Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The 2006 School Trip, Day Two's a nice, beautiful, clear morning. If only it weren't f*****g 5:00 a.m.!!!!! Our schedule calls for an early enough waking time, but the kids are already banging and thumping all around us like there's a judo competition in progress or something. All last night they used an elaborate series of signals including coded taps on the balcony rail, slippers placed in front of doors, and scouts to let each other know which room was the party room and evade our all-seeing teacher eyes. That meant we kept ourselves busy until late breaking the codes and thwarting them.

I guess this ridiculously early wake-up alarm thumping is their revenge.

Breakfast is broiled clams, breaded pork cutlets, and fried eggs. Once again they are trying to torment me out of my diet...or make me have a stroke and die young, one of the two. (Honestly. I’ll never figure out why a nation like Japan, whose culture has had a strong Buddhist influence since antiquity, has become so carnivorous. It used to be that meat was a rare treat. Now it is almost impossible to avoid. Then again, I guess the ancient, pre-Buddhism Yamato people ate lots of wild boar, so perhaps the culture has come full circle.)

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The boat ride back to the mainland is pleasant. The bus ride to the Peace Park is pretty much the same way it is every time.

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This is my seventh visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park and my third time with a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) guide giving us an informative tour. Even after six visits, the impact hasn't lessened a bit. I won't bother commenting on it yet again. I'll just say that it never ceases to amaze me just how cruel human beings can be to each other if they think they have enough of a cause to justify it. It's even more frightening how people can be so cruelly indifferent.

My group's hibakusha guide this year is a rather funny, old man who (unlike last year's) is actually able to speak and make himself heard. He has a tendency to stammer a bit, making him a bit tedious to listen to, but it's amazing how he can tell us something positively shocking and then smile and say very casually, "Say, why don't we all squeeze into the shade of that tree over there? We can still see what I'm talking about AND we won't have to get sunburned, either!"

I don't know, though...perhaps his carefree manner (and stammering) has a negative effect on the listeners. Either that or it's just the group I'm with. They divided each class into odd and even student numbers. I got stuck with the odd numbers, and I definitely seem to have gotten the oddballs. Even so, it never ceases to amaze me how the students' reaction to Hiroshima seems so out of sync with their personalities. Two years ago I was here with the most spoiled, childish, and self-centered group of punks I'd ever had the misfortune of suffering, but (with the exception of one hopeless basket case) they listened to the hibakusha tale so intently and were so deeply moved that most of them were in tears and one fainted. Last year the kids were good as gold...and they showed no reaction to it at all...if they even tried to listen (which is doubtful). This year? Well, they're very friendly and good-natured kids, even affectionate, but they're a bit on the spoiled side (to put it mildly). They listen to the hibakusha lecture well enough, but as soon as the old man stops talking they launch into a mass of giggles. Sparkly, spunky, but rather spoiled Ms. MM listens as the man tells casually of losing his father to the war and being raised by his mother only to have the A-bomb completely wipe out his home, family, and all his possessions, and then she starts bubbling over how pretty the roses in a nearby memorial garden are...and then sweetly tries to talk me into letting her pick a couple. (No, I don't smack her one, but I admit I'm sorely tempted.) After a while our token human mountain, huge Mr. MO (Yes, he's a rugby player.) starts making annoyed faces and very theatrically leaning on another boy's shoulder and pretending to sleep. Others seem to share the same sentiment.

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At the end if the tour/lecture Ms. MM moves up beside me and asks quietly, "Sensei, have you really been here seven times?" I answer in the affirmative, whereupon her lip curls, and she asks, "And you've had to go through listening to this every time?"

I reply that I've only had the hibakusha tour three times, and I add that it has been different every time. That sets her off into another one of her cute, theatrical, and kind of baffling displays of total silliness.

At least I'm not really getting The Look this year...though I almost wish I were...

After that we go through That Museum, something I dread but go through as a moral duty every time. As always, it is packed full and hard to get around in. Interestingly, there appears to be a whole group of Indians (as in India) there. One of the multi-lingual displays urging the discontinuation and elimination of nuclear weapons is set in Arabic. The various displays are as shocking as ever. Now the kids can't even pretend not to be affected. I'm finally starting to get The Look, but surprisingly, some of the girls in my homeroom actually come up to me and ask me with genuine concern if I'm alright. That's a surprise. Nothing like that has ever happened before.

One of them asks me if, after having seen it all so many times, it gets any easier. No f*****g way.

We're given a much-needed break after that. I go and sit on a park bench (bum ba-bum) eyeing little girls with bad (Sorry, Ian…) It is then that I get yet another new experience. A couple of boys approach me and start speaking to me in English that they're reading off a prompt sheet. I think they're students doing one of those "interview a gaijin" things I’ve faced so many times. Actually, they are Jehovah's Witnesses, and I get Watchtowered. Oh, well. It's something to read and think about while I'm waiting. (It starts out, "Look at the happy people on the cover. Wouldn't you like to be one of them?" After that most of it is along the lines of what I already hear from evangelicals that I know. However, I have to wonder why they changed the cross into a "torture stake"...)

