Spaces in Tokyo: old to new

This is a guest post by Alena Klindziuk ’18

Stepping out of the subway into the damp, foggy morning, I knew that Tsukiji Market is not going to be like the other tourist attractions in Tokyo. A smell of fish filled the air. A colorful crowd turned left and crossed an intersection. My friend Eriko and I followed. We were brought to a row of decrepit, two story houses. Japanese ladies shopping for fish, wide-eyed tourists looking for authenticity, and hungry Tokyo residents looking forward to a fresh sashimi lunch, were trying all to squeeze between the rows of shops buildings. Eriko and I joined them.

The shops sold Japanese delicacies, kitchen appliances and souvenirs: tamagoyaki, butcher knives, bags of rice. The tiny restaurants had large queues of people waiting to get in. These were the cheaper ones – TripAdviser recommended. TripAdviser did not disappoint. The restaurant we went for lunch was so tiny it was difficult to get to our seats at the bar without accidentally kicking seated customers in the back. Yet, the raw fish donburi we got was on point. I tried sea urchin for the first time. The mustard-colored, gooey mass turned out not to be my favorite sashimi. But it was an experience.

Eriko and I went through all the rows shops. I bought Shitaki mushroom tea, but didn’t have enough courage to get the seaweed one. We then went to the portion of the market where fish was sold. The fish auction takes place early in the morning, so we only saw the aftermath. There was still some smaller fish being sold. Tiny electrical trucks stealthily zoomed back and forth carrying water, tubs, and tools. One could easily get run over without being careful. The floor was wet. So were most of the counters and surfaces. Men in rubber aprons and gloves were out and about wiping, cleaning, drawing rickshaw-like carts. It was dark. The ancient roof of the market did not allow any sunlight to pass. It is sad to know that old fish market will soon be shut down and moved to a new place. However, once upon a time Tsukiji was also a new establishment. I am excited to see the new fish market that will take Tsukiji’s place

Immersion on Mount Koya

This is a guest post by Alena Klindziuk ’18

Sitting out on the wooden open-air porch, looking out on the mountains steeped in fog, hearing the bamboo fountain stock hit a rock as it overfills with water, hearing the wind chime gently sing in the breeze…

I had two images of Japan. One was of modern Japan, best embodied by Shibuya or Shinjuku. The other was of old japan. A collection of images from books, movies, amines. Wooden porches, paper doors, maple leaves, calligraphy scrolls captivated my imagination since childhood. The traditional Japan came to be embodied by Koya-san.

It was not merely because I saw a collection of traditional things there. Even though the pace of our travels is rather relaxed, it is nevertheless difficult to fully immerse oneself in a place – to feel its energy. To see it not as an outsider, being amused and distracted by its peculiarities, but to behold it wholly – to understand its purpose, the flow of energy that gives the life and vitality to a place.

Often when I am traveling, it is difficult to connect to a place in such a way. Yet, when I stepped into a cool, damp, foggy air of Koya-san, I felt immersed. The rain drove away a portion of the tourists, leaving the place more or less pristine. The fog and shadows of giant cedar trees filled the sacred mountain with mystery. The incense, chanting of sutras, monks’ colorful robes gave the place an enchanting quality. The quiet walks through the centuries-old cemetery, and the wonderful wooden bath at the temple filled me with peace. I spent an evening on a porch overlooking the garden meditating, observing the koi fish in the pond and the reddening leaves of the Japanese maple. I wish I could somehow preserve this feeling from Koya san and take it with me.

The Zen of Sitting


Students waiting for meditation session at Shunko-in in Kyoto.

We walked as pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo on our way into Kyoto, and trekked from Myoshin-ji to Kyoto through to Osaka, changing stations there, and are now at last on the train to Mount Koya, a Buddhist enclave up in the mountains. Pilgrims again, everything we own on our backs, trying not to lose the trail, threading our way through the commuter rush instead of through the cedar forests.


