Unlike most of the musicians who hosted us on my husband Mason’s first solo tour of Japan, I considered Mayuko a friend, instead of a business acquaintance. I looked forward to staying in Yokohama as if she offered sanctuary rather than crash space. Mayuko spoke relatively fluent English; the difficulty of communicating in Japan — even with people I knew — hit me harder than expected. I obsessed about being an ignorant foreigner, blundering through a culture I could not comprehend. I worried about offending our hosts by accident. At Mayuko’s, I thought I could relax.
When we arrived at Mayuko’s tiny apartment, she immediately took me under her wing. She gauged the effects of culture shock and jet lag, then drew me a Japanese bath. All I needed was to sleep well, she said. Tomorrow would be my first day as a tourist in Japan: a day without business meetings, shows, or any reason to carry around Mason’s guitar. Things would be better in the morning.
Mayuko wanted to show us a bit of “Old Japan,” the Japan of samurai movies. She even convinced her boyfriend Hiroshi to take the day off from work to accompany us. After a breakfast of sliced green apples, yogurt, and huge croissants, Mayuko and Hiroshi took us by train to Kamakura. Kamakura had been the capital of Japan from 1185 A.D. until the shogun government fell in 1333. Now its Buddhist shrines drew pilgrims from around the world. Mayuko was surprised we hadn’t heard of it.
Although Hiroshi had grown up in Kamakura, he’d avoided the shrines. Mayuko said he had been a “bad boy.” With a smile, I wondered what that meant; Hiroshi was the most introspective Japanese I’d met. He hardly spoke, even in Japanese.
A short walk from the train station brought us to the Hasedera, or Hase Temple. The English tickets Mayuko bought for us explained that the “temple” was actually a collection of shrines. It had been established in 736 A.D. as a sacred place for the bodhisattva Kannon. I knew from high school Comparative Religions class that a bodhisattva was an enlightened being who vowed not to enter Paradise until all other creatures reach enlightenment. Even though Buddhism defines life as suffering, bodhisattvas work to ease human misery. What a wonderful introduction to religion in Japan.
Just inside the temple gate, Mayuko demonstrated the ritual washing of hands. She dipped water out of a black stone basin with a bamboo ladle and trickled it first over one hand, then the other. Distracted by the water’s chill, I didn’t see how she dried her hands. I shook the water from my fingers, then wiped them on my jeans. So much for ritual purification. I felt every inch a gaijin.
A broad stone staircase led us up the hill. At the first landing clustered statues with no roof over their heads. “This shrine,” Mayuko said, “belongs to Jizo.” In answer to our puzzled expressions, she typed the name into her electronic translator. It defined him as the bald guardian of children and travelers.
In the shade of a flowering tree, a large bronze figure sat on a lotus throne. He had beautiful verdigris. He clasped a slim staff in his right hand; a bronze orb rested in his left. The folds of his robe were as measured and graceful as a Greek statue’s. Large earlobes hung to his shoulders, more Indian in my mind than Japanese. The statue’s smooth chubby face seemed childlike. Someone had tied a scarlet bib under his chin and pulled a matching knit cap down over the dome of his round head. Rather than affronting the statue’s dignity, the garb seemed lovingly offered. Jizo looked all the more serene for his indifference to the handmade gifts.
At the base of his throne thronged foot-high Jizos, each standing on its own lotus blossom. Many statuettes wore red cloth capes, some faded to pink by the elements. One wore a mantle of white fabric so unwrinkled it must have just been put on. Others had necklaces of flowers or beads. One Jizo had a little yellow ceramic dog at his feet. “These are Mizuko Jizo,” Mayuko said, “the Thousand Jizo.”
Struggling to put the concept into English, Mayuko said, “If I have a child — ” she placed her hand on her belly “– and I kill my baby, I come to here and name a statue. Then I come each year to pray. You understand?” I understood she meant having an abortion. It seemed right to have a ritual to commemorate the sacrifice, but I wasn’t sure if a yearly pilgrimage seemed morbid. Did women return every year for the rest of their lives?
Hiroshi lit a candle and bowed briefly. I pondered the significance of that. Hiroshi and Mayuko weren’t married. They lived in an apartment owned by his mother. Mayuko appeared to be somewhere in her late 30s; Hiroshi was younger. I had no idea how long they had been together. Was he honoring Jizo? Atoning for something? I didn’t dare speculate.
As we continued up the hill, Hiroshi said shyly, “I pray for you safe journey.”
