Iwatsutsuji - Wild Azaleas
Gregg and I had agreed to a quiet, relaxed Sunday and told Hiroshi, our Japanese guide, that he could spend the day with his family since we would be taking a small break in our vigorous explorations of Kyoto. We were taking advantage of our free day by sleeping in a bit late. Gregg was still asleep and I was looking in my carry-all bag for a couple of magazines which had been purchased in Tokyo. I discovered, beneath the magazines, the still wrapped gift that Alex had handed me as we were saying goodbye. Somehow in my anticipation of visiting Kyoto and finally seeing Gregg, I had completely forgotten about it. I laid it on the nightstand next to the bed and then spent a few moments looking at that handsome young man still enveloped in slumber. As was his custom while sleeping, he had a slight smile on his face.
At that moment, as I continued to watch the movements from his soft, shallow breathing I felt anew the limitless love that permeated my being and had as its source that incredible person in front of me. It was an exquisite ecstasy to feel my heart's response to this nearly overwhelming emotion. How had I endured the last year without having him next to me?
I turned around and looked out the window, to the forest clad mountain beyond. Then I stepped out on the small balcony to get a better view. The day was overcast, yet pleasantly warm. The cover of low clouds softened everything and parts of Mt. Hiei were covered by softly swirling mist. It all seemed so intimate, much as if the exterior world was a reflection of my present interior. A moment of reflection also on how fortunate we had been in having found each other.
I was making the morning coffee when I heard him stir. I went over, gave him a pat on the forehead, mentioned that the coffee would be ready in a few minutes and handed him the small package, wrapped in a beautiful dark blue paper with lighter blue blossoms of Japanese iris. Once again the Japanese attention to detail was evident even in the exquisite paper for this small gift. It may have been Alex's idea, but his charming Japanese companion had obviously added his unique touch.
I explained that it was a gift for both of us from Alex and Tatsuo and that somehow I had forgotten about it. As I was pouring the coffee, Gregg was carefully unwrapping the package and we saw that it was a book, in English and Japanese. The English title, 'Wild Azaleas', was followed by the title in Japanese 山躑躅 'Iwatsutsuji'. Then the author's name, Kitamura Kigin, followed by the dates in parenthesis (1625-1705). I sat down on the bed and we began to examine this small, handsome book of poetry and commentary. As we would soon discover it was indeed a precious gift.
'Wild Azaleas', first published in the year 1713 AD, was a compilation of poetry completed in 1676 AD. The compiler, Kitamura Kigin, had carefully chosen some of the best contemporary poetry, as well as poetry of previous anthologies. He had also included commentaries on each of the poems giving historical notes about the place, time and individuals involved in the poem.
The title of the work came from a poem contained in the 'Kokinshu', an Imperial Poetry Collection completed in the year 905 AD, and thus was the result of several hundred years of poetic masterpieces.
Iwatsutsuji - Wild Azaleas
tokiwa no yama no
iwaneba koso are
koishi mono o
Memories of love revive,
like wild azaleas bursting into bloom
on mountains of evergreen;
my stony silence only shows
how much I love you.
Gregg and I were both surprised by the commentary on this, the first poem and an introduction to the work. It was composed around the year 850 AD by the poet-priest Shinga Sôzu. The poem was inspired by Shinga's unspoken love for the handsome nobleman Ariwara Narihira. Narihira was also a famous poet of the time and the author of a book of poetry, the 'Ise monogotari'. The 'Tale of Ise' was recognized as a classic of its time for the sensitivity and beauty of its poems. In fact just the previous month I had sent Gregg a poem of Narihira's that I had found especially captivating and knew that he would also enjoy.
Tsui ni yuku
michi to wa kanete
kinô kyôto wa
I have always known
that at last I would take this road,
I did not know
that it would be today.
As we were to discover 'Wild Azaleas' was a collection of poetry about male love. The Samurai warrior who wrote verses of love to his young male companion, the Buddhist priest writing of his loneliness since his male friend had died..... More than six hundred years of males expressing their love for other males. Equally enlightening was the obvious fact that this homosexual love was an integral part of daily life and accepted as such. It was a component of the culture of that time.
We continued to read and from our vantage point on the bed we could see the magical transformation on the nearby mountains. The previous wisps of clouds had become dense, and now enveloped the top of Mt. Hiei completely. The remaining part of the mountain was embraced with a light mist of fog. The next portion of the book concerned that very mountain.