Rev. Taka Kawakami, vice abbot of Shunko-in give students a tour of the temple

In Kyoto we walked a lot, but we came here to learn to sit, to practice zazen. We stayed at the Shunko-in temple in the large complex on the outskirts of Kyoto, Myoshin-ji. On Saturday morning, we did a meditation training session in English with the vice abbot of the temple, Rev, Taka Kawakami. He talked about flexibility as a state of mind, reflected in the body. Stiff when you get up off the meditation cushion? It’s ok to sit in a chair. Be flexible. He spoke a bit about the intersection between neuroscience, psychology and Buddhist practice – perfect for this 360 which sits at that intersection point as well. There was a fun moment of connection when he referred to a longitudinal study, The Harvard Study of Adult Development, on which Marc Schulz is a co-investigator (and has a new paper out this week!) and one of the 360 students is using data from for her thesis.

From Shunko-in we went to Tenryu-ji, a 14th century Zen training monastery set in a historic garden (now a UNESCO world heritage site). There we met with Thomas Yuho Kirchner, an American and Zen monk who entered Shofuko-ji monastery in 1971. He gave us an introduction to the monastic schedule, and the training young monks would be given. We practiced zazen, sitting meditation, in the hall where the monks in training would practice, eat and sleep, wrapped in thick square futons.


Zen monk Thomas Yuho Kirchner with kaiseku

Attention could drift during long meditation sessions, and so the kaisaku was employed, a flat stick whacked across the shoulder blades, sometimes called the stick of compassion. Thomas Kirchner demonstrated its use on me. You bow to each other, then cross your arms and round your back for two quick slaps on each shoulder. It stings, sharpening your senses and much like a deep massage, refreshes. In my course we’ll talk a bit about the relationship between pain and contemplative practice. It’s a fascinating topic, criss-crossing psychology and spirituality.

Students sitting on the veranda overlooking the abbot's garden at Zuiho-in

Students sitting on the veranda overlooking the abbot’s garden at Zuiho-in

On Sunday we visited another large temple complex, Daitoku-ji, to tour Daisin-in and do a last meditation training before heading to Kyosan. The iconic Zen dry rock gardens, and nightingale floors – which squeak as you walk on them, were highlights of this temple. We also toured Zuiho-in, which I think might have my favorite rock garden, one with deep standing waves.

A bit about Prof. Schulz’ paper:

Hot Spots

Tateishi Kosho

Tateishi Kosho



Hot. The weather has been hot and very humid, which made yesterday’s hike with Buddhist priest and mountain ascetic Tateishi Kōshō tough at times. There were periodic deluges of rain, so much so that our planned hike up the mountain to a waterfall was too dangerous to take. We crisscrossed the lower mountain, walking a bit on the Kumano Kodo, a world heritage pilgrimage trail (akin to the Camino del Santiago in Spain, in fact the city where we got off the train Tanabe, is a gateway city to the Kumano Kodo and a sister city to Santiago). By the time we arrived at Kōshō’s hall, we were drenched. Rain and sweat.

We were greeted with towels to clean up with, and a hot pot lunch. Dumplings, noodles, vegetables all cooking in a salty broth, just right to replenish all those electrolytes we had lost in the morning’s hike. A bedraggled band on arrival, I watch fluids and a place to sit restore us all.
As lunch came to a close, Kōshō handed us gomagi, wooden slats with the seed character for Fudō-Myōō, the image in Kōshō’s hall, on one side. We wrote our names and ages on one side (now we know I’m the oldest on the trip!), and a desire on the other side. These would be burned in the goma, or fire ceremony, taking our prayerful desires up with them

In my class we’ve been talking about “spiritual technologies” – or the ways in which material objects, such as incense or bells, as well as bodily postures, such as bowing or walking, are often part of a meditative practice. From the familiar postures of meditators sitting on cushions to the Christian rosary beads, to the use of bells and chant, many traditions make use of material items or embodied practices to facilitate meditation. Kōshō’s fire ceremony let us see how a rich set of materials and practices could be employed: we rubbed incense on our hands, Kōshō used a big ringing bowl as well as blowing a ceremonial conch shell, the heart sutra was chanted ten times. In some ways, it reminded me of James Turrell’s “Light Reignfall” which I saw at LACMA two years ago and on which we saw a short film in class.

We are staying at an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot spring, which welcomes pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo. While there were the usual Japanese communal baths, both indoor and outdoor, Japan’s geology provided a more unusual opportunity. The bed of the river which ran past the inn was percolated with small volcanic hot springs. Dig into the gravel at the river’s edge, looking for hot spots and make your own hot bath. When it gets too hot, dip into the cool pools of the river. It felt quasi-baptismal after the day’s steep hikes.

