Friday, September 10, 2010

Engaku-ji Kyudo

The Way of the Bow
In the Spring, my family and I unexpectedly happened upon the Yabusame Archery demonstration (archery competition on horseback) in Kamakura. It was fascinating to watch, the skill, the tradition, the costumes. All of it screamed ancient Japan to me. I shared with some of my students that I had enjoyed watching this event and that my family had tried their hand from time to time with basic backyard archery. Watanabe-san shared that her husband had been taking lessons and studying this traditional Japanese archery technique at Engaku-ji in Kita-Kamakura. "Really?" I said, "Can we come watch some time?"

We moved on with our English conversation lesson, weeks and months passed by and I let it go. Maybe my request was too forward, too you know ... American. But Watanabe-san is a gracious Japanese lady and too my delight on the last lesson in July before summer break she came in with several dates and asked if our family would be available to meet her at the train station in Kita-Kamakura to go see her husband and his fellow archery students practice. I was thrilled! A window into this quiet, meditative art form of Kyudo.

A little research into the art of Kyudo and I found that it is considered a meditative form of martial arts and is said that it's essence is to be the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. Attitude, movement and technique come together to form a perfect state of harmony – where truth exists. A kyuko archer maintains his or her composure and grace even in times of stress or conflict – goodness comes from this, always displaying qualities of courtesy, compassion, morality and non-aggression. Beauty enhances life and stimulates the spirit, it is found in the refined etiquette that surrounds the kyudo ceremony.

No thoughts, No Illusions
In Kyudo, the when the archer gives oneself completely to the shooting, then it is said they have reached the spiritual goal through the perfection of the shooting and the spirit - there are no thoughts, no illusions.

It was a sweltering August morning when we arrived at the Engaku-ji Temple in Kita-Kamakura. This is a Zen temple, one of the larger temples in the area, with beautiful grounds and a huge bell, cast in 1301 (no, that's not a typo), that is a Japanese National Treasure (at the top of 140 steps ... which Watanabe-san managed to knock out easily while I tried hard not to sound like I was about to go into cardiac arrest as I tried to keep up with her).

Watanabe-san guided us to a small area off to the side of the main temple grounds where there was a lovely traditional Japanese building and a small garden area. Those of you who have been reading my posts over the last year have heard me mention before how welcoming the Japanese are, when you're their guest you are treated like royalty. I should not have been surprised but I wasn't expecting anything ... just that we would have the opportunity to see someone shoot these very long and elegant bows and be on our way. I should have known better. We are greeted by a Japanese lady in traditional Kyudo attire, after introductions and bowing we are guided to an area that has clearly been prepared for us. Two benches are covered in royalty red cloth, incense has been lit around the area to keep away the mosquitoes, and no sooner are we seated than we are presented with iced tea with sugar pats. Unlike the sweet tea I grew up with in the south (so sweet it makes your fillings hurt as one of my friends used to say), tea here in Japan is offered unsweetened with beautiful little sugar "cubes" that have been molded into a shape (see photo). I have to instruct my family that you place the sugar pat on your tongue and sip the tea, not plop the sugar pat into the cup and swirl it around until it's dissolved!

With refreshments served, we settle in to watch the members practice. I learn from Watanabe-san that her husband has been studying Kyudo for 10 years and this is the first time she has seen him practice. I sit there for a moment and ponder this revelation and realize this was no simple request from me months ago ... I cringe and hope we have not caused undue disruption as honored guests, but so grateful to have another opportunity to learn about another part of Japanese culture.

Thoughts that stuck me that morning ... it was blazing hot and humid even in the shade, the cicadas are humming their incessantly loud song, butterfly's are floating and darting through the thick summer air, the aroma of incense lingers, a slight breeze stirs the leaves and even though we are only steps away from the JR tracks that run from Yokosuka to Tokyo we are in another world. Time has slowed, daily worries are gone. The kyudo students move with grace, every step, every moment seems to be measured, thoughtful.

Hassetsu - Eight stages of shooting
It was evident to me that as we started to watch there is a very clear set of rules, stages I was to learn later, that the archer must work their way through before ever releasing the arrow. There were three different positions and if you notice in one of the photos, you'll see three tiny flower bud vases at the edge of the building, this is the sort of "x marks the spot" from where the archer lines themselves up. This is as much mental as physical - the archer takes the time to examine, meditate, examine some more - very Eastern mentality. There is nothing hurried about this martial art. Our family all sort of chuckled later to think about how Westerners would just grab the bow and arrow, get yourself comfortable and "fire at will."

There's so much I hope our kids took away from this experience - faster is not better would be one thing that comes to mind. Opening your mind to learn about other cultures makes you a better and richer person would be another. Etiquette, while we may not always be the best practitioner's of this at home as we slog through our busy family life, does matter (yes mom, you did read that here! Those white-gloved manners lessons in our living room from years ago do still come into play).

