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How it all Started Part 2

balanced explorations history culture hot springs japan onsen reiki Feb 07, 2023

Most of my life I dreamed of going to far off places like Hawaii and Japan.  I didn’t think it would ever happen, so in 2017, I decided to take matters into my own hands and schedule my journey to Japan. 


I chose to join a group excursion—a quilter’s tour.  I’m not a quilter, but as an artist I have a real appreciation for art and textiles and had the desire to experience the culture.  In sustainability circles, they call it a sense of place, that indefinable something that differentiates it from all others. 


Since I was a teenager, I had been watching Japanese soap operas on public television, and my mother had peppered our apartment with antique Japanese dolls she found at flea markets and thrift stores. While in Japan, I saw updated versions of the identical dolls we had when I was growing up.  


Cranes are used a lot in Japanese art and tales to represent long life. There is even a story of a girl making 1,000 origami cranes to commemorate Hiroshima. I love the symbolism and sea birds in general.  When, in the same store that sold the dolls, I found a yukata, or cotton robe, made in a vibrant crisp dark blue cotton fabric with white cranes, I knew it would be coming home with me.  


Later that week, I visited a studio where I was dressed in junihitoe by two women.These layered silk robes have been worn by Japanese empresses for hundreds of years.  I felt quite pampered as I stood there for close to an hour as multiple layers of heavy silk were draped one over the other to the point where I could not physically move even if I wanted to. A cameraman took photos the entire time.  I purchased the package with three photos included but didn’t realize until afterward that I would have no say in their selection.  I didn’t even get to see them in advance.  The photographer chose the ones he wanted.  I discovered the aesthetic in Japan is quite different from that in the United States, and if given the option, I probably would not have chosen any of those images.  


By visiting another culture, I realized that viewpoints vary depending upon many factors, including where in the world you grow up, your personal experiences, and the collective history of the people you share a culture with.  I remember the women telling me through the translation app on my phone that they were happy I was there. Many of the younger Japanese people were not interested in their culture, and the women were afraid it would be extinguished. 


It is fascinating how perspectives differ from one region to the next.  However, if no one ever left their hometown, this valuable wisdom would never be discovered. 


I first encountered heated toilet seats with “washlets” aka bidets on that Japanese vacation.  Living in Vermont, where winter lasts a good six months, I decided to buy one for my new house a year and a half later.  It’s part of integrating little luxuries into my everyday life and not waiting for when I “travel.”  Inconsequential items—like a $300 toilet seat—can effortlessly elevate your lifestyle.  


Two free days in Kyoto before returning home gave me the space to explore on my own.  I have been a reiki master since 2009, and when I realized I was within an hour of the location where reiki was discovered, I knew I had to visit.  I took a subway and two trains to reach Kurama.  The last train was one I could only describe as a light rail with very large windows that felt like a ski resort’s enclosed gondola.  It went straight through the mountains which reminded me of rural Vermont. As we moved further away from Kyoto, I started to see snow on the ground.  


When the train arrived in Kurama, my first stop was the steps leading up to the temple.  In my research, I discovered another temple further in the woods beyond the temple at the mountain’s summit, but, to my disappointment, the trail was closed due to snow.  I made my way up the numerous stairs.  It was an arduous climb. There was a gondola going to the summit, which I took on the way down to save time. 


Along the way, there were small prayer bundles for sale, but what I remember purchasing when I arrived at the temple and breathed in the peaceful quiet of the rarefied air was a mala bead bracelet and a book that opened up like an accordion made of one piece of paper.  I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the book.  I think people collected them from the different temples they visited, but I’m not sure what they wrote in them, if anything.  I chose to use it for notes during my Buddhist studies at home.  It seemed an appropriate use for a souvenir bought at a Buddhist temple.  


I peered into a nondescript building as I began my gradual descent towards the gondola.  Taking off my boots to go inside felt inconvenient, so I stood in the doorway and stared in awe at the massive golden Buddha statute that must have been over ten feet tall.  I wanted to go in, but I knew the day was slipping away. It was a priority for me to go down the street to the traditional onsen and soak in the hot springs before heading back to my hotel in the city.  


I used the GPS in my phone and a hotspot I rented to find the onsen.  I was excited to experience the outdoor hot springs in the winter—it was only 35 degrees outside.  But first, I purchased the full dinner, changed into a robe, and sat at the low table in the dining room to eat the hearty meal. 


The hot springs were segregated into male and female sections, and as is customary, people went in naked.  There was an area to the side with soap and hand showers to wash off before going in.  I believe I was the only non-Japanese person in the outdoor pool.  I felt outside of my comfort zone because in the United States I would never consider doing anything naked in public.  It is one of the cultural differences I overcame that allowed me to participate despite my initial discomfort. I sat in the warm water as the smoke from the heat of the water rose on the crisp cool air.  


Then, I went inside where there were three pools and began to chat with a woman from Europe.  Each pool was a different temperature. When I moved from one pool to the next, I realized it was a cold plunge pool.  Evidently, you go in the hot water first and then you jump in the cold water.  


Afterwards, I changed into my robe and went upstairs to the meditation room.  They had massage chairs you could use for a 100 yen coin while observing a glorious view of the mountains through large floor to ceiling picture windows.  They also had mats laid out on the floor. I selected one and rested for a little while.  I could have stayed much longer, but I saw the sun was getting lower in the sky and knew I had to take two trains and a subway to reach my hotel.  


A private tea ceremony followed by an ikebana, flower arranging, class were two other experiences that were a priority for me in Japan.  The flower arranging class was very enlightening.  I realized how Japanese and American approaches to floral arrangement were diametrically opposed.  For the Japanese, it is all about using the different flowers and branches and heights in a certain aesthetic.  Its patterning was very simple and prescribed.  I have taken flower arranging workshops in the United States where the goal is to learn just enough to make your floral design free-form and NOT to follow a certain aesthetic.  We learn so that we can break the rules, and they learn so that they can follow and master the rules.   (To be continued. . . )

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