Tuesday January 13, 1998

I had slept so soundly that I was wide awake and ready for more adventures by four o'clock. Fortunately, the hotel room was organized so I could turn on a tiny light and write without waking Werner. I was filled with thanksgiving.

Japan sacred
home of tanka poetry
peacefully without dreams
right in the heart of it

Between the tall buildings there was a patch of brightening sky that just filled the window in my view from my pillow.

between tall buildings
in Palace Gardens
blue skies fill the window
bless the rest of me

Yesterday had seemed like a long day, but now I was aware that we had lost January 12th -- the day of the first full moon of the new year.

the first full moon
in the radiance
we lose a day
arrive in Japan

At seven, practically on the dot, Werner woke and we discussed our plans for the day. So many exciting ideas came to us, so we decided to have breakfast first. What a surprise to find in the hotel a totally Westernized restaurant overlooking a courtyard with a wall of sparkling water that realistically imitated the big snowflakes of last night. Today the sun was shining but I had the feeling that here in the courtyard it was still the day before, with the huge white snowflakes.

The next surprise was that we were offered a Western breakfast with juice, eggs, bacon or ham, toast or rolls and coffee for only $8.00 -- much less than breakfast in the Holiday Inn in San Francisco. And the coffee here was excellent! Suddenly we felt we were truly going to, not only survive in Japan, but actually feel at home. All the warnings about $30.00 for Western breakfasts, the threat of raw eggs broken over tea-warmed rice and only tea, tea and tea melted like bad advice.

I was eager to walk back to the restaurant where we had eaten the night before so I could photograph their New Year's decorations. I had asked and found out that they were removed on the 15th so I knew I had to get my pictures today. On the way I found other stores with their decorations still up so it was only a question of which store had the most picturesque entrance. Unable to decide, I simply clicked my way up the street.

As we turned the last corner, I saw in the daylight that the impressive "building" I had briefly noticed the night before was not a building at all, even though it did have the curved Chinese style roof. It was an elaborate gate to a temple. As if drawn by a magnet, we edged closer and closer, wondering if it was open and if we dared to enter. While I photographed the huge lanterns and guarding statues, we saw other people going in so we began to follow them.

Huge piles of snow had been shoveled to the sides of the paths which were lined with improvised wire racks. On these were solid rows of knotted paper prayers for the New Year. As we got closer to the main temple there were other racks hung with wooden plaques. On one side of these votive plaques was a painting of a tiger (the year to come) or an ox (for this, the ending year). The other side was often blank and here the person wrote his or her wish/prayer. What a feast for a photograph.

And then there was the waterfall with statues of creatures and more white paper prayers tied to the bare branches of trees. Two trees actually had a few plum blossoms on their upper branches. And here were even bigger statues protecting the main entrance to the temple.

We watched as people approached the long bar-covered vat in which they tossed a few coins. Then they clapped their hands twice, bowed their heads twice and with clasped hands and closed eyes, they prayed. Two more hand claps and two more bows and they went on their way.

Somewhere I had gotten the idea that the Japanese people were not 'religious' and no longer took either Shinto or Buddhism seriously, but I wondered how many churches in USA were open this Tuesday morning and how many people were stopping by on their way to school, work or morning walk, to say a prayer or two.

In temple buildings around the main shrine were booths where one could buy a wide assortment of amulets, talismans, scrolls and pictures. In the next row around the shrine were pipe and plastic booths where one could buy the 'unofficial' good luck items like the Daruma -- the red or white sitting figure with a huge face and no eyes. I saw people buying these figures smaller than a fist and up to two feet in diameter. The purpose was to impress and remind the person of a goal to achieve. When the goal was articulated (always an important part of any such action) a black circle was painted in the left eye of the Daruma. When the goal had been accomplished, the right eye was painted in and the Daruma returned to the temple. As with most craft works, families had developed and maintained their own designs which were then sold from these booths around the temples.

In addition to these booths, some offered foods - either tiny kabobs of pork or fish barbecued over charcoal or steamed dumplings in bamboo sieves. Enticing smells pulled us from booth to booth as we sampled one delicious tidbit after another. Soon we felt we had had our lunch and our hands were full of sacks and bags of good luck and charms.

