An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan

Welcome to the Twenty-First Century Star Chamber, guaranteed to bring you a wholly satisfying, up-to-date, and quintessentially twenty-first century web-browsing experience. You’ll find no unsightly 1900s-vintage bugginess here: our Y2K Crisis Management Team has performed beautifully and has conducted the site safely across the millennial divide.

This week we present for your sophisticated twenty-first century reading pleasure a very brief poem by twentieth-century poet Joanne Kyger and some excerpts from a twentieth-century expedition to Japan undertaken by our own Paracelsus.

SUDDENLY! by Joanne Kyger

The same Moon in the next century!

An Alchemist Abroad: Paracelsus in Japan

My friend Mike lived in Osaka and I needed to visit him before he returned to the States. I convinced my friend Brian to travel with me to Japan, and these are some of my journal entries from that trip.

9 August - Thursday

Fly into Japan; because of the International Dateline we do not arrive until the next day. Generally when you fly east to west you are chasing the sun, and so the flight seems very short, local time to local time. But in this case we are crossing the date line (flying from east to west, or from West to the East, depending on how you look at it), which resets the clock 24 hours later. So it is a very long flight, local time to local time. Our flight is over three hours late taking off, partially because of some obscure hydraulic problem with the nose gear, but also partially because the chief stewardess accidentally blew open the emergency inflatable slide while trying to open the side door to get a little air on to the stifling plane. Because of time-on-duty laws our flight crew has to be replaced with a fresh one (since the flight was so late), but before the old crew leaves one of the attendants gives me and Brian two bottles of wine and another gives us a third. We are flying well before takeoff.

13 August - Monday
Went to: Shirahama
Did: Shirahama beach and a local sento
Lunch: curry rice
Dinner: Mike's place, Domino's Pizza delivers...
Slept in: Osaka

We wake up early for the train to Shirahama, but a million other people have also gotten up early and decided to ride in our car. Many of them are interested in standing on my feet. The whole train is SRO for the two hours it takes to get there. We arrive at Shirahama before noon, but not before a tremendous thunderstorm which threatens to wash away us, the train station, and many of the nearby shops. Preferring to sit out the storm, we stay inside and eat a breakfast of hato keku (hot cakes) before setting off for the beach.

Once at the beach, we do what all people do at the beach: we lay in the sun, swim, and build a big sandcastle. And though the sun really never comes out (it does manage to give me and Mike a nasty sunburn), the swimming is fine, and the sandcastle is a good one. We walk away from the beach for a few hours, and when we come back, we see that our sandcastle has been stomped flat.

This is no big deal in itself, but curiously we see that there are two or three small replicas of our castle nearby. We try very hard not to draw conclusions about psychology and culture. I am surprised by the fact that the beach is incredibly trashed, a pattern which we were to see repeated all over Japan. The subways are immaculate, the railway stations spotless, but the hiking trails, beaches and lakes are covered with litter of every kind. Go figure.

14 August - Tuesday
Went to: Nara
Did: Todaiji Temple, Nigatsu Hall, local festival in Nara
Lunch: Mister Donuts in Nara
Dinner: Sugayo's place, sukiyaki and beer
Slept in: Mike's place

The morning is very slow and extremely lazy. We discuss many things, including plans for the next few days. Finally, we head off for Nara, where we visit Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple) and the enormous Daibutsu (Giant Buddha) inside. It is a truly awesome building, gigantic, entirely of wood. One of the more surprising things about the temple is the fact that inside the compound itself they have a little shop which sells religious objects, talismans, and Buddhas.

But not just the classic inscrutable Buddha statue … they also sell cute cartoony ceramic Baby Buddhas, cute bouncy bobbing-head Baby Buddhas, and grinning Baby Buddha ashtrays where you shove your smoldering cigarette through the gap tooth in the Buddha’s dopey grin. Obviously I have some cultural baggage which prevents me from understanding how this all fits together. Go figure. Mike tells me that a friend of his who grew up in Nara says this is not so weird, because the Japanese view this particular Buddha as almost a comical figure because of its enormous size and its Mona Lisa style grin.

