Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Luckiest: Of Birthdays and Pumpkin Pies

My birthday - September 28th - two years ago was one of the most depressing days of my life. Mark and I had gone to Portland to visit his family and had left that morning for home. We drove all day, starting near Portland, and ended up in a dumpy motel in Baker City, Oregon. Throughout the day, I kept hoping that I would hear from one of my children; but as the day wore on, my phone never rang, I received no text, and there was no Facebook message or email to wish me a happy birthday.

I didn't think I could have felt any lower when we pulled into Baker that evening, but when I saw our motel room, I felt even worse. That's when I lost it and cried like a baby while Mark held me. Later, we went out for dinner at a restaurant there in Baker, a place where I felt every eye in the place upon us, a gay couple. It was a place that looked like it was frequented by men in cowboy hats. Mark had hoped I would feel better after going for dinner. But it didn't work. As we walked back to the truck, I felt anxious, fearing that  group of men in the restaurant would follow and attack us because we were (and are) gay.

We drove back to the hotel and got ready for bed. It was then that Mark came around the corner from the bathroom, holding a pumpkin pie with lit candles, singing "Happy Birthday" in his best Marilyn Monroe imitation (think of her singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy, but she was wearing clothes). By way of explanation, I had told Mark that, for many years, we had celebrated my birthday with a pumpkin pie because we always had cake on my oldest daughter's birthday which was only four days before mine. It was a moment I will never forget as long as I live. His simple act of love and thoughtfulness salved my wounded heart.

Fast forward two years, to yesterday. It was another birthday I will never forget. What a contrast to two years ago! I heard from most of my children, receiving warm expressions of love and wishes for happiness. In particular, I was able to FaceTime with my daughter, Rachel, who is three weeks into a new job working as a nanny on the east coast. In the course of our conversation, she told me that she had published a post on her blog as a birthday present to me. 

I'd like to quote a few parts of that post here, but first I need to explain that Rachel and I hadn't really talked (at Rachel's request) for over two years, until this past June, when a fortuitous conversation arranged by her older sister broke the dam of pain, hurt, mistrust and misunderstanding that had grown up between us. In her post, Rachel wrote:
"Four months ago I spoke with my dad. Not a polite conversation: an honest one. I remember sitting nervously next to my older sister and brother-in-law as my dad came in the room and walked over to me. I reached out and hugged him (to my surprise), and all of that love, disappointment, and anger that I held towards him leaked out of me like water escaping from cupped hands. In that instant all I had for my dad was love; overwhelming love for someone that had mistreated me, confusing me with his new lifestyle he chose when he moved out. It was this indescribable love that I knew was inside of me the entire time, waiting to come out.  
A large part of my heart was unclogged that day. Since then I have grown and opened up more. I am more honest, loving, giving, and kind. I am more open minded and accepting of others’ lifestyles. I still have a long way to go, but I’m on my way. I’m going." 
She went on to write:
"I’m sorry I missed your past two birthdays. I’m sorry I didn’t want to listen to your side of the story and turned you away countless times. I am sorry for locking you out of my life. But I thank God every day that you’re in my life. I thank him for the love that you have for me and the knowledge that I can call you any time and I know you will answer. I thank God that I was able to take a risk and mend things with you back in June, and that you were willing to, too ...  
"Thank you for all those letters you wrote to me, wanting so badly to spend time with me but only getting rejection. I saved every single letter, every email, every note. I treasure them. Thank you for accepting where I’m at right now with your lifestyle and for not forcing it on me ... Thank you for loving me as much as you do."
It was one of the best birthday presents I could have received ... ever.

But the day was not over.

Mark took me out to dinner last night at the Four Seasons Resort here in Maui. There is much I could write of this experience. He had arranged for us to have a special table looking out over the ocean toward the sunset (thus, the two pictures above). We had our salad, then our main course, then it was time to order dessert. We each placed our orders and sat back and enjoyed the scene in front of us. 

Then, it happened. The server brought out two plates of - you guessed it - pumpkin pie. I was so surprised! It turned out that Mark had inquired whether the pastry chef could make a pumpkin pie, and when he was told that was not possible, he did the next best thing, i.e., he went to Safeway, purchased a pie and delivered it to the Four Seasons while he was supposedly at the gym, working out.

