“Everything seemed possible, when I looked through they eyes of a child.
And every once in a while; I remember,
I still have the chance to be that wild.”
― Nikki Rowe
I have a theory about travel to an unfamiliar place. Dropping unprepared into another culture is therapeutic.
When nothing is familiar and communication isn’t easy, other resources drop into place, forgotten resources. Get vulnerable and our precious procedures for being a competent adult in the world go tumbling, never to be aligned exactly in the same order again. Seems to me that on these occasions childhood wisdom comes flying out from hidden recesses.
These previously discarded possibilities are scattered about my feet like bright marbles on a wet floor. In a scramble for equilibrium, I might make a grab for this flotsam before they hit the light of day, before I have to acknowledge their existence. But here in my “adult deprivation state,” devoid of proper purpose, language and regular food, the child is faster. A single idea explodes into a 100 yellow butterflies, and I am along for the ride.
I believe in magic, I know it exists. Yes, there is a piece of bright color behind those ferns and overgrown vines in the back corner of my psyche, and right there in the center of my brain. There is a meter tall door painted in outrageous Vermillion where my inner child waits in sneakers and play clothes for an opportunity to learn about the world, from the beginning, again. This trip I have found my psyche falling back to the innocent and open part of my life when I didn’t have all the answers, but I had lots of questions.
“Why do they do that? Can I go there? Can I touch that? Why not?
What is that smell?”
Yes, this phenomenon has revealed itself this past week. I believe my inner child has been encouraged to giggle by our temporary residence in a foreign hotel with American name. “Adventure” with a safe and familiar place to snooze. I think this bears a remarkable similarity to childhood.
Everything is done for you.
People who “have to” pick up after you; make your bed, do your laundry, fold your towels. Food is cooked for you. Sometimes you don’t like it, but you have to eat it anyway, because that’s what they have. If you are in Japan all of these tasks have an order, a ritual, a meaning. You don’t now what it is, but you can guess what it isn’t from the gentle polite corrections. Next time you do it their way.
There is written language all around you but you can only read faces.
Directions for how to make things work, street names, ingredients in food; these require a translator, as a child requires an adult. Childhood stratagem: watch others, figure it out, and ask for help. You will make mistakes and it doesn’t matter if you are polite and willing to take instruction.
The plot of this adventure was already written when I set out to explore an area of Nagoya that doesn’t see many American tourists. There is a large Buddhist temple in the center of this community, surrounded by a warren of small shopping streets. Jerusalem-esque with a Japanese sensibility. This temple doesn’t have the esoteric rarified feel of Kyoto; it seems to be more a working person’s temple in a working person’s neighborhood.
Cutting through an edgy neighborhood, and rounding a shabby corner, the temple gate appeared before me. The bright Vermillion and black buildings, the open square, flower offerings at quiet alters, it was all here. Without the anonymity of the hoards of tourists as in Kyoto, I was feeling exposed. I watched what others did, albeit Japanese others. Walk up the center? Or the side, bow? No bow? I had a sense of who was a “regular” and who was, like me, was coming to see a beautiful 16th century, partially reconstructed Buddhist temple, and maybe do a bit of shopping afterward.
I followed a young “hip” couple up the steep steps. I had hoped the chanting I heard was real monks at their devotions, but as I passed through the temple doorway I realized it was emanating from a 20th century loudspeaker, tucked under the intentionally scary, protective spirit carved from wood living on the end of the exposed rafter. I entered, hesitating from the quick shift from bright sun to dim interior.
From this vantage point, I could see of the golden Buddha, the offerings of fruit on the alter, the delicate golden filigree that descended from some unknown place above. I stood for a few moments taking in the environment, saying a prayer, taking in the sensations of the smooth wood, burning incense, the chanting and the peace. I put some coins in the box. I watched as a young man reached to ring the bell, pulling on the rope as thick as my arm. I would never pull it myself, but I was happy that someone was, as it’s purpose is to call in the residing sacred being to listen to your prayers.
