We woke up at about 5:30 the next morning. Hojo-san, the abbot, had informed us that there would be zazen if we were so inclined. About half the group made it upstairs for morning meditation.
In spite of my having secretly opened the windows the night before, the zendo was still fairly hot and humid. Placing twenty bodies in the room didn’t help the situation at all.
There was a slight rustle right behind me and then the meditation period began with three strikes of a small bell. I would later find out that the rustle was the sound the abbot doing kentan (morning greeting rounds). The purpose, in a traditional temple, is to ensure that all the monks are present and well. In our situation it was simply part of the form. Those sitting on the meditation cushions are supposed to respond by placing their hands palm to palm as a sign of respect. I think very few of us managed to accomplish that task the first morning.
At the end of half hour we did the traditional verse for putting on the Kesa/Rakusu. It goes: How great the robe of liberation
A formless field of benefaction
Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching
We free all living beings.
We intone this three times, with the Kesa or Rakusu placed on our heads. The third time through, the ordained don their kesas, and the lay practitioners put on their Rakusus.
(Sometimes the honorific prefix “O” is appended to the name of the priest’s robe, yielding “Okesa”. Lay Buddhists sew and then officially receive the Rakusu in a ceremony of taking the 16 Buddhist precepts, which are universal vows for ethical living.)
We then processed to the Hondo (Chanting Hall). The Hondo has beautiful polished wood floors and hanging golden chandeliers. There is altar the size of a small hut. It’s elevated, so one must look up to see the Buddha images. This is actually quite common in altars that I’ve seen. I believe the idea is to physically be looking up to something that you should be spiritually looking up to, or aspiring towards.
There is a central area with a big fluffy cushion covered in a shiny satin material. The ordained enter into that central area, in rows by order of seniority. There are also wings where the lay practitioners stand.
Taiken-san sits in the position of the Precentor (the person in charge of hitting bells and blocks and leading the chanting), and Hojo-san enters into the central area. He goes to the altar, attended by a priest carrying a stick of incense.
When Hojo-san gets to the altar, the priest offers him the incense and he places it in an incense holder. We all do bows--Hojo-san gets to bow on the cool pillow--and chant a couple traditional Buddhist chants. We finish up with three bows, and Hojo-san formally wishes us a good morning.
People go and get changed and we find that our breakfast is…cereal. Yes, Taiken-san, having lived in the US for seven years or so, decided that he would try to give us something more normal than rice and miso soup. We also have milk, yogurt, tea, coffee, and bananas. Everything is set out buffet style and most people take their bowl of cereal to sit outside the Hondo. There is a walkway around the outside where you can sit down and dangle your feet. We talk quietly and listen to the cicadas.
When we finish up, we are told that we will have a brief work period and a meeting to review the day. We gather in the same room where we had dinner night, which is also the women’s dorm. We are told that many of us will have a free day.
This is the day before the Hiroshima Peace Day, so some of the residents will need to return in the afternoon to assist with setting up for that occasion. There is talk of a Shinto shrine at the top of the mountain that the temple is built on, a railway that leads to Hiroshima, and the small city of Heisaka.
We break up into smaller groups for temple cleaning. This involves cleaning, bathrooms, vacuuming tatami (bamboo straw) mats, and wiping down the wood floors.
Now, there is a special way to do all of these things. I can only speak from my experience of wiping floors. So, you wet a rag and wring it out until it is just moist. You fold it so there is a 1 x 1 foot piece. You place it on the ground in front of you, going with the grain of the wood. You form a triangle with your butt in the air, and your hands on the rag. Then you push with your legs and slide with your hands. When you get to the end, you turn around and clean the next foot of wood. It’s quite fun, actually, though it does require some strength.
Yasa (Taiken-san’s son) was with us throughout this time. During breakfast I showed him the basics of juggling. He quickly learned how to juggle two balls, and was attempting three. He referred to me as “Mr. Juggles”, and I definitely felt a fatherly affection for him. I decided I wanted to go solo for the morning to Hiroshima, so I told Yasa I would be back in the afternoon to play some more.
I took my day bag and walked down to the train. I really didn’t know whether I would find it or not, as I didn’t think I had been listening to Taiken-san’s vague directions. However, when I got to the cemetery, I knew to make a left. When I saw the Shinto gate, I knew I had to go through it. I wound up at the station with a couple other Japanese folks. They pretended not to be curious about the foreigner in samue and I observed my surroundings.
The station was a little shed-like structure. It had seats for three people and a map (in Japanese) of the train route. It was a sunny day and quite hot. The grass was brilliantly green and it was very quiet.
A train came and I got on it. I’d learned that there were very few mistakes one can make in Japan that are tragic. At the next stop I saw the sign and knew that I had gotten on a train headed in the opposite direction. I got off and waited at this station. There was a small road just beyond the train tracks and occasionally someone would ride by on their bike. The blue sky emphasized the green mountains in the distance. The stillness and beauty --probably the heat too-- reminded me of El Salvador. Another train came and I got on, this time headed in the right direction.
