Japan: Living Kyoto and Okinawa
By Yazmin Whang
Twelve hours and nothing to do but eat, watch movies, and sleep. That’s what I did on the plane to Japan. The thing I didn’t expect on that long trip, what that the food was so delicious! Also that it was hard to sleep for so long in a chair that doesn’t really recline.
I remember the first thing I thought when I got off the plane in Kyoto was that it was so humid. Definitely insane. I was about to die, but thank goodness for air conditioned buses, which we were on for about another hour before we finally got to our hotel. That’s where we first met the boys from Berkeley. “Oh you’re part of the trip too?!” We were all laughing right off the bat. We were then introduced to the Hawaii and Los Angeles groups which were all the start to a very unique and quick-bonding group.
The things I remember most about Kyoto was when we stayed at our “mother” temple and when we went shopping the last couple days. We stayed about 3 days and slept in futons on tatami floors. The food was amazing, of course, and I noticed that everyone ate so fast! The cleaning up together part was an experience because it’s not something that everyone really does here in America. In Japan, it seems like everyone is always thinking about the person coming after them. Everyone is just so polite and generous. Even the pigeons were nice. My cousin and I kept saying it was because they were “Japanese” pigeons and that they were so clean and nice. People laughed and thought we were crazy however.
|One of the many “dark hallways” at the Honzan in Kyoto|
The days seemed like forever as we woke up at 6 am every morning to Japanese singing and a morning service. We took a tour of the temple and we got to see many interesting parts of it. To me, it felt like a Japanese horror movie when the Reverends were taking us through a maze of rooms and dark hallways. When you looked down the hallways, it felt like someone would be standing right across from you. However, I was rewarded with the sight of the temple garden. Oh, it was gorgeous. It was very green; hardly any flowers, but the little waterfall and the rocks and trees were just breathtaking. I could have spent hours just sitting there looking at it all. But of course, I couldn’t and before I knew it, we were back at hotels again before heading off to Okinawa. That’s when we went out to eat at this really amazing conveyor belt sushi restaurant with Kisa. To me, that just made the whole experience complete.
|A garden at the Honzan|
To add to that completeness, we visited Otani Junior and Senior High School. It was so different from American high schools. For example, when we took pictures for the students, they laughed and posed for us. They were screaming and so excited to be taking pictures with us as well. I’m sure it made everyone feel like a celebrity. Normally, in America, if you visited a high school and you took pictures of us, we’d look at you like,” What on earth are you doing?” Anyways, Maya, from Hawaii, taught us and the Japanese school kids how to Hula dance. We all loved it. It’s amazing how much we enjoyed ourselves.
Fast forwarding to Okinawa, the thing that I really wanted to mention and recognize was the Battle of Okinawa tour. It was just so distressing at times, like when we went to the caves, the memorial museum, and the mass grave site. We had gone into these caves that thousands of Japanese civilians had to cram into because of the bombing. It was absolutely pitch black, and the only light to guide us was the glare from our flashlights around our necks. Our tour guide had us take a moment and turn them off and just sit there in the dark, so we can experience the feeling that these people were overtaken with. He told us the story of a mother and her (I believe) 9 month old baby. It was how they were in the pitch black with civilians screaming and maggots munching on flesh and the mother could not take care of her baby. The baby was slowly dying because the mother was so undernourished that she couldn’t produce milk for her baby. She couldn’t even see her baby when it slowly kissed death’s lips. To try to even imagine how that must be like is unfathomable.
The memorial museum had the most impact on me. There was a replica of a medical cave inside the museum, which was where children within the ages of twelve to seventeen took care of injured, dying and dead soldiers and civilians. In front of that cave were these huge books, with the survivors’ stories of their experiences. As I read the pages, flipped through them with a heavy heart, I slowly came to realize that many of these children were the age of my little sister. And I kept thinking and thanking some higher power that this situation didn’t happen here. It’s so hard to imagine your little sister having to be in the middle of falling bombs and suicidal people. The blood and gore of this event, mixed with images of my baby sister literally knocked the breath out of me. Once that thought hit me, I couldn’t breathe. Tears were falling like waterfalls down my face as images from the reading kept making their way into my head. I remember wanting to go home so much at that point, just to be able to hug my little sister. I would like to believe that this tour had the most impact on my life. I’ve become more appreciative and just mature from it, I feel.
