I was walking along a narrow path deep within a forest. The path was carpeted with pine needles that padded my footsteps and smelled of Christmas. I could hear birds chirping above me in the branches of the trees, their rich green leaves filtering the soft sunlight, making dappled patterns on the delicate plants and tiny flowers that covered the ground. Overhead were soft, cumulus clouds forming shapes that defied imagination: an eagle feather, a jack-in-the-box, a marshmallow bunny, a sesame seed bagel. There was a light scent of jasmine dancing on the warmth of a breeze. Coming from what seemed a great distance, I could just barely hear the kind of music that makes you want to close your eyes and feel the life force flowing through your skin and into your bones and muscle and out again, back into the endless energy of the universe.
As I followed a curve in the path that skirted a large gray rock flecked with gold that glinted in the sunlight, I emerged into a small clearing. At its center stood a shining pink unicorn nibbling on some yellow buttercups. At the sound of my step, she looked up, tossed her long white mane and tilted her silver horn in greeting. I reached out and gently stroked her delicate muzzle, felt the curve of bone in her powerful jaw, gave her a light scratch between her twitching ears and drew the tips of my fingers along her magnificent brow. She winked at me, as if to say, “Yes. This is real. I am real. You have found nirvana.”
And then I woke up. There was no unicorn, no gentle sunlight, no breeze, no birds, no buttercups. It was cold in the room and still raining as it has been, off and on, for the past three months. The only sound I could hear was the shriek of a motorcycle tearing apart the neighborhood’s peaceful Sunday evening silence. And I still felt just as awful as I had when I fell asleep.
Then I looked down at my hand and saw, resting on my fingertip, one sparkling pink eyelash. I smiled and then I sneezed. When I opened my eyes, it was gone. But I choose to believe it was there, just as I choose to believe in nirvana and I choose to believe that it will someday stop raining and I choose to believe a lot of things I can’t really put into words but carry around with me, some version of hope, a tendril of faith in the power of elves and fairies, a knowing in my soul that there are some universal truths and I just have to find the strength to see them.
The sun will rise again tomorrow and I will open my eyes to see it. For now, that’s enough.
Mother Nature in all her glory deserves our utmost respect and admiration. She manages to create feats of wonder and beauty that the human imagination can only hope to imitate, never duplicate. And one of her most impressive areas of expertise is not cherry blossoms, not autumn foliage, not gloriously multicolored volcanic mountain lakes, not even the elegant crane or the delicate chrysanthemum. While these are all greatly admired and accepted symbols of Japan, Mother Nature far outdoes herself when it comes to bugs.
A friend was once working for an American company that sold breakfast cereal. The company had the brilliant idea of cutting costs by removing the plastic bag and putting the cereal directly into the box. My friend vetoed that idea in no uncertain terms: not only would Japan’s humidity turn the delicate, crunchy flakes into gooey, sticky mush, it was virtually guaranteed that multi legged creatures would find their way into those selfsame boxes and make themselves at home. And they’re not shy about breeding, either.
Just imagine. You’re still half asleep, girding your loins for the nightmare that is Tokyo morning rush hour. You open the box, shake it over a bowl, and out tumbles a multi-generational family of winged creatures along with their offspring. The nightmare begins before you even put your shoes on. While you are writhing on the floor desperately trying to erase the image from your mind, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King link arms and dance a jig.
I once attempted to go upstairs and was greeted by a large black winged thing with a huge blue head clinging to the wall. Perhaps it was an acid flashback, but just to be safe, I opened the front door and returned to the living room, hoping he would make himself scarce. He did, and I never saw him again. For this I am grateful.
But sometimes Mother Nature has a sense of humor. On the way to lunch today, I came across this guy.
A good four inches long, at first I thought he was a plastic toy some kid had dropped, but then I looked closer. He was moving, moseying his way across the street toward some flowerpots. I was fascinated. I’ve come across worms and caterpillars of all sorts in Japan, but had never seen one quite like this one. I did a Google search for “green segmented caterpillar” and apparently this one doesn’t exist, at least according to Google, although there are plenty of other variations, most of which are nowhere near as cute as this little guy.
Go on. Google it. I dare you.
I hope he made it to wherever he was going. I had a look on the way home and didn’t find any green slime smeared on the asphalt. I’m stumped as to why he was in the middle of the street in the first place. Wouldn’t he have been more comfortable under a bush or crawling up a tree trunk or nestled in a box of Corn Flakes?
Meditation is reaching into my psyche and teasing loose unexpected and wonderful sensations. It’s like following a path through Hansel and Gretel’s forest but instead of leaving a trail of crumbs, I’m collecting a trail of treasures someone left along the way.
