31 October 2011

Tea Whisk Monument

Walk along the streetcar tracks from JR Nagasaki Station, turn left at the corner near the Sakura-machi streetcar stop, and climb the hillside.  You'll pass a tree-shaded park on your left and come to a narrow flight of stone steps extending up into the graveyards on the upper part of the hill.  Most Japanese cities hide their graveyards in temple compounds or suburban reien ("spirit gardens"), but Nagasaki's cemeteries sprawl conspicuously across the hillsides right above the city, as if to remind the populace of the impermanence of life.

Turn right and continue along the street for another 100 meters or so and you'll find yourself in front of the brooding sanmon (gate building) of a Buddhist temple.  Up the steps and through the gate and you're in a different realm: you're finished with cars and crosswalks, freed from haste and noise, invited into a hidden corner of Nagasaki mostly unchanged by time.

Shofukuji, literally meaning "Temple of Holy Happiness," was established in 1677 by Tesshin (1641-1710), the son of a Chinese merchant of Nagasaki and his Japanese wife.  Tesshin entered the Buddhist priesthood at the age of 14 and studied under a Chinese master of the Obaku Zen sect before traveling to Mampukuji Monastery in Uji near Kyoto to clarify his "view."

Many of the old Obaku Zen temples in Nagasaki, often referred to as akadera or "red temples" because of their red paint and other Chinese features, are tourist attractions stormed by thousands of people every year, but Shofukiji has managed to stay off the beaten track and to maintain its traditional if slightly dog-eared appearance and atmosphere.  No one collects a fee at the gate or interferes with visitors.  You climb the old steps past the Tennoden inner gate building -- where a wooden statue of Hotei the "laughing Buddha" relaxes in an altar-like cubicle -- and emerge into a grassy courtyard in front of the main hall.  To the right is an arched stone gate leading into the temple living quarters; to the left a two-story structure with a bell tower above and a Zendo (meditation hall) below, the latter now used as storage space.

The main hall, erected in 1678 and refurbished in 1715, is a beautiful example of the Chinese-style temple architecture that sprang up in Nagasaki in the middle of the 17th century when Chinese mariners and merchants accounted for about one-sixth of the city population.  It is also one of the most enduring, having withstood not only three centuries-worth of wind and rain but also the blast and heat generated by the atomic bomb in 1945.

Steps lead up to the Tennoden, the inner gate to Shofukuji where a statue of Hotei greets visitors with a welcoming laugh.

The main hall at Shofukji exhibits typical features of Obaku architecture, including the red banister encompassing the porch and the front doors with illustrations of peaches. 

Look to the left of the main hall and you see a small garden enclosed by a bamboo fence and, inside, a rather odd cenotaph.  You can make out the Chinese characters 茶筅塚 engraved on the base, that is, chasenzuka or "tea whisk monument."  Sure enough, the weathered stone sculpture of about one meter in height installed on the base is shaped like the bamboo whisk used in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Some observers might interpret this as a signpost for the tea ceremony or perhaps a tribute to a great tea master of the past.  Others might take it for an eccentric work of art, like a statue of a spoon or fork installed in a park somewhere.  Fundamentalists might denounce it as evidence of superstition: What, after all, could a lowly kitchen utensil have to do with faith or worship?

The chasenzuka (tea whisk monument) at Shofukuji.

But of course all of these miss the point.  The sculpture is an expression of gratitude to the tea whisk, the little bamboo tube that is meticulously split halfway into dozens of fine prongs that are then pulled apart with cotton string into two rows forming a perfect bell-shape.  Years of training and hours of effort go into each handmade tea whisk.  To the sajin (tea ceremony practitioner), the tea whisk is not only an indispensable tool but also a symbol of the worldview underpinning the art of chanoyu, namely the appreciation of transcendent beauty in simple things.    

No matter how reverently the practitioner uses it, the tea whisk easily wears down and needs to be replaced.  But instead of exile to the garbage can, the countless teas whisks retired in Nagasaki every year are collected and burned during a ceremony in front of the monument at Shofukuji.  The Japanese term applied to this custom is kuyō, which originates from the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word puja, meaning "offering."  In the Indian tradition the word usually refers to offerings to religious deities and distinguished guests, but the Japanese term includes expressions of gratitude to inanimate objects and non-human species to which people are -- or consider themselves to be -- deeply indebted.  In the former case this could be a tool used in traditional arts; in the latter case, insects killed in the process of agriculture or mice used in medical experiments.

In short, the tea ceremony practitioners simply cannot discard a tea whisk without thought or regret.  Thus, they built a monument and hold a yearly ceremony.

The consumer society of industrialized countries, including modern Japan, generates mountains of garbage every year in the form of wasted food, single-use packaging, and a spectacular array of products tossed away without the slightest hesitation.  The whole system is geared to mass production, mass consumption and mass waste, regardless of the looming problem of resource depletion and environmental degradation.

More people should walk up the hillside to Shofukuji and contemplate the tea whisk monument. 