I left Engaku-ji a little bit different, part of my Western mentality so ingrained in me chipped away and reshaped with Eastern. No thoughts, no illusions ... I love this, it may just have to become my new mantra. I am so thankful to Watanabe-san and her husband for arranging this very special morning for me and my family. It has been added to our family highlights of living in Japan and will be a memory we will treasure. Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival

What a difference a year can make.

Last year, we were fresh off the plane only a month living in Japan when we came to the Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival. Japan was intriguing, culturally different, mysterious. This year, Japan is home. Last year I took photos of the festival food, we tried so many different kinds of food - most of which we had no idea what we were eating. This year we passed by the food vendors with barely a glance - "oh, okonomiyaki (pancake like dish with cabbage), yakisoba (stir fry soba noodles with veggies and usually meat)", "oh yawn, look there's takoyaki" (Japanese dumpling with whole baby octopus). Last year we had eyes wide open, it was all new, it was all different and yes as far as the food went some of it was quite novel and we looked to each other to see who would dare eat the poor baby octopus in the batter ...

The difference a year can make is also apparent in your mentality. Last year we stuck together like glue. This year ... "you all have your cell phones? great, see you later, go have fun!" With fires lit, hoards of people, there was never a thought about our kids safety - this will be a hard reality for us when we do return to the U.S.

This year, with advanced planning, Jeff took leave so that he was able to join us. It was warmer than last year (hottest summer on record since they started in 1898) but the skys were clear and we were able to see Mt. Fuji.

The Fire Festival starts off for us at Fuji Sengen Jinja. It is one of the largest forest shrines in Japan and the mossy stone lanterns that line the way into the shrine were enjoying a lovely late afternoon sunbath - my family moved on as I took multiple photos enamored with the scenery. The large cedar trees offered a respite from the warm summer day and the lovely aroma of the cedars mixed in with incense wafting through the air was inhaling a deep sense calm - wish I could bottle the stuff. It was in stark contrast to all the activity once you arrived in the shrine area where there was a buzz about the place as men dressed in Hanten (a short coat with the name of their group on the back) with bells jingling as they walked, the aroma of incense lingering in the air, anticipation as everyone waited for the spirit of the princess to emerge in a shroud and enter into one of the Omikoshi (portable shrines). There's a deep respect as the shinto priests pass by, with the soulful sound of the Shakuhachi Flute (Japanese bamboo flute), the low pitched wailing that accompanies the shroud vs. the festival atmosphere as we encountered a high energy elderly gentleman with a twinkle in his eye as he stopped to offer Jeff and myself a sip of Sake from a communal cup. Jeff seemed hesitant but I jumped right in and laughed saying "what's the difference - you take communion from a communal cup" - his response was "but the priest wipes the cup with a cloth." Right. That makes all the difference.

We followed the shrines down the street with the masses, the bearer's chanting the heavy portable shrines as they go along, the mood definitely shifts after leaving the grounds of the shrine. It's like going to church for Christmas vs. opening presents on Christmas Day when all hell breaks loose. There's laughter, shouting, beer being consumed in public, jostling, kids running – it's lively, it's chaos!

As we walked down the main street the food vendors were starting to set up shop and we quickly got into our festival food mode. Release those barriers people, let's try something new! I had a delicious type of seafood on a stick (I was not going to examine it too closely) grilled and dipped in soy sauce - yum! We found our crepe lady from last year, at the very end of the street, and each of us was rewarded with a delicious crepe in a cone with the filling of our choice (yes I went for a run the next day, burn baby burn). Wrenn wanted to find the fried spaghetti - which we found on our way back up the street, at least this year we knew the choices and only had to guess which was which.

As dusk approached, the taimatsu (torches) were being lit and we had a clear view of Fuji. This year we were able to see the fires that are lit at each of the stations up the side of the mountain (you can barely make it out on our night photo). The crowds were becoming thicker, the heat from the fires much more intense. I could hear the taiko drums and of course sought them out. It is something to see and hear - the air vibrates with the beating of the drums, there is a build up as the pace quickens and the drumming becomes more energetic ... I love it and cannot get enough. In my next life I want to be a taiko drummer ...

The advantage to living in another country vs. visiting it, is that we live with the culture (I can't say in the culture since we do still live on a U.S. military base), we get to revisit favorite events from the previous year and see and notice things we either weren't aware of the year before or hadn't noticed. I spent a lot more time wandering around the shrine grounds this year, the lovely little pond garden I didn't see last year and seeing and hearing the Shishi Odoshi (bamboo deer chaser) with the steady hollow 'tonk,' seeing the awesome dragon where out of respect you are supposed to dip a cup into the water and rinse your mouth and hands from impurities before entering the shrine grounds. Like the Paper Lantern Festival in Kamakura, I do not know if we'll have a chance to come back to the Fuji Fire Festival (the Navy holds that crystal ball), but I will treasure this year's event, seeing Mt. Fuji with the stations lit was a site to behold, the signal that the climbing season has ended and the wait for the next one begins. Till next time, sayonara.

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