I Can Practice Zen Meditation – They Call It “Practice” for a Reason

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

Recently I had the fortune to visit Soji-ji, the Head Monastery for the Soto Zen Sect of Buddhist Monks and experience Zen Meditation.  Called Zazen in Japanese, this ancient art is about much more than sitting still; it incorporates awareness of the inner and outer world of each person who practices the art.

Our group had arranged for a special lesson and tour in English, and we were met by two Monk trainees, one who spoke mostly Japanese and the other who translated to us.

Zazen has many small rituals associated with it and it is indeed the small rituals that are repeated over and over again that make the entire form come alive as an art and practice.  For

The meditation room - the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

The meditation room – the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

example, we had to fold our hands for walking down the long corridors of the monastery in a particular position – left hand in a fist facing sideways, with the thumb tucked in, and the right hand covering the left.  The monks held their elbows out, and the Westerners tried to follow suit, but often let their elbows drop toward their sides.

Once we entered one of the small meditation rooms, called Sodo, we had to be silent.  Each person stood in front of one pillow, called a Zafu.  The Zafu sat precisely in the center of one tatami mat on a raised platform.  What I didn’t know at the time was that I was sitting in a place of many purposed.  There is a wooden edging around the tatami, about 6 inches wide, and that’s where the monks eat.  They sleep on that tatami mat.  They do their

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

meditation on that tatami mat.  They keep their personal items in two drawers against the wall on that tatami mat.  Everything they own, use or need is in that space – the space of one tatami mat, which is a standard measure in Japan, usually around 1.8 meters x .9 meters (6 feet by 1 foot, approximately). It brings a whole new meaning to simplicity and paring down a life.

Our practice began with turning the Zafu so the words stitched on it faced the

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

wall.  Then we bowed to the wall, we bowed to the outside, and then, without putting our feet (remember, you’re barefoot for EVERYTHING in Japan) on the wooden edging, we had to get our bottoms on the Zafu and fold our legs.  No easy feat.  We were taught to fold our legs in a few ways while sitting on the Zafu.  Those wearing a skirt were recommended to sit on their knees, the Zafu placed discreetly under them for a minimum of comfort of those knees.

We then had to turn clockwise to face the wall, keeping the Zafu under us.  We had to fold our hands so the left hand sat in the right hand, thumbs lightly touching, forming a small oval. The monks said a few words about breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth – very very deeply. We were told to sway slightly to find our center of gravity, then make ourselves still. The gong rang three times and that was it – we were meditating.

My first thought was on the fact that my foot was asleep and felt like a small elephant attached to my ankle.  But recently I had been told that I use my shoulders to breathe instead of my stomach, and I concentrated on making my stomach go in and out.

zen kitchen god

Originally from India, this is the Kitchen God, Daikoku Sonten, who is the first to welcome visitors to the monastery.

There was one bit of flagellation in which I did not participate.  The monk called it a hand of Buddha, and there is one monk assigned to walk up and down the row with a stick, tapping and then making a smack on the shoulder of any person who is falling asleep or otherwise not fully engaged.  One can ask for the hand of Buddha to strike by folding ones hands as if in prayer for a moment, if feeling unengaged, and the person next to me did it twice, causing me to jump with the loud smacking sound.  She said it did not hurt, but I didn’t feel the need to ask for this practice.

Within 15 minutes the gong sounded again and we were done with the first round.  We were told to get up very slowly, and we practiced a bit of walking Zazen, hands folded in walking position, walking in a small square taking only half-steps.  We did that for a moment, then followed the whole procedure a second time for a second round of regular Zazen.

The second time was easier – and shorter – than the first.  My feet stayed firmly awake and my mind stayed fully on the breath.

The monks took us on a full tour after the Zazen practice (pictures abound).  There are so many more things to the monastery – the beautiful rooms of the head abbot, the house of Buddha, which we could not enter, and the gongs sounding for the ceremony of bells that we got to witness for just a moment after being told we were very lucky at that moment – most people don’t get to see it.  We just glimpsed it and got a feel of the heavy ritual that imbues Buddhist worship.  I really feel that we saw a lot, but still just touched the tip of the iceberg of what actually goes on and what there is to see.

