miércoles, 15 de febrero de 2012

The Currency of Bread

The heaviest of my panniers is reserved for books. Some I pass along when I'm finished, others I greedily retain for my collection. Among the later genre is a collection of prose and haiku by Japan's most famous itinerant poet, Basho. Leaving Tokyo in the direction of Kyoto, I followed for some time a route taken by the vagabond poet himself and I am joined for this leg of my journey by a friend, Stacey, who lives in Kamakura and has graced me with her company as far as the city of Ise. After many months of solitary travel, I can empathise with Basho and one particular haiku of his rings relevant. Synchronistically, it was written in homage to a priest from Kamakura who joined him on his journey only as far as Ise.

Together let us eat
Ears of wheat,
Sharing at night
A grass pillow.

I arrived in Nara late morning. Entering at the park side just above the main market, I sailed downhill in search of bread. Having secured a loaf from a nearby bakery, I found a seat under a historic pine in which to have my lunch, just off the path from a five story wooden pagoda and shrine. In the midst of lathering my loaf with peanuts and jam, the voice of an elderly man delivered in well spoken English a greeting of "good day". Looking heavenward from my lowly picnic spot beneath the antiquated pine, was to the aged tree a kin, an octogenarian. Short in stature, he wore his grey and thinning hair combed from one side over a crown that, even through a scant veil, shown white with the effulgence of a midday autumn sun. Rare as it is that Japanese sagacity speak my mother tongue, I shook out my coat and gently lay it upon the grassy floor, beseeching my honoured guest have a seat beside my own.

The old man, whose name I learned to be Okada, accepted my hospitality and upon taking his seat, commenced with a diatribe of Nara's religious establishment. "These priests are such hypocrites, sleeping around the way they do. They are corrupted by money and money, as we know, is the root of all evil." Okada had just come from a lecture on the Vedic scripts given by one of the said priests at a nearby Buddhist temple. He found the lecture too technical, rather dull, and perhaps he was put off by the supercilious manner of its delivery. It seems to me that the Japanese, generally speaking, are not a religious people and this was my first encounter with one that frequents a house of prayer. I offered him some bread, of which he in turn shared with the surrounding deer, which occupy the city of Nara in droves. So revered are the deer in Nara that they have come to believe the divinity in which they've been bestowed and with impunity take such liberties that bespeak an utter disregard for their human neighbours. As such, with Okada's encouragement, an encroaching Bambi army soon had me scrambling over my lunch. Unperturbed, Okada continued with his exegesis, all the while tossing crumbs to a cervine congregation, utterly corrupted by the currency of bread.

Unable to feign interest in such topics, having myself somewhat of an aversion to religion, I changed the subject with questions of Okada's life history and respectfully, Japan's past. Okada was born in 1933, in a remote village on the island of Shikoku, before bridges linked that island with the Honshu main. It was not so removed however to be spared entirely the pangs of war. "It was just like morning,” exclaimed Okada, of the day Imperial Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied Powers. Okada, was standing in formation with his classmates, when a teary-eyed faculty made the announcement that, in a single statement, rescinded everything the pupils had hitherto been taught about their nation. "We came to know we had the wrong idea. When new textbooks arrived, we received them quite naturally and without hesitation." Okada explained to me that before the war the Japanese people were taught that Japan was infallibly “God’s Country” and when Japan lost the war, the people felt lied to and betrayed. They accepted their new reality like a people coming out of a fog and they scorned those whom they felt had pulled the wool over their eyes. I recalled reading about many an important dignitary, who in the aftermath of war, were all but reduced to shame enough to drive them to commit harakiri. And what of Japan today? I asked. “This industrial advancement is not giving us happiness” was Okada’s reply. “Superficially everything looks so nice and is going smoothly from outside, but inside we are not so happy. People were happier when life was simpler.”

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