Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Japan Day 3 [transcribed from journal]

Awoke early for morning chanting at the temple at 6am.  Inner temple looked just as you'd hope: dimly-lit reds and golds, with ornate lanterns hanging from the ceiling.  Our noses filled with incense while our ears filled with the priests' sonorous, regular chanting.  I wish I could start each day with such stillness and peace.

After 30 minutes' chanting, the head priest gave a 30-minute sermon of sorts.  I could get behind the overall message, which was to treat people and the world with kindness and respect.  But his motivating examples were really unfortunate, pseudo-scientific claptrap, specifically pictures of snowflakes from the book The Message From Water.

After the sermon came my single favorite moment so far in Japan.  We opened the main temple doors, and our eyes -- loose from an hour of incense and darkness -- filled instantly with the brilliant white of snow falling on the sand mandala outside.  The sun had risen during the chanting.  Snow dusted the trees and the temple roof.  And the flakes continued to lazily meander their way to the ground.  For many students, it was their first time ever seeing snow.  A fantastic way to start.

Polished off another great vegetarian breakfast before leaving the temple.

And now I realized that I never really explained about the tiny shoes.  When first entering the temple grounds, we all placed our shoes in cubbie holes just inside the gate.  We then slipped on one-size-"fits"-all, unisex, left-right-interchangeable slippers.

The Japanese foot has historically been a small foot.  These slippers stopped just before the peak of my heel. And we wore them everywhere, except for the bathroom where we switched to "TOILET" slippers just for the purpose.  If this is our biggest discomfort in Japan, I will count myself lucky.  But still, next time I need to make a prisoner talk, I know exactly what to do...

I mention the slippers now, since our post-breakfast temple leave-taking marked a welcome reunion with our own shoes. Of course, since they had been sitting outside all night and recently enjoying front-row seats at the  glorious snowfall, the shoes had now all transformed into little ice-boots.  Lots of loud grumbling from the kids and a few panicked questions about the mechanics of frostbite, before everyone's body warmth finally thawed the shoes in 10 minutes or so.

We put those shoes to good use for the rest of the morning, visiting a few temples including the large, orange "Great Stuppa" that contained a fragrant incense-rub for one's hands at the exit.

A one-man TV crew met us outside the temples, interviewing some of the students and quizzing us on our newfound knowledge of Kobo Daishi and esoteric Buddhism.

After the temples, we walked more than a mile through Japan's largest cemetary, where Kobo Daishi still supposedly sits in a cave, meditating and praying for the happiness and salvation of all beings.  Graves went on and on.  Trees everywhere prevented us from grasping the full scope of the place all at once, but we walked for a long time.

Among the plots were many that were hundreds of years old, as well as sparkling plots with modern company logos (Nissan, Panasonic, etc.) where I assume high-ranking execs enjoy their last, greatest business trips.

Lunch was hearty beef-egg-and-rice dish near bus stop.  Then buses and trains in reverse to get us back to Osaka in the afternoon.  Did I mention it was still quite cold?

We properly checked in to the wonderful Shin Osaka Youth Hostel.  Then, off to do some shopping and sightseeing.  Lauren and I took in Osaka from above in a giant ferris wheel atop an 8-story shopping tower.

We finally snagged a delicious mango-and-ice (just like in Taiwan!) before rejoining the group.

Lauren returned early to the hostel with one student while Rushton and I took the others to a street market.

Students bought dinner and knick-knacks, and Rushton introduced me to Okonomiyaki, often referred to as "Japanese pizza."  The pizza analogy is a stretch, but the dish is outstanding.  Noodles, meat, onion, cabbage, egg, etc., shaped into a sort of patty and fried on a hot plate until slightly crisp, then transferred to an on-table hot plate to keep it piping hot.  Includes a sweet, slightly salty sauce inside, with a drizzle of Japanese mayo on top.  You cut small pieces for yourself with a little spatula, and then wolf those down with chopsticks.  Wow!

Bellies full, and with many miles logged, it was easy for everyone to call it an early(ish) night at the hostel.