Edmund F Wilcox
Being mired in Silicon Valley’s commuter traffic meant I would be late. After work where an upper-echelon clientele in the thick of this technical mecca gathered, Charlie’s, the legendary watering hole was where Bill Stevens waited. Twenty minutes late, I drove into the parking lot with its array of Mercedes, Porsches, Maseratis, and BMWs, where I parked and walked to the entrance.
Inside, I encountered the usual musty smell and the loud laughter at the bar and looked for Bill. He was at a table in the back corner.
“Sorry to be late, detained by the traffic.”
“No problem. I ordered your favorite.”
Opposite Bill was a glass of special, expensive Sybarite Oloroso, thirty-year-old dry sherry from Andalucía. Even the aroma was consummate as I sipped it, intending to linger, savoring it. Friends for fifteen years, we had worked together at HP before Bill started his own company Solomak, friends before its dramatic growth, funded by Sequoia Capital with Don Valentine on the board. Five years ago, the company went public as it became a major contender in the semiconductor equipment market. From a star football player at Stanford to a successful entrepreneur, Bill’s noteworthy achievements had gained significant recognition. Not showing his usual optimistic smile, he seemed troubled, with a down-under look.
“I have been avoiding this now for some time,” he said. “I denied it, fought it, assumed it was temporary, but it is not.”
This is new, I thought, I had never seen him at a loss of confidence. “What is wrong?”
“You know me better than most, my ambition, work ethic, achievements. I have enjoyed accolades, but were the long hours of devotion to the company’s success worth it? The sacrifice, a fragile family life held together by the thread of wealth, more and more I am choking on air of insincerity. Not only am I losing interest, I am becoming cynical. Martin came into my office yesterday because he was concerned about me. ‘You had better get a hold of yourself, the drive, enthusiasm, the decisive leadership. If it’s gone, this company will suffer’, he told me.”
“How did you reply?”
“I told him it was time for soul searching. And I agreed with him. If I resign, then what would I do? All I know is this damn company.”
“I don’t know, Bill. Who am I to judge, but it feels like it is time for change, but what kind of change and for what purpose? You have in a way reached the pinnacle of the American Dream and are feeling a So What.”
“Exactly and there is not a person in this room that would understand except you, and that is why I am seeking your advice.”
“Look, you need time to think, to get away. Next week I have a speaking engagement in Japan. Afterward I am going to hang out in Kyoto to spend time with Ito-san, visit sites, enjoy the culture. Why don’t you come with me, get some detachment to help clarify? In turn, maybe you can learn how the Japanese approach life, a new perspective.”
“Splendid. I knew you could help. Let me make sure I can arrange it; I will let you know tomorrow.”
After I finished the sherry, we got up and walked out into the parking lot.
Over the Pacific on our way to Japan, Bill began to reflect, feeling guilty about his personal life. “I endorse the value that the family comes first, but how could it be true when I have spent twelve to fourteen hours a day at work and spent my weekends still thinking about the job? Alice said she had to create her own life, as I am married not to her but to my job. She has her own bedroom and I sleep in the guest room downstairs. There is no question my family has put up with my work addiction, hanging in there because of the wealth and pride in what we have, as love went out the window. I get home late, and there are notes on the sink about dinner to warm up if I am hungry. Our interests, values, nothing. Our conversations are practical, distant, and infrequent. It is not working and I do not blame anybody but myself. My only enjoyment in life is watching the stock price go up.”
“I do not know what good it does to beat yourself up, but have at it. However, if you want to get the most out of this trip, then you are going to have to pull the shade down on the past, it is gone it is over it will not return. Bill, I always said one of the reasons for your success is your power to concentrate. For our time in Japan, use it to live in and control the present.”
“I will try. I hope there is enough there to keep me interested.”
“One time when I was living in Japan, our meeting had been rescheduled and we had two hours to kill. Ito-san suggested we visit the nearby Meiji Shrine. New leaves were shining and the birds were singing above the sound of the little stream flowing over rocks. And out of the water grew these long-stemmed irises in full bloom. A small group of elderly women dressed in grey kimonos were fixated on these picture-perfect flowers. As we drew nearer, I noticed tears rolling down their checks. I asked Ito-san, ‘Why are they crying?’”
“No, they are not crying. Don’t you understand they are so grateful that at their age they made it through the winter and are grateful for the opportunity to be with these irises at least one more time?”
