Friday, September 21, 2012

Tea, Zen, Yoga, and Hard Knocks

One Month in Japan

I've recently become a student of chadō (translates as "tea way"). While this study will open my eyes to many foreign customs and rituals, refine my skills for entertaining guests, help me acquire graceful movement, and refine my sensibility to beauty, I think the cardinal lesson in studying tea is learning that the way of tea is the way of Zen.

Chadō can be understood as a study in three forms: through discipline of the mind, through acquisition of knowledge, and through practice. In everyday life we live skillfully by adhering to this road map. As a personal example, I work every day to discipline my mind by judging between hunger, boredom, and procrastination of other (a distinction, I humbly admit, that is never easy to make). I seek (and sometimes procure) knowledge about my new surrounding, its culture, and language. I practice yoga daily. Whether it’s a two-hour arm balance practice or a five minute meditation practice, I make sure to cultivate awareness of breath, body, and mind at some point every day. 

In essence, these practices are Zen. Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki tell us, "Zen spirit has come to mean not only peace and understanding, but devotion to art and to work, the rich unfolding of contentment, opening the door to insight, the expression of innate beauty, the intangible charm of incompleteness. Zen carries many meanings, none of them entirely definable. If they are defined, they are not Zen."

I had a nervous breakdown last week, an old-fashioned, teenage anxiety attack. It was one of those instances very similar to an asthma attack: I couldn't breathe because I was freaking the fuck out, and I was freaking the fuck out because I couldn't breathe. This angst came from nothing in particular, but (I think) was a manifestation of daily life in a new country with such a persistent monoculture my isolation and the constant input of unrecognizable sounds led me to a breaking point. I understand that sometimes all we need to do is cry, to let it out, to feel, experience, and understand that while these things shape us, they are not us. However, at that particular moment, the last thing I needed to do was revel in the uncertainty- the used to, why not, I miss, someday- that hits when you suddenly realize just how big of a change you actually brought into your life.
(What I needed was to be in the present, breathe, and thank my thoughtful husband for compassionately and logically explaining our current state and his understanding of it).

Three lessons are certainly not enough to make me an expert of chadō. It will take many years to learn the movement and vocabulary of this ancient art, and, as all rituals go, I know I will mess up, forget, relearn, spill tea, misunderstand, quit, restart, and make a fool of myself. But in all of these moments, I also know that my desire and intention will be pure and simple: to give my guests a sweet dose of hospitality and to show my gratitude when receiving such. When this is realized I finally understand that it's okay to bonk on remembering how to fold the silk cloth, forget to turn with my right foot instead of my left, get frustrated by the complete isolation at work and in this new culture, and skip practicing hiragana (one of four Japanese scripts based on tones, not an alphabet) to write a blog post.

It is important to identify the essential intention of chadō (of yoga, teaching, learning, working, life), which lies in the matter of how we should live our lives as human beings. "Of primary importance in chadō is that, just as you successively progress step by step in your lessons, you diligently reflect on yourself and cultivate you mind and heart through your practice day to day" (Urasenke Chadō Textbook, 2004).

In yoga, we call this krama: a [divine] chronology based not on the fruit of our actions, but on the work itself. (Act without desire for result, teaches the Bhagavad-Gita). I do not wish to fold my cloth perfectly or to prepare tea flawlessly and without effort, the same way I don't wish (and this is a TOUGHIE) to snap my fingers and suddenly be fluent in Japanese, because how would I grow, see, or understand without the effort? Besides, according to this (amazing) RadioLab podcast our brains get very agitated when our ears hear something we can't assimilate into previous experience (or sound), but our ears (and brains) actually learn very quickly so that a dissonant sound, if heard repetitively and understood in a certain capacity, can become a consonant sound (See Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" Take 1, May 1913, and Take 2, April 1914).

