25 November 2015

Here are some poemcards.

Some are just fun because it is a full moon.

Why no words like moony, moonscreen and moonburn in our lexicon?

One is because I like writing it out again.

I forgot I wrote the following at Kamakura on 8 October 2015:

The lesson
of the
is eternal:
 Sit still.
Be quiet.

23 November 2015


Between silence and worship
Is the house of Ecstasy

comes from trying to write instructions for learning the shakuhachi:

As I have said before, play outside.

The talent of this instrument is to find the echo of the space in which it finds itself.

The gap between silence and worship which is the house of ecstasy.

Find the loudest bird in your vicinity.

Probably it will be high in a tree.

That is okay, you can remain on the ground.

Play the sound of the bird.

The rest seems obvious.

I know it is somewhat flippant, but pertinent in my experience.

One by one,
My Lord
Collects my tears
So He may taste them all,
But He only wants
To see me smile
In every heart I find.

Faces of Kyoto

Even though I like to photograph people a lot I didn't take many photos of people in Japan. The following two images capture to some extent the beauty and poise of Japanese women. Not to be a cartoon, but I really did find myself doing double takes quite often.

22 November 2015

Shōganji and poetry

To round out my trip to Japan, I stayed at Shōganji Zen Retreat for four nights.

Here is an essay I wrote while I was there:

First, gardening.
Then, eating.

This appears to be the first rule of temple life and it translates in one form or another to an immutable law of life.

Food on the table must come from somewhere.

If it is not gardening, then hunting, working, shopping, scrounging, begging, thieving...who knows, but that effort brings reward is obvious.

The honest effort of squatting in the dirt, hoeing and pulling weeds mirrors the concentration necessary to keep the mind clear of thoughts so meditation can take place.

"A little bit at a time," says Jiho Kongo, the head monk, quite naturally offering the practical wisdom for which Zen is renowned.

In the same way, there is no miracle pill in the spiritual life, a commitment to weeding is required. For as long as it takes.

Being at the temple reminds me of visiting Zolli, the small village in Campania, Italy, where my family is from. Despite being 500 metres from the beach, Shuki, near Oita, is hilly, wild boar roam, much of the land is overgrown and there are a lot of old people around.

So it seems a fair question: how is my weeding different from the lot of the farmer anywhere in time or space? Surely this is just the history of the world.

The difference is the zazen which starts the day.

Meditation shows us how to uncover the precious jewel within the heart and the gardening which follows feels like polishing the jewel, cherishing it, sharing it, rather than just hiding it away.

What would be the point of digging for treasure just to lock it away again?

To start the day with meditation is a supreme blessing.

You don't need to be in a Zen temple to experience this.

How we approach what comes after meditation, whatever it may be, is the point.

To discover in our daily activities the extension of our meditation is the challenge.

More of a challenge than meditation even.

Disclaimer: I actually only spent about thirty minutes gardening the whole time I was at the temple!

I have lots of photos from the temple and the region, but for now, here are a few.

I really like taking photos of spiders and I took a lot of the Jorō Spider all over Japan as it is extremely common. It is quite hard to get a sharp photo of a spider for various reasons, but I took this one very soon after arriving at the temple. As legend has it, these spiders have a very dubious reputation.

Here are Ingar, from Norway, and Alice, from Adelaide, my home town, who were also staying at the temple.

This is Andrew, the incomparable Englishman, another visitor, swinging in a tree.

I stayed in a eight tatami room with sliding wooden doors and this is the scroll from my alcove. I have no idea what it says and did not think to ask.

When I asked Jiho who his favourite poet was, he told me it was Kanzan and then gave me one of this poet's verses he had copied out. I just got it back from my framer.

I recited one of my poems to Jiho, miming the words to reinforce the Engish.

He responded with, "Ah, satori feeling!"

As well as some incense from Kyoto, I gave Jiho a copy of a poem I composed in the Tokyo National Museum. The Toyokan building there is full of Buddha statuary from China, Korea, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and India.

