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What remains. A writer's journey to Japan in times of impossible travel

We asked the writer Michaela Vieser who lives in Berlin. This is her reply.

Yukue mo Shiranu
…and also not knowing the destination.

An Essay by Michaela Vieser 

michinobe no
shimizu nagaruru
yanagi kage
shibashi tote koso
tachidomaritsure.

„Just a brief stop,“
I said when stepping off the road
into a willow's shade
where a bubbling stream flows by,
as has time since my „brief stop“ began.
Saigyō
(translation by William LaFleur in: Awesome Nightfall)

Late autumn, back office at Shogyoji temple. The chatter of the women on duty in the nearby kitchen drifts into my room. I kneel at a desk and practice shodou 書道, Japanese calligraphy; the scent of freshly ground sumi 墨 rises from my wet inkstone. In front of me a plate with slices of bright orange kaki fruits. Hirano-san had brought them around in a bucket in the afternoon. I remember their bright dots against the blue sky from my walk to the mountain earlier in the day. I breathe in, halt, then pour my intent thick and dark onto the white of the paper. Hold still. Dip my brush once more and let the horsehair run again over the surface, slightly resisting the rice fibre structure. I look up. Koujun-san, the old monk smiles at me from the doorway; in his hands, a tray with his tea tools. He nods, enters. Kneeling next to me he prepares two small cups of his favorite temomicha. The light transparent green, the fresh chlorophylls, unfurling on my taste buds like life itself. Each sip pulls me more and more into the present, until it envelops me. The Now is a hard place to reach. And to stay there is impossible.

Until recently I had a map of the future, vague, somewhat plicated, but plannable, pliable. Drawn out like a landscape it was something to hold on to, something to walk into, a not too unfamiliar territory. Despite swiftly brushed clouds shrouding some of the landmarks, I could still make out the general topography, the terrain, villages and highway-stops. It included rough pencil sketches of my own life from now until retirement and a bit beyond. Even the world economy – a grid azimuth too complicated for me to use for navigation, was included on the map. Ideas circulating in society – I am thinking these parts were mostly drawn by the likes of Yuval Noah Harari – and here especially clouds fogged out vast areas where bigger inventions or shifts could be expected. And finally, in light peachy aquarelle colours, the effects of climate change – in the least harmful way, as in my version of the future we were clever enough to stop global warming. Of course my map also featured a straightedge, with numbers for years, to give some guidance or scale.

„The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.“

Such was written in the 13th century by Japanese poet Kamo no Chōmei, sitting in his ten-square-foot hut and waxing this most delicious passage as an entrance to his Hōjōki (方丈記, An account of my hut). The year was 1212, and while people in Japan were expecting the end of the world, Kamo no Chōmei retreated into this two tatami-sized hut and explored a tiny space and the thoughts that would arise within.

It was some time during the ongoing grip of the pandemic that my map of the future dissolved. When I tried to grasp and hold on to it, like bubbles from a dream one has just woken up from, its images sank deeper and deeper to a fathomless place I don’t know how to reach, unless I let go. When I did, something else came into existence: That unmappable abode which has no future and no past and only exists within the cleft of my every action and non-action. Japan once taught me how to sit within this space, the one I sometimes jokingly call „the great big now“, that sweet moment the moon in haikus sheds its silver light upon, that instant that ceases being defined by time and instead becomes a manifestation of its own, beyond the limits of gravity.

Nihon-no-nagori. Traces of Japan. Or would it be Nagori-no-nihon, the remains of Japan? Nagori etymological stems from nami-makori — the fine resonance, the imprint of the waves in the sand that linger on the beach for some time after the tide has washed away. Or the fine patterns on the ground of the seafloor, where the ebi dance, witnessed only by the abalones, crabs and seaweeds, possibly by an Ama diver, though more and more rarely so, as they are disappearing, while young girls would rather swim through the currents of city life, where no instant resembles the other and only boredom has the power to stretch time.