This is the kind of man Mark is. I am the luckiest guy in the world. As we walked out of the restaurant that evening, several servers turned to say "Happy Birthday" to me; then as we walked past the receptionist, she, too, said "Happy Birthday" as we passed. It's such a wonderful feeling, to feel special. That was Mark's gift to me. It was such a wonderful evening.

What a contrast to two years ago the day had been. As the song says, "I am the luckiest ..."

Monday, September 23, 2013

A 355 Year-Old Inn in the Mountains of Japan

Mark and I both hit the wall yesterday. We walked up the two miles or so to the shrine to the first Tokugawa shogun, and the place was crawling with people - and it was only 9:00-9:30. As we were walking down the billion steps to the actual final resting place, I said to Mark, "I've hit the wall." His response was that those exact words had been on his mind when I said it. We had had enough of visiting temples and shrines. And particularly enough of dealing with hordes of other tourists. We went back to our hotel, picked up our bags and got on a train bound further up into the mountains to where we had planned to stay our last three nights in Japan.

Famous bridge in Nikko. At one time, only the Shogun or the Emperor could cross this bridge.

That morning, before leaving our hotel room, in the process of making sure I had everything, I opened the desk drawer and this sight greeted my eyes.

Opening the front cover, I saw this message:

Japan's answer the Gideon Bible Society (which places Bibles in hotel rooms across America; and if you're in a Marriott Hotel, you might also find a copy of the Book of Mormon). It is actually a cool book because the left-hand pages are in English, and the right-hand pages are in Japanese. Assuming that they operate on the same basis as the Gideons, we gladly accepted their book.

Our trip up to Yunishigawa Onsen (hot springs resort) involved taking a local train an hour further up into the mountains, then boarding a bus for a 30-minute drive to our ryokan (Japanese inn). I had read about this place on TripAdvisor, and it sounded like it would be a cool experience: staying in an inn that had been built in 1666 and was associated with one of Japan's most important old clans. 

As it turned out, it met our expectations and more, except that hardly any English is spoken here, and it's out in the middle of nowhere. But we're getting by and enjoying our experience. We did, however, change our travel plans: we had intended to spend three nights here, but we will only spend two; tomorrow morning, we are heading back into Tokyo to spend our last night there.

Our room is incredible. A corner "suite" that overlooks the stream below, it is by far and away the most luxurious place we have stayed on this trip.

This drum is hit five times after guests check in, on their way to their room

Our suite even has its very own massage chair

The water in the stream is crystal clear

The (somewhat blurry) view from our window

We enjoyed the hot springs baths - both the one indoors and the outdoor one that overlooks the river. Then it was time for cocktails. We have had some issues with ice during our travels, but this place was very accommodating. They don't have ice cubes, however; they have ice balls.

The highlight was the dinner. Guests wear their yukatas across the bridge pictured at the start of this post, then are escorted to their dining area. Many guests gather around pits in a large hall, but we somehow scored our own private dining room. Perhaps they just wanted to isolate the gaijin from the Japanese.

I'm just going to include pictures of dinner, no commentary, because the Internet here is driving me crazy. WiFi is only available in the lobby, and even then I've had to walk around at times to get a better signal.

Walk across the bridge

Our server spoke some English. She was funny and very helpful.

Let's just say that dinner was quite an experience. The menu is on the paper.

The steak grilled on this "hotplate" (there's a flame underneath) was our favorite part of the meal.

A selfie before heading back down to the onsen

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hannah's Post About Our Commitment Ceremony

We arrived a half-hour or so ago at our final hotel in Japan, an inn at a hot springs area far up into the mountains. As we sat down in the lobby of this place that has been here for over 200 years, I opened up my Facebook and saw that my daughter Hannah had sent me a link to her blog post about our commitment ceremony. I am sharing that link here because it made me cry. It is so beautiful ... and I don't think I could express any better what transpired and was felt that evening.

Here's the link.

Thank you, Sweetheart.

From Koyasan to Nikko

It was a crisp, clear morning on Saturday when we walked out of the Ekoin Temple gate and down the street to our bus stop. It was 5:55 a.m. But the sun rises early in Japan, and as we stood there, we could see the brightening rays in the west and the clear, full moon setting in the eastern blue sky.

