Eiheiji and the Depressed Panda

This picture is of one of my new favorite “characters” here in Japan, the delightfully named “MonoKuro Boo“. In Japanese “monokuro” (モノクロ) means “monochrome” while “boo” (ブー) is that sound that pigs make. Appropriately enough then, MonokuroBoo consists of two adorable plush pigs in black and white who just generally sit around in front of cute patterns and quaint slogans like “Simple is Best” and “Happy?”

monokuroboo

I put this particular picture up because contrary to the imploring of mistar cutepiggah’s eyes and the plaintive innocence of his query (“Happy?“), I am not happy – far from it, in fact. And unlike the indefinite angst that usually plagues me at this time of year, in this case the cause of my torment is very clear – the geriatric bastard of an old man whose car I bumped last week when parking. As I mentioned in my last entry, the only “damage” to the man’s bumper was a bit of paint from my car rubbing off on his – no scratch, no dent, nothing. The consensus amongst all individuals involved – save the old man – was that at most it required a professional waxing to remove the paint. On Monday, however, my insurance man calls with some devastating news. The old man has decided – nay, has demanded…! that the entire bumper be replaced. The cost for this operation? A cool $1000USD plus…!

I nearly trip when I hear the news – “You have got to be shitting me!” I sputter – “there is no way on earth that needs a new bumper! You saw it! You yourself said!!”

Unfortunately, the sad reality, is laid out in directly for me by my insurance agent:

“I, the mechanics and the police all agree that this is superficial damage. However, the old man is very urusai (“loud/annoying/demanding”) and he is demanding a new bumper. We cannot refuse him, because according to the police he has a reputation in this area for being very loud about his car. Also, the dealership wants to make money by replacing the bumper, so we must do it.”

the geriatric masses
Don’t let the docile appearance fool you. Old Japanese people can be mean! Just ask anyone who’s ever been beat up by an obaasan trying to grab the last daikon in the store!

A co-worker lays it out even more bluntly: “You’re young and foreign and he is old, Japanese and male. You will never win this one.”

While I’m too upset and depressed to bore you with the details of the entire affair, the end result was that the old man demanded – and received – a brand new bumper, and I had to foot the bill. Perhaps the old man thought that like most Japanese young people, my parents were going to step in and pay for it, or that someone else is covering my insurance, whatever. But the sad, sad fact is that there is no one else to “swoop in” and fix this, no one to stand up for me when I get screwed by a crusty old f**k of a human being, no one to protest the injustice of the old situation or its obvious racial underpinnings. Just me getting screwed, which makes for an awesome Christmas present.

depressed?

Anyway, being too depressed around the holidays is never good, so on a whim I rang up a friend and decided to take a road trip to Eiheiji Temple, located in Fukui prefecture. The temple itself is more than 700 years old and is the most important temple of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. Unlike most temples in Japan, you can actually go inside most of the temple buildings and walk around freely, observing the community of 100 plus monks who live and actively train within its grounds for years on end. Curiously enough, they offer a special program where you can stay a few nights and attempt to attain enlightenment for yourself, though waking up at 3:30 am to start meditating in the freezing middle of winter might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

And with that, on to the pictures.

consulting the atlas

Consulting the map before we go. Winter in Japan is a freezing affair primarily due to the lack of insulated walls and windows and inefficient heating methods (kerosene and/or space heaters, usually). For this reason most people end up “one-rooming” it from December until March, moving all of their important possessions into a single room (usually the one with the least exposed exterior walls), sealing it up as best they can and not leaving that room except for the briefest forays to get food or use the bathroom. In my case, my chosen “room” is my bedroom, which explains why the living room looks so barren in this picture – the time it took to check the map is probably the longest stretch of time anyone’s spent in this room in the past two months. Cold? Yes. But worth every second to make sure we don’t end up driving along some road of doom and the Cliffs of Death again.

squeegee

Squeegee-ing the windshield with my dollar store (100 yen shop) squeegee. The high water content of the snow in the region has given rise to a phenomenon I’ve never experienced before Japan – when you come back to your car after letting it sit for a little while/overnight, all the interior windows are covered with a thick layer of water condensation. What’s happening (I presume) is that the snow that’s worked its way inside your car (say from your boots or whatever) melts a little bit, making the entire air thick with water vapor, which coats everything inside with a slight dampness. Hence you not only need to scrape the outside of your car, but squeegee the glass as well, since the water is too thick to see through.

