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2005-03-21 9:50 p.m.

have you ever seen an ebi fly?

So, yeah. Last weekend (actually, I left the Rock on Wednesday afternoon) I went to Osaka and Kyoto. And I’m here to tell you a bit about it. (Tales from Southeast Asia are still on back order.) In two installments.

Anyway, it was kind of a tour group thingy. I usually avoid such things because I like traveling alone (or perhaps in a pair), I like having the freedom to do what I want to do when I want to do it, I’m interested in seeing and doing things that tour groups usually don’t do, and I dislike the disconnect from the reality of the place and its people that a tour group usually represents. However… On this tour we got to do some things I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own (like hire a geiko for a private performance) or wouldn’t have thought to do on my own (like tour a famous sake brewery), and we had a fair amount of free time to go do whatever we wanted. Also, many of the tour participants were Japanese people who live in the area, which actually made it a good opportunity to engage the place and its people directly. So I signed on up.

Anyway, of course after I had left I realized when it was far, far too late to go back that I had left a great deal of key information on the table at home. All the train/bus/boat schedules, all the meet who/when/where stuff… I didn’t have any of it. I managed to get by on memory alone, but it was interesting at times.

I took an overnight boat from Fukuoka to Osaka, which was a fun experience. The boat was frickin’ huge. And there were very polite people outside practicing karate on the decks and everything. Do you ever get a weird feeling like you’ve just stepped into a Cultural Stereotype Twilight Zone?

Anyway, I arrived in Osaka at 8 am. Since I had four hours to kill before meeting up with everyone at the airport, I got off at a more or less random subway stop and wandered around for a while. It was raining, and I had an absolutely lovely time walking through a park (complete with homeless persons’ makeshift shanties) listening to the Amélie soundtrack.

Then I found a wallet on the ground. So, being the boy scout that I am, I took it to the nearest police box (and it was a box) without taking any of the $250 and change inside or taking the credit card on a spending spree or nothing. This being Japan, of course there was assloads of paperwork to fill out. The guy I was dealing with didn’t seem to appreciate my level of Japanese, however. He kept trying to get me to call a friend who could translate or something, and I kept trying to tell him that I don’t have any Japanese friends whose English is better than my Japanese and who also happen to be in Japan right now.

Finally he called some supervisor guy, saying, “Yeah, we’ve got a lost wallet that’s been turned in here. The thing is, though, that it was brought in by a foreigner. He kind of speaks Japanese, but not really. He doesn’t understand [something I didn’t understand]. Half of what you say to this guy doesn’t get through at all.” Well, I understood THAT half, ya prick! Maybe if you would speak standard Japanese instead of your damn Kansai-ben, or make an attempt to explain the meaning of these specialized terms instead of just repeating the same word at me over and over again, we might be able to get somewhere! Sheeyit.

I think he noticed my grimace when he said I don’t understand jack. When I was filling out the form with my address, I proceeded to write about the crappiest kanji I’ve ever laid to paper, and he told me that I wrote kanji very well. Uhhh… right. When everything was finally wrapped up, he told me that my Japanese was amazingly good. Yeah, yeah, whatever, dude. I just want to get out of here.

I ended up being late to the rendezvous at the airport, and having only a vague idea of where in the airport we were meeting didn’t help at all (though I made some lucky guesses on where to look). I barely made it before they left. Later on in the weekend, talking to some Japanese people about the situation, I learned that it’s more or less required to give a monetary reward to someone who finds and returns your wallet or whatever. The word for that (which I still don’t know) is what I wasn’t understanding at the police box, I guess.

Every time I start thinking my Japanese is pretty darn good, something like this happens. Oh well. I did learn a bit of Kansai-ben while I was out there. I’m a lot more aware of the variety of dialects bouncing around Japan now than I was when I lived in Matsumoto, which is basically a distant suburb of Tokyo (Tokyo-ben, if there can be said to be such a thing, being more or less interchangeable with Standard Japanese, kind of like how (high class) London English used to be interchangeable with Standard English). When we were walking around Osaka one night, we heard someone say "ii yo ne!" ("That's nice!"), an extremely common Japanese utterance. One of the Japanese people with us said, "Wow, that guy is obviously not from around here. No one from Osaka would ever say that!"

Moving on…

Among many other places, on the tour we went to the Tenryuji and Ryoanji temples in Kyoto, both of which happen to be Rinzai Zen temples. Rinzai is the type of Zen I’ve read the most about (as opposed to Soto Zen), but I’d never been to one of their temples before, so that was really nice. (There is a Soto temple on the Rock, though.)

Though I realized what I’m going to have to put up with if I keep telling people that I’m interested in Zen and have read a lot about it. Take the rock garden at the Ryoanji, for instance. Someone asked me what deep meaning, what symbology I saw in the rocks as a student of Zen. But the thing is, such a question totally misses the point. Because Zen is always seeking to avoid symbols and conceptualization. Believe me when I say, if that garden was really made in harmony with Rinzai philosophy as I know it, it doesn’t have any meaning other than just being a bunch of rocks and sand. The point is that it doesn’t have to have any more meaning than that to be beautiful. There are no deep thoughts in Zen, at least none that can be put into words. The cryptic statements that Zen masters are famous for do not really have any particular meaning beyond the words themselves, or even beyond the act of just saying the words. As I understand it, the real truth of Zen is a subjective experience that cannot be expressed in words (symbols), and koans and the seemingly nonsensical things that Zen masters say are just an attempt to point people towards this understanding and are not at all symbolic of some “deeper meaning.”