On a happier note, it was a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t think twice about reliving. It was dreadful saying goodbye to everyone, but all good things must come to an end. But I’m keeping in mind that our bond that we all made, in such a short time will last forever. Let’s just say, it’ll be the longest lasting “basket” in the world.
A Path to the Pure Land
By Sean Tetsuo-Wells Underwood
Arriving that first night in Kyoto not knowing a thing about Japanese customs except for the improper actions my grandparents would yell at me for as a child, I knew that night was only the beginning of an unforgettable adventure. Wanting to understand the very basic criterion of Buddhism was my original goal for this trip but I feel that as my time at the Honzan went on my intuitions changed. I feel that on this trip the Six Paramitas presented themselves as the core teachings of being in Japan. I had experienced Dana, Ksanti, Dhyana, and Prajna all first-hand but not in the way you would expect. These were not part of a lecture, or involved in the stratagem. I saw all of these through the kindness of not only the Japanese people, but also through the members of our tour group.
Dana is really the definition of the Japanese people. In Japan things are run in a completely opposite fashion from the United States. Anything from entering a store to simply walking past someone on the sidewalk, you are treated with respect and an unheard of level of kindness. A prime example of this is while sight-seeing in Kyoto I witnessed a shop owner and a boy angrily arguing with each other. What exactly the dispute was exactly I don’t know as it is I don’t speak Japanese, but from my assumption the boy could not pay for something he had broken, when a man came to the store owner and offered to pay for the boy. When I saw this I assumed it was the boys father but as soon as the damages were paid for the boy and man went in different directions. A complete stranger not knowing who the boy was or what he had done had used his own money to settle a dispute he had nothing to do with, pure Dana.
|Eating sushi in Kyoto|
Being a Hapa kid visiting Japan for the first time I knew only about three phrases in Japanese, so that was a concern that I had on my mind for a while. Thankfully as time went on I saw the true patience and humility of the Japanese people all around me. I tried my hardest to understand their English, as I tried to utter my equally bad Japanese. But being exposed to this dilemma every day for the entire trip, it taught me to have patience and only through patience that we can achieve our goal no matter how menial.
|With a colorful theatre group|
This adventure being a religious retreat meditation was an everyday aim. But being in Japan made meditation much clearer and more meaningful to me. Just having that sense that this is where Jodo-Shinshu was started, having that connection with the hundreds of people around you made meditating much easier. Although I am no longer in Japan or surrounded by those hundreds of other people, I plan on making meditation part of my daily routine, if it’s to help relieve stress from school or to concentrate before one of my games, I’ve learned that this is a tool that will help me not only travel the path to the Pure Land, but to help me mature as a person.
While in Okinawa we went on a tour about the Okinawa War. One of our fascinating stops was at a cave in which, our tour guide told us, there was a sad story of one family in that cave. This family was among one of the several hundred families taking refuge from the bombings on the island. Being bound to this cave for the fear of death or apprehension, the amount of food and water was exceptionally scarce. The mother of this family tried to feed her infant whatever she could attain in this barren cave. When her milk had run out and the cave could supply no more the expected had come, her child had died in her arms. Being in that horrid cave hearing this story gives you the worst feeling of suffering in the world. To imagine the agonizing time spent in there being swallowed by darkness and listening to the cries of the families around you can be described as hell in itself. Prajna means to see things as they are without the prejudices and perspectives that come from within, and our minute time spent in that cave was exactly that.
The time spent in Japan was an eye opener, I know that the lessons learned on this trip will stay with me for the rest of my life as they have impacted me in a way that I never knew was possible. I am grateful to the sangha for allowing me to go on this journey and in hoping to continue the meaning of these lessons I will try my hardest to spread these practices and values with the sangha. I am more than willing to give any who have questions more insight to our trip. I know that I am incredibly lucky to have experienced this amazing trip and hope to return one day.
