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 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 Kudomi, 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 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

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 cache 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.