Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Japanese Summer Vacation with Mom: Nara!

Finally, my last blog about my summer vacation with Mom! On Friday, August 6th (wow, was it really a whole month ago?), Mom and I went to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, celebrating their 1,300th anniversary! It`s really quite daunting to realize, "the emperor used to stand on this spot all those years ago! Great battles were fought here and love stories played out. And to think, in America you`re lucky to find some place more than four hundred years old!" (One hundred in Oklahoma.) Of course, most of the buildings aren`t really that old, since they`ve been burned down on numerous occasions in various accidents and sieges. But at least they`re perfectly restored.

I had scheduled us to meet the volunteer English guide at 10:15, but we were a little late, and there was no guide! I realized then that there are actually TWO Nara stations, one for JR (Japan Railway; the national company) and one for Kintetsu (a private railway company limited to the kansai area). I missed this simple fact for three reasons: I always take Kintetsu because that`s the only railroad in my town, company train stations are often connected into one large station, and the guide hadn`t specified that there were two. Well, when I called, it turned out that wasn't the problem. The guide had misunderstood and had the wrong day scheduled! They said he couldn't make it until noon. So Mom and I spent the time playing with the deer that randomly roam through the city. Here's Mom and me petting them:

And here`s a baby with it`s mama:

And the baby alone. Even little Japanese kids were pointing at it, saying, "Mama, Bambi!" It`s funny how Disney has become the universal language of the world.

Be warned, the deer of Nara, though "tame," can be very belligerent if you have something they want to eat, particularly deer cookies! As soon as we bought some from one of the many vendors, (who aren`t particularly nice themselves), we were stampeded! And they ate my English map! It was sticking out of my pocket and a buck just came right up to me and ripped it out! Our guide later told us that these were magical deer. They can sense when a piece of paper is important and therefore must consume it to be forever entombed in their sacred bellies. Ha, ha. They will eat your shirt too, if you're not careful. But he also taught us a special way to feed the deer. You hold the cookie over their head where they can't reach it. Then they will beg for the cookie by dipping their head up and down (kudasai, kudasai-- please, please), until you give it to them. It's really cute!

We returned to the station at noon to eat our packed lunches and meet our guide. He was an elderly gentleman who had lived in the United States for a number of years, so he was quite fluent in English and also very knowledgeable about Nara, his birthplace and the location he had decided to retire. I believe he said he was seventy-two, and for that old, he sure was fit! He led us around the city for six hours, completely free of charge! If you find yourself in Nara and want a free guide, you can contact the Nara YMCA: 0742-45-5920. E-mail: I recommend them!

This guy was really good and very nice, though he did have an odd sense of humor. When I remarked how beautiful and well-maintained the grounds of Nara park were, he said, "That`s because we employ some very good gardeners."

"Oh, really?" I asked.

"Don`t say, `Oh, really,`" he replied in a very serious tone. "Their wages are grass."

At first I assumed from his seriousness that he was using some strange metaphor to say they needed to pay the gardeners more. Then I realized he was talking about the deer and laughed self-consciously. Japanese delivery style of jokes (Japanese irony, I guess), is a little odd sometimes. Or maybe I`m just dense.

Near the station there was a little graveyard for children. There were a number of little Buddhist statues with red bibs. Parents bought the red bibs for their deceased children. It was pretty sad. The guide explained that in modern Japan, Shinto is used for happy occasions like weddings, births and New Years, Buddhism for sad events like funerals. For this reason, you clap when you go to a Shinto shrine, and ring the gong when you go to a temple. Clapping is too obnoxious for a sorrowful place, he said, and the gong too solemn for people who are celebrating. There is a saying in Japan: "You are Shinto when you`re born, Christian when you marry, and Buddhist when you die." More on this later.

Our first stop was the outside of Kofuku-ji temple and the various surrounding pagodas, the largest being five stories high. Here I am, holding it:

That picture was the guide's idea, having just returned from the Taj Mahal in India and seeing everyone strike that pose. Ha, even I did that when I visited the the Taj!