Here’s what I learned: the whole rigmarole of getting ready for the practice, from folding the hands to enter the room, to making sure the stitching of the Zafu is in the right direction, is part of the practice, and forces one to begin the process of emptying the mind.  If you are focused on very small details, there’s

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

no room for other thoughts.  Action begets thought.  It’s not about completely emptying the mind; it’s about complete awareness of the mind.  An entering thought should be examined before it’s abandoned.  Concentrate on that throbbing foot.  Thinking about nothing else might make the pain ease.  Then pick another part of the body on which to concentrate.  Relax that part of the body.  Really feel it. Get into it.  Whether it’s your pinky toe or your left hip, actually feeling your body will lead to understanding it.

It’s not perfect, that’s why it’s called practice.  Your mind wanders; your attention deviates.  That’s why it’s called practice – because improvement of mind, body and spirit comes only through practice.

 

 

Blogging Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum – My Interview on Expats Blog

I have been interviewed by the blogging site ExpatsBlog!  You can read the interview and see my opinions on life in Japan HERE.

Recently I’ve been connected with other bloggers through Expat blogging sites.  These sites are wonderful clearinghouses for bloggers like me, but also for the expats who live abroad and are looking for multiple viewpoints/experiences to guide them on their journeys abroad.

One of my favorites is Expats Blog.  They have such a breadth of different writers in different countries, all writing about their varied lives in their countries of residence.  It’s so helpful for me to read the pieces and get a feel for how other bloggers relate to their audiences.

Enjoy!

 

Oven Mania in a New Apartment

oven originalIf you are reading this post in the U.S., go look at your oven.  I bet it’s about 60cm (24 inches, approximately) wide.  My oven in our very Western house was about that size up until last week, too.  However, last week, we moved house (into a more Japanese apartment) and our oven experience has been the most interesting part.

We’ve known for a while that due to circumstances beyond our control, we would have to move before mid-June, but it took us a while to find the perfect place.  In fact, when we first saw the place that we eventually took, I rejected it out of hand on the basis of the oven.  The oven when we looked at the apartment, a mere ten minute walk from our old house, was only 20cm wide.  Think about it.  That is just under 8 inches.  There’s no way I was going to cook in an oven that’s only 8 inches wide.  I’m an American, for heaven’s sake – there are lots of ooey gooey birthday cakes to be made, and roasts to be cooked and veggies to be roasted.  I cook a lot!

That being said, the oven was state-of-the art Japanese.  It had a control panel

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

The huge control panel on the original oven took up half the space!

that came out at you when you touched the door of the oven.  It had every button possible (not that I could read them all, but still.)  It just wasn’t good for the type of cooking that I want to do.  Japanese people generally don’t bake, and they don’t roast.  Most Japanese cooking is done on the stove top – or in a rice-cooker.

My husband Marc, however, is  a pretty smart guy.  He knew that the apartment would be perfect for us, but also that it had been empty for a while, and he told our leasing agent that we would be willing to move in very quickly if they changed the oven to something a bit more reasonable.  At first they thought we needed a Western oven and they wanted to charge us a few thousand dollars to cut the cabinet to fit it.  But we didn’t need a full-on European or American model – we needed better than was currently there.  Marc measured my largest few roasting pans and found that they were mostly just under 40 cm wide.  The good ones any way.  Then he went to the Internet and found a Japanese model oven that was around 40cm wide (almost 16 inches) and emailed our agent, who in turn, emailed the apartment owner.

My new oven!

My new oven!

Within a week the owner of the apartment had agreed to change out the oven and put in the one Marc recommended if we would move in prior to May 18th.  I’m not sure why that day was so urgent to him, but it doesn’t matter.  We now have a wonderful gas  oven that is 40cm wide.

The whole piece – oven, stove-top, fish grill – is state-of-the-art.  It has a sensor for pots so the gas can’t be left on too long, or cuts off in an earthquake.  It has true control of fire – and get this – battery backup in case of loss of power.

The battery backup!

The battery backup!

I can’t use my very largest roasting pan, and I can’t make a huge Thanksgiving turkey in this oven.  But beyond that, I can do everything I want to, and so far, it is pretty darn great.  I think we’re going to have a wonderful new life here – and now we’re really cooking!!

Education for Expat Kids – or: So I Entered A Blog Contest

Japan flagThis blog is lucky enough to be listed on a great site for expats across the globe called Expats Blog.  In fact, look at it on May 21st (don’t worry, I’ll remind you) and I’ll have a featured interview on the site.  But for today, please go look at it to see my entry in their blog contest.  The theme of the contest is International schools, a subject near to my heart since I have one child at Nishimachi and the other at The American School in Japan (ASIJ) so I can’t help but compare them sometimes.

