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Living in Japan

2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — Runner-Up Winner

Hut of the Wanderer

The rain in Kyoto is lightly falling, troubling the thin Kamo river and wrinkling the goldfish pond into circles at the Garden of the Imperial Palace. Outside city center, however, it is only a mist, its presence not seen any more so much as sensed by the beads always forming on your hair, your exposed neck, the knuckles of your hands. It is as if the rainy season understands its role in the cultural aesthetic here: these are the soft gray washes one sees in calligraphy paintings, weather designed for temples and shrines, of which Kyoto boasts literally hundreds. There is everything here from the imposing, block-long Buddhist prayer hall fronting the train station where we arrived after lading at Narita International to the modest, ATM-sized altar I discovered one night behind an eel market, at which you could petition the Shinto gods for painless childbirth.

It is our third week in Japan. At my wife’s suggestion we have opted to spend our last days at a ryokan, a traditional inn, choosing to brave the language and cultural barriers rather than disappear inside another western-style hotel. In the Three Sisters Annex we sit cross-legged on tatami for meals: fist-sized wooden bowls of miso, seaweed in dried strips like exquisite paper, boxes you twist or untie or unhinge to reveal their culinary secrets. Each morning these are different. There is fish meat nestled in its pin-like bones, cubes of cold tofu, octopus legs. To our amazement the ryokan owner speaks passable English. She has relatives living in California: do I know Berkeley?

When after twenty minutes of simple conversation I happen to express my love of Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Zen monk and haiku poet, she rises and invites me into her office, a surprising breach of etiquette. There is something she wants to share: adjusting the small lamp she begins drawing on the back of a train schedule with a felt-tip marker whose end is running dry.

Here. Tell the driver Shisen-Do. Walk from there. Basho’s hut.

I cannot believe my fortune. Basho, the mendicant diarist, a man who spent much of his life searching for good places from which to watch the moon rise, is not generally associated with Kyoto. Though born near there, in his early twenties he moved to Edo, what we now call Tokyo, famously dwelling in a small hut outside the city. When wanderlust moved his soul he went more or less randomly about, as he describes in his Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, relying on temples, other poets, and nature itself to give him lodging. Later he went quite intentionally into unexplored country, as he tells in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I had known before flying to Japan that one might find evidence of him in Tokyo, but decided in the end to avoid that city altogether as hopelessly urban. Even Kyoto itself is flooded with concrete, the one-time capital a strange melee of Shogun-era castles flanked by gambling pachinas and sushi counters. Surrounding it all, though, untouched, sit the pine forest hills out of which the earliest Zen masters came, bearing the dharma.

And Basho, who returned rarely to the region of his birth, had evidently stayed in those hills.

I listen intently to our hostess’ description of the place. If I understand her correctly, she seems to be telling me that not many people know it is there; even the locals rarely visit. Probably the taxi driver won’t recognize the name, so I will need to visit Shisen-Do--the “poet’s garden”--and then follow her instructions on foot.

Shisen-Do is a delight in itself. Constructed by a samurai returned from the wars, its central building honors the great poets of Japan and China’s past. There is one room--frightfully low-ceilinged, so that a knot of women titters happily at my American difficulty-- whose four walls display a series of excellent portraits, each about the size of a dinner plate. In vain I search the faces for those poets whose work, even in translation, has meant much to me: Shiki, Issa, the radical Ikkyu. But the paintings are without legends. Like Whitman and Dickinson, these faces were so well known to their countrymen no inscriptions were required.

In the back room my wife and I sit before a meticulously kept rock garden. Meditating in Japan can be, for a Westerner, a disorienting experience: I find myself feeling like a liar, critical of those around me, as if they were posers for whom Buddhism is merely a fashion. But the tradition is indigenous here, the expression of centuries of practice. And the calming effects are legitimate. Every few minutes one hears the tok-tok of a home-made device that keeps away deer. It is made of a rope hinge and two bamboo sticks, one of which fills slowly at a waterfall and, when overfull, tips downward to clack off the resonator. I am amazed at the lack of toxicity in this design, and more so at the quietude of the crowd. They come from around town to sit with the poets, doing zazen or, more often, simply watching this motionless garden as if it were alive. Which, when I observe closely enough, it is.