So what is a pagoda? It's the Japanese version of a traditional structure that supposedly houses some of the original Buddha's ashes. Basically, the guide said, the only part that really matters is the little orb on top where the ashes are. The whole rest of the building is just for show! There's nothing in there, and no one's allowed inside. As for there actually being any ashes...nope, sorry, even Buddhists will tell you they don't believe that. There are buildings like this for Buddha's ashes all over the world, (each country has their own style), built hundreds of years after he died! It's kind of like how in the Catholic church during the Middle Ages, priests and monks used to say that any old piece of wood was a piece of Christ's cross and sell it. Goodness, it must have been a gigantic cross!

So, to make a long story short, pagodas these days have pretty much no meaning, even to Buddhists (in contrast to temples and statues). They're just architecturally impressive. The tallest one in Nara used to be seven stories high, but it was burned down in one of the fires started by the devote Shintos who were ordered by their leaders to destroy all the Buddhist temples and monuments, because the Buddhist priests were trying to take power from the emperor and regional lords. Actually, that's why the capital moved from Nara to Kyoto, and finally Tokyo, to get away from the religious leaders vying for political power. Sound familiar? Funny how history plays out so similarly even on different continents.

Speaking of fires, all the pagodas had gold or bronze rings on their spires, a charm against fire. Here's another interesting anti-fire charm on the top of Todaiji temple:

Can you see what it is? Gold fish tails! I don`t think they helped much, though, because it burned down twice. The second time, due to insufficient funds, they had to rebuild it at only 2/3 the original size. Can you believe it; it`s still the largest wooden structure in the world!

Inside Todaiji Temple was far more surprising. It`s the only temple in Nara, I think, that charges an admission fee, so at first Mom didn't want to go in because she didn`t want to cost me more money, but once the guide and I explained that it's the main attraction in Nara, she consented. The guide wanted us to go through the ceremonial purification by drinking and washing in the sacred water. I was surprised how insistent he was. I humored him by picking up the cup on the end of the long bamboo stick, but I didn`t drink the water or splash any one me. If it was a really serious thing that was a requirement for anyone entering the temple, I might out of respect, but a lot of people don`t do it, and I really don`t like going through religious motions I don`t believe in. Simply going through the motions is disrespectful in and of itself, I think, because I would be offended if someone with only a basic knowledge of Christianity walked into the church without any faith and took communion. That symbolizes the blood and body of Christ! So I don`t mess with stuff like that.

Then they guy tried to get us to light some incense and offer it to be Buddha statue still behind the closed doors. Uh, no thanks. "You don`t have to believe it," he persisted. "It`s just something everybody does. It`s free, and see, it smells nice." He practically shoved a stick in my face.

Why was he being so pushy about this? Even in my English and Evangelism classes, I don`t coerce people into prayer. I just tell them what I believe and invite them to think about it and ask me questions. Some people respond very strongly to my message, others don`t, but I try very hard not to put people on the spot or force something fake out of them. I actually had to tell the guide "no!" in a rather sharp voice before he stopped bugging me to light a stick of incense. I felt bad about it, because he was a nice guy and I think he was just trying to give me the "cultural experience," but it never ceases to amaze me how bent on fitting in the Japanese are. Everyone else was lighting incense, so of course we should too. They don`t really stop to think about what they`re doing.

The next scene illustrates this perfectly. We finally went inside and saw the largest bronze statue in the world, the Great Buddha:

Of course, I had seen it before, at Obon festival last year, but that was surrounded by thousands of sweaty people bowing and praying and chanting monks, amidst the fumes of a million sticks of incense and glowing candles. That was sort of an intoxicating experience, very strange and other-wordly. One could almost see, in that mystical cloudy twilight, how people can, in the right atmosphere, come to believe that anything is a god. This was an entirely different experience. In comparison, this time there was hardly anyone in the temple. The light was normal, the air clear, though sweltering with August heat. And there before us sat the statue, a beautiful work of art to be sure, but clearly a work of human hands. I couldn`t help it. I had to ask the guide,

"So, I`m curious. I`ve read a few books on Buddhism, but none of them mention statues. In fact, the Buddhism I`ve read up on doesn`t really have any gods and utterly rejects the idea of a creator god as something that holds you back from the ultimate fulfillment of nirvana. So...what is this statue exactly? Is it a god?"

"Yes," the guide replied fervently. "For Buddist believers, this is a god."

Now this didn`t make any sense to me. So I kept on. "That confuses me. Because this statue was made by human hands, right?"

"Laura Jane," Mom whispered urgently, "now`s not the time..."

"No, no, I really want to know," I insisted. I turned back to our guide. "So are you saying this god was created by people? They made the statue, so they made the god?"

The man thought about this. "No, that can`t be. You`re right. I think the god must have existed first, then went into the statue."

"Now that makes more sense." (This was a common belief in the Old Testament too that largely prevented the Isrealites from understanding and therefore properly treating their Gentile neighbors. They thought the other people were actually worshiping wood and stone, when in actually they were worshiping some supposed spirit within the wood and stone. I think this understanding could have saved them a lot of blood shed.) "But I`m still confused. Where did the god live before it entered the statue?"

The man looked very puzzled. After a moment he admitted, "I don`t know."

"Who might know?" I insisted, because I have never found an answer to this question, no matter how many books I read or people I ask. There are some theories that the god once lived up in heaven or some similar plane of existence, but because Buddhists believe so firmly in reincarnation, that heaven is only a waiting room for souls, most reject this idea. There is nothing in Buddhism that lives up in heaven, except for mortal beings that are stuck there by pleasures and concerns that prevent them from reincarnating, but these stuck creatures have no special powers or ability to grant prayers. Those creatures that may seem like gods when you die are only figments of your imagination that you must see past in order to reach Nirvana. Or, some being may think he is a god because he is lonely and then people appear around him, but this too is only a misconception of reality, they say.

"I don`t think anyone knows," the guide replied, a little sadly. "Not even the priests. The Buddhist sutras (the holy texts) have little if anything to say about this."

And there, my friends, is my point. The Japanese just go through the motions of this religion, which doesn`t make any sense. It is obviously a mix of old Indian/Chinese Buddhism with their own Shinto beliefs of enshrined gods. This was a tactic to protect themselves against those devout Shintos who kept burning down their temples and killing their priests. They thought, "let`s just merge the two religions and everyone will be happy." Interesting how eternal truth can change to be more convenient and suit the fashion of the time and place. As a result, there are many, many sects of Buddhism with beliefs so different that many do not even consider each other to be the same religion. It`s not like denominations or sects in Christianity, Judaism or Islam, which are sometimes adaptive, but not to the point of forsaking their central teachings which connect them to other denominations. Each Buddhist culture simply incorporated all their old beliefs into the new system, much like old Catholicism in Europe, whether or not the two systems actually make any sense together. And the Japanese simply go through it because...they`re Japanese! "That`s what we do!"

Now let`s be fair. There are some things that people don`t understand in Christianity, that are a mystery because, we admit, it is impossible to know the mind of an all-knowing, all-powerful, infinite creator God who has been around since before the beginning of time, or perhaps better put, outside of time. But at least we try to make sense of it. We understand what we can, and have faith for what we don`t. Most Japanese have no faith; they will tell you they don`t actually believe what they`re doing. Occasionally (extremely rarely; as in I have only met this kind of person twice in my whole year here), you will meet someone who says they really do believe in Buddhism or Shinto (in the two cases I found, both), but when you ask them to explain their beliefs, they can not, in English or Japanese. It`s extremely frustrating from both a religious and cultural exchange standpoint. When the most important thing in life is what you were made for and your eternal destiny, most people honestly don`t care. It`s the equivalent to knowing a fire is coming and having no training in fire safety or evacuation. Many people justify this by claiming that there`s no way of knowing how to combat the fire until it arrives, so there`s no point in getting caught up in all the dozens of methods of fire fighting, (agnostic), or that the fire will consume and destroy everything and nothing you can do will stop it, so there`s no point in trying (atheist). If you think about it, many try to ignore the certainty that the fire is coming, but nobody actually believes that the fire doesn`t exist and will never come. The fire in this metaphor represents death.

