Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cooling it in Kyoto

Confession: I'm an unreconstructed tourist. I search out popular and significant sights and sites in foreign lands and take photos of them along with numerous selfies and pictures of what I eat. All goes into an album of memories, most likely these days on Facebook. This makes me not unlike a collector of stamps or the Boy Scout accumulating merit badges.  On my TripAdvisor page I'm up to 216 cities in 30 countries. Wow.

Seasoned travellers look down their noses at this.  I once traveled with a lady in Sri Lanka who sneered at my predilection for modern hotels with sumptuous breakfast buffets.  She thought a measure of discomfort was a mark of the exotic.  We parted in an ancient hotel on the beach at Negombo where fish were drying on the sand. For me, the exotic can often be found in the familar. Even the lowly McDonald's outlet can provide surprises in a menu adapted for Thai or Japanese tastes.

I live now in a foreign land far from where I was born and every day is a tourist excursion. As a resident in Asia, my goal has been to explore the neighborhood, and in the recent past I've taken selfies and eaten strange food in Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore.  This year the destination was Japan, home of the Karate Kid, where Marlon Brandon said "Sayonara" and John Wayne was the barbarian who courted a geisha, birthplace of the Ninja Turtles and the place where Bill Murray became Lost in Translation.

We see what we are prepared for.  In my case, besides the movies already mentioned, my anticipation was conditioned long ago by reading James Clavell's novel Shogun which was made into a popular TV miniseries in the 1980s with Richard Chamberlain as an English ship pilot in the early 17th century.  In addition to films, I also have a fondness for the art of Hokusai and the haiku poetry of Basho, but both are associated with Eido which grew into Tokyo, now the world's largest city.  Tokyo, however, held little attraction since I already live in a large Asia city. It was Kyoto, imperial capital of Japan for a thousand years and home of the shogunate, that appealed most to me.

In the run up to departure, I read Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk, the story of how he fell in love with the city and the woman who became his wife, and I poured over maps and guide books and looked at pictures of many of the 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, 17 of which have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.  From a YouTube video I learned that pickles and tofu were specialities of Kyoto cuisine. Friends said that our departure in the second half of April was too late for the blooming of the cherry blossoms, an almost religious event in Japan, but it also meant smaller crowds of tourists. I bought Nan a Kyoto guide in Thai and for me the just published Kansai Cool: A Journey Into the Cultural Heartland of Japan by Christal Whelan which takes a regional view to include nearby Osaka and Kobe.

Reality can be unexpected, since it's mostly of our own construction.  For reasons of price and location in the temple-saturated Higashiyama neighborhood of Kyoto, I picked a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, thinking it would add to our immersion in historical Japan.  It wasn't sleeping on a futon over tatami mats in a tiny room, or the postage-stamp bathroom, that was difficult so much as the 4th floor walkup in a building without an elevator.  Everything else about the Kyoto Traveller's Inn was superb, from its location opposite the zoo and art museums near the Heian-Jingu Shinto shrine, to the food and the friendliness of the staff, and not least the onsen hot bath in the basement (probably more correctly called a sento since the water wasn't from hot springs) that was strangely always empty.  The hot waters helped to soothe aches and pains brought on by extensive walking.

The burning summer weather had just begun in Thailand as we set off for Kyoto where long sleeves and coats were necessary and the shorts I brought useless.  Despite warnings that Sakura, the Japanese blossom time, was past its peak, there were blooms everywhere and tourists and locals who were taking their photo.  We cut notches on our tourist samurai sword by visiting Nanzen-Ji, Ginkaku-Ji and Kiyomizu-dera on the east side and Tenryu-Ji in the west. We walked the grounds of the Imperial Palace and Nijo-Jo Palace where the shoguns lived but failed to see much without the necessary reservations.  We sniffed the smells and eye-balled strange food in Nishiki Market and climbed to the top of the ultramodern Kyoto Station in the shadow of Kyoto Tower.  We walked the blossom-lined Path of Philosophy and the through the giant bamboo grove at Arashiyama.  In the evenings we ate yakiniku, okonomiyaki, sushi and sashimi, and sipped incredibly tasty noodle soups. So what if we missed Fuji and the short trip I'd hope to make to Nara?

