Monday, January 31, 2011

Pictures of the Floating World


Occasionally I wish I had higher tech skills. This blog could use some photos to save a few thousand words. Either that or some good Ukiyo-e (literally, “pictures from the floating world”), those Japanese woodcuts showing scenes of landscapes, stories, street scenes, depicting the evanescent, fleeting, impermanence characteristic of Buddhist thought. My pictures would not be quite so evocative, but the photos from my day strolling in Ueno Park would give a taste of modern Tokyo life—the archetypal men huddled over a board game, lovers strolling hand-in-hand around the lake, older couples viewing the peony garden, homeless people on park benches. Tourists and locals alike ascend the stairs to the shrines, throw in a coin, say a prayer, ring the bell and bow. You can write your prayer on a paper or on a small board to hang and send your good wishes to someone. Whether lighting a votive candle in a Catholic Church, turning a Tibetan prayer wheel or ringing a gong and bowing, all cultures seem to recognize that we need some help from the other world. What is less clear is that the other world needs us too, not just to go through the motions of propitiation, remembrance or worship, but to finish their unfinished business of living harmoniously together on the earth. And if you just watched the people in the park today and didn't turn on the TV news, you might think we're doing a good job at that.

What else did I see and hear? The mandatory Peruvian band with panpipes, charango and bombo drum, with rhythmic punctuation by cawing crows. A young woman playing marimba on the path to a crowd of admirers—mostly light Japanese pop with chord changes. There was a poster in the Buddhist temple store (and here a photo would be great! Help!)—“Celebrating 35 years of Hello Kitty!” What??!! And a public bathroom with this sign:

“Toilet paper is not set up. Please understand it beforehand.”

Good advice.

I also passed The Museum of Western Art, a hot dog stand and young people in uniforms practicing baseball. Japan had a two hundred year period where it consciously excluded the West (from around mid-1600’s to mid-1800’s) but now people wear suits and ties, play European classical music and baseball. And why not?  In San Francisco, we have an Asian Art Museum, innumerable sushi restaurants and a Zen center. The criss-cross of cultural influences is inevitable. I turned the corner toward the Bolivian band and it turned out to be a Japanese man strumming the charango, playing the drum with a foot pedal and the panpipes a la Bob Dylan harmonica. Where did he learn this music from the Andes? Why did he learn it? Well, why not? In Peru, I’m sure someone is strumming a koto somewhere.

After the park, I confidently rode the subway to meet my next host for dinner. The subways are clean, crowded (but no pushers like I remember from the late 70’s packing the people in) and efficient. I’ve never had to wait more than 3 minutes. (Pay attention, N-Judah San Francisco!!) Tokyo is so enormous you can ride for an hour and a half for about $3. Had a lovely dinner of Soba tempura, back home to figure out the washing machine (turned out to be simple) and soak in a Japanese bath. A perfect end to a day of rest—and tomorrow back to work at Nishimachi International School. 

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