Thawing in early spring

Hello again,


Taken at the Imperial Palace, right by my university.

The weather has been just wonderful recently. The last week or so especially. I’ve heard on the news that there’s a warm wind coming up from the south. Not sure how much longer it’ll last, but it’s nice to get out of bed and not immediately start shivering. I also realized that I have no idea how warm it is here in Fahrenheit, only in Celsius (19°). I suppose that made it about 67°F today.

I decided to take a little walk today before my afternoon class. I hadn’t been over to the Imperial Palace in a while, even though it’s just a crosswalk away from my university. It may be hard to tell from the picture, but the weather was wonderful. A bit warm with a light breeze. Just a hint of rain. I even ended up taking off my two jackets. I’ve been wearing two jackets and a sweater (along with some long underwear) every day for about 3 months now, so it felt great to walk around in my jeans and button-down.

I think what I’ve missed most are the smells. And right after that the sounds. I guess it might be harder to smell things in winter, or smells don’t carry as far, or they’re just harder to notice… I can smell the city again. I didn’t realize how much I missed the smell of cars and leaves and food. It was a whole other dimension of the city that I was missing. And of course the flowers are blooming as well, but I was already expecting to be moved by them.

What I wasn’t expecting at all was all the sounds. The birds, the cars, the wind, people on the streets, and even trains. Was I just not paying attention during the winter? Looking back, it actually seemed louder, like there was white noise everywhere that blocked out these things.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how you don’t often really know how cold you are until you get warm again. Whenever I got in the shower during the winter here, it felt like my feet were melting. The hot water hitting them actually felt freezing cold until my feet thawed enough to feel warm.

Winter is hard, wherever you are. Sometimes I even forgot that it doesn’t stay like this forever. A letter to my friends reading this: let’s really enjoy this upcoming spring. It seems like its been a hard winter for a lot of people again. It might take a little while to thaw, but it’s worth it.

Seasonal change, and I guess change in general, brings a bit of clarity to things. In a few weeks or months, I may be used to spring instead of winter. And then I’ll be aware of a whole new host of things as spring turns into summer.

But it seems to always start with smells, and then sounds, for me.

It was a strange place to meet another American. In a Zen temple in Arashiyama.

I had been to Tenryuji a few times before, but this was the first time I’d had the chance to actually go into it, I usually walk around the gardens or the famous bamboo path behind it. And it wasn’t just inside the main complex; thanks to my religion professor’s connections, our class was actually able to go inside the old meditation hall (the new hall is elsewhere because the tourists were becoming a bit loud) and meditate.

The monk who was showing us around was from the US, but he’d been in Japan since 1969. He was a funny, sweet guy–and a little awkward, too. What really amazed me was his face. It looked like a monk’s face. You know, the weathered face you see so often in movies and books. I guess it comes from the practice and not the nationality.

The space of the temple was suddenly different, as well. For once, I was the one who was being affected by the rooms, and not the other way around. It seems like whenever I go to temples or shrines, I’m only seeing things there. It’s kind of like I’m bouncing off of everything and not getting many responses. This time was different.

I started to realize that the space was affecting me now, instead. It was bringing me in and quieting me down. In some strange way if almost felt as if it had finally, slowly turned around to face me. And it was looking me up and down with a smirk.

Meditation went alright for me. I think the hardest thing to do in meditation is to forgive yourself. Because you’re going to mess up. And your leg is going to cramp. And you’re going to think about train tickets. But if you can give yourself a little slack, that seems to be the first good thing to come out of meditation.

After the meditation session (where most people were whacked by a stick but I missed out on it), we asked the monk why he became a monk in the first place. “Ahh. Well that’s simple. Misery and suffering,” he said with a smile.

“I just wasn’t happy with life anymore, and the things that made other people happy didn’t make me happy at all. This just seemed right for me, and for me, it has been.”

