June 22, 2013
SIMPLE LIVING, PART I
A very wise man has pointed out that “simplicity is the peak of civilization.” If one were to apply those words to one’s life, I am certain that they would, in one way or another, take on a different meaning and a dissimilar significance for each person. For me, “simplicity” signifies the elimination of all but what is essential in life, exchanging chaos for peace, and enabling myself to spend my time doing those things that are important to me and with those people who are most important to me.
A simple life means getting rid of those many things that gnaw away at the time to spend with those people and to follow my passions. It means getting rid of the clutter around me, so that I am then left with only that which makes my life worthwhile.
Easy enough said; however, achieving simplicity is not always a simple process. In a sense, it is a journey rather than a destination, and it can at times, be a journey where one finds themself sliding backward a step for every two steps forward.
If I were to sum up what attaining simplicity entails, I would be inclined to say: first of all identify everything that is important to you, and then eliminate everything else. Pick out the best and get rid of the rest. That, however, may be too simple a description of the process. One must not only identify and eliminate, but must learn how to apply “identify and eliminate” to the different facets of one’s life.
For a while, on these pages, I will attempt to present ideas that I believe should help just about anyone who is either interested in or actually attempting to simply their lives. Not everything I will write about will be totally suited to every person. One must then decide which ones appeal to them and then apply them to their own lives. The path may seem even complicated to some who seek simplicity; yet, one should take their time, read, think, apply (if they can) and then move on.
November 10, 2011
The Tokugawa family, at least our branch (twig), is blessed with cats. Well, to be honest, the term “blessed” may be a bit of a stretch; perhaps inflicted with cats would be more accurate, but let us just ay for now that the Tokugawa family has cats: or the cats have us. Being for most intents and purposes, a typical suburban Japanese family, we have a certain cultural and religious involvement with the both Shintō and Buddhism. We observe the customs and traditions of both religions as do many Japanese; indeed, if you are born Japanese, you are pretty much born into Shintō and Buddhism: they are part of the Japanese tapestry. This involvement with the religions and traditions of Japan does not only extend to the human members of our family, but as we recently discovered, can involve our animal members as well.
As I’ve written in the past, Tajimi and the surrounding area is the capital of ceramic art and ceramic production in Japan. You may also remember that I mentioned once that the official mascot of Tajimi is a kappa. What’s more, perhaps appropriately, the first gift my bride Aoi gave me was a ceramic kappa, made in Tajimi. And now you are probably asking yourself, “What’s a kappa?”
A kappa (河童) or “river child,” also known as a kawatarō (川太郎) or “river boy,” or kawako (川子) “river child,” is a legendary creature, a type of water fairy, or more appropriately a suijin or water kami (deity), found in Japanese folklore as well as the in the traditions of Shintō. Most portrayals of kappa are of it being a child-sized, human-like kami; although in our region, their bodies are more often combinations of the bodies of monkeys and frogs, rather than human beings, with thick shells a bit like those of a turtle, and scaly green, yellow, or blue skin. According to legend, kappa usually inhabit ponds and rivers in Japan and have physical features to aid them in these environments like webbed hands and feet. It is sometimes said that they smell like fish, in addition to being able to swim like them.
Tradition holds that kappa are generally mischievous or troublemakers; with their antics ranging from basically innocent jokes such as loudly passing gas or looking up a lady’s kimono, to being a bit more troublesome; such as stealing crops, kidnapping children, and the like. Some legends also say that small children are in fact, one of the kappa’s favorite meals, although from time to time, they may eat an adult as well. Certainly, you may well scoff at all this, but one should be aware that even today, in many towns and villages, there are signs along rivers, streams, and ponds warning of the presence of kappa! Obviously, someone considers kappa real enough to spend the money to post the signs. It is also said that kappa are afraid of fire and some villages hold firework festivals annually to scare them away.
An old Japanese friend has provided me with this assured old Japanese method of escape if one is ever confronted by a kappa:
“Kappa, for some reason which is unknown to me, other than that they are truly Japanese, are obsessed with being overly polite. If one gestures in a deep bow to a kappa, because of the need to return the politeness and then some, the kappa can be tricked into bowing even deeper. When he does this, water, which is kept in a bowl that looks much like a lily pad on top of his head, will spill out, and he will then be stuck in this bowing position until the bowl is refilled with water from the exact body of water in which he lives.”
My friend also assured me that as legend has it, if the water is refilled by a human, and then the kappa would serve them for all eternity.
