Encounter with Japan Part 1

"Are you insane?” "Have you lost your mind?" "Are you not afraid?" "Don't you realize this is the worse time to go there?" This is just a sampling of the polite examples of reactions and comments my plans for a trip to Japan had triggered. And yet, based on my own life’s journey, I understood early on that, sometimes the worse time could be the best, the most raw, sincere, revealing and insightful.

"Are you insane?” "Have you lost your mind?" "Are you not afraid?" "Don't you realize this is the worse time to go there?" This is just a sampling of the polite examples of reactions and comments my plans for a trip to Japan had triggered. And yet, based on my own life’s journey, I understood early on that, sometimes the worse time could be the best, the most raw, sincere, revealing and insightful.

As a father, I have always taught my daughters “you can not live in fear”, oh yes, and also “don’t let boys push you around”. Anyway, fear can be restrictive, even paralyzing. After 9/11 happened, I was asked to fly to Asia. Always eager and to travel and explore, I was thrilled to accept. My daughters panicked. "Please don't go", "what if something happens to you", "we love you". I never doubt their love for me. But how can I live in fear. What kind of an example would I be setting for them if I let it paralyze me by sacrificing my own aspirations in life? After all, we live once, at least in my belief. I do realize there are those who differ with these beliefs. An that is just fine, in fact it is great! How boring our humanity would be if we all thought, believed, acted and reacted in the same manner? Imagine that.

Thus, this time around too, following my beliefs, I accepted an exciting invitation to join Japan’s renowned Kyoto University as a visiting professor. And off I flew.

Tired from a long flight, landing in a time zone that extended this one particular day into two, without a night in between, I proceeded to a currency exchange,

After filling all sorts of forms, and providing numerous identifications, Japanese people are very meticulous, I exchange $300 into yen, mind you, at a rate that puts value of a dollar to shame. Having put cash in an envelope, I turned to pick up my 50 lb. suitcase, to walk away accompanied by an extremely patient polite, smiling, smartly dressed, wearing mandatory white glove, shuttle driver. But as my brain forced itself to perform an extreme effort to catch up with my tired body, I abruptly realized that I had left behind my envelope filled with the precious yens!

I run back to the moneychanger, accompanied by my shuttle driver. They were shocked to hear what happened and perplexed that the envelope is not there on the counter, awaiting my return. Japanese society is very law abiding. Advised to file a report, I went to an airport police booth, still accompanied by my drive, still smiling, trying to assure me that Japanese people do not steal, maybe that was a foreigner, he deducted. It took two officers two hours to file an extensive report. As I said, they are very meticulous. I could not had done it all without “my” driver acting as a translator. Having completed this painful process, feeling even more wiped out, somewhat demoralized by this first encounter with Japan, I returned to the moneychanger to get some more yens. From there we proceeded to the van.

Two hours later we arrived at the hotel. Expressing my gratitude to the driver, still smiling, bowing and polite, I approached the reception desk. It took a while to fill all the papers but I finally entered my room, drugging behind me the gargantuan suitcase. At least something was small, my room. Oh yes, before I forget, a few words about the toilet seat. After the first use, it felt as though it had more brain than I, at least at this point in time. It could do anything. I did not push all these buttons, but I would not had been surprised if it could make your dreams come true too, at least those of a certain kind. Anyway, prior to my brains turning too rectal let me move on. Showered, clean, I collapsed for a well-deserved sleep.

Departing for this distant land I had a somewhat limited perception of the country. Much of it was shaped by some of the most amazing and beautifully made films I have ever watched. This contrasted by stories I heard from those who survived the second war and have carried anger against the stand Japan took back then, also for its attack on Pearl Harbor and the cruel mistreatment of its war prisoners. These mental images were fortified by stories I heard during my trips to Korea, a country which, having experienced Japanese invasions, had many tails of anger and mistreatments. Otherwise, as far as a physical experience with the modern Japan comes, the closest contact I had, till now, was as a frequent stopover on the way to or from Singapore to the US, without ever leaving the airport grounds.