Bill looked at me, puzzled over why I told him this story.
“Japanese accept and expect life to be fleeting, not long-lasting. So, learn to be grateful for the moment before it is gone. The cherry blossom after a week begins to dislodge and fall, fleeting beauty. Live in the present now because it is on its way into yesterday, out of reach. They call this mono no aware.”
“My time has gone into making the future happen to the extent I have taken the present for granted. I will give it some thought. Does it mean living without a plan?”
“Maybe and maybe not; it means living in harmony.”
We went through customs to curbside, from where we boarded the limo bound for the Okura Hotel. Designed by Yashiro Taniguchi, built in the early 60s the Okura Hotel is a unique blend of Western practicality and Japanese aesthetics, its elegant simplicity. As we entered the lobby, Bill noted, “Is it the acoustics? It is so quiet.”
“I do not know why, but notice how people lower the sound of their voices. Some even whisper.”
After we checked in, I told Bill, “I will have your luggage sent to your room. On the 27th floor there is a spa where they are waiting for you to celebrate your first time in Japan.”
A puzzled look at first, then he grinned and headed for the elevator.
For breakfast I was in the hotel restaurant reading the Japan Times, the coffee cup half full when Bill showed up with a big smile. “I never slept so soundly. A delightful celebration; it was great.”
The waiter took our order and filled our coffee cups.
“I walk into the spa and hear, ‘Mr. Stevens.’ ‘Yes,’ ‘You are first time in Japan. This is Hara, your attendant, please follow her instructions.’ A young, attractive, wearing shorts, shining eyes, smiling, ‘Welcome to Japan!’ Then she asked, ‘Are you a movie star?’”
‘You should be. You look like one. Follow me please.’
“Into this private bathhouse I follow her, then she helps me take off my clothes and I go in an enclosed Turkish bath, except for my head, which sticks out. She says she will be back. The steam starts to work and I sweat a lot. She comes back with a wet towel, wipes off my face, and goes out again. She returns and I am relaxed to say the least. Next, I sit on this two-foot-high stool and with a soap-filled sponge she scrubs my body and with a wooden bucket full of warm water rinses off the soap, which is required before going into this tub of clean, hot, very hot water. It is a deep tub where the water covers my shoulders. I am there for at least twenty minutes not realizing all of what happened was preliminary for what was to come.
“While drying me, Hara asks, ‘Have you had Shiatsu before?’ I say, ‘No, what is that?’
‘Japanese massage. Please up on the table.
“With thumbs, fists, elbows, and fingers she presses every damn pressure point. I do not think Hara is much over five foot tall, but she has strength; she is relentless. And then what was far out was she asked, ‘Can I walk on your back?’ By now there was little strength left to say no. As each vertebrate cracked, it felt good.”
‘You rest awhile before getting dressed,’ she said and left.
“When I manage to get up, I feel like rubber. I thank her and the manger, and offer a tip, which they refused.”
‘No! It is all taken care of’
“A male attendant accompanies me to my room. I guess to make sure I get there, anyhow I plop into bed and fall asleep. A release of all sense of tension, a letting go, something I really needed.”
“Japanese are great hosts as they value peace, harmony, and relaxation. Bill, I will be back at 3:00 pm when we will check-out, you can explore the hotel’s many amenities, check out the Okura Art Museum, or read this,” and I gave him a book I found thought-provoking.
He read the title, Zen and the Art of Archery and asked, “What’s this about?”
“More than archery.”
In the cab on the way to Shinjuku Station, Bill asked, “What’s next?”
“A train ride to Tsurumaki Onsen, where we will spend the night.”
“What’s an Onsen?”
“Japanese spa, hot springs for bathing.”
“I get it. You are trying to clean up my act.”
I laughed, “You are right. Maybe hot baths have something to do with why Japanese live longer than the rest of us.”
Bill experienced a crowded train. People were crammed into the car, three-deep in the aisle, tolerating it by closing their eyes, pretending to be asleep on their feet, rocking back and forth as the conductor’s voice broke the silence by announcing the next stop above the rhythm of clacking wheels slowing down.
Looking out the window, Bill said, “Space is all used up. There are cement telephone poles, wires crisscrossing, above tile roofs and little garden plots. Man, it’s so crammed together, claustrophobic.”
