Jan 29, 2008

Naritasan by Night

For the past few weeks, my morning commute has been full of old people. My hopes of getting a seat have been pretty much nonexistent, so I've been standing, a head and a half taller, on the train. Like so many others here, one of my hands is gripping a hanging support ring, and the other propping open a book.

Normally, I have a fairly easy commute- forty minutes, no transfers, and against traffic, which means I can sit and read for all of it. Luxurious by Kanto standards. Lately, though, I've had a bit of my luxury chipped away by the geriatric swarm that gets on in Tokyo and Chiba, and then gets off at the same stop as me- Narita. While others use commuter passes and cards, they clutch single-use tickets. Many of them take a few moments with the ticket machine at the gates, a motion that for others hardly interrupts a stride.

It's January, and New Year's festivities and prayers are still going on at one of Japan's largest Buddhist temples- Naritasan. My classroom is on a sixth floor, and from my window I'm fortunate enough to see two things. One is the multi-storied pagoda in the back of the temple complex, and the vast green roof of the main hall. They jut out of a sea of buildings and trees, and I have, very possibly, the best view of any eikaiwa teacher.

The other thing that I can see clearly is the winding street that leads up to the temple. The street itself is primarily for pedestrians, and lined with all manner of touristy shops and restaurants. You can buy anything that typically "Japanese" on that street- fake katana, minature Buddha statues, cheap kimono, etc. It edges toward kitsch, though it's not as extreme as Asakusa.

Recently, this winding, kitsch-lined street has been crowded with the same flock of seniors that ride the train with me. I can see them, the back of their heads making a gray winding sea, ready to clap, ring a bell, and throw five yen to the temple while praying for the new year. It's rained a few times, and that doesn't deter them- they gray winding sea was replaced by an expanse of umbrellas, their wet movement shielding the aged devoted.

Until two nights ago, I myself had not made it to Naritasan. I wanted to go, but I had little desire brave the crush of the crowds, and I've also been out in Tokyo and Chiba on the weekends. But the night before last I happened to be in Narita and, on a whim, I decided to walk to the temple. I had no good reason for this- it was something to do. At first, I thought I'd only walk to the gate, simply to see how far it was from my apartment.

The answer is, not that far at all. A bit over 800 meters, according to a helpful tourist sign.

I had assumed that the whole thing would be locked for the night, and that I'd be greeted by a sliding metal gate. Such a thing was conspicuously absent. The huge wooden gate was wide open. The wood, for the most part was a fresh looking brown-yellow, with various parts of it accented in gold. Not a bit looked worn, and I wondered if it had been touched up for the new year. Beyond the main gate, a courtyard, several statues, and a staircase were apparent. I looked around for security cameras, didn't see any, and decided that if I got caught trespassing I could just pass myself off as a foreigner who didn't know any better.

It was a real concern for me- back in Okayama some friends and I tripped a motion-activated alarm while exploring a shrine at night. We ended up sprinting away from the alarm and lights before anyone found us, but I didn't want to repeat the experience. It was exhilarating, but once was enough.

I walked through the gate, and was utterly alone. No old people, no umbrellas. Inside the gate was a stone avenue lined with statues and rocky monuments. I looked at them, looked for "keep out" signs, looked at the empty visitor information counters. Imagining the array of workers that would be behind them during the day, I looked into an open counter: chairs, boxes, and pamphlets. I imagined that the boxes were filled with even more pamphlets. Every historical place in Japan has a pamphlet to go with it. I've gotten so many, that I've stopped trying to save them.

The first flight of stone stairs took me to a pool in the side of the hill with a metal and stone bridge arched over it. The pool had a pair of fountains, one on either side of the bridge, each jutting water into the air. Around me the massive steps, the huge gate, the jagged rocks of the hillside, and several stone statues. The tiny drops sounded strange when compared to the huge visuals.

