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)

Spaces in translation

Japanese dance troupe performs at Kamikatsu.

Japanese dance troupe performs at Kamikatsu.

[Ed: This post was written on Monday evening, translated forward in time!]

Mathematically, a translation takes a set of points and moves them without rotation or distorting their spatial relationships.  Today we translated from Koyasan to Kamikatsu, taking five different means of transportation (taxis, funicular, five trains, ferry and a bus )and almost ten hours.  We seem to have arrived at the other end with a minimum of distortion.

We took our leave from the temple just before 10 am, waving a formal good-bye to the head priest’s mother who came to see us off. We piled into taxis to the mountaintop station where we rode a funicular to the bottom and dove into Japan’s rail system.  We counted off 1 to 15 to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone between changes of trains from Hashimoto to Wakayama to Wakayamashi to  Wakayamako.  The weather was hot and humid, cold drinks at Hashimoto were welcome, as was the chance to explore the department store food court at Wakayama station for snacks.  (The dumplings were great.)

Riding the funicular down from Koyasan

Riding the funicular down from Koyasan

The two hour ferry ride from Honshu (Japan’s largest island) to Shikoku (an island bordering the Japan’s Inland Sea) offered a chance to get a sense of the geography of Japan, and see some gorgeous views of the sunset over the water.

The bus wound its way up the Asahi-gawa River to Kamikatsu, where both dinner and a performance by a local traditional Japanese dance group awaited us.  The river is rushing by out the window, the baths are hot, there is a washing machine and we are looking forward to visiting with Nakamura-san tomorrow.

Cave meditations

It was another early day, this time driving up to Jigenji to do ana zenjô, a cave passage meditation. Kobo Daishi, the Buddhist monk who founded Koya-san, is reputed to have engaged a dragon and frozen it inside a cave above the temple precincts. It is a steep climb up to the cave entrance, worth it for the views of the rural Japanese countryside in the valley far below, even for those who were not planning on going into the cave.

The cave has some very narrow passages, before you go in you wriggle between two poles to be sure you won’t get stuck. It is a meditation done in darkness, and very physical, as you duck and crawl and stretch to get to the central part of the cave where you can see the dragon frozen in the rock. It is reminiscent of the womb meditation we did underneath Kiyumizudera, and of some of the James Turrell pieces we’ve discussed in my course. In its physicality and its Buddhist origins it also links back to our expedition with themountain ascetic Kosho up the mountain to satnd under the waterfall and be purified. Not everyone felt up to this meditation (for the record, I didn’t go into the cave, either!), it is not for those who find tight spaces too much of a stretch.

In the afternoon we visited Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Academy, a model program for recycling. Kamikatsu residents sort their waste into over 50 different streams. Atsko Watanabe, who sits on the town council spoke to us about the program, including the ways in which this programming makes people more aware of the waste they generate.

After lunch at a cafe near the Zero Waste Academy, we stopped at the local onsen, or hot spring, to enjoy a Japanese bath. Tonight, Atsko-san and her husbanb Gufu-san have joined us to talk about their lives and work. The Rhetoric of Buddhist Meditation course has read A Different Kind of Luxury, which has an account of the Watanabe’s life. Gufu-san’s journals of his travels are works of art, incredibly detailed in both prose and illustrations. Many of the illustrations are simple line drawings but vividly capture the sense of a scene, others contain the sort of detail that comes from what the late Walter Burghardt SJ would call a contemplative perspective: “a long loving look at the real.”


In the news

Connectivity is somewhat limited in Kamikatsu, so I am trying to post just this quick update from my iPad. Yesterday and today we visited with Nakamura-san, an artist and farmer who lives a simple, hermetic life in the mountains near Kamikatsu. He showed us how to bind traditional Japanese books, covered with Nepalese fabrics from his travels. Each student now has a handmade journal to take home.

A reporter from the Tokushima paper came yesterday to do a story on our visit. She interviewed Amanda (in Japanese), and took some photos of the students working on their books. The article is in the photo!


On the women’s trail

Leaving Rengejô’in to walk the women's trail

Leaving Rengejô’in to walk the women’s trail

Six students and I left the gates of Rengejô’in this morning just before 9 am, headed up to  Nyonindo – a shrine at the women’s hall.  Until the late 19th century, women were not permitted on Mt. Koya (much like Mt. Athos today), and so would climb up to these women’s halls to wait to see sons (and husbands) who had gone to Koyasan.  There were seven gates to Koya, and a hall at each gate, only this one survives.  From there we walked the Nyonimichi, the women’s trail that rings Koyasan, connected the sites of the seven halls.

walking on the trail

walking on the women’s trail

The trail can be a bit tough to follow (trail signs are in kanji for the most part), but after one false start we hiked 3 km of the 7 km trail.  The light through the cedars was beautiful, it’s the first sunny day we’ve had since Kyoto.  In places the trail clings tenuously to the edge of the mountain, and you are left with a physical sense of what “marginalized” might mean.  It was steep, with lots of spider webs, including one that functioned as a diffraction grating, splitting the light into all the colors of the spectrum.

On the way back down from the women's trail

On the way back down from the women’s trail

We turned off the trail at a small shrine and walked down a side street, stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines for something cold to drink (the challenge is figuring out what might be to your taste).

