Saturday, December 14, 2019

Back from Japan

I’ve been in Japan.

Time zone changes, jet lag, and return-home-catch-up would be enough to explain why I haven’t written, but it’s even harder than that.

How do you sum up Japan?

It’s one thing when I travel for a month and go through the process – in this blog – of learning and discovery. It’s another thing when I’m back, have already dealt with both the panic and thrill of cultural disruption, and now have … reflection.

We arrived at Sea-Tac Airport early, so All Nippon Airways had signs that said “Counter opens at 9:20 a.m.” At precisely 9:20 a.m., the agents stood in front of their individual counters, bowed, and welcomed us to their airline with prepared introductions.

Welcome to Japan.

My first total and complete thrill began on the plane: Japanese toilets! With a lifetime of restroom visits and bladder emptying – with my experience as the Toilet Police – how could I have missed learning about Japanese toilets!

All those buttons! You can spray your front, you can spray your rear, you can change the pressure, you can warm the seat. You can air dry, you can deodorize. You can play sound so no one else hears your “sounds.” There are so many buttons, I’m not sure what some of them meant: pulsate? oscillate? (and that’s the English). And in the accompanying child stalls, there were even optional potty chairs.

It’s only fitting. In a country of clean streets, no graffiti, public transit with immaculate cushioned seats, absolutely pristine garbage trucks, and swept garden lawns (!); it’s only fitting that everyone would have clean butts.

Speaking of Clean
It’s impossible to find a litter box in Japan, but it’s equally impossible to find litter. After a while, you learn to carry your litter with you. Going out for the day is like camping and packing out your own trash. Look around and you realize everyone treats the public spaces as if they were their own living room. Japanese children mop their classroom floors (there are no janitors); Japanese athletes clean their locker rooms.

In Japan, the Commons is cared for. At every level, in every location, at any time, it’s obvious. (And afterwards, when you return to the United States, the opposite is obvious, too.)

And not just clean. Beautiful. So I’ll start with the gardens.

The Gardens
I know I’ve mentioned here that I tire of manicured gardens when I make my monthly trips; that I crave the wildness of Alaska and its “dirty dirt.” But the gardens of Japan take manicured to the level of artistry, of masterpiece, of divine spirit.

After visiting the Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa, I heard a BBC interview with its head gardener. He explained that it takes 60 gardeners per tree to pluck last year’s pine needles from each branch by hand. (The interviewer couldn’t tell this year’s from last year’s, but the gardener could.) Gardeners sit on the moss and pick out individual blades of grass that have taken root. Ropes are strung to the trees so when snow falls, it will stick to the rope and make patterns while the ropes support the tree.

We were there – just by luck – during the peak of red maple season, and the gardens were glorious. Beyond glorious. My color hair glorious. I can’t do justice to those scenes, so look at this.

It’s not just the trees. Ryōan-ji in Kyoto is fifteen stones in a garden of white pebbles. That’s all, but the stones were intentionally placed. Leave me there and just let me sit and look.

Just Look
I can’t read or speak Japanese, so the world was filled with signs I couldn’t read, bookstores I couldn’t enter, TV I couldn’t understand. My visual world was just a “look at” world, not necessarily an “understand” world. I walked through streets and saw color and shape and images; I couldn’t receive textual or verbal. Everything became a picture not a sign.

This was really a big change for my word-brain. And that’s even before I entered Zen and became one with the table.


  1. glad you got to touch the sky, water & earth in japan. much that is lovely; much that disturbs its surface harmony. if one can afford travel there, one will witness a another way of being human.

  2. Yes! That is a good description of our experience of Japan, as well. So many surprises waiting to be discovered.


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