As we begin our difficult walk through the back streets the mist that had all but dissipated grows thicker once more. In the distance we can see the city, its one concrete spire breaking the skyline like a strange exclamation. Several trips around houses with their individualized rice paddies set into tiny, circumscribed yards bring us back to where we began; we are lost and, without any useful Japanese, unable to navigate. The map, water-stained now like tears, is ambiguous. Eventually we make for the only open building.

This temple is vermilion because it is Shin, one of the most popular sects of Buddhism. I have been told since landing that Shin himself is like Jesus. You pray to him for what you want, and he guides you to the Pure Land. Zen, by comparison, does not have any leaders. You find it yourself.

The monk who comes to the door has an eloquent face, dark almost to brownness, made gentle by wrinkles. He is dressed in a saffron robe and removes carefully his sandals before making his way along the altar’s edge where a small fire burns. Overhead hangs the pan-shaped gong one sees in Shinto as well as Buddhist structures, struck to waken the slumbering gods before prayer.

Basho, I say, wondering for the first whether the pronunciation in Japan differs widely from our own. Japanese stresses none of its syllables; it is a distinction that makes

the simplest of words profoundly unclear when you read them out of language guides. Suddenly I realize I have the same problem two Asian men had once when they stopped me in Washington D.C., asking for directions to the Why House.

Basho, I try again, and the name itself falls short of my intention. I want to say so many things to this man, with the soft devotion of his spiritual life, anachronistic in his own country and almost mythical in mine. I want to express to him how much Basho means to me, how his haiku saw me through the painful end of one relationship and, later, a hospital visit in which I was only able to calm my hurt body with the stillness of his visions:

winter:
on a bare branch
the seated crow

One does not read Basho’s poems so much as enter them, reside with them, without obligation. Precise in their construction, meticulous in their order, they have in the end the light of unfiltered experiences one remembers having as a child.

the sound of an acorn
rolling down the shingled roof
cool tonight

The monk looks over our dripping map and, smiling a bit, points the way with his open hands. On the far side of the dark pines we climb another hill, are high enough now to see large sections of Kyoto outlined in cloud At the top of the slope, following turns through the rocks, we find it: a small building, a walkway outlined in stones. In the garden a Japanese woman is painting a water color; next to her a young man sits, doing nothing.

This is not the hut, we eventually understand. We must climb higher for that, up a pebbly path, grasping some branches for support. And it is here--the size only of a large tool shed, a single, wholly unprepossessing  room under a thickly thatched roof. Through its only window one finds a view of the hillside seen through straightly rising trunks.

Basho, the wanderer,  slept here for a single night. Years later a second haiku master, Buson, rebuilt the sagging frame in honor of the master and himself remained in it for the rest of his life. His was the hand that carved Basho’s poems into the knee-high rock I find, black and smooth. In a secluded area, sheltered by the pines, is the well from which both men drank. I sink my hand into its freezing surface and, having been raised Catholic, instinctively dab my forehead.

The place is sacred, but unremarkable. There is no luminous change upon our arrival, only the delicious knowledge of whose quarters one is stepping around. Up a small rise, weaving through the trees, my wife finds a row of some dozen shapes standing in pine-needled earth. They are graves, Buson’s among them, followed by the members of his school. Buson, whose brief paean to morality contains all the pathos of a sonnet:

that enduring chill I feel--
under my foot
my dead wife’s comb

As we descend I thank the girl at the counter for I know not what. She smiles but makes no eye contact; perhaps the tall Americans are unusual to her. On an impulse we purchase a watercolor of the hut in winter. But I know the experience is not in the objects, not in the keeping. I think of the Buddhist monks I saw once in Bloomington, Indiana, painstakingly constructing a mandala out of sand. They labored for a week, almost obsessively applying the most delicate strands of color, only to sweep the whole thing up as irrelevant when the work was concluded.

not knowing
how soon it will be gone:
singing cricket

At the final turn I look back. The painter has gone inside. The young man who was next to her is still seated, doing nothing, exquisitely.

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