As we walked around behind the main shrine we found smaller individual shrines (in the same way that in Catholic churches there were naves containing alternative altars). Before some of these were statues of foxes facing each other. For the holidays they had bright red bibs tied to their necks. Between these shrines were stones, often higher than our heads, with deeply carved ideographs and tiny gardens surrounding them. Near one of these, we met the temple cat -- an ugly thing with only half a tail, but living a life of total assurance that he truly belonged in this special place.

In the sunny spots we would find a pink or white plum tree just putting out its first blossoms. With the high piles of snow still heaped about it was easy to see the old poets' association of plum blossoms as snow on the bare, black branches. Somehow I felt a connection with these flowers that were so hardy they dared to bloom even when snow was possible. Flowers so eager to shine that they could not wait for the warmer days of April. I wondered if I would find cherry blossoms too showy, too opulent, after being so enamored of the plum.

We took a round-about way back to the hotel, watching school kids buy their lunches from little wagons of food stands. We found a bench on a corner in the sun and sat to watch the continuous streams of people. As yesterday, we were amazed at the number of people walking along talking on cell phones. The way the owner held and used the phone, you could feel how proud and 'with it' they felt. Truly the latest fad.

The sun made us sleepy and aware of our jet lag so we returned to the hotel for a strong coffee and then a nap which was cut short by the realization that we needed to pack up the books we had brought for the Imperial Family and prepare for the evening. I had gotten several long white silk scarves in the States for this purpose, but had not yet really tried out my ideas of how to wrap the stacks of books. It took some experimenting, but the final result was pleasing. The bundles did not look like the usual Japanese fukusa, (a square of patterned cloth tied up by its four corners), but had a more spare, ritual look.

We showered and dressed for an evening dinner and then went downstairs to the hotel lobby to meet Shukuya-san. When he came we were surprised to see him booking a room in the hotel for the night. After he had taken his bags to his room, we walked to the subway to go across town to the wedding outfitter who had prepared Werner's morning suit. The many up and down stairs in the subway, the pushing crowds, and the terrible exhaust fumes from rush hour traffic had me feeling a bit woozy. I was so glad to sit down in a big chair while Werner got suited up.

He looked so handsome. I suddenly felt better and very proud of him. As we left, I noticed that Shukuya-san also had a garment bag just like Werner's. At this point he told us that he, too, was invited to the New Year's Poetry Party and that we would all be going together in the morning.

But now we were being invited by Ito-san to dinner in a mansion and park formerly owned by a head of the government which was now the Four Seasons Hotel. I was greatly relieved that we went by taxi. The mansion was so big it took all my energies just to walk through the huge marble rooms, down the many hallways, up and down escalators until we came to the tea room section. Here we took off our shoes and slipped on the slippers to shuffle down one more hallway. At the end was a large room with the tatami mats where we took off the slippers and proceeded in our socks.

Like entering a sphere of calm and peace, we entered the tea room. One end of it was completely glass overlooking the garden which was lighted. In the center of the room was the low table over a 'well' into which our legs hung. How nice it was to find this one was heated! Instead of simple flat cushions to sit on, we had (basically) legless chairs with padded backs. Instead of attached armrests, there was on the left side, a tiny curved padded table for one to rest one's arm. Before each person's place was a lacquered tray with tiny blue whales as chopstick rests, several glasses (for the beer toasting) and a simple ceramic slab with a landscape of colorful foods.

With Ito-san was Michiko Kohga, a translator who had lived and studied in America. For the five of us were four women in kimono who waited on us. Not only did they bring and take away dishes, but they identified and explained the meaning of the various foods (all with auspicious wishes for the New Year). Ito-san had gifts for us -- tiny Yamaha harmonicas on silver or gold chains as necklaces. I was charmed. The gifts were so like him -- beautifully and elegantly made objects, yet with an element of play and grownup pleasure toy. I could not think of another thing which so capsulated his personality.

linked elegance
your gift of western music
shining at our throats
what being told you my secret
pleasure playing harmonica

Because the Japanese do not normally open their gifts in front of the giver (though we were asked to do so) the women waiting on us very quickly rewrapped the packages up, taking great care to make them look as if they had not been opened at all.