After that we go to lunch. Of course, it's the local specialty: Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (kind of like a cross between a pancake and pizza). The difference is that, whereas Osaka-style is all mixed together in a bowl, poured onto a griddle, and fried, Hiroshima-style is cooked in layers. It's absolutely delicious, but since the main ingredients include fried eggs, pork, and squid, I'm not exactly helping my diet...

After that we're back on the shinkansen (bullet train) for the trip up to Kyoto, where we have only to check into our hotel and have dinner. Before we leave, however, there's time for a little shopping at Hiroshima Station. I buy all kinds of local specialties? No, no, nooo, no! I stumble on a nice, little import shop and walk out of there with Lay's potato chips, cake mix, cookies, M&Ms, and a nice, cold can of A&W root beer to enjoy while I’m waiting.

(Not my picture...sorry...)

In Kyoto we're staying at the converted Zen temple Shogoin-Gotenso (聖護院御殿荘) again. Dinner, naturally, is in a very traditional style and is fantastic!!!!

After dinner is something new and interesting. As I said, this "hotel" is actually a temple. We're going to have our first experience trying out zazen (Zen meditation). When I first heard they were planning to do this I thought it had to be a joke. Try to get 150+ spastic teenagers to assume a meditative position and sit quietly for any length of time? It ain't gonna happen!

Well, it happens. The kids are surprisingly eager. Not only do they listen to the priest's talk very intently, but they do the zazen thing (Actually, in this temple's sect they call it "shikan" (止観), which literally means to stop looking) complete with priests walking around whacking people on the back with sticks if their posture is wrong or if they move. I do it myself, and it's amazingly refreshing. I become aware of everything that is going on around me at once, every vibration, every sound, every back getting smacked. I keep expecting one of the priests to give me the tap so that I can invite him to whack my back (and then thank him), but I come through safe. We go through it twice. The first time it feels like we've been meditating for three minutes, and we're all shocked to hear that it was actually seven. The second time feels like four minutes but is actually fifteen! The kids are so amazed they want to do it some more, and when we don't several of the students (mainly girls) line up so they can have a turn at getting their own backs whacked!

I'm tempted to try it, too, but I don't. It's bath time (by myself in that wonderful-smelling cypress-wood bath), followed by lights-out patrol time, followed by another staff meeting, followed by beer, followed by bed.

I'm beat...


  • Wow, great post.

    I have been intrigued by the effects of nuclear radiation ever since Chernobyl and am interested in programmes about the Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fat Man Little Boy, and Los Alamos...

    It is beyond frightening that something like that can exist.

    Hey can you believe I had to explain Buddhism to my Chinese housemate last night?

    By Anonymous Olivia at Work, at 10:31 PM  

  • Olivia, if you ever get a chance, you should visit the museum in the Peace Park in Hiroshima. It is a very informative (and surprisingly balanced...probably the only place in Japan I've ever been that openly admits the Rape of Nanking and forced foreign labor including "comfort women") place and also an eye-opening experience that can give you serious nightmares if you don't simply rationalize it and tune it all out.

    That's why the Bush Sr. administration intervened and prevented the Smithsonian Institute from borrowing and displaying some of the items. They were afraid it might cause Americans to question the necessity of the A-bomb.

    I'm curious to know how you explained Buddhism. There are so many different branches and sects now that it has become quite complex. You'd be surprised how much they disagree with each other, too.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:52 PM  

  • No student got faint in this year when they listening to that story? ;P

    By Anonymous L.C_D, at 11:36 AM  

  • Very moving post. I sure hope I can get to Hiroshima one of these days.

    Some reactions can be frustrating I am sure, but there is surely a lot of denial going on under the surface. It is a natural reaction and one that takes effort to grapple with. How do we let enough horror sink in to get the message, yet not so much that one is overwhelmed and either gives up or totally blots it out and ignores it?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:59 PM  

  • I didn't get to say much. In her way she asks loads of questions and never lets me finish saying anything.

    All i got out was that Buddhism was a religion of deep philosophy with many rules for living that actually may be a challenge to follow in modern western society. She already knew about not killing living things and that it originated in India. I was about to go on to the monks and the different poses and types of the buddhas. Never even got round to nirvana.
    Mid thought, she was asking me about Hinduism, and I said even less about that!

    Keeps me on my toes, I shall have to condense my speech into sound bites in future, so I can finish before she interrupts me!

    By Anonymous Olivia at Work, at 9:45 PM  

  • Both Buddhism and Jainism are offshoots of Hinduism, perhaps comparable to the way Christianity and Islam are offshoots of Judaism (and are equally loath to admit it).

    I don't know so much about Jainism, but there are many kinds of Buddhism. Japanese Buddhism is built on teachings brought from China via Korea, but it evolved a lot on its own and is now quite different from the religion the way it is practiced in India and Southeast Asia, which is still close to the historical original.

