Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan (8 page)

BOOK: Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan
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They drove away, relieved to have disentangled themselves from being responsible for me, and I sat on the beach and watched the sky darken.


as imperceptibly as dust. The fishermen slipped away, the small fading lights of their boats ineffably sad. As the land cooled, the sea winds began. A moon, half-full, took possession of the sky and, one by one, stars appeared, first Venus and then, slowly, scattered constellations. A single tall palm tree swayed sleepily on the wind like a servant’s fan.

I didn’t bother with a tent. The sky was clear and I had noticed a small torii gate earlier, marking a path that would lead to a hilltop shrine that could serve as an impromptu shelter, should the rain begin to fall. I had shared a roof with the gods before, and they were always quite accommodating—too accommodating at times. Once, in an Okinawan cloudburst, I sought refuge under a small shrine only to discover that every mosquito, frog, centipede, and lizard within a ten-mile radius had a similar idea. It was a regular creepy-crawly jamboree under there. Surrounded by this annoyance of creatures, I took a long time getting to sleep. Then, just as I was drifting off, a thought occurred to me:
I wonder if snakes mind the rain?
And that was it. I spent the rest of the night in rigid, wide-awake terror, listening to every snap and rustle.

Kojima’s beach, fortunately, was far from any viper-infested undergrowth, and I unrolled my sleeping bag without fear. The moon gave the world a pale cast, as though I had fallen into a black-and-white photograph tinted blue. There were monkey cries across the water. I lay on the sand, looking up at the stars, and I could feel the earth turning beneath me. If you listened carefully, you could hear the groan and creak of pulley and rope, turning the earth and all the life that clings to it. In a single, vertigo heartbeat, it felt like I might slip off entirely and free-fall into nothingness.

I knew a girl once. Her name was Marion. She came to Japan from Scotland and we travelled through Korea and across the Japanese islands. We hiked along volcanic ridges. We island-hopped across Okinawa. We spent nights like this on empty beaches. We drank a lot of beer. Made a lot of love. And then she left and made her way back to Scotland. She left and I stayed, and that is pretty much where the story ends.

Sometimes I hate Japan. I hate it for not being an easier place to leave. And sometimes I fear that I
fallen off the earth. Maybe, when people fall off the earth, Japan is where they land.

It was not that I was lovesick or heartbroken. It was just that, on nights like this, under a full sky of stars, listening to the
of waves along an empty beach, on nights like this the mind turns naturally to a Scottish girl with brown hair and a warm smile. At night, when I dream, she is always laughing and turning into the sunlight. And I wake, feeling like a kite returning to earth because the wind it was riding has passed.

A moon, half-empty, had possession of the sky. Distant stars and islands near at hand. I lay there almost till dawn, on a Japanese shore, turning the image of Marion over and over in my mind, like you might with a stone in your hand. The edges blur and the features rub away, until all you are left with are scattered recollections and a vague sense of loss. Not feelings, but the memory of feelings. Longing. Nostalgia. Regrets so sharp they make your chest hurt.


of waves and a sky of soft sakura pink. The morning wind had the smell of freshly washed sheets. In the forest, the birds were having their morning meeting and apparently things had degenerated into insults and name-calling. I sat up, stretched, and tried to flick the sand from my scalp. There was grit in my mouth, between my toes, and stuccoed to my skin. I rubbed my teeth with my fingers: morning breath. After crawling out and shaking my sleeping bag a couple of times, I jumped around trying to rub the sand from my body, but all I achieved in doing this was a kind of accidental aerobics. At least it woke me up.

The waves had receded during the night, and ebb tide had left a wide slope of wet, soft sand. I walked down to the water’s edge, peed into the sea. Mused about life.

The forest bird committee abruptly ended discussion, their Bali music jangle stopping as suddenly as if a volume switch was turned off. The seabirds took over, flying in low, turning wide arcs above the water. In the distance, a piston-like chugging could be heard, growing nearer, louder—and then, in a flurry of seagulls, the fishing boats from yesterday reappeared, jostling into position along the pier. The young men turned off the engines and resumed the same postures as before. Strength in reserve. A boredom so intense it bordered on worldly disdain.