It seemed ironic to me that I would have probably walked past the statues and rocks had I been there in the day. During the day, when I could see them clearly, I would have shuffled along with the crowd, taken a nicely illuminated look at the statues, and walked upwards. But the half light forced me to look at the gods, pick out their shapes and forms. I felt something curious- the figures were fearsome. Even a little frightening. They were the same sort of roiling dragons, glaring dogs and lions, and open-mouthed foxes that I'd seen several times before, but now it was as if I was seeing them on their own terms. Whatever artist had initially carved an angry-eyed storm god probably didn't think of his work as something that would be bathed in sunlight and accompanied by a pamphlet- he probably thought of it as a figure of reverence and power, framed by shadows and night.

The context in which we consume art is definitely important. Galleries and museums serve not only as holding places for art and artifacts, but also as generators of atmosphere. I remember going to the Portland Art Museum, in high school, to see the Imperial Tombs of China exhibit. The place had been done up in red banners with Chinese characters festooned on everything. The inside of the place was dimly lit and supulchral, and what I Chinese-like music played on the headset. Had I seen the jade burial suits and ancient swords simply placed before me on a wooden table, they would have been interesting. But, in the created context of the museum and gallery, those things became even more ancient and inspiring in my fifteen-year-old mind.

The shadows and silence, I thought, was the appropriate gallery for the stone figures. It was not some created context that served them best, but genuine night and solitude that elevated them to fearsomeness. I continued upwards, to the main part of the temple, where I finally saw a security guard.

I decided to not do anything, and, if approach, simply comment on how pretty everything was. The security guard looked at me, grunted, made his way to a public restroom. Either it was okay to be there, or the guard didn't care about kicking me out. Either way, I was fine. I walked around the upper part of the temple for some time, seeking out the smaller buildings and out of the way statues. I found the pagoda that I can see from my classroom, as well as another that was bedecked with several gold dragon heads. They would have been gaudy by day. They were resplendent in the half-light.

I went into the main part of the temple that housed the Buddhist artifact around which Naritasan was built. The main part of the sanctuary was walled off with glass, and it was too dark to see inside- I could only glimpse the various gold implements- braziers, gongs, screens -that accompany the Buddhist services at the temple. The grunting security guard came back. He nodded to me, and grunted again. I stood there for a while, turned around, made my way down the steps, was passed by a huffing jogger making his way upward, and made my way home.

I have little desire to see the place during the day. I feel like Nartiasan is a night place for me now, the kind of place that one associates with atmosphere and solitude that would lose something if you saw it during the day. Setsubun, another Japanese holiday, is coming up soon, and I know that the aged devout will be making there way there. I'll watch them from my classroom.

The next morning I mentioned my trip to my American coworker who mentioned that the place is, indeed, open twenty four hours a day. "Yeah," he said, "it's really cool at night."

Indeed it is.

Jan 22, 2008

From a Morning Walk in Narita

Two bits from my walk this morning before work-

The guy was skinny, white, and wearing an awful sweater. It was the sort that had a giant snowflake-like pattern on it, and I could tell that from his walk that he was going to approach me.

"Hello," he said. His accent was Irish.


"Have you been here long? On holiday?" He asked.

"I live here."

"Oh," he replied, "even better."

"Do you need some help?" I asked. "Lost?"

"No, I have this magazine..." He reached into his bag, and my first thought was that is must be some trade or networking mag aimed at gaijin. There are all kinds of resources for foreigners networking in Japan, particularly in Kanto. I wasn't opposed to looking at whatever gaijin 'zine he might have had.

But, it wasn't a gaijin 'zine. It was The Watchtower. I've seen Jehovah's Witnesses once before here in Narita, where they actually came to the door of my school. They left a few Watchtowers for the lobby which the manager rather naively left on display, as they were in English. I remember being a bit uncomfortable having them in my workspace, but they eventually vanished.

I told this particular Witness that I wasn't interested. He gestured to the cover of the particular Watchtower he was holding, which asked "Is There Hope For the World?" and asked me what I thought. I said that yes, there was hope for the world. He asked how it was possible for there to be hope for the world when so many people didn't believe in the Bible. I said didn't have any good world peace solutions on hand (which was true) and that I had to be going (which was also true).

Walking a bit further, I saw two guys doing sanitation work on a public toilet. They were decked out in all kinds of safety gear, most of it looking rather redundant. From behind his goggles and gas mask, one of the workers surprised me by gesturing and saying "hello!" in English.

"Konichiwa," I replied.

The other worker, though, raised a mass of wire and pipes above his head and sang out, yes, sang


He wasn't wearing a gas mask or goggles, and if it weren't for his huge smile and the juxtaposition of his singing and sanitation gear, I would have found him a bit obnoxious. Instead, I was sort of pleased this random Japanese sanitation worker was singing good morning to me. I laughed, and was on my way.

Such are the joys of being obviously foreign.

Jan 9, 2008


When I returned to Japan last week, one of my Japanese coworkers said "Welcome home!" to me as I walked into work. She meant well, and was sincerely glad to see me, but nevertheless, it felt somewhat wrong. I'd just been home, my real home, and was wishing I was still there even as I got off the plane.

I'd briefly been back to the States in the summer, but that was only for a few days. I saw people for maybe an hour each at the most, didn't have much time to take anything in, and was soon back in Japan. This time, though, I was stateside for over two weeks, ample enough time to fool myself into thinking that I still lived there.

It was good, and also disorienting. Two weeks back brought to light how much Japan has changed me, if anything because I felt like I had a bowling ball in my gut from suddenly eating so much heavy American Christmas food. My innards, which have become used to rice and fish, were suddenly lugging around cheese, turkey, and meat, a gastronomic signal that I was somewhere else. Make no mistake, though- I loved every cheesy hors d'ouvres that I scarfed down there.

It was also bit odd to use English so much in the outside world. I use English all the time here- I teach it, I speak it with my coworkers and girlfriend, and I read English material all of the time. But the outside world is obviously different. It's as if there's a sort of barrier between my English world and Japanese world. I spend lots of time on little islands of English-ness that are surrounded by Japanese. The Japanese world is something that needs to be solved and negotiated, a place where I need to be conscious, listen, think, etc. This is not a bad thing at all- the heightened sense of awareness and such that I have being surrounded by a foreign language and culture is an incredible sensation.

So, it was strange to not have that sensation about me anymore. In the States, everything was suddenly familiar, banal, and comforting all at once. I'd stopped being conscious of always being in "Japan-mode." I'd gotten so accustomed to having to puzzle out what signs mean, make do with approximate meanings, and generally guess as to what was going on, that I had forgotten, a bit, the precision and sharpness that a native language can offer.

Everything was sharp and navigable- absurd as it may sound, "hello" is still more readily understandable to me than "konichiwa." This is wholly irrational, as "konichiwa" was one of the few Japanese words I knew before I got here, and it's a simple word that I use every single day. I even say it to my American coworker, just to be eccentric. And yet, to hear a clear, native speaker "hello," from strangers, one with rising and falling intonation, one with a perfectly shaped "l" sound, was jarringly wonderful.

What's more, much of the English that I use on a day to day basis is for the benefit of people who have a fairly low level when it comes to speaking. When I meet someone new, I have to feel out over the course of the first few minutes of the meeting how good their English is, and even with the most advanced speakers I can't whip out the advanced stuff. Even my most advanced students would have no idea what I meant if I said "Orwellian," "snobbish," or "verbose," for example. Knowing that I could say those things to someone I just met was a liberating feeling.

But of course, the best part of my trip back was seeing my family and friends. With my friends in particular, I was impressed that I'd been gone for a year and that hanging out was remarkably normal. I'd been gone, we'd been out of contact, and that didn't matter- I was at home among awesome people whom I know will still be there when I come back at some future point. The knowledge that I have such wonderful friendships back home put my mind at ease far more than being able to use my native language. You guys rock, I love you all, and I miss you.

Now, I'm back in Kanto, here for another year, and I'm wondering what I'll learn.