We hopped off the train onto the station platform from where we crossed the street and walked up a steep hill to the Jinya, where I had been a regular guest. We passed under the crimson Torii and walked on the stepping stone path boarded with a knee-high bamboo fence and tall cypress trees leading to the lobby entrance where we parked our shoes in exchange for slippers.
The owner of the Jinya, Mrs. Miyasaki greeted me graciously as a lost friend and sat with us over tea. She had saved a large room overlooking the garden and hoped Bill could adjust on his first time in Japan. After a bath we would have dinner in the restaurant and breakfast in the room. Business was good and the title for Go Championship was still the key annual event held at the Jinya. We needed to check out in time to catch the 10:20 train for Odawara.
We followed the maid to our room with tatami (rice straw mat floor) and shoji screen opening on to a balcony. Bill stopped in front of the tokonoma to view the ikebana below a scroll.
“The alcove has a Buddhist influence from a distant past to provide an aesthetic appreciation for guests. The pole with the bark still on it is called the toko-bashira, depicting a fondness for natural wood.”
“Where are the beds?” Bill asked.
“We sleep on futon made up for us at night.”
The sun had just gone down when Bill and I sat out on the balcony to take in the lingering twilight descending on the garden below. We listened to birds chirping in the bamboo grove as they settled down for the coming night, listened to the sound of water flowing gently over rocks in the little stream meandering through clumps of azaleas and dwarf pine trees. From the extended eves, spiders were busily web-spinning on their descent to the ground.
“They remind me of one of Issa’s haikus.”
“What is a haiku?”
“A short poem purposed to spark your imagination. It goes:
Don’t worry spiders
I keep house
Bill chuckled, “You are really into it, learning to enjoy simple, mundane stuff.”
As darkness fell, we shut the shoji, turned on the lights, changed to yukatas and headed for the famous bath fed from a hot spring rich in minerals.
At the bathhouse, we followed the custom, first with soap, then a complete rinse off before we got into the bath outside under the stars. “Why is it so damn hot?” Bill complained.
“Get used to it. Do not move, sit still for a little while. Remember the Japanese live longer than the rest of us. Hot baths stimulate the circulation, balance the energy, and promote relaxation.”
“Where did the stars go?”
As we were the only ones in the bath and crazy foreigners, we were not aware of what was about to happen. It started to rain, creating a different, rather pleasurable experience. Our heads wet and cold but the rest of us hot while we soaked as the rain caused steam to rise off the hot water, ofuro in the ame.
We spent an hour in the bath before coming to the restaurant. We could feel the heat from the grill next to our table. The kimono-clad waitress had netted out of the adjacent stream two trout that were sizzling on the grill with mushrooms, onions, and shishito peppers. From bowls we drank miso soup while waiting for the entrée, which included kabocha squash, rice, and green tea. We savored our dinner, eating slowly with chopsticks. Tension from Bill’s wrinkled brow and his intense stare disappeared as he said, “This sounds strange, but I feel like when I was a boy scout out on a new venture.”
Dinner was a delight, but not so with breakfast. The rice with pickled radish and miso soup we liked, but we did not have an appetite for the cold cuts on lettuce, anchovies, or the cold fried egg cooked the night before.
After boarding the new Shinkansen (bullet train), Bill was struck by its quietness, speed, and comfort. He settled back in the seat and after looking out the window he began to talk about the book I gave him. “I finished reading Zen and the Art of Archery. I am trying to have an open mind but it is hard to accept that it really happened. So, there is the guy telling his story, a German professor at Tokyo University, and he and his wife take archery lessons from the Zen Master. His wife’s progress is better than his until they go on vacation and without the Master’s instruction, the professor develops a technique resulting in a remarkable improvement, and he is anxious to show the Master. When he does, the Master turns his back on the astonished professor, meaning he is out, rejected, eliminated without explanation.”
“After a while, with the help of a good friend the Master agrees to try again, but first the professor needs to understand. He is invited to the Master’s house, which is opened to the backyard where there is a target. The Master strings his bow then, blindfolded, shoots an arrow right into the center of the bull’s eye. And then to make his point even more poignant he shoots a second arrow. It breaks the shaft of the first arrow stuck in the bull’s eye. He pulls off his blindfold and asks ‘What happened?’
