Monday, May 23, 2011

Exciting news and Koya-san!

Let`s talk about something a little less depressing than trips to disasters zones, shall we? I have great news! While I was in Tohoku volunteering, I got an email from an agent I’ve been corresponding with, Normandie Fischer. Originally, she said she couldn’t represent me while I was in Japan. But suddenly she contacted me and said she thought she’d found the perfect publishing company for my young adult fantasy novel, Treasure Traitor. It’s called Written Word Communications. They specialize in “soft” Christian fiction, novels and short stories that allude to the Bible and Christ without being preachy. They just started a fantasy imprint called StarSongs. Normandie knows the head editor very well and has talked to her about my book. They’re both really excited about it! Right now Normandie and I are working on polishing the novel, then she’ll send it to the publisher for them to read through. If all goes well, Treasure Traitor will come out in March! But I’m trying not to get my hopes too high. The publisher could still say no. They could suddenly go bankrupt and have to fold, (which has happened to me with publishers/agents before, quite common in this business). But it’s a step in the right direction!

Now that said, it puts me in a bit of a predicament. I really want to stay in Japan for awhile longer, but I didn’t sign my contract back in February, so I can’t stay at my current school. I’m applying for jobs both in Japan and abroad. It would be ideal if I could work at Ibaraki Christian University with Japanese exchange students, but they won’t know if they have a position open until July. The jobs I’m applying for in Japan have to know whether I’m working for them by June. Tulsa Community College, my backup U.S. plan, isn’t answering my emails. The suspense and uncertainty about what to do is killing me. Well, not killing me, but I’m having a lot a sleepless nights and eating proves a chore because I can’t stop worrying about my future and make up my mind. I have this constant anxiety that sits like an aching hole in my stomach. To stay in Japan or wait for a position in the U.S that I don’t even know is open? It’s making my summer plans super difficult. How can I plan for travel with my mother, something she and I have been looking forward to for a long time, when I don’t know when I have to start my new job, or even what and where that new job is?

Can I really take another lonely winter in Japan? Do I really want to suffer through another sweltering summer? But I still have a year left on my VISA, and I’m already here in Japan, which makes me more attractive to hiring companies. I would have to find a new apartment and get adjusted to life in a new city at a new church. But a new place could also present new opportunities for serving in Japan. Then there’s the issue of the free plane ticket home provided by my current school. If I get another job in the Japan, I forfeit that ticket. And who knows what the new job would be like? It could be really bad. Everyone says JET (the Japanese Exchange Teaching) Programme is the best teaching gig in Japan. I’ve heard horror stories about how other companies use and abuse their teachers, for less pay.

What it all comes down to is my future. Can I publish my books in the U.S. and be a full-time missionary in Japan? Is that what I want? More importantly, is that what God is calling me to do? Do I just need a break from Japan for awhile? Should I take that now or later, after my VISA expires? These are the issues barring me from sleep at night and from really taking much interest in food. In other words, the worry is making me physically sick. Something keeps screaming at me to stay in Japan, stay in Japan. Is that from God? I want to promote my writing before the book comes out, but I’m sure they wouldn’t publish it before I could do proper publicity. If I stayed, I would have to put some of my friends on America on hold who really want me to come back, and cancel my student’s trip to the U.S…for the second time. But lots of folks would be disappointed if a I left Japan too. I have so many places I still want to see in Asia, and doing it from Japan, with a steady income, is much easier than from America.

If anyone knows of a good job opening involving teaching ESL, writing, or library work, either here in Japan or back in the states (preferably Oklahoma), please tell me about it! As it is, my options are slim on both ends and I wouldn't mind expanding them. Might help me make up my mind.

I’ve prayed for guidance and for God to take my fear and worry away. Sometimes He does for a few minutes. But then it always rears it’s ugly head again, like a pimple you’ve popped only to have it regrow, screaming that I should stay in Japan, stay in Japan. It’s infuriating.

