Kuji Sea Cliffs

Dedicated to friends and mentors:

  • Lloyd Hackl
  • Dr. Stanley Williams
  • Robert Bly

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Frog and the Lady -a modern Japanese fable

Once upon a time there was a frog named Semaj who lived and worked in a land called Yamato. Yet Semaj was not from the land of Yamato. He was from a land far away. A country that lay on the other side of the great Taihei Ocean, in a land known as Nacirema.
   The people of Yamato were very different from the frog. They spoke a different language, had different customs, and had a very different way of looking at the world than the people in the Frog’s land. Nevertheless, the Frog grew to like and respect Yamato and its people. In time, however, the Frog became very lonely.
   The Frog felt lonely because he had no one to talk to, no one to feel close to, and more importantly, no one to hold when he felt worn down and alone. Although the Frog had learned the language and many of the customs of Yamato, the Frog's appearance and way of thinking were so differently from the Yamato that he never felt completely at ease, and a wide ocean is a long way back for a frog to swim.
   One day in the early spring just as cherry blossoms began to bathe the hillsides in a pink snow, the Frog was invited to a party. All of the people at the party were Yamato men. They spoke words that were difficult for the Frog to understand and they drank a liquid called Ekas that the Frog did not like. After awhile the Frog sat alone looking down at his half empty glass. All of a sudden the Frog saw a Yamato lady. The Frog thought that she was the most beautiful and fairest woman that he had ever seen. The Frog watched the lady as she moved around the room serving the guests and he wished he could meet someone as beautiful as she. After a while the lady came by to serve the Frog and when she spoke the Frog was amazed for she spoke the language of the Nacireman people! She had even visited the town where the frog was born.
   The Frog enjoyed talking to the Lady. She told him that her name was Osetsu and he thought it a very enchanting name. Talking to her made the Frog feel happy and warm inside. He wanted to stay and talk to her for hours and hours, but the party was ending and she said that she must leave. The Frog feared that he would never see her again so the Frog took a chance. Although they had just met he asked if they might meet again. She said that she would like to and the Frog felt very happy.
When the party ended the Lady stood by the entrance to the hall to say goodbye to the guests. As the Frog passed she offered her hand in farewell. Because he was a frog he knew that his own hand would feel wet and cold and she would not want to touch it. But the Frog could not resist and so he reached across to touch her. Her hand was warm and soft like no other the Frog had ever felt. And when they touched something amazing happened; for in the instant they touched, the Frog’s hand turned into that of a man’s! The Lady did not notice the change, but as the Frog walked away he was astonished and he thought,
   “Is this Lady magical? Does she have the power to turn me into a man?”
Once the frog felt what it was like to be a man, even in that brief instant, he no longer wanted to remain a frog. The Frog wanted to change. He wanted to feel warm and walk tall like a man. He told his friends of the amazing transformation, but they all said to him,
   “You are a frog and will always be one. You have a frog family and so you must always remain a cold, wet frog!” And so the Frog became lonelier and lonelier. Even though he loved his frog family he longed to become a man-and he wanted to see the Lady.
   Well, the Frog did call the Lady and they agreed to meet. The Frog arrived early at the appointed place and was very nervous before she arrived thinking that the magic he had felt would be gone. When she finally appeared, she looked even more radiantly beautiful than the first time he had seen her. Her face was gentle and her smile shone like warm sunshine on a cold day. After they dined, the Frog took the Lady to a place by the harbor and they sat together and watched the lights of the ships as they rocked slowly and silently in the starlit night.
   As they sat together the Frog gathered up his courage and reached to touch the Lady’s hand. Her warm hand opened and she returned his touch. And once again the Frog’s hand turned into that of a man’s. Only this time the Lady did something that the Frog found to be wonderful, she spoke his name, Semaj. The Frog loved to hear her say it as no one in the land of Yamato could say it correctly. The Frog leaned over and kissed the Lady. However this time not only his hand, but his whole body turned into that of a man. The Lady not knowing that he was a frog kissed him back. Now the Frog was very happy.
   For the next two months the Frog and the Lady met as often as they could. They went many places and did many things and the Frog fell in love with the Lady, and the Lady with the Frog. You see that the Lady didn’t know that he was a frog because whenever she saw or touched him he became a man and so she did not know.
   One day, the Lady called the Frog and she said that they must meet. When they met she said,
   “My best friend has told me that you are a frog and you are not a man! You have not told me the truth and I have cried for many days.” The Frog felt very bad and he said,
   “It is true, I am a frog and I have deceived you. But I could not tell you the truth because I love you so much and do not ever wish to lose you. I do not want to be a frog anymore. I want to be a man and live with you. And the Frog felt very bad because he had hurt his love. Seeing the pain in the Frog’s face the lady spoke,
   “I love you and I believe what you say, so you must always tell me what is in your heart. But I must tell you that in a few months I will journey to your land of Nacirema. An old love who once left me for another now waits for me there and once I go I will not return for a very long time. But, I will be your lover until the day that I leave.”
   The Frog was glad that his love had not forsaken him, but he was sad that he had hurt her, and he could not imagine a day would come when she would truly leave him. So they spent the days together and the Frog fell deeper and deeper in love with the lady. For she was kind to him and held him to her heart. And whenever he was with her he became a man. He loved her so much that he though his heart would burst from happiness. But soon the day came for her to go.
   The day that Osetsu was scheduled to leave the lovers met one last time at their favorite spot by the harbor. She was excited about the trip that lay ahead and the Frog was happy for her, but he broke down and wept in her arms. He felt like a fool, but he could not help himself.
   “Why do you cry?” she asked. And the Frog replied,
   “I cry because I need you so and I fear that when we meet again you will not love me as you have.” And the Lady said,
   “Do not think this way, for I will always love you.” So the Frog stopped crying, but he could not stop the pain in his heart.
   After a time the Frog –who was no longer a man- wrote a letter to his beautiful Osetsu in the far-off land. When he received her reply he was glad that she was doing so well in the land of Acirema. But as he read on the Frog was saddened beyond words. For Osetsu said that she wanted a new life because she had rekindled her love with her old acquaintance and she would not be able to love the Frog as she had before. When the Frog finished the letter he felt a pain in his heart as he had never felt pain before. In the days that followed he could not eat, he could not sleep, and he could not work without feeling a great loss. And as the days slowly passed the Frog became weak and sick. He longed for the day when he could look into her eyes, hold her close, and hear her say, Samaj, hold me in your arms.
   The Frog began to lose hope so went to see his old friend Doctor Atori who had once helped the Frog many years before. After he examined the Frog the doctor said,
   “You are part man and part frog, but you have only half a heart and no medicine will work on you. You must find the one who holds your heart within her or you will never be whole again."
   “I know such a person," said the Frog. "But she lives far away and thinks that she does not need me anymore.”
"Then you must find her and talk to her for she has the other half of your heart. But, you must go soon because you will not live long with half a heart. Nevertheless, there is a way I can help you now," spoke the Doctor.
“How?” said the Frog.
   “I will keep your heart here. You will live and you will no longer be in pain, but you will not know love and the joy it brings until you are whole again,” said the doctor.
   “Then I will leave my heart with you for I have no need of it now. I will seek my love who has journeyed beyond the sea and ask her to turn me into a man again,” said the Frog. But Atorih cautioned,
   “She may not be able to give you back your heart and you may need it to live for the rest of your days as a Frog.”
   “Then you have not known love as I have found with Osetsu,” said the Frog. Atorih smiled to himself, but did not reply. So the Frog left has damaged heart with the Doctor and Atorih wished him luck on his journey.

