What I Did on My Birthday

At 5 AM on May 14, 2007, my 58th birthday, I sat in Fumon-ji Temple in Ako City, Japan, and listened to Eiyu Fujimoto, a Soto sect Zen Buddhist nun and leader of the temple, chant the Lotus Sutra, punctuating her rich vocalizations with beats on a wooden drum and an occasional chiming of the temple’s big bowl gong. About twenty people attended the early morning service, which took place in both the large and the smaller halls of the temple.

After Eiyu chanted, she invited Sachiho and me each to sing a song in the temple. Sachiho sang a lovely song with her lyre.

There was no guitar to borrow today, so I sang, a capella, my meditation song “Hang Out and Breathe.” It felt wonderful to let my voice resonate in the big wooden hall.

Ryu Umehara, an artist who lives in the house closest to the Donto-in (the house Sachiho built in honor of her late husband Donto) in Tamagusuku, Okinawa, brought one of his paintings to the temple. Here are Sachiho, Eiyu Sensei, Ryu and his wife (whose name I forgot to write down!)

The painting is representative of Ryu’s work, delicate, playful and colorful images of people in nature; these two are playing stringed instruments, one plucked and one bowed.

Ryu invited us to come to Mau Chai, a nearby teahouse and gift shop in Ako City, where he was having an art show in the upstairs room.

Sachiho and I went over there, and I tried to buy a book of Ryu’s paintings to take home with me. However, Ryu insisted on giving it to me as a birthday gift! He signed it for me, with a drawing of a dragon, which is the meaning of his name.

birthday07-ryu's book.jpg

What a treasure!

So I bought myself another birthday gift downstairs – a pair of Italian shoes with
Turkish wool kilim uppers. Sachiho approved, saying that usually ethnic shoes are uncomfortable, but the Italian soles would be comfortable and last a long time. They ARE comfortable.

When we returned to the temple, Eiyu’s cook had prepared us all a splendid breakfast…

…with miso soup, pickles, rice, tofu, land and sea vegetables.  Afterwards, Eiyu brought out her photograph albums and showed us photos of a Tara Dance ritual held at Fumon-ji Temple.  Eiyu herself had danced in the ritual, looking elegant in a sari.  In the Tara Dance, a mandala of dancers in many colors of saris depicts the 21 Praises of the goddess Tara.  I danced in the very first of these ritual dances, on Maui in the 1980’s, because the choreographer, Prema Dasara, a classically trained Odissi dancer, was a personal friend.  She had been asked to create this ritual by the Tibetan Buddhist master Tai Situ Rinpoche.  Since the mid-1980s, Prema has been traveling internationally teaching Tara dance, although the Fumon-ji ritual was organized by one of her students.

Afterward, Eiyu gave me a birthday card with a playable keyboard that would also play Happy Birthday. She also gave me and Sachiho each a set of little bells to ring above our heads whenever we were troubled by negative thoughts. I keep mine handy!

Sachiho borrowed Eiyu’s car, and we went off to bathe at an on-sen (hot springs bathhouse). We passed this large and beautiful Shinto shrine, which is just down the hill from Fumon-ji Temple.

In front of the on-sen, I found another lovely specimen for my collection of Japanese man hole photographs.

This on-sen had outside pools with a panoramic view of the huge bay that lies between Ako City and the Pacific Ocean. We relaxed in the pool for over an hour, sharing stories, laughing, or just floating and listening to our breathing.

When we got back to the temple, we packed up, thanked Eiyu Sensei profusely, and took one last look at the big view of Ako City from the hill above the temple…

…and the beautifully restored buildings of the temple compound (this is the smaller hall where we’d had the second half of the service that morning), before we hopped into a taxi to the train station, and took a train to the airport. Sachiho flew back home to Naha City, Okinawa, where her sons awaited, and I flew back to Tokyo, where more adventures were about to begin.