The rain had caused the river to rise, but not so much we couldn’t find some hot spots at the edge and the students (with some help from the faculty) built a river bath, stacking stones to make an artificial pool where the hot water filters up and is trapped. It smells faintly of sulfur, adding to the sensory experience. The Bryn Mawr “hot spot” was still there this morning, and several students took advantage and went out for a quiet early morning river meditation. Me, too.

On the way out to the onsen up the river from Tanabe, we stopped at a shrine, Kumano Hongu taisha, viewed by some modern Japanese as a spiritual power spot, pawaa supotto. Another sort of hot spot.

Read more about Fudo-Myoo here (

Watch a short piece on Turrell’s “Light Reignfall” (

Reading silence in the city

[Posted for Nazifa Tabassum]IMG_0118

The Ueno Park in Tokyo is a fascinating place. On one end is the Ueno zoo: a place filled with bright colors and joyful schoolchildren, who are amazed by the beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom . On the other end there are also seekers of beauty, but of a different kind. Littering the various shrines and temples are adults – office-goers, homemakers, senior citizens and tourists alike – who are looking for a quiet space to reconnect spiritually with nature, God or both.

This morning I found myself in one such place. Benten hall is situated in the middle of a pond filled with large, green water plants. The greenery formed a comfortable buffer, protecting the space from the hectic city life and providing people with a serene perspective of one of the busiest cities in the world. From what I gathered Benten Hall or Benten-do is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Benzaiten, goddess of fortune, music and wisdom (Wikipedia), which explained the temple’s popularity. However, I was more interested in the little sitting area on the side of the temple overlooking the surrounding pond. There were several people sitting there but it appeared to be a silent space. Some read, some listened to music and some just took in the view. One man had brought breadcrumbs with himself and spent hours feeding the pigeons in the park. A bunch of strangers sitting together in silence might appear strange to some (the trope of mysterious-silent-stranger-who’s-up-to-no-good coming into play here ) but the silence that was shared at the sitting spot was comfortable, even welcoming.IMG_0117

Thus I sat on a bench near the water, listening to the silence around me, the gentle lapping of water playing as a soft background music. My breaths became deeper and my mind emptied of all the anxiety-inducing plans I had of exploring all of Tokyo in one day. For a brief period of time, I just paid attention to the moment: the feeling of the breeze on my skin, the changing colors of the sky, the soft cooing of the pigeon roaming around me.
When I left the temple, I certainly felt very fortunate to have experienced that brief, unexpected moment of mindfulness in the little oasis of Benten-do.

Sister schools

Moriya Tadashi's painting

Moriya Tadashi’s painting

Last week, in Irene McHenry’s MBSR training class we practiced a walking meditation, deliberately aware of placing each foot on the ground, stopping at a bell to take in what was around. A practice of open, embodied awareness.

Yesterday we did more than a bit of walking, 10 miles more or less. We wound our way through the tunnels that lace the area we are staying in to Shinjuku Station, to take the train out to Tsuda College, an all-women’s college in the suburbs of Tokyo founded by Umeko Tsuda, who graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1892. Tsuda’s founder had first come to the US in 1871 with the Iwakura Mission, sent from Japan to the US and the UK to negotiate treaties and to research educational systems. The weather is hot and humid, the tunnels crowded with commuters. Another kind of walking meditation.

Two trains later we were in Kodaira, walking alongside a waterway, headed to Tsuda. Our students met with Tsuda students, some of whom had been to Bryn Mawr as part of the student exchange program, while the three faculty met with the current president, and the past president.

It was a delightful visit, one highlight the chance to see Moriya Tadashi’s painting of the young women on the bow of the boat from Japan as it entered San Francisco Bay in 1871. Though you can see the Golden Gate bridge in the misty distance, the bridge wasn’t built at the time (nor was the artist born!), Tadashi added it so that you could identify the city.

Both Tsuda’s students and ours were struck by what it took to get from Japan to the US in those days, and how little those young women would have known of what they would find when they arrived, so different from today when they live in a well-connected sea of information.

Last night, after dinner, I walked back with a few students from dinner, threaded our way through the crowded Shinjuku station shopping area. Times Square would seem dull in comparison. We stood on a corner, watching the crowds, the lights, and I’m already thinking ahead to our last stop, tiny, dark, quiet Kamikatsu.