   Thereupon the Frog set off to swim across the wide ocean. The voyage was much further than then Frog had remembered. For many days and nights the only thing that seemed to move in the Frog’s world was the slow march of the sun from east to west. With no food or water the Frog became weak. Only the thought of seeing his beautiful Osetsu once again drove him on.

At long last the Frog reached the shore of his native land and he set out to find the one who held his heart. After journeying for many weeks the Frog at last came to the house where he was told that Osetsu now lived. Weary, tired, and fearing the worst, the frog approached the door and knocked on it. After a few moments the door opened and there stood the beautiful Osetsu.
   At first she did not recognize him because he was now a frog and was worn down from his travels. But the Frog showed her the letters of love she had once written and at last she recognized him. Then Osetsu spoke,
   “I am busy now and I have no time to see you.” But the Frog replied.
“I am tired and weak and have no heart. And before you turn away you must hear my words.” Then the Frog looked into her eyes and said,
   “Dear Osetsu, I have loved you as I have loved no other. Now my heart is broken and I have left it with my old friend Atorih back in Yamato. Although I am a frog, you loved me and for a short time turned me into a man, and I believe that you will not find a love as true as mine in all this land, or any other.” The Frog continued,
“So live among the world of men and seek out your lover. If you do not find him then you must return to me and become my wife, and I will make you happy as no man can because my love is forever.”
   When she heard his words of love her heart softened and she reached to touch his hand. But the Frog pulled away and said,
   “My hand is now cold and wet and you will not like its touch. But someday if you decide you need my love and wish to again turn me into a man; then you must come to find me and you will know my love is true, so goodbye my love.” Then the Frog turned and hopped down the street.