Amazed, the professor replied, ‘You made two perfect shoots, incredible!’
‘No,’ the Master shouts, ‘I did not. It shoots, understand it shoots.’”
“Sorry but this sounds like mystical gobbledygook to me. It shoots? Like artless art, effortless effort, the void is the all, come on?”
“Well, what happens when your hero Joe Montana gets into the zone. Does he or it throw the football?”
“Well, if it’s it, what is it?”
“I don’t’ know, let us ask Ito-san, he is into Zen.”
Five years had slipped by since I had seen my good friend Ito-san and it was pleasant to see how little has changed. Only his hair was grayer. After greetings and introductions, he drove us to a typical Kyoto view, at a small restaurant with an outside deck overlooking the Shirakawa River. The sound of the river in the background seemed to say, Slow down, take it easy, enjoy the moment. Over a cup of green tea, we learned about Ito-son’s plan for our visit.
“You are staying at the Tawaraya Ryokan where I will join you for dinner at 6:00pm and the geisha will come at 8:00pm. Later we will spend time at the Buddhist temple, Nanzen-ji.”
“What is the Tawaraya Ryokan like?” I asked.
“It is near the Gion, the geisha district, on an old narrow street. It is the oldest ryokan in Kyoto, the epitome of wabi/sabi, very traditional, excellent service.”
“Ito-san, tell Bill – wabi/sabi, describe it for him.”
“These are Japanese aesthetic concepts, where Wabi is simple and austere but elegant charm and Sabi is the mystery and alure of aging, of the weathered, the enduring. Not sadness but sympathy for loneliness. The Tawaraya will provide an opportunity to experience wabi/sabi, giving meaning to the words.”
“The serenity and attention to how one feels is impressive and heartwarming for me and a relief from a daily grind with its tension.”
“Wonderful, Mr. Stevens. I am glad you’re quick to learn. Business is different here in that competition is tempered with the ever-present value of harmony and emphasis of the group over the individual.”
“In our highly competitive environment, I thrived and achieved and received recognition, but I feel for that gain I have lost something, perhaps a big piece of humanity. Maybe the price I paid was too high.”
“It is my sincere hope, Mr. Stevens, that your visit to our Kyoto will be helpful and memorable for you. The city has a history dating back a thousand years, a place with a thousand Buddhist temples and six hundred Shinto shrines, Imperial palace, remnants from China’s Tang dynasty and of course our gardens expressing our unique aesthetics. Old Japan is here: our cuisine, geishas, teahouses and ryokans.”
Though the narrow street was paved, it had no sidewalk but a gutter instead, as if time had stopped. We walked into the area of the Tokugawa. There was no space between the two-storied structures where paper lanterns hung on their stretched-out eaves. We almost walked by, so unobtrusive was the façade of the historic Tawaraya Ryokan. We walked into a curved, cave-like entrance leading us to a portico where we exchanged shoes for slippers before we encountered a small garden with shrubs, a pool surrounded by a cluster of small pebbles, and a garden framed by walk-ways where we met the manager. No lobby, no check-in.
Expecting us, he introduced us to Toshiko, our personal maid. Dressed in a blue kimono with a red obi, she showed the way to our room. We felt wabi/sabi from this three-hundred-year-old inn, dimly lit, aged, rough-surfaced wood, the smell of incense, a nook with chair and desk, a library. A pinnacle of silence and solitude.
Simple, refined, and elegant, our room opened to a private garden. The ikebana (floral arrangement) in the tokonoma, a work of art, were the symbols of those three words, as were the pillows to sit on around a long-lacquered table.
Toshiko-san crossed the room with a tray and placed a small tea pot and two cups on a stand between two chairs out on the deck. “Please enjoy our special koicha with the garden. Time to relax; it is very peaceful.”
As we took our seats Bill said he was wondering what made that repeated sound as he watched the shishi-odoshi empty water then the bamboo pipe’s heavier end fall back on a rock creating a hollowing sound. “What is that for?” he asked.
“Originally used to scare off unwanted animals, wild boar, deer and crows, but this one is not very loud. Maybe just for decor.”
“Ito-san appears likeable, very attentive and sincere. Tell me about him.”