The man had less enthusiasm than that task required, and the bell only made a weak “Umph,” as if it had been poked in the belly while sleeping. Feeling conspicuous, I followed a petite elderly woman down the stairs and went to stand in the shade of the temple bell building.
My intentions completed, I passed under the bright Torii gate, and turned right at the next street. Back into the mundane world, the street was mostly empty of people, being an earlier time than the shops would open. I stopped to check my position in the universe via GPS and looked up to see with some surprise what was directly in front of me.
A green space, two huge Gingko trees standing behind a gate made of thick wooden posts, a small building, just right there off the street but somehow appearing far way. I could see a light burning inside, a glow even in the morning sunlight. The sign held names carved in wood in complicated Japanese characters, edged in black, benefactors I guessed and paper prayers tied to a rack.
I realized that I was standing in front of a Shinto Shrine. I stood in front of the washing place, a rectangular concrete water holder with ladles for washing your hands before entering the sacred shrine space. The color of the moss on the rock side was beautiful emerald green. Countless times this rough rock has received the discarded water as people purified their hands, mouth, before continuing with what ever task compelled them to come to this place.
I took a picture with my phone being mindful of standing to the side, as I had read on Google. I took a picture of only the place of “pre-purification,”feeling the shrine was too intimate a space to be photographed by a stranger. The sign, strangely in both Japanese and English told of the entities “enshrined” here for over 800 years; three Goddesses and an ancient Emperor. I don’t know how long I stood there. It was peaceful.
Over my shoulder I heard, spoken in English, heavily accented with soft Japanese,
“Excuse me, can I ask you something?”
Turning I saw an elderly gentleman with an umbrella.
“Of course! “ I said. He tilted his head and walked over to me.
“Why do white people, Americans, like to see our shrines? Why do you want to see them? What do they mean to you?”
I told him about being in a busy city all week and finding the quiet, the peacefulness, and the beauty of these places. We talked about our trip to Kyoto, and their trip to Monument Valley in Utah where he went on a tour in a dusty dry April. We talked about animism and the Shinto love of nature as divinity. We talked about belief systems that are shared across the world.
He told me about the shrine and the temple his family has supported for generations, the festivals where their three generations of men and women do rituals to sustain those places. He said they hold both Shinto, native to Japan, and Buddhism that came later. These kept his family and his life….”Good.” We tried to find words in common for vast concepts and succeeded in finding connection. He said, “I haven’t spoken English in a long time, it takes time to find the words, but it is good to do this….”
It was then that I remembered the stone under my feet and the sun on my face, it was time to take leave. We exchanged emails, his being the date of the Equinox in 2009, he suggested we should go visit Nara next time; I would like it very much. His family lived to the south, he mentioned the station stops they would make, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara then home. He asked again,
“Why do you like these places? What do they mean to you?”
I was around the corner and down a bit before I realized the question and understood the magic of meeting an English speaking, learned Buddhist elder with a life-long process of ritual and belief, standing before a shrine, in a nearly closed shopping area in Nagoya Japan, on a Thursday. Only because I was in a child-like state: open and learning did I fulfill my part of the process.
It has been 22 years since I have experienced that method of enquiry; and it took some time to find the experience he referenced, because that’s how it works. I had a painting teacher from Okinawa, a very fine mentor for a Fine Arts degree and a “being true to self” degree. He told us, “Make a mess! Try it out! Take chances!” He never lectured, he only asked questions, in English heavily accented with soft Japanese.
I was young then, just 40, it took a very long time to allow myself to take risks and seek a higher creativity. It took a long time to understand that he wasn’t at all curious about the answers; he wanted me to ask them OF myself.
“Do you like that? Is this a good painting? Are you done with it?”
And I heard again:
“Why do you like these places? Why do you come to see them?”
I know the answer now:
Because sometimes the sacred beings come out as humans and speak to those who ask questions.
Because there is magic in the world.