2014
07.19

SYNOPSIS:  Not about temples — only in a P.S.   An interview with Kazu, owner and designer of Guesthouse Nara Komachi.

 

After Horyuji, Horinji and Hokiji two days ago; Kofukuji, Todaiji, Nigatsudo and Sangatsudo yesterday, it was Daianji, Gangoji, Fukuchi-in, Shin-Yakushiji and the Nara National Museum today — I knew it!  Your eyes are glazing over.  I am having the time of my life, exploring all these fabulously old temples and museums, seeing the only surviving one, the biggest or the oldest of this or that but I do realize, that this is of interest mainly to me…

Let me tell you, it is not easy to write a blog in a country where there are no hardships or challenges other than rain; plenty of that, today!  I had to seek shelter for 1/2 hour twice today since my small umbrella is just not fit to protect me, my backpack and my camera.  Not in heavy rain like this.  But who cares?

It is also not easy to write a blog in a country where you are simply left alone.  I do my sightseeing and nobody “bothers” me.  There is no invitation to a cup of tea at every corner like in Iran which leads to interesting conversations and interaction with the locals.  There is no staring or yelling after me like in Mali either.  Despite the obvious cultural differences, you just blend in with the locals and all the other tourists and go about your business.  Rather than approaching you, people seem to be happy if you leave them alone since they are so mortified to speak English.  That is a drawback of traveling here.

It is definitely not easy to write a blog about famous temples and to find anything that has not already been said that much better, more in depth and by experts.  There is just nothing I can add.  Perhaps, I need to stop the blog for a while.  It has crossed my mind, especially since I am entering “temple land” now.  And I might.

But today, I thought I would introduce you to a voice from Nara.  And we will see how it goes from here.

Kazu, the owner, manager, and designer of the Guesthouse Nara Komachi, agreed to give me an interview which I am transcribing here.  If anything got lost in translation or in the transcription, it is entirely my fault.  I hope that I am presenting his voice here the way he would want it to be heard.

I asked him several personal questions:

Were you born in Nara?  

No, I was born in Kyoto, but I came to Nara 5 years ago since I had the opportunity to buy a piece of land on which I could realize my dream: to build my own small guest house.  I love history.  I had looked at lots of historic places, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, everywhere.   I wanted a place within 5 minutes from the station.  But land in that vicinity is expensive.  A place like this in Kyoto would cost about 10 times more than in Nara.  So I came here.

What did you do before you came to Nara?

In high school, Japanese people study very hard.  It is stressful.  At the university we don’t do much.  It is easy to advance.  I studied business and hotel management.  After that I worked for a pharmaceutical company in Tokyo for two years.  It is not like in the US where you study something and then you work in that field.  I studied hotel management but I worked in the pharmaceutical industry.  The salary was good, but it was very stressful.  I had to work Saturdays and Sundays.  I never had a day off.  Eventually, I quit my job and went to Canada to study English.  When I go there, I could not speak English at all even though I had 8 years of English at school…  Our English teachers are Japanese.  They don’t have the ability to teach us much.  And it’s all grammar and reading.  No speaking.  We don’t have many opportunities to speak English.  When I came back I could speak English and I got a job with a hotel management company.  I worked for them for 12 years.  But I always dreamed of having my own hotel, some day.

Tell me about yourself:

I am 47 years old.  My wife is 37.  I have a son one year and 8 months old and my wife is pregnant again.  I live just one minute from here.  I met my wife in the hotel company.  She has the same background as I have.

Do you like your new life as owner of the Guesthouse Nara Komachi?

The best thing about it is that I meet lots of people from around the world.  I can talk to them and I no longer have stress.  What is difficult are the long hours.  First, my wife worked here with me.  But now she has a child and is pregnant and I am all by myself.  I can only hire two part-time employees for very limited hours.  That is hard.  But I like it much better than my first job.

Can you make ends meet?

I had to borrow money from the bank, but so far I manage.  I have enough people coming and business is good.  Nobody can predict the future.  I took a risk. For everything to work out, I pray.

In Nara I have become a lot more interested in history.  I understand Japan a lot better now.  And I have become a lot more religious.  When you are surrounded by these amazing Buddhas and you wonder how people did all of this hundreds and thousands of years ago, I just couldn’t help it.

And from there we went on to more general issues, big and small:

What do you like about Japan?

Japanese people like to cooperate.  This comes from Shinto.  Shinto teaches respect for everything.  This Shinto way of thinking I think is the best about Japan.

What do you not like about Japan?

Japanese are not unique.  We have not had a single idea on our own.  We are only good at taking other people’s technology or ideas.  Shinto was perhaps the only thing that is really Japanese.  Ever since the Nara period we have invited lots of people and taken and absorbed things from others and we stopped to be creative.

I see no homeless people.  How is this possible?

If you go to the big cities, you can see a few homeless people.  But even homeless and unemployed have the ability to work a little.  Also, we have in our constitution that everybody has the right to work and to have a minimum humane life.  If you can prove to the government that you cannot find work, they will pay you some money.  There is no limit on these payments if you really cannot find work.  But the homeless organize themselves, too.  They might salvage scrap metal from the garbage and sell it, for example.  They are a community of their own.