“Morning!” I said as I walked down the pier. This elicited a grunt here and a nod there, the most minimal forms of acknowledgement possible.

I wanted directions back to the highway but they were more interested in boat rides. How much to go across? It was half of what
they had demanded from the Professor. Maybe it was because they knew me now. Maybe it was because they recognized the Professor’s Tokyo accent. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t interested in visiting the island again.

A tour bus pulled in, crunching gravel under tires. The door slid open and a dozen or so men climbed out. They were members of an agricultural co-op—“potato boys” the fishermen said under their breath—and they were on an outing. A tour guide, with white gloves and a flag, marched them across the ten feet that separated the road from the pier, her flag held high should any of them lose their way. I watched the interaction of the agricultural co-op and the boatmen with interest. Farmers and fishermen, they have so little in common. The Harvest versus the Hunt, the sea versus the seed.

Japan is both fisherman and farmer. It is an island culture, but it also has the patience (and the suspicions) of a farmer: a fascination with seasons, with long-term plans, with harvests. The sea binds them. The fields define them. The cities of Japan are travesties precisely because Japan is still—at heart—an agricultural country. This is changing, of course. The cities are becoming cleaner, greener, more comfortable, and the villages are dying—but it is a slow death, and not an inevitable one. It is de rigueur among the overly romantic to wail and bemoan the death of the Japanese village, but Japan is simply finding a new equilibrium. The elegies are premature; there is strength in reserve.

The farmers were having trouble getting on the boats as the sea rocked and tilted them. The motors began with great bronchial coughs, and the fishermen’s sons backed their beasts away from the pier. “There are about ninety monkeys on the island,” I heard the fishermen begin, shouting over the motors. “They are called the Wisest Monkeys in Japan.” And then, before anyone could ask: “They wash their potatoes before they eat them.”


of the Japanese house is its roof. Heavy tiles; curved eaves; the embedded figures of Ebisu, God of Fishermen, and Daikoku, God of Farmers; dolphin-like tigerfish, backs arched to ward off lightning strikes: Japanese rooftops, at least the traditional ones that you encounter outside of the cities, are magnificent. The interlocking tiles are kept in place not by mortar but by design; when one tile goes, others soon begin to drop away, exposing the clay and straw beneath.

There is a fear in Japan that Japanese society is a tiled rooftop, held in place by the careful position of each member, that if one falters the entire structure starts to give way. It isn’t true, of course. But the effectiveness of a fear has nothing to do with its reality. The tiles, held in place like standing waves, are stronger than they look. On older rooftops, moss and grasses grow, weeds, even the occasional batch of wildflowers.

These rooftops are liquid in design, but heavy in their mass. They transform even the humblest Japanese house into a castle. (At times, I suspect that the main purpose of the house itself is just to hold up and best display the roof.) Homes in Japan are even built from the rooftops down, without central support beams, in a design that has been described as “a book balanced on top of pencils.” In many Western countries, the top-heavy nature of Japanese homes would not pass building regulations. But when the earthquakes rumble through Japan, they topple highway overpasses and split concrete, but the small, top-heavy wooden homes sway drunkenly and remain standing.

Japanese homes crowd the very edge of city streets. They squeeze in, cheek-by-jowl, almost wall-to-wall. Alleyways, only an arm’s
length wide, run between them. Neighbourhoods are a labyrinth of one-lane streets, narrow divides, dead ends. The Japanese usually cite the high cost of land for this closely packed effect, but there are other reasons at work. A typical Japanese village is surrounded by open, inviting areas: forests, rice fields, hills. But rather than spread the houses out and give everyone some elbow room, the Japanese wedge their homes into thickly clustered packs, as though huddled together for protection. The rice fields form a moat of green around them, and the Japanese live in each other’s laps.