On an interesting note, it’s hard to find a Japanese word for “squeegee”. I’ve asked several people for a translation, and I usually got something along the lines of “yukikake” (snow remover) which is actually what we would call an “ice scraper” back home. When pressed further (since I wanted a regular glass squeegee) they usually gave up, admitting that they had never purchased one (since it came with the car, apparently). One friend suggested 水切り(mizu kiri) which I thought was a fantastic translation (mizu = “water”, kiri=”to cut/remove”), except for the unfortunate fact that everyone else in Japan associates the word “mizukiri” with “drain”, which made for a terribly embarrassing situation when I asked for a “mizukiri” and was promptly brought to a row of stainless steel sinks sitting in house wares. The salesman stood there with a triumphant and expectant smile on his face, kindly asking if there were any particular features I was looking for in a sink and with my patent inability to disappoint anyone on purpose, I had to lie to the poor guy (“umm… yes, I guess I want a double basin, perhaps with a hole for ummm a separate sprayer and uhh…”) spending the next 15 minutes looking at sinks before finally managing to separate myself from him, promising I would call him as soon as I made my decision.

For those of you who are interested, the closest we have come is the katakana  W・ワイパー “Wwaipa-“, which usually gets the point across, though it’s anyone’s guess what the “W” stands for.

getting gas

Stopping to get gas, since you never know when a snow storm will hit and you’ll get stranded on the road for hours on end (it happened just last week to some friends of mine). The sign in the back reads 119 yen (or roughly $1 USD) but before my American readers start pooping themselves over how cheap it is, keep in mind that that’s 119 yen per liter which works out to approximately 450 yen per gallon or $3.75 USD per gallon. And my friends and family back home wonder why I seem hardly moved by their tales of woe with respect to the $2.20/gallon price surge of recent months…

conbini run

Pulling into a convenience store to buy some supplies since Yasu – who was responsible for making lunch – failed to pack any rice.

“Why didn’t you bring any rice?” I inquire innocently.

“Well, we didn’t have any in the house!” Hmm. Her protest is a little too indignant.

“Wait a moment. Aren’t your parents mochi (rice dumpling) makers!? Everything they do involves rice!!”

A pause. “…shoot. You remembered that, huh?” An awkward silence ensues, punctuated only by the occasional shuffling of feet.

“Yasu, did you oversleep and forget to make rice?”

She says nothing, simply hanging her head in shame. Aha. Sooo busted!

choco fiend

“Hey, can I have another chocolate?” I inquire as we sit waiting for the traffic light to change.

“Ohh… there’s no more left, sorry!” she replies innocently.

“W…what? I only ate one! Where did the rest go?”

The picture provides the answer to what was in retrospect, a silly question.

bento

My lovely companion more than makes up for her chocolately indiscretion moments earlier by presenting a wonderfully prepared bento lunch. At this point, we’ve barely been on the road for more than 20 minutes when it is mutually decided that it would be a good time to pull over to the side and have a bit to eat. Such are the dangers when you travel with two people who spend most of their time thinking about their next meal!

rain snow

Exploding snow rain splattering against the windshield. I hate how the wipers never seem to have a setting that is not too fast and not too slow, but just right. *sigh*

road sign

Omigodomigod! After getting lost in Fukui city for about 15 minutes (we missed the turnoff and found ourselves suddenly in a confusing maze of retail shops and massive pachinko parlors), we are elated to see that we’re on the right track again.

snow dunes

Massive snow dunes lining both sides of the streets, sometimes reaching as high as building roofs. When added to the sharp winding mountain roads and slippery slush under wheel, the end result is a lot of blind corners and the near constant threat of death. Right before we took this picture we almost got crushed by a massive tour bus absolutely whipping around a corner and cutting into our lane. It was only by jamming my car into the snow bank to the left that we managed to escape, albeit with a bone-jarring shudder to the car which nearly broke my left mirror (it folded in, fortunately). On the way back, it was rather hilarious to see the Honda civic shaped outline impressed deeply into the snow – it looked like one of those Road Runner cartoons where they leave a bird shaped hole in the wall when escaping from sudden death.

parking check

Checking my parking. Ever since that old bastard and his bastardly bumper, I have been deathly paranoid about parking in Japan.

temple gate

Our first peek at Eiheiji temple draped in thick sheaves of falling snow. The plastic boarding in front of the main temple gate sort of detracted from the overall effect, however.