It may seem strange for someone who was suffering before to come to a place that actually seems to cause more suffering. That stick that some of my classmates were hit with was just the most mundane of physical challenges that Zen monks have to endure. They also often clean all day, while waking up around 3:00am for chanting. Not only that, but the mental strain of having to memorize all the sutras and many steps of doing things (from going to the bathroom to going asleep).

The monk answered out questions with two main points. First, that there is a distinct difference between pain and suffering. The pain of being hit by a stick, for example, is just a quick pain that sounds a lot worse than it feels. But if you start to ruminate on it too much, you start to connect it to other pains and memories in you life. “Ouch, that hurt. It doesn’t seem like it really hurt anyone else, though. Just like me to be whining at a time like this. And I’m supposed to clear my mind! Everyone else seems to be so much better at that, too. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this…” and so on. But in reality, it was just a quick pain that passed in an instant. Pain in itself if fine. It’s when it turns into suffering afterwords where the real damage is done. He asked us to do our best to not let our pains turn into suffering.

Second, that there’s real value in being scared. This really resonated with me because of tea ceremony and kyudo. There’s a sweet spot between being too scared to do anything successfully and being too skilled for something to be challenging. When you find it, you’re so concentrated on trying to do that one thing or trying not to mess up that it actually clears your mind of many distractions. He told us a story of a friend of his who deliberately went to his master over and over again to be tested on riddles that he had no clue how to answer. And he loved it. It’s very frightening to have someone quickly asking you these impossible questions in a loud voice, but for that one moment, it seemed like he was free of his ego.

It’s given me a lot to think about. But I’ve realized that thinking about it isn’t much good. I’ve had better luck just living my life enjoying spring and being terrified at tea.

Kyudo has actually been going pretty well. And I have something that I know you’ve all been waiting for. Me in my uniform.


An awkward picture of me in uniform, kindly taken by another kyudo student.

Taking a picture of yourself in uniform is actually kind of a big deal, as it turns out. My senseis had me pose in various locations and paid very special attention to the way I carried myself. In the end, this was one of the best pictures we took. It doesn’t show me with a bow or anything or by any actual targets, but it somehow seems to represent the sport and my training more than any other picture could.

One of the reasons why this picture-taking opportunity presented itself was because two other foreign students have started to come on Saturdays to the dojo. Because of this, a few things have changed. The biggest thing is that my Japanese has suddenly become better and worse.

People come to me quite often now to ask my how to say a complicated word or phrase in English, so that they can talk to the new students. Sometimes I know how to, other times I don’t. But not knowing doesn’t seem to stop them from coming to me.

At the same time, people have also sometimes started to talk to me like they do to the new students. Slowly, and with smaller words. Sometimes even in English. I’ve learned to appreciated the English, though. Some other English speakers here are annoyed to no end by that, but it seems easier on everyone if you try to view it as the favor it is. Speaking a foreign language is very hard, and I appreciate the effort they take to communicate.

That these two things don’t seem to contradict, even in my mind, seems very exemplary of how people interact with foreigners in general.

It’s fun to sometimes peek through the other side and understand how English speakers are seen. When my kyudo sensei was talking about other foreigners who he was training the other day, he said he wanted to understand what they where saying to each other, “but they just went ‘braaabarbarwabaarwarr’ the whole time.” I laughed with everyone else because I suddenly realized that that was actually a pretty accurate representation of what English sounds like. One that I could never come up with on my own.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be on a 一人旅, or one-person trip till Sunday. First I’ll be going to Kanazawa, and then heading up to Wajima. My next post probably won’t be so much of a summary as it will be a few snapshots (with actual pictures and with short blurbs) from my travels.

I was a little hesitant about this trip. My program is paying for it, so it would be a waste to not go. I’ve been feeling a little lonely lately, though. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be actually alone for that long. But looking at it now, with the trip ahead of me tomorrow, I’m not sure I’ve felt on my own in a while. What with work, school, and my host family among other things, I haven’t had much time to myself. For some reason, perhaps that was making me start to feel lonely.

I’ll see what happens on the trip, but I’m excited to take in the beginning of spring by myself. Now to packing.

Wish me luck,


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