SYNOPSIS:  About “the big one”.  About copying a sutra, swimming in the ocean, splurging on a Kassler in a German restaurant, and meeting Karla.


What makes this day different from all the other days?

It is the last day of a 2-month cultural and spiritual journey.   It is the climax of an exploration into Japanese culture.  It is the end of a trip retracing the lessons learned by Professor Kane some 25 years ago.  But as all trips of this nature go, it is also an exploration into oneself and therefore an investment into the future.

Yeah, there is still Tokyo.  But that does not count.

The Daibutsu was one way to mark this event.  Unlike all the other giant Buddhas, most comparable the Roshana Buddha at the Todaiji in Nara, this Buddha sits without its hall in the open.  The hall was blown away twice by typhoons and people finally gave up on it.  Who needs it?  As a seated 11.5 meter, 850 ton bronze figure, he is enormous.  No typhoon can do him harm.  He is another one of those Amida Buddhas who presides over the Western paradise instructing all sentient beings in the truth, leading them in their way towards enlightenment.  But if you look, he seems to just sit there, tranquil, lost in thought, way, way, too removed to notice any of us tiny human beings.   He is awesome.

What is even more awesome is that for a mere 20 cents you can enter the Buddha and look at him from the inside!  You see the seams, the various bronze-making techniques, the funny windows leading out of his back.  You gain a whole new perspective on this tranquil Buddha as a piece of hard work, the result of ingenious engineering.

Perhaps, I should not rely on him too much for enlightenment.  What now?

Carl dared to crawl through the pillar at Todaiji representing the size of the nostril of the Roshana Buddha to gain enlightenment.  I was way too afraid to get stuck there.  But I wanted to try something, at least something symbolic like this to mark the day.  But what?

I had heard of copying a sutra.  Devout Buddhists do this as an act of karma.  And more so, here in Japan, sutras are copied and then left with the deity at the temple to be burned by the priests in special fire ceremonies.  I had witnessed one of those rituals at Koyasan.  Most temples only have those ceremonies once a month or as little as once a year.  All those wooden sticks that have been left inscribed with wishes; all the votive tablets each shrine cell, that have been pinned on those temple “bulletin boards” will get burned to make your wish come through.  I was gonna copy a sutra, but…  no way was I going to leave it at the temple.  Come on.  After all that work?!

Hase Dera, the second temple I had saved for last, offered sutra copying.  For starters, it was a lovely and interesting temple to visit.  One of the revered deities was represented carved in stone in a cave and visitors had to walk, back bent down, through a dripping wet tunnel to appreciate her.  It felt really nice given the humidity and the heat outside.

The temple was situated against the hillside at the end of the ocean front of Kamakura, allowing for great views across town top down.  And it had some lovely, ancient, large-scale Buddhist figures in its various image halls that definitely should not be missed.

Nobody else was there when I inquired about sutra copying.  I was led into a room with a small Amida altar — no photography! — and 24 single table-chair sets covered with black velvet that you might find (save the velvet) in old school rooms.  I could choose from a variety of brushes.  I opted for one that was fueled by an ink capsule rather than one of the old-fashioned ones I would have to dip into an ink well — I am a novice here, after all!  And then I went to work.

They make this easy, of course; that is, relatively speaking.  For someone without any knowledge of Chinese or Japanese characters this was still a chore and I spent a good 45 minutes at the shortest sutra I could have chosen.  But it was fun.  It was quiet, introspected fun.  I retraced every stroke of all the characters and I decided to do this in all seriousness — not knowing a syllable of what I was writing.  But somewhere in there, was the nembutsu, that was for sure.  And with a sutra you can’t go wrong, really (which can’t be said for all other religious texts).

I hope Amida will appreciate the thought; as he well knows, when I was finished, I did not leave the sutra, but pocketed it as a souvenir.  But I felt good about this little act of … making this day special.  There is something to be said about ritual, mindfulness, setting things above the ordinary.

This was the spiritual part of that.

Now, on to the human world: the ocean was right in front of me.  For two months I had never been far from it, but there were temples to be visited and shrines and blogs to be written and photographs to be sorted.  Today, I was going swimming.

I did not know what to expect.  There were a few surfers, many sun bathers, many youngsters hanging out.  I just piled up my clothes at the beach trusting that nothing got stolen, put on my bathing suit and went in — wow!  The water was so much warmer than my little lake in Michigan when I had left it in May.  This was heavenly.  I swam out way farther than anyone else, riding the wavies, and thankfully nobody cared.  You never know in Japan — there might be a rule about swimming just so far…

The swim became just one more way of … making this day special.  It was an act of meditation all by itself holding up to viewing “the big one” and copying the sutra.  I was glad that I had saved this for last — if I had realized how much fun at the beach I was missing, I might have skipped a few temples.

And to put the dot over the “i” or if you prefer to put the icing on the cake, I did not reach for another one of my one-dollar noodle dishes, but put on my nice clothes for a dinner out at the German restaurant.  After all this cultural immersion it was not a bad idea to visit my roots.  But as things go — I had seen the restaurant on the first evening in town.  Tonight, I was circling around it, missing it, walking up and down alleys knowing I had been here, knowing I was close but almost had to give up.  But after a full hour of searching no more than four city blocks up and down I found it.  It was a small, dimly lit place.  The woman was just about to close!  5 minutes before 8 PM.  We close at 8, she said…  I almost left, but she assured me that as long as I had the order in by 8 I would be served.  Rules, remember.  The Germans and the Japanese have that one down.

Rouladen…  I asked, but I knew she would say no.  It is an involved dish.  Okay, Kassler then and Sauerkraut and potato salad.  I was the only one left in the dining room. A sign on the wall congratulated and thanked the restaurant for its 57th year in business!  Wow, that is about my age.

The woman turned out to be one of the original owners running the business with her two brothers.  After I finished eating, we started to chat.  She sat down with me, and in perfect German — even though she had left Germany 57 years ago, she told me her story.  For five generations her family had been associated with Japan.  Her father and grandfather were diplomats.  After the war they got out of Berlin on the last train before the Russians came in and eventually relocated to Japan.  She had married an American who at one point “just left; had to go back to the States”.  So she raised her only daughter by herself.  “This restaurant and my brothers are my family now”.

She was this really kind, gray-haired grandmother type, bent over already and way into her seventies.  Business is not going too well any more.  After they are done — that is, she and her two brothers — there won’t be anyone taking over.  Too much work for too little in return.  For her it was her life.  But for the next generation the restaurant would just be shackles.

She was an expat like myself.  I thanked her for sitting down with me and told her how much it meant to me to have met her today.  She did put the dot on the i — and … was the final element that made this day very special.

Good night.