When we reached Hiroshima, I simply started walking. I saw a sign for the Peace Park and decided I would walk there. I imagined it would be bit of a walk, but I think part of me hoped that if I walked far enough or hard enough that I could work accept the things I had seen the day before--though “accept” isn’t quite the right word.
I walked for an hour and saw no park. I stopped and asked someone for directions, but they were unable to direct me. So, I kept going. I knew I’d eventually run into someone or something. I always had the back up plan of getting a taxi if I needed to get back to Zensho-ji. I kept walking.
Finally, I found someone who could point me in the direction of the park. At the same time, I heard a parade marching down the street. I don’t know what they were parading for, but they were certainly making some noise about it. They happened to be going to the Peace park as well, so I simply followed them until I saw another sign.
Two hours of walking, but I had arrived. I walked around to see what groups had shown up. There were Nichiren Buddhists by the Atomic Dome chanting “Namu Myoho Ren Gei Kyo.”
This means “Hail to the Great Lotus Sutra.”
(The Lotus Sutra is a Buddhist text which spends most of its time telling about how great the Lotus Sutra is. I can’t say that I totally understand it, but people of more practice than myself say that it’s one of the most profound teachings of Buddhism. Maybe I’ll get it someday.)
There was also a group of Europeans in their 20s and 30s who had several boxes around the Dome. They were unpacking three-inch by two-inch wooden blocks with messages of peace. Each block had two holes so that they could slide on wooden dowels. They were setting up enough of these wooden blocks to build a three foot wall around the entire Dome Memorial building!
I went to a survivors memorial which is located underground. Inside they tell you more stories of the survivors. After you hear their stories you can go down to a hall two stories belowground. The hall is circular and empty except for a few benches and a three foot fountain in the center.
Fountains in or around the memorial parks always symbolize offerings of water for the people who died of thirst. Around the top part of the hall is a 360° view of Hiroshima after the bombing, viewed from Shima Hospital, at the hypocenter of the explosion. It must have been carved by lasers, and is made of 270,000 tiles in total. Each tile represents a person who died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seeing this enormous piece composed of one square inch tiles gives only an idea of how many people died.
I felt overwhelmed and ready to leave. I decided on a taxi for my return trip. I told the driver the cross street of the train station (which I had thought to note before wandering too far), but then I said Shinkansen station. He spoke in Japanese, and I had no idea what he was saying so I said, “Wakarimasen
--I don’t understand.” He laughed, as Japanese sometimes do when they are embarrassed, and proceeded to drive. I prayed that I had said the right thing, as I only had so much money on me. The driver kept going, with the driver saying nothing.
I began to think all sorts of thoughts. Perhaps he was taking advantage of me and driving me in circle. Perhaps he thought I meant some noodle shop, and I would end up miles from my destination. Just as I was about to tell him to forget it, pay, and search for another route, we pulled up to the back of the train station. I realized that he had been confused because the cross street I gave was where the buses came to, and the taxis came to the back of the station. So, with a sigh of relief, I paid and got out.
Back at Zenshoji, I heard that some pilgrims had hiked up to the shrine at the top of the mountain. Yasa and I juggled some more. I found out that Michael, one of the videographers, is a juggler. You learn who can juggle when you start juggling. People simply seem compelled to join in or learn. After juggling, Yasa, Rob, and I played card games.
In the afternoon, as predicted, we worked on setting up for the following day. The main activity turned out to be setting banners up in the Hondo of Zensho-ji for their Obon ceremony the next day.
Obon is a time when people come to honor their ancestors. People will return to their home villages for a day to a week to pay respects. Behind the temple was a cemetery, and periodically while we were there people would come and offer flowers or simply clean around the grave markers.
In order to thank Zensho-ji for housing us we covered most of the inside of their Hondo with panels and banners. Many pilgrims besides the residents of the monastery helped with this project, so it took us only an hour to finish.
Jikan suggested that we go into the little town down the hill. She also suggested we take a taxi, as she was quite tired. I said that was fine and asked Yuji-san to phone a taxi company and order a cab for two people.
He came back and said it would be here shortly. No sooner had he said that then two cabs pulled up! Yuji said, “Okay, your two cabs are here.” Jikan laughed and I blanched. I told Yuji, “We weren’t asking for two cabs. I said one cab for two people.” Yuji’s face dropped. “Oh…” he looked around, “did anyone else want to go into town?” No takers. Yuji walked over to one of the cabs and explained the situation. The cab driver left without much trouble, and Jikan and I thanked Yuji profusely before getting into our cab.
Our destination was a place she had been earlier in the day. It’s a shopping store simply called “The Big.” The first floor sells groceries, so we continued to the second floor. Jikan had found some T-shirts that she wanted me to see.