“After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, he joined Yuasa, a large battery manufacturer located here in Kyoto. When I met him ten years ago, he was in charge of a department and had a very traditional life. His marriage was arranged and he has a son and two daughters who are married with children. Two years ago, Ito-San retired and now is into Zen and Japanese art, especially the tea ceremony. He has been quite helpful in my endeavor to study Japanese culture.”
Into the room came Toshiko-san. “I fix your bath.”
She filled, with steaming hot water, the deep tub made of a special wood, hinoki cypress, The smell of the cypress, the view of the garden, and the hot water removed all sense of tension assuring our being quite relaxed in preparation for an evening’s entertainment.
And at six o’clock Ito-san showed up followed by Toshiko-san bringing the aperitif, plum wine. On pillows sitting up to the table Ito-san raised his glass, “Kanpai, to an appetite for the kaiseki cuisine. Kanpai!”
For the next two hours, we savored a culinary work of art: eight courses served one at a time, food artfully presented on unique ceramic ware. Serving the first course, Toshiko-san explained, “This is the starter, saki-zuke, one plate with steamed shrimp and potato, another with shrimp and green soybean paste.” Not until we finished the first course did she serve the second one, ku-suimono, pureed soup of lotus root and fried tofu with roasted pine nuts.
Next, she served moriawase (the sashimi course), “Here is kue (long tooth grouper) and puffer fish sashimi.”
“This food you said it’s what kind of cuisine?”
“Kaiseki cuisine,” replied Ito-son, “It evolved from several sources dating back to the Heian period, around 800 A.D. The imperial court held banquets serving a large number of dishes, mostly fish, fowl, and game. The vegetarian Buddhist monks influenced it with their cuisine called shojin-ryori as well as tea ceremony’s cha-kaiseki. Our modern kaiseki influenced the famous French novelle cuisine, a lighter fare with emphasis on presentation.”
The rest of the courses were a delight to say the least, and of note was the Kyoto eel, the ayu (sweet fish), and the duck meat. After we had steamed rice with pickles came a desert, a pear compote soaked in blueberry sauce.
Ito-san said, “It’s this time after a special dinner I miss having a cigarette.”
The fusuma (sliding door) gently slid open, “Konbanwa genkidesu ka,” a female voice came from the geiko, what a Kyoto geisha is called. The three of different ages, faces painted in stark white, with red lips and eye shadow trimmed with a thin, red line. They were adorned with expensive, colorfully designed kimonos, their waists wrapped with obis and collars pulled back to expose the nape of the neck. Ito-san introduced Yuiko-san, a geiko in her prime, a mentor to Fukumaru-san, a sixteen-year-old maiko in training to become a geiko, and Midori-san, older, a semi-retired geiko, an expert shamisen player.
Sitting on their knees in front of tokonoma, Midori-san with her three-stringed banjo-like shamisen and Fukumaru-san with a small taiko (drum), created music to accompany Yuiko-san’s traditional Nihon Buyo, a dance with highly stylized and tightly choregraphed moves that were slow and graceful. With bent knees and the use of the fan, each movement was fashioned to tell a story in pantomime. Midori-san’s singing, tempered with its nasal sound, created an episode so distinctly Japanese where Ito-san understood and was captivated; for Bill and me it was new and so unique, not unpleasant, but different. Next it was Fukumaru-san, the maiko’s turn to dance, not as long and complex as her mentor’s, yet her movements were executed with comparable skill and gracefulness.
Afterward, they joined us at the table. Yuiko-san spoke broken English with a heavy accent, but with a charming lilt, the other two understood some English but were reluctant to speak it; thus, challenging Ito-san to translate the geisha’s repartee. He laughed, fumbled, and confused us with unfinished attempts. As the evening progressed, the sake began to take its toll. He addressed the geiko in English and to us spoke Japanese.
Yuiko-san placed a small paper napkin on the top of a glass. In the center of the napkin she put a coin, lit a cigarette and burned a small piece of the napkin with it, then handed the cigarette to Bill. Ito-san explained, “Bill, it’s your turn to burn it. The point is the one who causes the coin to drop from the napkin loses. The penalty, chug-a-lug.”
Back and forth each burned a small amount as the coin’s support became less tenable until Bill’s last burn did it, and the coin fell to the bottom of the glass. We all laughed as Bill downed the sake. Next, I tried it and lost and the same happened with Ito-san. Our relaxed inhibitions caused us to regress back into a childlike euphoria.