"In the year 886 AD Jogôn Hôshi spent some time at the Enryakuji monastery on Mt. Hiei. While there he became enamored of a fellow acolyte. He eventually had to return to his own monastery in Nara and presented his friend with the following poem:
ato mo sadamenu
yama no ue koso
tachi ukari kere
Our lives are like floating clouds
that disappear without a trace,
but even so
an unbearable sadness
at leaving you and this mountain peak.
It was the parting sorrow of two lovers which had occurred more than a thousand years before and had been preserved for us to encounter while gazing at the very mountain where it had transpired. In fact we would be visiting the Enryakuji within two days. I mentioned to Gregg that I was sure that the spirits of those two young lovers of so long ago were still a part of the mountain.
After a leisurely and very late breakfast we decided to explore the area around the hotel. Gregg mentioned that he had seen a rather large park nearby and it looked like a good place to read and relax. Seated under the graceful, hanging branches of a large weeping willow we continued discussing the revelations of that morning's reading. I asked Gregg if he could explain the seeming vast difference between western views of homosexuality and its obvious acceptance in Japan. At the same time that I was posing the question I was reflecting on the fact that we truly were meant for each other. He loved to talk, I was quite adept at posing questions and besides that, I could listen to him expound until the end of time.
Gregg was quick to point out, and in his characteristic speech, that western morality was based on, "some really fucked up Judeo-Christian beliefs". I smiled inwardly knowing that I'd pressed his 'on' button once again. Gregg continued, "You see it all goes back to the very beginning, the Garden of Eden. According to that story mankind was screwed up from the very inception. In fact, we should probably begin with the Hebraic, and later Christian, concept of God, who if examined closely is hardly more rational than many human beings are."
He paused briefly while watching some children playing nearby, "Now this is the guy, the Big Guy, who gets pissed off and sends a flood to wipe out everyone and nearly every living creature on earth as a punishment for their 'sins'. And of course these two 'Biblical' stories of the old Testament, of the Garden of Eden and the Flood were both lifted, almost verbatim, from the earlier Sumerian myths and hence weren't even original. It was this same god who sent plagues to kill off the Egyptians because they were so brazen as to worship a different deity. He was always getting pissed off about something and murdering someone or some entire group of people . We've discussed, more than once, how the good Christians have spent nearly two thousand years battling the bad Christians or the really bad guys, those who didn't even believe in Jehovah. The slaughter, all in the name of this jealous god, is endless."
"Contemporary society may or may not believe that the Bible is literal, but the laws within western society are in fact a result of many outmoded concepts of 'good' and 'evil' and based on the Hebraic religious law, by way of the Bible. For whatever reason the Hebrews decided it was wrong for men or women to have a physical relationship with their own sex, and it became an evil act, a sin against that very god who made perhaps a tenth of all human beings homosexual. Now if it's a sin, it would appear that the old geezer has a pretty warped sense of humor."
Gregg leaned back, looked up at the crystalline sky and continued, "Since I started carefully examining the western world in relation to our sexual mores, I have been absolutely astounded by the way in which any reference to homosexuality has been so carefully and painstakingly whitewashed or swept under the rug. We, 'deviants from the norm', have been, and still are for the most part, non-existent."
He paused, "Before this trip I was doing some reading in the encyclopedia there in the post library. Just general stuff. Encountered a section on Japanese theater and then went on to read about Kabuki. Somewhere, years ago I had read that female impersonators were a part of the Kabuki tradition. Do you know that that entire article in the encyclopedia, though quite lengthy, didn't even mention that little detail? It's a blatant example of a seemingly neutral source presenting information that is colored by the cultural environment. Factual, yes; it just managed to ignore a very important part, evidently for fear of offending its readers."
"What we saw last night was absolutely astounding. That onnagata actor yesterday was the most feminine creature I've ever seen! But since he was dressed as a woman, and worse, just might be gay, it is obviously something that good little Christians won't even talk about. God, Christianity, and so much of what it has spawned, is just so messed up that I find it hard to believe at times."