It's also fascinating to me how much of this Zen or this anxiety comes simply from preconceived notions. (Tea ceremony is stupid ritual. I don't understand Japanese. I will never do arm balances.) But when we let go of these, when we accept that maybe we did not previously understand chadō, or understand another language, or practice eka pada koundinyasana 1, what we do now, in this very moment, is less a true limit than a limit we mentally place on ourselves. (Side note: I understood my first Japanese sentence spoken by a native and successfully practiced that pose for the first time, all in the same day, simply because I was able, even if only momentarily, to let go of preconceived notions I held about myself).

Now, a Zen story:


Ikkyu, A famous Zen teacher of the Ashikaga era, was the son of an emperor. While he was young, his mother left the palace and went to study Zen in a temple. In this way, prince Ikkyu also became a student. When his mother passed on, she left him with a letter. It read:

To Ikkyu:
                I have finished my work in this life and am now returning into Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am [in hell] and whether I am with you or not.
                If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower the Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for forty-nine years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don't and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.
                                                                                         Your Mother,
                                                                                                  Not born, not dead.
                                                                                                   September first.

P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not understand even this letter. This is my will and testament. 

In this moment, sitting here, breathing, and in the now, I am indulging in some very non-Buddhist motions...drinking wine and considering that I am no less incorporeal because I haven't been to a temple in Japan yet; I don't know the ritual of washing my hands at the entrance or paying homage or sitting in zazen. But in my heart, the study of tea, the practice of yoga, the willingness to change, and the capacity to being here now...I am in a temple, and paying homage, and meditating on the beauty, wonder, and union of it all.

Friday, September 7, 2012

YOU'RE NOT READY FOR THIS (Commentary on Extreme Japanese Soccer Fans)

To all American (and to a lesser degree, European, I guess) soccer fans: you suck. That's right; you're awful. Your fandom may extend to your wardrobe, paraphernalia, and maybe even, on special occasions, to the paint on your face. I know you attend games with flags, Chelsea bricks (newspapers now banned from EPL, I think) and team chants, but in no way can you live up to the extreme display of fandom I witnessed at my first Japanese soccer game- and this was only a division 2 game.

My city (toshi) of Ichihara-shi and its toshi neighbor Chiba, in Chiba prefecture (state- yes, there's a state and city by the same gets confusing), is home to the JEF United soccer team. Don't ask whether JEF is an acronym or what it stands for, because my answer is the same to almost every question in this country: wakarimasen (I don't understand, or, in this case, I don't know). Anyway, JEF is a division 2 team that plays home games in the town of Soga, between my town of Goi (in Ichihara-shi) and the city of Chiba.

I convinced my wonderful husband to accompany me to a home game last Sunday, and even though he was exhausted (due to lack of sleep & waking up @ 6:00A.M. to watch college football), brain-fried (due to our first "official" two-hour Japanese class), and uninterested (due to...the crazies!!! Who doesn't like soccer?!?!?!?!), he came. (Insert endless praise for awesome spouse here). We wrote down directions and screenshot maps (as always when traveling, as we're illiterate; sometimes it works, most times it doesn't) but it was easy enough to find the stadium. All we had to do was follow yellow jerseys.  
We got in the ticket line and because of the language barrier (I really can't overstate this. You move to a country with three iconographic scripts and a phonectic sound base instead of an alphabet with no prior knowledge and try to communicate) I ended up paying 6000 yen ($75) for two tickets in, but slightly to the right of, the main JEF fan section. Admittedly, I was instantly depressed when I realized the amount I spent, but I cast off my sadness determined to enjoy the spectacle.

The opening was the same as you'd expect at any sporting event: players warming up, advertisements and player profiles on screen, news cameras, and ticket checkers. I don't know the name of our rival team from that evening, but I remember their logo resembling what would be the self-made CD label of a very bad metal band.

Just before the starting whistle, the rivals sang their chant for about 4 minutes. I was impressed, and felt a little team hadn't uttered a sound.