A screen divided the contestants from seeing one another, the geiko against Ito-san as they played Tora, Tora, Tora (scissors, rock, paper) accompanied by the shamisen. When the music stopped, each came out from the screen showing their selection, Ito-san with scissors and Yuiko-san’s closed fist, rock. Amongst the laughter, Ito-san chug-a-lugged the sake.
One after the other we took turns at Tora Tora Tora, losing more times than winning while the warm sake abetted loud laughter.
Conversations became hilarious as the geiko and Ito-san were deeply engaged in topics so humorous their laughter caused Bill and I to join-in, though we had only an inkling of understanding as the translations were mere fragments.
“Pink boy, peach boy, what’s that about?” I asked, resulting in an uproar.
“Peach boy is a hero and pink boy is a gay,” Ito-san managed to say before laughter took over. Then he asked, “What do you call Jack and Beanstalk?” followed by more laughter.
Midori-san told a far-out story that from Ito-san we learned was about a doctor who confronts a patient who has swallowed his glass eye. Fukumaru-san’s contribution was interpreted.
“The call of nature is a problem, says the Samurai in armor.” We laughed but not enough, so she offered another, “It is not a place to go twice,” he says and goes three times.
Then in broken English, Yuiko-san asked, “What state in US is always morning? You don’t know? Ohio.” (Ohayo gozaimasu is good morning in Japanese)
Midori-san played the shamisen and started singing, “Sa ku ra, sa ku ra, ya yo i no, so ra wa.” We all joined in, Bill and I limited to the sakuras.
Afterward she played and sang, “Yaren soran soran soran (hai hai),” a fisherman’s song that we folk danced to. When “dokkoisho dokkoisho” came, our gestures were to heave ho, heave ho. Again, Bill and I were limited to soran soran while trying to learn the steps and the arm movements. Our attempts caused a bolt of laugher. More games, more songs, more folk dances and strange jokes, the geiko sober the guests drunk. Ito-san’s voice, his words slurring and his legs wobbling, indicating the time had come to end the fun and games.
In quick order, Toshiko-san and a servant cleared the table, cleaned up the mess, and made up our beds while Bill and I set out on the deck with a cup of hot, strong coffee, and a breath of fresh air.
The morning after imbibing so much sake found us reluctant to embrace a new day. With a dry mouth, a headache, and a lack of energy, I managed to get out of bed by 9:30 am. Bill said, his head felt liked it was full of warm glue.
We were in yukatas after a shower and still feeling fussy and listless when into the room with cheerful enthusiasm came Toshiko-san.
“Ohayo gozaimasu, to make you feel better I bring breakfast, special to cure hangover, OK?”
First, she brought this strong green tea followed by hot miso soup with shijimi clams.
“You must drink lots of liquids and eat fruit,” she told us. She served us bananas, persimmons, and salted umeboshi (apricot/plum). Scrambled eggs in butter appeared with toast and Proceri, a sports drink like Gatorade. She kept our cups full of the green tea, insisting we drink more. As we finished, she handed each of us a small bottle of Lipovitan, the Japanese version of Red Bull.
It worked and by early afternoon we fully recovered from the after effects of too much sake.
At the end of the Philosophers Walk, we approached the renowned entrance to our destination, Nanzen-ji with its broad, tree-lined walkway leading to a massive structure that loomed sixty feet or more above a canopy of green leaves. Ito-san told us, “This is our famous Sanmon Gate, the largest, most historic temple gate in all of Japan. Built to last of wood in 1628, now you see how time aged it; it is almost black. This gate was built by a man coming from humble beginnings, a foot soldier, Todo Takatora. He was very large for Japanese, over six feet tall, and proved to be invincible in one battle after another, rising up through the ranks to become a famous samurai. He was so famous that Tokugawa Shogun promoted Takatora to a daimyo, a landholder in charge of a large district. He became a man of culture proficient in the arts, responsible for building of over twenty castles, living a long, productive life. When he died at the age of seventy-four, it was revealed then that almost his entire body was covered with scars from sword and knife wounds. Two fingers were gone and others halved. This courageous warrior-builder dedicated the Sanmon to the samurai slain in the siege of the Osaka castle.”
The heavy roof with its sweeping eaves and gun-metal gray tiles was supported by colossal pillars, six pairs separated equidistant to provide three large openings designed to allow the three Zen gateways: Kumon (emptiness), muganmon (desirelessness), musomon (formlessness) to pass through to be free of greed, hatred, and foolishness.
