01.07.2009

Moments of Zen

I've landed up in a bustling electronics store with all my luggage in tow. It's like one of those strange dreams where nothing makes sense and the chronology is all blurred. There is, of course, a sensible explanation - I have just arrived by train in Kyoto having flown overnight from Helsinki to Osaka.

Negotiating the confusing mass of exits, tunnels, escalators, shops and signs, some in English but not all, I embark on the first of six action packed days in Japan. Perhaps not quite the Zen buffer I had envisaged between a family reunion in the UK and my return to Australia, but certainly an enjoyable and enlightening experience.

Check in at the ryokan (traditional guesthouse) is not until 3pm, so I leave my luggage, talk myself out of jetlag and set off to explore this ancient city of more than 2000 temples and shrines.

Aware that I am not yet fully grounded, but still suspended somewhere between my mother's kitchen, daffodil lined streams in Yorkshire and the Baltic fog of Helsinki, I opt for Tetsugaku-No-Michi, the Path of Philosophy, a tree lined wander along a canal connecting temples at either end.

At the first temple, Ginkaku-ji, I am one of many tourists shuffling around the gardens and walkways. The density of people dilutes the Zen quality of the garden with its immaculately raked white sand, which I admire but can't fully appreciate.

The flute-like song of a bird (perhaps a warbler) brings me back into the moment and I leave behind the hordes and set off along the canal. Narrowly missing the height of the cherry blossom season, there are nevertheless still boughs of delicate pink and white blossoms hanging over the water and framed by pale blue, watercolour skies.

A little further along, I climb a steep slope through bamboo groves to Honen-In temple and almost have the place to myself. A single camellia flower floats on the surface of a stone water trough, the thatched roof is covered in green moss, as are the tangled tree roots in the garden. The place radiates timeless serenity, and then, as if on cue, a bell rings out in deep, resonant booms, sending ripples of sound through my body.

If I could go back in time, I would linger a little longer at Honen-In, but with a potential list of 1998 more temples to visit, the urge to keep moving is just too strong. I get to Eikan-do just before closing time and race around the gardens and admire the pagoda from afar before squashing onto a bus back into town.

Later on, unpacked and fed, I soak in a Japanese-style bath at the ryokan. It's glorious not to have "drought guilt" and I sit fully immersed in the hot water and let my thoughts drift.

Excited about getting to know another country and culture, I am very much on a sightseeing trip, full of "must see" attractions and other guidebook exhortations. I ponder the original meaning of holiday as a holy day, a time for spiritual reflection and rejuvenation, and wonder if I can find some kind of balance between the two extremes, with enough Zen moments in between the stimulation and activity.

The long, leisurely bath definitely gets a holiday tick as does the exquisite breakfast the next morning. I share the breakfast bar with a Japanese couple and all that can be heard is the appreciative slurping (it's impolite not to slurp) of miso and clam soup, cooked fish, sweet and succulent eggplant, rice, pickled vegetables and spinach with sesame seeds.

Over the next two days in Kyoto, my senses are bombarded with a fantastic diversity of sights, sounds, smells and colours. Some of the less visited temples are oases of calm with lacquer wear, woodcarvings, Zen gardens and iconography ranging from Bodhisattvas on clouds to Buddhist deities and fierce guardians. Others are bus tour favourites and do a thriving trade in trinkets, lucky charms and fortune telling slips of paper.

I visit a sake (rice wine) museum, pay my respects to the gods of rice at the Fushimi-Inari shrine and eat rice with just about every meal, apart from the boiled tofu that comes in a bubbling cauldron all on its own. I wake up to chanting monks one morning, catch a glimpse of a group of geisha girls mincing along in their special socks and platform shoes and trawl through arcades selling everything from bicycles, tea, pickled vegetables and secondhand clothes to Yuinou, symbolic gifts exchanged between the families of betrothed couples.

Taking part in a traditional tea ceremony in the nearby city of Uji provides a much needed pause and time for reflection. The sado, as it is known, originates in the 15th century and combines the ideals of Zen Buddhism with the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi (simple beauty). Performed with grace and elegance in a simply furnished room, the flower arrangement and painted scroll change according to the season. Similarly, we drink cherry blossom drop tea out of cups painted with a blossom motif and eat a sweetmeat called cherry blossom cloud.