From there, we walked to Kongobuji, the head temple of the Shingon Buddhist sect.  The old monastery kitchen is amazing, with pots for cooking rice that are large enough to take a bath in, and rice paddles to match.  The temple has the largest dry stone garden in Japan, and a selection of beautiful painted screens. We toured the temple and garden, where Katia reminded us that Taka-san, the vice abbot at Shunko-in, had told us that these gardens are best viewed from a seated position within the hall, rather than standing on the veranda.  To my eye at least, the gardens gain a depth from that perspective, reminiscent of a 19th century landscape painting.

Tea and sweet rice cookies at Kongobu-ji

Tea and sweet rice cookies at Kongobu-ji

We enjoyed tea in the temple, with a sweet rice cookie and the puffed rice that Michelle had bought.

A tour of the Reihokan museum, with its frightening figures of the four heavenly kings (see photos here) and quite incredible 17th century map of the enclave finished off the morning.  We talked a bit about the ways in which contemplative spaces are marked out, how do you signify who is allowed in and who is not?

We went in search of lunch at an izakaya.  We enjoyed rice bowls, curries and tempura udon at this Japanese equivalent of a pub, and I think everyone got what she wanted even though we had no recourse to an English menu.


In the courtyard at Rengejô’in

In the courtyard at Rengejô’in

We are settled into Koya-san for the next three days, with the students free to explore the nearly 50 temples and shrines that dot the hillsides of this 1200 year old mountain town.  Abby says she is still contemplating  our hike up to the waterfall at Kumano, turning over the difference between walking to get somewhere in particular, or to get into shape, and moving for an interior purpose.  It was a profound experience, she says.

Walking the graveyard with Prof. Glassman at Okonuin

Walking the graveyard with Prof. Glassman at Okonuin

Late in the afternoon we walked the cemetery at Okunoin, the full hour up to the mausoleum at the top where Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded the monastic enclave at Koya sits in eternal meditation.  Perhaps as many as 500,000 people have been buried at Koyasan over the last millenia.  Prof. Glassman’s latest book was on images of Gizo, a Buddha who is often invoked as a protector of children.  There are many Gizo images in the graveyard, and we enjoyed Glassman’s commentary as we climbed.  He told the students about discovering these images just before he began college.

Alex noted that it’s an odd feeling to walk a graveyard as a tourist, in our case unable to read the inscriptions.  This particular cemetery, with its ancient cedar trees and thick moss blankets draped over 15th century cenotaphs invited reflection.

Walking Okonuin

Walking Okunoin

Prof. Glassman celebrated a significant birthday today, and we managed to find someone to bake two chocolate cakes and (the more difficult task) birthday candles in tiny Koya. Our monastic hosts provided a lighter and knife to cut the cake (though the students were all set to tackle the latter problem with chopsticks).

Kyoto to Kumano photos

Rough travel

Kosho briefs students on the morning

Kosho briefs students on the morning

I am sitting on the porch at Rengejô’in on Mt. Koya, where we will be staying for the next three nights. The students are sleeping on futons spread on the tatami in four rooms adjacent to mine, I can hear their voices through the sliding shoji screens. My room faces onto a moss garden, beautifully lit. The rooms on the opposite side face a beautiful karensansui, a dry rock garden. We arrived here just in time for the evening meditation, led by the head priest of this temple (who is also the head of the Shingon sect, headquartered here). It was dim in the low-ceilinged main hall, lit with elaborately perforated gold lanterns and a few candles in the front. It was warm, enclosed, still and very silent. We sat for 30 minutes, then heard a short talk from the priest about meditation.

Hiking up the gorge, this was a relatively easy section

Hiking up the gorge, this was a relatively easy section

We spent the morning and early afternoon in Kumano, hiking a rough trail led by Kosho, a priest in the esoteric Buddhist tradition, to a waterfall up the mountain. It was a tough hike, we clambered up stone walls on the side of a dam, scrambled across boulder fields, and went up and down ladders over walls. We forded a small stream, hopping from stone to stone and kept a sharp eye out for vines on the ground that could trap a wary ankle. We chanted as we went, “Sange, sange…” and Kosho blew a conch shell from time to time.

Kayla by the waterfall

Kayla by the waterfall

The waterfall was spectacular, and Kosho did a short ceremony for us there, blessing those who wished while they stood under the waterfall. After a difficult and steep climb we were hot and sweaty. The water was bracingly cold, and standing under it, feeling it pound me and pound around me was a startlingly sacred experience. Afterwards, Kosho played a haunting tune on his ocarina.

We pulled out dry shirts and pack towels and hiked back down the mountain to Kosho’s shrine, where we celebrated a short fire ceremony. Kosho’s practice is rich in postures, his hands move expertly to form mudras and he is precise with beads and sticks. One of the questions my class has been exploring is the role of the body in contemplative practices, so this raises many questions, particularly in this sort of setting where the ritual work is not so much an individual act, but one that is shared.

Kosho plays the ocarina under the waterfall

Kosho plays the ocarina under the waterfall

The hike down was as much a challenge as the walk up, and the faculty members asked the students if when we asked them on the application for the program if they were willing to “travel rough” was what they imagined?

It was a windy 4 hours on the bus from Kumano to Koya, but we made it in time for the evening meditation and dinner. Towards the end of dinner, the previous head priest’s wife came out. She is 93 years old, and studied English in Toyko just before World

A noodle feast after a rough hike

A noodle feast after a rough hike

War II. She spoke about her experiences in Koyasan during that period, and gave us a short orientation to the history (sacred and secular) and geography of the area. An amazing story to listen to.

We swtich to a more contemplative pace here, with time to walk to the many temples, and the graveyard at Okuno-in, and to sit in the gardens here and experience more deeply the ways in which these spaces work to support the work of contemplation.