A rich buttery soup is not better as such than a broth of wild herbs. In handling and preparing wild herbs, do so as you would the ingredients for a rich feast, wholeheartedly, sincerely, clearly. When you serve the monastic assembly, they and you should taste only the flavour of the Ocean of Reality, the Ocean of unobscured Awake Awareness, not whether or not the soup is creamy or made only of wild herbs.

—Dogen, Tenzo kyokun (Instructions for the Tenzo), translated by Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi and Anzan Hoshin roshi


Photo:
Maneki-neko (beckoning cat) and (de)construction outside the Hida Folk Village in Takayama.

This was the scene just outside the Hida Folk Village on Christmas Day. The bright optimism of the cat beckoning customers to a now-defunct shop or restaurant in opposition to the sight and sound of crunching wood and metal. That sound carried into the “village”—a museum of old farmhouses that were taken apart, moved, and rebuilt in Takayama—and gave the whole experience a soundtrack of impermanence. The farmhouses had been threatened by neglect, by new dams that flooded their old villages, and by modernity itself. The sound of the machinery underlined how sad these farmhouses were, but it also made them seem profoundly beautiful.

I should have included that detail—the sound of destruction—in my post about our trip to Takayama, but I didn’t. I urged my husband to take the photo of the cat. Yet, somehow in the rush to tell our story, I left in the glowing sake reviews and the shots of cedar balls outside of breweries, and neglected to frame the town as I really remember it.

When I stuck to the anachronistic Edo-era buildings, I forgot to write about other retro appeal: having coffee in a local café. It wasn’t rebuilt retro, it was a smoky and faded place with avocado green seats and a collection of old molded glass ice cream sundae cups. The owner serves milk for coffee in tiny, thimble-sized pitchers, and not in plastic, disposable containers. This scene wasn’t part of the San-machi district, so I left it out.

Takayama isn’t all beauty. It’s a town in an industrialized nation. Takayama’s old central district delights the eye, but it’s artificial in that it cannot stand alone. It must be supported and surrounded by life as modern Japanese live it. The outskirts must provide the services that that gorgeous district cannot: gas stations, pachinko parlors, a few mini-malls, some inexpensive family restaurants with parking. We the tourist and the ex-pat bloggers tend to skim past these things as if they don’t exist.

This is not to say that the building demolition or the coffee shop constitute one Japanese reality and the San-machi district another. I can’t separate the details in my overall impression of Takayama. Although in my mind I do not filter out these details, somehow I find my blog posts do. This is a failure in my writing and editing. I was reminded of this when I read a post on “The Westerner’s Fear of the Neonsign” [ETA: the blog was killed off, but some archives remain], a bitter but funny analysis of ex-pat blogs about Japan. David wrote writes devastatingly insightful posts about Japan and the cultural filter through which Westerners (his word choice) look at Japan. It’s all layers of irony and I enjoyed reading it.

Still, I’ve been pondering how one tries to represent reality in words, and how the filter through which one sees is the only picture you can honestly represent. Of course, I read about and witness the exotic absurdities of Japanese culture and politics, but I have chosen to focus on a tighter view, to highlight food and sake and some general observations of what I think is beautiful and/or worth noticing. I have tried not to write too far afield for fear of having no idea what I am talking about. How easy we find it to blather on.

On the other hand, I could fall into the trap of fetishizing the ugly or banal. I think this also would be a mistake. As in the Dogen quote, I hope to handle everything with respect, trying not to judge an experience the greater or lesser ingredient, and to demonstrate my awareness of reality with the skill of my presentation of the final meal. After all, a writer/blogger is simply a person who takes the raw ingredients and plates them up according to one’s abilities and predilections. I see the world as essentially beautiful (essentially meaning its inherent qualities)—in spite of its horrors and humanity’s failures.

The lotus flower is a Buddhist symbol that represents the human mind transcending the mud of reality to bloom in the sunshine of enlightenment. Yet, transcending the mud doesn’t require one to ignore reality. The lotus root is a delicious treat, too. I hope to do better in 2008.

Advertisements