© Copyright 2008 James Noah

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Vault of Stars

The night sky I describe below was observed while standing in the parking lot adjacent to my house in Japan. Although a story about a stormy sky doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the Orient, I found it noteworthy because of the unique landscape of the archipelago.  Japan is a mountainous country formed by volcanic action.  Most of the mountains are not particularly tall, usually a couple of thousand feet or less (except for the high alpine regions of central Japan and Hokkaido) but the lowlands are about as flat as you can imagine. The reason is that the vast majority of the non-mountainous terrain is covered by rice paddies. And flooded rice paddies are, well, flat. Many hills are terraced as well, creating even more level spaces. With the advent of mechanized farming, however, many of the old, narrow and steeply terraced paddies have been abandoned.

For centuries, Japan has been a predominately rice-growing nation. Virtually every inch of available land is cultivated and it is not uncommon to see neatly planted rows of rice butting up against high rise buildings. Until the end of the 19th Century, feudal lords measured their wealth in Koku of rice, which was thought of as the amount needed to feed one subject for a year (about 278 liters). So the lord with the most Koku, had the biggest bank account.  Centuries of cultivation produced flatlands between steep mountains ranges which provide wonderful vistas of long narrow valleys and misty hills. Moonlit nights further accentuate a hauntingly beautiful landscape. I find it little wonder that Edo Period artist Hiroshige often drew moonlight scenes in his depictions of everyday Japanese life in the waning days of the feudal era—just don’t ask me why I tied that to large-scale cosmology and the alley behind my boyhood home.

 A Vault of Stars

Late one night I stood in an empty parking lot gazing up at a dark and stormy sky. Not realizing how fast the clouds were moving until the vapor thinned revealing a submerged moon behind waves of gray clouds ripping by like whitewater rapids.
I watched in fascination for several minutes then I saw a rift in the thick blanket rapidly approach from across the valley.  I followed the tear as it raced across the night sky until it was directly overhead.  I looked up into its abyss and saw a vault of stars so bright and intense that the light seemed to pierce my body and bounce off the asphalt like rain in a deluge.  The breach moved rapidly and I could not resist its pull. I fell through the black hole slamming into a wall of stars as my being flattened out, infinitely thin, infinitely smooth, in all directions with no point of reference. 

Distant galaxies glittered through my slice of light like house dust floating through a waning beam of sunlight on a quiet afternoon.

Then I remembered riding my bike down the alley behind my house when I was a kid and turning the corner into my driveway at full speed; knowing that the garage door would be closed; knowing a hundred thousand times it would be closed. Yet, I choose not brake in the millisecond before impact and the collapse of the giant star into a singularity.
Regaining consciousness, I looked up into the warm, loving eyes of my mother as she held my battered body in soft, caring arms. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Obama in Japan or: How I Came to Love Janglish.

I recently traveled to Japan after a two year hiatus. On my previous trip I toured auto plants in the Nagoya industrial region and took a side trip to Kyoto, the ancient capital and cultural center of Japan. This time the family and I ventured to the town of Misawa, in Aomori Prefecture on the northeastern tip of the main island of Honshu. Our mission: visit son George, stationed at Misawa Air Force Base.

Misawa is a sleepy, provincial town of about forty-three thousand, of which a quarter is either U.S. Military, or Japan Air Self-Defense Force ( Jass Daff as my son calls them). The town seems to have a good relationship with the base personnel and I didn't see any anti-American banners around base parameters as I had seen in Okinawa. A quick read on the history of the base prior to our trip reveled that it had once been a cavalry base for the Imperial Army prior to World War II, then a bomber and later a Kamikaze launching point by the Imperial Navy Air Corps. With the Base being such a big part of the neighborhood, it seemed only natural that local business would go out of their way to cater to the non-Japanese speaking population. This willingness to cater to foreigners is on display in the form of various signs and billboards in English found around town, and what wonderful English it is!

