Journey To Japan

This is a course from the shojin ryori meal I received at the Keizoji Temple from the head monk.

After eating, we shuffled about to another part of the temple and were served matcha tea and Japanese treats. There, we had an opportunity to ask the monk a number of questions, from where he came from, to why he became a monk. He answered them all in earnest, though looking back, might have been a bit invasive for Japanese sensibilities. He answered warmly nonetheless. One member of our group during this Q&A asked the monk what was his favorite place in the temple. He paused for a moment, collected himself after mulling it over and delivered a stupefyingly Zen answer: “Where ever I am is my favorite place”.  Yeah…he said that. I would have hugged him save the verbal (and likely physical) beating I would have received for doing so. His presence was remarkable and I’ve stood beside the Dalai Lama—not that that means anything other than to say every few years I chill with dope monks and will soon have my Associates in “Monk Aura”. Maybe I can get a job praying over Burger Kings at grand opening ribbon cuttings but…….I digress.

Another point worth mentioning is the hospitality of my host family, who went out of their way to make me feel like part of the family— a debt that I can’t quite repay unless they’d like to come to New Orleans and we all get drunk and show up late to work the next day. Maybe that’d get me close. Maybe not. Regardless they truly helped to make my experience what it was. We did all sorts of things which help ground Matsue is reality outside of the bubble that was the numerous, impossibly cool, and somewhat exclusive things we were allowed to partake in as TOMODACHIs. Whether it was Natsuko throwing a takoyaki (lit. grill octopus) party with Rin and Haruka—a house party centered around making, you guessed it, takoyaki— and allowing me to screw up a batch because, yeah, or taking what became a slightly awkward trip through the neighborhood cemetery and being J-checked by an elder with Grandma Setsu, my time with them had the most meaning.

Takoyaki balls at the Suzuki tako-pa (Takoyaki Party). The dish is made in a mixture similar to pancake mix and is fried and shaped in a table-top iron.

Segueing into another, and perhaps best day of the trip, was when the Suzuki’s eldest son, Daigo returned from university for a visit. Every one of the TOMODACHIs had the option on the penultimate day of the trip to do whatever they wanted. Personally, I had felt that as great as the trip had been, as many beautiful things as I had seen and experienced, I wasn’t connected with the city and beyond the well meaning bubble created by our hosts. More than anything, I wanted to see the city and the people of Matsue through my own eyes. One of the Japanese TOMODACHIs, “Saru” or “Monkey”—spirited as his name would suggest—kindly decided to join us as well. Over the course of the day I got to experience life from the perspective of a person living in Matsue and bump EDM, Hip-hop, and the Japanese folk band, Spitz on the streets. As Saru described it, we were going into “Deep Matsue” or “Underground”. With Daigo and Saru, I was able to see places and learn about things about the city and how it operated that I simply couldn’t get through the lens of a quasi diplomatic trip. I also got talk candidly and hang out with two cool guys in Japan freely and openly without expectations and formality.

“Underground shoyu (soy sauce) Ramen” in Matsue.

As the day wound down, I found myself standing on the edge of Lake Shinji, seconds to sunset—an eternity. There were people all along the embankment: Families with their kids, couples in love, and everyone in between. Walking to the water’s edge, the waves lapped quietly at my feet and everything around me was drenched in a brilliant golden hue, the cool autumn air still with anticipation and inevitability. I’d be returning to America soon and the gravity of such a thought caused my great inner trauma. Breathing deeply, I drew in the salty essence of the lake as if it were Matsue itself and felt a dueling sense of profound longing and burning optimism at the thought of returning. As the distant mountains gobbled up the last morsel of sunlight and last traces of fire fell from the sky, a night deeper than I can remember descended on us with certainty and finality. I couldn’t explain why, but I felt that I had waited for this moment my entire life and I struggled to hold things together. Like losing one life and gaining another, I knew I wouldn’t be the same. Nothing would really.

The incomparable sunset at Lake Shinji.

SAYONARA

On the night before our departure, our host threw us a soubetsukai or farewell party. It took place at a local market that was popular amongst the youth in Matsue. The evening flowed much like the kangeikai on our arrival, but this time things had been put squarely in perspective. Japanese hospitality is unrivaled and I felt completely overwhelmed at the scope and thoroughness of their consideration and kindness.  There was a round of speeches, typical of the function, and our group as well as our host made kind remarks and spoke from their hearts. I personally thanked everyone and made a point to thank Natsuko and Rin (who were in attendance), and the entire Suzuki family for the hospitality and gave a deep, protracted bow to show my respect and appreciation. When it came time for Ochiai to speak, he made it a point to bring up seeing our tears. This time however, I wasn’t so sure—I knew I wasn’t sure—that I could rebut his claim.

As the speaking portion of the event wound down, Mika Miyamoto, a brilliant saxophonist based in Matsue, played a soft, introspective  piece that made me and our group implode quietly into ourselves. Damn Ochai got what he wanted all along.