Directly behind us, an aged monk was sitting in front of an altar, doing his morning ritual of chanting prayers. It was a perfect morning to say goodbye to Koyasan, where we had spent a remarkable few days.

(It will be necessary to turn the volume on your computer - and the YouTube volume - all the way up in order to hear the priest.)

As a side note, the goofy cartoonish monk character sign was ubiquitous throughout Koyasan. The community is getting ready to celebrate the 1200th anniversary of its founding next year, and this guy is apparently their "mascot." It is representative of something I've notice about Japanese culture, and that is the use of cartoon characters in signs, announcements, etc. I would expect to see this sort of thing for children, but not in adult society. Yet, it is. Along with child-like voices that make announcements at train stations, in elevators, etc., and music box music that is played when a train is approaching. I don't know if it is deliberate, e.g., to exert a calming influence on hordes of people - which I suspect it is in part - or is representative of some larger aspect of the Japanese psyche.

The bus picked us up at 6:06 on the dot, and we wound our way through the community back to the cable car station to descend to the train station below.

From there, we reversed our steps back to Osaka, arriving at Namba Station 90 minutes later and then taking a subway to Shen-Osaka station. Here, we caught a Shinkansen (bullet train) at 9:50, which took us back to Shinagawa Station on the south side of Tokyo, arriving at about 12:15. The highlight of the ride took place as we neared Tokyo and had an absolutely gorgeous view of the whole of Mount Fuji, except for a small ring of clouds that wreathed it about two-thirds of the way up.

We had seen a Buddhist art store in Kamakura when we were there that had some beautiful pieces, but we assumed that we would see something we liked better in Kyoto or Koyasan. That didn't happen, so we arranged to leave Koyasan very early in order to make a quick trip back to Kamakura before heading on into Tokyo.

When we arrived a the store, the owner told us that he would be closing in an hour for two weeks in order to do some remodeling. We couldn't believe our good fortune. We wanted to get a small painting for a friend of ours, and the guy had dozens of them - unframed - for us to look at. Finally, we chose one, and it wasn't until the fellow was rolling up the canvas and putting it in a tube that would fit in my suitcase that he said that it had been painted in Japan by Tibetans (presumably monks) and was based on Tibetan Buddhism. Again, we couldn't believe our good fortune because our friend is a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.

Then on to Tokyo, where we stayed at the same place where we had stayed when we first arrived in Japan. The next morning, we made some adjustments in our travel plans, deciding to go out on the west side of Tokyo and visit the American School in Japan, where Mark had gone to school for a couple of years in the 60's.

We had planned to leave for Nikko from a station close to where we were staying, but decided instead
to take a subway to Shinjuku Station, where we boarded a train to Musashi-Sakai Station, then
transferred to a small train that, two stops later, arrived at a station near ASIJ.

It meant a great deal to Mark to make this trip to ASIJ. I have tried to imagine from time to time what it must have felt like to him to have spent 10 years of his childhood in a foreign land, to which he had not been able to return until now. I haven't been back to the two towns in Illinois where I grew up in a very long time, but the fact is that I could have gone and still can without traveling halfway around the world. I can appreciate how much it has meant to Mark to see the places he lived. 

We weren't sure what we would be able to see at the school since it was Sunday. When we arrived, a security guard was reluctant to let us in. Mark told him that he had gone to school there as a boy, but the guard had apparently not understood. He said we needed to have an appointment. We asked if there was someone we could talk to inside the school. He handed us the directory, but said that all the offices were closed. Finally, in desperation, I tried to explain - again - that Mark had gone to school here as a boy, using my hand to indicate short height. "Ah!" he said. "Alumni?" "Yes!" we responded. That one word had made all the difference. He smiled and handed us the visitor sign-in sheet, gave us two passes, and off we went. Mark was able to see his old classroom and the campus and was thrilled.

Mark standing outside his 5th grade classroom

We then made our way back to Shinjuku station where we boarded a train for Nikko, arriving here about 3:00. We are off this morning to see some temples and shrines that are World Heritage Sites, the temple being the shrine to the first Tokugawa shogun who obtained power in the very early 1600's. This afternoon, we will board another train that will take us an hour north of here, further into the mountains, where we will spend our last three nights in Japan at an inn in a hot springs area.

While walking around yesterday afternoon, we had seen an Indian restaurant a couple of blocks from our hotel and decided to go there for dinner (particularly after we saw that the owner is Indian and there were Indian customers eating there). When we walked in later that evening, there was a group of four or five guys and a woman sitting at a table, and the first word that greeted us as we entered was "PFLAG" (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays - an American support group). 

As we heard bits of their conversation (in English) it became obvious that at least two of the guys are gay, and two were Caucasian. When they got up to leave, we couldn't resist. Mark told them we are here on our honeymoon, and they were all, "No way! How cool! Fantastic!" Turns out one of the Caucasian guys is from Boston and the other from Columbus, Ohio. Now what are the odds of us running into a group of American gay guys in an Indian restaurant in Nikko, Japan? Sometimes, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. (BTW, the food was *fantastic*.)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Koyasan: Okunoin Cemetery

Koyasan is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Japan, if not the most sacred; and it is certainly counted among the most sacred places on the planet. The most revered place in Koyasan is Okunoin Cemetery, and the tomb of the founder of Shingon Buddhism, located at the end of a two-kilometer walk, is the "holy of holies."

We made our first trip to Okunoin the first night we were here when an English-speaking monk from our temple took us on a night-time tour. The central walkway is lined with lanterns, plus there was a full moon out that night, making a magical place even more mystical.

At the end of the walk, after crossing a sacred bridge beyond which no photographs are allowed, is the lantern hall where thousands of lanterns are kept burning, both inside and out. The effect of this at nighttime was quite spectacular.

This hall is immediately in front of Kukai's mausoleum, where it is believed he entered "eternal meditation" in the year 835. Some 80 years later, so the story goes, a monk and imperial official entered the mausoleum and found that Kukai's body was still preserved, and his hair and beard had grown to enormous lengths. This event sealed the story that Kukai had not died but was in "eternal meditation." The mausoleum was closed again and, supposedly, no one has been inside it for over 1000 years. 

Mark and I made a return trip the following day to see it in the daylight. There are over 200,000 grave and memorial markers in the cemetery that date back for at least a millennium. As we walked through it on the central pathway, we really did feel a tangible sense of reverence. It is considered the most sacred place in Japan not only because of Kukai's mausoleum, but also because the ashes of so many are interred here amongst towering cedars, some of which are reputed to be almost one thousand years old.

Ubiquitous throughout the cemetery are stone stupas or pagodas, representing the five elements. There are literally thousands of them, if not tens of thousands.

There are all kinds of legends associated with various places in the cemetery. Next to a shrine of a "sweating Jizo" (which 'sweats' with the weight of the sins he takes upon himself) is a well. The legend is that if you can clearly see your reflection, you will live a long life. Mark looked down and saw his image clearly (as did I).

If you look very carefully, you can see the reflection of Mark's face toward the bottom right of the water.

There is a small stream that flows about 100 yards in front of the lantern hall. The bridge across this stream is considered sacred, and by tradition, one crossing the bridge must either cleanse themselves by bathing in the stream or by ritualistically throwing water on one or more of a group of Jizu statues lined up alongside the stream. We saw many Japanese going to each statue, throwing water, bowing their heads and offering respect and prayer.

A group of monks making their way toward the sacred bridge from the lantern hall in the distance

Crossing the bridge

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Koyasan: The Goma Fire Ritual and the Kannon

The Goma Fire Ritual is unique, so far as I am aware, to Shingon Buddhism in Japan, although a similar ceremony also apparently exists in Tibetan Buddhism. As I mentioned yesterday, both Shingon Buddhism in Japan and Tibetan Buddhism spring from the same source of esoteric Buddhism that was exported from India to China and then Tibet in the 6th and 7th centuries. In Tibet, it is apparently called the "Homa" fire ritual. Going even further back, the roots of the fire ceremony date back in India to Vedic times.

The temple where we are staying (Ekoin) offers a Goma ceremony daily at 7:00 a.m. in a special small temple in the corner of the temple grounds. Guests are invited to witness the event; photos are permitted as long as flash photography is not used.

Guests are seated on either side and behind the priest who sits in front of the fire

The handbook presented to Ekoin's guests offers the following explanation of the "Gomakito":
"The Goma (Homa) Ritual of consecrated fire is unique to Vajrayana (Tibetan) and Esoteric Buddhism and is perhaps also the most mystical and cognitively powerful. It stems from the Vedic Agnihotra Ritual and is performed by qualified priests and acharyas for the benefit of individuals, the state or all sentient beings in general. The consecrated fire is believed to have a powerful cleansing effect spiritually and psychologically. The ritual is performed for the purpose of destroying negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires and for the making of secular requests and blessings."
As the priest sits in front of the fire, he has an array of bowls, tongs, and other ritual instruments in front of him. He uses tongs to stack small but carefully cut pieces of kindling. He uses long sticks with small cups at the end to place spices, seeds and other items on the fire, all of which are very symbolic. All the while, a monk is chanting in the corner while the priest mumbles words and whispers what one assumes are prayers and incantations.

The ritual, which lasts about a half-hour, builds in intensity. At one point, the monk in the corner begins striking a taiko (Japanese) drum in the corner. The monk is making all kinds of hand signs, I notice, as he goes through the ritual, each of which I am sure has an esoteric meaning.

He eventually gets to one part of the ceremony where he picks up many small pieces of kindling, each of which are carefully cut to approximately the same length and size. I later come to find out that there are 108 of these pieces of wood that are thrown on the fire, representing the Buddhist belief that there are 108 "attachments" in this world from which we need to free ourselves.

Meanwhile, the drumming continues, along with the chanting. The fire grows larger and larger, burning away both the wood and - symbolically - our impurities. The lead photo at the beginning of this post and the one just above capture a bit of the intensity of concentration of the priest. The picture below the size of the fire and some of the small 108 pieces of kindling.

It was a memorable experience.

The Kannon (Avolokitesvara)

In the process of doing research on the Goma fire ritual, I also ran across some information on the Kannon - a "thousand-armed" Buddha statue, of which we have seen many manifestations during our time here in Japan, such as the following one in a temple in Kamakura:

The most striking example that we have seen of Kannon statues was at the Sanjūsangen-dō Hall in Kyoto. The emperor had ordered a local daimyo to erect this hall/temple, which features a central Kannon flanked by 500 kannons on either side. Photographs were not allowed to be taken in the building, but I've found pictures on the Internet that others, ignoring the rule, have taken and posted.

Quoting from a couple of sites on the Internet:
"Esoteric Buddhism began in ancient India, was brought to China, and finally to Japan. In the Nara Period (7th-8th Centuries), statues of Kannon Bosatsu ["Bosatsu" being the Japanese word for Bodhisattva] (the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, one of the images used in Esoteric Buddhism) were worshipped in temples all over Japan. Also many practitioners went deep into the mountains to do spiritual training, as Esoteric Buddhist priests do. But Esoteric Buddhism as an organized religion did not begin till the Heian Period with two famous Esoteric priests named Kukai [the founder of Koyasan] and Saicho. These men left Japan in the early Heian Period to go to Tang Dynasty China. When they came back to Japan, they brought with them the religious system of Esoteric Buddhism."
"One prominent Buddhist story tells of Avalokiteśvara vowing never to rest until he had freed all sentient beings from samsara. Despite strenuous effort, he realizes that still many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, his head splits into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing his plight, gives him eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokiteśvara attempts to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that his two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitabha Buddha comes to his aid and invests him with a thousand arms with which to aid the suffering multitudes."
To confuse things even further, Kannon is also referred to as the goddess of mercy, i.e., she's a woman. In doing my reading, it appears that Kannon was earlier represented in male form, but eventually came to be represented more in female form. Once again, the whole subject quickly becomes bewildering - at least to me. But its nice to have a bit more understanding of what we have seen and are seeing.

Today is our last day in Koyasan. Tomorrow morning, we head back to Tokyo. The food here at the temple is strictly vegetarian, and, frankly, we are looking forward to having something a bit more substantial for breakfast in the morning.