Bryn Mawr 360 students and Tsuda's students

Bryn Mawr 360 students and Tsuda’s students

Dreaming Ramen

IMG_0338[Guest post from Tenney Sprague]

Sept. 25 (1st day in Japan on bus)
We have just arrived in Japan and are now on the bus to Tokyo. Granted, I feel like I need to sleep for a day and perhaps shower even longer, but everywhere looks so different I won’t forgive myself if I do sleep. Already I have seen rice patty fields, dense bamboo forests, and even a hotel with black sparkled walls on the outside. But I have also seen smaller things like little houses in the distance from the highway. Familiar in that I know what Japanese style homes look like but completely different seeing them in person.

Perhaps it is only my strange perception knowing that I am in a new place, but the sky feels higher too, like there’s a larger distance between me and the big fluffy clouds than back home. And I keep expecting to see mountains in the distance. I was so excited to go to Japan, but no matter how close the departure date got, I didn’t feel like I was going anytime soon. (It was like a dream or a nice idea, but I was never actually going to be able to go.) So now here, I’m regretting not doing more research on such things like maps, knowing where mountains are, and speaking Japanese – I did practice some, but speaking bumbling Japanese to an actual native speaker is a whole other level of embarrassment and mistakes.

But still, I’m in JAPAN, probably a place that I’d never be able to go to and experience (and try my bumbling Japanese) without this 360 program. So maybe I’m still in a dream, and my mind is letting me think that I am this lucky. But I just saw an ad for ramen from the highway, so I’m really hoping I’m not dreaming, or at least, that this dream would last a bit longer.

Thank you so So much Dr. Glassman, Dr. Francl, Dr. Schulz, and Bryn Mawr College for all your hard work that went into planning this trip and for helping my dream come true of eating ramen in Japan!

Go and come back

Photo credit: Prof. Victor Donnay

Photo credit: Prof. Victor Donnay

At 6:45 this morning, my colleague Marc Schulz and I arrived at Pembroke Arch to find all fifteen of our 360 students gathered, packed lightly for two weeks on the road. It’s not our first trip this semester, early this month we spent two night at the Jesuit Center outside Reading, Pennsylvania, trying out silence, so we’re already a practiced traveling band. Now we’re headed out for a longer experience, 15 days on the road, traveling to contemplative sites in Japan.

“Carry-on!” and “Hand wash!” were our motto, after four weeks of reading about simplicity in my course, we’re trying it out in the field. What comforts are you willing to leave behind if you’re going to live on top of a pillar as the desert ascetics did, or, in our case, fly at 34,000 feet and be pilgrims when we arrive?

Marc Schulz is teaching the course on the Psychology of Mindfulness in this cluster.  He noted that as we rushed through the terminal this morning the irony of not being able to stop long enough to look in the meditation room.

In my course, we’ve been talking about built space and how it might not only provide the conditions for meditation, but perhaps induce meditative states, as artist James Turrell hopes his installations might. So now we’re off to the field to experience spaces purpose-built for meditation, and places that foster meditation alongside daily life.

We begin in Tokyo, and will visit temples in Kyoto, Koya and on Tokushima, an island in the Sea of Japan. We’ll walk parts of the 88-temple Shikuko pilgrimage trail (a UNESCO heritage trail, like the Camino del Santiago in Spain.) We’ll talk about meditation and practice zazen with Buddhist abbots and monks, and visit communities that privilege simplicity of life.

One of the Augustinian friars from the community that lives down the road from the college, who lived for many years in Japan, wished me a good trip yesterday after Lauds. “Itte irasshai!” Go and come back. And so we’re off, to go and come back, to see and to experience.

I’ll be writing about the trip as we go, and if you want to follow our adventures in real time watch for #Japan360bmc and #BMC360 on Twitter and Instagram.

Bound in

Nakamura's house above Kamikatsu

Nakamura’s house above Kamikatsu

[Wednesday in Kamikatsu]

The weather is off and on rain today, as a typhoon blows itself out south of us.  There isn’t much wind and the rain is more of a nuisance, increasing the humidity, rather than a difficulty.  We drove back up to Nakamura’s this morning, the bundles of rice left to dry in the paddies looking forlorn in the damp, the persimmons virtually aglow on the trees.  Our covers need to be cut and sewn onto our carefully folded signatures (the folded sheafs of paper that make up the pages of the book).  The templates are cut for either a Japanese style book (opening left to right) or Western styles – we need to decide before we select the front cover.

