Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bittersweet Parting: My Fondness and Farewell

My deepest apologies for my dearth of updates these past few weeks.  My days in Tsuchiura were filled to overflowing with all manner of sight-seeing under the loving guidance of Asami's parents, and late nights aplenty were spent conversing with Rie in my ever-so-slow-to-refine Japanese.  My time spent with them was a joy, despite a rather meddlesome cold I developed shortly upon arriving.  The generosity with which they graced my visit defies the very limits of my capacity to express it, for it dwelt deeper in them than the mere level of things that were given or done, the level to which words so naturally find themselves applied, but rather their givingness flowed from a point so far deeper than words; it was of essence that the things themselves were but expressions.  They embodied the space of selflessness.

Helping Bou-san's friends harvest rice
After one short week with them, I traveled back to Nagano, this time to the city of Azumino, for my second farm stay.  My host was a man named Bouzaburou (Bou-san for short), a former law student and computer programmer turned farmer.  He also runs an inn, nestled right at the foot of the Japanese Alps, that offers guests the chance to experience country living.  I arrived just in time for rice harvesting, which involved drying rice bundles on wooden racks and then feeding them through a dreadfully noisy machine to strip off the grains.  We harvested not only my host's rice crop, but also helped several of his farmer friends with theirs.  There is much cooperation among Japanese farmers; we were constantly helping friends and being helped anytime there was a big job to be done.

Sum and I gathering buckwheat
About halfway through my stay, another WWOOFer arrived, a girl from Hong Kong named Sum.  She spoke very little Japanese, but her English was excellent, so we not only enjoyed the privilege of an absent language barrier, but I also had the pleasure of acting as Japanese sensei, humbly imparting my limited wisdom unto her, my apt and eager pupil.  I was grateful for her arrival, not only for her timely assistance with the rather tedious task of cutting and bundling a field of buckwheat entirely by hand, but also because her presence instantly made the place feel more like home.  I was no longer the new guy!  I enjoyed her company immensely, and she actually reminded me a great deal of my cousin Maria, with her very similar mannerisms and way of talking, as well as having the same genuine sweetness to her personality.

After 11 short days, my stay was up, and it was back to Tokyo.  I had the luck to catch a ride with some guests at Bou-san's inn, a music-reading performing duo of immense talent who read/played at the inn the night before.  After their show, I'd stayed up late with them singing oldies and traditional American folk songs ("Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam..."), and in the morning when it was discovered that we were headed in the same direction, they offered me a ride.  Success!

I had 4 more days in Tokyo that were over in a blink.  I got to see a few more of Nathan's friends and finish up some gift shopping, but the grand finale was today.  Nathan and I woke up this morning at 4 a.m. to go to the Tsukiji fish market, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind.  We actually got there a little late and missed the big tuna auction, but we stood in line for an hour to have breakfast at a famous sushi restaurant, and it was absolutely worth the wait!  Next we went to see the kabuki matinee, a four hour marathon of traditional Japanese theater.  Shamisens twanging, samurai with heavily painted faces posing with gusto, all of the female parts played by men...  It was highly stylized, but quite dramatic and thoroughly enjoyable!  Finally, we topped off the day with one final trip to an onsen.  I've fallen in love with Japanese public baths; they are something I will surely miss upon returning to the States.

Tomorrow I leave...  At 4 p.m. my flight departs, and it's back to the land of the setting sun.  I miss home to be sure, and there are people I am aching to see again, but the parting is bittersweet.  My trip to Japan has been a roaring success, surely to be reprised somewhen in the future. 

Farewell, Nihon... I have loved you so!

yours in peace and love,

Azumino and the Japanese Alps

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friendship Quilts

Asai-san and his family (also featuring Asami and Melody)
I have had the joy and privilege of crossing paths with innumerable people on my journey thus far.  Relationships blossom in the most unexpected of ways, and their courses seem never to follow in the footsteps of our preconceptions.  Weaving heart to heart and mind into memory at the spark of a word, chance misstep, glance, or the loving agency of a mutual friend, they are the stepping stones that bring us into the greater being beyond ourselves.  Be they animal, vegetable, or mineral, the interconnections I've helped spin transcend culture and species.

While some have lasted but a moment or two, a brief exchange in the unabashedness of a public bath (there's nothing like nudity to bring down barriers), others have been blessed with the promise of something greater, the hopeful sense that some distant circumstance will once more wed our parting threads.  I've met WWOOFers and farmers, karate instructors, software programmers, artists, chefs, reptiles, canines, arachnids, and a delightful old woman who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and now dances and sings for the customers at her restaurant.
Melody's pet turtle, Kame-pon

My first new friend was a turtle, appropriately named Kame-pon (kame is Japanese for turtle).  She lives in a small tank at Nathan and Asami's apartment under the faithful care of Melody (and Nathan and Asami).  I've never had the chance to develop a relationship with a turtle before, but I am grateful for this opportunity.  She has thoroughly charmed me!  She's big enough now that she can occasionally manage to pull herself up and over the top of her tank, falling with a thwack upon the wooden floor and promptly scuttling away to nestle in the warmth of a tangle of electrical chords.

Meanwhile, upon my return to Tokyo from my first farm stay, Nathan took me to Kanagawa to meet some old friends from his days as an exchange student.  We visited Asai-san and his wife, Eri-san, who was Nathan's old host sister.  Asai-san teaches karate and recently placed 2nd in the 50 to 54 age bracket of the Shotokan karate championship for the whole Kanto area (with a population of 30 million people, that's not too shabby!).  He also brews his own beer, which I had the opportunity to taste.  It was delicious!  We feasted on kaiten sushi, a style of restaurant where plates of sushi revolve on a conveyor belt about the tables, and afterward visited a playground with a giant slide stretching all the way up the hillside.

The next day we went to see Muto-sensei, Nathan's old home room teacher.  At his house I got a chance to meet an exchange student from Portland.  We all went for a walk along a nearby river, and Nathan and I took our turns reminiscing about our days as exchange students, giving her advice on learning a new language and overcoming the barriers we each had to face as greenhorns abroad.  Muto-sensei gave me advice on becoming an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan, and encouraged me to do so.  He has lots of connections, so if I should ever follow up on his suggestion the process will be a cakewalk.

Amelie and I: this is how we communicate
But perhaps the person I've enjoyed meeting the most was another WWOOFer, a Taiwanese girl named Amelie.  She arrived at Canadian Farm just a few days before I left, but she came to Tokyo afterward.  We had the chance to get together a few times during the week she spent in the city.  The first night she arrived, we met to go to karaoke.  She sang in Chinese, whereas I sang the likes of Billy Joel and Van Morrison (I made one attempt at Journey, but that didn't work out very well).  We spoke a stumbling mixture of Japanese and English, aided immeasurably by the dictionaries I brought with me.  I would look up the Japanese translation of the words I was trying to say, and if ever she didn't know the Japanese, she could just look at the characters and decipher their meanings.  I treated her to dinner at some cheap ramen shop in Ikebukuro the night before she went back to Taiwan.  We parted with vows of improving our language skills before we meet again; she will study Japanese and English while I attempt Japanese and Mandarin.  Lofty ideals perhaps, but hey, who doesn't like a challenge?

I've another month to go here in Japan.  This first half has been an incredible experience, and I look with bated breath toward the days and weeks to come.  Tomorrow I will travel to Tsuchiura, a city in Ibaraki prefecture, to visit Asami's parents and her sister, Rie.  I will be there a week before heading to Azumino for my second jaunt into the realm of WWOOFing.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Battering Skies and Trembling Earth

I have returned to Tokyo, somewhat regretful of leaving Canadian Farm that had truly come to feel like home, and I arrived just as a typhoon was working its way up the coast.  Yesterday the air was a thick mat of gray, wind, and wet.  While other areas south of Tokyo experienced severe flooding (mudslides dammed a river near Osaka, and villages downstream had to be evacuated), nothing too harrowing came to pass for us, tucked away warm and dry in the safety of an apartment high rise surrounded to every horizon by a dense metropolis.  It peaked in the night, its bellowing gusts groaning about the windows and blankets of rains falling continuously, occasionally stirring into a fusillade of intensity only to settle back into a soldiering slog.

As I lay in bed reading, occasionally hearkening an ear to the storm, I felt a trepid wiggle apprehensively work its way up through the building, ever-so-slightly jostling my bed.  An earthquake, but only a minor one that seemed a little unsure of itself, shaking a bit then subsiding and returning quietly to readjust itself hoping no one will notice, like someone self-consciously blowing their nose in church.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tiny Frogs and Enormous Insects

I've been enjoying this opportunity to experience Japanese nature.  The subject of much Buddhist poetry and traditional artwork, I was curious to see how it compares to the forests and fields of home.

For the most part, the woods look remarkably similar.  They're all young, the inevitable aftermath of intensive logging.  I have found very few big trees outside of parks, shrines, and temples.  The trees I do see, though, all see to be relatives of species found in Pennsylvania: cedar, spruce, maple, birch, aspen, etc.  I see many of the same weeds, too: dandelion, plantain, asters, burdock, clover, and so on.  Wildflowers too display many similarities to the ones at home.  Yellow coneflowers can be seen everywhere, and I found touch-me-nots colored a deep violet.  As far as flowers go, though, I do also see many that are completely foreign to me.

However, I have been struck by the infinitesimality of the frogs, the immensity of the insects, and the proliferation of both.  Walking through a field or wading through a garden and everywhere there can be seen these little green frogs crawling and hopping about the vegetation.  I even saw one inching its way up the outside of a window at a restaurant I visited recently.  I know small frogs can be found in PA, but I've never actually seen them.  Toads abound at home, but here it's these little guys who predominate, putting even the toads of my homeland to shame.

Gertrude, occupying the lavatory
And if I thought the amphibians were numerous, the insects outnumber them by far, and ceaselessly startle me with their gargantuan size.  So far I've see the biggest spider, wasp, and butterfly I've ever seen outside of a cage.  My first day here at Canadian Farm, I was introduced to a massive spider we've lovingly been calling Gertrude.  Every morning we find her weaving her trap in all of the most inconvenient of places, like across the stairwell or (as I discovered once when put my head through it) in the bathroom above the toilet.

Spider webs everywhere, dragonflies on everything, moths and butterflies blocking the sun.  If we go to the field in the evening, we can look up and sehe legions of dragonflies buzzing about the sky.  Literally hundreds of them fill the air.  Off in the distance you can see mountains in every direction, and far below the lights of Chino fill the darkening valley.
The view from the field

Monday, September 12, 2011

Timber, Meat, and Vegetal Plenitude

So my first week at Canadian Farm has been a fun-filled, action-packed blur of sun, sweat, and steaming mountains of succulent sustenance.  I am well worked, well fed, and growing every step of the way.

Canadian Farm is a dream tucked away in a forested enclave, nestled in the foothills of the mountains of Nagano.  This place is perhaps the most romantic man-made space I've ever encountered.  The main camp consists of half a dozen large timber frame structures and a handful of sheds, cabins, and treehouses.  A large stone oven stands beneath a grassy roof and bellows smoke into the air above the courtyard, coupling with the rich funky smell of cured meat that hangs from every beam and rafter.  A massive timber frame pavilion shelters dried indian corn hanging in rows above a collection of picnic tables and looms over the jungle-gym treehouse that playfully lines the gravel driveway.  Behind every door, tucked away in every nook and cranny one finds musical instruments from every continent, wood carvings, nicknacks, hand tools of every art and persuasion. 
This is where I sleep

The man responsible for making all of this happen, the glue which bonds the seams and corners, the heart and soul of this entire operation is named Haseyan.  Aging, yet vibrantly youthful, he wears a wild mop of sliver hair upon his head and a scraggly beard about his face and neck.  He smiles often, jokes even more, and has a good-natured laugh that resonates from his belly.  He built every building and most everything else at Canadian Farm (I once split wood with an axe he made himself, because other tools are "too easy to break").  In addition to Japanese, he speaks English, French, and at least some Spanish.  He's been to dozens of countries on five continents, and when he travels he takes just the clothes on his back, a small towel, passport, and medicine in case he meets someone who needs it.  Canadian Farm is primarily a restaurant, and Haseyan is the master chef.  Oh, and ya know that stone oven I mentioned earlier?  Yeah, he built that too.

Haseyan suprising me with this pose during our photo op
I get up every morning around 5:30 (without an alarm clock I might add), meet Haseyan, and we're out in the field by 7:30.  We work two hours before coming back for breakfast, which is always enormous.  We work all day, ending at dusk, and spending the peak sunshine hours around the shade of the main camp while Haseyan tends to the lunchtime rush.  I'm working pretty much constantly, but the tasks are always varied, so I never get bored.  So far I've helped repair a greenhouse damaged in a recent typhoon, harvested tomatos, peppers, eggplant, squash, corn, potatos, soybeans, and marigolds, planted garlic, weilded a hoe, helped make and package smoked salmon, split firewood, repaired a brick patio, and much much more.

After work, almost every night they treat me to a trip to an onsen, a hot spring public bath.  With the excpetion of maybe a full body massage, I'm hard pressed to think of a better way to top off a day of hard labor than an hour long soak in a hot bath.  Throw in a trip to the sauna with the occasional dip in a cold pool and I'm feeling fantastic.  At that point, all that's left is another big meal, and then hit the hay.

I am learning a lot, and every day I'm appreciating this experience more and more.  The staff here are very kind and very patient.  My Japanese is improving, and I feel like I'm on the verge of a breakthrough to a new level of competency.  Although most of the people here speak at least  some English, I have lots of opportunities to further my linguistic proficiency. There was another WWOOFer here, a Frenchman named Gregory.  He seemed to me to be a genuinely decent fellow.  He had been here a month already before I arrived, but he left early this afternoon.  I was told that another WWOOFer is coming in a day or so, a girl from Taiwan. 

I've another week here at Canadian Farm before I head back to Tokyo.  Rest assured, faithful followers, many more gems and treasured tales await to be gathered and told.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Shifting context

I'm leaving for my first farmstay in the morning.  I'll be traveling by train to Chino, Nagano to volunteer at a place called Canadian Farm (www.go-canadianfarm.com).  I'll be there two weeks before returning to Tokyo.  I don't know how much internet access I will have, so it may be a while before I can update my blog.

For those who do not know, I am volunteering on organic farms while I'm in Japan, through an organization called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).  This will be the first of two.  I get room and board for volunteering.  I have no idea what I'm in for, but no doubt it will be educational.

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Shinto deity about town for a stroll
Everywhere I go I am struck by the diverse ways in which communities form around the connection to and the occupation of space.  Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the practice of spiritual traditions.  I have, in my travels thus far, had the privilege to witness the worship and discipline of such faiths as Russian Orthodox Christianity, Shintoism, Quakerism, and Zen Buddhism.  Each profoundly distinct from the others, yet each containing within it something which hearkens to something deeper and shared.

A week ago, Nathan and Asami took me biking all over this corner of the city, and it just so happened to be the time of year when all of the Shinto deities are brought out for their annual parade about the streets.  Golden tabernacles supposed to house these deities are hoisted upon the shoulders of local men (some scantily clad in a traditional style loincloth), who march it down the alleys and causeways, jostling it about and chanting enthusiastically.  Followers dressed in yukatas smile jovially, and all about town are street-vendor-filled festivals with music and dancing.