Mothers Day Celebration at Fumonji Temple

After our dinner in Nara, Sachiho and I got into Ryoko’s van, and Ryoko drove us to Fumonji Temple in the lovely seaside town of Ako. We arrived late at night and bedded down in the dormatory (above) of the temple on futons in a tatami matted room. Already a group of women slept in the next room; all had come for a Mothers Day celebration organized by our dear friend Mana Koike (who created and runs the Alohana spiritual center on Oshima), in part to honor a visit by Clara Shinobu Iura, one of the Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Clara’s an indigenous tribeswoman TWICE; her parents are Ainu tribespeople from northern Japan, but, because of her birth, lifetime and work in Brazil, she identifies herself with the indigenous people of the Amazon.

Fumonji Temple had to be the perfect location for the celebration, as it is the home of a famous 1200 year old statue of the Goddess of Compassion, Quan Yin (Kannon in Japanese). And also, the keeper of the temple, Eiyu Fujimoto, a Zen Buddhist nun of the Soto tradition, is revered as a great mother.  Most people call her Eiyu Sensei (teacher).  She’s seventy, but she’s got skin like a teenager, and the loveliest smile.

The old temple had been in great disrepair when Eiyu took the reins some years back, but through persistent hard work, enormous patience, and good cheer, she inspired people to donate funds and labor, and the temple was renovated to its current perfect beauty.

We gathered in the temple and sat quietly for a while. Our celebration began with a musical offering by spiritual singer/songwriters Takahiro and Rie, who played the day before I did at Happy Flower Beach Party music festival last October in Nago, Okinawa.

Next, beautiful Minaru danced her Earth Dance. She teaches this.

After Minaru, an a capella vocalist sang two of her songs.

Then singer songwriter Yoshie Ebihara performed with guitar.

I borrowed Takahiro’s guitar (I’d already shipped mine back to Tokyo), and performed a couple of songs. I had to sing sitting down because the strap was not adjustable.

Last of all, Sachiho performed her spiritual songs.

Mana, with infinite elegance and grace, danced to Sachiho’s singing.

Sachiho’s last song was her husband, Donto’s, song “Nami” (Wave), which almost every hippie lady in Japan can perform as a hula. Even Clara was dancing.

After the performances, some little children brought Clara a gift.

There was a new mother to be celebrated that day, too.

I thanked Takahiro for lending me his guitar and was delighted to connect with him and Rie again.

Another friend I hadn’t seen since the 2002 tour on the Big Island of Hawaii that I set up for Amana came to the celebration. Her name is Miki, and she’s a ceramic artist.

Before everyone left, we gathered for a big, happy group shot, and I got a special hug from Clara, whose first language is Portuguese; we could meet on a common ground in Spanish, which we both speak as a second language.

A Shinto Benefit Concert in Nara

Sachiho’s starring role today was in a show benefitting a Shinto temple, and in honor of its departed greatest teacher, whom she referred to as “my Shinto master.’ The widow of this teacher attended the show, and all of the performers in the show had studied with this teacher, whose name, alas, I did not write down. When we got to the theatre, Manami, a bharatanatyam dancer, was rehearsing onstage.

Next, a modern dance class rehearsed their two numbers, the first of which starred their teacher.

Backstage, I watched, fascinated, as Manami assembled her make-up, hair ornaments, jewelry and costume. It took well over an hour for her to prepare for the stage. Sachiho’s preparation took a fraction of the time. She must have shipped her costume to herself at the theatre, because I’d certainly never seen it before in the several weeks we’d been traveling together. They both looked smashing when it was time for the show to begin.

The show opened with the modern dance troupe in flowerlike handmade costumes.

Next, Manami danced solo. After that, she danced accompanied by Sachiho singing with her lyre in duet with a percussionist, while a talented nature photographer projected a long series of his works on a screen behind her. I don’t think my photos do this piece justice; it was really quite dramatic and splendid.

Last, Haruko, a singer/songwriter, performed. I had met her before on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2002 when Sachiho and her band, Amana, and about fifty fans of Sachiho’s departed rock star husband, Donto, came to Hilo for a memorial to Donto and a music tour for Amana afterward that I had arranged. Haruko’s got sass. When she arrived backstage, she came bearing a dish she prepared from an octopus she had speared herself.

When the performers came out together to take their bows at the end of the show, they presented a bouquet to the widow of the great Shinto teacher.

There was just time after the show for a little group shot backstage before everyone got back into their street clothes and we all went out for dinner at a restaurant at the top of a pachinko building near the theatre. That’s Manami, me, Sachiho and Haruko.

