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Sunny late afternoon, riding the bus home from work. I’m reading my Japanese textbook and murmuring the words. I’m on the aisle and beside me is a woman with a flat American accent talking to another woman in the seat in front of us. Although I’m trying to concentrate on the new grammar using uchi ni [while a certain situation holds], I keep getting distracted by “new job,” “need the hours,” “we’re spoiled because we all have our own bathroom,” “it would be nice to be able to afford Dupont Circle.”

The bus stops. Suddenly my seatmate says brightly, “Shitsureshimasu!” [Excuse me]

I stand up to let her pass and, without thinking, I say, “Hai, dōzo.” [Please go ahead]

And she’s off the bus before I can say anything else.


Happy Halloween!

Kabocha 2008

Kabocha 2008
Photo: “Kabocha” (pumpkin) in Japanese. Kore wa Takeda Sensei ni agemasu.

I have been to numerous sake tastings and there are several things I can count on: (a) delicious sake, (b) a group of interesting ex-pats who are passionate about drinking it, and (c) a moment of anxiety when I see a sake label. I cannot easily read the labels and so to remember a favorite sake from a certain kura (sake brewer), I must take a photo of the bottle. My photos of sake labels are often blurry, because I am myself, at that moment, a little blurry.

Sake bottle labels are designed with a range of graphics styles from hyper-modern to reproductions of traditional art. Many labels feature the simplicity of beautiful shodo (calligraphy) on washi paper. All of this one can appreciate without reading the text. Still, there’s a lot the illiterate foreigner is missing. I have taught myself some of the vital label kanji that state the grade of sake (junmai ginjo, honjozo, daiginjo). It would be anti-social to have my nose in a kanji dictionary all night at a sake tasting, so I just take the photo and move on. Even if I had the dictionary, however, some sake names are written in old kanji that is not listed in basic dictionaries.

So much for the pity party. Here’s how I battle my illiteracy in general: today I spent two hours deciphering the entire recipe for an eggplant dish. Two hours, a cooking magazine, a Japanese-English dictionary, and a kanji dictionary to painfully translate how to make “lightly fried eggplant in broth.” No kidding, just when I was about to throw the magazine across the room, I came across a sentence that I could read without the dictionary. I stared at it with tears in my eyes. If you think that must be hyperbole, then you have never studied Japanese.

Friday morning. I arrive at my teacher’s house and instead of her normal calm welcome, she greets me flustered and looking a little disheveled. She apologizes profusely and tells me she has to go do something which will take 10 minutes, and asks me to sit down and study some kanji while I wait. She says all this in such a rush and looking so embarrassed that I decide not to ask her to repeat herself. I have no idea where she is going because she explained so quickly that I only caught something like: “Sorry, go, 10 minutes, put something in, back soon. Sorry.” She rushes out of the house. I sit in my normal seat at her dining room table and look around.

My teacher has been my teacher for 8 months and her dining/living room has become familiar. I see her about 6 times per month: once per week for the normal lesson, and twice per month for shodo (calligraphy) class. I am invited to calligraphy class not really to study calligraphy, but to practice speaking Japanese with her other students, and to be a novelty, I think. They like to watch me eat the traditional Japanese snacks and ask me questions about America or my husband. As the other students (all Japanese women in their late 50s and early 60s) copy out the Heart Sutra (see below), full of glorious, ancient, now unused (except in specialist books) kanji, my teacher reads them an explanation of the Buddhist text, written in a Japanese obscure even for them. As they dip their brushes and expertly caress the paper, I clumsily write kanji for big, dog, left, right, inside, five—child’s kanji. She tried to teach me complicated shodo at first, but I didn’t know the kanji and I am left-handed, which makes trying to make the brush follow right-hand-biased forms very difficult. Sometimes, however, I make something simple and lovely, almost by accident, and the student beside me will smile and say, “Good one.”

Today, however, is my weekly language class. I look around the plain room, wondering at how the suburban Japanese homes I have been inside are always so very plain. Sometimes there will be a tatami room with a lovely traditional flourish of flowers and wood accents. Often, however, the living spaces lack any art on the walls and contain western furniture so very ugly the pieces pain me as representatives of my world. I know there is a tradition of no art on the walls that comes from traditional Japanese architecture, but those traditional houses are gloriously elegant with shoji screens and carved transoms with carefully waxed, dark wood everywhere. A scroll may be the only accent of color and visual movement in the room, but it makes aesthetic sense in those old homes that are essentially a dialectic pattern of white shoji paper and plaster against the dark brown wood. I see these old Japanese homes in architectural museums (where they have been moved piece-by-piece) and on trips to places where a few of these homes have survived in situ.