Just down the hill from Nathan and Asami's apartment sits St. Nikolai's Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church.  Last Sunday, Nathan and I stopped over to sit through part of the service.  Russian Orthodox services are notoriously long, running somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 hours, so we only stuck around for the first part.  The experience was other-worldly.  It began with a long procession of dark robes and big beards, and then the bells began to ring.  First one, then a few, culminating in a cacophonous rhythm punctuated by chants.  The priests converged in the center of high vaulted, domed chamber, and a meticulous ritualized dressing of the head priest began as others worked their way around the room swinging candles and incense into every nook and cranny.  Somewhere in the middle of a bunch of clanging jangles, about half an hour in and before any reading or preaching had begun, Nathan and I ducked out.

Today I got to experience the opposite end of the spectrum in the form of a Quaker meeting.  In a circle of pews holding a small congregation, we sat for an hour in complete silence.  The stillness was broken only once by a woman moved to speak.  I didn't understand what she said, as it was in Japanese, but she occupied the spotlight for only a minute or so before she sat down and the silence resumed.  At the hour's end, everyone gathered for a simple meal of fishy rice, stir-fried cabbage, and tea.  We chatted, people exchanged business cards, and the title of "friends" which Quakers call themselves seemed to be aptly applied.

Zenseian Temple
Finally, this evening I attended a Buddhist temple to practice zazen.  Again, Nathan and I went together.  As this was our first time, we were required to attend a preliminary introduction prior to the main event.  We were handed sacred texts, shown the proper seating and posture, and given the run-down on how the ceremony would proceed.  There were easy a dozen other newcomers in the group.  When the time came, we all headed upstairs to an open room with a tatami mat floor already mostly filled with silent, stoic-looking meditators (all ordinary people, not just hardcore devotees with shaved heads).  The ceremony began with chanting several sutras in Japanese, followed by a reading from some ancient text and a sermon from the head monk.

By this point we were an hour in and it was time to practice sitting meditation.  All of us neophytes were herded back downstairs (all in complete silence), where we positioned ourselves upon small cushions, cross-legged with one foot propped high upon the opposite thigh.  Straight-backed, eyes open and staring at the floor, hands positioned in our laps, one upon the other, thumbs connecting to form a circle just below the navel, we sat for twenty minutes, breathing deep and very slowly.  As we meditated, a monk paced the room with a long bamboo stick.  If one wished, one could signal him as he passed by bowing, placing one hand upon the floor, the other hand on the opposite shoulder, and lowering the head.  He would then whack you twice on each shoulder (you switch your hands in between) with his stick to waken you up.  Both Nathan and I tried this, and I must say, he hits you rather hard.  It stings a bit, but it really does help you to refocus.

By the end of these twenty minutes, one foot is asleep, the other is aching, and fire burns up and down your back.  A loud ding of a bell and a loud clap of bamboo signal the end, and the room is filled with the creaking of joints as legs are painfully untwisted.  We're given 3 minutes rest to let our legs recover, and just when the blood flow resumed and the tingling had just about faded, it was time for the second 20 minute session to commence, and it was back to pretzel legs and no-mind.  At the very end, we were ushered back up to the main hall to be fed tea and cakes, a satisfying conclusion to perhaps the most strenuous spiritual experience I've ever had.

Nathan absolutely hated doing Zen, which he described as "torture" and "hell."  I actually kinda liked it.  Sure, there was a lot of discomfort, but I was able to maintain enough detachment from it that I could still maintain a sense of peace and focus.  Yet, it was without a doubt a humbling experience.  I feel like it was something I'd like to try a few more times to really get a feel for it.

All these things, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Quakers, Shinto, Zen, transported me far beyond my normal frame of reference into something more.  Within each of these experiences I felt a common element, an atmosphere, sometimes cultivated, sometimes revealed.  It's the awakening to spaciousness, that omnipresent non-locality from which all things emerge.  It amazes me that this simple sense of space can be evoked by the filling it to the brim or simply listening to it and breathing.  A balance of both, I feel is essential: to be space and to occupy it simultaneously.