When I say I am longing for Japan, it is the longing for the possibility of expanding a moment into a universe. Nowhere is this more deeply or more aesthetically manifested than there, where one defines the path one has to take to reach a destination rather than the shape it is forged into. It is part of the culture, part of that stream that runs from generation to generation, part of a long tradition of a school that focuses on an awareness and at its nucleus, a kakusei - an immediate awakening. Like pearls I hold a number of such gifted moments in my cupped palms, shimmering treasures of nacred time. Awe, a lingering feeling, a sigh, a recognition. I feel these moments will stay with me into the next world.

March 1996.

Komyo-Zenji. The moss garden near Dazaifu Tenmangu. My dear friend Kyoko took me there. Her husband had died years ago. To meet him, she would sit on the wooden verandah of the temple and look out into the shades of green, the leaf canopy of litmus-coloured plum trees, the subtle matte texture of the Tani-goke, O-tora-no-o-goke, Ho-o-goke or the Kusa goke moss that invited her thoughts to lie down and rest, softly cushioned. „Sometimes a breeze will come and sing me a song of Him“, she would say. I had never had the courage to believe in ghosts until that moment. The trace memory of a loved one came alive there and then.

1995-1996.

Emyo-san, the tea master. For a year he taught me the Arts of Zen in the way of flowers and the way of tea. The essayist Masako Shirasu once wrote: „A natural flower is beautiful. But touched by a human, it becomes a thought.“ I would not understand what Emyo did. But watching him bend over, breathing in the essence of the flower in front of him, then touching its stem with gentle decisiveness and trimming it to its desired length, he would render an object of nature into an eternal memory. The flower would not last, but its image, etched into the back of my retina, would. Even now.

Same for the tea, of course. Whiffs of steam rising up from the kettle, vaporized molecules clinging, holding on to each other. Strong and affirmative, faint and lucid, spiraling upwards, a dance and entry into another phase of existence. The hissing of the simmering water, quietness with an edge, empty space making its way from the heated bottom through layers of temperatured liquid. A swift shake of Emyo´s wrist, the wooden ladle dipping onto the rim of the iron cast urn. Inside the tea hut every action was preserved for eternity and yet slipped away.

Emyo hardly ever spoke, never explained and despite, he taught me something essential. As if back then he had foreseen and was passing on how to fold my empty map into an origami boat to help me cross an ocean of uncertainties – and then, upon reaching dry land, refold it into any shape I chose. The essence of his teachings wasn’t about how to arrange flowers beautifully or how to entertain guests in a tea room with a ritual of contemplation: it was on how to liberate an object or even an act from the ties it is held by, the ties that force us to perceive it in a certain way, the ties that obscure its innate beauty. Emyo had simply peeled back a gossamer layer of reality and revealed a depth and finesse to the manifestations around me. Life transcended its dull two-dimensional borders. I was thinking of Kamo no Chōmei, and how with Emyo´s technique, a ten square foot hut could expand into a place as big as Versailles, and bigger even, a universe.

December 1997.

Up on Haguro san on winter’s solstice. A room with monochrome-colored walls, the icy wind drifting through the cracks of the shoji doors. Two lovers on the futon. One telling a story that lasted all night. When the sun rose on top of that mountain, a faint light found its way through the paper windows. Stillness.

Another time in those years.

A pine tree, snow covered branches. Somewhere, I forgot where. A crow in the sky.

When one dives into the timespan of moments, the ocean one finds beneath may become too deep to grasp. So easy to drown. It helps to have another soul to cling on to.

February 2018.

An Inakaya dining place in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. My friend Ken and me escaping the neon night outside. Finding a room in a back alley. A warm glow emanating from an open fire. Charcoal smoke filling the air. Enoki, eringi, shimeji, and maitake mushrooms. Ginnan, the nuts of the ginkgo tree, luminous gold and yellow, skewered on a wooden stick. Then: Radish, eggplant, zucchini, small bell peppers, onions, okra, edamame, and the thick soramame beans. Skewers with kobe beef, duck, and shrimp skewers. And bowls filled with fish, large and small, mussels, squid, red seaweed, green seaweed, curly seaweed. A cornucopia of winter tastes.