We Go To Japanese Heaven, Part Two

Sunset from the window of the serene and luxurious Sakoya Ryokan on the evening of our stay. Before dinner, we each took a hot springs bath in our private tubs.

In a small private dining room, Sachiho and I were presented with an amazing collection of meticulously prepared delicacies, that kept arriving long after our small stomachs were quite full. We were glad we’d taken a long walk up a steep hill that day, and we took our time, attempting to do justice to this feast. When we returned to our suite, two thick and comfortable futons with floral quilts on top had replaced the dining table in the middle of our tatami-floored main room. Sachiho went out to visit Yatchan and his family again, and I relaxed on my futon, astonished to discover an Ethernet outlet in one wall of the tatami room, allowing me to check my email before preparing myself for sleep.

Dawn from the window of our suite at Sakoya. We would be blessed with more hot springs baths, but no time afterwards to relax; Sachiho was starring in a show benefitting a Shinto temple that day in Nara, and we had to pack up and catch the train after breakfast.

Our breakfast would be served down on the dining porch overlooking the forest, to the sounds of wild birds, in the chilly mountain morning air.

Yet another selection of flawlessly prepared treats arrived on our trays, thankfully only a fraction of what we’d been served the night before.

We savored our hot tea and miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables, fish, sea vegetables and eggs, and the sights, sounds and fragrances of the forest.

One of the ryokan staff drove us down to the train station, where I purchased some kudzu candy as a housegift for Koki and Ayako, to whose home I’d be returning in a few days. There we met some members of the forestry division working in Yoshino, including a man in white traditional-style clothing. He told me his name, Mori, which means “forest.”

The Rest of Our Walk in Yoshino

After visiting Kinpusen-ji Temple, Sachiho Kudomi and I continued through the quiet streets of Yoshino on our walk.

We looked into an apothecary store, where what appeared to be a hippopotamus’s head looked back at us.

We visited the Organic Cafe, bought some healthful slow food treats, and made friends with the owner.

I bought a beautiful handmade card with cherry blossoms on a gold background for my mom at the paper store.

I, of course, photographed the Yoshino man hole cover, and was surprised that, here in the premier cherry blossom viewing town of Japan, the man hole covers didn’t have any cherry blossoms in their design, as they did in so many other towns. Instead, Yoshino’s graphic is strictly geometric, not unlike some of the crop circle designs.

Next to the road I saw a small shrine that reminded me of a southeast Asian spirit house, with a gorgeous gathering of moss on its roof.

And just off the road, someone had set benches for picnics under the tall trees.

We saw several shops specializing in handmade kudzu candy, made from the starchy and medicinal roots of an aggressive wild vine that environmentalists strive to keep from engulfing the forests.

Seeing the kudzu roots in the window display, I realized that the interesting floor lamp in the lobby of the ryokan was made from kudzu roots and handmade paper.

In Yoshino, you can even buy decorative molds for making kudzu candy yourself.

Another display showed candy-makers using these molds.

Sachiho and I visited a temple where she had led a meditation retreat the previous year. The woman who cared for the temple (Sachiho referred to her as “the mother of the temple”) welcomed us warmly.

She even allowed me to photograph the murals with the couples in yabyum inside one of the smaller rooms of the temple.

I wonder why there’s a guy who’s on fire. Surely these murals illustrate a story. Or several!

When we got close to the ryokan again, we turned down a small side street, actually more like a little mountain trail with a cool driftwood sign, to visit Yatchan, Sachiho’s ceramicist friend who had gotten us the amazing room at his parents’ ryokan.

On the trail to his house, we saw a praying statue from Bali, no doubt a souvenir from one of Yatchan’s travels.

Yatchan, his wife Fumi-chan, and their lively little daughter Nagomi, were all pleased to see us. Fumi-chan had just harvested fresh bamboo shoots, one of which she is holding. Nagomi danced about and laughed, hid and burst out of hiding, grabbed a large bamboo shoot, and giggled. The language barrier did not prevent me from playing peekaboo with her.

When we returned to the ryokan, we met Yatchan’s mother, and thanked her for the fabulous room and service.