The Face of War
By Matthew Ormseth
Our guide took us to a dripping staircase hewn into the jungle rock, descending deep underground into one of Okinawa’s many natural caves. We crawled through a narrow tunnel into pitch darknessthe flashlights dangling round our necks provided the only source of light. The cave was eerily silent, save for the trickle of a subterranean stream. The tunnel led to a cavern with a high ceiling, not unlike that of a cathedral. The floor was strewn with boulders, which we sat on as our guide began telling us a story. The story was that of a young family of three, forced down into the cave along with nearly 600 other native Okinawans by American bombing raids. Our guide asked us to turn off our flashlights before he began. The darkness was absolute, enveloping. It seemed to press down on my eyes and throat and ears, and I felt as if it alone would suffocate me. It was easy to imagine huddling here, deep underground, the ceilings shaking as bombs fell shrieking from the skies, the smell of fear rank in the cavern. Our guide told us that the 600 refugees were trapped in the cave for two weeks without any food. He told us how the mother of the young family tried desperately to keep her infant of 9 months alive by feeding him sugarcane juice once her milk ran out. He spoke through a translator, yet as he continued on, the hesitation and tremor in his voice was universal. Moments later, our translator told us what we already knew. The baby had starved to death in the darkness of the cave as the mother clutched her son’s failing body to her chest, helpless, desperately searching for a pulse that had ceased to be.
The memorial to the Battle of Okinawa was located on the bluffs where countless families chose death over capitulation, throwing themselves over the cliffs, down into the sea hundreds of feet below. Behind the bluffs were the black marble markers commemorating the roughly 200,000 casualties of the battleJapanese, American and Okinawan alike. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of these huge stone markers, looming like massive tombstones. It was the most terrible sight I had ever seen. Every stone bore hundreds of names on both faces, front and back. And the realization that every single etching belonged to a face, and that that face had belonged to a person, a real living, breathing person, was a terrible thing to comprehend. I tried to put the numbers in perspective, but I couldn’t even fathom what 200,000 people would look like. Two football stadiums, packed to capacity? Three?
In my 11th grade history class I had read about the battle; how the Japanese forces had fought tooth and nail, and that the fighting had been so ferocious the battle of Okinawa has been accredited by modern historians with swaying approval for dropping the atomic bomb. I knew that 200,000 lives had been lost in the fighting, and that over half of them had been civilian casualties. Yet somewhere in between this little island in the Pacific and my textbook, the horror of those three months had been lost. It had been lost in the faceless statistics, the cold numbers that meant and told nothing.
I could stand here and tell you all that our trip was “amazing;” that it was an “unforgettable experience,” or that it was “great.” But the truth is that these tired adjectives would not do it justice. It left me feeling refreshed and invigorated, as if I had just emerged from one of those communal bathhouses Sean and I had so initially dreaded. And while our visits to the battle sites on the island of Okinawa were sobering and at times nearly unbearable to comprehend, I can say in all certainty that those images will remain with me for the rest of my life, a reminder of the stark, unromaticized face of warthe only face of warand its terrible cost on humankind.
|The four teens and their advisors Rev. Ryoko Osa (at far left) and Rev. Nori Ito (2nd from right) relax in a karaoke restaurant|
Living in the Present Moment
“America jin desu,” the Japanese translation of “I’m from America” became my catchphrase during my stay in Japan back in July. It was my excuse to make mistakes, or the mask I used to hide my embarrassment whenever I obviously didn’t know what I was doing. But the more I opened my eyes to the Japanese culture and to Buddha’s teachings, the more my dependence on an “excuse” became unnecessary. I have always struggled with overcoming my biggest fear, disappointing those around me. But the hospitality and kindness from the Japanese allowed me to open up, relax my mind, and not allow my fear of disappointment hold me back from new adventures.