So, you may ask, what does all this have to do with topics AWN is dedicated to? Japan is the very birthplace of both Anime as well as Manga. Both of them are reflective of and project who Japanese people are, their personality, what their culture and society is like and their historic and political experience. Hence, it is valuable to have certain insight into this background and character of the people.

Japan, is also the land of thousands of Temples, Shrines, the mysterious Geisha and a purest in simplicity yet amazing in beauty and unique in character art and design. The latter is infused into everything. I mean everything, from their interior design, fashion and kimonos, through cuisine and food arrangements, sweets and candies and artfully crafted and ornate chopsticks, down to the everyday toothpicks. All of them project sophisticated taste, thought, pride in craftsmanship and concern for an esthetic impact these items shall make on their eventual user.

It is my belief that everything we do, however monumental or insignificant it may be, reflects back on us, on our personality, sensitivity, who we are. Such qualities are shaped by our history. It, in turn is impacted by how and where we grew ups, our parents, heritage, social, cultural, economic and political backdrop of our life and circumstances which shaped this backdrop. The same applies to Japan, and their uniquely own Anime and Manga, both reflecting the backdrop of their origin.

Sharing my impressions and reflections, requires that I refine my thoughts, prior to sharing them with you. My secret hope is that these musings stir your thinking and motivate your responses, whether pro or contra. Either way, thus a dialogue is sparked, it motivating further reflections on the part of those involved, including me of course. Ideally, this ends up being mutually thought inciting and enriching. So, having clarified the why, back to my reflections on my encounter with Japan.

Over the next 10 days I explored downtown of Kyoto. It is not a metropolis, but it is proud of its history. For an extended time it used to be a capital of Japan. This is where the emperor had his palace, from where he governed the country. This palace is still there, surrounded by a beautiful garden. Japanese people, of any strata, love and are extremely proud of their gardens. Each of their temples and shrines, and there are well over 1.000 of them in Kyoto along, has a garden. These are places of surprising peace, quite and tranquility. This I discovered within the first few days alone. Initial anxiety stirred by finding myself in a strange country and city where few people speak any English at all, I sought ways to unwind and to calm down. Being that I was invited here to absorb the culture, traditions, dynamics and character, I proceeded to explore temples and shrines.

Let me make this perfectly clear, I am an atheist. And yet, upon entering the first temple, I found myself stunned breathless, not so much due to its beauty, but serenity, harmony and tranquility that swept over me upon the first of encounters.

A curiosity appendix: many of these places of worship are owned by individual families taking care of them, for profit. Accordingly, some of these holly houses eagerly, and often creatively, find ways to profit by various sorts of means, taking advantage of human weaknesses and insecurities. So what’s new? Not so unlike elsewhere, religion can be a big business, one that does not get calls for refunds.

Back to the topic, such a startling tranquility relates to Buddhism, it propagating belief in harmony with everything around us. In other words, instead of controlling our world, we ought to see ourselves as an equal, and not superior, element of it. This is beautifully, and simply, illustrated through design projecting purity of form and amazing synergy with all and everything within a given special environment. Hence, an example, from gardens assimilated into all of the places of worships. In them, live sand gardens within which grains are meticulously choreographed to project this sense of embracement, respect and peaceful coexistence with all.  Similar philosophy is also projected through moss and shrubbery arrangements.

Yet, even more so, it is the sand structures, or sculptures that make the biggest, stunningly breathtaking impact. It is hard to imagine what it took to realize them.

So, what does it take to create and maintain such fragile, refined arrangements?

It takes saintly patience, phenomenal precision, craftsmanship, passion for detail, plus an intense respect for the spiritual mission of these creations, a true belief.

Oh yes, let’s not forget the vital importance of tiny tweezers and cuticle scissors.

As I said, Japanese are true perfectionists, in all they do. Thus, when it comes to political correctness, over the centuries, and at times in elected isolation from the external world, they turned it into an art form, a second nature, but at what cost?

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