The Light of the world
Is Thy Entire Being
So many Buddhas


At many of the major tourist attractions in Japan, foreigners are likely to be interviewed by local school children asking near identical questions to practice their English:

'What is your name? Where are you from? What is your favourite Japanese food?'

In Hiroshima, it was a little different. Wandering through the Peace Park, I couldn't move far without being asked to fill in a questionnaire with my thoughts on Peace.

I wrote the following:

Peace is the most important lesson to learn.

Peace is our oldest friend.

Peace is in my love of meditation.

In exchange for any wisdom you provide, the children will give you a bookmark or paper cranes.

After the trauma of the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum, it was a supreme comfort to sit, across from the Atomic Bomb Dome, on the banks of the Motoyasu-gawa River and just observe the gentle dance of light on the surface of the water.

Where everything
is the music of Peace.

19 November 2015

Reading Kenkō

I finished reading Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō.

A book mostly boring, richly atmospheric, at times, exceedingly charming:

The man who has never hesitated under a cloudy moon on a night fragrant with plum blossoms, or has no memories of the dawn moon in the sky as he started to walk through the dewy gardens inside the palace gate, had better have nothing to do with love.

This book has the advantage of being short little stories, more or less, so you do not need to read it in order, but it contains a lot of very colloquial ephemera amidst the passages of beauty.


Today, on the plane, I glanced at a neighbour's phone, and she was reading an article:

15 Things that are shockingly similar to completely unrelated things

I did not jump out of the plane, because we had already landed, but it seems we live in an age so seemingly dedicated to its own absurdity that it has become quite impossible to create satire.

18 November 2015

This is a short post about my new shakuhachi.

I bought it at Mejiro. If you want to invest in the real deal, this is a good choice in my opinion unless you have some contacts and/or speak Japanese. Even then, I don't think you will be saving money.

Mejiro have instruments by a variety of makers and perfect English skills to answer your questions and chat.

They were very happy to let me try as many shakuhachi as I liked until I was ready to choose.

My instrument was made by Shomei and is 2.39. (Don't ask me to explain that, but shakuhachi means 1.8 in some ancient measuring system).

Here is an example of a Shomei flute.

Mine is not that big, but it's quite a bit longer than the one I first learnt on.

I found some more information about Kobayashi Shomei on a blog, but it is quite an old post and the blog seems to have gone quiet so I'll quote from Shakuhachi Stuff here:

It was in 2007 when I met him for the first time. He struck me as a living komuso because of his austere spirit. He traveled worldwide when he was young as a backpacker. He draws paintings every month on komuso and his paintings reveal his inner spiritual world. (He was once accepted to an American university to study art).

One day, when he allowed me to play his (and his friend's) vintage flutes, he scolded me and said: "I don't understand what you are trying to get from each flute. This precious moment won't come back aqain. Why don't you put all of your energy into each flute?" Since then, he became my good friend and mentor. Later, he explained that he had done research on kokan vintage shakuhachi, and the only useful way for him was to play them with the maximized energy for a few hours at least, not by playing lightly or measuring the bore shape, length, and size of those flutes. In other words, he embodied the characteristics of each flute.

Kobayashi is predominantly a jinashi maker, even though he gives shakuhachi lessons regularly at Mejiro. Among the many jinashi shakuhachi that I've tried, his flutes are most colorful and flavorful in terms of tone quality. I particularly liked his long flutes. The sounds of these flutes were profound, vibrant yet light and smooth. As a pianist, I always think of his jinashi as Steinway, whereas other makers' flutes, however functional and playable, sound like the Yamaha or Kawai to my ears. Of course, this doesn't devalue their flutes (I have theirs and love them). But the tone quality of Kobayashi's flutes is outstanding.

At the moment I am finding walking and playing good for improving my technique.

The Kamakura Buddha

Peeking through the trees
Do you miss the shade?
And ages and ages pass

The Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha of Kamakura), located in Kotoku-in temple, has many moods. Sit watching the statue for hours. Go behind a building and come back. It's different. Eternally different. Time floats there. Existence is deep beneath the sea of satisfaction.

All day, endless waves of humanity break at the foot of the statue. Plenty of foreigners, but mainly the flower of Japanese youth and the wizened trunk of their aged.