Enough of that. May 14th and 15th, I went to a very famous mountain in Wakayama, Koya-san. (“San” in Japanese, besides meaning Mr./Miss/Mrs, means mountain, so I guess in English it would just be “Mt. Koya.” The summit is 820 meters above sea level and pretty much flat, and an entire town flourishes there, complete with schools and a post office. You have to ride a tram or hike to get to the top (we took the tram). It was established over 1150 years ago (around 820) as a Buddhist Mecca by the monk Koba-daishi. There are over one hundred temples and shrines to various deities and Buddhas, so it played a large role in Japanese religion. Even today, about half of the residents are Buddhist priests and their families (this sect allows marriage, wealth, and everything except meat), and the other half are employed in catering to the various pilgrims and tourists who come from all over the world.

These days, there aren`t enough actual pilgrims showing up offering gifts to maintain all these temples, so most have been partially converted into hotels/restaurants. I guess that`s still traditional; as with churches in Europe, temples offered lodging and food to pilgrims on their way to religious sites. I went with a group of about ten other Japanese Exchange Teachers to stay at one of these temples. Here`s what it looked like:

The rooms where we stayed were very traditional and old. Here`s some pictures of the painted sliding doors:

After we checked in and got settled, we went for a long walk around the town to take in the sites. Here`s a beautiful path:

Some tori gates leading up to a shrine:

Tori means “bird” and refers to the roosters that traditionally sat on top of the gates because they were supposed to be messengers of the son goddess, the supreme deity in Japanese mythology.

One of the most interesting temples was a sister temple to the famous Golden Rock temple in Bali. They had a lot of protest art, like a large, adult cow milking from a tiny calf, a gazelle chasing a leopard, weird stuff like that. Probably from when the Japanese invaded that country, or the communist sentiment surging through bankrupt and pillaged nations after World War II. There was also an underground chamber, where we found this:

Yes, millions of people in the world still worship idols of stone and gold. Sad, huh?

Here`s the star attraction temple, the pride of Wakayama prefecture:

Kind of looks Chinese, especially because of the red.

Here`s one of the oldest temples, built in the same architecture style, but in a more Japanese way, no colors, just plain wood:

Here`s a really famous gate leading into Koya-san from the main road, which used to be an ancient pilgrimage path before it was paved:

Then we hiked up this trail to the top of the mountain:

Here`s a view from the top:

Before dinner, we had meditation. There was a word written on the front wall behind an alter, which they told us was Sanskrit for the center of the universe and origin of all things, and it also looked like the Japanese kanji for power, so I just imagined it stood for God. They told us how to meditate, but of course I couldn`t understand a word of their rather technical Japanese explanation. So I just sat there and prayed. I told God all my worries about leaving Japan, what my successor may or may not be willing to do in my place, finding a new job, the Written Word Communications publisher, my students that still aren`t saved. The thirty minute meditation flew right by, before I even got to tell God how thankful I was for my time in Japan! But the nice thing about the Christian God is that He`s always there. I don`t have to have a special “religious experience” to talk to Him. As for everyone elses' "religious experience," quite a few just fell asleep, including the girl in front of me!

For dinner we had priest vegetarian style. Tofu, rice, seaweed, fried vegetables, fresh fruit, and fish soup. (Fish isn`t considered a meat in Japan, it`s a way of life!) Folks could order bear if they wanted to, so apparently these priests could have alcohol too. Their sect is so lax, I heard that some rich people, once they accomplish all they want to, just become priest for the heck of it. (They claim it’s a very relaxing, healthy lifestyle.) They don’t have to go to any special school or even give up their luxury cars. They just apprentice under another priest, meditate twice a day and worship once a day, and eat vegetarian meals with fish.

After dark, we took a walk in a huge, famous graveyard and got spooked by some flying squirrels. Yes, Japan has flying squirrels, but I didn`t know until that night! Imagine being in a dark Buddhist graveyard around midnight, and suddenly something shoots from one tree branch to another, hissing and chattering! As Pillar said, “thems are scary squirrels!” At that point we stopped making zombie jokes and switched to rabid flying squirrels jokes. I'm not really sure which is funnier; they both seem equally morbid to me.

The next morning, we woke up at 6:00 for the 6:30 Buddhist sutra (holy scripture) chanting. Here`s what that looks like:

As the priests chanted, one by one the observers got up, offered incense to the statue, and bowed in front of it. If that`s not idol worship, I don`t know what is. I was debating about what to do when it got to be my turn, thinking I would probably just politely motion for the person next to me to go ahead, but fortunately the priests stopped chanting just before it was my turn. At the end of the chanting we all had to pass in front of the statue and bow again. I just walked without bowing by and nobody said anything.

