Visiting Japan


I look at Japan and see an onion. The onion is a solid, round, white ball of skin. Japan is an island consisting of large crowded cities, with skyscraper offices and apartment buildings. It has large apartment stores, train stations, bus depots and airports. People eat at its restaurants and dance at its clubs and play golf at its city golf courses. That Japan is the solid onion. But once one peels the onion the skin becomes translucent, sheer sheets that reveal another skin just like it. That is the hidden Japan and the Japanese history that goes back centuries. Those layers are what create the manners, the style, the culture of the country and its people. That is what makes it hard for an outsider to ever really get beyond the first few layers of the onion.

Nearly twenty years ago, my husband and I took a trip to Japan and were lucky enough to be shown around by Japanese colleagues and friends. I was interested in papermaking and we were taken to the factory where they demonstrated for us. John does pottery and we were taken to a studio where he watched the masters and threw some bowls. We did a trip down a river on a raft, a misnomer as it was more like a bus with about 6 rows of seats! We wore raincoats because we did get splashed but it was beautiful, like sailing in a Japanese nature picture.

We visited Buddhist temples and gardens and gloried in the peace and the structured beauty. We participated in a tea ceremony and slept on tatami mats at a Ryokan and enjoyed the quiet peace of the small garden with its rocks and lantern.

We bathed in the baths and learned to soap our bodies and rinse them off by sitting on a low wooden stool, filling a bucket from the faucet and emptying it over our heads. I remember how meditative it was when that water flowed down my hair and face. Only then did we climb into the warm continuously flowing water of the baths.

That trip created my knowledge of Japan and the Japanese people. As an immigrant I do not have Pearl Harbor or the interment camps, as my history. But I do wonder how that cruelty co-existed with the quietness, the peace, the layers of the Japan I saw and the Japan I have read about. To me it is all about layers of simplicity. The gardens are designed so that every plant, rock, pebble, tree is placed in the perfect spot. Every flower in Ikebana is arranged to complement the vase. The tea ceremony is a creation of ritual using perfect tea, perfect implements, and perfect sweets all in the perfect setting. Even sushi is an art consisting of color and form.

I am returning  to Japan and will see and experience different things and create new memories. I look forward to sharing them on this blog.

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