karaoke, Nanzen-ji, and the Osaka way of business

Posted on: Sun, 07/08/2012 - 02:08 By: Tom Swiss

I've had notes on my last two days in Japan sitting here for weeks, waiting for me to wrap up the tale...once I catch up with that I'll explain what's been up since I got back.

So, before I left Osaka...Saturday night, out to The Cellar (small bar in Shinsaibashi with lots of live music -- sort of an Osakan version of Leadbetters) to see Eric play with the Tardy Boys, great to talk with him. After the show, got the idea to have one more drink over at Cinquecento before heading back to the hotel. Ended up striking up a conversation with a two lovely young ladies (ah, if only I'd had a few more days there!) and getting invited to go along with them and their friends for karaoke.

Now, karaoke seems to be a popular way to pass the time waiting for first train. While bars and clubs are open until around 5am, the trains stop around 11:30pm or midnight. So if you don't have a car (or a friend with one), you're not close enough to walk or bike, and not flush enough to take a taxi, you're kind of stuck. (Rumor has it that the folks with the taxi concession have the clout to keep the trains from running later.) Sometimes folks will end up napping at the bar, or taking a rack at a capsule hotel, but there seems to be a class of businesses that do a fair bit of their trade in the wee hours, filling the gap. Karaoke rooms seem to be one of them; your admission fee gets you and your friends your own room to pass the time, and all you can drink. In honor of the passing of Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, I sang "Fight For Your Right to Party", which went over well.

After a few hours sleep Sunday morning, back out to Kyoto for a bit, out in the off-and-on rain. Went to Nanzen-ji, big Zen temple that I've visited before. Found a side temple, Konchi-in, that I hadn't been to before: a lovely garden and a sparse enough crowd to sit for a bit with the place to myself. At the main temple I paid my 500 yen to go in and see the abbot's quarters and famous gardens of the main temple.

But I also walked up the hill to a quirky little place called Saisho-in. I mention this place in the opening of Why Buddha Touched the Earth; I stumbled on it five years ago, and was quite taken by it. There's something about it that's a contrast with the tourist place down the hill, less of a museum feel and more of a living temple. A poem (in English) on a sign in the garden:

Summer, Saisho-in

The evening bell, solemn and bronze

in the grandfather temple down the hill,

sounds dimly here.

Slow beat of the mountain’s heart, perhaps,

or determined pulse of the pine tree (gift of the birds)

growing out of the crotch of the slippery monkey tree.

All one, perhaps--

bell, mountain, tree

and steady cicada vibrato

and little white dog

and quiet artist-priest, carver of Noh masks,

Fashioning a bamboo crutch for the ancient peach tree--

symbol of strength, symbol of concern.

All cool under nodding crowns of the vertical forest,

all seeking in this place,

all finding in this place--

hidden yet open to all--

the spirit of the cedars heart.

Saisho-in: a small, Eigth Century Buddhist temple in a mountain gorge near Kyoto, Japan.

When I found this place years ago I exchanged a few words with the priest who runs the place (who, a little Google-fu shows, is an interesting character, the "carver of Noh masks" of the poem). I had asked him the name of the place, not sure where I was since I had been looking for another side temple described in my guidebook. He told me, somewhat gruffly, that it was Saisho-in (like it says on the sign in English, dummy), and asked if I was sightseeing. I felt like "sightseeing" didn't quite describe what I was up to, and said I was "trying to learn". He seemed to like that.

This time there I found a cartoon drawing on the temple gate, a dog saying (in English) "No Nukes". Apparently the dog's name is Maru, and he is or was the mascot of the temple, I suppose the "little white dog" of the poem. There was a whole wall of photos of the dog in the temple proper -- I hope it wasn't a memorial.

I climbed the wooded hill behind the temple, where there is a small Shinto shrine near a waterfall and a cave, returning to pay my respects to the spirit of the place. That was about all I felt like I had to do here, so I went back down to the area of the main temple area with the intention of heading back -- but I was drawn over to one side by the sound of chanting. As I looked around trying to spot the source (which turned out to be a closed-off area), a Japanese fellow asked (in English) what I was looking for. We struck up a conservation; his name was Ken, and he was from Osaka.

This was his first visit to Nanzen-ji, and he asked me if I knew anything good to see. We ended up walking back up to Saisho-in, where Ken was able to translate some of the stuff about Maru the dog for me -- for example, in one photo there was a sign being Maru saying something to the effect that "This is the real priest of this temple". Ken seemed to find the whole vibe of Saisho-in odd -- which it is -- but I couldn't quite figure out if it was a "this is weird, cool" or "this is weird, WTF" sort of reaction.

As we talked, he asked if I could read Nihongo (Japanese). I explained that I had studied kana and a few kanji but couldn't really read -- for example, I said, I can see that that sign says "omikuji", but I have no idea what that means.

Now, after Ken explained that it was a form of divination where you draw a numbered stick from a canister, I remembered that I had heard about it before. But then he asked if I wanted to try it; it cost a few hundred yen (a feww dollars). Sure, I was in.

The sign was next to a sort of window, like a ticket window, that was closed but had an intercom next to it. Ken buzzed the temple priest on the intercom...and here, I had a great Kansai moment.

The Kansai region has several cities in it, but probably the two preeminent ones are Kyoto, the ancient and stately capital where you can still catch a glimpse of a traditionally attired geisha; and Osaka, the bustling merchant town, eager to make a deal, known for comedians and gangsters, the city where people cross the street against the light and park their bicycles right under the sign that says "No Bike Parking". (This is pretty outrageous by the standards of other Japanese cities!) And here I had one representative of each of these cities.

Ken spoke to the priest briefly on the intercom, then turned to me. He was, he said, no happy with the priest's attitude. The priest was coming, but in Ken's opinion he had failed to display a good customer service attitude. "I don't know if I want to do business with him," Ken said.

Here we are in an ancient temple, about to preform a ritual that may have roots that go back thousands of years, and my new Osaka friend is looking at this from a customer service perspective.

Well, the priest came, and he and Ken chatted for a bit. I got the impression that once Ken saw the priest's advanced age, the Japanese respect for elders trumped any customer service deficiencies. We got our fortunes - mine was classified as midly good, don't ask me to recall the details, which Ken translated for me.

Since Ken and I were both heading back to Kyoto Station, we walked together for a while. I was planning to take the subway but Ken pointed out that the bus was cheaper. Usually I find buses harder to figure out (not just in Japan!) and stick to the rails, but with him as a guide I took the bus back. Ken and I had a nice chat about politics in Japan and the U.S., about the state of our respective countries. Always a great way to get perspective; he seemed absolutely shocked by the idea that people would litter.

When I got to the station, I figured I would just take whatever train was next back to Osaka. This turned out to be the shinkansen. Ordinarily taking the shinkansen from Kyoto to Osaka would be expensive overkill, but I had my rail pass, so it was already paid for. The ride was so brief that I didn't even have time to finish a beer! But I repeat my previous assessment: the shinkansen is the only truly civilized way to travel.

Packed, slept, got up a little later than I should have and had to take my second (more expensive) choice of trains to the airport. Had a pleasant and uneventful flight back.

Ran across your post while looking up info on Saisho-in and it matches the feeling of my recent visit there. Well done, thanks!