It is a habit born partly from geography—the fjords of the coastline naturally encourage villages to be clustered into coves. But it is also something else. The design of Japanese villages is born of a need that the West has largely disregarded as weak: the need for human company and the sadness of being left alone. In the West, we fear
. In Japan, they fear
. It is in this broad sense that Japan is described as being feminine and the West masculine. In the West we are obsessed with individuality. It makes us strong—in a very limited sense of the word—but like any commitment to an ideal it also requires a sacrifice. And what we have sacrificed in the West is our sense of belonging. In Japan, it is
that has been sacrificed. And it is this privacy that the Japanese home seeks to reclaim.

Japanese homes are often disproportionately large for the amount of land they occupy. It’s the yards that are small, not the homes. Given a plot of land, the Japanese approach is to enclose as much space as possible within it. The yard, if it can be called one, is often a mere fringe of grass or a tiny miniature garden tucked in between the driveway and the front wall. In Japan the yard is still a semi-public place, and leaving it open is like making your house a public arena. Better to set the limits of your privacy as far as you can. You will often see houses along riverbanks cantilevered precariously over the river, trying to maximize the space contained even at the risk of losing it all. Japanese homes tend to slide into rivers a lot.

Even the entranceway of a home is not a completely private space. Salesmen, visitors, bill collectors, and metermen all step right into your entry unannounced. The entrance of a Japanese home is built on street level, that dirty, littered, lower
world. The private and the personal is above it. You step
from the entrance. The
entire house is built on a higher level, and the rudest salesman in Japan, although he thinks nothing of barging right into your home, would never dream of stepping
uninvited. This is also why you take off your shoes. One leaves behind the dust of the world when you enter a home. You step up, you rise above.

There are more mundane reasons as well. Japanese homes are elevated because they are built for summer. The walls slide open, and the home opens like a magician’s box to allow summer breezes and night winds to blow through. The raised floor provides a cool pocket of shade for the house to rest upon. Unfortunately, these same houses are horribly cold and drafty in winter. There is no such thing as insulation, and the floors are like sheets of dry ice. Any nation that chooses sliding paper walls over drywall and fibreglass insulation is not a nation that minds the cold. In most of Japan, it is the summer heat and humidity that are the real enemies. A sealed, thick-walled Western home would trap the moisture in and rot clothes in the closet. Japanese homes breathe.

I was standing on a corner in a tumble-down neighbourhood of Nango Town, admiring just such a home. Nango is a typical southern Japanese community, arranged without rhyme or reason, with the buildings flush against the main highway. Narrow alleyways lead off into hidden neighbourhoods, and the heavy-tiled rooftops are so close together they form a canopy.

The house I was standing in front of had a secret garden of bonsai trees and, in the absence of rides or even traffic, I had stopped to admire this tiny forest. Bonsai has been called the world’s slowest sculpture. Living pine trees, their growth stunted by bound roots, they exist in miniature perfection, handed down from generation to generation. The technique came from China, but it is in Japan that it reached its apex.

That the Japanese have a special relationship with nature is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the culture. The Japanese do have a deep relationship with nature, but it is not with the wild, chaotic, untamed forces we think of in the West. It is nature controlled, contoured, perfected; this is what the Japanese mean when they speak of a love of nature.

I was standing there, captivated by this miniature forest, when a door slid open. It was the woman of the house; she had been watching
me for some time. I said, “Good afternoon,” and she returned my greeting, using the local dialect. I am always flattered when this happens, when they just assume I belong in this area, that I can understand the language of this valley, this island, this neighbourhood. Japan is like Britain in its rich variety of dialect and accent, and the Japanese spoken in southern Kyushu is an earthy one. I answered in dialect, or at least the little of it I knew, and she laughed, her eyes disappearing into crinkles.

“Your husband’s bonsai is beautiful,” I said. Although I did not know who shaped these trees, I knew that bonsai is a very male art. In Japan, women generally arrange flowers, men arrange trees.

BOOK: Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan
13.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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