Kappa as a rule are not really hostile towards men or women, or haven’t been until modern times, beginning with the Meiji Period. Rather, they are curious about Japanese and human culture, to the extent that they have learned to write and speak Japanese quite well. They also like sports and competitions; and will, from time to time, challenge someone they meet to a game of shogi (which is like Western chess) or even sumō wrestling. Another legend says that kappa will even make friends with humans, especially in exchange for gifts such as cucumbers: the only food kappa are known to enjoy more than children! In many villages still, Japanese parents sometimes inscribe the names of their children on the skins of cucumbers and then throw them into “kappa-infested” waters in order to pacify the kappa and to allow the family to swim there.
Once someone makes a friend of a kappa, according to the stories, they have been known to be very helpful to their human friends. For example, they sometimes help farmers to irrigate their land. Kappa are also skilled at medicine and legend has it that they are the ones who taught the art of bone setting to the Japanese people. Because of this goodwill on the part of the kappa, some Shintō shrines have been dedicated to kappa that have proven themselves particularly helpful.
Now, how does this all relate to the Tokugawa family and Saitō-chan? Well, beside my futon, on a nightstand, sit three ceramic figures made in Tajimi. One is a small ceramic kitty that looks quite a bit like our very glamorous and sophisticated kitty, Sumie-chan. The other is a rather playful appearing dachshund which looks remarkably like the Tokugawa family dog, Tono-chan. The third figure is the kappa which Aoi gave me many years ago. Saitō has a problem, well actually several; but among them are his need to touch everything he can get his paws on, in order to claim ownership of anything he wants (which is everything) and to use whatever he wants as a toy. Thus, from time to time, the ceramic Sumie-chan and Tono-chan have disappeared in the middle of the night and turned up in Saito’s toy box or some other secret hiding places for his purloined possessions.
Up until recently, the kappa had never been molested, played with, or taken. Then, late one night at perhaps 2 o’clock, I heard a dull thump. I got up with the immediate thought of, “What has that little four-legged gaki (brat) done now?” Ceramic Tono was missing (I found him two days later, buried under the futon’s wooden frame) and so was the kappa. There, on top of the large tansu chest in our room, illuminated by the soft light of the moon through the shōji, with a look on his face that said, “What? Why is it always me?” was Saitō. Why indeed! On the floor, in front of the tansu, lay the body of the kappa, his right arm broken into two pieces. Now I strongly doubt that the kappa, in some mysterious fashion, for some equally mysterious reason, took himself to the top of the chest and then ended his own existence by jumping off, as the cat would no doubt have me believe. No, not at all; for it is a known fact in our household that Saitō not only likes to touch things or carry them off, he likes to push things off of wherever they might be kept: shelves, tables, cupboards, etc.
Up until now, you might well say that this was just another example of brat-cat mischief and you would probably be correct in your assumption; however, at that same time, a water valve broke in our home, and the resulting torrent flooded the laundry room, until we were able to shut the water pipe off elsewhere on the property. Despite desperate telephone calls for help, no haikankō (plumber) could come to fix the problem. One would come, however, as soon as he could: an open-ended pledge.
The next day, the kappa, after my profuse apologies to it for Saitō’s inconsiderate and possibly painful behavior, was repaired as best as could be accomplished. Have you ever noticed that once something is broken, the pieces just never quite fit back together the same way again? Nevertheless, at that very same time, quite mysteriously, a haikankō miraculously appeared at our door and fixed the broken pipe and valve.
Now, it would certainly be easy simply to attribute all of this to a bratty cat and coincidence; yet, we cannot help but wonder, why at the same time the kappa was broken, did the water valve break and flood the laundry room in a town whose official mascot is a kappa? Why, at almost the same time the ceramic kappa was repaired, did the overworked haikankō (it was below freezing, snowing, and unprotected water pipes were breaking all over town) suddenly appear?
Aoi and I have been working on a project involving a new translation and interpretation of the Kojiki (古事記), or Record of Ancient Matters, the oldest existing recorded Japanese chronicles and foundation of much of Shintō’s beliefs and traditions. I’ve also been involved in editing some articles by Lafcadio Hearn on Shintō. Our combined experience makes us wonder if there is some connection, ever so slight, beyond what seems obvious to Western eyes. Something tells us, that even in modern Japan, the traditions and beliefs of that ancient religion cannot be pushed aside. Japan is just too mysterious a place for that.
September 20, 2011
My husband is currently in California and I am in Japan, 8,000 miles distant; but in this age of modern wonders, we can send messages at an incredible speed, almost the speed of light; thus, the distance between us disappears. Each day we talk and I feel that my husband is with me here in Japan as we talk through instant internet messaging and voice/video conversations, and the time difference becomes irrelevant.
