November 15th and 16th was surely a memorable weekend for me. I went to Zen Zemi in Takikawa, about 1.5 hour away from Sapporo by car. We stayed in a temple, Kozenji Temple, to learn about Zen, and experience Japanese cultures.
We got there at 10 in the morning then we had brief overview about Zen, the head Monk of the temple also taught us several basic Zen postures like gassho, hokkai-join, and also the lotus posture. Zen itself means meditation in Japanese, or Buddhism meditation to be specific.
During our first day there, we played drum circle, tried zen for the first time and went to onsen. Drum circle means playing drums and other percussion instruments in a circle. Everyone was asked to choose whatever they wanted to play (I chose a weird looking instrument, it looks like small human with its body made of pieces of wood and to play you just gotta shake its feet.) and play it however they wanted. Interestingly even though we played with no rules at all, our instruments formed a beautiful melody.
After lunch, we had several discussions about Japanese culture, we were free to express our thoughts, the barrier we feel as international students in Japan and how actually Japanese students think about us. It was really insightful, from 30 people 75% of them were international students and the rest are Japanese. We learned that Japanese are actually really shy, they’re afraid to talk to gaijins. They’re also shy to speak in English because they don’t like making mistakes. I personally couldn’t relate to their feelings since I’m a really open person, but I do try to understand especially when Miyuki told us she actually afraid to talk to us unless we talk to her first because she’s afraid of bothering us. Kyuu, a Chinese student from my Japanese communication class also told me he feels a bit frustrated because he thinks his English is not good enough to let him be able to express himself freely while his Japanese is still poor he finds it hard to communicate with everyone but Chinese. I couldn’t stress enough how wrong I think he is, his English is really good and we always talked a lot during class. His Japanese skill also better than anyone else in our class so I don’t get why he thinks that way. Probably it’s a Eastern Asia culture? But I wouldn’t say it that way either.
In the end of discussion, my group Ikasumi (Japanese word for Squid Ink) came up with the Treasure Hunt project. We’ll play Treasure Hunt in Hokkudai area with Japanese students. This is going to be super fun!
After discussion, we had dinner. Meals were really delicious, mostly Japanese vegetarian dishes but they also served us prawn and fried fish on the second day.
I can’t explain how happy I am to eat complete meals without the fuss of cooking! Lol
After dinner, we went to Onsen. Onsen is Japanese public hot bath. It’s also a part of Japanese culture, almost every Japanese like going to Onsen especially in this snowy weather. There are rules before you go to Onsen: First, you have to strip naked. No clothes are allowed in the pools but no worries, they separate the rooms for men and women. Second, before you dip in the pool(s), you should take shower and clean yourself. Going to onsen without cleaning yourself is considered taboo, you could get kicked out of the bath house if you did this. Third, you could bring a small towel with you but make sure not to soak them while you’re in the pool. Most Onsen has both outdoor and indoor pools. It wasn’t my first time in Onsen but it was my first time trying outdoor onsen with snow all around us. It was as if I unlocked two achievements at once: Skinny dipping and naked in the snow. Yayyy!!! Onsen also always make me relaxed and help me to sleep better.
Next morning, we joined morning ceremony. We stood and listened to the head Monk reading Sutra to us. The head Monk, Genchan, is really humble and funny! I am surprised, I thought monks are supposed to be stiff and old and boring but monks in Kozenji temple were not (Genchan is obviously old but he doesn’t look like it at all!)
The altar where morning ceremony took place
Next we participated in tea ceremony. Too bad we didn’t get to wear kimonos during the tea ceremony but I enjoyed it still! We even went to see a secret tea room inside the temple, it was really small and has short entrance too! People literally have to crawl to get inside the room.
The lady serves us tea and fruit jelly. I want to wear such pretty kimono!!! She showed us how to make tea then she taught us how to hold the cup, what to say before you take your snacks and drink your tea.