There is no trash in Japan.  How do you do this?

We have grown up since childhood with our parents telling us not to throw trash away.  So, naturally, we don’t do it.  There is that Shinto thinking again.  You can’t just hurt nature.  You can’t just throw something away.  If you hurt nature, something bad will happen to you.

Have you ever been abroad?  

I studied English in Canada for one year.  I have good memories of that since I had just quit that stressful job at the pharmaceutical company.  My time in Canada rejuvenated me.  It was a happy year.

I have also been in China, Taiwan, England, France, Italy and the US.  I have been on vacation perhaps a total of two months.

What about politics and your government?  Are people political?

No, people are not political.  We took our political system from the US and after World War II and during the economic boom, this was a good system.  But the party in power, the Liberal Democrats, stopped working for the people.  They started to work just for themselves and so they lost elections 3 years ago.  Then a very inexperienced party came to power.  They had too many young politicians, and made so many mistakes, we will never elect them again.  But really, people are not interested in politics.

What are some of the challenges for Japan?

25% of our people are over 65.  Our taxes are going up and up and up every year.  That is tough.  And we need to preserve our culture.  Our economy needs foreigners.  We need to be more open to foreigners, but we also need to protect our identity.

So much temple construction is going on all over the country.  How is that financed?

All of this comes from donations.  Not from taxes; not from the government.  Temples do not pay taxes.  They do not have to report income.  We ask monks from the monastery to come to our homes every 1, 3 and 5 years when a person’s death anniversary comes around.  The monks can connect us with the spirit of the dead.  We pay them lots of money for this.  When you buy land or build a house, you call the Shinto priests.  You also pay them a lot of money.  Shinto weddings are very popular now, too.  Young people like Shinto weddings.

Are Japanese people, especially young ones, very religious?

No.  Ever since prosperity increased, since the 1960’s religion has declined.

Let me clarify this: you are not religious, yet you pay all of this money to the shrines and temples and you pray every time there is something important in your life?  Isn’t this a contradiction?

Yes, we do.  Hm…  that is weird.  I have never thought about it this way. …  I think it’s not religion.  It is history and custom.  It’s our tradition.

What do you want somebody like me, anybody who visits your country, to know about Japan?  

I want them to know that even though there are so many conflicts in the world, that the Japanese people are people who want peace.  We are a peaceful people.  Again it’s that Shinto thinking and it is Confucianism.  When the Tokugawas ruled for over 250 years they introduced Confucianism to Japan. That was about peace.   When they ruled there was relative peace.  After that, things became very violent.  And the Meji period was a terrible time.  They persecuted Buddhism and wanted to make Shinto the only religion so that they could control the people during the war.

Speaking of peace.  Do people who flash the V-sign know that it stands for peace?  

No.

And so went almost 2 hours with Kazu.  I could tell that at some points in the interview he had a lot more to say but reached the end of the rope of his English vocabulary.  I also could have kept asking him more and more questions, but it had gotten really late by that point and he needed to go home.

I had fun and I am grateful that Kazu did this for me.  Perhaps, I will do a few more interviews if I have the chance.  Otherwise I will have to “temple you out”.

Good night.

 

Kazu, if you read this, let me know if I got this all right.  If not, I apologize and will fix it!  Thanks.

 

Post script for those who want just a little feedback on today’s temples:

Daianji — Once it must have been one of the larger temple complexes.  Today its off the beaten path.  A bus only goes by about once per hour and it took me 40 minutes on foot from the center of town to get there.  A small treasure hall contains some ancient Buddhist sculptures.  But with the abundance of those everywhere else, there is no need to go on this detour unless you have a particular interest in just these ones.

Gangoji — It has the crummiest treasure hall of all I have seen, with a pagoda replica and one large-size Buddha amidst a few other dusty items.  But it has a lovely graveyard with blooming bell flowers — fun to photograph; and its claims to fame are the oldest roof tiles in all of Nara and likely anywhere in Japan.

Shin-Yakushiji — the most worth-while stop today.  According to the guidebook, the temple architecture bears marks of Greek influence.  I looked everywhere and could not find any.  But the treasure hall has a spectacular arrangement of 16 guardian kings lined up around an impressive colossal Buddha figure.  Definitely worth the detour.

Nara National Museum — it is so central, close to the park and the Todaiji, that there is really no reason to miss it.  It is filled with outstanding Buddhist sculptures of several centuries.  English labels help.  A basement gallery has a tangible display of the stages of several woodworking techniques used in many of these ancient figures.

This was working overtime today!

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. I liked the interview and hope that soon you get a surprise visit for a cup of tea.

  2. If the Shinto religion is so peaceful and so full of respect for people, how could the Japanese have been so warlike and have committed such despicable crimes against people three generations ago when they were more religious than they are now?

    • Very good question. Could one ask how the German nation of Dichter and Denker (poets and philosophers) turned into a nation or Richter and Henker (judges and killers)? In the case of the Japanese there must have been an appeal to the sense of duty and homeland or anything else that convinced them that the situation was desperate enough to warrant extremes. But I know too little to go beyond mere speculation here.

    • Seems to me that throughout history it has been fairly clear that the religion of a nation does not guarantee its behavior in war and peace. Examples abound.