“Thank you,” Mason and I said. Hiroshi bowed his head and smiled.
Farther up the hill, old-fashioned plaster and wood buildings gathered around a plaza. I’d never seen anything like them in my life. The buildings shrank as they ascended. Each story had its own canted roof, tiled in gray slate. Small golden ornaments capped the eaves. Stern-faced guardians stared out from every corner.
A steady stream of people climbed the temple steps to pose for photographs. An American tour group chattered about the holy places they’d visited. Japanese children chased each other. The plaza had a picnic area with chairs and tables overlooking the bay. Old women sat placidly, watching surfers bob in the distant waves. Yokohama lay out of sight beyond the rocky hills to the north. Mayuko plucked at my sleeve and led us into the shrine for which the temple complex was named.
The Hasedera Kannon is called eleven-faced. Above eyes half-lidded in meditation, Kannon wore a crown with ten additional faces. My guidebooks interpreted this differently: either the faces depicted the stages of enlightenment or — the story I prefer — Kannon watched in every direction so he could help people in need.
Yes, he. One of the mysteries of Kannon, the “Goddess of Mercy,” is his gender. My entrance ticket used the masculine pronoun. The Insight Guide to Japan says, “He only looks feminine.” Though his jeweled and gilded dress swells at the bosom, he is considered without gender. Is that the true state of enlightenment?
Kannon’s statue towered above us, over nine meters tall. Drifting through the skylights, the soft natural light made the tarnished gold leaf on the statue’s surface glow. Kannon held a slim wooden staff in his huge fleshy right hand and a golden vase of twining lotus flowers in his left. A rosary of tiger’s eye beads had been looped around his left elbow, falling two meters to his knees.
I wondered if Kannon was related to Quan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. I couldn’t ask if the goddess was an import. The room felt cool and sacred, as if the atmosphere were differently composed than the steamy, bustling plaza outside. I’d gotten a similar feeling amidst the ruins at Delphi and in a kiva in New Mexico: something holy was present. I wondered if I’d ever felt that in a Christian church.
Both Hiroshi and Mayuko prayed before Kannon’s altar. It never occurred to me that they might be religious. However, the seriousness with which they visited each shrine seemed more than respectful. If only I could frame one simple question that, when answered, would clarify everything they showed us. I wanted desperately to understand what this meant to them.
Mason, the most confirmed atheist I know, also put his hands together. I added my own plea for understanding.
Signs in English, the first I’d seen, said, “No Photo.” Hiroshi explained, “The god is too powerful.” I took that to mean Kannon’s aura would overexpose the film. That would be something to see, I thought, photographic evidence of divinity. I wasn’t tempted to break the taboo to experiment.
Mason whispered, “I bet there are postcards in the gift shop.” To my delight, there were not. As much as I would have liked something to remember the beautiful goddess by, I was pleased that if the temple said “No Photo,” they meant it.
Two silent women waited behind a glass case lined with prayer beads. The price tags of the crystal beads, flawless as dewdrops, listed a lot of zeroes. We quickly moved along.
Out in the plaza, I took snapshots of Mason, Mayuko, and Hiroshi on the temple steps. When the photos were developed, they came back with a strange overexposure above the temple roof. Maybe it was some weird reflection from the overcast sky — or perhaps the evidence of divinity I’d been seeking.
We left the crowded plaza. Behind the temple buildings, we found a little graveyard cut into the hillside. Mayuko and Hiroshi knew of my fascination with cemeteries. They knew I’d put together a book of graveyard photographs called Death’s Garden. “Could I go in?” I asked.
Mayuko and Hiroshi exchanged a long glance. If they’d said no, I would have respected that. Instead, they shrugged. No one else entered the cemetery while we visited.
Buckets and ladles for washing the monuments lined a wooden shelf near the entrance. “Is grave-washing only done at ritual times, like the Bon festival?” I asked Mayuko, simply because her English came easier than Hiroshi’s. She didn’t know. I wondered if her father was alive. Did she have relatives for whom she performed the ritual cleansing? When she didn’t offer the information, I restrained myself from prying.
The graves lay very close together. Only paving stones separated one from the next. The placement would truly have been cheek by jowl, except for the long Buddhist tradition of cremation. Since we didn’t see stone urns, I guessed the ashes must have been placed under the blocks. Interment must be a major procedure.
“Are these the graves of monks?” I asked. “How does one arrange to be buried on temple grounds?” I merely voiced my questions, not expecting answers. Mostly, I was thinking aloud. I’d already learned in Japan that if I didn’t address a question to someone by name, they didn’t realize I was speaking to them. Questions not directed to a specific person went unanswered.