Students bind books

Students bind books

The rhythm of measuring, marking, cutting and folding requires a focussed attention to detail, the making of art for many artists is a mindful, if not fully meditative, activity.  I find that the mix of physicality and math (geometry) gathers up the strands of my attention and holds them loosely enough to not feel constrained, but tightly enough to keep my attention from wandering.

Kayla stitches the binding of her book

Kayla stitches the binding of her book

The act of making an everyday object, something that I have so many of in particular, makes me aware of how much I depend on the work of others to sustain my life.  Would I still stack books on the floor with abandon if I had bound each by hand?  if I knew they’d been bound by hand?

Nakamura-san talks with students about his art work

Nakamura-san talks with students about his art work

The students had time this damp afternoon to talk to Nakamura about his life, how does he sustain himself, why did he choose this quiet and simple life.  Nakamura told them he finds joy in the creating, it is the process he cherishes, more so than the product.  Hence, while he freely shares his art, he doesn’t sell it.  Before he retired, he worked a few months a year to pay for his necessities, now, at 67, he is receives the Japanese equivalent of social security.  He points out that while he lives alone, he is bound into his community in many ways (health care and social security, the radio broadcasts that alert him to bad weather, the bus he takes to Tokushima, the care of his neighbors).

They wondered if he had regrets about his choices and he said that there are always regrets in life, but he would rather regret the things he had done, then the things he hadn’t done.  (Which Prof. Schulz pointed out is in line with psychological research on regret!)  Students wondered how much contact he had with other people and he told them about his occasional (once or twice a year) trips to the small port city down the river, his letters to and from family, a weekly walk to the onsen (the hot spring baths about a 40 minute walk down the hill).

360 students with Nakamura-san

360 students with Nakamura-san

We finished off the day with a wonderful hot pot dinner, vegetables, noodles, and thin slices of meat to cook in soy milk.  A challenge to some of our skills with chopsticks (I will admit to having lost control of a pile of noodles between the pot and my dish), but fun and delicious to eat.

Fish sticks

Katia, Mercedes and Marissa grill fish sticks.

Katia, Mercedes and Marissa grill fish sticks.

[The events of Tuesday in Kamikatsu]

After a pretty traditional Japanese breakfast of pan grilled salmon, rice, tea and pickled vegetables, we boarded the bus for the ride up to Nakamura-san’s.  To say the road is narrow is an understatement, and the bus threaded its way up the mountain with care.  At one point, the driver and our escort hopped out to cut off a small tree branch so we could pass.

nakamura katia

Making the fabric bound to mulberry paper covers

Nakamura’s house is a restored barn, with a mud hearth in the kitchen- cast iron tea kettle at the ready, beautifully organized spices on the shelves, a downstairs workshop and an upstairs tatami room where you open the shoji onto a view over mountain and valley that captures heart and soul.  His garden and small citrus grove provide much of his food.  There is no phone, no internet, no car.  Communication is through the postal mail and a small radio, which he said he got after a bad storm caught him unaware many years ago.


Nakamura’s tea pot (photo Marc Schulz)


Nakamura-san’s shelves (photo Marc Schulz)

nakamura books

Binding books with Nepalese fabric

He is an artisan, who over the next two days would teach us how to bind a traditional Japanese book, as well as talk to our students about the ins and outs of living an intentionally simple life in a first-world country.

For lunch, we took a side trip to a traditional charcoal maker, who turns bamboo (and other organic plant matter, such as lotus roots and chestnuts) into artful charcoal for use in tea ceremonies. The charcoal makes a characteristic hissing noise when burned, reminiscent of the sound of wind whistling through pines.

We ate pizza (!) cooked in a wood burning oven and small river fish skewered on sticks, sprinkled liberally with salt and grilled upright over a charcoal fire.  You eat them right off the stick, like corn on the cob.

We returned to Nakamura’s to continue our work on the books, heading back to Yamo no Gakko where we were staying in time for dinner and a short discussion of the trip to date.

We slept to the sound of the river and the rain falling, delightful to listen to , even if it meant our clothes would be slow in drying!


Bounty from Nakamura’s garden (photo Marc Schulz)