As I mentioned earlier, Japanese like shirts that say nonsensical English phrases in the same way that we like shirts with Japanese words that mean nothing. This is often termed “Engrish.” You can find examples of this on http://www.engrish.com/
I looked at some of the shirts and bought two. I then headed over to the electronic section. You know you are in Japan when you find an entire aisle devoted to rice cookers. It’s also obvious that you are in Japan when you can find everything for a Tea Ceremony in your local equivalent of Fred Meyers/Walgreens.
We finished our shopping and decided to look for a place to eat. We walked along the main street looking for restaurants. We saw one and poked our heads in, sushi bar. When we opened the door, a cloud of cigarette smoke wafted out, and three or four middle aged Japanese men at the bar turned in our direction. We quickly closed the door and kept going.
Further down the street we saw another one and looked in: sushi bar. The next one had its door open and was clearly…a sushi bar. We passed a convenience store and were considering simply going there and walking back to the temple. However we decided to go a few more blocks.
We walked past another store, and Jikan said it looked like a sushi bar. I said, “It can’t be, Kojun is in there.” So, we stopped in, and joined Kojun, Tova Green (from San Francisco), and Byakuren Ragir (from Minnesota).
It turned out to be a Ramen shop, which is Jikan’s and my favorite type of restaurant. Essentially, they sell Ramen noodles accompanied by whatever you want: shrimp, meat, vegetables, etc. It was a little place, big enough for ten people to sit at three tables. There was a small refrigerator with a glass window on the front. Jikan got a cute little Coke in a glass bottle out of the fridge. They had ordered vegetarian Ramen. As they were involved in a conversation, Jikan and I ordered vegetarian Ramen and took to watching the Hiroshima baseball game on the TV.
When their Ramen came out they found that it had big pieces of pork on the top. They had a good laugh and tried to say vegetarian. The man repeated her word, but her reason for saying the word seemed totally lost to him. After a moment or two of this they simply chalked it up to a cultural experience and began to eat around their pork. So, when our dishes turned up with pork, neither of us were surprised. Jikan was secretly happy to get a little protein. We thanked the cooks, a husband and wife team, and heartily enjoyed our Ramen.
The ladies ate their Ramen, paid, and headed off for the temple. We finished and went to pay. Jikan showed him her bottle of Coke. He said, “Service.” We didn’t know what he meant, so Jikan tried to pay for the Coke again, and he said, “Service.” We got the idea: service = no charge. We thanked them both and bowed before leaving.
We decided to swing by the convenience store and buy some matcha (green tea) ice cream before heading back to the temple. As we passed one of the sushi bars, we saw more familiar faces. We poked our heads in to say hello to Yuji and Korin (two of the priests who were helping us get through Japan safely). They were just having some dessert and a cigarette (smoking is not extremely common, but it is definitely accepted -- there is a smoking car on the Shinkansen.
We apologized again about the taxis and Yuji smiled and said it wasn’t a problem. I have learned that the Japanese are quite comfortable lying in order to maintain harmony. The down side is that you rarely know if they are telling the truth or not. The bright side is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s one less thing to worry about.
The waitress came over and asked if we wanted anything, in Japanese. Yuji explained that we were from America and here for a peace pilgrimage. The woman got quite excited and ran behind the counter. She came back with two desserts like the ones Yuji and Korin had. Essentially it was a snow cone with some nondescript Japanese fruit flavor (perhaps lychee).
We thanked her and pulled out our wallets to pay. “Service,” she said, thus proving our theory about the meaning of that word. We bowed, and ate our dessert.
Yuji told that this sushi bar was actually an Okonomiyaki shop. Okonomiyaki is essentially a cabbage pancake. It has eggs, flour, cabbage, and meat or seafood. They make the mix, and at the low-budget places you cook it yourself at the table. Actually, I’ve heard, that it’s more fun that way, and cheaper--how can you beat that? You cook it all together and add a sauce which has soy sauce, mayo, mustard, and some Japanese seasonings and ENJOY!
Yuji could not emphasize enough that the Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is better than that made in Osaka (another big home of Okonomiyaki). This is, he informed me, because they use more cabbage here. One would think this would not be a big secret to anyone seriously comparing the two, but rather a matter of preference.
When we left the restaurant, I requested a stop at the convenience store, as that dessert had hardly satisfied my appetite for sweets. I purchased another Hagen Das Matcha Ice Cream bar (probably my fourth of the trip), and enjoyed it as we walked through the dark streets of Heisaka to Zensho-ji.
We got back in time to take a bath. There was only one bath, so we had men’s time and women’s time for the bath. Truly, after a day of sweating, there is no better way to relax than by washing off and hopping in a bathtub.
I went to bed with slight anticipation/anxiety, aware that the next day we would be going to the Peace park to bring Jizos for Peace to the masses. What would they think of us? What would we be doing? Time would tell.