A nice grandma took my photo after I took hers with her friends. Some school boys wanted to practice their English and then took a group photo with me. Ten minutes later one of them came back with a present for me which was very sweet. Five origami cranes on a ribbon.

Many visitors are seeking selfies, if not the self. Buddha doesn't mind. Never mind. No.

Speaking of wizened trunks, everywhere in the grounds the sculptural magnificence of old trees is carefully nurtured and maintained.

What did we do before the camera when visiting such places? The idea we cherished silence and prayed or meditated more is a noble thought, but probably not true.

After around 750 years in the same spot the Buddha is qualified to say, but he is not talking right now.

There are endless stories of existence still to be told, but I can only tell you mine, although, to be honest, my favourite song to sing is someone else's song.

You can even look inside the Buddha, for around just 25 cents, but you will need to look inside yourself to find his heart of silence-trance.

I had many excellent powerful meditation experiences there.

It is the Amitābha Buddha - the Buddha of measureless light.

In the end, I visited this temple three times, including getting there at the 8am opening time on a Saturday! At that time of day, I practically had the place to myself and I was looking forward to some lovely silence, but gardeners and other staff were walking around cleaning: the leaf-blower man taught me sound-world-detachment. The staff had such excellent smiles when I talked to them or said hello.

Every time I visited this temple, I found it quite hard to leave, especially seeing they had matcha soft serve ice cream available for 300 yen at one of their gift shops.

What more can you ask for?

My hint is walk to this temple from Kita Kamakura, which is the stop before Kamakura if you are coming from Tokyo. I get lost quite easily, but this really is a simple thing to do. Get off at Kita-Kamakura (where there are of course at least four lovely temples anyway) cross the train tracks and turn left at the street. About 400 metres down the road is Jochi-ji, where the path to the Daibutsu starts. It's a serious cross country walking track and might take you an hour. It is very steep up and down in parts but mostly quite gentle. I doubt it would be any fun to walk at all if it was really wet or hot.

Please note the following announcement on the Kotoku-in website:
From 13 January to March 10 2016, with a subsidy from the state, a restoration project for the preservation of the Daibutsu will commence. Because of the placement of scaffoldings and temporary roof etc., it will be impossible to view the Daibutsu during this time. We apologize deeply for the inconvenience and ask for your kind understanding.

I took lots of photos of the Daibutsu, quite a few selfies and people kindly took pictures of me too. Until I edit my pictures, this one is a favourite, although it is in Hase-dera, still in Kamakura, but a few hundred metres down the road. That's me on the left.

16 November 2015

Rose-coloured clouds

Han Shan, Cold Mountain, or Kanzan as the Japanese call him.

Kerouac dedicated The Dharma Bums to him.

This poet is available to me only in translation.

There are many translations out there.

Here is a verse translated by Red Pine:

A man who lives on rose-coloured clouds
shunned the usual haunts for a home
every season is equally dead
summer is just like fall
a dark stream always babbles
a towering pine wind sighs
sitting here less than one day
he forgets a whole liftime of sorrow

The first line is supposedly an allusion to the spiritual powers of the dawn and sunset.

I quite like it.

Last week it rained quite a bit. On many days, there were marvellous storms in the evening around sunset. Drinking in the rose-coloured clouds, I got to meditate and play flute and shakuhachi along with the rain, lightning and thunder. It's very soothing for me.

Not much is know for certain about Han Shan's life. Some of his poems are most famous, but there is no standard order to his canon. I could not find another version of the verse above to compare to. Whether it makes any sense only you can decide.

Not one among these forms will last,
All will break, crumble, vanish, pass.
It is all Your love,
It is all Your love.
To know Your love
Is to see the face of Bliss
In the heart of the world.

The cloud,
the tree-tops,
My heart
is dancing
In the wind
of the sunset-sky.

15 November 2015

kaki no ha sushi

I wonder how much the availability and popularity of kaki no ha sushi owes to In Praise of Shadows written by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki in 1933.