One night, in autumn as I recall, at the time of the harvest moon, we were talking. The time was about 10 p.m. in Japan and in California, it was morning. I left my computer for a few minutes to get coffee and while in the kitchen, peered out the window. The out of doors were dark and cold except for a beautiful moon that shined through the window. I went back to my computer and said to my husband, “Hei, look outside! Look at the beautiful full moon! My husband, unfortunately, could not see the moon however, because the sun was coming up and the moon there had long ago set.
My husband said, “Hei, darling-chan, it’s impossible right now to see the moon because it is morning here; and in Japan, your today is my tomorrow. Maybe the moon you saw in Japan today will appear here tomorrow!”
“Oh, hai! I forgot about the time difference; but you know, this is a bit fun! You live in my past and I live in your future. We are living in a science fiction world, a ‘time-warp!’”
Every time I look at the harvest moon, as I did again a few nights ago, I cannot help but to think that we are time travellers. In a sense, my husband and I live in the past and in the future; still, I feel that we are always together.
This year, 2011, the harvest moon came to Japan on 12 September. We Japanese enjoy looking up at the moon, a custom called otsukimi, and in autumn the harvest moon marks the rapid changing of seasons. Where my husband is, the migrant birds that live there from late spring to early autumn are now busily moving to other places, while others, who live in the far north, are coming to his region. A few days ago he said that the first troop of wild geese arrived in his town during a beautiful moonlit night. I wonder if they are perhaps Japanese geese; that they left Japan in the early morning and arrived in the evening to deliver a message to my husband in the full light of the moon:
Aki no yo ni
Kari kamo nakite
waga omou hito no
Kotozute ya seshi
geese fly across the sky
please hand my message
to my sweetheart.
by Aoi Tokugawa. Translated by Hayato Tokugawa
April 11, 2011
Modern medical science is just now, it would seem, catching on to what many Asian people have known for centuries; green tea (nihoncha) when combined with the practice of T’ai chi can improve bone health and reduce inflammation in postmenopausal women.
Research by Dr. Chwan-Li Shen, an associate professor at the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s health, who has studied Eastern lifestyle traditions recently made public the results of her most recent research, which presents results that, in fact, are no great surprise but serve as reinforcement for what has been common knowledge.
Dr. Shen studied one hundred and seventy-one postmenopausal women who typically had weak bones, focusing on the effects of GTP (green tea polyphenols (antioxidants)) when combined with T’ai chi. In short, her findings ere that those who took GTP, equivalent to 4-6 cups of nihoncha per day and participated in T’ai chi significantly enhanced bone growth in both three and six month periods. In addition, of note was the fact that participants in T’ai chi also reported significant positive effects in relation to quality of life and improved emotional and mental health. Certainly one can then extrapolate that what is good for “baa” is also good for “jii”. Men may also realize distinct benefits such as stronger bones, increased joint flexibility, decreased joint inflammation, increased bladder and prostate health, and lower blood pressure.
If one is skeptical, one need look no further than the morning T’ai chi classes conducted in a dozen cities, Tokyō, Ōsaka, Kyōto, or even in Gifu or Tajimi, (not to mention Saigon, Hanoi, Shanghai, Beijing and a thousand other places) and see the healthy, happier women and men over 50 who combine green tea and T’ai chi as part of their daily routines. And in my classes? Well, we always finish up with a nice bottle of cool nihoncha to cool down.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not, accumulating things, stuff, takes on the mantle of a life’s work. As one redirects their life, “repurposes” it so to speak, away from a life of acquisition toward a life of experience, we discover it is not quite as easy as we expected. Changing our attitude toward the world around us, our communities, our home, family and friends, takes time. It should come as no surprise then that “repurposing” our stuff can be as equally time-intensive. Think of it as recycling our lives and our things, and at the same time, simplifying matters.
As you consider getting something new, stop and think again. Is it just possible that it is better to use what you have?
At the same time, set up a system for yourself that will help to clear the clutter little used or unused things in your life: the things you wanted, purchased, and now rarely, if ever, use. Set up a system for yourself whereby the things you don’t use can be placed immediately into boxes for charity, put aside for a yard sale or some other form of resale, or for recycling. As you go about your daily activities and run across something in a drawer or closet, stop and think, “Now that I have this, do I really use it? When was the last time I used it? Does it make me happy?” Frequently the answer is, “No, I’ve never really used this.” Or it may be, “I haven’t used this in years.” Or, “Happy? I’d forgotten I even had it.”
Then might be the right time to set the item aside and give it a new purpose, somewhere else.