For the contest, bloggers had to write about education abroad and/or international schools, but I wanted to focus on a more specific aspect of the kids’ schooling rather than writing a post about general education in Japan.  I chose to write about Japanese language skills.

I haven’t written much about our language abilities lately, but suffice to say, I’m rapidly becoming the dummy in the house as the kids’ language skills – writing, reading and speaking – improve rapidly with daily instruction and weekly tutor support.  But, as you will see in the post, the kids are learning different Japanese.  My son is learning Japanese as a foreign language at ASIJ and my daughter is taught more natively at NIS, which has a strong bilingual program.  It’s an interesting contrast as my daughter chats easily with friends, while my son corrects her grammar.  They’re both learning beautifully, but differently.  It’s neat to watch.

In entering these Expats Blog contests, I am eligible to win prizes.  One of the prizes is for comments on my post on their site.  So please click to read the post (here) and then, if you’re so moved, write a comment.

If you normally enjoy my posts, then you will really enjoy this one on Japanese language learning in international schools.  Give it a look and let me know what you think.  Expats Blog is a great site – and a wonderful place for expats to go for information.  I’m thrilled to be listed on their site!

A Plate Full of Goodies – But What Are They? Dessert!

acqua pazzaLast week a dear friend took me to Acqua Pazza – a great Italian restaurant in Hiroo for a special lunch.  While the company was lovely and the meal was delicious, what really stood out was the dessert.

As is usual in Tokyo, lunch consisted of a choice of three different set menus, all of which contained a pasta as the main course.  All of the sets started with Bagna Cauda – veggies and a hot anchovy dip.  Then there was an appetizer and a pasta dish (one of which was venison, but we had smoked fish pasta – yum!) and then dessert and coffee to finish it off.

Normally with these sets, you get a small taste of dessert just as a tiny, post-meal-sweet-satisfier.  But not this.  This set dessert arrived on a huge plate with seven small tastes.

Starting from about 12 o’clock, they are:

  1.  strawberries with pepper on top
  2. sweet fruit tomato on a bed of soft cheese
  3. hazelnut cake with a touch of cream
  4. mini-napoleon
  5. sweet cream ice cream
  6. (center) dried fruit biscotti
  7. candied ginger

Each item was so different from the others.  The tomato really did taste like a fruit and the cake was nutty and creamy.  The ice cream had a cookie spoon and a regular spoon at the side. And the candied ginger finished everything off perfectly with a spot of sweet and sour.

I’d highly recommend Acqua Pazza for a special lunch.  It’s not cheap, but not wildly expensive either.  It’s good for a fun occasion, and it’s excellent for dessert.

Molecular Gastronomy – Flatiron Grill

flatiron aimeeThe words “molecular gastronomy” are fairly new in the English lexicon, but the combination of food and science that they invoke are a delight of the senses.  The chefs experiment with various tastes and textures, cooking methods and sensations in the mouth and out comes this spectacularly EXPERIENTIAL meal. In Japan, the Tokyo American Club just opened such a restaurant called Flatiron, which they describe as “Part interactive show, FLATiRON is a two-hour culinary journey that presents mouthwatering ingredients in eye-poppingly creative ways.”  Indeed, we enjoyed every second of the three-hour experience.  Instead of just writing, I’ll tell the tale of our culinary flight of fancy in pictures.

First, the menu, which includes the wine pairing list – ten courses and pairings! There was an option to cut down on the wines, which we did.  None of us wanted ten full glasses of wine.  As it was, with a few sly refills, we had more than our allotted five glasses. To that end, please note that my photos and my written notes become less and less clear as the wine helped along the yummy courses and the night progressed!

flatiron1Next, our own private chef starting to prepare our first course

flatiron2

The first course: a small spoonful of black pork, dried strawberry, and a coffee-flavored marshmallow and a second spoon of hazelnut powder on a basil leaf.

flatiron3

Course number two: a buckwheat crepe that held a real treat inside – salmon with violet mustard and a cheese called burrata that is specially handmade – it is only fresh for seven days. It’s a sinful mixture of mozzarella and cream that somewhat melts the salmon into itself. The chef had already jellied some port wine and drizzled it over the “burrito” in a ribbon.