The starting whistle blew and it was accompanied by loud bangs, swishing flags, and waving team towels the size of scarves. Steady chants of "Ohhhhhh" in changing rhythms with beats of drums, open fist chopping hand gestures, and circling towels erupted and I was so excited to hear it (and that we were not in the middle of it)! How long was this this repeating tune going to last? It surpassed 2 minutes, then 5, then 10. Surely they can't chant the entire half, we joked, certainly not the whole game. 
But it lasted! It lasted through the uneventful first half, so loud, so energized, so...repetitive.
The second half began with my declaration that a goal would be scored, and with the whistle came the fan's electric song. It was only distracting to me for the first few minutes, but like any white noise coming from arena stands I'm sure the players are used to it and can tune it out (although not easily in this case)

JEF's first goal came from a free kick about 6 yards outside the box to the left. It was a perfect beauty! Whistle, kick, AHHHHH!!!!! GGGGGGGGGOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!! Just in the top right corner of the net. At this point, the song shifted from repetitive loyal fandom to insane celebration. I tried to record it, but by the time I hit the  button the goal cheer was over and fans returned to their normal rhythms.

The second goal was worked in from the midfield with a nice through pass. There was some ping pong action going on inside the keeper's box, but finally a JEF forward got his boot on the ball and swoosh....GGGGGGOOOOOOOAAAAALLLL!!!!! Quick celebration chant again, and then back to loyal "oohhhs". (side note: I should start an all girl rock band called the Loyal Os..........wait for it.....yeah, you got it).

The game ended 2-1, the self-promoting bad metal-playing team scoring a point with 10 minutes to go. We left the stadium inundated with pride, a sea of people, and bizarre Japanese customs (which I'll save for another blog).

So you see, my dear sweet Americans, while soccer fans around the world may have equal devotion to their teams, never, in all the games I've watched, have I seen any with more stamina than this.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Picture Blog #2

please remove thy shoes

label learning

kitchen view from LR (1)

Kitchen view from LR (2)

kitchen view from entrance

Japanese universal remote John programmed with NO English + Guide to Japanese language & life in Japan + Buddha homage

Biking to Sendo, a Yawata grocery store about 2.5 miles away. It's got a slightly better selection than the Shinegoya, the grocery store in our hometown of Goi. Plus, we get to bike along the train tracks and look at houses, parks, and streams :-)

Yawatajuko station

leaving Sendo fully loaded

weird grave'll see

view from Goi station, side opposite our apartment

House in Goi + evening light

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Picture Blog #1

Complicated trash

entrance to tatami room

view of Goi station from our apartment. Japan does good skyline. :-)

our tiny green space
looking to the right from the last photo from our balcony

evidence of bike arrival; it took forever to break down these boxes according to complicated Japan trash rules

jitensha (bicycle) which was extremely expensive to get to this country, but better than what we would've gotten otherwise

Leah is a dutiful wife in paternalistic society (except I don't cook, and they freak out when I tell them)

Kanji for "extinguish fire tool"

Monday, September 3, 2012

The oddities of Japanese compulsory education

Day 13

Last week was my first working as an ALT/FLT (Alternate/ Foreign Language Teacher). I felt somewhat worthless, as I didn't do anything but introduce myself and help the English teachers pronouce words to their classes. I get to plan one lesson for this week, so it better be good. I'm working on a game to teach past participles (-d and -ed forms of verbs, as well as irregular past tense verbs). I'm sure the further I get into the school year the more of a role I'll get to play. I hope that's the case. I've honestly been somewhat bored at work as of late. One teacher even commented on the matter. Many times I find myself sitting at my desk for hours at a time. I could read, but I'm practicing the many writing forms Japan has, as well as key phrases- nihon-go wa hanasemasen (I don't speak Japanese). This week, I can do my homework from the free Japanese language classes I'm taking in Yawata (one town/train station away, still in the same city). These classes are offered by the Ichihara International Association, and I attend Sunday afternoons.