Ito-san asked, “The stairs to the viewing site are steep. How about it?”
We were out of breath when we reached the veranda, but the view justified the effort. Beyond the tree line appeared the commercial buildings of a modern city, contrasting with the temple grounds, which were spacious with their multiple tile-roofed structures and the gardens, of the unique Japanese art form. When you are up looking out over such an expansive view blending with the sky, there comes calmness, a welcoming silence.
“Ito-san,” I asked, “what is the purpose of a temple gate? It is certainly not traditional to let people in or out.”
“The gate is very important to understand. Before entering you must leave behind all thought and feeling of the material world, desires, restlessness, sorrows, and frustrations, in preparation for passing through to the sacred grounds of peace and tranquility.”
After making our way down the steep stairs, we continued down a wide walkway bordered on both sides with a knee-high bamboo fence that separated the pavement from a cluster of trees growing up out of a carpet of lush, green moss. As we entered the Hojo (abbot’s quarters), on the right there was a tea room where we ventured next. Sitting on pillows on the floor next to a short-legged table, we watched a shaven-headed, black-robed monk whisking powdered green tea in a small bowl. As opposed to the koicha (green tea) we were used to, the taste of this tea was different. It was slightly bitter with a thicker texture.
When we each had a bowl of pu’er cha to linger over, we gazed at a miniature waterfall and listened to its cascade. The setting seemed quite appropriate for Ito-san to explain how Nanzen-ji came to be. “We go back to the thirteenth century. This place was a retirement villa built for Emperor Kameyama, Japan’s 90th Emperor, and a very strange, bizarre event led it to become a Zen temple. One evening after dinner, the Empress said, ‘As I was enjoying the garden, watching the birds and breeze in the trees, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see who it was, but nobody was there. I guess it was my imagination!’
‘I don’t think so.’ offered her oldest daughter, relating how she too had felt the invisible hand on her shoulder. It started that way but when doors were shut and opened without a person doing it, Emperor Kameyama knew his villa was inhabited by an evil spirit. He requested the official Buddhist priest to get rid of this curse. Three local priests came and returned several times, praying, chanting and burning incense, but to no avail. The spirit continued its shenanigans. These orthodox priests, opposed Zen with its anti-dogmatic stance.
Emperor Kameyama found Mukan Fumon, a Rinzai Zen master who meditated in the center of the villa for ten hours straight and exorcised the evil spirit. Emperor was so impressed and became a student seeking the master’s training. Eventually, he gave this site for Mukan Fumon to develop into Nanzen-Ji and eventually to become headquarters for Rinzai-shu of Zen Buddhism.
Bill asked Ito-san, “What is Rinzai Zen? How is it different?”
“It is the experience that matters, not the religious dogma. Rinzai Zen is non-verbal, non-intellectual, steeped in za-zen (meditation). Inspired by a renowned master, Hakuin Ekaku. Though quite eccentric, gifted in arts, tea ceremony, poetry, and painting, he had reached enlightenment as well as being devoted to serving humanity by teaching mindfulness and showing a deep awareness that we are all one. In old age he had great strength and perfect health. In meditation he taught students to visualize a cube of butter on their heads to focus on how it is melting and running down their bodies.”
Bill nodded and chose to inquire no further, for what he heard was over the top, a stretch, too far out for his mind to accept, let alone about meditating on the sound of one hand clapping, as described by Ito-san.
We followed him to the frequently photographed Zen rock garden with its ground covered with small white pebbles raked into a pattern of waves surrounding large rocks on moss-covered islets. We took seats on bleachers overlooking this refined spectacle, and were drawn into the view, feeling calmness.
Ito-san said for us to follow his instructions and we began deep breathing, inhaling slowly, continuously and holding the breath before exhaling. Then he told us to watch our breath without controlling or interfering, just watch, concentrating on breathing in, taking an interval of no-breath, and breathing out. The longer we watched, the greater the no-breath interval became, and with it a deeper feeling of peace. Whether we meditated on breathing for fifteen minutes or a half an hour I had no idea, but afterward we just sat there in silence while I experienced contentment beyond what I had ever known before.
