I have written before about travellers wanting a point to it all, to travelling. In part this is perhaps seen as them wanting to justify the vast cost of travel; to have a point for spending all that money, or – as commonly happens – someone else’s money. But, this isn’t really it. Really it is the mental equivalent of touching a bandaged wound to see it’s healing. People travel for their souls’ sake. Either to find it, or to realise that they didn’t have one in the first place.
The problem is that travelling is sold on the conceit that this is definitely going to happen to you and that hanging around in mountain retreats, seeing sights and meeting locals (always more authentically grounded than those back home) will change you. That through the hardships, and the new friendships, the traveller’s very mind will be indelibly opened and some Great Ultimate Truth be finally revealed.
It might well be, but the thing about Great Ultimate Truths is that they don’t ever tell you what you expect to hear. If they did you would never need to look for them in the first place. It’s like trying to find your keys, lost in your house somewhere – they are always in the last place you look. I mean that literally of course, as why search after finding them? But, I also mean it in the sense that you have in your mind an image of where they are and this image is necessarily wrong or they wouldn’t be lost. So, you search all the places your mental image leads you to and still you do not find them. Now they are truly lost and it is only when you let go of those prior images that new thoughts can be revealed. It is not always easy to do; who amongst us has not searched the same place multiple times for something they have lost? It’s as if we expect reality to bend to our will and for our perceptions to be true. However, letting go of what you think you know is what you have to do when travelling; you have to let go of your imagined thoughts about, well…
Travelling gives you so much time, opportunity and space to take your mental map of the world, of reality, and tear it up into strips. One sunset at a time, RRRIPPP! One meeting with new people at a time, RRRRIP! One bungy, RRRIPPP! One mountain, RRRIPPP! One jungle, one desert, one bus journey along sun-laden rice paddies at a time.
Even, one cup of tea?
It sat there. Perfect, green and steaming slightly. Next to it a little cake had been placed by the Kimono wrapped Japanese lady.
Tatami lined the floor it sat on running up to the paper walls and up to the windows looking out on the moss garden and to bamboo creaking in the wind.
Beyond, in the distance, the ancient Japanese castle “Himeji” rose in white tiered beauty to the warm sky and off the slanted roof into the infinite heavens.
In front of all this sat Cesca having exactly the same moment as I: a moment of pure peace, of letting go my flawed ideas of what is and simply letting be.
I let out an enormous mental sigh. No epiphany came, but I could feel one inside, a germinating seed, which would flower when it was ready. I picked up the tea and tried it. It was what is known as Matcha, which is a ground leaf powdered green tea whisked to the consistency of a light cappuccino. It was delicious.
At that moment I fell in love with green tea of this type and again (as I do every morning) with Cesca.
If this had been a movie, then we would have faded to black right there and then and just rolled the credits. But this wasn’t a movie and the perfect moment was just a moment. If my realisation of a Great Ultimate Truth was anything it was that. Moments are what make us who we are. They are what we constitute of. We exist only in those moments. In order to have peace, in order to be free, we must exist in each moment without bringing baggage from the previous one, or presumptions about the next. Only then can you exist at peace enough to find life beautiful. Zen and Daoism, embodied. As the late great Alan Watts said:
“The past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist, there is only the present. That is the only you that exists.”
Our previous day in Kyoto had been taken up with a visit to the northern part of the city, where the Golden Temple stands overlooking a large lake.
That was breathtakingly beautiful. Although bustling with visitors it was still atheistically pleasing. After wandering the grounds for a few hours, we visited the famous Tozando martial arts shop and I tried out some bokken (training swords) worth a thousand pounds each.
Finally we had made our way to the enormous T?dai-ji temple and surrounding deer park in Nara.
While petting the deer I spied a stone carving of the symbol of Ashoka.
This symbol is Indian (you can see it on all Indian bank notes) and Ashoka was the king that turned India’s national religion Buddhist (for a time). Indeed, we had stood in the Sarnath museum and seen the original carving of this stone. As I wondered at it being here I met an Indian family who had also recognised it and we had a very pleasant chat about travel and the connections between India and Japan. Another one of those strange meetings that stays with you. After, Cesca and I went into the temple.
It is huge.
Inside a gigantic (14m high) bronze Buddha (Vairocana) statue is flanked by flying Buddhas and Bodhisattva’s.
Around the base the tourists walked amongst large statues of various Chinese, Daoist and Buddhist deities.
It was mightily impressive. At the rear a stall was selling Buddhist bead bracelets and I bought two, which Cesca and I still wear to this day. Inside the single and larger white bead, a prayer was placed that can be clearly seen when holding it up to the light. I don’t wear it to remind me of the temples and travels, Buddhism and Daoism are things I live now and not in the past, requiring me to conjure them. I wear it as a brand. As a statement of confidence. These bracelets are common on Kyoto and the best are carved in wood and each bead stamped with the symbol of the temple they represent. To collect enough for an entire bracelet you would have to visit 50/60 temples. Quite a pilgrimage. However, in the street, copies of complete bracelets can be purchased for around $30. I wondered what sort of person would buy one? Either someone who didn’t know the prominence (surely a forgivable but potentially embarrassing ignorance, as what would you say when someone recognised it?), or someone deceiving themselves and everyone else. Its like the wearing of a marathon completion t-shirt, but not having ever been running.
Near the temple was a lovely park around a duck pond. Sharing this pond with the ducks were a lot of turtles and we had the singularly strange opportunity to capture a duck and a turtle in the same photograph.
I fed the little snapper one of my chips, which he took and munched on happily.
Strangely, the thing I would most remark on was the public toilets, which speak volumes regarding Kyoto, they were cleaner than those in the most conscientious western houses. I honestly wondered if they were for public use. When they do something over here, they do it to a very high standard and hang the cost.
We then decided to change track entirely and Cesca took a lesson in Japanese Calligraphy at the lovely Kyoto Manga Museum.
I sat in the cafe and read some very interesting Manga (from the little that was in English) and enjoyed a fine cup of coffee.
After this is was time to leave Kyoto and Nara behind. It had captivated us entirely and I could have easily moved there to live. But, I was excited and eager to see the great castle of Himeji and so we caught the train out to it. From the station it is a nice walk across a park to the extensive grounds. Himeji has the largest and most classic Japanese Castle with a history steeped in the blood and tears of the samurai. It had been a true military building since 1333 and had survived everything the earthquakes, wars and American bombs could throw at it ever since. The result is an incredibly elegant white walled building rising up from a defensive mound.
Inside it is all high quality wood and antiques with stairs leading from level to level and its wall decked in treasures.
We took our time climbing up to the top, but the view was well worth the effort. It was up there that Cesca spied a formal garden off to one side of the complex and soon we had looked it up in the Lonely Planet and made a bee line for it.
We wandered very happily amongst the pathways, large fish-filled ponds and gardens until I spied a traditional tea house. It was a low building made of wood and staffed by middle-aged Japanese women in formal wear. After some faltering attempts to understand the deal, we were led, in our socks, to the Tatami room where the tea, and the moment arrived.
…and I breathed out as the final rip sounded in my mind. We had taken the final step away on our journey and now we would be coming back. Our final stop in Japan, our final stop anywhere on this journey, was Osaka. We collected our bags and took the train, leaving a part of us behind nut pocketing that special moment as a takeaway. I can picture it now and recall that I seemed to have found a true center of Universal balance.