Then there was a second chanting service, this one with drums and fire. I have a nice video of it, but apparently it's too long to load onto my blog. Oh, well.

Next we had breakfast. Not nearly as good as dinner. If the Japanese can’t cook, then Buddhist priests REALLY can’t cook. We went for a final walk in the graveyard, and were lucky to catch an English tour group of foreign students from Osaka University. This time, the pictures I took actually showed up, and we knew what we were looking at. No rabid flying squirrels this time either; apparently they’re nocturnal.

Here’s some pretty pictures of ancient tombstones, some of them over 1,000 years old:

So who was buried here? Nobody. These are just memorials with maybe a piece of their hair or a bit of bone. Mostly the memorials are to famous people, priests who “attained enlightenment,” feudal lords and their families, Noh and Kabuki actors, a few famous foreigners, including some Christians. People of all ethnicities and religions have memorials there.

Before the mid 1800s, women weren’t allowed in the graveyard, or into most of the areas on Koya-san, but they could be buried there. Here is the largest memorial in the whole graveyard, to the mother of some feudal lord:

Those tombstones, along with all the tombstones in that graveyard, had to be carried up the mountain. Some of them weighed over a ton; can you imagine how many people it must have taken?

Also, notice the unique shapes, repeated in all the monuments. The bottom square represents earth, as in soil and ground, or in the human being, flesh. The circle is water or blood. The weird shape is sky or heart and mind. The two spheres on top are void or spirit, because some Buddhists believe when you die, you cease to exist. Honestly, that’s their idea of ultimate enlightenment and paradise? No thank you!

But speaking of those shapes, here’s our tour guide next to a rather interesting monument belonging to a samurai who was forced to betray his lord. It’s a rather tragic story, and they say that because of the blood he spilled, his blood stone always cracks. He played a big part in the protection of Koya-san during some war, so the priests often replace his blood stone, but it always cracks again. Weird, huh?

This is a small shrine:

I only took that picture because of the “Nazi symbols.” Actually, the Nazis stole that from Buddhism, who took it from Hindu before that, because the Hindi were the original “Aryan” race. At least, that’s my theory. All the facts are true, and the quote by Hitler that “the swastika (is) the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man” supports my conclusion. I bet he wouldn’t have admitted it came from India and their religions, though.

Everybody and their grandmother seemed to have a shrine there, even the Panasonic corporation. You think I’m joking? Here it is:

It’s for all their workers that died on the job. Hmm, remind me not to work for them. The monument is a nice touch, but I’d rather not work for a company where people are known to die on the job! Maybe they have a bad case of workaholism.

At least once a day, the priests prepare and bring food to Koba-daishi, the founder of the original Koya-san temple and monastery, even though he’s been dead for over 1,000 years. They make a big ritual out of it. Here they are:

They worship him as a sort of god.

There was a big bridge to cross over into the “most holy” part. We couldn’t take pictures after that. Here’s a memorial in the river to people who drowned or babies who were aborted:

And here’s the bridge:

And here’s the inner temple from a distance:

There wasn’t much on the other side. Just a big temple with big idols where lots of pilgrims go to make big offerings, Koba-daishi’s remains, and an underground chamber full of 4,000 tiny Buddha statues. On the way back, we found this giant hill made of Buddha statues:

For lunch/dinner, we ate at a nice organic vegetarian restaurant owned by a Japanese man and his French wife. Very nice! I think I could learn to be vegetarian if I had to. Definitely not vegan, though. That's not even healthy. (Vegans reject all animal products including anything with milk, eggs, leather, or grown using animal dung fertilizer.) I've never really met a healthy vegan. They're always over weight, pale, or sickly. But maybe I just haven't met enough of them.

And that was Koya-san!

Prayer Requests: Praise for the agent and possible publisher for Treasure Traitor! Please pray that I will be able to work out this whole stay/go thing, get a good job, and work out my vacation plans with my mom. Most importantly, please pray that I will have peace so I can eat and sleep again!

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp

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