She proudly showed us a glass case of Yatchan’s ceramics.

We Visit Kinpusen-ji Temple in Yoshino

When traveling with Sachiho Kojima, one does not merely take walks. Given her proclivity for worship in a variety of settings, she cannot help but take you on a Sacred Sites Tour. So, we set out from the Sakoya Ryokan through the quiet streets of Yoshino village. Sachiho told me, “I have always loved old ways more than new ones. When I was a teenager, I studied tea ceremony.” Like Noh theatre, the ritual of tea elevates consciousness of even the smallest gesture.

The circular impressions in the street made the pine needles compose themselves into perfect circles.

Soon we espied the main gate of Kinpusen-ji Temple at the end of the street.

Across the quiet street from the temple gate stood an open air store selling handmade mochi which we found irresistible. I bought a piece of dark green mugwort mochi, and Sachiho bought a white one with a sweet red bean paste filling. Mugwort is the English name for the herb used for moxibustion.

Under the eaves of the main gate, two fierce and muscular Shukongoshin (guardian statues) kept all bad juju at bay…

…flashing their buff abs and formidable teeth.

Clearly this has worked well for centuries. Once inside the gate, all is serene, shaded by beautiful old trees.

The main temple hall, with its breathtaking architecture and embellishments, is said to be the second largest wooden temple in Japan, after Todai-ji in Nara.

Inside the courtyard of the temple, a sign in four languages elucidates. My camera and I are reflected in it.

We approach the main hall entrance.

At the entrance, one places coins inside the donation box, takes a few sticks of green incense, lights them all with the large votive candle, and stands them together to burn in the sandfilled stone urn at the entrance to the temple.

Another pair of fierce ancient statues guard the inner sanctuary.

A Miro-like artwork on the right hand inner wall of the temple.

The temple’s store sells photographic guide books of the artwork, and articles for worship, including handcarved prayer beads.

Outside the main temple, a lion statue, bibbed by worshippers to show respect.

Even though it’s a Buddhist temple, a Shinto Inari (fox diety) shrine also stands on the temple grounds.

We Go to Japanese Heaven

In the morning, after Sachiho and I folded up our sleeping mats at the home of Sachiho’s dear friend Ryoko Okuda, the owner of Planet Flower (“Fashion from Nature”), a natural fiber clothing store in Osaka (who I’d met first at the Rainbow Festival, and who came to our show at Chakra and then drove us to her home to spend the night), a Buddhist monk came over to lead us in prayer in front of Ryoko’s home altar.

Ryoko’s home, a one-story house in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Osaka, has, in traditional Japanese style, windows that are also doors, and tatami covered floors that change from bedroom to living room to dining room to temple as needs dictate.

Her small bedroom is full of the beautiful clothes she sells in her store.

Even the bathroom wall is blessed by angels.

Ryoko feeds us a lovely breakfast of fruit and raisin bread toast and tea, and walks us to the train. We bid her a fond goodbye. She will meet us the next day in Nara and drive us to Fumon-ji Temple.

Across from us, three generations of Japanese women snooze to the rhythm of the train, and, above them, an advertising model grins.

Sachiho and I made friends with four little girls on a school field trip.

We got off the train at Yoshino, a mountain village famous for its hot spring resorts and temples, and took a taxi to this lovely place, where we would relax for the night.

Sachiho’s friend Yatchan, a ceramic sculptor, is the son of the owners of Sakoya, the most luxurious ryokan (traditional style Japanese hotel) in Yoshino, and, for a special family-and-friends price, he has gotten us the premier suite, and the price includes gourmet dinner and breakfast, served by our own personal hostess in kimono!

We had a suite of rooms, one large room where we would sleep and eat…

…plus this lovely sitting room…

…with this gorgeous view of the mountains, with bamboo and pine forests…

…and our own outdoor hot springs bath…

…and our own indoor hotsprings bath. Plus a two-sink bathroom with a huge mirror, loads of bath towels…

…a kimono with jacket each for our stay…

…and tea served upon our arrival…

…made from sakura (cherry blossoms) with a sauce made from kudzu (arrowroot starch), two products for which Yoshino is reknowned. Yoshino is lush with cherry blossoms each spring, and packages a famous, slightly salty tea, made of the dried blossoms.