I finally taste the real green tea lol
After tea ceremony we had our second Zazen session. During the first Zazen (Zen meditation) session, I feel peaceful. It was really easy to focus my mind and enter the blank. First meditation was 15 minutes but it felt like 5 minutes. Second session was harder…. There were SO. MANY. THINGS. in my mind. I tried to focus but it was so hard. My mind was full of thoughts I didn’t even know they exist. Some things I tried so hard to forget, they were rushing back in all at once. It was awful, we were meditating for 20 minutes but it feels like I’ve been sitting there for hours.
Genchan later told us, time is a strange concept. When you’re focused on something good, something peaceful, you’ll feel it pass by so fast but when you lost your focus, it will feel so long despite the fact I sat there only for 5 minutes longer than the first session. The more you do this Zazen, it will only get harder because it makes you more aware of your thoughts, of yourself and you can never escape from it, only when in the silent you can hear how much battle you have inside, and the only way to become better person is to find peace within yourself. That’s why meditation helps, that is how meditation helps us. Considering the fact I just had a not-so-easy-to-deal-with experience and still trying to cope with it, I definitely want to explore more about this Zazen.
Thanks Genchan and Kozenji temple family, I will definitely come back later!
P.S: Pictures are courtesy of me but the first and last pictures were taken from Zen Zemi facebook page.
There is a great beast who stalks the snowy heights of the Hokkaido hinterlands. This terrible animal is feared far and wide as an “oni”, a demon, a vicious beast with no respect for man or animal. He lurks in the shadows, plotting your downfall, the destruction of your property and the death of your livestock while he’s at it. From Nakagawa to Nayoro his name is spoken in hushed whispers as villagers, young and old, band together over bonfires lit in old rusted drum tanks, telling stories of this vile, murdering beast. His eyes are dark and blank, like looking into the abyss itself and his claws are sharp, all the better to gouge the life from the helpless victims who cross his path.
THE WASHING BEAR…
Seriously! Stop laughing! I mean it! The Washing Bear is a fearsome beastie! He is a demon! I had three different teachers confirm this for me! They all agreed that Washing Bears were responsible for a rash of dead cows in Otoineppu and Nakagawa. This of course answered a question I never had which was, why were there no cows in Otoineppu.
WASHING BEARS KILLED THEM ALL!
I had no idea there was another predator as life threatening as the actual bears who live in the forest less than a football field’s length from my apartment, or the killer wasps who can kill in two strikes, OR the giant deer that roam the country side, flinging themselves pell mell at your car or causing you to skid to your death over a dangerous precipice trying to avoid said deer. I seriously think Hokkaido is more dangerous than Australia and that is saying something. Bears I know to avoid with a bear bell and not wandering into the woods by myself and staying to well lit sidewalks and the deer are easily avoided by not walking around at dusk (D'oh!) and driving slowly around forested parts of the highway but the how to avoid the Washing Bear? I didn’t even know what it looked like, let alone how it could take down something as massive as a cow and not ONCE be mentioned in the ‘How Now To Die in Hokkaido’ presentation I attended at orientation. Don’t drink the water, don’t poke the bears, don’t fall down drunk in the snow (that seemed to be mentioned specifically for the Australians) but zilch on the Washing Bears.
So what IS a washing bear and why is it so feared in my little patch of snowy countryside? Well according to my students, it has human-like hands that it likes to rub together, over and over again, sometimes in water, other times in the blood of its victims. It wears a dark mask behind which it stares out at you like a devil and it apparently has a taste for beef because it kills cows by biting them. Not only is the Washing Bear meticulously clean but it’s also part vampire. It has been known to take down a cow with a great and mighty bite and it lives in barns or in the woods, I couldn’t quite get the real story from my students.
Understandably confused (and a little worried I was living on borrowed time since there’s a barn across the street from my apartment building) I asked my co-worker, Mr. *, for the english translation. After several frantic charades, a drawing on the board best left forgotten and a desperate dash to the dictionaries in the back of the room, my students and co-worker revealed the English translation of this hideous beast.