Japanese work very hard at foreign languages and allocate vast resources, both academically and commercially, towards increasing their proficiency. Yet Japanese is sufficiently divergent from English both culturally and linguistically-despite the influx of English words-to be an easy task for the average citizen. One finds few foreigners beyond Tokyo, and although English is compulsory from 9th grade on, most Japanese struggle mightily with spoken and written English in particular. English-speaking foreigners who visit Japan have no doubt seen the well-meaning, yet often humorous results of this disconnect on signs, restrooms, and tee shirts.

But don't misunderstand me; I give the Japanese copy editors high marks for effort and style, if not always for accuracy. Conversely, these public displays often provide a bit of levity to otherwise pedestrian signage for dry cleaning, coffee bars, pachinko parlors, and the like. Here are a few of my favorites from the trip:
"Jam Friend Club," for the name of a pachinko gambling club, I'm guessing they won't be such great friends to jam with after one is in to them for a few grand?
"Sweet Hiem," on the door of a home builder. Maybe they were appealing to local Germans? A bike shop named "Workaholic." Some truth in advertising perhaps?
And I dare you to tell me what kind of establishment bills itself as Shidax Please!
But gaffes aside, I believe that a certain charm would be lost if the syntax was perfect. Moreover, the Japanese penchant for detail and politeness would be subverted if the parking lots sign at the dollar a plate sushi bar read, "Management takes no responsibility for accidents or theft." As opposed to the lovely, poetic, abet somewhat confusing: We don't take all responsibility for accident, theft in this parking area. Please watch out for that well.
Or, found on the same sign: Please don't rev up in this parking area! I made a mental note not to get too keyed-up in that parking lot! However, the most elegant and insightful janglish, in my opinion, was found somewhat surprisingly on the cover of a pot of self-serve rice in a ramen shop.

For lunch on our first day in Misawa my son recommended the best ramen shop in town, or at least the one with the biggest portions. A sign on the wall read,"One bowl of free rice with order." (Just in case you felt you needed more starch with your lunch) It sounded good to me, so as we waited for the super-sized bowl of noodles, I sauntered over to the rice pot. I was in turn greeted by a photo of President Obama, and a Japanese caption with an English translation taped to the lid. The Japanese was pretty straight forward and I would have translated it as: The rice is free, but please don't pile it on, or something to that effect. I am not, however, the eloquent manifestation of the Japanese speaking Obama, who is quoted with an admonishing "Please refrain from rice large vigor." I doubt the real Barrack Obama could have said it any better even if he could speak Japanese, or Japanese-flavored English. Yet what I found most interesting is that the shop owners would choose Obama to be the spokesman for frugality.

I associate President Obama more with government largess and a growing nanny state rather than any thoughts of austerity, but I suppose the Japanese (and this shop owner in particular) see The President as the proper face of restraint for "sometimes arrogant Americans," plus he is the Commander-in Chief for all the U.S. military personal on base. I guess it was just a logical step to put his face on a pot of rice at a ramen shop. After all, the Japanese word for America translates as "Rice Country." No one is Japan has ever given me a plausible explanation for that, but I'm sure it made sense to an Edo Period linguist somewhere.

Nonetheless, I truly love traveling in Japan. I can't think of another place where one can go from riding in an ultra-modern, super express train to having tea at a serene, five hundred year old Buddhist temple all within a matter of minutes. So I look forward to my next trip and the joys of spotting among other things, a restaurant bathroom marked MAN. I wasn't sure if I was The Man, but I used it anyway. A bar named Bluce(?) Or, the ever popular coffee creamer labeled "Creep."

But sometimes the Japanese hit it dead on. During our trip I noticed the "Baby on Board," car signs so popular in America some years ago now showing up in Japan. And when I saw yet another sign on the back of an SUV I thought, Well, there goes another gushing parent. It was only when I got close enough to actually read it did I see the lethal brevity: Samurai on Board.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cage Rage Revisited

In an earlier post (attached below) I jotted down my thoughts on mixed martial arts from a perspective of sustainability. In other words, will MMA in its present form be around in say one hundred years and have the long-term appeal that the traditional martial arts of Japan such as judo, kendo, kyudo, and Okinawa karate. (Karate is not usually considered one of the historic arts of Japan, although this is due more in part to a geopolitical separation rather than a philosophical difference). Moreover, will future fans wait in anticipation for the next big cage match, or is MMA just the latest manifestation of prize fighting destined to rise in popularity then be forgotten when the next big thing comes along. Without a doubt the traditional martial arts of Japan have undergone a transformation from battlefield origins to modern manifestation. Yet one can still find many schools who practice the art pretty much as it was done in the 19th century. To be sure, there are both pros and cons to traditional versus modern fighting from a sport, or competitive perspective. However, I want to revisit MMA from a perspective of the physical toll to participants in the form of blunt-force trauma to the brain.

Serious injuries to the head and neck are not a new topic for any contact sport. Boxing, in its present form, has been around for well over a hundred years and it is still going strong despite periodic attempts to ban, or limit the sport. Yet that doesn't diminish the long-term health effect to fighters, both pro and amateur. Similarly, the NFL is considering changes to the contact rules for practices and games due to the numerous high-profile cases of post-concussion syndrome among current and former players. Nonetheless, I think that promoters and participants in competitive MMA need to seriously consider the long-term health effects of repeated blows to the head from punches and kicks. In particular, the type of blow that I fear is most damaging is when a fighter strikes at a downward angle repeatedly to the head of a prone opponent. This creates a double impact scenario in which the brain is jarred in one direction, then immediately in the opposite direction as the head rebounds violently off the floor. Concussions, neck trauma, tongue lacerations, broken noses, jaw injuries, and lost teeth are common occurrences.

I recently discussed some of the long-term effects of brain trauma with world renown physician Dr. Christian Guilleminault, head of the Sleep Disorders Clinic at Stanford University. Dr. Guilleminault told me that in addition to complications associated with concussion syndrome, boxers (or others who experience repeated blows to the head) can in some cases experience damage to the hypocretin producing region of the hypothalamus. This condition can lead to narcolepsy-like symptoms. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition often characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy. Currently, the Narcolepsy Research Project at Stanford University is the only place in the U.S. that can test for this disorder through a sample of cerebral spinal fluid. The correlation between hypocritin levels and narcolepsy is still being researched, however I feel the implication are clear: cranio-facial injuries and head trauma can have serious consequences for competitive MMA fighters.

During my competitive days, I was often frustrated by what I felt was the lack of adaptability of traditional karate to modern sport fighting. When I trained in Mainland Japan or Okinawa, I became accustomed to the typical sparring session there: no protective equipment, but no punches allowed to the head. Conversely, I found the point-style tournament sparring common in the US permitted more freedom, but left me unsatisfied as a proponent of traditional karate since many matches became a game of tag rather than contests grounded in actual fighting principles. Karate is unique in that virtually any body part (arm, leg, head, hip, etc.) can be utilized as a weapon against an assailant. In essence, catch-as-catch-can. This, however, makes karate very difficult to adapt in its pure form to the sport arena.

Law enforcement and military forces around the world often engage in very effective self-defense training in order to prepare students for actual street combat, while generally maintaining a high degree of safety. However, in much the same way as traditional karate, this type of training doesn't transfer very effectively to a sport application, or a cage.

Of late I have come to the conclusion that if one is willing to train in MMA with the intention of fighting in a cage match, then one should be free to do so. Nonetheless, the risk of long-term injury is significant and whether that outweighs the thrill of the cage is a decision that each fighter should be free to make. However, I also feel it is important for both fighters and fans to be aware that competitive MMA, a sport which is being touted as the replacement for both traditional martial arts and boxing, has the potential to lead to brain injuries, post-concussion syndrome, and a host of other health problems that we are just beginning to learning about.

Cage Rage

Cage Rage

It seems that every few years a new trend comes along in the world of Martial Arts. Maybe it is just part of the evolution from Asian roots to modern practice. Certainly other sports have evolved in technique, performance, and equipment to produce an improved version; golf and high jumping come to mind.
Is karate any different? The current fascination with mixed martial arts and cage fighting would appear to some to be an improvement over the classical arts. The fighters are generally better conditioned, stronger, and able to strike as well as grapple. The birth of mixed martial arts is in part a product of marketing in Japan where the public lost interest in kickboxing as a money sport, and the popularity of formerly obscure arts such as Gracie Jujitsu from Brazil.
So are the mixed martial arts an improvement over traditional karate, or other classical fighting arts? In my opinion, mixed martial arts have some effective grapping techniques and conditioning drills, but as a complete art to be pursued throughout one’s life, I believe they are sorely lacking. First and foremost, karate is a “path or way” that encompasses both physical training and spiritual development. This is evident in the use of the Japanese terms karate do, or judo, i.e., way of karate, and the gentle way, as opposed to jujitsu, or kenjutsu, i.e., grappling, and swordplay, respectively. The difference in terms represents a transformation in how the fighting arts of ancient Japan were thought of originally as skills then later as complete arts, worthy of being considered on a par with other classical arts such as tea ceremony, calligraphy, sword making, etc.
When I see a cage match on TV, my impression is that there is much more wrestling that striking, and that the fighters seem to have more grappling skills than striking ability. However, the strikes that do connect are often very forceful blows to vital organs or joints. I am left wondering how much damage these fighters absorb despite the rigorous training. Moreover, professional fighters endure this punishment many times during their career, and amateurs are often injured due to lack of training or skills.

Even in the ancient swordsmanship schools of Japan, tests of skill were held between rival schools or competing students, using a wooden bokuto rather than a steel blade. Nevertheless, the chance of injury was real, so great emphasis was placed on formality, and on halting the contest once the skill difference was evident. As such, matches were rarely held. Yet outside of practice bouts in the dojo, a proponent might only engage in a small number of actual matches, or shiai due to the risks. Instead, a swordsman would reflect on these rich, but rare experiences to hone his skill knowing that in a real match a single stroke could kill. The majority of practice was kata and meditation, with the ultimate goal of unifying body and mind.
It may be that one day mixed martial arts will become a complete art, with forms and a linage of masters and students. However, it may only be a passing fad that will lose appeal once something new comes along.
The classical martial arts have endured for hundreds of years because of the very fact that they are complete arts that promote respect for others, well-being, and spiritual development, yet retain the capability to “kill with a single stroke.”

- jim noah

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cow Soap

First of all, let me put to rest your fears that this is a story about some new kind of
bovine hygiene product. Quite to the contrary, it is definitely about people soap, or more specifically-Japanese soap. For those of you who have visited Japan for any length of time, I think you will recognize, or more likely, recall the fragrance of the ubiquitous Kao Brand White Soap. Kao Brand has an aroma unlike any soap I have found in the U.S. Not particularly strong, or pungent, it has a unique smell that to me epitomizes taking a bath in Japan. Which, by the way, is a really big thing there.

While most Americans quickly shower in the morning then rush to work, the Japanese love to leisurely soak in a neck-deep tub. Many Japanese also visit public baths, where one can enjoy a spa-like experience for around two bucks. There will, however, be lots of naked people around enjoying the bath as well. But not to worry, public baths are pool-sized, though only about two to three feet deep, and most keep their eyes to themselves. In addition to the home and public baths, hot springs abound in volcanic Japan. Many of the hot springs have lodging as well, however most simply pay for a dip in the therapeutic waters. Now before I diverge further, let me get back to the cow, or more accurately, Kao Brand Soap.

As far as I know, Kao Brand has been one of the most popular brands of soap in Japan for many years. Wherever I lived, or traveled, I would find a bar of it next to a sink or bath, and we had it in our home in Akita as well. To me, it is as much a part of the background aroma of Japan as ramen shops or temple incenses. It has a fresh, mild scent that reminds me of the clean, well-scrubbed land that, in my opinion, symbolizes Japan.

The reason I call it cow soap is that the old packaging had a small picture of a cow on it. Not quite sure why, but since many English words are misspelled in Japan, I naturally assumed that Kao meant cow. When I learned a bit more Japanese I understood that kao can also means one’s face. Facial soap? Now that made sense. That is until a few weeks ago when I stopped in at a large Japanese grocery store in Chicago. I swung buy to purchase some snacks for a road trip when I walked by the cosmetics aisle and saw my beloved Kao Soap. I took a closer look (with my glasses on) and noticed that in the upper right corner of the wrapper were two Japanese characters 花王 (kao) which translate as flower king, but in reality is the corporate name of the manufacturer, The Kao Corporation. Nothing to do with cows or faces. Damn, another of my assumptions about Japan shot to pieces. Personally, I like the cow analogy better, but maybe I could get someone at corporate to rethink the brand ID?

