Saturday, June 14, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Juunana

Part 1 of the Engaku-Ji Experience can be found here!

It was bloody cold in the middle of the night. Probably a side-effect from living up in the mountains. I had on a thermal shirt, and I was still freezing. I kept waking up every two hours, to try to pull my jacket tighter over my bare legs. I should have sandwiched myself between the two layers of my futon. Axell told me he also froze; Linus was wearing a singlet and shorts - I have no idea how we're not moving his frozen lifeless corpse back to Singapore right now. And this is in summer! Can you imagine the hypothermia you'd receive in while you huddle in your three regulation robes in the middle of winter?

After a round of meditation, we had breakfast, with the same rituals of distribution and silence. I guess it also promotes consideration, because the food is always passed down the row starting at the statue of the Buddha in front, so the people at the back constantly have to scrape the bottom of the bucket. (Hogwarts-style magical buffets are kind of a luxury here.)

Once you're tanked up on porridge and sour plums, it's time for area cleaning! The girls went to clean their own quarters, so I have no idea what they did, but for the guys, we first swept the main meditation hall, exactly like the other image in your mind when you mention monks. Then we had to wipe the floors with cloths, and we asked Prof Jacobowitz to take photos of us doing it in the classic My Neighbour Totoro style.


I had to adjourn to the restroom sometime along the way, which was something I was really dreading. I was completely expecting the hole-in-the-ground style waste disposal; thankfully, when I opened the door this was the sight that greeted my modern eyes:

The smell of cedar wood thankfully masked everything else.

We were then allowed a short amount of time to explore the temple grounds. We were brought to the main temple and shown around, had architecture pointed out to us, and allowed to sit on the ledge overlooking the zen garden. It was really pretty in the day as well, but I guess more quiet, because the frogs were all sleeping or something.

Rigid monotonous schedule, meagre portions of food, terrible sleeping conditions... at least the scenery's nice.

The path to enlightenment is paved with good, intentional slabs of stone.


Does my camera seem... tilted to you?

Tranquility is like a garden: peaceful on the surface, but with hordes of things wriggling just below the surface.

There is a ying-yang symbol in here somewhere. Or a very nature-focused Pepsi logo.

The temple complex has one very old, very grumpy cat. Apparently it's used for certain chanting rituals and meditations. I'm not surprised it's grumpy; if my job was to hang around monotonous bald old men for most of my life, being freaked out by wooden clappers and metallic gongs, I'd be pretty grumpy too.

"And that's not even counting all the monks who try to use me as a wig."

We were led into this room with a huge wide-screen television, which seemed completely out of place in this rural haven. We were shown a short clip about the temple, and the special ceremonies that happen throughout the year.

This is where the senior monks go to "meditate".

Beauty belies its own horrors. These flowers are literally crawling with spiderwebs.

A drain aspiring to be a canal, maybe a river.

We were to meet with the Abbot of the Temple at 8.30pm, and so since we had about an hour to spare, time more more zazen! Needless to say, pretty much everyone was tired of it by then; but I guess we were here for the full experience (or at least, as full as we could get without shaving our heads), and so goes by another few failed staring competitions with the tatami mat.

We sat down with the Abbot, an incredibly great honour, and asked him a great number of questions, with Prof Jacobowitz and Matsubara-san translating. Many people asked questions I can't remember now, but I think the most profound thing I learned was to do with religions. The Abbot was talking about an inter-faith marathon relay he participated in a couple years ago, in response to a question about the most challenging thing he has had to do since he became an abbot. (A diet of rice and tofu, a routine of sitting around for hours a day, and long baggy robes, doesn't really predispose one to running.) He mentioned that it was very interesting for all these men of different faiths - a Protestant pastor, a Shinto priest, a Muslim Imam, and himself - coming together to run 10km each, and then showing the world that they are all still men, they all run and get tired and sweaty, and in their exhaustion bond as a team - how could you say there is no inter-religious unity? I was interested in his reply, and I asked him if there was anything he thought that Zen Buddhism could learn from other religions. Perhaps it's due to the nature of translation, but he didn't reply my question directly; he said that Zen Buddhism has its pros and cons, but it's always very interesting to encounter other religions and philosophies and see where the similarities and differences are. I asked Matsubara-san the same thing, and he gave me a very similar answer. After a while, I had a minor epiphany: maybe I'm asking the wrong question. It's not a matter of picking up something new from another philosophy or religion, like shopping at a hardware store for spare parts to soup up your belief system; but a matter of seeing the world for what it is, and contemplating about the nature of it.

Oh, also, they shave their heads every four days.

There they go again, reflecting brilliance.

This is the "Tiger Head Rock", or Calvin's "Monument to Hobbes".

One of the temple treasures is the shrine containing relics of the Buddha. I didn't really understand what the relics were (or if there were even real relics inside), but I found the juxtaposition of security cameras in this rustic places very interesting.

There is insufficient evidence to claim that the Buddha was omniscient.

