Well I made it to Japan! That is not always the way when you fly standby. I plopped myself down in my business class seat and was so happy and blessed to be there. Many of my friends were working the flight so that was a real treat. My girlfriend, Bethany, whom I went to university with and who also speaks Japanese, was kind enough to suggest sharing her room to save me some money. We had a fun night out eating sushi and catching up. Both of us are busy moms of two kids and having intense hobbies (hers are running and music) we never really get a chance to visit. It was a really nice to spend time with her.
I left Bethany and Narita after my yoga practice and breakfast. I am feeling nervous about tomorrow’s practice as 1) I am not in as good shape as I hoped 2) I am jet lagged 3)It is so bloody humid here- I break into a sweat just walking around!
I used my handy JORUDAN time tables to make my way up to the mountains in Tochigi prefecture where Nikko is located. I managed to hit every connection within 5 minutes and just seamlessly went from rice paddies and flat land to endless rows of cedar. I had my face plastered to the window most of the trip. What struck me most on the train ride was how green everything was. The rice paddies had been planted recently and the bright green tops of the rice plants reflected in the little square ponds. It brought back so many strong memories of when I lived in Japan that it caught me a little off guard. I suddenly felt terribly guilty for not contacting my friends in Gunma where I used to live to arrange a visit. Realistically it would have been difficult to make time to do that and not exhaust myself, but it still bothered me.
At Tochigi station the mountains suddenly appeared- so green and such a distinctive shape. The mountains here really look like the ones in old scrolls and paintings. Between Tochigi station and my final station the sides of the rail line were suddenly lined in cedars. They said something quickly in Japanese about it on the train- they were all planted there many years ago. It was so cool and quiet. It reminded me of one of my favourite Japanese animated movies “My Neighbour Totoro” (隣のﾄﾄﾛ). I could just see the totoro spirits snoozing away in one of those old trees.
I made it to the station, rode the bus for 5 minutes, and made my way to my hotel- a Tokanso Ryokan to be exact. It’s so perfect- so Japanese. I mean as I am typing I am sitting at my little table in my yukata (robe) with the sliding doors open to the Japanese garden and listening to the crickets. I mean- really – this is one of those quintessential Japanese experiences. The only thing missing is my husband- he would love this. I had a lovely soak in the HUGE bath (it fits about 15 people) all by myself. Heaven. I have to say that practicing arm balancing in a Japanese bath can be quite fun- you’re very buoyant and the water is hot – think the water version of Bikram!- And no one to see me be silly. Perfect!
I needed the soak after my three hours of wandering Toshogu Shrine. I forgot how inspiring this place is. It was built in the 1600’s and the trees are hundreds of years old. It was overcast and kept threatening to rain but never did. The whole darker, humid atmosphere added a sense of mystery to the whole place- cloaked in a misty veil. I bought a combination ticket for 1000 yen which let me in to most of the major sites on the shrine and saved me about 1000 yen if I had visited each shrine and temple separately. Toshogu main shrine is what most people think of when they think of Nikko but I have to say that my favourite place today was Taiyuin Temple. Of course just before I got there my camera battery died. I might go back there tomorrow if I have time.
The whole temple is nestled into this grove of cedars and a little stream rushes though the main entrance. You climb up flight after flight of stone steps to pass through multiple gates with evil looking demons staring at you. Each one is slightly bigger than life size and they vary in colour- mostly red or white. There must have been at least 500 lanterns of stone and iron that line the walkways of the temple-each one standing 8 feet high. The whole area has the feel that you just wandered into it during a mountain hike. It was quiet and still- yet there was heaviness to the stillness. You could feel the weight of history there. It was a place of reverence. When I finally got to the main temple hall I threw my money in the box and proceeded to pray.
T This temple had Japanese bowl bells. You struck the small bowl three times with a wooden striker- first time to alleviate your past karma, second time to pray for your present and third time for your future. Rather than clapping twice like you do at a shrine you just place your hands together once and bow. The ceiling was painted with panels of about 200 dragons- one going one direction with a ball clasped in a claw and one going the other with no ball. Most people would just walk in- pray- and walk out, but I sat and looked around. I actually sat on the floor trying to pondering the meaning of the dragons. I was trying enjoy the journey and the present moment of being in that place rather than rushing to the next “site”. One of the priests noticed me and started to chat. I asked him about the dragons and the significance of the ball. He explained that one was a dragon going up to heaven with our wishes in his claw –represented by the ball- and as he descended back down his claw was now empty. We had a great little talk.
I spent the rest of the evening having dinner with 3 of the other students that are attending the retreat. We had a beautiful dinner- need pictures of that too! – and chat. They were patient enough to put up with my broken Japanese- I wound up talking about difficult subjects and was beyond my vocabulary. We all discovered that none of us know where the venue is tomorrow. That should prove interesting! Off to bed in my futon. I returned to find it all laid out for me. I found delight and wonder in every moment today. I just hope we find our way tomorrow!