The boiling of the water, the whisking of the tea, the clockwise rotating of the bowl, the bowing as you are served your tea all encourage calm contemplation. A sacred ritual, it is refined, unrushed and mindful.

In Tokyo, the city that never sleeps, mindfulness becomes even more of a challenge. Here, the schizophrenic nature of a sightseeing holiday - rushing around in an effort to relax while away from home - taps into the dichotomies of modern Japanese life: East versus West; spiritual versus material; old versus new; sushi versus McDonald's.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Yoyogi Park on a Sunday. Just outside the park, young 20 somethings cast aside their weekday inhibitions and dress in a range of outlandish outfits embracing Gothic, Punk, Jane Austen and 1950s America. Leaving behind the tartan, chains, safety pins, frills, parasols and creative hair styles, I walk along an avenue of tall, leafy trees leading up to the nearby Meiji Shrine.

The combination of spring and an auspicious day for weddings and naming children mean that the place is bustling with wedding parties, families and priests in Ghurkha-like hats. I am lucky enough to witness the photo session of a Shinto wedding party. It's a matter of great precision and formality, and the photographer adjusts every tuck and fold in the costumes, kimonos and suits before the shoot can begin.

Enjoying a bit of quiet time, I sit for a while by the lake in the Meiji-Jingu-Neien garden, watching the carp and turtles and admiring the clipped azalea bushes. Over the water, I can hear music blaring out and suspect it's the Elvis impersonators warming up.

Every Sunday, a group of gum chewing guys with slicked back hair, tight jeans, leather jackets and pointed boots shake and twist to 1950s music. In a crazy juxtaposition between the sacred and the secular, it seems a world away from the shrine with its swirling vat of incense.

Realising Kyoto was merely the dress rehearsal, I throw myself into the Tokyo experience: there's art and city views on the 52nd floor in Roppongi Hills; stylised Kabuki theatre and ladies who lunch in Ginza; hot griddled rice cakes and plates of lookalike plastic food near the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa; dazzling displays of neon lights and videos adorning every skyscraper in Shibuya; and food outlets and restaurants everywhere.

With so much going on, I condense any meditation time down to 10 minutes and then it's a bit patchy. Instead, evening baths and regular cups of green tea (and it is very green) become something of a refuge from the guidebookitis and metropolitan madness. But it's not quite that simple.

I wake at 5am on my last day and all sorts of emotions and post-holiday blues pop up - emotions to do with leaving behind ageing parents and old friends, emotions I have blocked out with my compulsive sightseeing. Exciting, enjoyable and unforgettable as my trip has been, I realise I need some "me time" before I head back to Australia.

I return to Harajuku, the old fabric district and now an arty, designer enclave of intriguing narrow alleyways, trendy eateries, wacky art galleries and one-off shops including one selling jewelled dog collars and one devoted to all things lace.

I head straight for Monimoki House, an organic cafŽ. A little ragged and footsore, I sit down to brown rice and tofu in ginger sauce and get chatting to Gen and Noriko at the neighbouring table. It turns out that we are all in transit between old and new homes, cultures and continents. Noriko and her husband are about to move to the US and she is sad about leaving her parents. Gen's dream is to move to Canada and he is going through the required bureaucratic hoops. What is right, what are we doing with our lives, who are we, where is home?

What joy it is to find like-minded souls and own up to the confusion. The very fact the universe has created this meeting of minds reminds us that we just need to let go and trust the process. Noriko hugs me goodbye - a very touching gesture - and I feel tears welling up. But no, this is Japan and it's not done to display emotion in public.

Who am I kidding? I can't blame it on Japan. In trying to escape some confronting emotions, I have come face to face with them. As Paul Theroux wrote when travelling through New Zealand, "Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia."

Twenty four hours later, I arrive back in Melbourne. Travel weary but content, I lie in my garden and sink into the sun lounger, warmed by the gentle afternoon sun. The sky is so very blue and the grevillea flowers so delightfully creamy. This is the Zen paradise, this is the real sanctuary. I have come home.

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