Engaku-Ji is actually a templex complex, with fifteen different temples littered across its grounds. Matsubara-san's cousin, who works there, invited us to visit his temple and meet his uncle, who was the one who arranged the entire trip for us. Along the way, I saw this man sketching some of the buildings and trees in the distance. He was pretty good. I watched him sketch for a while, and before I had to follow the rest of my group, said "sugoi ne... gambatte yo!" which I hope made his day.

Art meditation.


Matsubara-san's cousin's temple was at the top of a hill, and boasted a very beautiful view of the surrounding area.

There has to be some kind of tradeoff.

For some reason, priests don't smile with their teeth.

I want a Gyrados, but I didn't bring my Pokeball.

We got out of the temple around lunch time and headed over to Kamakura for lunch before heading up to see the big Buddha statue (daibutsu) in Kamakura. We had to cross some train rails along the way:

If I walk this way, I'll be making tracks HURHURHUR

Kamakura is a pretty small tourist town, only full on weekends when people come over to see the daibutsu. It doesn't explain the bits of Engrish scattered everywhere, but it's pretty funny nonetheless.


This is literally the main commercial district.

Lunch was a bowl of shoyu ramen and delicious gyoza in this small shop along the way, with Payal, Mel and Josie. It was pretty fun; everyone was very sleep-deprived and heat-exhausted, which apparently just makes people crazier.

We had to take a local train to the site of the daibutsu, and since Kamakura is a tourist destination and it was the first sunny weekend after two rained-out ones, the platform was packed. We missed the first train and were squeezed into the next.

Hard to imagine having a population problem when there are so many people.

The big Buddha statue was pretty impressive, just for the sheer size of it.

That neckline is a bit too low for a family tourist landmark, though.

"Don't pretend to know the Buddha until you walk a mile in his shoes."

For twenty yen, you could enter the bowels (not literally) of the statue to see the inside. There's a handy plaque informing visitors of the casting techniques used to build the statue. I thought it was made of stone, but apparently it was a huge bronze structure. It was pretty interesting, but also pretty hot, and there were too many people squeezed into a confined space. I was pretty disappointed; I was expecting like a whole system of artificial internal organs. Cast-iron stomach. Silver tongue. Heart of gold. Iron lungs. Nerves of steel. Kidney stones. Brass balls. Okay I should stop.

No, this is not the orifice you are thinking of.

(It's actually the view of the hollow head, from the inside looking up.)

We squeezed onto the train again to get to Enoshima, a small island off the coast. Again, referencing the fact of "tourist destination" and "first sunny weekend of the month", the train was packed. We actually saw the platform conductors pushing people into the train. On the one we managed to board, we were literally crushed in the crowd of people; for three or four stops (about ten minutes), I was on tiptoes, ballerina style, my knees knocked in by Nia's huge bag and nowhere to plant my feet down flat on the floor. I now totally understand all the problems of sexual harassment on crowded trains; for half the trip, my crotch was literally pressed into the back of this short (and, of course, knowing my luck:) grandma who was standing in front of me. That was completely awkward; but I couldn't do anything about it. I could barely move, and it took all I had to hang on to the overhead handles and try not to crush anyone when the train jolted to a start.

I don't know if this was done by the local authorities, as an advertisement for the shop nearby, or by an anonymous member of the public; but damn these are some cute birds.

We walked down the long street towards Enoshima. It was such a tourist street; you could tell from the masses of restaurants, clothes stores, and exorbitant prices. Also, a number of hilarious store signs:

I know what you're thinking. I did a double-take as well.

"Aiyah, just get a pizza-lah."

On the train and on the shore was also the first time I had seen the ocean since arriving in Japan. I take it for granted a lot that the size of Singapore is so small, that we can get to the beach within an hour; in many other countries, the beach is a day trip which requires days of planning.

This reminded of me of walking to Sentosa.

Enoshima reminded me a lot of Miyajima, the island off the coast of Hiroshima that I visited last time. The main street near the entrance had the same feel as the one I remember walking down in Miyajima: narrow cobblestone street with stalls huddled close to each other, merchandise spilling out into the roads, delicious-looking food everywhere you turn.

The only way to be a tourist.

I stopped to try a senbei (grilled rice cracker) with various different flavours and smells wafting from one of these stalls. I tried one with nori (seaweed), which I love.

Payal, Axell and I enjoying great, crunchy snacks.

You can find temples and shrines almost anywhere in Japan. There were a couple on Enoshima as well. Prof Jacobowitz would have been very surprised to find us looking at more temples after we visited so many.

Lara Croft is an amateur compared to us.


We were supposed to meet up with the group that split off and went ahead, and their last known communication placed them around some caves on the other side of the island. Nia asked a priest which direction they were, and he told us that they closed at 5pm (which was the time then). Linus wanted to explore the nearby woods though, so the priest told us to walk this way for ten minutes:

That doesn't look like a ten-minute walk.

We trekked up and down the hill paths, managing to get some nice pictures of the sea and the mainland.