Gregg let out one of his familiar sighs, then smiled. "I'm much more comfortable with the Japanese concept of homosexual love being a natural act and a part of certain individuals. Everyone is free to choose whom they want to play with." Then he smiled his 'big dimples' smile, leaned over and whispered, "And I like to play with you!"
At that moment a young girl of about five who had been playing with a brilliant red ball kicked it in our direction and then, wide eyed, watched to see our reaction as it stopped in front of us. I noticed that her parents, seated nearby, appeared a bit apprehensive.
Gregg laughed, caught the ball and sent it bounding back in her direction. She had no concept of victor and vanquished, nationalities and physical features meant nothing to her. Our features might be a bit different, but we were obviously human. She and Gregg continued to play and the little girl seemed delighted with her new playmate, who was laughing and enjoying it as much as she was. Later her father came over, picked her and the ball up. He made a special point of bowing to us and we both got up and bowed back. He smiled, then left. The silent barrier which had previously existed between us had been made less noticeable by the interchange between Gregg and the small child.
Returning to our conversation, I mentioned to Gregg that what the world needed was a new god; one who didn't honor and single out special chosen groups or insist on outdated tribal or contemporary nationalistic boundaries. A god consistent with the knowledge of the 20th century and not a god based on outmoded myths and ancient tribal beliefs. Useful though those beliefs may have been at a particular time in man's development, it was well past time for a change. Gregg smiled. That very special knowing smile.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and chatting, watching the people and just enjoying the beauty of the moment. On the way back to the hotel we took a circuitous route and discovered several interesting shops. We both purchased a number of 45-rpm records at a small record store. When the clerk discovered that we could communicate somewhat in Japanese and seemed to enjoy Japanese popular and folk music, she shyly produced one after the other and played them for our benefit. We both bought the current favorites of Shina no yoru (支那の夜 China Nights) and Nagasaki (長崎) as well as a number of records of folk songs and dances. The next stop was a small market where we loaded up on fruit and snack items. Gregg had mentioned that fresh fruit was very scarce in Korea and he planned to eat as much as possible during his stay in Japan.
I had noticed that with each passing day Gregg was communicating with greater facility in Japanese. At times a bit haltingly, but every night he devoured a bit more of his newly purchased grammar and he was learning rapidly. Also his ability to grasp the meaning of, and remember, the complicated Kanji characters was nothing less than phenomenal. He explained that much of this was due to having learned Korean, which had also adopted the Chinese system of writing, hence the meaning of many of the characters was identical, or very similar, in meaning.
This prompted a discussion of language and culture. We were in agreement that having been raised speaking more than a single language had been beneficial for us both. In general it seemed to promote being more open minded and receptive to other cultures. We had been aware that our monolingual American brethren were not only reluctant to attempt communication, but so ethnocentric that they expected everyone to speak their language. And in learning Japanese we constantly became aware of the many subtleties of the culture, and that they were easier to grasp and appreciate as a result of our expending the effort to learn a bit of this magnificent, though definitely complex, language. In fact many cultural concepts were comprehensible only by having a knowledge of the language used by the people. Hence many of the Americans here would always be in the dark because of their insistence that everyone communicate with them in English.
That evening, munching on apples and oriental pears, we spent the time with our respective books. Suddenly Gregg emitted one of his familiar 'ah haa's' and I stopped reading the guide book in anticipation of what he had discovered.
He began, "Okay, my wild little azalea, now it all begins to make sense. Listen to this..." He was still reading the "Wild Azaleas" book and had evidently encountered something special. "Here is a love poem from a young man with a special request to Monju Bosatsu. If you remember Monju, or Manjursri in Sanskrit, was one of Buddha's closest disciples. In fact he is depicted as being the left hand attendant, the personification of wisdom and purified intellect. Even considered as the font of literature and learning."
I was beginning to wonder where all this was leading, but recognized that Gregg's introductions were always complete as he drew upon his seemingly limitless knowledge of just about every subject known to man. I smiled and sort of closed my eyes.
He continued, "Well, according to the commentary about this poem, Monju was often called upon when male lovers had a problem. He was evidently considered, at least in those times, as Buddha's lover. Now, what do you think about that?"
It appeared that Buddhism was probably the only major world religion in which at least some of its adherents felt that their leader might have had a ‘relationship’ with one of his disciples. Well, some Christians might have considered the same of Jesus and his 'buddies', but had had the good sense to not voice their suspicions. It may have been in fear of being struck down on the spot; either by God himself, who, as portrayed in the 'good book', didn't appear to go in for such hanky-panky, or by their rabid homophobic Christian brethren.