hallway

An interior hallway. You had to take off your shoes and carry them with you in a plastic bag while you explored the temple (we cheated and left ours in a coin locker), which meant things were mighty freezing. Mercifully the monks provided the ubiquitous orange plastic elf slippers you find for visitor usage everywhere in Japan, but those things are barely big enough for the average Japanese girl, let alone a westerner of even average size. Slipping my feet into them, I felt (like I do so often) like a fool – they stretched all the way from my toes to the middle of my arches, leaving a full 50% of my (admittedly large) feet hanging off the backs of them, polishing the hardwood floors with my socks. The only thing worse is doing a work related visit in nice suit, shirt and tie – and having to walk around in those dumb munchkin slippers for hours. Really takes the “power” out of “power suit”.

snowy

Snow and icicles everywhere. The effect was quite pretty.

altar

An alter deep within the temple interior. The deal was that you could take pictures as long as you didn’t use flash. This made things a bit tricky since the interior lighting was practically non-existent (candles do not a photographer’s friend make) and also since our “equipment” was limited to two digital point and shoots. Fortunately, by setting the cameras to “night mode”, you can force them to leave the shutters open for a significantly longer amount of time, resulting in a better exposure and remarkably better pictures. The downside is that by leaving the shutter open for so long, the picture is obviously very sensitive to the slightest motion and so without a tripod, the only way to avoid the crappy streaking nonsense you usually see whenever someone uses a digital point and shoot at night is to set the camera down on a level surface and use the self-timer function. This worked fine for us, as you can see, but it really limits the type of pictures you can take, which explains the bizarre angles and framing on many of these pictures (since the camera had to be set down on something).

praying

As with all temples in Japan, before the main altar is a box for collections (you throw in a few coins, usually 5-yen, as those are considered “lucky” due to wordplay) and a place for you to pray. This altar being indoors was a little unusual in that you could kneel on the tatami and that there was an incense pot (which almost unbelievably, was free. Usually it costs like 100yen for a stick) burning away.

outdoor peek

Peeking out through a hole in a wooden slat. There were actually some temple attendants just outside of the view of this picture, but you are warned not to take pictures of the priests when you enter the temple. Many temples in Japan are staffed by “part-time” attendants with regular “day jobs” and for whom temple work is a worthy enough – but hardly all-encompassing – side activity. In particular, many of the largest temples – Kyomizudera temple in Kyoto, for example – outright hire college students and retirees to work large parts of the temple – no different than any other undiscerning consumer of unskilled labor such as McDonalds. The consequence is that in many of these places the people sitting behind the desk selling you omiyage and good luck charms probably know even less about the place you’re standing than you can find out by reading your questionably-translated English language brochure.

temple text

Eiheiji, however, is different. As the primary temple for the Soto Zen Buddhist sect, everyone working the temple grounds is a serious acolyte in training. The routine which they follow is the real deal, from waking up every morning at 6 am, to ritual prayer and mediation, to a fixed consumption of simple Buddhist fare for every meal. Thus, we are advised, the monks “are there to learn and not for display”, and while we are allowed to freely walk the temple and record what we see, the monks are strictly off limits in terms of photography. It’s too bad because they did have a very… monk like air about them!

ceiling I

Many of the ceilings – like the one pictured here, had beautiful pictures painted on them. If you didn’t look up, you’d never realize what you were missing!

peekaboo

What is she looking at!?

massive wooden club

We were at a loss as to what exactly this was supposed to be, but to describe it literally I’d have to say “a massive 6 meter tall wooden club suspended from a hook on the ceiling with dozens of coins stuff into the cracks in a dangers looking spiky manner”. Suddenly, Yasu’s confusion becomes understandable.

entry prohibited

This sign reads “Entry beyond this point is prohibited”. Why, we weren’t sure, but we noticed a staircase descending deep into the depths of the temple, from which a warm glow – and several oddly familiar smells – emerged. Craning our necks we could just barely discern the outline of several lamps and some fire extinguishers lined up against a white concrete hallway, from the end of which flickering light patterns – almost like a TV – filtered out.

staircase

“I bet” Yasu pipes up, after a moment of contemplation “that they have TVs and Playstations down there.”

“So you think this whole things a sham?” I laugh.