The other day, when I was walking in the park, I looked up into the trees and they suddenly took on an almost surreal clarity and vibrancy. I could see the outline of each leaf and sense the nuanced differences in the gradations of their greens. Each one was unique. I experienced a profound connection to those leaves; it felt like I could name each one and describe its personality.
Alfred Greenleaf likes chocolate ice cream and once shoplifted a packet of colored pencils. He still feels guilty about it.
Wendy Leafblower dreams of one day going skydiving. In the meantime she crochets tea cozies and is addicted to reruns of Friends.
Howard Leafmealone is something of an introvert and wishes the other leaves would give him some space.
Brenda Longleaf is self conscious about the length of her veins.
Merry Greensleaves wishes she was a needle on a Christmas tree.
George Mapleleaf is something of a sap.
While that babel of personalities was revealing itself to me, at the same time the voices of the leaves seemed to be humming a gentle melody with layered harmonics, the autumn breeze smelling of sunshine and playing a woodwind accompaniment to chirping crickets and the last of the summer cicadas.
It was as if all of those layers of life and energy and music had always been there, just under the surface, but I had never noticed them.
What other wonders are waiting for me just around the next bend in the path?
The sarusuberi trees are in bloom. I’m not usually a big fan of frilly pink things, but I do love these flowers.
There’s something almost artificially perfect about them. Maybe it’s a reflection of the culture they live in. Plus I admire their bravery; they blossom in the midst of the worst of Tokyo summer. Plum blossoms come in second for valor as they arrive at the end of winter. In that sense, it’s hard to have much respect for the vaunted cherry blossom. Granted, cherry blossoms are lovely and I have waxed poetic about them in this blog several times, but they do choose a much less challenging season to bloom in.
The first time I saw a sarusuberi tree, I asked a friend what it was called, then asked if that was a Japanification of Salisbury. “No,” she said. “It’s slipping monkey. Look closely. The bark is quite smooth.”
“Saru” is monkey. “Suberu” is slip or slide. The same verb is used for skiing or stepping on a banana peel at the supermarket and taking a header into a pile of cabbages.
Intrepid explorers Mayumi Ishizuka and Finn Many-ens discovered this unusual example of Unkey-monkey Japonicus in the depths of the Florida Everglades.
The Unkey-monkey likes nothing better than slipping around on the branches of local sarusuberi trees.
That and bananas. He likes bananas, too, so do be careful if you take him to the supermarket with you. Or at least stay a safe distance away from the cabbages.
“Have you got any plans for tomorrow?”
“I want to DO something. I worked so hard last month—we both did—and next week will be crazy busy again, but I’ve got this week off and I want to DO something.” Normally when the weather is good and neither of us has to work, we take a long walk around the neighborhood, which is both good for us and free, but I wanted to DO something.
“I don’t know. A museum or something, something we haven’t done before. Let me go see what I can find on the interwebs.”
What I found was the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum. According to their website, “Since the Edo period, Tokyo has lost many valuable historical buildings because of fires, floods, earthquakes and warfare. Today, the city’s valuable cultural heritage is still being eroded due to social and economic changes.” That’s true enough. Just the other day, we were on one of our epic walks and came across this:
See the shape of the supporting beam just under the roof? Gorgeous. Many old Japanese farm houses feature that type of construction. I was surprised to see it in a city house and saddened to see that it was being deconstructed, which made the open air museum sound that much more appealing. I had never even heard of it, for one thing, and it was situated in a vast park I had also never heard of. Apparently, Koganei Park is the second largest park in the metropolitan area and has been enjoyed by the public since 1954. The only one bigger is Kasai Rinkai Park, which is an upstart having only opened in 1989, but it does have views of both the sea and Disneyland, and one of those oversized Ferris Wheels, and an aquarium with a pretty impressive tuna tank. OK. I take back the upstart comment. They’re both pretty cool.
I’m a big fan of both parks and architecture, so off we went. It took four trains and a bus to get there, but it was worth it. The park is truly vast:
The bright green bit is the museum, the rest is park, and the museum itself is 17 acres, so that gives you some idea of how big it is. The park also has nearly 2000 cherry trees. The day was one of those rare springtime gifts from nature, clear and sunny, warm but not too warm. Sakura viewing season was nearly over, but there was just enough of a breeze to send the petals swirling and fluttering toward the earth, a sight that always makes me want to clap my hands and dance around like a little girl.
