Japan Part 13: Getting My Zen On

This morning’s breakfast was at just about the same time as yesterday’s, and we made sure to serve up some more of Tetsu’s mostly successful pudding. Host mama also made sure to use the jam I had given her as a gift on the toast this morning, which I appreciated.

As I was packing my suitcase to prepare to leave my homestay (and travel to another one), Tetsu popped in to say goodbye. He had to go to work, but he made sure to give me a firm handshake before saying goodbye. Shortly after that, Asuka also had to leave for school, so I waved goodbye to her as well. After that, it was only me, host mama, and Ayane.

As it turned out, an ouchie that Ayane got yesterday in volleyball practice had stuck around, so she was not going to school immediately. Host mama was going to take her to the doctor after she’d dropped me off back at the tourist bureau with my friends. Ayane got her injury cleaned up and rebandaged, then called me over to join her on her little electric keyboard in the corner.

I had mentioned to host mama the day before that I’d been playing piano for around 15 years; naturally, Ayane (who had become enamored with me since she’d learned I could play shogi) was totally excited about this. Host mama had explained to Ayane that I play piano by hearing the music and then playing it rather than by reading music. So, Ayane sat me down at the piano and then turned it on, hitting a couple buttons to make it automatically play “Sanpo,” a popular song from My Neighbor Totoro. I had never even attempted to play that song before, but I was able to play it back after hearing it. She watched me with a huge smile on her face. When I was done playing, she ran out to the porch to find her mom, shouting “すごい!すごい![sugoi, literally ‘That’s amazing!’].”

After mama came in to listen, I played all sorts of music for them – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, and even some music from Miyazaki’s films. They loved it! Unfortunately, it was getting late, and we had to be to the tourist center. Host mama thanked me for playing piano with Ayane and for staying with them, and I thanked her back.

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Once we arrived at the bureau, I said goodbye one last time to both Ayane and host mama, then joined my friends. We didn’t get to sit long, though – just long enough for Taylor to say that she’d gotten sick again.

I thought we were over this. Cue wave of guilt for me suggesting that she come on the trip.

Thankfully, she was not nearly as sick as she was when we first came over, and she said that she’d probably be better in a day or so. Second homestay successfully wrapped up, I was more than happy to have a day out in Hikone to just relax before my next homestay, which was to start that same day. We got onto a bus to take us to JCMU, better known as the Japan Center for Michigan Universities. Since I will be attending JCMU in 2014, I was happy to see the campus for the first time. It was small but very beautiful and right on the shores of Lake Biwa. I can’t wait to study there! It’s the big building with the green roof.

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After JCMU, we went to a large temple in a forested area. If you want to be the best, learn from the best, right? A master monk at the temple agreed to teach us zazen, a form of more alert and less trancey meditation. Unfortunately, I was once again surrounded by half of the group that could care less. Their raised voices in the temple compound were the last thing I needed.

At this point, I’d about had it with them. I turned and snarled, “Guys, we’re in a temple! SHUT UP.”

The kindly monk, who was of course bald and dressed in traditional garb, welcomed us into his temple. He explained how zazen works and made sure to let us know that, beginners or not, we would be treated just as all other zazen meditators are. Dozing, slouching, or generally just not caring are unacceptable during meditation. Punishment for these things does exist.

Let’s just say there’s a reason he walks softly and carries a very big stick.

We sat on small circular cushions, our hands in the traditional zen position.

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The smell of incense wafted around us as the monk paced through the temple compound with his incense bowl. The only sight we saw of him during the meditation was of his imposing shadow bearing his incense rhythmically taking steps as the sun skewed his image across the wooden walls. I concentrated for the first half of the meditation on a lizard that the monk had awoken when he slid open a paper window. One or two of my peers were bored. Seriously? It was only 20 minutes. Can you not dedicate yourself to a worthwhile attempt of something for 20 stinking minutes?

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After we’d finished the meditation (which was actually much nicer than I’d imagined), the master monk invited us to share tea with him.

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He explained that  the process for becoming a monk begins at age 10, and he is now around 40. That’s a long time dedicated to something. And my peers couldn’t manage meditation for 20 minutes.