“Yeah! Half of the monks here are 20 year old boys – do you think they’re going to spend 2 years of their lives freezing away shoeless and eating rice porridge everyday? I bet they have a secret monk karaoke down there!”

You heard it here first, folks.

ceiling II

More ceiling patterns. Don’t they look like they’re missing something?

craziness

You know we just couldn’t resist, right?

monk central command

Monk central command. As mentioned above, taking pictures of the monks was strictly off limits, but we just couldn’t resist a single furtive shot as we headed out the door of the “front office”, one of the most surreal scenes I have seen since coming to Japan. Behind the counter lay a fully equipped business office with one major exception – it was staffed entirely by Zen Buddhist monks dressed in flowing black robes from head to toe. As we walked by, Yasu started giggling uncontrollably as one of the monks appeared to be having trouble with his computer and turned to another monk who was making photocopies for help.

Together, the two of them hunched over the computer screen trying to sort out whatever it was that was going wrong (“no, try clicking there”), while all around them other monks answered phones (“Eieheij Temple, how can I help you?”), filed papers and rolled around on wheeled office chairs. It was truly and completely surreal, I tell you, like something out of a movie. Awesome.

panda witch

On the way home, we pass by a Toys R Us and without needing more than a mutual glance and casual nod, simultaneously decide that we need some omochya love in our lives. Here Panda rocks a witches (warlocks?) hat left over from the non-existent Japanese Halloween. Only 150 yen! Score!

yasu witch

Yasu looking very much the part of they mischievous witch.

supar sonic blade I

Omigod, 263 yen for a “スーパーソニックブレード” (“Super Sonic Blade”)? Well you know we need to have a fight with these. They had these springs inside that were apparently supposed to make “light saber-like” sounds, but sounded more like what they were – springs inside of a plastic tube. Well, for 263 yen, I suppose one can’t ask for too much.

supar sonic blade II

Yasu getting her ass kicked. That semester of fencing I took in college really paid off, apparently ;)

ski goggles

A random detour next door to the Sports Authority to grab some eye protection for our light saber battle. For some reason these $400 USD Oakley ski goggles were attached with a rubber tether to prevent us from taking them back to the light saber duel area. *sigh*

back home

Back home, more or less in one piece. I have no idea why there’s a flower truck parked behind me.

That’s it for now. Sorry for the craptastic non-quality of this post, I just can’t seem to get inspired to do anything, let alone think of something creative to write on the paper. The last two weeks have just blurred together into a big depressive mush spent hiding in my futon – Christmas slipped by somewhere back there, I know I was supposed to send out nengajyo a long time ago but have yet to even buy any, I haven’t even started a couple of web projects I was supposed to have completed by now and the fact that tomorrow is New Years barely registers in my dull, leaden panda brain. Jesus christ. What a tough way to finish out 2005.

Now listening to: Ministry of Sound – Clubber’s Guide to Trance (mixed by ATB)”

clubbers guide to trance

I’d have to say that this is quite possibly the greatest trance compilation disc I’ve ever heard. I remember first downloading this in .mp3 form about 6 years ago during my second year of college. It was just sitting out there on the network at random, with not so much as an ID3 tag attached to it or even a named folder – just a cryptic filename “Clubbers Guide M.O.S. ATB mix CD I&II”.

At the time, I had no idea who ATB was, what (or where, I suppose) M.O.S. (Ministry of Sound) was and why they were putting out trance compilations, and I certainly didn’t know anything about “techno” or “trance music” in general, but all I know is the second I hit play on the winamp console, I didn’t move for the next 2.5 hours, and when I did it was just to hit “play” one more time.

It’s sad that most of the Ministry of Sound compilation releases after 1999/2000 fare poorly, especially in comparison to discs like this. Perhaps it’s because I’ve become more familiar with the genre and hence less likely to overreact. Or maybe it’s because most modern trance compilations suck. I don’t know. All I know is that to this day when the last strains of “Saltwater” fade away to leave dead silence punctuated only by the lingering breaking sounds of electronic strings being plucked in the middle of Fragma’s “Toca Me”, my heart still skips a beat.

Pure magic.

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4 Reactions

  1. Gwen

    happy new year panda
    sorry to hear about the whole car / insurance thing. life just sucks simetimes..

  2. Andrew

    Sorry to hear about the conclusion of the car matter. It kind of sucks.
    I hope you have a happy new year.

  3. SakataMon

    I loved Eiheiji! Wouldn’t mind going back one day…