Chakra in Osaka

Handmade sign above the entrance to Chakra, an import, craft and clothing store with cafe and performance space in back, in Osaka, Japan, where Sachiho and I performed the final show of our tour together, on May 10, 2007.

On the shinkansen (bullet train) from Yamaguchi to Osaka, I spotted this ad, reminding me that (at least in 2007) the largest number of solar panel manufacturers, as well as the largest manufacturer of solar panels, Sanyo, are in Japan.

As soon as we reached Osaka’s main train station, Sachiho and I took a cab to Chakra, where we would perform that night. I got out there, and Sachiho hurried off to lead a meditation workshop elsewhere in Osaka. The store is an oasis of calm and beauty on a small back street in a densely urban part of the city.

Atchan, one of the owners of the store, came out to greet me.

Her husband and co-owner, Tatchan, joined us. I’m not sure what their formal names are; “chan” is a suffix implying endearment usually following the first syllable of a person’s given name. “San” is a suffix implying respect, and usually follows the person’s entire first or last name. (Only, in Japan, you say the family name first.) Anyway, I can see why everyone calls them Atchan and Tatchan. They are adorable.

The poster for the event features the cover of Living on the Earth! Tatchan told me that all sixty seats were sold out several days ago.

The interior of the store: musical instruments, exotic and local artisan clothing, low lights, handmade crafts, incense, East Indian music and CDs of local bands – everything for a spiritual/hip clietele…

…with all the cool accessories to match…

…even macrame!

I went out for a walk around the neighborhood. Japan’s cities burgeon with bicycles (better get out of the way if you hear a ringing sound behind you!)

I saw bike riders of all ages. Since people don’t steal in Japan, you can ride your bike (or lighweight motorcycle) to the nearest bus stop or train station, leave it there, go where you are going by public transportation, come back and bike home. Green all the way!

To my delight and astonishment, Minehiko Tanaka, an excellent sitar player, joined us for our performance that evening.

He accompanied Sachiho while she chanted sacred songs with her lyre.

I had always dreamed that someday I would be able to play my song Vai Raga with a sitar player, and that night was my night. I did a set by myself (with a volunteer translator from the audience), followed by three songs with Sachiho and Minehiko, including Vai Raga (from Music From Living on the Earth, my first CD).

I think they liked us.

In fact, I think they liked us a lot. I sold out all of the books I’d ordered, again, and almost all of the CDs.

I told everyone in the audience they’d be on my home page, and here they are. This is why I come to Japan. It’s a love fest!

Organ’s Melody in Yamaguchi

We hustled into the train station, me with newly streamlined luggage, and purchased tickets for the Shinkansen, the famous Japanese bullet train, that gets you where you are going FAST. It doesn’t stop at all that many places, so it can reach a velocity of nearly 200 miles per hour. We had to take a bus from Karatsu to Fukuoka to get to its nearest stop.

Touring by train is a science. You have to be able to carry everything you need for the gig and to keep yourself together, up a set of stairs if necessary, since not all train stations in Japan have elevators or escalators.

I need two guitars for my gigs, because I play one in an open tuning and one in concert tuning. I carry my laptop for selling my products, setting up gigs and publicizing them, reading the news, doing vocal exercises, listening to music, broadcasting the karaoke version of my last CD onstage, political activism, research, correspondence, shopping, photo editing, writing this blog, and working on other writing projects. I also need performance costumes and other clothes, toiletries, and my bag of natural supplements and immune-enhancing herbs, because travel is the immune system Olympics. Everywhere you go, someone is sneezing. For an almost 58-year-old, 105-pound woman, carrying all this by train is a marathon. But I am a muse-driven specimen of my age group, and I will do whatever it takes to get my art where it needs to go.

The Shinkansen looks like a large, dangerous snake. Inside, it’s much more comfortable than the local trains. We ate rice crackers and peanuts from the station kiosk and chatted the time away amiably.

