi Gras”, a condensed, yet spirited Japanese take on Mardi Gras that happens annually in Autumn. I dressed up as a gladiator and danced half-naked and triumphant on the streets of Matsue, handing Mardi Gras throws to bemused onlookers.

Little Mardi Gras in Matsue.

Later that evening, I found my sipping sake under a full moon on the balcony of the Matsue Kyodokan, a grand, Meiji-era imperial guest house turned local history museum that sits in the shadow of Matsue Castle, overlooking the city.  It was the venue for the welcome reception or kangeikai for the New Orleans TOMODACHIs and the proceeding municipal gift exchange with Matsue Mayor, Matsuura Masataka. Part pomp, part romp, the event was an opportunity for us to get better acquainted with the broader network of the Matsue hosting community as well as introduce our group to them officially. Families from the area taking part in a lantern festival or “suitoro” on the grounds were streaming in and out of the museum, their laughter and warm conversations coating the brisk evening air. As they moved farther away, they became shadows whose silhouettes ambled across the amber hues of the lanterns in front of me, creating a twinkling effect that matched the electric floods of the city below, and the eternal flicker of the stars above.

During the suitoro festival, residents light lanterns all over Matsue.

There were many moments like this for me in Japan, quiet little moments where I could clearly focus on the present, my own life and ultimately my place in it. Earlier that night during the toast portion of the reception, “Ochiai”, a government official and TOMODACHI from Matsue who had visited New Orleans in 2013, said “we want to see your tears”. I knew he was being funny, but the intent of his words hit me like a rogue wave and in that moment, I knew that all our hosts felt the same. How he explained it, visiting New Orleans was something that he’d never forget and that when his group left the city, they were all crying, overwhelmed by the experience. In an expression of “kind revenge”, Ochiai wanted to make sure that our group left Matsue feeling the same. Before arriving in Japan, we were given a dense daily itinerary that was delicately calibrated to allow us sample the various facets of Matsue in a short time. Each day, Ochiai went on, would not only be different from the preceding day, but would also build emotionally as the days went on. “Impossible”, I sipped in defiance to his challenge. “How could the trip get any better than it is now?”

An image of the #1 garden in Japan at the Adachi Museum of Art.

Over the next 10 days, we were treated to a number of places, each overflowing with years of historical relevance and cultural significance. They’re far too many to recall here, but overall I felt deeply privileged and humbled to have been allowed to see them. There are a few points of particular note during the trip I wade into. One moment that stuck out for me was visiting the Kezoji Temple on the summit of Mt. Makuragi to northeast of Matsue. To get to the top, you’ll likely need to drive up the winding mountain pass, exit, and walk a workout’s worth of stairs amidst a lush forest path which leads to the top.  Grandma Setsu said that in the past people would actually walk from the bottom of the mountain to the top—how times have changed. Once you’re at the top, you can get a panoramic view of Matsue and the pristine Lake Shinji. When I finally arrived, I was able to take stock of how massive and simultaneously aged the Kezoji Temple was. It’s over 1000 years old and fully functional sans some medium level repairs that need to take place. There’s literally nothing built in America that’s remotely this old and commands such reverence. Our caravan was greeted kindly by the head monk who had a reputation among the locals of being strict. We never saw this side of the monk, however, we learned something more interesting about him: He’s the only monk who lives at the temple.

 

Take that in….

 

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This is the Kezoji Temple temizuya or purification pavilion used to perform the ablution rite called temizu before entering temples and shrines.

Once inside, we tipped quietly in our socks into the main artery of the main prayer hall, the large wooden planks groaning under our collective weight. The room was largish and dimly lit from sunlight that managed sneak through.  Lining the perimeter of the room were floor pillows used to meditate and it smelled of earth and incents. In the center there was an ornate display of Buddhist regalia and a statue of the Buddha. Once seated, it was explained to us that we would meditate by keeping our eyes slightly open, concentrating on a point ahead of us, clearing our minds, and focus on breathing. I had meditated before with varying degrees of success so the instructions weren’t all too foreign. This however was different. Very different. As the monk sounded a large bell, I focused on my spot and endured the pain of the seating arrangement (I’m tallish). When I looked up, 30min had passed. It was an incredible experience. After  our meditation, we were treated to shojin ryori (devotion cuisine)—a multiple course vegetarian meal that originated in Japanese Zen temples to fit the religion’s emphasis on simplicity, clarity, and asceticism . The food is prepared to be as close to its natural state as possible with little heat, so it’s a rather cold meal. Despite that, it’s good and you can truly taste the flavor in all of the dishes—a common emphasis in Japanese cuisine. I did struggle with a soba dish that had a yam coating that gave it a sort of unpleasant viscosity, but even that didn’t taste bad, it just felt kinda weird. Weird and different, thankfully, were core reasons why I always wanted to go to Japan. I was getting my wish!