The Cow is currently in its place of honor-the soap dish of my bath. As it waits to set free long hidden memories of the Orient.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Obaa-chan, your childless carriage pushed with a back bowed by a meager war diet and the weight of a post-industrial society that has moved from feudal to digital in your lifetime. Where have your children gone?
Was it a .50 caliber round through the chest on Mindanao? His youthful, pensive face staring back through the smoke of your prayer incense. Or perhaps it was a Bullet-Train out of town when she could no longer stand the smell of the farm?
Where have your children gone?
Maybe off to the Juku, or the sex club? Your knowing, patient hands still cooking meals for a generation no longer interested in waving the Rising Sun, dusting off pictures of the Emperor, or toasting victories in Canton.
Obaa-chan, I know you were once young, but do your grandchildren know that you had hair as shining and skin as soft and fair as any who now peddle their flesh in Ginza on a cell phone? Do they know that the takuwan pickles in their bento are from a recipe you learned as a girl at a time when you weren't allowed to speak in the presence of your father without permission?
Do they know you are day-care to a generation, and rain-swept, roadside grime and mud labor to a nation?
I know, but I could never have endured as you have through wars, famine, and now isolation. I know, because you once showed me your picture as a young girl in monpei, bidding your brother farewell at the train station. So handsome in his uniform; you bowed stoically as he headed to his grave in the Pacific.

But I will not bother you now for a story. You are too busy knocking the snow off rows of long, white radishes drying in the winter sun and setting up an offering of rice for your brother's long awaited return.

Author's note:
When I first visited Japan almost 35 years ago, I often saw Obaa-chans (grandmothers) in the Japanese countryside with terribly bowed backs. Purportedly caused by a calcium poor war diet and long hours stooped over in the rice fields. They would often be pushing a cart that looked something like a cross between a baby carriage and a shopping cart. It struck me that this nation would truly have been lost after the war had it not been for these stout, resolute women.

Friday, November 21, 2008

To the Green Sea

Author's note:
I have heard a few comments of late that my recent posts are not very zen-like, or filled with martial arts philosophy. I would agree. However, I find most zen writing rather boring. If you want reflective meditations on peace and harmony, don't go to Japan for zen training. If you want to know what one day was like; read below. I'm not saying this is the only way, I'm just telling you how it was.
'nuff said?

To the Green Sea - a book excerpt

It was one of the coldest and snowiest winters that anyone could remember. Even the old monks who came by on occasion remarked that it reminded them of the days after the war when the monasteries were one of the only places with food and young men became monks out of necessity. Those winters were cold they said. Blankets were scarce and discipline severe. I knew they were right. The worn wooden shoe box with the hand written names above it counted seventy-five in number. Almost three times the number of training monks on hand now.

It was my second winter at the zen training temple in the quiet port town of Onishi. January was the month of kangyo, the winter training. Regardless of weather we would march ten to fifteen kilometers through the nearby villages each day to collect alms in support of the temple. Normally we would take the same course in and around the town, but once each season we would walk through town, cross the river, and visit the small fishing village of Nishimura. No one minded going out there in summer, but the winter trip was hard, and we would be exposed to a piercing, biting wind most of the way.

On the morning of the march into Nishimura, I woke to the coldest day so far that winter. I slept next to an old, ill-fitting window and the wind in the night had blown the snow in through the cracks to form small drifts on the top of my blankets and across the floor. Yet I'd learned that a few degrees below freezing were better than above for marching because the slush on the road would freeze hard keeping our feet dry a bit longer. Feet and hands suffered the worse.