But heaven forbid religion just be a kind of cheap fire insurance! Since this life directly effects your life in eternity, how we live now directly effects our eternity. So many people think that by living good lives they are appropriately preparing for the fire. Well, what if the fire is just a little too big for you to handle? What about your water source? The Creator of Life, the opposite of death, is the provider of water in this metaphor. You may be the best fire fighter in the world, but if you ain`t got no water, you`re gonna get burned. And that water, more than just effecting your life in eternity, effects your life now, helping you fulfill your purpose, the purpose you were specifically designed and created for, here and now. It`s hard to do anything properly without water, from daily tasks like washing the dishes to running a marathon. It`s hard to do anything when you`re thirsty. I think this is partly what Jesus meant when he said he was "living water." He is water for really living.

OK, ok, I think I`ve stretched that metaphor to taffy consistency.

Moving right along, there was a column in the temple with a small hole in the middle that you could try to jump through, if you were brave enough. Another example of Japanese conformity. Everyone had to jump through the hole, and at first I was going to, but chickened out last minute. Remember how my three greatest fears are being eaten alive by a dinosaur, getting trapped in a small space, and drowning? Well, I conquered the third one when I went scuba diving. I can conquer the second one next vacation, and then sometime in the far future I can sky dive and pretend there`s a dinosaur at the bottom waiting to gobble me up or something. Or I could just ride the Jurassic Park roller coaster at Universal Studios Japan...nah.

There was a creepy wooden statue outside the temple. I think it`s supposed to look unpleasant, because it depicts a guy who disobeyed the original Buddha by performing signs and wonders in front of the common people. So he is forever banished outside the temple. He kind of looks like a decrepit skeleton, but that`s wood:

We also saw some beautiful old relics: bells and hundreds of ancient stone lanterns with paper covers or face plates, prepared for the upcoming Obon festival the following week. Families or companies pay the temple for the covers and put their prayers (or in some cases advertisements) on them. As far as I can tell, temples stay afloat by selling statue bibs, aprons, and shawls, lanterns, lantern covers, souvenirs, and sometimes charging entry fees, and shrines stay open by selling charms for love, traffic safety, passing exams, etc, wish papers, special entry into the inner shrine, and blessings from the priests (they bless babies, couples, pets, cars, just about anything). These days, with no government taxes, wealthy patrons, or parishioners, they have to be very business oriented. It`s interesting to see how Japanese religion has evolved with the times, but every religion must or it is no longer relevant. I guess it`s the blatant commercialism in place of willing donations that rubs me the wrong way. The Japanese idea of god is very shallow, something that grants your wishes, that serves you. They visit the shrine when they need something, as an extra bit of insurance, even though they don`t believe there is any special being with power there to grant the wish. There is no love or relationship between gods and men in the Japanese mind set.

The lanterns were pretty, though, some decorated with stone flowers, leaves, and deer, in comparison to the very stark temple architecture. The guide told us that deer were here long before people settled in the area, and were considered sacred because they were seen as messengers of the gods. He joked that the antlers work as antenna. To kill a deer was a capital offense. When the god in the main shrine was brought to Nara, they say he was brought on the back of a white stag. The way shrines work is that each shrine houses some sacred thing, and the god resides in that thing, be it a tree or a stone or a jewel or some such. Hence, where the Japanese Buddhists created the idea of a god enshrined in the statue which is not indigenous to the religion. Anyway, Mom said she wishes every town had their own herd of deer. It would be interesting, but devastating in some areas, I think! It takes a lot of resources to maintain the deer. There is a volunteer deer hospital, a deer antler cutting ceremony twice a year so they don`t hurt each other, people, or objects (like parked cars that happen to get in the way of buck brawls), people who count and tag the deer to make sure the population stays around 1,300, and numerous barricades and deer police that keep them out of the streets! Car accidents involving deer are fairly common, not entirely eradicated despite all their best efforts. So in light of all that, I would say I rather prefer that Tulsa (my American hometown) settle for our own local population of squirrels.