flatiron4

The next course consisted of a few clams surrounded by caviar with a special foam on top made of curry.

flatiron5

Here is a shot of our personal chef grilling vegetables and salting them lightly with a special instrument that shines a light where the salt is going to land.

flatiron6

This is a photo of the truffle paste Flatiron makes – you may have heard of truffle oil, but this is the paste!  Diners can squeeze on as much or as little as they’d like of the elixir.

flatiron7

This is my friend with the cheese drizzler and truffle paste, preparing to create her own “reverse” fondue.

flatiron9

This next course involved fruit flambe!

flatiron 10

With the fruit, we had something the chef called “the thirty-second” flavor.  He tested us on why it was so named.  I’ll leave you to guess a little bit too – but think of the places where an American in particular might buy ice cream – a place right by National Azabu in Tokyo….  Anyway, the thirty second flavor involves putting foie gras on an “anti-griddle” which looks like a regular griddle but is really NEGATIVE fifty degrees.  The foie gras turned into ice cream!  Unexpectedly delectable.

flatiron 11

For the next course, the chef wrapped fish in a sakura leaf and placed it on a large ice cube that had an LED light in it.

flatiron 12

Then he added smoke.  Real smoke – to smoke the fish.  The smoke had a cherry wood element in it for a divine smell and flavor.

flatiron 14

Next we had a lamb course served with a bit of mushroom flavored cappuccino.

flatiron 15

Here’s a great photo of the grill – the chef poured a little chardonnay on it so we could watch it dance around!

flatiron 16

After giving us the chardonnay in a bowl, the chef added some liquid nitrogen so we had to stir stir stir very quickly to create the chardonnay juice ourselves.

flatiron 17

Here is the finished product – chardonnay as a solid with black Hawaiian volcano salt on it. Somehow it melted in the mouth in a mass of salty, wine goodness.

flatiron 18

Please note: this next photo does NOT contain saran wrap. Regular saran wrap would melt on the grill. In order to cook the pork for the next course, the chef covers it with a saran-thin sheet of glass.  Yes, that is glass over the pork on the grill.

flatiron 19

Here is the course he was cooking.  It may have been the most flavorful of the night.  It’s pork that was marinated in chamomile tea for 4 hours drizzled with a surprising combination of cassis and beets with Sambucca. It’s sitting on a bed of Savoy cabbage, adding to the mix of flavors.

flatiron 20

The final course, dessert, gave us some real giggles.  First of all, when was the last time you had pop rocks???  Here’s the initial photo of the panna cotta with the very still pop rocks on top.

flatiron 21

Next, the chef mixed lychee juice with liquid nitrogen.

flatiron 22

Here’s the pour-over!  The chef made us all wear protective eye-wear because the pop rocks danced around in the bowl reacting to the nitrogen! It was so delightfully playful.

flatiron 23

And finally, dessert as a whole – almost too good to eat – but not quite.  We managed to really enjoy it with the cold sensation mixing with the popping in our mouths.

flatiron 24

Here is a shot of the four of us, celebrating a fun birthday dinner – in goggles.

flatiron goggles

The whole thing took about 3 hours from our special “welcome drink” to the end, when we had a cup of tea to finish the night.  It was expensive, but a real treat for a food and entertainment. You do not need to be a member of The American Club to go – it’s open to the public.  Go for your next special occasion and let me know what you get – the menu changes seasonally.  Food and fun!

Setting Up Yoroi Kabuto for Kodomo No Hi

kabuto4Kodomo No Hi, Children’s Day, in Japan is May 5th.  Beyond the Koinobori flags that many homes display, some people set up Yoroi Kabuto, ancient Japanese armor.  The o-yoroi is an example of the suit worn by ancient feudal Samurai warriors.  It’s extremely heavy!  It has chest and arm covers, as well as an iron mask and the crowning kabuto. It was fine in the 10th century when warfare consisted mostly of archery, but by the 15th century when infantry tactics became more popular, the cumbersome armor fell out of favor.  Nishimachi International School has its own set, and in preparation for the day, the women of the cultural committee set it up.  It took

Here's the stand on which the whole thing rests.

Here’s the stand on which the whole thing rests.

Putting it together took 6 women half an hour!

six of us just half an hour to get it put together, but it was comprised of many little parts and had to be done just right.  After May 5th, the whole thing will get taken down and stored for another year. So enjoy the  displays while they last!

A close-up of the Kabuto