Meditation started at five, chanting at six, and rice at seven. At seven forty-five the roll call began with a monk beating a steel plate which hung in the entrance to the temple. We rushed to get ready. The steel plate sounding out in a jagged, steadily rising clang as we assembled on the hardened dirt floor of the Entry Hall. The head monk shouted,
"Everyone going out today must stand at attention to receive the day's instruction and recite the chant." Our nickname for him was The Apache. He would not have looked out of place in a maximum security facility.
It was cold, yet it seemed that the tighter I bound my garments the warmer I felt. One man would pull the chin straps on his kasa hat so tight there would be marks on his face for hours. We all had our little ways of keeping warm, but it wouldn't matter for an hour into the march warmth was something months away in a dream. In the Entry Hall we stood at sharp attention, heads up, looking strong. It was easy to look tough now, our feet were dry. The head monk spun towards us and barked,

We marched into Nishimura to a bitter cold wind rolling off the ocean like a giant wave, dashing against the corrugated metal houses and blowing the cold even deeper into our bones. At the moment I thought,
This is what it really is to be cold. Who cared if I couldn't feel anything from the knees down? Someone had to break a trail in the two-foot deep new snow. It was so cold I became euphoric. Without gloves in the cold we lost control of the muscles in our hands. It would start slowly with the little finger then move on to the next until the whole hand curled into a weak fist. It was a daily ritual watching men try to straighten out a frozen hand with the still good fingers from the other.

Each year important villagers and inn keepers in Nishimura held a formal meal for the monks to commemorate our visit. After our morning march through the village we stopped at the appointed place. A spacious inn with very gracious people. But there would be a price to pay for indulgence in food and wine. The problem was that our frozen feet would swell from the Inn's heat and when it came time for the return march, we could no longer get our now wet, stiff tabi socks on without great and painful effort. Some walked the 5 km back to the temple barefoot.

Dinner that night was instant Ramen-if anyone wanted it. Most recovered in their rooms huddling around small hibachi coals. Some of us sat quietly in the Meditation Hall. I would stuff a thin blanket under my robe to stay warm. Body heat would keep me reasonably comfortable in the still air-and my feet were dry. Not a bad day after all.
© All rights reserved James Noah 2008

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Tea Merchant

The fall had been mild with many warm, clear days, but winter had come hard to the Japan Sea. Frigid Siberian winds pushed down on humid ocean air dumping deep, heavy snow on the coastal plains. Yet by early spring the melt had begun in the low-lying areas. A short month of sun followed; then the rains began.
For many weeks the sky was dark and the rain drove down. Tourists never came to Nihonkai for the dry climate. Now and then the rain relented and a low fog would descend on upon the mountain ridges silhouetting solitary black pines in a sea of mist.

On the eighth day of continuous rain, I decided to get away from the confines of the temple and go into the city. I caught a local train for the ten minute ride to the Central Station. It was unseasonably cold and windy as I headed towards the old mercantile section of town on narrow, wind-swept roads. Two-storied wooden shops and draining rice fields lined the way. A cold rain stung my hands and face as I clutched a bamboo and oil-skin umbrella. The few people on the streets hurried forward, their bodies braced against the weather.
I stepped from the street into a tea merchants shop and banged shut the sliding glass door behind me. In the dimly lit and age-worn shop, I could see large aluminum boxes of tea stacked against the walls. The shop smelled of smoldering autumn leaves.
After a moment a muffled hai came drifting out from behind several layers of sliding doors. An old shopkeeper brushed through a curtain in the back of the store. When he looked up his eyes brightened and he said,
"Please sit down, please sit down." He pointed to a space around a large hibachi where an iron kettle slowly steamed over hot coals.
I told him that I wanted to buy a gift of Japanese tea to send overseas. He nodded and handed me a steaming cup of bitter green tea that spread warmth with every sip. As I drank the shopkeeper suggested that a lighter, less bitter tea might be a suitable gift for someone not accustomed to Japanese tea. The tea we were drinking, he explained, was made from only the young, tender leaves of the best plants. The milder, less expensive, teas were made of more mature leaves and stems.
"I would like a mild tea of good quality," I said.
"If you'll wait a moment, I'm certain I have what you want in back." Then the old shopkeeper stood up and hurried back through the curtain.
As I waited and drank the hot tea, I stared at the glowing coals. A piece of charcoal popped and blew sparks into the dry ash bed. I was grateful to have found a haven of warmth and dryness in a wet land.
The shopkeeper returned with a deep-colored green tea in a round metal container. I paid for the tea, tucked it under my arm, and headed up the wet street.

© copyright 2008 James Noah
As previously published in Hidamari, March 1994

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Autumn in Akita

Chinese Maples in brilliant crimson
frame the worn, ship-like timbers
of a temple gate.
The air swirls with the aroma
of burning leaves and sandalwood.
Cirrus clouds at the edge of space
draw my imagination out to
ancient mariners beyond the horizon.