The Nameless Cats

By Emily

I’m not a very patient person (understatement of the year). This character flaw manifests itself in a number of ways, from my habit of interrupting people to naturally walking quickly to trying to “see” the future and plan for it. In anticipation of this adventure, I actively tried to imagine every possible best and worst-case scenario that could arise and made sure I was prepared. But what I wasn’t prepared for is the patience I’m already learning three weeks in.

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Two days ago, Ethan proposed a hike through a nearby town up to a temple at the top of a hill. About 2 pm, we bid our friends Marco and Nick goodbye after a delicious lunch of katsudon and began the trek upwards. While playing my version of “Are we there yet?” – in which I ask Ethan the questions “Do you know where we’re going?” “What does the map say?” and “Are you sure?” every thirty seconds – we wound through narrow lanes and footpaths, stopping to take pictures of nice views and odd street signs. Eventually we reached Koryuji, a Buddhist temple in Yamanouchi. It’s a small complex, with only a few buildings surrounded by an extensive cemetery. I spied a few cats on the premises, but they didn’t take too kindly to a strange woman whispering “NEKO” loudly at them.

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We admired a bronze statue in the middle of the temple grounds, and hiked even higher above the cemetery to the edge of the woods. At that point, I felt that I had seen everything that needed to be seen, and began mentally planning the route back to our hostel. However, Ethan insisted on sitting on a fallen log at the edge of the woods for a few minutes, so I followed in exasperation.

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Sitting quietly at the forest’s edge, I tried to be “mindful” – a buzzword if there ever was one – and take in the world around me. A few realizations did sink in: everywhere I looked was green. The hillsides are covered in grasses, flowers, and trees, with creeks and hot springs bubbling up all over. It was incredibly quiet as well – just the wind through the trees, the occasional sound of cars on nearby roads, the buzzing of insects. It was actually… kind of… nice.

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A few minutes into our pause, a small white truck drove up about 50 yards down the road. The driver stopped and stared at us, very blatantly, and Ethan and I laughed at this not-uncommon occurrence – we certainly don’t look like locals. He continued driving up the road, and stopped to get out of the car and say hello. This man was in his 80’s or so, and seemed to work on the temple grounds. He asked where we were from, and talked a bit about the temple and the woods (from what I gleaned between Ethan’s quick translations and my own burgeoning Japanese vocabulary). Then he drove away, and we continued to sit and chat about what it must be like to live in Yamanouchi. Within ten minutes, the man drove back down the hill, stopped his truck, and tapped his watch.

“Tea time.”

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We smiled and nodded, but the man motioned us to follow him. Incredulously, Ethan confirmed that the man was inviting us to tea with him, and we followed his truck back to the temple. He pointed at the statue we had admired earlier, and told us that this was the temple’s first Zen master – and his great-great-grandfather (the statue, weirdly enough, looked a lot like him). Then he climbed up the steps to the closed temple, opened the doors, and we followed him in, eyes wide and whispering excitedly to each other.

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Inside the first room was a huge altar, with a Buddha statue at the back, which our new friend explained was about 900 years old. He pointed out more of the art, decor, and religious items in the temple (none of which I have the proper vocabulary for), most of which was already a few hundred years old. Then we followed him into a back room, and sat at a small table on the tatami-mat floor. A woman came out – we later pieced together that this was his daughter – and served us matcha tea and tasty cookies.

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The four of us talked for about an hour – and by “us,” I mean Ethan, Koni Yamamoto (our new friend) and Junko Yamamoto (his daughter) talked in Japanese while I alternated between staring at Ethan in anxiety, smiling apologetically at our hosts, and guzzling tea. This trip has certainly opened my eyes to new forms of communication, especially since I’ve been depending on Ethan and other friends for translation, and trying to use my ten Japanese words otherwise. Ethan explained our story and previous travels, and we listened to the Yamamotos’ stories.

It turns out that Koni is actually the current Zen master of Koryuji, in addition to having studied Japanese history and culture at a university in Tokyo for awhile. We were dumbstruck and I felt completely unworthy to be having tea with an ACTUAL ZEN MASTER when I can’t sit still for five minutes, let alone meditate. Koni was very nonchalant about it all, even when he could see our awed expressions upon learning his profession.

As we continued chatting, I summoned up the courage to ask Koni and Junko a question – well, I summoned up the courage to ask Ethan to ask them a question (I’m a real peach to travel with). He resigned himself, and translated into Japanese: “What are the names of the cats that live around the temple?”

This question surprised them, and after staring at each other blankly, Junko laughed and answered, “They don’t have names!” But she agreed with me that they were very cute.

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After tea, Koni and Junko continued our tour, this time pulling out huge paintings pasted on folding screens. The first was at least 500 years old, the second, about 200. They explained the background of the paintings’ meanings and influence, then mentioned that there were some like them in the Boston Museum (behind glass!!! while these paintings!!! were literally!!! right in front of us!!!) My inner art history nerd was thrilled, and Ethan was near tears (don’t tell him I told you).

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Before leaving, we asked to take a picture with them – our new friends, the Yamamoto family. They bid us goodbye and good luck with our adventure, and we tripped all over ourselves repeating “Arigato gozaimasu” over and over. While walking away, we basked in the unexpected excitement of the afternoon, seeing the temple grounds with new eyes.