In my imagination, Kyoto was forever lost in the shogunate period from the 11th to the 19th century.  And the authorities have certified that the tourists sites are historically authentic.  But Kyoto today is a cosmopolitan city of one and a half million with a modern bus and subway system that we quickly learned to navigate.  Ginkaku and Kiyomizu are surrounded by a veritable Disneyland of shops selling a hodgepodge of souvenirs as well as pickles, mochi and green tea ice cream. That it was Easter weekend probably did not increase the usual crush of visitors to the sites. Arashiyama was particularly crowded because it was a Sunday to celebrate the coming of age of young girls who could be seen everywhere in kimonos strolling with their families. I felt the stickiness of stereotypes jostling for dominance with the commerce of tourism, mostly from Japanese themselves, so much in evidence.  What, I wondered, was the relation of the city's history to the fun-seekers queuing up for hot buns or taking selfies in the Buddhist shrines?

We had a wonderful time during our six-day visit. Nan got to rent a kimono one afternoon for a stroll down the street in Arashiyama, and she was able to buy a variety of Nippon goodies for gifts and for treats that now fill our refrigerator.  Our journey was made easier with the help of Kanae who grew up in Kyoto and Nueng from Thailand who is now studying there, both friends from my university in Ayutthaya.  This blog has turned into somewhat of a meta-reflection on tourism rather than a traditional travel report.  Hopefully you can browse through our photos in the Holiday in Kyoto album on Facebook which I have made public.

More than any other city I've visited, Kyoto is a paradise for bicyclists, if not pedestrians.  In Bangkok, the motorcycle taxi drivers roar down the sidewalks, but they are no more dangerous than the two-wheelers that whizzed by me in Kyoto.  Despite this sign, there was plenty of bike traffic in the downtown shopping area. Another observation: Kyoto is a city where the elderly remain active.  Japan has an average life-expectancy of 81 and the old folk were everywhere. Maybe the long lives are due to the ubiquitous face masks worn by residents to prevent the spread of infection. When I visited Germany in the 1970s I thought about the elderly I saw and wondered who might have supported Hitler. Perhaps enough time has past now so those thoughts did not arise when I encountered the elderly in Japan.

More likely, it's because I'm old as well now.  The Vietnamese I met in Hanoi seemed to have forgiven the misdeeds of my country.  So I have no more reason for grudges.  This trip made me realize my age acutely.  The four floors walkup in the hotel didn't help.  Most mornings while Nan slept, I wandered the surrounding area with my camera looking for a good cup of coffee (toast was the usual accompaniment).  By the time we set out on our day's tourist adventures, my feet, right knee and legs were already sore. I learned to search out the elevators and escalators in the underground. Rheumy eyes made it hard to see clearly. And I even got sunburned though the weather was mostly cloudy with a bit of drizzle.  Arthritic fingers ached from gripping maps. By late afternoon, I was pretty much wiped out, and we took more taxis than our budget recommended. Future trips will require better pacing.

As Christal Whelan points out in Kansai Cool, Japan's ministry of tourism now uses the slogan "Cool Japan" to advertise its wares. When we got off the plane back in Bangkok the hot air hit us like an explosion, emphasizing the temperature difference. But the cities differ in other interesting ways.  That night back home we went to an outdoor restaurant in Pinklao serving Isan food. The place was full of people happily chatting. In Kyoto at night the streets were silent, except for in the busy karaoke bar section of Pontocho.  In my youth, I lived for a time in Cuernavaca, and loved the street life there.  I found it again in Bangkok.  Thailand and Mexico are outside cultures, while Kyoto and probably all Japan are inside cultures.  I don't know if it's totally due to the long hot summer since Japan, like much of the north, has seasons.  In many respects, Kyoto reminded me of San Francisco.  And it was wonderful to see again pine and fir trees.

One other significant difference between the cities: Thailand is known as the "Land of Smiles" and if you look at someone they will almost always smile at you (even if they think you're a farang who smells like a turtle).  I smiled at lots of strangers in Kyoto and no one returned my grin.  On the other hand, we were struck by the friendliness, from the customs inspector at the airport who wanted to know if we were married, to the helpful staff at the hotel and the subway ticket taker who saw we were lost and gave us a free ticket to the proper stop.  The Japanese are punctual and incredibly efficient.  At the Daimaru Department Store, the information staff pictured directed us to an elevator that had not one but two operators, both grinning from ear to ear and eager to help us to our destination.  When our plane departed, the ground crew waved goodbye (they also did in Taiwan).