The museum itself was a collection of old houses from different parts of Tokyo that the metropolitan government deemed worthy of relocation, preservation, and exhibition to the public. It was also a little overwhelming. I was not expecting such a concentration of elegance and beauty. Maybe it was the perfect weather, or the joy of not having to work, but it seemed like it was impossible to take a bad picture. You could go inside all the buildings and wander around the rooms, losing yourself in the awareness of past lives and the waves of change Japan has experienced over time.
The west part of the museum featured the oldest houses, thatch roofed wooden farm houses, lovely to look at but hell to live in. They’re cold, dark and drafty and there’s nothing but sliding paper doors to divide the rooms, so the occupants had little to no privacy. Plus, I know from visiting the Nihon Minkaen (Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum, another very cool place) that the smell of thatch in the heat of summer will make you retch. Still, the craftsmanship alone makes these buildings museum-worthy.
Sometimes we would turn a corner and suddenly be faced with a world of such exquisite beauty that it couldn’t possibly exist.
And then there was all of this.
As you move toward the east, the houses are newer, and that’s where the astonishment sets in. The Japanese are truly adept at absorbing and adapting foreign things. An otherwise thoroughly western style room with elegant parquet floors might feature tiny-paned windows echoing the shoji paper window screens of earlier design.
One house had an A frame design that reeked of Frank Lloyd Wright, if the man himself had been Japanese. The little yellow house strongly reminded me of Miss Nancy’s house, except for the tiled roof. (She was my grandfather’s southern belle girlfriend from North Middleton, Kentucky.)
I think that’s what inspired such astonishment. Growing up, the one thing my parents had in common was a love of old buildings and antiques. On family vacations, we spent a lot of time visiting old houses and historical museums, so these buildings felt sort of like old friends, except for the nuanced and delightfully unexpected differences in culture and tradition. Almost all new houses are built in Western style these days, including all of the five (5!) being built around my house right now, but it’s rare to find old Western style Japanese houses.
The east part of the museum is a somewhat Disneylandesque collection of shops and other businesses, mostly from the 1920’s but some were older.
My grannyphone pedometer says we walked 16,659 steps, 10.8km, that day. Needless to say, our feet were tired, but our eyes and hearts were full of images that will stick with us, and getting away from the familiar always jump-starts my joie de vivre. It was a pink petal paradise, with sakura ice cream providing the final, perfect tweak.
After not taking a single day off this month, NOT ONE SINGLE DAY, the math is almost done. (More about that later.) We’ve even got a couple of spare days to squeak in under deadline. Today is a beautiful, sunny day and the sakura are just beginning to open, so I decided to tempt fate and take a day off. While punching things at the dojo would have been fun, my stress level has suddenly dropped and more than anything else, I just wanted to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE.
So we went for a walk, which turned into more of an epic journey. My granny phone says we took 16,568 steps, which corresponds to 10.7km, which means 1548 steps per kilometer, which can be rounded off to either 1.5 or 1.6 steps per meter depending on whether you round from the 1/10 place or the 1/100 place. We left around 10:30 and got back home at 3:00, which means 4.5 hours but subtract about 20 minutes for lunch at the Daiei food court, so convert the time unit to find 250 minutes, so a speed of 66 steps/minute or 3960 steps/hour.
A contributing factor was my Jones for a roast beef sandwich for dinner and the consequent search of a myriad of supermarkets. We can extrapolate the following equation:
I learned my lesson from the morning train ride on Wednesday. It is worth being at the wrong end of the train to take the women only car. It was still packed but I didn’t have a bunch of smelly men towering over me, jamming their briefcases into my back.
We finished Soness’s recording early and I had about 45 minutes before the next voice would arrive. She needed to get her hair styled and invited me to go with her, which sounded like a perfectly girly, fun way to kill some time. I sat in the chair next to hers and we chattered about facial feng shui and how changing your looks changes how you feel about yourself.
Back to the studio, another break between voices. One of my colleagues commented on the pink mouse and I said it’s not really me. The kind of person who has a pink mouse is the kind of person who dots their I’s with little hearts and covers their cell phone and fingernails with sparkly things. I have NEVER dotted an I with a heart, not even when I was 13. I abhor sparkly nails and my phone is unadorned. My colleague suggested that the next time I go to the office to test software they’ll give me a pink headset covered with sparkles so it looks like a tiara.
I think not.
That job done, I had three hours to kill, and having had such fun at the historical museum, I decided to check out the fire museum.
What I learned at the fire museum:
Fire is a big deal anywhere, but especially in Japan where for generations, buildings were made of wood and paper. Unless one lived on the banks of a river, there was no infrastructure to provide adequate water for firefighting, so when the town lookout sounded the alarm, fire brigades came running, not with buckets and hoses but with metal hooks attached to spears.
Each brigade’s standard bearer would leap onto the roof of a house surrounding the burning one and dance around with the standard until his feet started getting hot. (There was a great deal of honor, and machismo, surrounding how long the dancer could maintain his position.)
Meanwhile, the fire brigades would proceed with tearing down the surrounding houses so the fire wouldn’t spread. This was called “demolition firefighting”.
Fires could start for any number of reasons. Perhaps someone tripped over a kerosene stove or a charcoal cooking brazier got knocked over by an earthquake. Perhaps Mrs. Ohara’s cow kicked over a lantern.
There was no insurance in those days, so people kept their valuables in big wooden boxes on wheels so they could bug out quickly. Unfortunately, those boxes also blocked the streets and impeded the fire fighters and were eventually banned. So if you were the unfortunate slob who started a fire, not only did your neighbors lose their houses, they lost everything else. I wouldn’t have wanted to be him.
I didn’t get a personal docent this time, but I really wanted a silly picture to go with this post, so I asked the reception desk lady and she gladly obliged.
Leaving the museum, I ran into Kan, a freelance director I’ve worked with a few times over the years. It’s almost spooky how often I run into people I know. There are 12 million people in Tokyo and I don’t know that many of them. Maybe I’m connected to people on some plane I’m not aware of.
The final studio job went fine. I got to direct, which I enjoy, and the voice was Matthew, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 10 years. We bantered. It was fun.
Leaving the studio, I was greeted by a gorgeous, orange-tinted full moon. I stared in wonder as my warm breath clouded the frosty air.
I don’t know what’s going on with my karma these days. It feels like something is trying to fill a void that has been empty for too long. Maybe the universe is reaching out to me; maybe I’m reaching out to the universe; maybe it’s mutual. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it.
I was in the big old farmhouse we lived in when I was a little girl. It was summer and the doors were open. A deer, a beautiful doe, walked in and started climbing the stairs to the second floor. She was quite large and her hoofs made clomping noises on the wooden steps. But she wasn’t scary. She had elegant, slim legs and shining, soft brown eyes.
It didn’t seem so awfully strange. We often saw deer in the yard…and bunnies…and foxes…and other critters. It was the country, after all.
Then a huge stag walked in. He had massive antlers that were blackened at their points, tufts of black fur ringing his legs and an evil expression surrounding his eyes. He started following me through the rooms, living room, dining room, his antlers brushing against the crystals dangling from the chandelier. I was quite frightened….
…and then I woke up, disoriented but safely tucked into my futon.
I can’t imagine where those images came from. I haven’t been to that house in forty years and I’ve never seen a real deer like that stag…or maybe I have, in a zoo somewhere, sometime…but not anytime recently.
There’s a supermarket in the neighborhood called Foodium. I can’t really think of a worse name. It sounds like a body part:
Patient: What’s the prognosis, doc?
Doctor: Well, you seem to have an unusual growth in your foodium.
Patient: Is it serious?
Doctor: Maybe. Does it hurt when you shop?
Patient: Only when I buy food.
Or perhaps it’s built on the site of an arena where they used to feed Christians to lions.
At any rate, as of a week ago, there are notices by the registers saying that as an environmental measure, plastic bags are no longer free. At first, I thought it was just another spiteful act of greed on the supermarket’s part, but I think they might be sincere. The notices do not encourage us to buy bags. Instead, they politely request that customers bring our own, reusable shopping bags.
The plastic bags are not expensive–5 yen for a big one, 3 yen for a small one–but suddenly everyone has their own tote bags. It’s amazing how environmentally conscious people become when they have to pay for something.
I just toss everything in my backpack as usual. I haven’t taken a supermarket bag in years. The only problem with that is the occasional overlooked item. My gym bag still smells vaguely of rotten chicken. Yuck.
We were creating our usual perfect scenes of bright colors and smiling faces at a house studio the other day when I looked through a window and saw that there had been a fire in the house next door. Most of the roof was gone; only a fringe of tiles remained around the edges. A guilty secret, from the street there was nothing to see. But from my second floor vantage, charred and blackened wooden beams reached for the sky, skeletal, naked, exposed to the drizzling rain. The glass was blown out of a pair of small windows, sightless eyes framed with soot mascara. The house stood there achingly lonely, forlorn. Someone had lost everything, perhaps even life, and I was overwhelmed with an unbearable sadness.
I was called back to my world of rainbows and unicorns, but returned to the window again and again during the day, reminding myself to be grateful for all the good things in my life. But I also couldn’t stop thinking of all that I have lost, so many lives and loves fading into the limitless distance, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up in a corner under a blanket and forget, at least for a while, that I exist.