If you look closely at the horizon, you can see Godzilla destroying Tokyo in the distance.

Along the way, Liz stopped us numerous times to check out the ice cream menus of the shops we passed. Apparently, it's been her dream to eat sakura ice cream like forever. We eventually stopped by one with the fabled flavour, and while we were waiting for Liz to line up, we all got tempted to get ice creams too. The man had a machine which he put in a capsule, like what you would do for many instant coffee machines, and it dispensed the frozen soft serve. I'm not even sure if he makes the ice cream himself, or if he just imports it and sells it at jacked up prices. But my orange sherbet did taste pretty good, so I'm not complaining.

We finally arrive at the shore, a range of sheer cliffs and a rocky coastline. I was quite happy to reach this place and see the ocean; perhaps I have a slight subconscious claustrophobia? But seeing the wide open sea stretching to the horizon was liberating. The breeze was wonderful.

So that's where sushi comes from.

"Go away, I'm trying to sleep here!"

Tsunami is coming... well, time to refug it all.

There was a walkway right along the water's edge, cordoned off because the tide was coming in. Well, I decided that experiencing an arrest in a foreign country was a small price to pay for exploring the rock pools and meeting the waves up close and personal. So I vaulted the cordon and headed down to the water. There were a number of fishermen along the concrete boardwalk; there was even one guy standing on that rock in the middle, taking huge waves to the face just to control his superior fishing spot. I tried talking to the fishermen, but he didn't understand English; he kept pointing me to go back the way I came, presumably because the tide was coming in.

There were people all along the rocks on the coast, just sitting there and watching the ocean. It looked really relaxing, even though you have nothing to lean against but hard granite. Almost everyone had someone sitting with them to enjoy the view; melancholy.

You could say that their relationship got off to a...

...rocky start. AWWWYEAAA

Axell talked me into wading into the middle of the rock formation, and after a period of deliberation, I decided that if I get washed out to sea and died, I would have at least tried to stand in the middle of a bunch of prehistoric stone structures. I removed my socks and shoes and, with Axell and Liz, clambered over the rocks into the shallow pool in the centre. One of Liz's slippers was snatched by the waves; luckily Axell managed to grab it back before it became oceanic pollution. The water was refreshingly cold, not arctic sea bitingly cold, but cool enough. The rocks were slippery with moss and algae. I was also careful to watch where I was stepping; I didn't need barnacles shredding my soles or a displaced stonefish killing me unwittingly.


The tide was coming in, and the waves started crashing against the rocks with greater intensity. We hung around for a while, but eventually listened to the greater wisdom of turning back.

Nature's idea of "second chances" is "evolutionary selection".

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We were supposed to head back to meet the people who split off to go to the beach, so we headed back the way we came, through the busy shopping street and back to the bridge.

Follow the grey, stone-tiled path... follow the grey, stone-tiled path...

Generic sunset that could been taken anywhere in the world. The only difference is, I was there.

This needs to be Photoshopped into a movie poster or something.

Cue theme from Armageddon.

Dinner was a fun affair; we managed to find a ramen shop which could accommodate a table of seven, and we all piled around the table making much noise and generally being a nuisance. Somehow, the conversation came round to religion, and it was at this point that I learned that Josie was raised as a Christian Scientist, and therefore had huge gaps in her knowledge of the natural world. (Which is why she's an English major.) The issue was brought up again on the train ride home, where Xi Min and I were sitting opposite her and Mel, when they were singing songs from Cats (the musical) and I told them about the Whose Line Scenes from a Hat where the category was "Hit Numbers from the Musical about Breasts" (Maaaammaries; 2:59), and she didn't get it. Even when I explained the pun to her, she didn't get it, because she didn't know what mammary glands were, because she didn't know what mammals were. She missed out on a whole lot of biology all the way up to high school apparently, where she was taught about the theory of evolution (ironic, eh), but nothing leading up to that. It genuinely shocked me, that there were people who don't know the difference between reptiles and amphibians. I can't imagine living a life without knowing such things about natural philosophy. Of course, some people would argue that knowledge or quantum physics has no impact or use in their everyday life; but isn't it just enough to know?

The world just gets scarier and scarier each day.

Also on the train ride back, two Japanese couples sit across from us, and one of the guys is most definitely drunk (or at least tipsy). I'm trying to explain something to Payal and Josie, and when he gets in and recognises that I'm speaking English, he interrupts loudly with a "I know! I know!" like he understood what I was saying. It was quite funny, and also a bit awkward, because none of us knew how to deal with drunks like that. At one point, he pointed to the can of beer in his hand and read it out to me: "Wohaito Taiga" (White Tiger), and so I pointed to my can of juice and read the brand back to him: "Shinee". He seemed pretty amused by that.

All in all, it was a pretty fun day. I was exhausted to the bone, but I had lots and lots of fun, and got to know some of the Yale kids better because of it. Today was a good day.

I can't tell if the rail line mascots are sweaty train carriages or lumps of milk pudding in three-fingered cups.

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