We took a local train from the nearest Shinkansen station to Yamaguchi, a town so blessed with hot springs (on-sen) that there are public foot baths in the parks. Right next the train station stood an on-sen with a giant white fox in front, exuding the advertising cachet resulting from the Japanese national passion for cute animals. The Grateful Dead dancing bear does lots of business here.

Eizo, the owner of Organ’s Melody, a small night club (in Japan it’s called a “live house”) picked us up at the station, and he and his wife Yuki made us comfortable with a room above the club with futons and a bathroom. Nowhere to wash up, though. No problem; Yamaguchi is hot springs heaven. We even strolled over to a nearby park and had a VERY hot foot bath before the show.

The poster for the evening (May 9, 2007) featured the cover of Living on the Earth and a photo that Yuko Tsukamoto took of me performing last year at her club Yukotopia in Tokyo. There’s my name again in Katakana, starting with the letter P. Next to the photo of Sachiho playing her lyre is her name written in Kanji, Chinese characters.

In typical urban hipster style, the entrance to the club was practically unnoticeable. You had to know it was there.

Inside the club, the walls were black, the bar was stocked, and a bunch of little tables and chairs welcomed the patrons.

Up a narrow, kinda scary staircase, the dressing room displayed Eizo’s wild poster collection. This was my fave.

It was a pleasure to soundcheck with Eizo. His system was fantastic.

The opening act, a local musician known as Sensei because his day job is teaching school. He sang original songs; his friend played drum, and you had to love his traditional old style Japanese clothes.

Sachiho and I both enjoyed ourselves playing at Organ’s Melody. It’s always fun to play and sing through good sound system with an excellent technician at the controls. Afterwards, one of the patrons, who was celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday, took us (me, Sachiho, Eizo and Yuki, plus his friends) out to an expensive and fabulous Mediterranean style dinner at the restaurant next door. It was all I could do to stay in my body, between the gourmet cuisine, the happy, flowing conversation that I couldn’t understand, and the overwhelming presence of a large screen TV playing a dreamlike performance by Cirque du Soleil. After that wild meal, Sachiho and I walked in the rain to a large, nearby on-sen, and soaked for an hour. We slept well that night in the room above the club.

We Visit the Lottery Shrine

The next morning, Sachiho, Yoko, and Hiromi (the all-woman trance trio, Amana) and I awakened at the Yoshimori’s elegant house overlooking the bay in Karatsu, where we’d been brought by host himself after the party. He and his wife had spent the night at yet another of their homes, and the Amana ladies and I had this gorgeous, brand new house to ourselves. Yoko and Hiromi took an early plane back to Okinawa, and Sachiho and I had breakfast at a table with a splendid view.

Right across the bay stood an old castle on a forested hill. Karatsu lies at the westernmost point of Japan, and is the port through which Korean and Chinese people have visited and traded with Japan for centuries.

Yoshimori and his wife came over to see us after breakfast, and his wife took us out for a walk around Karatsu.

We were joined by her friend, a hat designer, and the two of them decided to treat me and Sachiho to a boat ride to Takashima island, home of the lottery shrine.

We passed the house where we had slept, which Yoshimori personally built, as we motored toward the island. It’s the second one from the left, light gray with a gray roof.

And we could see the mountains where their cabin is, at Saga, the site of last night’s concert.

Takashima island has a mystical presence.

We approach the harbor. Most of the residents are fishing families.

We walk up the quay toward a colorful shop.

At the harbor, we bowed at a fishing shrine with a statue of Ebisu, the fishing diety…

…and studied a map of Takashima outside the general store.

A lottery ticket store, quite close to the shrine. I didn’t buy any tickets, but I did pick up a brochure…

…that explained clearly how to win the lottery.

Here’s as close as you can get to the lottery shrine with a camera. We went in and thanked the Great Spirit for the amazing good fortune we already enjoy in our lives.

After we left the lottery shrine, Sachiho lead us to another shrine higher up on the mountain. She’d been here before.

At this shrine we also said thank you to the Divine Spirit.

Then we headed back to the harbor, well pleased with our journey.

Of course, I had to photo the Takashima man hole cover for my collection.

Then we sped back to Karatsu to tour the clothing store, ship my suitcase to Osaka, and catch a bus to the bullet train (shinkansen) to Yamaguchi. We just barely made it.