Travel to Japan, in search of the Japanese Zen Mind
I am learning to travel light.
For our six week trip to Japan, I am taking nothing more than a backpack filled with a minimal amount of light, quick-drying travel clothes.
I’ve packed three pairs of long pants, two light Capri pants which I plan to wear instead of shorts, one pair of yoga pants, five t-shirts, two long-sleeved shirts and one warm jacket, underwear, toiletries, a bathing suit, socks and one sarong, which can double as a beach towel, or be used as a scarf on windy days.
I’m also taking one pair of hiking boots, one pair of walking sandals, and one pair of beach sandals.
On top of this, I am bringing one drawing notebook with two pencils, an eraser and a pencil sharpener, and a small ink brush.
In my day pack, I will carry my iPad, a camera, a small notebook computer to load photos to my blog, money and passports and two very thin books.
One is a book about Japanese Samurai philosophy, and the other is a book of letters from a Zen master to a sword master.
In the past week, I have been at home with the flu, and so I was able to devote a lot of time to planning our upcoming adventure to Japan.
We outlined our travel route, noted down things to do, places to visit, Zen temples to hike to, planned a multi day mountain pilgrimage hike, and more such exciting things.
Our accommodations on this trip will be very diverse.
We plan to stay in many Onsens, which are hot springs resorts.
Some of them are located in the midst of stunning landscapes and are small and intimate, while others are huge with hundreds of rooms.
We have also booked some small rustic Ryokans, which are traditional Japanese guest houses (Ryoku means a trip, and so Ryokan translates to a house for travelers).
Most of the Ryokans have Japanese-style rooms with Tatami mats.
Tatami mats are woven bamboo mats, which are used in Japanese interior design as flooring material.
They are made in one standard size (three feet wide by six feet long) by many local workshops, and they are easy to replace when they become worn.
In Japan, the size of a room is not measured by square feet, nor by square meters, but by how many Tatami mats it can fit.
A room with four Tatami mats is considered very small.
A six or eight Tatami mat room is considered a nice size room, while a ten or twelve Tatami mat room can sleep up to six people.
The rooms in a Ryokan guest house are bare of furniture, and have only a very low, centrally placed wooden table, with sitting cushions around it.
Waiting for you on the table will be a lovely tea set and a thermos holding hot water.
Sometimes they will also leave you small rice cookies.
If the Ryokan is small, it probably does not have a main dining room, and so on this table you will also be served your breakfast and dinner.
The food in most Ryokans is a sumptuous feast, featuring locally grown ingredients prepared in ways authentic to that particular region of Japan.
When you are done with your dinner and the table is cleared and pushed to the corner, your bed will be made up by a kimono-clad attendant.
She will take thin futon mattresses from the closet, and make a most comfortable bed right on the Tatami mats, making sure to leave on top a well ironed Yukata (Summer kimono used as a house robe) or a Jinbai (loose two-piece Japanese clothing that looks like a Karate outfit, used for lounging).
Some of the places we plan to visit no longer offer traditional guest houses.
Since nowadays many Japanese tourists travel in buses in large groups, big resorts have taken over, in order to service the masses of people.
In those places, we had to succumb to staying in these big resorts.
The plus side of staying in those massive resorts is that each room offers a toilet and a bath, while the traditional guest houses often have communal toilets and bathing areas.
For the most part, the guest houses we opted to stay at are rustic, but very comfortable.
This is because the more modern Ryokans are very, very pricey, at around $400- $500 per night for two people.
We love to travel often and this time we plan to stay in Japan for six weeks, and so we took it down a notch and chose to stay in the less expensive Ryokans (some are still very pricey, but just not as insanely pricey as the expensive ones).
We each plan to take with us a tiny flashlight, which we will keep under our pillows, within easy reach for those midnight drowsy walks to the toilet to pee the hundreds of green teas we will have drunk that day…
On one occasion, on the remote small island of Miyako-Jima, where everything was booked, we will spend two nights in a backpackers’ place, with no door, just a curtain to separate us from the tropical mosquitos….
It was recommended to us by the friendly owner of another guest house with whom we also will be staying.
She called every other guest house on the island to try and book a room for us, but was told that everything else was already booked.
She finally found this place and told us that it is a very simple home, but that we will have a very worthwhile cultural experience.
It will be like staying with an auntie (if we were lucky enough to have a friendly old Japanese Auntie who skillfully cooks daily a feast of sixteen yummy dishes), as the owner is one of the very first ones to establish a guest house and to promote tourism on this remote island.
Neither Jules nor I have ever traveled as backpackers, and we never stayed in youth hostels in our youth.
I used to save money until I was able to afford to travel in style and to stay in nice places.
But now that we are older and often feel that we are getting too comfortable, we seek the adventure of softening the hold of our egos on our views of the world….
We seek adventures and reasons to socialize and to laugh, instead of always catering to the comforts of our bodies and our egos.
We used to stay in luxury resorts when we were younger, ambitious and trying to conquer the world….
But now that we’ve arrived at the top of the mountain, so to speak, those luxury resorts have lost their luster…. They don’t seem as glamorous as they used to look from the bottom of the hill…
It is much the same with luxury cars and designer kitchens.
When I had very little money, they were some of the many objects of my desire…
But now it seems so silly and futile… To spend so much money on a car that will accumulate scratches and dents, and only be costly to maintain and to insure… For what?
When I lived in Manhattan, I knew people who kept their expensive cars in garages, and paid anything from $500 to $1500 per month to park them, and they NEVER even took them out of those garages, because it was such a hassle to find parking in Manhattan and so very unenjoyable to drive… While taxis were reasonably priced and fairly convenient.
Those people who opted to spend so much money on parking a car that they never used, were not even wealthy people….They were people who worked hard to make a living but did not know how to save, and had a mixed up set of values and priorities….(in my own opinion of course…)
I guess what I was after when I climbed my own futile journey up the mountain of material illusions, was to escape the fear of lack…
I was not really after all the symbols of abundance, but what I truly wanted was a feeling of release from the daily grind…. From the constant fear of lack, and a release from the fear of survival…. I wanted to breathe in the restful and calm air of contentment and ease….
Now that I know what does NOT work, I am in search of what DOES work…
I am in search of humility…
In Japan, in Zen monasteries, newly admitted monks (men or women) are asked to shave their heads (to overcome vanity, as hair is considered an item of beauty and pride in many cultures), and to go on begging walks to neighboring towns, to silently ask for food or money to help with their upkeep.
Their begging is intended to teach the monks humility and to teach them to appreciate the goodness and generosity of others, or to overcome disappointment and greed, and to accept with equanimity if people do not donate.
So…. We are embarking on a new adventure, in search of the soul and the Zen mind of Japan…
I am hopeful I can learn to integrate more of it into my own life, and learn how to grow beyond my ever wandering and often nervous mind, to discover how to think and how to view the world through the loving vision of the Universal Mind…..