There is a term in the buddhist canon of words, shinrabanshou 森羅万象, which roughly translates to „the all-covering forest and the myriad things". I always imagined the first settlers to Japan discovering an island of abundance. Forests and mountains and the vast seas, all filled with countless lifeforms. One could take and eat from it all. There was a season for everything. And when that season passed, the longing for its taste, the nagori, became one of the foundations of the blossoming culture. A master Japanese cook tickles the palate and mixes textures and tastes. Fruits from the start of the season, fruits from the end, full bloom and decay, life from the sea and life from the woods, beings that once crawled or cluttered, flew or clung. The master will never add or mix too much, for within each thing lies its unique essence. To discover that taste is bliss. With each bite, a never-ending story is told.

February 2017.

The hot waters of Tenkawa Onsen. The rising mists blown sideways from the steaming pool by the cool mountain air. An encounter, just there. A woman with my name, Michiko, a dancer from the nearby shrine. She had learned how to communicate with the kami through her movements. Fukushima is bad, she said, but it is a chance to change. The echo of her voice has stayed with me. When I see drafts of offshore wind turbines on the coastal stretches of Japan, I think back to that moment of sharing a bath with her. Sometimes hope can be formed in an instant and then endure forever.

Then Goro-Goro Mizu, the bubbling waters, not far from that onsen. A waterfall churning out vast amounts of what once used to be the sea, then a cloud, then rain. Ojisan, my friend, wanted me to see it. His beige box-shaped Toyota parked behind us on the little indent of the mountain road. His 85-year old frame standing still in front of the gushing waters. „I don´t know where it comes from“, he exclaimed. „Every day, every minute, every second. The mountain must be so full of this water.“ I later learned that since its formation in the Pleistocene, it takes 15 years for the rains to run through the volcanic stones of the Yoshino range. Every single drop. Every moment. Always.

Sometimes I think back to the saying I learned in the monastery: That when three people sleep in a room next to each other, the same waters will flow through them. The stroke count of kawa, or river, comprises three parallel lines. What makes people connect and others not? Why do we feel fluid amongst some and impenetrable with others? How beautiful the image of three vessels that serves as a throughway for a certain soul-river. It is the opposite of wanting to be the current oneself, of wanting to fill in others — the way we perceive ourselves where I come from. If one discovers the depth between two people, like unfolding a moment, an encounter can last a lifetime.

April 2002.

Yakushima. A mossy, lichen-covered forest. Muddy trails amongst trees, straight lines soaring up into the sky. No birds sound. No animal cracking in the undergrowth. An unearthly silence hovering amongst the roots and slime molds, the invisible networks of an intact ecosystem. Once these giant trees were shipped to Kyoto for the pillars of temples and shrines. Painted with tan-colored, 丹 - cinnabar, a substance boiled in alchemical tradition that fostered secrets amongst the mountain ascetics who neither shared mastery nor power and kept it all to themselves.

Despite the silence, a ring, a tone. Something resonating within me.

March 2018.

Up on Mount Koya. I had entered the sacred mountain from the back. I did not cross the gokurakubashi bridge - the bridge to the enlightened realms, that separates this sacred site from the profane world, the threshold every pilgrim must cross. Instead I drove up a steep and curvy mountain road from the hinterlands, the wheels of the car often turning empty on icy patches. I had an unorthodox chicken katsu at the top to regain strength and stayed at the temple of Shizuka and his family, practitioners of the Shingon sect, whose lineage went back to Kūkai 空海, the monk who had traveled to China in the 8th century and opened up Koya mountain for generations to come. It was Shizuka who said I should visit the Miedo and Konpon Daito in the stillness of the evening. I remember walking through this Japanese winter wonderland and arriving in front of the Miedo, peeping into the little windows. I looked into a mandala. Geometries, distances, dimensions shrunk and enlarged again like a breathing organism. Connections like fine silver spider webs and rhizomes weaving through innumerable realms here and there, unfolding within and without me. It was a strange experience, so deeply felt, overwhelming, mystical. A moment caught and preserved forever.