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If I had given in to my impatience and insisted on leaving, we’d never have met Koni, or Junko, or seen the temple interior, or had delicious tea and cookies, or gotten this close to a Japanese Important Cultural Property. Either way, the cats wouldn’t have names. But being patient and stopping for just a moment allowed me the chance to ask.

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My (Reconsidered) Interview with Japanese Schoolchildren

(Emily wrote this!)

This morning, Ethan, Kit, and I ducked into Tokyo’s Traditional Crafts Museum, a small cultural center located in the neighborhood of Asakusa. Only two rooms, this museum offers a quick overview of all kinds of Japanese traditional art forms, from woodworking to doll-making to metallurgy. While admiring a rocking horse necklace, I was approached by a young Japanese student, who I’m guessing was in middle school (based on his uniform and height).

“Will you please give interview?”

I acquiesced, and answered his questions best I could – with my almost nonexistent Japanese and his careful beginner’s English, we had a bit of stumbling. But he and his friends (about six of whom gathered around once he had bravely selected an interviewee) were very sweet and kind, and I’m pretty sure I helped them complete a school assignment.

Still, I’ve been thinking about his questions, many of which had already been asked of me by other Japanese people I’ve met this week. Though very basic, they bring to mind a lot of thoughts and feelings I’ve had since arriving in the country.

So, here are his questions, my answers, and my reconsidered answers.

“Where are you from?”

What I said: “California” (this generated some excitement among the group)

What I think now: I’ve been saying “California” mostly in answering this question, partially to avoid saying “America” and having to deal with the ensuing political questions, and partially because it’s true. I was born and raised in San Luis Obispo county, and spent my college and recent post-college years in Berkeley – I feel more “Californian” than “American.” It’s interesting to me that California is almost universally known, because I certainly couldn’t name the 47 prefectures in Japan. But that speaks more to Hollywood’s and San Francisco’s global reputation than anything else.

“What do you like about Japan?”

What I said: “Everyone is so nice here.”

What I think now: Everyone really is nice and polite and helpful. From train station agents to restaurant staff to casual acquaintances, Japanese people are the most hospitable citizens I’ve come across. Perhaps it’s overly simplified, but it’s been true so far. Other things I like about Japan include:

  • The fashion! Women here dress impeccably (men too, but primarily in similar suits), and their hair and makeup are pretty much flawless. Current trends include culottes, flowy tops, stripes (EVERYWHERE STRIPES), neutral shades, and midi skirts – the last of which I’ve now purchased for myself. When in Tokyo…
  • A sense of safety. Into the evenings, the feeling of security exists, even when navigating side streets and unfamiliar areas. Maybe it’s the gentle police presence, or the various guards and attendants around, or the well-lit roads, or the infrastructure (see below), but I’ve felt very safe in a completely new place.
  • The infrastructure. Kind of an odd thing to comment on, but Tokyo has the cleanest and most comfortable public bathrooms I’ve ever seen. There seems to be a commitment to maintaining and improving all city functions, from clear signage to manicured public parks to a lack of litter anywhere.

“What do you not like about Japan?”

What I said: “Uhhh… I can’t think of anything.” (Hopefully this won’t impact his grade)

What I think now: I can think of things I miss that aren’t allowed here, like Diet Coke (my kingdom for a 12-pack) and certain “medications” (#yeswecannabis). But a few things do bother me – the extreme commitment to work over health (12 hour days are normal), the bombardment of advertising everywhere I look (but that might just be a Tokyo thing), and the (seeming) lack of animal rights laws – there are FAR too many owl/parrot/cat cafes in damp basements. Being that I don’t have all of the information about these phenomena, I’m hesitant to make further judgments. But as Ethan, Kit and I discussed later, every culture has its trade-offs, and it’s got me thinking about what I’m willing to give up in my world in order to get something else.

“What surprised you about Japan?”

What I said: “That vending machines are everywhere!”

What I think now: They really are!!! Anytime you feel thirsty, a cheap beverage is usually within sight. I don’t know who restocks these machines, but they are EVERYWHERE. The only issue is that my lack of familiarity with Japanese brands has me staring at the machines for longer than socially acceptable. Other things that surprise me include:

  • Hard liquor is available at every convenience store. Why alcohol is so easily accessible in Japan while marijuana is verboten is beyond me. I bet a few of these salarymen could use some more relaxation in their life (and fewer hangovers).
  • The cleanliness of the public bathrooms. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but they’re seriously cleaner than any apartment I’ve ever inhabited.
  • Despite the fact that this is a huge city with 13 million people, we’ve only encountered graffiti in Tokyo twice.
  • Shrines and temples are everywhere, both Buddhist and Shinto. They’re also well-kept, with beautiful structures and cemeteries and fountains.

“What have you bought in Japan?”

What I said: “Material…?” (I couldn’t think of the word, which is furoshiki, traditional Japanese wrapping cloth)

What I think now: I bought beautiful furoshiki (and a guide to wrapping styles) for myself, and a few gifts for others – chopsticks, postcards, and such. I also bought a midi skirt to try and imitate the lovely styles I see around me. But what I’ve mostly spent my money on is transit fare and food – SO. MUCH. FOOD. My favorite meal to date was lunch today, cold soba noodles with dipping sauce. Dinner wasn’t bad either, Kit and I found a Thai place with excellent pad se ew. Can you tell why I’m spending so much money on food?!

It was admittedly a very short interview, but it’s given me a frame of reference to start working out my feelings about this adventure. So, in conclusion, thank you, Japanese schoolboy, for asking me questions that require me to seek answers.