An old joke goes: “I’m big in Japan.” I can’t quite remember the setup, but I’ve been feeling its punchline every time I bang my head on a doorframe, roof beam, or sometimes even the roof itself - which is to say, I’ve been feeling it often on this trip.
When I go bald, I’m blaming Japan.
There is a marked up wooden doorframe at the homestay - not from heads hitting it, but rather from pencil lines noting the heights and names of people who’ve stayed here over the years. Leaning against the wall, I stand up straight to add my mark to the statistics. Not only am I above the doorframe, but I’m also the tallest person on the board. For the record, I’m 6‘2”.
Although the abode I’m staying in was explained to me as a farm house, it isn’t like any farm I’ve known back in Canada. It isn’t an island amidst a sea of fields. Rather, the houses are bunched together. The roads are paved and free of potholes. Oh, and - there’s a convenience store just a ten minute walk away.
From my lost-in-translation drive through the countryside yesterday with my host, I’ve observed a pattern. Houses are clustered together in little pods at the base of hillsides, while the flatter parts of the valley are reserved for fields. Above the homes, Shinto shrines overlook house and work and everything in between.
It is cloudless today; a pastel blue sky with a strong sun that casts even stronger shadows. My morning is spent walking the hillsides, pushing through cobwebs as I climb to visit one shrine after another. The afternoon heat pushes my meandering feet from one outdoor patch of shade to the next, finding space for writing writing writing.
The hillsides are steep, but torii gates along their base mark the worn upward routes. The archway represents a gateway from the mundane everyday to the more mystical spirit realm. As one ascends the steep stone stairs, more torii gates indicate increasingly sacred spaces. At the top, one rings the bell at the shrine, calling upon the powers of local kami (spirits) to attract power and authority, while repelling evil.
Back down in the valley, I seek a particular shop but the roads are as meandering as my feet and I cannot figure out which winding road to take. A woman walks past me and I fumble a question of directions to her. She smiles knowingly, says yes and waves for me to follow.
Ten minutes later, after much pointing out and explaining of things all along the way, we arrive at the shop. She comes inside and introduces the owners, before jovially waving as she backs out the door not to be seen again.
People are not in a rush here.
There is a Japanese concept that goes ichi-go ichi-e which roughly translates to one time, one meeting. It is linked to Zen as well as traditional tea ceremony.
The term reminds us to cherish any gathering that we may take part in, citing the fact that any moment in life cannot be repeated. Even when the same group of people get together in the same place again, a particular gathering will never be replicated, and thus each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience - a chance to be thoughtful, kind, and present.
In this manner we can find honour in any service: welcoming guests into our homes, greeting people in our jobs, and helping out others whom we encounter on the street - like this woman who was so generous with me.
The streetlights are beaming with a quiet hum and I’m back up at the first shrine I visited this morning. Up above the illuminated little maze of roads, the sun sets slowly through the torii gate in front of me. It touches the tips of the houses as it slowly marches towards the horizon.
I ponder humanity: what does it mean to be in relationship with each other in a fleeting world? One time, one meeting. The presence we can offer to each other brings intentional and meaningful exchanges, little moments filled with connection and humanness.
As the sunlight fades from the housetops, I turn to see the shrine behind me beaming with a bright orange glow that makes the komainu (lion-dog) statues seem to come alive. Amidst the deepening shadows, they stand out strikingly.
I ponder beyond humanity: what does it mean to be in relationship with this world? One time, one meeting. What would it be like to extend this principle of presence to the natural world, where one’s interaction is just as fleeting?
The night air is cooling. The tall trees stand in silent stoicism. The streetlights blink. A cat slinks across the road. A mother calls her child in from the street. There will never be another moment like this again.