Dinner that night is at Mike’s girlfriend’s manchon (mansion) which is the word they really use to describe these tiny apartments with one bedroom, one bathroom, and an LDK, or living room-dining room-kitchen. The floor is tatami and the dinner, sukiyaki, is as delicious as the room is small. And the room is quite small indeed.

22 August - Wednesday
Went to: Kyoto
Did: Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavilion)
Lunch: Chinese restaurant near Tennoji
Dinner: Greasy place in Kyoto, pork cutlet on rice
Slept in: Gesshin-in, part of Kodaiji Zen Temple

Upon reaching Kyoto, we take the bus up to Ginkakuji (Silver Square Temple) which is at the top of the famous Philosopher’s walk. We manage to take in two more temples before we need to get to the Gesshin-in so we can check in and lay down our bags.

The Gesshin-in is attached to the Kodaiji Zen Temple and takes lodgers. The place is hard for us to find, as all of our maps are inadequate. As far as I can tell, almost all maps for tourists here, whether American or Japanese, are cartoony, stylized, and littered with idiotic cutesy cartoon figures, making it very hard to figure out the scale or navigate in general, as many of the smaller streets are left off (or obscured by some grinning teddy bear). We finally find the place and peek inside. The “garage” area is filled with motor scooters and small (I mean tiny) motorcycles, probably ten to fifteen in all. Zen and the Art of Miniature Motorcycle Maintenance. A little monk comes out who speaks some English and explains that this is his hobby. He is a bald albino and very hyperactive, which gives him a curious appearance and manner. He speaks very rapidly and quickly shows me two photos of himself: in one he is dressed in his Buddhist robes, and in the other he has on a Mickey Mouse shirt and wool hat, and he is riding a ridiculously small (clown-sized) bicycle. He absolutely loves tiny bikes and motorcycles. The show isn’t over yet, though, and he pulls out a small photo album which has pictures of him astride various tiny bikes, scooters, and assorted stuffed animals. The common denominator is him straddling something or other in photo after photo.

At any rate, we have two futons rolled out for us on the tatami, and just outside the sliding screen door from our room is a beautiful Zen garden, complete with pond, carp, and shrine. In short, it is exactly what I was hoping it would be like. Soon after our conversation with the monk, we set off for the downtown sights of Kyoto and a little dinner.

Later that night, I try to sit outside on the wooden deck overlooking the temple garden in peaceful contemplation for a while. Across the pond from me, two dim candles are flickering in the tiny garden shrine. The weather is sticky and the bugs are thick, and in short order the mosquitoes have gotten the better of me and my search for enlightenment, and I go inside and hit the sack.

The next morning, we eat breakfast in the temple (it was part of the lodging deal) and our friend the monk, who is wearing Donald Duck shorts this morning, demonstrates some of his miniature motorcycles and bicycles for us. While we’re getting ready to leave, he is busy putting on his priestly garments for the morning services just down the road. We ask him if we can see the service, but this doesn’t get understood clearly, and as near as we can tell, it would be inappropriate for us to tag along.

He wants very badly to know if I will be back that evening to chat. No? Then maybe next week? Finally, when I tell him I may visit Japan some time in the future, he insists that I come by for a visit. He is extremely friendly with me, and Brian thinks he is maybe a bit too friendly. Just before he leaves for the morning services, I get Brian to snap a picture of the two of us, a picture which for mysterious reasons, never appears on film. Go figure.

24 August - Friday
Went to: Hiroshima
Did: Peace Memorial Museum
Lunch: Japanese place in Himeji with Jenny, udon
Dinner: at the Minshuku, tempura, sashimi, miso etc.