Fed up with the fragmentation process of western sciences that seek truth by taking facts ever more apart, 19th century Japanese polymath Minakata Kumagusu sought for a way to connect everything in this world and retreated into the forests of Kumano, focusing on slime molds, fungus and algae.
He spun a concept from mycelium networks to the different levels of reality in what he believed to be a non-hierarchal universe, which was to be found and replicated wherever one looked. A body, a forest, and as we know now, also cybernetic networks. His epiphany came from the drawing of a mandala, long since known as the „minakata mandala“ or „kumagusu mandala“, a scribble of intersecting lines that represent his worldview. He named those floating strings on the paper koto - the Japanese term for a non-physical „thing", in contrast to mono, which refers to something physical.

Most of the learnings and glimpses I received during my various stays in Japan were of the koto kind: I was handed techniques, non-physical tools, that would sharpen my awareness and align my body with reality so that I would be able to fill the now. Immersing into the space between a character's stark ink-drawn lines. Sitting still in a windswept temple and becoming nothing. Sweeping the garden path and listening to the clicking sounds of the gravel moving under the broom-hair. Having my head split by the sound of a kendo katana crushing on it. Following a forest path and hearing, where all is still, a shakuhachi player blowing wind tunes like wisps of steam into the air.

Kumagusu would write Japan’s first ecological manifesto, stressing the importance of keeping within each village a sacred piece of protected forest, like the shrines had practiced since millennia. This shrine forest, a small patch of land that no-one would be allowed to enter, was where insects, slime molds, deer, moss and plants inter-depended on each other. Here the origins were kept of what had always been, a place that was both timeless and now. Kumagusu called it a home, an original place, and he believed it to be important for the well being of those who had settled there. Places like this do not need to be freed in the way Emyo-san had taught me. They are of a natural pure harmony.

How many places like this are there left on this planet? Where can we enter something that is bigger than what is there? And what can we bring back when we immerse ourselves within such a space? Modern Japanese scholar Shin´ichi Nakazawa hypothesized that the Japanese formed their foundation of social life according to the Logos of the interwoven networks of relationships in a forest. The forest, a sacred space. Nature was a place for enlightened thoughts: The shinrabanshou 森羅万象, the all-covering forest and the myriad things, provided guidance, revelation, and healing.
Chinmoku 沈黙, stillness, is a word that gives some guidance. The character chin 沈 means sinking, moku 黙, silence. Sinking deep into silence. Until one reaches the place where all the echoes form fine patterns on the ground of the seafloor. Where all the pearls and shimmering treasures of nacred time sway in the current, waiting to be uncovered.

End of summer. 2021.

Satoyama. A traditional Japanese farm house. Cicadas chirping. The last golden glow of a setting sun on the verandah. I long to go back to Japan.

Since the dissolving of my map for the future, a new one is being drawn even while I walk it. I can just about make out the next step, and beyond it I do not know. I do not mind. I have echoes to guide me. I trust this map and what it reveals is true. The present is all around me.


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This essay was written by Michaela Vieser in December 2020 during the Corona pandemic which made travels to Japan impossible for many non-Japanese nationals over several months. We know of many people outside of Japan who have deeply suffered from this non-accessibility, and the plight is actually ongoing at the time of the publication of this essay (January 2021). Nevertheless, for some writers it was also a time where their longing for Japan "condensed" into an intensive expression that enabled perhaps an even deeper access, not only for themselves, but also for their readers. 

Michaela Vieser, a writer and essayist living in Berlin, is one of them. She's a passionate lover of Japan's nature, culture and arts. She has written a number of books and essays about her experience in and with Japan. Some of her books are translated into Japanese. 
If you want to learn more about her see http://www.michaelavieser.de/

This essay was commissioned by Okaeri-house and generously supported by Toshiba International Foundation of Japan. Okaeri-house is a non-profit cultural exchange project of bistream GmbH in Berlin. 

With special thanks to:

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