My first lesson to fit in with the Japanese was to walk fast. Our group from West Covina got some practice when we spent hours chasing our speedy Senseis around LAX; it was as if Reverend Ito and Reverend Bansaka were preparing us for the real challenge awaiting us in Japan. Kyoto and Okinawa thought it could slow us down with its waves of sticky hot air, but we somehow managed to keep a decent pace with the locals. Once we passed that first cultural roadblock, everything else just became another exciting challenge. Performing our daily chores, trying to get by on level-one Japanese, taking public baths, and going to the bathroom in what looked like a hole in the ground were some of the challenges I’m oddly most proud to talk about. At the Honzan, we would prepare for meals as a Sangha, eat as a Sangha, and clean as a Sangha. The fascinating aspect of this was that everyone just followed these steps instinctively. People automatically tried to help one another, in almost every scenario, and I never once heard anyone complain about all the chores we had to do. If anything, we saw events like our little polishing party and dusting races as play time. And when one of our American habits would show, like repeatedly being too loud at the dinner table, someone would kindly ask us to settle down. But in America, I feel we’re more forceful and aggressive whenever we’re bothered, so I was more than happy to return my respect back to the Japanese.
My next huge culture shock was the public baths. All that ran through my mind at the time was “People are going to be looking at me! I’m from America, they’ll understand if I avoid it.” Well I must have looked ridiculous trying to stretch that tiny excuse for a towel across my entire body, but after watching how casual it was for the locals it clicked in my head that there was nothing to be afraid of. Nobody was going to judge me, so surprisingly, nothing was awkward. I lost all sense of embarrassment, and I just went along with my bath not thinking of anything other than how relaxed I was. Who knew I could feel so refreshed in a place that I was dreading just moments before. I saw that experience as my first real break-through in realizing that fear would hold me back in life, but there was much more to come.
|The youth group and their advisors and guides pose on a scenic Okinawan beach|
The fear that haunted me on the way to Okinawa wasn’t the mutant spiders, but it was leaving the group to spend a day with my family. Both my grandparents’ relatives live in a fishing village on the South end of the island, and they were all practically strangers to me. Thoughts of badly representing myself and my family back home were starting to consume me as we got closer to the airport. Then before I knew it I was hugging my Aunt Fujiko. Thankfully we both knew enough of the other person’s language to carry on a conversation, but I had no clue what to expect from the rest of the family. Then I arrived at a house filled with people who I trusted were my family, and I was treated like a princess. It never occurred to me that I have connections across the Pacific Ocean that would take care of me even though I’m basically a stranger to them. It’s not easy to sit in the middle of a room where you feel like everyone sees you as an outsider. But my family welcomed me with open arms, and their smiles and immense amounts of hospitality were able to immediately make me feel comfortable. After meeting the family I was taken shopping, sightseeing, boating, and then we ended the day with a festival brightened up by the biggest fireworks I had ever seen. With every burst of color that hit the sky, I stopped and just began to reflect on my trip so far. I began to think that when my cousins grow up I can give them a place to stay in America, and it just makes me happy that from one brief visit we’ve been completely reconnected. Even if it may be scary, I can always rely on my family to welcome me without any hesitations. Then looking even broader, I now have connections with the relationships I made on this trip in general. All of those who took care of us at the temple will always be welcoming to us, and the members in our tour group will remain great long term friends. We have made a family out of our tour group. Despite the fact we may go years at a time without speaking to each other, I know that family connection will always be there, just as my family connection in Okinawa stayed strong after all these years.
|Taylor's “great big loving family!”|
I can stuff my suitcase with as many souvenirs and pictures as possible to remind myself of this experience, but the personal growth and my replenished way of living my life is my favorite thing that I brought back to America. Now I don’t need an excuse; I don’t let fear get in the way from always living in the present moment. I’ve noticed myself become a stronger, more genuine and considerate person after this journey, so in times of stress or sadness I know that I can always refer to memories and what I’ve learned from them to push me forward. And no matter what I encounter throughout the rest of my life, I will be living for happiness in myself and for those around me.