Early on Tuesday morning we met Hiroshi and took a bus to the northern part of the city. Following the Takanagawa, or Takana branch of the Kamo river, the road entered the wooded area at the base of Mount Hiei,, twisting, turning and climbing to the end of the line, Yase-Yuinchi. From there we were to take the Keifuku cable car up to summit. As the cable car was clacking its way to the top, I noticed that Gregg was intently peering below, not just enjoying the spectacular scenery, but obviously looking for something. I inquired and he smilingly admitted that he was searching the hillside for wild azaleas. I reminded him that it was September and they undoubtedly wouldn’t be blooming until next spring.
As the cable car continued in its ascent, Hiroshi began to explain that the very existence of Kyoto had been dependent up the establishment of this monastery site, some twelve hundred years ago. In 780 AD the Emperor Kammu decided to found his capital city in the spacious valley protected on three sides by towering mountains. According to the superstitions of the time, he knew that malevolent spirits could enter through the northeast portion of the geographic area, and thus ordered the Buddhist priest Saicho to build a temple on the mountain as a protective measure. That single temple had grown and eventually there were over 3,000 buildings in the temple complex. In the sixteenth century the number was reduced to the present 125 buildings.
Arriving at the summit, nearly 3,000 feet above the valley below, we enjoyed a breathtaking vista of the city in the valley and surrounding mountains. Then we started down the path to the Enryakuji complex. Set amid towering cryptomeria cedars, the first building we encountered was the Daidoko, or Great Lecture Hall built in the 17th century. Then following yet another path up the hill, we came upon the ordination hall, or Kaiden-in. Countless buildings hidden in the forested hillsides, and each reflecting the stately elegance of Japanese architecture. Masterpieces of construction with wood, historical legacies which seemed to carry their individual and collective messages. Several times we had heard the great bell, and then we came upon its majestic presence. The massive bronze bell, green with the patina of age, hanging in a crimson red structure. Visitors placed incense in the brazier, and then pulled the rope which swung the large horizontal wooden clanger. The deep tone reverberated throughout the hillsides and beyond. Gregg mentioned that somehow we had returned to that special place where we had spent time in the past. I was a bit perplexed by his statement, and waited for an explanation.
Gregg mentioned that he was feeling a bit dizzy and we sat down on the steps of a nearby meditation hall. I thought that it might be the combination of altitude, heat and humidity, since the day had turned quite warm and the air was heavily laden with moisture. Then he said, rather abruptly, that it had not been a pleasant death. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about, and Hiroshi seemed to be even more perplexed. Gregg continued that he had the sensation that we had both been monks here and that we had died in some sort of terrible event. I too, had felt a familiarity with the surroundings but had not responded in the same way. For me it was similar to a feeling of deja vu, or knowing that I had been here before. Nothing more. Gregg seemed to be in possession of more information.
As we were walking to one of the lower temples Hiroshi began to tell us about an event he had not mentioned before. In the sixteenth century a powerful Kyoto general had decided that the Enryakuji monks wielded too much power, and in an effort to regain the power for the military, had invaded the monastery complex. His troops had burned nearly every building to the ground, and executed every single monk. Obviously Gregg had ‘tuned into’ that event. He mentioned that it was the first time that he had known of a specific past life connection in Japan.
After a delicious vegetarian lunch, prepared by the monks, we continued to wander around this special world apart; a world filled with history and it would seem, intimate memories of time gone by. Gregg mentioned that once his uneasiness had passed, he had once again felt the peace which seemed to permeate the area, and our presence there. As we were going back down into Kyoto we both agreed that we would like to spend more time here on our return from Kyushu.
That afternoon was to be spent Shugakuin Imperial Villa since it was adjacent to the road we had ascended earlier in the day. When, after several buses and considerable walking, we finally arrived, we discovered that we had to apply to the Imperial Household Agency, at least a day in advance, for permission to enter the grounds. Hiroshi was extremely apologetic for his faux pas, but admitted that he had never visited there before. So we boarded another of the frequent buses in order to visit several temples and gardens further south. The Ginkakuji, or Temple of the Silver Pavilion, has long been one of the popular tourist attractions of Kyoto. It was built in the fifteenth century as a retirement villa for the shogun Yoshimasa. Though never covered in silver foil as planned, the name had remained. The magnificent gardens surrounding the temple were designed by one of the most famous of all Japanese landscape designers, Soami.