Today we meet with Brian’s friend from the US, Jenny. After some missed connections and confusion at the Himeji train station, and a little lunch in Himeji, we are off to Hiroshima. In no time at all, we are pulling into Hiroshima, and we hop on a streetcar to take us to our minshuku. We know that the streetcar’s route will take us past the top of the Peace Park and the demolished A-Bomb dome building, but we are talking about one thing and then another before I finally ask how close we are to the dome. Brian points right behind me and says “Look, there it is.” And sure enough, there it is. Snapping out of some random conversation and looking around to see that building is genuinely chilling. The whole idea of a pilgrimage to see this city, to gawk at this city, not because of what some Buddhist or Shogun did in 1270, but because of what we did to it in 1945 is also somewhat chilling. It feels obscene in some sense to come and look around and take pictures and say “Gosh, so this is where it happened.” But at the same time it feels very important. There is a guilty temptation to think that the Japanese people around us look at us (or me, since I am the only Caucasian of our group of three) with feelings of blame or disgust, but a larger part of me assures myself that this is certainly not the case.

For them, or most of them in any case, this is just another day in the city where they live, and we are just a few more tourists in town to see the sights. It even occurs to me that they might well be sick and tired of the sullen, guilt-ridden gaijin who troop through their town, mope about for a day or so, avoiding eye contact, and then, breathing a sigh of relief, hop the next train for happier climes. Certainly there is a lot to think about in this town.

After checking into the minshuku, we go straight to the Peace Museum. It is a very sobering visit to say the least. It is also interesting to be there with Brian and Jenny who are both Japanese-Americans whose parents were detained in the U.S. during the war. As we walk through the museum, the exhibits and pictures become more and more graphic, until I can no longer read them all carefully before moving on with a churning stomach. Brian and I also take time to see an English language film on the bomb.

I am struggling with a variety of emotions and sensations at this point (not to mention some nausea), but I definitely feel that this museum, and more specifically the movie that we see, have taken the bombing out of the larger context of the great conflagration of world war. There is no mention of the fire-bombing of other cities, either in Japan or Germany, nor is there any effort to describe the crossroads that the war had reached in Japan at the time of the bombing. The movie pulled on heartstrings more overtly than necessary in my opinion (“There were children playing in Hiroshima that morning [sound of carefree laughter] … birds were singing [whistle whistle etc.] …”). After we leave the museum, we head up to the A-Bomb dome, passing along the way piles of origami cranes. One pile, beneath a statue of a little girl who died of leukemia while folding a thousand cranes, contains what must be tens of millions of cranes laid in strings of a thousand all around the base of the statue.

27 August - Sunday - The flight home
Went to: San Francisco, then home
Did: that flying thing
Lunch: Mister Donuts, courtesy of Mike
Dinner: United Airlines' Tiny Portions Restaurant

In the morning we talk to Mike some more. He goes into work pretty late, so he walks around with us as we try to do some last minute shopping before we hit the skyway. We eat a sort of brunch at Mister Donuts, for which he insists on paying, and then we say our thank-yous and goodbyes to Mike, and off he goes.

To keep the trip exciting and suspenseful to the very end, we are very nearly late for our plane home. After our farewell to Mike, we head back to Mike’s house to collect our stuff so we can leave for the airport. By the time we reach the shuttle bus stop near Mike’s, we realize that if the bus is on time, we will only have 30 minutes at the airport before takeoff. Including waiting in customs lines, showing passports, etc. But of course the bus is on time, and it arrives at the airport at the advertised hour, although we do pass a few nervous minutes as the bus wades through the congested elevated highways.

Whereas our plane leaving the U.S. from San Francisco took off well over three hours late, we pull away from the gate in Osaka exactly as the second hand flicks past the appointed time. In Japan, even United Airlines is on time. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I cannot think of a single train, bus, or streetcar during my whole stay that was not on time. This certainly includes the ones that pulled away from us, doors closing, the conductor looking straight at us but not acknowledging our existence as we sprinted to catch up, begging him to stop. The trains really do run on time: it’s not just a good idea here; it’s the way things work.

One of the last things we see as the plane spins off over the Pacific is the top of the dark cone of Fuji-san just poking out over a thick blanket of clouds. The captain points it out, and as people crowd around the tiny windows for a last glimpse of Japan, I can just see it: it does not look gigantic and foreboding from here. It looks small and distant, almost diminutive, and it is quickly leaving us behind as it shoulders its way through the clouds.

%d bloggers like this: