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Saturday, July 25, 2009


Welcome to the caldron

"Atsui desu, ne?" (It's hot, isn't it?) This is the universal summer greeting in Japan. You can be in a crowd of complete strangers when someone will sidle up to you and, as an "ice-breaker," say, "It's hot today, isn't it?" And you agree with, "So desu ne." (Yes, it is).

Since everyone knows the "Atsui desu, ne" greeting anyway, we could make the process a lot simpler by just giving the answer first. Wouldn't it be easier to greet each other with "So desu, ne?"

But there is much more behind "atsui desu, ne" than merely its annoying ubiquity and the fact that "It's scorching hot today, and I feel like I'm going to burst into flames any moment" would be far more appropriate.

To the Japanese, it's just a statement of how things are, not necessarily a complaint. And the Japanese, not being the hairy beasts that we Westerners are, are perhaps more comfortable being hot.

Even on the hottest days you can see men walking around in suits and women in long sleeves, gloves and long pants. The Japanese continue to take hot baths even in the summertime. To them, "atsui desu, ne" is merely stating a fact.

Welcome to the caldron.

You see, fire plays an important part in Japanese Buddhist and Shinto rituals. Whereas Westerners might equate fire and heat with hell, in Japan, fire is used for purification.

There are goma fire-burning ceremonies and hiwatari ceremonies where people walk over hot coals. There is the "sacred flame" in Reikado Hall in Miyajima that is said to have been lit by Kobo Daishi 1,200 years ago.

At Obon, ancestors are welcomed with fire (mukaebi) and at the end of Obon are sent off with fire (okuribi).

Kyoto is one of the hottest places in western Japan, and possibly all of Thailand. This must have been a factor when choosing Kyoto to build so many of Japan's famous temples and shrines.

In August, Kyoto celebrates the Daimonji okuribi with five fires on five different mountains to ward off illness.

Since fire is a way of purifying, next time you're all sweaty and about to pass out from the heat, think of yourself instead as merely on your way to reaching purification.

To reach that pure inflamed state we have to raise our body temperature as much as possible. If your skin starts sizzling in the sun, I'm pretty sure you have attained enlightenment.

Indeed, the high temperatures make you seriously consider the meaning of burnables and nonburnables in Japan. With temperatures in the high 30s, sometimes even 40 C, almost anything can self-ignite. You start looking suspiciously at vacant lots — I could swear there was a building there just last week, you think, while looking at a few remaining smoldering embers.

Whenever I travel by train in the summertime, I consciously seek out the fire extinguisher in the train car just in case the guy sitting next to me should suddenly burst into flames. It's a wonder Japan doesn't distribute personal fire extinguishers to people when the temperature gets over 40 degrees.

On these really hot days, keep an eye out for Fudomyo, the Buddhist deity. You can recognize him because he'll be coming at you with a sword in one hand and a rope in the other. Oh, and he'll also be engulfed in flames. Really.

Fudomyo is always depicted with "flames of wisdom" around him. These flames purify you by burning away your material desires.

So there you go, desires are burnable. Fudomyo is nonburnable. Demons are also nonburnable, which is why Fudomyo holds a rope in one hand — to catch the demons with.

Whenever the temperature surpasses 40, you can just feel Fudomyo's presence. He's probably just around the corner.

Concrete, on the other hand, doesn't burn, which is why there is so much of it in Japan. Japan is possibly the world's first nonburnable country. That's why you never hear about out-of-control wildfires in Japan.

So, stop complaining and enjoy the heat! Let it purify you. But if you reach spiritual combustion, then don't say I didn't warn you.

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