Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Art of Being

One of the pitfalls of traveling is the inevitable feeling of not enough. No matter how long the visit, how familiar the territory, how organized and efficient the itinerary, there is the lingering thought that something wonderful has slipped beyond our grasp. So we plan, we rush, we don't sleep, and we run ourselves ragged in a foreign city or rainforest, thinking that it's fun. And it is.

But there are places where time can pause, even for a mere moment, where your senses are startled by sheer beauty, and the vibrating pulse that is life seems ever more complete. For me, the Kyomizu Temple was such a place. Perched high on a mountain, it overlooked the ravishing vista of Kyoto from a network of beautifully crafted pavilions. Unchallenged was the main monastery protruding from the edge of the cliff. Here was a place to listen to the rustling of leaves, the budding of cherry blossoms, the rhythm of raindrops.

Here was a place to be.

Buddhist monks spend generations learning to meditate, to clear the mind of noise. In the absence of the rampant, wild monkey mind that gives rise to desires and greed, enlightenment is found. In the silence, we can find peace.

Yet even as I climbed this spiritual place, tourists are rushing, pushing, and dashing off to see another Unesco world heritage site before sunset. Some halted for a split second or two to take in the exquisite view, before the pressures of "seeing everything" overwhelmed them to take out a map or checklist. Admittedly, I was just like that yesterday. Or a minute ago.

An uncle from California had taught me to meditate once, but I abandoned it because who had time to sit around and do nothing?

As the sky turned gold and magenta, I allowed myself to stop. To stop going. To stop doing. To stop being busy. I understood that activity is a distraction, blinding me from the tumultuous storm inside. All this time, I'd been running from myself.

I heard myself breathing.

I saw the white flutterings of paper offerings, prayers to the beloved deceased, cover the temple like snow whenever the wind whistled.

I saw the sky transform; bold, definitive colors that marked the ending of the present day. I understood that while some things must end, my life will renew itself. Effortlessly, like the rising of the sun tomorrow.

The ancient Aztecs believed that night is synonymous with death, and that something must consciously be done to make the sun rise everyday. Their answer was blood and human sacrifice. While our twenty-first century perspective deems them foolish, we are just as foolish in our own world. Always trying to make things happen, to force things to happen, even things beyond our control. Such is the genesis of the quintessential control-freak, and there are many loose and active among us. (Myself included).

Let the night come. Let a certain part of yourself die. That is where healing begins.

I have never forgotten that sunset.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nijo and Naoko

Another tenet of Japanese culture is their appreciation for balance. They breathe ying and yang; their minimalism celebrates both negative space and matter, and even their speech is punctuated with meanings left unsaid. Naoko told me that people in Japan are not explicit; one could only guess at their intentions.

As I walked through the Nijo Castle, home of the Tokugawa Shogun, I thought about the samurai. Theirs was a hieroglyphic world, one to be observed and admired, but difficult to exist within. The castle reflected this duality: raw, unpainted wood embellished with hinges of gold. The language of power could be deduced only through the simplest of gestures. Brute force resided beneath those entrances of carved jade and ivory and turquoise. Paintings conveyed prowling tigers amid delicate landscapes. The samurai would be barefoot in these halls, bearing swords.

The Japanese are also firm believers in the artistry of the land. Gardens were resplendent, meticulously trimmed bushes and trees sculpted into airy guardians of an almost sacred pond. Even the rocks were painstakingly placed by hand.

That was the thing about Kyoto; so much thought was imbued into the creation of all things that it seemed that everything had a soul. Yet, it was hidden. This city was so elusive that its beauty could be exalted without ever being understood.

Naoko was the exception. She was in charge of guest relations at the Tokyu, a lovely boutique hotel where my mother threw a hissy fit at the sight of a smoking room. Naoko liked my mother's sweet nature despite her storms, and she had a luminous warmth, quite unlike anyone I had encountered in Japan.

We were impressed with her perfect, colloquial English (few among the hotel staff could communicate with us) and she intimated that she lived in Paris for five years while working as a flight attendant for Air France. Family and her son brought her back to Kyoto, to the place of her birth and her ancestors. Yet, she had a longing to keep going, searching, and experiencing. "I am the kind of person who will never be satisfied, no matter what I do or don't do."

Naoko became very real to me, one who dared to break the calm surface of the Japanese status quo, and to question the way things are. And the risk of questioning is discovering inadequacy, of knowing that you have to change.

Here I am questioning, throwing my life off the beaten and very well-accepted path, unsure of how or what to change. I thought that change was an act of will, but I learned that you can't force the heart to move until it is ready. When it does move, however, you do more than change. You grow.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Geisha in Gion

The Japanese are a fiercely proud people. So proud and nationalistic, in fact, that they are intensely afraid of contamination. In the wake of swine flu, almost everyone sported white surgeon's masks outdoors and airports screened the body temperature of every passenger. Even when I tapped a bus driver for directions, he shrank three feet away from me and brushed off my touch like I was a mosquito.

"Guess he thought you were Chinese," my mother laughed. Ah, the age-old animosity between Japan and China. Indeed, the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, evidenced by hand sanitizers, soaps, and disinfectants everywhere, clashed with the overcrowded, pungent, and rather filthy streets of cities like Beijing. Despite population and industrialization, how clean a city is, is a matter of culture.

Of course, I had forgotten to study the language before our departure. The young, educated Japanese conveniently ignored my requests for directions, pretending they did not understand even though they laughed when I told my mother a joke (in English). Perhaps it was the embarrassment of speaking in an Anglican tongue, or maybe it was a sign of disrespect towards their heritage. Nonetheless, Mother to the rescue. She was surprisingly fluent, navigating us around town in local buses, and elbowing me because I kept saying "Comsomida." Later, I realized I had gone around Kyoto saying "thank you" in Korean.

Everything in Japan was small, exquisite, and especially potent. Think sake, or tiny rice cakes crusted with powdered sugar, concealing a delectable center of honeydew or red bean or strawberry. Outside the renowned Golden Pavilion Kinka-kuji, there was a small collection of confections and we feasted on sugary sweets flavored with green tea or ginger. The teas were extraordinary: one whiff and they awakened the senses.

We also encountered geisha along the wooden walkways of Gion. They have become a rare breed, ever more cherished because of their scarcity. More elusive than shadows, one could only glimpse at them heading off to the theatre or to entertain a private party, that flash of white paint and sumptuous kimono disappearing around the next corner. They shun the attentions of the public, and the ever curious tourist.

I remember one particular geisha who brushed past us closely in a narrow street. The sky was dark, as it was evening and red lanterns were lit outside the taverns. When she saw us, her hand flew up protectively, as if to ward off evil spirits. But it was her expression that haunted me, distracted and somehow melancholy.

I thought about her story, how she began and if she has the freedom to leave. Forget fairytales and Arthur Golden-white-Jewish-man-writing-a-Japanese-woman's-memoir. Elders believed that beauty was a woman's bane; it brought greater misfortune than luck. I wondered if she had not been beautiful, how her story would have been written. Would she be happier, freer, valued for what lies beyond her flawless skin?

With beauty, it becomes ever so much harder to hold onto the spirit. You become intoxicated by the world.