In Japan I knew nothing of the country's politics.  There could have been a revolution brewing and it wouldn't have interrupted my activities. This must be what it's like for a tourist in Bangkok ignorant of the current crisis that seems so disturbing to us expats.  After nearly a week there I will probably pay more attention to any news stories I see mentioning Japan.  Obama arrived in Tokyo the day we left the airport in Oasaka. Parts of the country remain uninhabitable after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.  More than the tourist crowds and the temple shopping malls, I'll probably remember quiet mornings in Higashiyama when residents came outside to water their plants and sweep up the leaves while the many streams through the area provided the rippling sound of water rushing over pebbles.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

To Be Me or Not to Be Me

Living in a Buddhist country, Thailand, I find it remarkable how little impact the Buddha's teaching about the self appears to have for the people around me.  They regularly frequent the many temples with flowers and incense to "tambun" (make merit) for the happiness and success of themselves and others, and to secure a favorable rebirth.  Their world is full of good and evil spirits that require small shrines full of icons outside buildings, religious tattoos, prayers and special amulets for protection. 

Since the Buddha's discourses were written down for his monastic followers, perhaps the teaching on anatta is primarily for monks.  The students to whom I teach English are mostly monks, and other than their robes and shaved heads appear to be little different from other young men their age in Thailand.  They joke about girlfriends and passionately follow British football teams.  All have digital devices and love the music of Michael Jackson.  When I taught the Five Precepts in English, none of them questioned the reality of a self that was able to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct.

My monks are also aware of anicca (impermanence), the second of the three marks of existence.  When I ask them their plans for the future, they tell me no one can know what will happen.  But if I ask them "what if," then they shyly confess their dreams of becoming a teacher, a businessman or a tour guide.  Since all grew up in small villages where becoming a monk is the only way to get a university education, they know the dukkha (suffering) of poverty, the third mark of existence.  I'm sure they've also been taught the Pali terms for the Five Aggregates and can explain that the self and everything else is the result of prior conditions.  But how does this knowledge impact the effeminate monk applying makeup at the back of my classroom?

It always made sense to me that the Buddha in his teaching on anatta primarily intended to undermine a permanent or essential sense of self such as the eternal soul of Christians or the atman of the Vedas.  Buddhadasa Bhikku in Thailand described it as the "I, me, mine" that gets in the way of social relationships and makes it more difficult to feel compassion for others.  A self that is constructed by the brain through experiences of the body in the world makes perfect sense to me.  This provisional "self" dies with the brain.  And this is why the idea of reincarnation and kamma that connects successive incarnations makes no sense at all.

There is currently much theorizing about the idea of self and no-self by writers such as Julian Baggini, Jennifer Ouellette, Thomas Metzinger, Ray Kurzell, Patricia Churchland and others.  The idea of a constructed and impermanent self is no longer a surprising notion.   Only the religious faithful cling to an eternal self that can suffer rewards or punishment in an afterlife (or, as some Buddhists think, be reborn as a deva or cockroach in the next). 

Why then is the existence of a self such a sticky belief?  It must benefit the transference of our genes to the next generation, in Professor Wright's thinking.  If we were all meditating on a mountain or in a cave, there might be no next generation.  Selves are useful in an evolutionary sort of way.  They must be fed, clothed and housed, and for that a singular sense of being is necessary.  Selves incur duty and responsibility, imply an ethics, and they link us into a great chain of others.  Two selves are necessary to create the next generation.

To aid in this effort, our language locks us into a way of thinking about selves and objects.  For example, in my native English it is difficult if not impossible to speak from an abstract position; my view of the world is a perspective dictated by my body in space.  Generalities and objective claims are often only pretence. English sentences, I tell my students, must have a subject and a verb (although sometimes the subject is implied); e.g., "Speak!"  Gurus and enlightened humans have to struggle mightily to eliminate all subjectivity from their speaking and writing.  Even if all language is metaphor, a world of only objects makes little sense, and is of less interest.

I am comfortable with my self.  It has just as much solidity as the objects around me in my Bangkok apartment.  Years from now we'll all be gone.  While my brain and my body are showing increasing signs of age, they continue to provide an existence replete with security and surprise.  When it's time to relinquish this self I've labored long and hard with through the twists and turns of an amazing life, I hope to do so with gratitude and grace.

(This was written as a midterm assignment for an online course in Buddhism and Psychology given by Prof. Robert Wright of Princeton via the Coursera web site.)