The first week in Kyoto seemed to have disappeared rapidly, yet we never seemed to be rushed. Several times Gregg had commented that it was pleasant to be in the midst of a civilized country. Even though he had mentioned it in his letters, I hadn't really grasped how the prolonged war had affected nearly every aspect of life and living in Korea.
When I mentioned this to him, Gregg began to elaborate, "I have learned to respect and admire the Korean people, the individual person, but have found the culture of Korea to be less rich than I had anticipated before going there. The subtlety which exists here in Japan, especially in the arts, seems to be lacking in Korea. Objects of art—statuary, pottery, painting—all seem a bit crude in comparison to what I have seen here. Personal relationships and society in general rarely reflect their supposed Confucian ideals of serenity and calm. The people are intense, visceral, impatient, factious, raucous.... Corruption exists from the top of the government down to the village boss. The position of women within the society is perhaps one of the worst in the world. Even the weather is the shits. No, I won't regret it when my time is finished there."
Then he added, "Perhaps I've been too judgmental without taking all the factors into consideration. It's obvious that the division and destruction of their country has had a pervasive, and detrimental effect on every aspect of Korean society."
It was Thursday morning and we were now on our way south and planned to stop and visit Hiroshima before going on to Kyushu. We had left Kyoto on a very early train and would be in Hiroshima well before noon and were going to spend the rest of the day and night there before going on to the southern tip of the main island of Honshu. There we would board a ferry for the trip across the strait to the island of Kyushu and then board yet another train.
We somehow sensed Hiroshima before the train actually arrived at the station. Nine years before the atomic bomb had been dropped on this city and its effects were still very much in evidence. Hiroshima had begun its renewal yet many of the buildings, in what had been the center of the city, remained skeletons. A reminder of what had happened on that fateful day of August 6, 1945, when with a singularly intense flash of light which lasted 9 seconds, close to 200,000 people had ceased to exist. I had read the figures but it still seemed inconceivable. I also felt that it was a barbaric act, as was the act of war itself. It seemed as if the very nature of war gave the opposing groups the right to be as savage and uncivilized as they deemed necessary.
We went to the memorial square and stood in the lines with the other people. They waited to go up to the memorial tablet and light a stick of incense and silently offer their prayers to all those who had died here. The silence was one of the most impressive features. There didn't seem to be a single sound. We seemed to be the only foreigners in evidence. When a space in front was vacated the next person in line occupied it; bowed low, some knelt for a few minutes. Many carried flowers which they left at the scene.
Gregg had gone before me and after bowing he placed the lit incense in the container. As he knelt and bowed his head, I could see his tears gently dropping and marking the ground below. They were of course not the first, nor would they be the last. As they continued to gently fall, the person on his right, a diminutive elderly lady with gray hair and clad in traditional kimono, reached over and placed her small, wrinkled hand on his. She turned her head slightly and I could see the moisture in her eyes as she offered him one of the white flowers she had in her other hand. He nodded his head low, accepted her gift and added it to that mound of flowers. I couldn't help but notice that the flower that Gregg placed there glistened with the mingled tears of these two strangers, united in their caring for the souls of the departed—for those thousands of human beings whose lives had suddenly been cut short.
Some years later when the permanent Memorial Cenotaph was erected, containing the names of all those known to have perished here, it was inscribed with the words, "Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the mistake." I remember having pondered its ambiguity—was 'the mistake' the atomic bomb or Pearl Harbor? Undoubtedly, it referred to the horror of both.
Neither of us felt like spending any more time in this city of shadows, where death still stalked and continued to take its daily toll of those who remained. Instead of looking for a hotel, we went to the train station and were able to change our tickets for an earlier departure.
The trip from Hiroshima south climbed through mountains filled with forests of pine and cryptomeria. At times it presented views of the coast and beyond to the Inland Sea. The steep hillsides were dotted with pockets of Japanese maples showing the colors of the autumn in their changing leaves. Splashes of orange and red within the deep green. It was lush and beautiful, calm and peaceful and helped to ease the pain of our earlier experience. Our brief stop in Hiroshima had been an encounter with man's inhumanity, and at the same time with the possibility of love as evidenced by that compassionate elderly lady who reached out and touched another human being.