At some point the guide took us to a new Earthquake-proof building and showed us the difference between non-earthquake proof and earthquake proof using a special chair that shook back and forth. It was pretty neat! Unfortunately, no building in my town is Earthquake-proof. Well, I have an earthquake plan. Two actually. One is very practical and involves non-perishable supplies hidden in the strongest part of my apartment and evacuation to the middle school. The other is very similar to the fire plan I described earlier and involves a lot of faith.

All together, we must have visited four or five major ancient sites, including a primeval forest, all of them World Heritage. World Heritage means it is nominated by some important secretary of the Japanese government to be brought before the United Nations World Heritage Committee and after a long and demanding process is accepted to be included in the world-wide list. Many sites don`t pass the tests, which require a certain level of conservation, age, authenticity, significance, uniqueness, etc. If you fail to keep up the criteria, your site loses it`s status. Japan has fourteen major groups of them involving dozens if not hundreds of individual temples, shrines, roads, monuments, forests, caves, mountains, rock formations, etc, the "Monuments of ancient Nara" being one of the major groups. That`s a lot compared to the rest of the world, for understandable reasons. Japan has always taken very good care of their natural, historical, and cultural resources. The U.S. has twenty-three (among them the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon). In principle only, World Heritage sites belong to "the brotherhood of humanity," aka, everyone, but in all but name they belong to whatever country they`re in. It`s up to their mother country to maintain them, protect them, etc. But if one country were to attack another country`s World Heritage site, it would be considered an act of war rather than terrorism. So, for example, if Al-Qaeda had attacked the Statue of Liberty instead of the trade towers, history might have played out a little differently, which is why I think they didn`t and why no one probably will, unless they actually had the power to back it up. I`m just waiting for North Korea to "accidentally" blow up one of Japan`s sites. That could get really messy. It`s funny how human beings will fight over stuff and objects that merely embody a concept. Not that they aren`t worth preserving, but I don`t think it`s worth human lives.

So our last stop was what the guide called American turtle pond:

"Oh," I said, a little surprised when the guide told us the name.

"Don`t say, `Oh,` he told me sternly. "This pond is "set living things free" pond. Once a year at a special festival, people used to set their pet goldfish free here. It used to be a very pretty pond filled with all kinds of native Japanese carp. But in recent years, Japanese people started keeping American red-ear slider turtles. Japanese apartments are very small, you might have noticed, and the turtles get very big. So when they are too big to keep, the people started secretly releasing them in this pond. Well, the turtles took over. Now the fish are very sad; no food for them."

"Oh," I replied, a little more solemn. Unspoken words: Darn invasive Americans. Why can`t they just stay where they belong? (Cough, cough; awkward silence.)

He laughed. "It`s all right. Like after World War II. We like American turtles. And we like Americans."

I didn`t really see what was funny about it, but it made me more relaxed, and I laughed with him. I`m never going to get this Japanese humor thing.

I wanted to thank our guide some way; after all, he`d led us around for six hours in the heat for free, giving us an expert rundown of everything and enduring my incessant questions. Mom asked if we should tip him, but I explained that this would be VERY rude, as you never, ever tip anyone in Japan, unless they aren`t Japanese, and even then it might be seen as insulting. It`s hard to explain the mind set. In Japan, you get a set salary. While they do have bonuses, if you as an individual were to give them extra money for some service, it`s like a slap in the face. What, you think I need some extra incentive to do my job right? You think they don`t pay me enough here?

Honestly, I think the tip system is awful. Why can`t we just pay people a living wage for crying out loud? It`s like you have to bribe people to actually do their job. And what if the service person does good work but the customers are stingy, or just plain poor? Why can`t things just cost what they say they cost? I loved Mexico, Africa and India for their simplicity and focus on non-material things, but what I hated was turning around every second, seeing a set of eyes scan my skin, and hearing a garbled, "tip, Madam?" It made me feel icky and ashamed, like some undeserving high and mighty wielder of power just on account of my race, and it must be terribly degrading for them to have to keep reminding me how poor they are. Everyone should make a living wage. Period.