“If you want to see, see right at once. When you begin to think, you miss the point.” -Tennou Dougo

“To imagine that Zen is mysterious is the first grave mistake which many make about it.” –D.T. Suzuki

Actually, I have a lot of random thoughts about Zen floating in my head that I’d like to organize into writing, but not here, not now.

(Aside- I seem to know more about Japanese Buddhism than most Japanese people do. At the very least, I can name most of the sects and give you a brief rundown of their beliefs, and it’s really surprising how many Japanese people can’t. Though they can all tell you which sect they belong to; at some point they (I’m not sure if it was the government or the sects themselves) just divided up the populace between the sects and from then on membership was pretty much hereditary.)

Next topic.

If I say whatever pops into my head, people (well, adults) tend to start looking at me strangely. (Kids, on the other hand, love it.) This is a big reason why I tend to be very quiet most of the time. (And a big reason why I get on so well with children.) But sometimes I just don’t care, and I say what I’m thinking, anyway. Going out for falafel with some people one evening, I started talking. One girl said, “Well! You’re an Interesting Person, aren’t you?” as if to say, “Oh, you’re one of those.”

Actually, when I’m feeling saucy one of my favorite things to do with people I don’t know very well is to blurt out, “In England, everyone only has one spoon,” and see whether they get it and how they react. (It works best if there is no English person present. Actually, it would work best if it was an English person saying it.) So, after the Interesting Person comment, I decided to pull that one out. With a group of people present, inevitably there’s someone who says, “Really? No, that can’t be true. Is that true? It can’t be!” And of course, the girl who called me an Interesting Person was one such. At that point I usually continue on, completely seriously- “No, it’s true! And that’s your spoon for your entire life, and if you lose it, you starve to death unless someone in your family wills you their spoon. And they have spoon millionaires in England, too.”

I gotta amuse myself somehow. Actually, said girl grew to like me quite well, especially after I was forced to reveal a bit about my history with religion (I hate talking about it, but I guess I need to resign myself to the fact that the topic is going to come up anytime anyone ever asks me where I went to school), because she had had a similar experience. (It’s one of those things that you can’t really understand unless you’ve experienced it, I think.) Most people are a bit leery of me when they first meet me, but most people like me quite well once they get used to me. She turned out to be alright, too; she taught me some useful photography techniques, actually.

Hmm… There was a 7.0 earthquake back in Northern Kyushu when I was gone, on Sunday. Coming back home today, I couldn’t really see any evidence that it had hit at all, though, at least not in the areas I was traveling through. The Rock apparently was shaking pretty bad, though. The grocer I go to was telling me that all the food was knocked off the shelves. I’m kind of bummed I missed it, actually. Maybe we’ll get some aftershocks. Earthquakes are actually pretty rare in this part of the country…

Oh, I asked more Japanese people about the meaning of the word shibui over the weekend, too. Here’s some of the responses I got:

“It’s like… a character in a period drama, like a samurai, or something.”
”It’s like a relaxed cool; cool without trying to be cool.”
”It’s like… someone whose commitment and resolve are easy to see and constantly visible in their face and movements.”
”It’s like… uhh… uhh… Like, someone who wears weird clothes. I mean… I don’t know! You know it when you see it!”

One girl in particular went and investigated it for me. I had asked her if Keanu Reeves in The Matrix was shibui or not. She hadn’t seen it, but her friend who had said, “Yes, but only because his eyes are so close together.” Whatever that means. She showed me a dictionary entry on shibui that seems to describe both shibui as a flavor and shibui as an adjective for people. I’ll go ahead and translate (my memory of) the definition as “a flavor that is strong, yet calm, cool, and relaxed, without being flashy, gaudy, or loud.” So I guess that’s as good as we’re going to get. This shibui stuff does sound like my style, though, don’t you think? (By the way, as far the flavor shibui goes, it seems to be not just “bitter,” but “good-tasting bitter.” “Bad-tasting bitter” is nigai. Certain vegetables, especially the Japanese variety, especially when eaten raw, are shibui. But if you were to eat soap, that would be nigai.) There’s your Japanese lesson for the day.

Anyway, over the weekend I ended up hanging out mostly in a group consisting of me, three Japanese girls, and one other gaijin guy who also spoke good Japanese (better than me, in fact). One of the girls was originally from Kumamoto but is going to college in Kyoto right now. She’s cheerful and friendly, quite a delight to spend time with. She also looks like she could be thirteen years old (and since I look like I could be fifteen, I guess we make a good pair). We’ll probably arrange to hang out some when she goes back for summer vacation. Another of the girls (the one who studied up on shibui) is also a college student, currently in the formal Japanese process of determining which company she will spend the rest of her life working at once she graduates. I’ve met a great many Japanese females very much like her: very soft spoken, polite, friendly, accommodating, and generally very sweet. I didn’t quite get to know her well enough to break through her veneer, but she’s a great girl. The third should really be called a woman, and she will be the topic of the entry following this one. It seems like she should have a nickname, but for now we’ll just call her “the woman who talks to fish.”

it takes courage to enjoy it,