Japanese schools differ greatly from American ones. First of all, the school year starts in April. When I began on August 27, the students had just finished their forty-four day summer vacation. They were extremely surprised to see a new ALT there, especially one who differed so greatly from the one before. (Let's just say the previous ALT was much older, a little more stern, and male). Other than the month-and-a-half summer vacation during the hottest part of the year, Japanese schools have 3 other major breaks. Fall vacation lasts about 5 days; winter vacation lasts about 10 days; spring vacation lasts roughly 14. Compare that to America's fall (Thanksgiving) break of 2-3 days; its winter (Christmas/ New Year) week long vacation, and its 5 day spring break. America does have a long summer vacation comparatively, although teachers and students alike have complained the last 5-10 years that summer is not a full three months.

School in Japan is compulsory for elementary (1-6) and junior high (1-3), which means every student must attend (they have separate classes for handicapped students) and no student can repeat a grade.

In American junior high (middle) school, students attend from 7:30-2:40. They have 7 periods: 5 core classes (math, science, social studies, English, P.E.) and 2 electives (such as band, chorus, drama, foreign language, etc), each lasting 50 minutes. Teachers have their own classrooms, and students have a 3-5 minute break between classes to go to their lockers and get to their next class. They go to the cafeteria for lunch, and are served by adult cafeteria workers. Janitors/ custodians clean the school every day. There is an office staff for bookeeping and clerical duties.

Not so in Japan. Students remain in the same class all day, and the teachers go to each class with their own supplies. There are no computers in the classrooms. There is no smartboard, projector, or anything techy of the sort. There is only a blackboard and paper copies the teachers hand out. I'm so amazed that schools are so old fashioned in one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. There is a computer room I'm told by my boss who works for the Board of Ed. but no teacher has mentioned it or used it thus far. There is no a/c in the classrooms, only in the teacher's room and the library. It's been quite hard for me, as I'm under strict orders that no one can see my arm tattoo, so I've been wearing long sleeves or arm sleeves to school. I can't wait until it starts to cool off.

Students get to school around 8:00. I have no idea what they do from 8:00- 8:45.Teachers report every moring to the teachers' room. Most of us arrive about 7:45, as the day begins promptly at 8:00. We all stand. The principals great us (ohayo gozaimas(u)) and bow; we repeat and bow. Then we sit and there are daily announcements (none of which I can understand @ this point). Some teachers get called on to stand and make certain announcements. After about 10 minutes each grade level's (1, 2, 3; our 7,8,9) teachers group together and meet for another 5 minutes.

< By this time it's 8:25. Some kind of bell rings, and the teachers have 10 minutes free time to run around and make copies, or go to their homeroom classes (if the have one) and make annoucements. HR is over @ 8:35 with the sound of another bell. First period starts at 8:45 and lasts 45 minutes. There are 10 minutes between each class; I guess enough time for teachers to run back to the teacher's room for a drink, materials, or to go to the restroom. Students have 5 classes a day, not 7. Four periods happen before lunch, and one after lunch. I only teach 3 or 4 classes a day (not 6. Gosh, American middle school teachers are working too hard). There is one woman who works in the teacher's room serving morning tea and doing dishes/ general cleaning work and who gets lunch ready for all the teachers without a homeroom. The students serve lunch to each other and to their homeroom teacher. After lunch, there is a 20 minutes cleaning time, where students and teachers alike (including principals) clean the school. Well, I say clean, but remember, these are middle school students. They brush the floor lightly, wipe some things down, and take out the trash. (Trash separation and disposal in Japan must be a whole other blog entry). School ends a little before 3:00. I'm required to stay until 4:00. Right now, I'm helping students practice speeches in English for a regional competition on the 19th. I help them practice pronunciation, phonetics, and inflection.

Saturday, I had to go to work because our school was hosting a bazaar. Parents and teachers sold many goods they'd bought and made to the community to raise money for the poor school. I bought a potted plant (our apartment needs green, which we remedied more this afternoon when we planted basil, rosemary, cilantro, and parsley). It was quite amusing to see me biking home in work clothes caring a plant in one arm. :-) I'm sure it's equally as strange to see this gaijin biking and running around town, as well as doing yoga in the little park outside. Oh well, westerners are weird. We show affection in public, shake hands instead of bow, and use pulling instead of pushing motions. All the fun of learning another culture.

Until next time,