Ok, so anyway, giving him a tip was out of the question. I tried to offer him ice cream several times, and then when he showed us where a nice okonomiyaki (fried meat pancake) place was, I offered to buy him dinner. No, no, he wouldn`t have any of it. I kept insisting, but then he said his wife was waiting for him at home, and I couldn`t argue with that. That`s the difference between a country without a living wage and with one. The elderly retired gentleman could refuse my kindness and retain his dignity, rather than having to beg for it. Japan`s got it right in a lot of areas, better than America.

Dinner was delicious, though Mom was surprised that we had to cook it ourselves on the grill fitted into the table in front of us. She was even more astounded by the fuyuseibutsu dancing on the top of her pancake.

"What is that?" she asked.

At the time I told her it was fish flakes, but I have since learned that it`s actually plankton, as in the tiny microscopic plants and animals that whales it.

"Is it alive?"


"Then why is it moving?"

I had to explain it was simply the heat curling and crisping the flakes. "It`s really quite good. Try it."

" thanks." She ended up scrapping them off. But at least she tried the barbecue sauce and mayonnaise. The Japanese love mayonnaise like Americans love ketchup. I`m not quite so fond of either myself, so I always ask for them on the side.

We completed the evening with a stroll through the candle festival. That`s in preparation for Obon, welcoming the ancestors back home, and the city puts out hundreds of thousands of candles to light the path around the temples and shrines. Here`s a particularly luminescent picture on the steps to a shrine:

We were originally planning on walking all around to see the monuments lit up in that eerie glow, but after walking for six hours in the 95 degree heat (which due to the humidity did not improve after sunset), we were too exhausted to traipse up and down the long flights of stairs. So we went home early. It was just as well, because on the 8:45 train, we didn`t get back until 9:45.

Another thing we cut out was Osaka the next day. We`d been planning to see the castle, take the harbor cruise, visit the aquarium, see whatever performances were in the Tempozan village area, and ride the giant Ferris wheel. Well, surprise surprise, we didn`t feel like going all that way after Friday. I just took Mom to the local temple and shrine in Nabari and a really nice Indian restaurant. Much to my astonishment, she loved it! Yea, finally a foreign food she likes! No, Mom, American foreign food doesn`t count. Everyone knows that American Chinese is not real Chinese, American Japanese is not real Japanese and American Mexican is not real Mexican (I can attest to all these myself). I don`t care how "authentic" they say they are or how many natives they have working there. Only a handful of times have I actually had food in local restaurants that tasted anything like the American/Japanese adulterations. Purana Indian restaurant in Nabari is one of them. It actually tasted like Deli curry, though admittedly a little sweeter and less spicy. I think if Mom (or any of the Japanese, for that matter) had REAL curry, they would die. After ten days of it, though it was very, very good, I nearly keeled over myself!

Sunday we went to church and had another potluck after, which Mom enjoyed more that the first due to the Matsusaka yaki niku, or barbecued beef fed on corn, beer and given messages. Now that`s a cow I can eat in good conscience. If anything, their quality of life is far improved by the fact they will be consumed some day.

And Monday morning she left for her plane to America! I`m so proud of her; she was able to get to Kansai International airport in Osaka all by herself! She was so worried, but I kept assuring her, "Mom, all the signs are in English! You have six hours to get there and it only takes two. I`ll even put you on the right train!" And sure enough, when she got to the station she was able to find the bus just fine, buy the ticket, and arrive at her terminal with hours to spare.

So with everything set and done, I can look back on those two weeks as the greatest vacation of my entire life. We saw waterfalls, beautiful islands and oceans, the tallest mountain in Japan, dozens of ancient monuments, ate tons of delicious food, and had adventure after adventure. And soon I get to have more when that four day weekend in September rolls around! Heh, heh. I love Japan and its national holidays.

Prayer Requests (haven`t done these in awhile): The church has a big revival coming up December 5th! Arthur Hollins, one of the most famous speakers in Japan, is coming to speak! Please pray that it goes well, and of course, for Japan in general. I'm leading a Bible study among other Assistant Language Teachers right now on evangelism, and I hope we get really excited for God's work here in Japan. Plus there's the upcoming Japanese Exchange Teacher's Christian Fellowship national conference next month! I'm so excited!

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,


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