After that, it was a tour around the University of Shiga Prefecture, where we attended a lecture about samurai – just my cup of tea. When the professor asked if anyone knew the answer to his question, I mumbled “Saigo Takamori” under my breath. Turns out I had the right answer, but no one believed me. Later, when I was working with some Japanese students, I told them that the samurai period technically ended in 1868, and once again they didn’t believe me.

Why is it so hard to conceive of the fact that an American might know some Japanese history?

After the tour, we attempted to get on a local bus in order to back to the Hikone train station. The bus was entirely packed with people, so we decided to wait it out and catch the next one. Thankfully, that next one had no one in it, which was a good thing considering that we took up the entire bus with our luggage.

After that, it was the shinkansen to Nagoya and a short walk to meet our new host families.

Goodie.

I loved my last host family, but by this point, I was SO exhausted. As soon as I met my host mama, Mrs. Takahashi, I knew I was in for it. This woman was a 54-year-old ball of energy unlike anything I’ve ever seen. While I appreciated her energy, I was a little distracted watching Sarah make a fool of herself…again.

Her host family had found her and were screaming her name trying to get her attention. And she was just standing there, staring blankly ahead, with her headphones blasting in her ears.

You. Freaking. Idiot.

I’ve had enough of you.

I was surprised to see that my host mother booked us a taxi for the way back. Nice. Once we arrived in her rural neighborhood and I took a step into her house, I knew that this was going to be a homestay unlike any of my others – a homestay where the traditional home culture MATTERS.

Take your shoes off at the entrance to any room.

Don’t wear the bathroom slippers outside the bathroom.

The whole gig.

As I placed my suitcase in my room, my host mother cautioned me, “ペットがある。[petto ga aru; we have a pet.]”

Well good for you? I didn’t realize that she was warning me that she had a pet in the room. And I’d almost put my suitcase on him.

That was how I met my host family’s pet rabbit, Himapi. I watched him scurry in fright out of the room. I am a failure.

Slowly but surely, I did begin to earn his trust as I got the chance to relax on the sofa in front of the 64, yes, 64-INCH TV. My host father explained that “ひまちゃんは女のうさぎが大好きです。[Hima-chan ha onna no usagi ga daisuki desu; Himapi loves lady bunnies.]” Of course he does, my friend. Of course he does. Wink wink.

After I’d had sufficient bonding time with Himapi to undo any accidental trauma I’d inflicted by almost squishing him under my backpack, I was welcomed to the table for a dinner of sushi and soup with tempura.

Have I mentioned how much I love tempura?

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While we were eating, my host father explained that he used to be a police officer, but now he prefers more mundane hobbies like gardening since his job is not as difficult any more. He said that he was 62; the rest of the conversation (which had been and continued to be conducted in Japanese) went as follows:

“So I am 62, and my wife Miho is 56.”

Host mama’s face: O_O

“56?” she said. “56!? You think I’m 56!?”

“You’re not 56?”

“I’M 54!!!” *slap on the arm*

That was pretty epic dinner entertainment right there.

Shortly after that little (and lighthearted) spat, my host sister Mari came home from work and introduced herself. Although she was 25 years old, she looked to be about my age, and she was VERY loud but VERY nice.

Host mama made sure that Mari knew about the terrible mistake that host dad made just before she came home. Host dad made an exaggerated show of rubbing his arm, still sore from her slap.

We passed the rest of dinner with small conversation, and host mama asked if I’d be willing to show pictures of my trip so far after dinner, which I was more than happy to do. As dinner wrapped up, I had started to tell the lengthy story of everywhere that I’d been in Japan before coming to Nagoya. I did, however, stop to make a special note about Nara – an observation that I’d failed to even put in my journal because I’d entirely forgotten about it until right then.

With a big grin, I explained, “奈良で、鹿は私の友達ジョシュさんの電車の切符を食べました。[Nara de, shika ha watashi no tomodachi Josh-san no densha no kippu wo tabemashita; In Nara, a deer ate my friend Josh’s train ticket!]”

I can honestly say that I have NEVER heard a Japanese man laugh as loudly as my host father did then. The grin on his face was priceless [in fact, he was still chuckling about it the next day at dinner].

After that enjoyable conversation and a quick slideshow of all the places that I’d been, I agreed to get up at 7 the next morning for a shower and a special surprise, courtesy of my host sister, Mari.

Sounds good to me. All except for that shower part. I think I’ve had about 8 showers in the last 2 days.

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