A friend gave me this famous little book before my trip. It is a really short work, but I have not managed to finish it yet. However, I did remember there are a few pages where the author writes in detail about persimmon leaf wrapped sushi. This food apparently originates deep in the mountains of Yoshino, which are a good hour or two from Kyoto where I bought this treat at the station. I think I bought some in Nara too.

It came in a wonderful wooden box with a charming illustration. I was on the train and about to bite into one of these whole when a lady grabbed my attention and mimed peeling it!

This persimmon tree is actually in the grounds of the Ryoanji Temple which has Japan's most famous rock garden. I helped a short lady pluck a few of these to take with her.

I ate quite a bit of persimmon when I was staying in Ōita Prefecture. The countryside was full of trees laden with this fruit.

12 November 2015

From the heart of emptiness arises all known phenomena,
but these are not the heart of emptiness,
anymore than rain belongs to the sky.

As the setting sun bows
Peace glow appears
Not a moment too late.

07 November 2015

A poem or two and some shopping

Beloved, Beloved, Beloved!
This is my favourite prayer:
To feel You are my everywhere.

One of the things I bought lots of in Japan was stationary, mainly paper, specifically postcards. The Japanese take postcards seriously. Plenty of people must make their own as you can buy packs of blank or patterned cards ideal for watercolour or ink.

The first picture above is a postcard, but you can see the paper has a subtle pattern through it, the next piece is actually from a pad with a beautiful design and then there is a normal A4 size piece of watercolour paper. I bought so many packets of postcards in Japan I had to post them back to myself in Australia. It was too much of a pain to keep carrying them around.

So I packed a large box full of postcards, various stationary, tea canisters, some books and things very carefully. Everything was taped up tight and I even used pochi pochi (bubble wrap) to make sure nothing would break.

The very funny thing was hearing the postal clerk say, "Sorry, sir, I can not send this. Look at it." You see, I had used a box I found on the street, more or less. Absolutely clean and sound, but definitely for transporting some kind of foodstuff or drink according to the writing and decoration to be found upon it.

It was very hard to imagine anyone looking at the parcel and being confused about the contents or purpose given the massive address label I had made and affixed to the top - it was simply just too indecorous for the Japanese postal system! I had to pay 200 yen for a regulation box to put my own box in. Somewhat enchanted by the whole thing and watching my box fit perfectly into the new box, guaranteeing further protection for the contents, I demurred.

When it comes to the postal system, I usually take pride in my recycled and unique packaging. Recently I sent a book to some friends by wrapping it around with brown paper, sewing each end straight across with bookbinding thread and then dipping the sewn ends in red wax. It was agreed the packaging was at least as impressive as the contents.

Shopping for stationary in Japan is really easy.

If in Tokyo, go to Shibuya and seek out Loft and Tokyu Hands. Both are just a few hundred metres from Shibuya Station, and they are practically next to each other. Other than an entire floor for stationary, you will find all sorts of things in each of these huge stores. You can find both these stores all over Japan, but those are the biggest ones.

To take it to the next level, go to Sekaido in Shinjuku where you will find six floors of just art and stationary supplies.

Of course, there are also smaller more traditional shops specialising solely in brush, ink, natural pigments, rice paper and the like. Some of these are famous, others not. I found a few and tended to get small bits and pieces in these places. My intention was to get something really nice in one of the oldest and most famous of these shops to be found in Kyoto, but by the time I got there, I was shopped out!

Also, I have found that my favourite brush to write with is actually an old Pentel Aquash Brush Pen that is half broken. Not so long ago, after writing the poem below at least 50 times one evening, I wondered if I was crazy, then saw it was not the ink, not the brush, not the paper, but my breathing which made the difference and led to what I felt was a satisfactory result.

I'm usually happy with a decent pigmented ink with some metallic ink added in and tend to mix this up as I go.

Here is a selection of the postcards I bought.

As you can see, I am a sucker for brush pens. The mixing tray is actually ceramic and the paperweight is probably the most unique thing. I think it is meant to be a cucumber. The smaller container is gold ink and the larger is red. I'm not quite sure how I'll use the small dish of gold as I haven't yet tried it.