    Here in Japan the most widespread forms of Buddhism are the Jodo or Hongwan Pure Land sects (ask Pandabonium about those), which follow the messianic figure Amida Buddha, Zen, which preaches enlightenment through self-mastery and personal enlightenment through meditation and contemplation, the much older and more esoteric Shingon sect, which believes in the power of tantra and chanted sutras (including the nenbutsu, which is the cornerstone of the Pure Land sects), and the equally ancient but no longer as widespread Tendai sect, which believes dharma is manifest in the physical world as well as the spiritual, and thus everything is part of a universal continuum (that conveniently allows inclusion of the Japanese Shinto faith) that allows for instant achievement of enlightenment through proper insight. (Earlier sects believed that no one could achieve enlightenment except through several lifetimes of growth.) There are also numerous variations of Nichiren Buddhism, which are essentially offshoots of Tendai but are now more widespread than the latter.

    Another large (and growing) Buddhist sect is the lay organization called Soka Gakkai, which is based on Nichiren Buddhism. Unlike the others, it is very dogmatic and sends its members out to preach and convert people very much in the manner of Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses in Christianity.

    I hope I haven't left out anything important.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:53 PM  

  • Perhaps I should add that the temple where we stayed in Kyoto is the home base of a Zen-leaning branch of Tendai Buddhism.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:04 PM  

  • Ndau?

    By Blogger Ndau?, at 7:48 AM  

  • Thanks for the lesson, but I hope you realise I will never be able to say that much!

    oh I found the abridged and unabridged versions of the Tale of Genji today at the most amazing bargain music and bookshop. I bought two CDs and 5 books, so I am now about 20 books behind this year. I have never been behind in reading before...

    But you see I have to go back one day to buy Genji. I like the unabridged (I never like to miss anything) plus it is illustrated with nice little line drawings. However it is an absolute tome, as big as The Canterbury Tales!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:37 AM  

  • There must be lots of revelation and learning from listening to hibakusha. I wish I have a chance to listen to their stories too, in person. Though we see all depiction of the cruelty from many sources, listening to the experience of a living survivor would bring us much closer to the things that happened.

    thanks for your sharing.

    Olivia, not many China chinese know much about Buddhism, if they are born in the period where communism was at its peak, and there is no religious beliefs or philosophical studies. I can understand your frustration cuz I have had to do that to some of my chinese friends too. Many sees Buddhism as something ancient, which applies to older generation more than to young generation. Sad, isn't it?

    and wow, moody, that's a good summary of all sects! Thanks! I have met a soka gakkai preacher before, the way they approach buddhism was so much different from other sects. quite unlike the subtle nature of many streams of buddhism.

    By Blogger YD, at 11:17 PM  

  • YD - yes, I thought it was because of the Communism, so I am guessing the Hong Kong/Taiwan Chinese know more about Buddhism? It must be Hong Kong that make the piles of steamed bean cakes for the ancestors at that annual festival...

    However, she has been out of China for a couple of years now, so probably has more opportunity to learn. Oddly enough.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 11:09 PM  

  • ahhh... the pagoda of steamed bean cakes! delightful to watch. I have always wonder if someone start taking the cakes from the bottom, what would happen...

    by the way, i think the steamed cake pagoda tradition is from Taoism, if i am not mistaken. =)

    By Blogger YD, at 5:35 AM  

  • Olivia & YD:
    Those steamed bean cakes/steamed bean pagoda which you mentioned, we called (bun tower or bun Hill).
    Interesting, it is a Bun Festival celebrated in Cheng Chau island of Hong Kong.

    The most breath-taking trait is the bun towers - large bamboo structures several stories high heaped with sweet buns. These bun towers are festooned in front of the Pak Tai Temple to solemnize the ‘Pak Ta’, the Taoist God of the Sea . There are several temples in Hong Kong honoring the Pak Tai who, according to legend, threw the prince of evil out of heaven. In the past, a signal was given and the young clamber ups the towers, picking as many buns as they could hold. It was believed the more buns you grabbed the more good luck it will bring.

    By Anonymous A Hong Kong Toursit, at 11:29 AM  

  • What an excellent capsule explanation of Buddhist Sects, Moody.

    We'll have to look into Shogoin-Gotenso next time we plan a trip to Kyoto.

    I recall a wonderful Shyojin Ryori dinner we had in a restaurant across from Nanzenji. Love that cuisine.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 4:21 PM  

  • YD said:
    "... listening to the experience of a living survivor would bring us much closer to the things that happened."

    I have heard stories of people having no rice for meals but had to survive on sweet potatoes alone during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. People who lived through those years have many stories on hardship and death. The war deprived many of their loved ones and changed their life forever.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 10:02 PM  

  • amazing story here. i can only imagine how you felt and feel when listening to the tour guides tell their stories of what happened during Hiroshima. i read a book, long ago, about it and bought it again when i went to the States... it always touches me to the core.

    some of the things that the japanese eat amazes me. the things they put together and find appealing... that pizza sounds terrible... but i'll take your word for it and assume it was good. the arabs eat a lot of fried eggs w/ things, even on hamburgers and on club sandwiches... i can't stand it.. but i'm not all that into fried eggs. and you're right, they do eat a lot of meat. surprising.

    By Blogger tooners, at 5:46 PM  

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