Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Postcard from Japan (#7)

Dear Rox and LLF,

Full disclosure: I coined the neologism “Nara-tology” on the train down to Nara before we had seen even a glimpse of its splendors and knew that it was deserving of such cleverness. I hope I don’t get in trouble with the Creative Division for that bit of advance planning, but this daily deadline pressure is killing me. I grab inspiration whenever and wherever I find it. Besides, I figured the English profs and grad students who are vicariously traveling with us on this journey would get a kick out of the pun. The two English profs who were actually on the train with me (Goose and the Bostonian) certainly chuckled, but I laughed uproariously, being, as usual, inordinately amused by my own joke.

By the end of our half-day (Monday) in Nara, we had collectively coined a couple of other clever and useful terms: Temple Snobbery and Temple Psychosis. “Temple Snobbery” is suffered by someone who has spent several days bagging the major temples of Kyoto, then stepped off the train in Nara and marched straight up to Todai-ji, the extraordinary temple that houses the Daibutsu, the colossal bronze statue of the Buddha. (Read more about Todai-ji here. Read more about the city of Nara here.) Once you’ve done that, especially if you’re on foot and the temperature and humidity are both somewhere in the 90s, you suddenly find you’re less impressed with the lesser, though lovely, temples that are everywhere in Nara. Oh, sure, we forged on to Ni-gatsu-do (Second Month Temple) to take in the panoramic views from its hilltop veranda and then headed for Kasuga Taisha to see the famous 2000 stone lanterns that line its pretty pathways through the woods. Your three middle-aged white chicks were as intrepid and cheerful as the Von Trapp family children singing their way through the (cool) Alpine countryside. And yet, by the time we got to Kasuga Taisha, we all agreed we didn’t need to pay the 500 yen entry fee to gain access to the main part of the temple complex. The afternoon was advancing. We hadn’t eaten lunch. We had more temples on our list to see.

In other words, we were rapidly advancing toward a state of Temple Psychosis, a condition not dissimilar to a traveler’s ailment Goose and I years ago identified as “Museum Psychosis.” You know the symptoms. You’ve been in Europe for about ten days, hitting the highlights of Westuhn Culcha. Suddenly you realize you’re wandering in a blind daze from one room to another. “Oh, look,” you think to yourself, “a Titian.” You shuffle to the next painting. “Huh, a Veronese. God, my feet hurt.” Next. “Hmmm, Tintoretto. Nice colors. I think I have to pee.” Yesterday, by the time we got to Kofuku-ji, with its impressive five-story pagoda, we could barely be bothered to point our cameras skyward to try to capture its magnificence. Temple Psychosis had definitely taken hold. Fortunately, the condition is amenable to a simple treatment of food, drink, and air-conditioning, all of which we were able to find in a small restaurant close to the train station on our way back. Within minutes, the lights were back on in all our eyes, and we declared another day of triumphant touring.

My jokes about the bodily and psychic discomforts of travel aside, Nara really is a spectacular place. The massive Daibutsu, with his huge, steady eyes and his gently upraised hand, inspires something close to awe. I continue to be struck by the mixture of tourism and reverence we see in all of these places and deeply moved by being in a culture so much quieter and more considerate than my own. It’s hard to write about it without sounding like an idiot who thinks she’s discovered the essence of the East five minutes after her plane landed. It’s equally hard to turn off the impulse to interpret everything according to the grid of that home culture, even when so many of the operative distinctions seem clearly not to work in the same way. Is that a wealthy neighborhood or a poor one, I wonder, as the bullet train speeds by a cluster of homes built close to the tracks? At home, of course, the rich never live close to the railroad tracks, but some of these houses seem solid, substantial, built out of expensive materials, though others. . .not so much. Is this an urban space or a rural one, I try to fathom, noting the rice paddies that butt up against the industrial-looking buildings? Is that a dyke? A tranny? A butch? A straight woman in sensible shoes? You see how quickly my “Nara-tology” has become a theory of uncertainty, of a defamiliarization so thorough that a reader can only shake her head and say, “I’m not sure. I’m just not sure. Most of my usual toe-holds are gone. I love it, but there is so much I can’t begin to understand.”

And so I remember what our Sweetie Boy (aka Queer Son, aka the Official Prep School Teacher of Roxie’s World), a military brat who spent time in Japan growing up, said to us when we called him from Dulles the morning we left for this trip: “Don’t try to understand it. Just let it wash over you.” Fortunately, I have a high tolerance for certain forms of uncertainty, so I am willing to be washed over, to be unmoored for awhile from the usual machineries of making sense. In less than a week, we’ll be home to a world whose coordinates are as familiar as the sound of our own heartbeats. In the meantime, we adjust – learn to say “thank you” in another language, to bow when we ask questions, to give way to the elderly, to get the cab to drop us at the right entrance to the train station. We do such things because a good “Nara-tology” is always a mixture of certainty and uncertainty, a movement between states of knowing and not-knowing. We work strenuously to make the unfamiliar familiar, because we are always striving to be better readers. And travelers. And humans. Or so we English profs are inclined to believe.

Below are a few photos from the trip to Nara. Please note that the big Buddha is a tough fellow to photograph, being a dark figure in a poorly lighted space. Hilarious shots of Goose feeding deer result from the fact that deer are considered sacred in Nara, which means they are completely domesticated and aggressively butt tourists looking for food. The poor Bostonian has a lovely soiled white linen shirt to prove it.

We are in Hiroshima now, on the day after the 62nd anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. Details tomorrow or the next day on our latest foray into World War Tourism. Peace to you all, beloveds.

Much love,

Mother Goose Feeds the Deer of Nara

Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha, Todai-ji Temple Complex)
Daibutsu (the Great Buddha)

Kaisuga Taisha

The Stone Lanterns of Kasuga Taisha


  1. Well, Folks this is not the Buddha that is my first memory. That really and truly is the one at Kamakura, the one you can go inside of and that is in the open air.

    Since everyone says when I say "the buddha at Kamakura"-- oh, at Nara? I thought that meant (since I remember and know so little about Japan) that Nara and Kamakura must be near by or something.

    BUT no, Kamakura not Nara. And the buddhas are different. and this is not the one I remember!

    Now, that doesn't mean that THE LARGEST buddha isn't the best for OTHERS, it's just not the one that is my first memory.

    With fruit. Inside, as if full of fruit and flowers.

    Sigh. Katie

  2. PS. When loading these pics into iPhoto I tried the "enhance" feature on the Buddha image and it does make a difference in being able to see it even in a dark place. Katie

  3. I'm with Katie--the Buddha in Kamakura is the one that sticks with me. We scaled his internal stairs many times.

    As for your dislocation and Nara-tology, I'm glad that you are able to let everything wash over you Zen-like. It takes time to wrap your mind around all of it. But leave that for the postmortem on this side of the world, where I, too, can hear your heartbeats in those familiar coordinates.

    I wonder how the boys are faring in Vietnam?

    Love and kisses from East Lansing, Michigan.



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