May 29, 2020

The Golden Week that turned to brass

The first time I experienced emergency was when I was a mere babe in my mother’s arms. Indira Gandhi had declared an emergency in India to deal with political disturbances.
Now so many decades later, I face a different kind of emergency in a different country. In April, Prime Minister Abe declared an emergency in Japan to deal not with his political opponents but with the Corona Virus.

The thing is, Abe is no Indira Gandhi, and coming down with force is something that the Japanese are not good at anyway. So, this was a sort of pseudo emergency. Transport was still running and almost all businesses were open.There was no enforcement, the government just politely requested people to stay at home and avoid crowds. Surprisingly even without any strict enforcement, people actually followed instructions from their government. For an Indian like me, this in itself was something new and baffling.

Most offices declared work from home in March and I have been at home ever since. The past few months have been an interesting study on how to spend a lockdown alone.
The first few days were fun. There was no pressure to get up very early, quickly cook breakfast and lunch, and then leave for work. I could simply roll out of bed and switch on my work Laptop. All I had to was make sure my hair was neatly combed and I had a good shirt on whenever we had video calls. This fun period lasted only a few days until I started feeling like a sloth and a sense of lethargy set in. Also staying in my pajamas the whole day was not liberating. It was just depressing. Eventually from lolling about in my pajamas, I moved to the other extreme of dressing smartly every day even though I knew I was not going anywhere. I even started putting on a bit of perfume and makeup. Surprisingly it all helped.

Until now, I had loved my compact and easy to manage apartment but suddenly it started feeling highly claustrophobic and inconvenient. Earlier I just used it for sleeping and putting together quick meals but now that I was spending all my time in it, its shortcomings became all too evident. The kitchen was just too small to cook regular meals and I kept banging into my few pieces of furniture while trying to move about. There is not much you can do in a small space and pacing up and down inside the apartment didn’t help relieve boredom at all except that I now know that I can take exactly 32.5 steps in my apartment.
Soon, I was so bored that I started looking at myself in the mirror and asking aaj khaane mein kya banayun. And in response I snarled at myself because roz roz same question!
I am not a very social person and don’t always need company but after a few days with just myself, I could barely tolerate my own idiocentricities.

Japan is not like India or Spain or Italy, where neighbors will stand in their balconies and talk or cheer each other with a glass of wine and hold musical concerts. My neighbors would have found it very strange had I suddenly started talking to them after ignoring them for a better part of the year. So, I thought this is the perfect time to call my friends and family back home in India. But that was no fun at all. Half of them were in a constant hurry and a terrible mood because they were busy juggling work, family and missing their maids more than they would miss a limb. The other half were busy turning the lockdown into a productivity contest and churning up every dish from jalebis to banana cakes, doing weird fitness things like climbing their living room wall or turning into gardeners by growing everything from dhaniya patta to exotic flowers.

Busy or not, they all did have one thing to say to me -How lucky I was to be alone at this time. I had all the personal space I wanted without the entire family breathing down my neck and I just had to cook and clean for myself. Ah well, the grass being greener on the other side and all that!

The worst thing about the emergency was that it ruined the Golden week for me. Golden week is a period of five glorious continuous holidays in Japan at the end of April. I spend my entire year in anticipation of these holidays. This is a time when Japan has the perfect travel weather. Not too cold and not too hot. What numerous plans I had for the golden week and not one included staying indoors. But now I was faced with almost an entire week cooped up inside the house with nothing to do but fret and worry.

Strangely enough, it was the park near my house that eventually saved me from death from boredom or worry. Wearing a mask and armed with a sanitizer I started going for daily walks. The park not only became my place of daily exercise and rejuvenation but, now that I had more time on my hands, a delightful study of nature. I had a chance to observe the cherry trees right from when the first few buds started appearing till the trees were covered in a pink and white cloud of flowers. This experience turned out to be more enjoyable and personalized than going to a crowded tourist spot to see the cherry blossoms as I had originally planned. After the cherry blossoms came the delightful wisterias, irises, and azaleas. Every day had some new flower, some new shade of green on the leaves to look forward to and marvel at.

