Flying to Japan

Beginning of the trip

The direct flight on United / All Nippon Airlines from SFO to Osaka was enjoyable and it took only eleven and one half hours. The previous flights I have taken that went through Taipei usually took about 16 hours flying time. Because the trip seemed much shorter, I was not so tired when I arrived at KIX (Kansai International Airport). As I was walking through the airport looking for my taxi service a news crew  from a local television station accosted me. I don’t know why they chose me but they wanted to interview me as to why I came to Japan. I was obliging and I told them that I came here because I love Japan. That wasn’t enough though and they presented endless questions so finally I had to excuse myself from them in order to locate my prearranged taxi service. I did not want to get distracted and miss my ride to Katsura talking to a news crew.

Katsura is a western suburb of Kyoto. This small town is located along the Katsura River. The hurried and noisy atmosphere of Kyoto dissipates here giving way to quiet and more tranquil rhythms. During the Heian period members of the court found this area an elegant location for viewing the full moon and that tradition still persists today in certain places outside of town particularly near certain lakes and ponds that the reflect the moon. The Katsura tree predominates the landscape and in fall the leaves turn from green to beautiful autumn shades. Arishiyama is a district of Katsura that is well known for it’s temples and tourism. Arishiyama in Japanese means stone mountain. In the autumn the orange coloring of the Katsura trees cover it.

My final destination, Fukujo-ji temple is a small neighborhood Rinzai temple that is 1325 years old. It is located high up in the hills of Katsura adjacent to a thick bamboo forest. By coincidence I came to this temple on my last trip to Japan to attend the funeral of a friend that I had known from the 70’s at San Francisco Zen Center, Mike / Shunko Jamvold. When I subsequently came back to attend a Zazenkai on a Sunday I was invited to stay here in the guest house.

The priest is an ex-pat from Germany who is fluent in both Japanese and English and of course, German. He trained at a Rinzai monastery for 3 years intensively beginning at the age of 50 which is considered old for the strenuous training.  He told me that originally he had no intention of becoming a temple priest however his master (teacher) decided to turn the temple over to him after he was asked to become the head monk at a training monastery. I was very fortunate to be invited to stay here and so I couldn’t let the opportunity go by without accepting. I have come come all the way from Northern California in order to stay here for 6 weeks this summer to experience the authentic temple life in Japan and learn a little about Rinsai Zen. I am finding that I will also learn a lot about myself in the process.

A few weeks into it

I can barely stand the climate of Kyoto in the summer, it is so hot when the sun is out. It is always a relief when it rains for a day or so but after the rain when the sun comes out again there are suddenly so many mosquitos everywhere. Kyoto is really hot in the summer and I had not realized how intense the change would be to go from the rather cool Northern California climate directly to the heat of Kansai prefecture during the height of summer. It took me about 2 weeks to adjust to the heat.

The little grocery store right down the street from the temple is usually very busy late in the afternoons when people are heading home. It is a good time to interact with the Japanese working class up close and first hand. Of course you have to observe without it being noticed that you are observing.  As one of my senseis used to say Nihongo is all about ambiguity.

My Japan

I find Japan to be a place of unbounded esthetics and endless inspiration. The confluence of Shinto, Buddhism and the history of the Samurai form a culture that is steeped in honor for self and other, reverence for nature and respect for tradition. I hope you’re inspired by these images and essays of temples and shrines of Japan and moved by them to a better understanding of this deep and beautiful culture.