The simplest — probably the oldest — gravestones stood upright, engraved with kanji. Other monuments reminded me of family altars. These had several levels of base stones, usually a low riser, topped by a second riser double the height of the first. Above these rose two large blocks of darker stone. Each block was smaller in dimension than the one below, so that the monuments were roughly pyramid-shaped. At the very top stood an upright stone engraved with kanji or simple round medallions like the badges of samurai. Five stones, five levels. I considered the significance of the number five.
Because he had explained about not taking photos of Kannon, I asked Hiroshi if I could photograph the cemetery. He thought it would be okay.
Many graves had a pair of vases of either brown earthenware or stainless steel. These held bouquets composed of flowers of three different heights. I interpreted that as symbolizing the underworld, earth, and heaven. The flowers varied from white daisies to purple asters, with marigolds or lemon yellow poppies or huge sunny chrysanthemums mixed in. Is there a Japanese language of flowers, like the Victorians used? To the Victorians, marigolds symbolized grief and despair. Mexicans think their spicy scent is the perfume of death.
Behind several of the graves stood long wooden blades, notched at the top like stylized flames. “What are those?” Mason asked.
Mayuko became flustered. In a polite Japanese way, she snapped, “You ask so many questions: ‘What’s this and what’s this and what’s that?’ ”
I caught Mason’s hand. We hadn’t meant to upset her, but she had been such a good guide so far, telling us as much as she could about the shrines and their rituals. She’d made us eager to learn more. How to apologize for asking too many questions? I know so little about Japanese culture, religion, burial practices, belief in the afterlife…. The variety of my ignorance staggered me. I decided to try to hold my tongue and be content with whatever Mayuko told us.
After an uncomfortable silence, Mayuko relented. She said that she couldn’t read the wooden markers. It was an old style of writing. She thought they recorded the “after-death name.”
The sky cleared for the first time in our trip. How nice to see blue sky, even watery blue sky. Unfortunately, the clearing sky warmed the already humid day. Beneath my black cotton jacket I wore a red T-shirt. The color might have been wildly inappropriate. Who knew? Mayuko wore an oversized white sweatshirt over baggy black jeans. Hiroshi wore blue jeans and a navy and brown plaid shirt. In fact, most Japanese we saw wore dark, conservative colors. Without knowing if red was a sacred color — and without permission to ask — I decided I’d better keep my jacket on.
Changing the subject, Mayuko said that nearby stood a “very sacred place.” It looked like a simple cave burrowed into the stone hillside. Inside the grotto stood stone sculptures of more gods than I could count, gods of “fools and drunks, safe traveling, and keeping love.” Statues flickered in the darkness, illuminated only by white tapers on which prayers had been written with black marker. The twilight made it difficult to see. Water dripped from the ceiling. An uneven path led around a shallow dark pool.
Mayuko asked, “Do you want to pray for something?”
Mason dodged the question by saying, “Loren might.” Mayuko bought me a tiny arch-shaped wooden plaque, an ema, painted with a small gold Buddha. She directed me to write my name and wish on the back. She and Hiroshi turned away to give me a moment. I placed the plaque among hundreds of others on the floor. Ema were tucked into niches in the walls, even slipped between the electrical cables bolted to the ceiling.
I wondered if once a year there was a ceremonial cleansing of the cave, when all the wooden prayer plaques were burned. How else could the cave be emptied for next year’s prayers? The conflagration would be something to see.
As we left Hasedera, we passed a cat sunning herself on a rock in a little Zen garden. Fascinated Japanese crowded around her. She ignored them. Hiroshi bent down to take her photograph. Why, I wondered, did a sleeping house cat attract so much attention? Here was yet another inexplicable cultural moment, one more thing that I didn’t have the references to understand.
Then again, there were things in my own country that I didn’t understand, even after a lifetime of study. How could I expect to grasp Japan in four days?
I finally recognized the pressure I’d put Mayuko under. I’d made her the spokesperson for 1300 years of Japanese history. No wonder she was overwhelmed.
I decided to try to let Japan just flow over me. Curiosity, I’d discovered, even well-intentioned curiosity, could be intrusive. I would have to watch and listen and try to save my questions for only the most important things. It might take a lifetime to understand all that I saw and heard on this trip — and that might be the most important Japanese lesson of all.
This essay originally appeared on Gothic.Net in January 2001.