10 August 2011

Ghost Island, Revisited

In 1986, four years after settling in Nagasaki, I told my Japanese friends that I wanted to visit the former coal-mining island of Hashima.  Many of them drew a complete blank, even when I used the better-known nickname "Battleship Island." Others laughed and tried to convince me to give up the idea because all I would find there was a cluster of empty, rotting buildings.
I went anyway (thanks to another friend with a boat), fascinated by the story of a tiny island once inhabited by the most densely populated community on Earth but abandoned 12 years earlier when oil replaced coal in national energy schemes.  The article I wrote in the wake of the experience, entitled "Hashima: The Ghost Island," can be seen here and a shortened but illustrated version here.

A quarter of a century has passed since that first visit.  In the interim, one typhoon after another has swept up the East China Sea, battering the island with winds and high waves, gouging holes in the sea wall, ripping out foundations, and washing away wooden structures and other remnants of human habitation.
The following photographs taken in 1986, juxtaposed with photographs of the same sites taken during a visit in 2010, demonstrate the mighty erasing power of natural forces.

A row of shops on Hashima's former shopping street,
broken down in 1986, eradicated in 2010.

Setoguchi Barber Shop was still relatively intact in 1986.
Below, the same spot photographed in 2010.

Erosion is not the only thing changing Hashima's profile.  The present owner, Nagasaki City, has decided to turn the island into a tourist attraction, quite an irony considering the long years of indifference and neglect.  Visitors willing to fork out ¥3,900 can now go ashore and stand on a fenced-off concrete walkway -- jarringly white against the grimy backdrop of crumbling buildings -- and view the devastation from a safe distance.  Hashima has also been added to a list of tentative world heritage sites, another way in which local government and civilian interests hope to cash in on the notoriety while supposedly preserving the island for the benefit of future generations.

But the beauty of Hashima lies in its decay.  The best it offers is a lesson on the transience of human projects and a glimpse into the future of unsustainable development.

This mosaic graces the wall of the vestibule in the former Hashima Elementary and Secondary School.  Crafted by pupils, it exudes the sense of prosperity and optimism that predominated in the 1950s when the island population reached a peak of over 5,200 people.  I photographed it in 1986, struck by its expression of love and pride and its symbolism for humankind.  When I revisited Hashima in 2010 I was astonished to find it virtually unchanged, protected from wind and rain by the thick concrete walls and overhang of the vestibule. 

26 July 2011

Thoughts on the Peace Statue

Since the 2011 atomic bomb commemoration is imminent, I will start this blog with a few thoughts on Nagasaki's "Peace Statue."

The work of Kitamura Seibo (a native of Nagasaki Prefecture lauded as one of Japan’s greatest sculptors), the ten-meter-tall bronze statue was unveiled in Nagasaki’s Peace Park on the 10th anniversary of the atomic bombing in 1955.  It is now the site of the annual (August 9) “Peace Ceremony” and an iconic expression of Nagasaki’s “aspiration for the abolition of nuclear weapons and the realization of lasting world peace.”

The Nagasaki Peace Statue soon after construction in 1955 and today.

The official explanation is that the right hand of the statue points up to the explosion of the atomic bomb while the left hand, extended horizontally, symbolizes peace.  The figure is touted as an East-West hybrid, but you don’t need a degree in art history to recognize it for what it is: a clumsy approximation of a Greco-Roman deity.  At the time of construction, only three years had passed since the Treaty of San Francisco and Japan’s escape from the doghouse after World War II, and the people of this country were busy rebuilding their lives, looking to the United States for both material assistance and socio-cultural models.  Going along with the rhetoric that the atomic bombings had been necessary to end the war was probably Japan’s natural choice under these circumstances.  But the Peace Statue seems glaringly incongruent, paying tribute to the civilization that deliberately dropped atomic bombs on two cities populated mostly by noncombatants.

When I have visitors from abroad, I invariably take them to the small park across the street where the atomic bomb hypocenter is marked by a simple black monolith.  This leaves all the rest to reflection.

I personally dislike the month of August in Nagasaki because the flimflam about “peace” is as hard to avoid as the sweltering heat.  Activists gather from far and wide to wave their peace signs and push their respective political agendas; local television channels broadcast peace-related programs; and Nagasaki school children are required to give up their summer holidays to engage in peace studies.

But the parades, programs and classwork ironically emphasize just the opposite of peace, that is, the horror of the atomic bombing and the tragedy of World War II (not Japan’s aggression in East Asia mind you).  Nagasaki and Hiroshima undoubtedly have a huge emotional investment in this issue and an important role in conveying the reality of the atomic bombings to the world, but characterizing the noise of August as “peace activities” is as inaccurate as it is distracting.

The idea, trotted out repeatedly, that the abolition of nuclear weapons will lead to world peace is also absurd.  Even in the unlikely event that the nuclear states dismantle all existing nuclear weapons, humankind will still be stuck with, and have to carefully manage, the technology.  Maintaining peace is like trying to balance a baseball bat on your hand: you have to be vigilant and make constant adjustments to keep it upright.

I prefer to use the Japanese term buji when defining the concept of peace.  It literally means “no thing” but is better translated as “nothing particularly worthy of note” – no war, no peace, no Peace Statue, only normal everyday existence.