Monthly Archives: June 2012

The practice of memorializing

Today I met a kind, older man walking his dogs on a path in my neighborhood of Tachiai Gawa 立会川, Shinagawa-ku.  As we began talking, he mentioned that he was born in the area.  I asked what had changed over his lifetime.

Well for one, he said, the brick path that we were standing on was once a lovely river (the Tachiai, which carries the serendipitous meaning of ‘Meeting Place’).  When he was a boy he would come and fish here.  During the war, the entire area was razed by the American fire-bombing campaign, which laid much of Tokyo in ashes during the final year leading up to Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  After the war ended, the area was redeveloped and the Tachiai River was laid in concrete, with much of it covered over by this pathway.

Now if you follow the Tachiai, he continued, you reach what was once known as the Namida Bashi, literally, ‘Bridge of Tears.’  While its now a drab, concrete bridge, in the not-so-distant Edo Period, families parted with loved ones here who were facing execution,  so he had heard.  (From the bridge, it was just several hundred meters south to the execution grounds of Suzugamori.  Now a small memorial marks the site, and people continue to make offerings in appeasement of the spirits who died there.)

Finally, you wind up at a damn at the end of the river with a canal on the other side.  But this area used to be a beautiful sea (kirei umi!), he reminisced.  Its shallow waters provided long stretches of both nori (seaweed) and mussel harvesting.  Up until age 12 for him.  After that, the bay was filled in and developed with shopping areas and roads.

After our conversation, we said goodbye and parted ways over what was once the Tachiai.  Looking up, I noticed a statue by a narrow, man-made pool that shouldered the pathway.  The statue was of a small, delicate boy dressed in shabby clothes.  He was holding a fishing rod and a heron was perched beside him.

Hearing of the nori, my memory drifted back to the commemorative Nori Museum just south of Tachiai Gawa that my family and I had visited recently.

How do we collectively preserve elements of our lives that will soon join the past?  As the tides of modernity, upheaval, and redevelopment swept over local communities in Japan over the last century, how do they retain a sense of continuity?  While the statue of this boy had never given me pause before, now it struck me as an attempt by that generation of men – who fished there as boys – to preserve a glimpse of what it once was.  I felt grateful to have heard the story behind it.


Finding rare old books in Japan

While in Japan, I’ve started collecting old books, generally from the Meiji through early Showa periods.  This began when we moved into an empty house in Shinagawa-ku last September and needed to furnish it.  We found much of what we needed at a nearby weekend flea market that’s held at the local horse track.

Since then, I’ve been making regular trips to the flea market, where one can often come across various antiques, Edo period coins, old maps and books.  Since I’m most familiar with books, I’ve stuck to that realm so far.

Here’s some of what I’ve found thus far (click pics to enlarge).  Here’s also the link for flea markets in Tokyo.  Happy rummaging!

By the way, these books are outside of my area of specialization, so I’d love to hear additional input or corrections on any of these materials!

A splash of Buddhism with your beverage?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to throw back a cold beer as you sit before chanting monks?  Last night, I got a taste at the Bōzu Bar 坊主バー, or literally “Monk’s Bar.”

Nestled along a narrow side street of eateries, pubs, and boutiques in Yoyatsu, Tokyo, this bar will challenge any assumptions you might have had about Buddhism or religion in Japan.

As friends and I stepped into the small, but intimate space of the second-floor establishment, we were immediately welcomed by a lively table of patrons, accompanied by the owner – a jolly, heavy-set monk wearing dark shades.   On the walls hung mandalas, an altar and tatamis  sat in one corner, and two monks poured drinks behind the bar.

These monks, known as ikemen bōzu (literally, “the good-looking monks”), draw in a fare share of single ladies who line the bar on any given night.  Ikemen bōzu, including our bartender, have even appeared as guests on TV shows to respond to questions in the audience, including of course, details related to their bachelor lives.

At ten o’clock, right on the hour, the owner stood and announced he would answer any question – Buddhist or otherwise – from his patrons. A woman immediately sparked up, “Why do companies go bankrupt?” (Her husband’s business had apparently gone out of business a few years back.  He had since found employment.)  Amidst the heckles of his drunken audience, the monk hurled a few one-liners and then went into his response.

Then, a few minutes into it, he and the bartenders abruptly began chanting (something from the Pure Land scriptures, as we later found out).  After finishing, he returned to the topic, eventually coming around to the Buddhist notion of impermanence (mujō 無常).

These so-called monks’ bars seem to be a small, but rising, trend in recent years.  A number of them can be found in at least Tokyo and Kyoto, and perhaps elsewhere.  While some pious voices might regard this phenomenon as ill-fitting or even profane, it may be more appropriate to consider it in Japanese terms.  Unlike the dichotomies of recreation and ritual, or sacred and profane, that shape Judeo-Christian cultures, those lines are typically blurred here.

As such, there’s less of a perception that a bar owned by an older cleric and staffed by handsome, bar-tending monks poses any threat to religious practice.

With that said, consider listening to the harmonious chants of Buddhist monks next time you’re swilling back a frothy brew.  You might catch a glimpse of enlightenment.  Then again, it might just be buzz kicking in.