It was with this state of mind that we left to wander around a garden pond and over a bridge enjoying the aesthetically designed garden. In particular, we enjoyed he placement of rocks, trees, and lanterns on a carpet of moss. From there we found ourselves stopping for lunch at Junsei, a tofu restaurant where we were served one dish after another of tofu, each prepared differently.
“The Zen rock garden was so uniquely elegant. Who created it?” Bill asked Ito-san.
“In the 1600s, Japan’s Leonardo de Vinci, Kobori Enshu, architect, poet, calligrapher, designer of gardens but most famous as a Zen tea master. He brought light into the design of the Tea house and coined the term wabi/sabi. He married Todo Takatora’s daughter.”
“So many famous people contributed to Nanzen-ji, to this unforgettable temple; let me see if I can remember. There was Emperor Kameyama, then the Rinzai Master Fumon, the gate builder Takatora and his son-in-law, Kobori Enshu. A very moving experience for me. I appreciate your bringing us here.”
Ito-san smiled and bowed.
We visited two other Zen temples before ending up where we started, on the small restaurant’s deck, admiring the close-up view of the Shirakawa River. Over a cup of green tea, we felt grateful for the colorful sunset.
Bill reminded me, “We need to ask Ito-san about It Shoots.”
He was not familiar with the book Zen and the art of Archery. After explaining how the story arrived at the climax, I pointed out when the Master Archer blindfolded executed two miraculous shots then denied he did it declaring – It Shoots. “Bill and I want to know if the master didn’t then say what is…It that shoots?”
Ito-san’s face lit up; he liked the question. “You want a logical answer because you are conditioned that logic is the pathway to meaning. Zen has to transcend logic to be meaningful, to be realized. When the meditator, the meditation, and the object of meditation become one, that is ‘It.’ The shooter, the shot, the target become one. Call it what you may, but you will never know until you experience it.”
Our heads nodded, minds lost in wonder, confusion, and not free of skepticism. In silence, we looked up and out at the sunset.
Before getting up to leave, Bill said, “If ever I would decide to become an artist, I would come here to learn. The spirit of art is everywhere in everything revered by the nation.”
“The what?” asked Ito-san then answering his own question, the spirit.” He chucked as we left.
When we got back to the ryokan, the manager handed Bill an urgent message. It read: Intel wants to see you as soon as possible, a threat of a line shut down. Let me know how soon you will get here. — Martin
The next morning, Bill left early on a train going to Osaka, where he caught a flight to San Francisco. “Tell Ito-san I am deeply grateful for his hospitality and if he ever comes to the Bay Area, I would be honored to show him around,” were Bill’s departing words.
I spent two more days with Ito-san in Kyoto before taking the train back to Tokyo. I stayed there for a week before flying home.
Both of us were quite busy and two months went by before we got together outside a Starbucks in San Jose late in the afternoon, when the breeze from the ocean was cooling what had been a hot summer day. Had the trip to Japan helped Bill to resolve his personal crisis? Certainly, something happened because his appearance, sun-tan, posture, and big smile indicated it was dramatic. He looked a lot younger.
He said, “I cannot thank you enough for our trip to Japan. It was the catalyst for changing my life. So much happened in so little time. On the flight back, I thought about how to really relax, how to get the most out of time, which is fleeting, never to return. I learned how to let go, have fun, being a kid again, but most important of all was the peace and harmony we experienced at Nanzen-Ji. When I got off the plane, I resolved to change my life.
“When I told the major stakeholders of the company I wanted out, at first they tried to talk me out of it. When that did not work, they wanted me to be Chairman of the Board, and as a compromise I agreed to stay on as a board member.
“I re-read Zen and the Art of Archery, wanting to learn more. Then I spent a mind-changing week at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center learning to meditate, learning to trust intuition over logic. The week there also turned out to be a heart-changing experience.”
“I do not understand. What happened to your heart?”
“I met Linda, a Japanese-American widow, ten years younger than I. She has been practicing Zen since she was in college. It felt like we had known each other before. She offered to help me to learn meditation and that was the beginning that developed into an affair that felt like it should last. Alice agreed when I offered to give her the home and living expenses in a divorce. I moved in with Linda in her small but comfortable cottage in Pacific Grove.”
“As the book says, ‘All right doing is accomplished only in a state of selflessness in which the doer cannot be present any longer as himself.’ I am beginning to realize – It Shoots.”