We arrived at the station in Shimonseki and boarded the large ferry for the trip across the straits. It was just getting dark and the first stars began to appear in the deepening twilight. As we stood on the deck the silvery first quarter moon began to appear in the sky . It shimmered in the water below. We were both still somewhat subdued and quiet, but as the time passed we began to relax and once again live in the present. Obviously something the Japanese had also learned to do.
After arriving early the next morning in Fukuoka we took a taxi to a ryokan, or traditional inn that Gregg had read about in one of our several guide books. It was even more exquisite than it had been portrayed. It was perched on a hillside on the outskirts of the city and surrounded by lush, dense vegetation. We rented a room which had a magnificent view of the hillside and through the trees we could see the ocean beyond. After settling in decided to take a bath. First I telephoned the ASA base and left a message for Dwight. Then we went down to the bath area so that we could take a nice long soaking bath, and then change into our yukatas, fresh cotton kimonos,. Since I had first introduced Gregg to the Japanese system of bathing he had become a devoted addict and loved to spend as much time as possible in the super heated water. We spent the afternoon walking around the surrounding wooded area, absorbing the peace and quiet.
We had just finished an early dinner in our room when I was notified that I had a phone call. I went downstairs and it was Dwight returning my call. He had been expecting our arrival and had made arrangements for someone to fill in for him at work the next day and then on the following day he would begin a five day break. He asked me to see if there was a room available so that he and a friend could stay there also. Dwight and Raul showed up about an hour later and we shared adjoining rooms. Dwight almost immediately informed us that Raul was a 'member of the group'. We certainly didn't have to ask which 'group' he was referring to. Dwight looked super in that he had put on a little weight. He appeared to be much more joyful and outgoing. I even surmised, without voicing my suspicions, that he might forego his British accent for something a little more Hispanic sounding.
We ordered some sake and began an evening of reminiscing about our days at the language school. Raul was also a graduate, though he had graduated some six months before we had. As the evening progressed Dwight and Raul outlined a number of places we should visit and since they would both be off work on a five day break, asked if they could join us. They suggested leaving the following day and taking the train to an area in the mountains called Sakayama, at an elevation of almost 4,000 feet, and with spectacular scenery as well as hot mineral baths. That was the magic phrase for Gregg and we decided to let them be our guides for the next few days. They also suggested going over to the other side of the island to the famous beach resort of Beppu, also well known for its mineral spas as well as vibrant night life.
Our time together passed quickly and soon it was time to say goodbye to Dwight and Raul. They left on their return to Fukuoka and we headed north once again. We had planned to spend our final five days in Kyoto and perhaps go to the surrounding city of Nara, also famous for its cultural history.
We arrived at the R & R hotel in Kyoto late on Tuesday afternoon and our friend Mario was at the desk. He inquired about our trip to Kyushu and at the same time he winked and smilingly mentioned that "our regular suite" was waiting for us. As we entered the now familiar room Gregg smiled and said, "You know I've just been thinking about Mario and I believe that he is ...." and then he put his index fingers to his head and made his now famous 'antenna twirl'. I wondered why it had taken Gregg so long to come that that conclusion. I'd figured it during our first visit.
Gregg opened the doors to the balcony and walked out to once again gaze upon that very special mountain. The sun was just beginning to set and was casting a special light on those magical slopes filled with cedar and pine forests and dense vegetation. Without turning, almost as if he were directing his comments to the hillside beyond, he remarked, "The wild azaleas have returned."
Just then there was a knock on the door. I went over and discovered that it was Mario. He mentioned that Hiroshi had just called and learning that we had arrived, had left a message that he would be at the hotel on the following morning at 8:00.
The next four days were as filled with marvelous sights as our first week had been. Before leaving we had received our necessary permits to visit the Imperial Palace. First built in 794 AD and after many bouts with fires rebuilt in its present state in 1855. Covering some 200 acres the gardens and buildings, of Heian style architecture, were magnificent.