I used to see a lot of Japanese sitting in the park reading and some even working on the laptop. Houses are usually small in Japan and almost everyone was feeling the lack of personal space. With all cafes closed, sitting on a park bench and working seemed like a good option.

After I had moped around enough I realized what a golden opportunity this time was to just relax. For the past year, since I had moved to Japan, my life had been a frenzy of continuous activity and at times rather stressful. Here was a chance to slow down and do what I wanted, the way I wanted.
Eventually, I settled down to a quiet routine of office work through the weekdays and working on writing and reviving my long-forgotten blog over the weekends. Writing has always made me happy and it was just the perfect thing to do at this time. I also finally started going through the 100 unread books on my kindle. The most unexpected thing I did was to decide to learn how to cook some basic Japanese food. I am not too fond of cooking and this decision came as a surprise even to me. But Japanese recipes are quick and easy to cook and I could finally learn how to use those interesting looking local vegetables and herbs I saw at my grocery store.

The downtime gave me time to unwind, relax and take stock of a lot of things.
And you know what, I am not the slightest bit guilty about not learning any new skill or utilizing every moment of my time productively. I got through this emergency living on my own and with my sanity Intact. For me, that’s about enough!

Japan goes back to normal life starting Monday. Now that I am so used to my own company and solitude, I think I might just miss it!

May 4, 2020

Hokokuji - The Green Cathedral

Today is Midori no Hi or Greenery Day in Japan. A National Holiday to give thanks to nature and the bounty that it gives us. Nature and religion go hand in hand in Japan. Shintoism in its purest form is the worship of nature and the same concept has been absorbed by Buddhism in Japan as well. All shrines and temples here are surrounded by some form of natural beauty - be it a pond, bamboo groves, or trees. The best of autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, wisterias, or any other seasonal flowers of Japan are always found blooming in shrines and temple Gardens.
Kamakura – the temple town near Tokyo is a place I visit very often. I love walking up and down its narrow winding lanes and visiting the numerous Buddhist temples. Each temple right from the temple of the Great Buddha to the smallest one has something unique to offer. My favorite is the Hokokuji Temple.
 A Zen temple, Hokokuji is the family temple of the Ashikaga clan and very well known for its bamboo grove. Infact some people find the bamboo grove here more beautiful than the famous Arashimaya bamboo grove in Kyoto. 
You enter the temple through a gate and walk through a small and immaculate garden that has paths paved of small white pebbles winding through the green grass. A few Bonsai like trees are scattered here and there. The whole appearance is of a Zen-like state created in a small space.

The steps that lead up to the temple look ancient and don’t seem to be man-made. It’s as if nature crafted them out of stones and the roots of the trees and then covered them with a carpet of moss.

The main temple has the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, sculpted by the famous Buddhist sculptor, Takuma Hogen. Frankly, it is not a very awe-inspiring building.
But then the true magic of Hokokuji lies behind the temple, in its bamboo grove.
The grove when you come near it does not seem to be anything special. Till you enter it. It has about 2000 bamboos and is very dense. As soon as you go inside, all sounds fade away, except the occasional rustle of the leaves. The rays of the sun filter through the tall bamboos as if from a very great height and fill the grove with an almost mystical and surreal light. You feel as if you are walking through a great cool, green cathedral. As you slowly walk through the grove, your chaotic mind is stilled and spirits refreshed.

One of the main reason temples, especially Zen temples are surrounded by woods is so that the monks or even visitors are able to calm their senses just by walking through the temple grounds.

Dotted here and there, between the bamboos and under other trees, covered completely with moss are small statues of Buddhist gods. This temple is nothing but greenery and nature in different forms and shades.

A traditional Japanese tea house is nestled deep within the bamboo grove. You can sit there with your bowl of green tea and simply gaze out at the beauty around you. 

The tea house is a popular place, full of people but you don't hear much conversation. Everyone is content to take in the serene surroundings and just be. 
The small garden, the bamboo grove even the way the tea is presented all speak about Japan’s love for nature and aesthetics. 

I find myself veering away from the more famous and crowded temples and going back to temples like Hokokuji again and again. For me, God exists not inside great buildings but in nature. Being in nature is how I commune with God.

Note-Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I do a Shrine of the Month post there. Each month, I will be doing that post on the blog now. 

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