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.

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