In addition to these gifts, the waitress also laid a package by each tray . Later we found that the sake cup which we had used had been wrapped up (and given a twin!) in a box as souvenir. As welcome to the year of the tiger, tiny blue tigers decorated the inside of each one. I think the Japanese truly understand that objects carry the vibes of places and persons and that one is enriched when these can be collected and carried along as one collects and retains memories of special events. In addition, the sake cups reminded me of Tigers in a Tea Cup - one of my books of haiku.

During the meal, we then had a very special moment. One of the women brought in a wooden box about a foot square, and set it down before Ito-san. He slowly opened the lid and took out a cloth beautifully woven in tans and blues. This he spread over the white tablecloth in front of him. Then another woman brought him a bottle of water from the spring on the park property (excellent tasting water -- it served as my "beer"). Ito-san rapidly set out many dark bottles explaining that they contained various fragrances. Then he stopped for a second, gazing intently at me. Then he rapidly picked up a bottle and said this fragrance was of mother earth and he felt it was right for me. Did I like it? He passed the tiny bottle down so I could waft a whiff of it to my nose. Yes. It had the crispness of newly fallen leaves in autumn. Ito-san sniffed the bottle once more and felt it needed something to lighten it so he handed me another bottle with a citrus smell for my approval. Deftly, like an alchemist, he poured the bottled water into an atomizer and added his choices of fragrances. He shook the bottle and then squirted the nozzle up over his head. He leaned back with his face uplifted and received the fragrance with such a beatified look on his face. I shall never forget his posture and his complete enjoyment of that moment.

Then he handed the bottle to me and instructed me to follow the procedure. Then I knew what he had been experiencing. The atomizer squirted such a fine mist above one's head. The tiniest droplets of moisture rained down bearing the power of the subtle fragrance. One felt not only physically refreshed, but as if one's very soul had been showered with mist from a meadow. I was very touched to have a fragrance created for me alone out of the impressions that my being created in Ito-san's perception. This and Shukuya-san's tea bowls were my most touching gifts.

Ito-san then performed the same ceremony / service for Werner making him something to help him with his rheumatism.

The dinner courses continued. Werner said he counted 17 and I am sure there were at least that many. For one, a woman brought seven foods arranged on a platter. As guests we had to pick up the first one of our choice with chopsticks and put it on our individual plate. Werner was so cagey. There were slices of tempura-fried lotus pods and he simply put his chopstick through one of the holes and successfully navigated it to his plate.

I was attracted by the lovely kumquats and tried to copy his trick by inserting the point into it, but I dropped the fruit on the plate and had to retrieve it with the normal pinching method. I was sure I had ruined my whole year and lost face, but everyone was too kind to say anything about my slip of the stick.

The last item to be served was a huge bowl with a small amount of frothy green tea in it. The ladies were charming as they were teaching me to drink the tea properly. First, I was instructed to turn the bowl a quarter turn so that I drank from the side that was not facing me as the bowl had been presented to me. The whole amount had to be consumed in three sips (so you had to judge how much to take in). The third sip had to be noisy and drain out every last bit of tea -- for a good reason. The next procedure was to lift the tea bowl to admire how it was made and even turn it over to admire the signature of the artist. Later, it turned out how grateful I was to these women who so patiently taught me the procedure.

Perhaps because Japanese meals are so lengthy - just the time bringing in and taking out so many dishes is considerable, in addition to admiring and then eating each tasty tidbit, so when the meal is over, there is no sitting around. Over is over and we got up from our places.

Now I could see the alcove which had been behind me. Though the others seemed in a hurry to be off, I was mesmerized by the hanging scroll, the offerings and flowers of a spray of plum real blossoms. The waiting ladies were touched that I was noticing this, so they both came back and stayed to explain. The calligraphy on the scroll (very strong and vibrant) was "peace of mind in the New Year". The plum blossoms were for winter and correctly displayed in a straight square gray-glazed bottle that looked like a winter-clouded sky. On the other side was a black wooden stand with a pyramid of oranges with tufts of wheat heads tucked between them. This was the only decoration in the room and it seemed perfect.

As we walked back out to the taxis, Ito-san stopped suddenly at the edge of the porch and looked up. There, cloud-draped, was the first full moon of the year and we were seeing it together. Somehow it seemed the first time I had ever seen the full moon so soft and gentle.

gentle as night air
when the moon is full
a white sound
turns us into marble statues
pure spirits exposed by light

Proceed to Chapter Three .