When the Japanese middle-class moved into Western-style houses, however, they chose wallpapered white and beige walls and windows framed with curtains. Instead of Japanese furniture, they fill these rooms with chairs and sideboards that for some reason always look like an imitation of the West rather than a properly furnished room. And there is very little art on the walls, which looks bare in a Western house. I have been in several homes recently and have seen other interiors on TV. Except for the tatami rooms, which are sometimes maintained as special rooms in Japanese style, the homes look empty and undecorated to me.

When she sits down she is apologizing now for not having her makeup on, for looking, frankly, like she just rolled out of bed. And I have no idea what to say except to reassure her. The New Englander in me just can’t bring myself to quiz her. I adore her. Every week she has given me tea and snacks (a new snack every single week so I might try a variety of different things). She has extended every lesson, sometimes by a whole hour, without charging me. Even now that I have caught on to her ways, and I have tried various methods to leave at noon, she finds something to ask me, something she insists she must discuss. One time I pretended my husband was home sick just so I could leave on time.

She holds a hand in front of her mouth for most of today’s lesson, so I can barely understand her. I’m wondering if I should just leave, she looks so embarrassed, but I think that would make her even more upset. Strangely, she looks better with no makeup; her normal heavy powder hides her skin which is, I can see today, fine, older with some age spots, but perfectly lovely and dewy. We get into the lesson and mostly forget these things.

We run through the week’s kanji for various verbs: to exercise, to fail, to succeed, to return, weather words like to clear up, to get cloudy, the wind is blowing. She holds up cards with pictures of these verbs in cartoon. I must say things like, “I forgot to lock the door so I returned home” or “ It was clear, but now it is cloudy.” And as soon as I get the sentences out, they seem to disappear in the air, and I must be trying to remember ghosts of words. But we plow on; she is endlessly forgiving and urges me to repeat the same sentence again. I look out her sliding glass door at the sky and marvel at the cloudy sky. Kumottekita—it has become cloudy again.

She makes me tea and serves sticks of mochi balls coated with sweet black sesame paste. We chew the mochi off the sticks and I tell her about a show I went to in Tokyo. I insist on going as best I can, but I still end up leaving 30 minutes late. I can see she lacks the energy today to detain me with her normal zest.

At home, the cloudy sky decides to rain, and I head outside to walk in it, happily letting myself get soaked.

Excerpt from the Heart Sutra (translated by the Nalanda Translation Committee):

O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. […] Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.

Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana. All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment. Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception. The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:


Today we have sugoi ōzora (amazing big sky) in Kanagawa prefecture. The neighborhood bedrooms have been emptied of their futons. The futons and bed linens hang over the edge of the laundry balconies to be sterilized by the sun. The laundry flutters in an orderly fashion above the futons. It’s an amazingly blue big sky day.

In Japanese, the kanji for sky can also be pronounced kara meaning “empty” or “nothing.” So, one may say naka wa karappo da ([it’s] empty inside).

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

So we say true understanding will come out of emptiness. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general housecleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.

Lately I can’t decide if I’m ōzora or naka wa karappo. Is the sky empty? Today it feels full of NASA stuff.

The quote that pleased me to no end, and made me glad that Mr. (probably Dr.) Shannon was trained in the tidy, haiku-perfect, E.B. White school of English rhetoric:

Duct tape doesn’t work in the vacuum of space.

—John Shannon, Atlantis deputy shuttle program manager

I once had great faith in the universal usefulness of duct tape. Ah well. Some good old-fashioned problem-solving is going on in the sky above [emphasis mine]: “Astronaut John ‘Danny’ Olivas used his hands, staples from a medical kit, and pins to repair a thermal blanket on the back end of space shuttle Atlantis….”

Internet Broadcasting Systems, Inc. has given me much to think about with that crap sentence. For example, are astronauts trained to use other parts of their bodies to do fine work in space? Go Danny—use that opposable thumb!

NASA has it this way: “While attached to the shuttle robot arm, Olivas tucked the blanket back into place and then used a medical stapler to secure it to adjacent blankets on the left orbital maneuvering system pod.”

Everyone please see to your laundry and your thermal blankets. I declare it a big sky day.


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