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Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010


Getting around the soul of Japan

I go to Kyoto once a year. I get lost in Kyoto once a year. Kyoto makes no sense to me. I'm more of a Tokyo girl. Give me a handful of subway lines and trains to navigate and I'm fine. Give me just two and I'm lost.

Is it Karasuma or Tozai? Kintetsu or Keihan? Karasuma eki or Karasuma oike? Hmmm. And let's just say that signage is not a strong point of Kyoto's stations. To know Kyoto is to know it intuitively. A good relationship with the Buddha and an ability to navigate mandalas probably helps.

I should feel bad about my ineptness trying getting around Kyoto, and I want to feel bad about it, but actually, you'd be surprised how many people miss my island — an approximately 6 sq. km area of land mass in the Seto Inland Sea. We have just one boat that stops at five islands, but tourists still manage to get off on the wrong island! It happens often enough that they have an English announcement on the boat to tell people when to get off.

At least subway trains come and go with frequency. Boats are different. If you happen to miss our island in the morning, you may not be able to get back this way here until afternoon, or even the next day.

But rather than dwell on my unique Kyoto navigation disability, instead I call on my friend John to escort me around. He's lived there for ages and has an almost spiritual relationship with the place.

So it was with some stress the other day that I was standing in Karasuma Station, without John, attempting to go to Shijo, which is a stop either on the Karasuma Line, or the Tozai Line, I'm not sure which. On the subway map on the wall, I can see that Gojo (5jo) and Kujo (9jo) are on the Karasuma Line but there is no mention of Shijo (4jo). Now, logic would tell you that 4jo is one stop before 5jo and five stops before 9jo. But excuse me while I have a Zen moment here. I need to meditate on this.

Anyone who has lived in Japan for more than a year knows that logic is not the way to go about things here. Japan is a place where the old movies are in white and black and they turn off water faucets by lifting the lever up, rather than down. The model Shikoku Pilgrimage on our island goes from shrine No. 8 to shrine No. 10. Shrine No. 9 is after shrine No. 13. The strange thing is, no one knows why, not even our Buddhist priest. These are the things that make me pause before the ticket machine on the subway line. Next, I ask myself, "Is there even such a stop as Shijo?"

Believe it or not, some buildings in Japan don't have a fourth floor. The elevator goes from the third floor to the fifth. This is because the word four, pronounced shi is a homonym for the word "death" in Japanese. Skipping the fourth floor is not a problem for me. The problem for me is: If there is no fourth floor, where is it?!

Is the fifth floor really the fourth floor? Or do they keep the fourth floor empty? Perhaps it is reserved for the dead souls? Forget dying and going to heaven, in Japan maybe you die and go to the fourth floor. Shijo also shares the homonym shi for death, so perhaps Shijo has met this fate. Maybe I'll have to get off at Gojo instead. Or if I do get off at Shijo, maybe a bunch of souls will greet me. "Grandma! Long time no see!"

Or it could be that the Shijo stop is like the hidden track number in the Harry Potter stories. Only those in the know can disappear into it and from there you enter into another dimension. Betting on the latter, I board the subway train.

They make a big deal out of direction in Japan. There is Amida Nyorai's "Pure Land of the West," the Buddha was facing East when he reached enlightenment and in Japan, one shouldn't sleep with their head facing North (as the dead were buried). So why is it that getting around Kyoto, the soul of Japan, isn't as simple as heading in a certain direction? Where is John?

Later on the Tozai Line (don't ask me how I got there) I passed a station called Rokujizo, or "6 jizos." Jizo is the bodhisattva who watches over travelers. And there were six of them I just passed up! You'd think six jizos would be enough to constitute a tourist information booth.

Is it possible to pray to the Buddha for directions? I don't even mind leaving o-saisen coins. Next time on the subway, I'll get into the Lotus Position and find out. I did find Shijo (4jo) station on the Karasuma Line, which is indeed before Gojo (5jo) station, however, not after Sanjo (3jo).

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