Friday was spent in nearby Nara, the first permanent political and cultural center of the newly united Japan. Established in 710 AD it has retained much of its early charm and imported Chinese atmosphere. Upon arriving at the central train station from Kyoto, Hiroshi immediately got us on a bus heading out of the city. He insisted that our visit here should, “begin at the beginning”. Some thirty minutes later we at arrived at Horyuji Temple complex, which as we were to learn houses the world’s oldest surviving wooden buildings. Horyuji was founded in 607 AD by Prince Shotoku, who had espoused the Chinese Tang Dynasty culture and promoted it as a way of unifying the country.
Soon we were back in the center of Nara and visiting its many temples and special places of interest. At the Todaiji Temple, in Nara park, we saw the legendary Great Buddha. It is claimed to be the largest bronze Buddha ever cast and 53 feet high covered by the Daibutsuden, the largest wooden building in the world. It appeared that our Nara trip was to be composed of superlatives, and also by exquisite beauty. On the late night train back to Kyoto, we began to review our ‘Shuin’ books and the various temples which we had visited during our visit. A marvelous collection of pilgrim’s memories.
Saturday was to be spent shopping in downtown Kyoto and then that evening we were invited to Hiroshi’s home for a farewell party. We had previously told him that we would be spending a quiet Sunday prior to my departure on Monday.
Gregg would be returning to Korea directly from Kyoto on Tuesday, whereas I had to take the early Monday morning plane to Tokyo and then get the afternoon courier flight north to Hokkaido. Hence I would have to leave a day earlier and as Sunday morning arrived I began to feel a nagging depression invade my being. Gregg, ever attentive to my moods, noticed and began talking about our next R & R. "What do you think about meeting next year in Tokyo? We could spend some time there and then perhaps go north to Sendai? As an alternate possibility I could fly up north to Hokkaido and we could take the train down to Tokyo together. That way you could show me around Hokkaido for a few days first."
It was a nice ploy and helped to bring me back to the reality of the fact that today or tomorrow wouldn't be the end of the world. He had always insisted that although we might make plans for the future, we had to live today. Come to think of it if he came north to Hokkaido, I could introduce Gregg to my friend Abbot Shimizu at the Zen temple since they were very similar in their manner of thinking.
Sunday was spent leisurely wandering around the city, just absorbing its magic. Later in the day we decided to have an early dinner and then go back to hotel so we could just relax and spend our final evening together, as close as physically possible.
We were lying on the bed and Gregg was talking about how much this visit to Japan had meant to him, and not only because we were finally able to be together. "I've been living in Korea for over a year now and have, by being able to speak the language, come to know it intimately. Strangely, in three short weeks, I've felt a greater identification with Japan and the Japanese people than I've ever encountered in Korea. Perhaps there's just something in my personality that responds to this culture, or maybe just to refined culture in general. Because what I've seen and experienced here has to be one of the most advanced cultures I could possibly imagine. The Japanese sensibility to nature, to living, to each other, is truly unique. I'm sure you must understand what I'm trying to express."
I conceded that I knew only too well, and mentioned that I had tried to convey my identification with the Japanese culture in my letters to him. It certainly wasn't perfect, but my inner being resonated to all of the beauty and sense of tradition that the Japanese seemed to radiate. Then he acknowledged that he hadn't really been able to understand it completely when I wrote about it, but now, having intimately experienced it, he too felt the same identification. Once again our different personalities and often different ways of viewing and experiencing the world, were in complete agreement. We continued to talk, murmur and chatter until the late hours of the night. We both commented on the fact that these three weeks had been some of the most precious moments we had ever spent together. We continued to chat, as if our conversation could somehow negate and nullify my departure within a few hours, at six o'clock that morning.
On Monday morning, the 27th of September, at 6:10 AM, in front of the R & R Military Hotel in Kyoto, we said our farewells as I boarded the bus for the airport. I can close my eyes and still see his twinkling, misty glance, his broad beaming smile as he waved goodbye. I can even recapture the sound of his voice as he said, "Sayonara Iwatsutsuji!"
What would I have done at that moment if I had known that this was the last time I would ever see this incredible individual who was my very life? With an echoing, impassioned plea could I have called upon the universe to stop the inexorable passage of time?
Yo no naka wo
Nani ni tatoemu
Kogiyuku fune no
To what shall I compare
To the white wake behind
a boat that has disappeared
The Priest Mansei (c. 720 AD)