Category Archives: Japan

The Gift.

For once the morning was clear and it was even warm enough to ditch my parka and rain jacket as I walked through a maze of narrow streets on my way to the 68th temple on the Shikoku trail. The temple was all but empty this early and a drowsy cat seized the opportunity to laze on the moss-covered steps leading up to the bell tower. Nearby, a cherry tree was showering the ground with blush petals. At the Main Hall, two women in their fifties were halfway through the Heart Sutra. I like reciting the verses simultaneously with other pilgrims, so I stood next to them and read the English version to myself. Even though they don’t match up timing wise, I still feel a sense of unity as the rhythmic Japanese syllables form a hypnotic background for my internal English drawl.


The two women moved to the Daishi Hall while I was still on the Kigan-mon prayer, asking for harmony and happiness for all.  By the time I was ready to join them again, there were two other, younger women in front of the Daishi Hall, though not so wrapped up in spiritual training. They were taking photos of each other while behind them the two pilgrims were bowed over in prayer. One of the girls made an exaggerated pose and a peace sign and I wanted to hurt her for it. I am neither a pious person, nor one who has gone a day without breaking some rule of conduct, but I decided to be offended, both, because I felt they were intruding into the private space of the two pilgrims and because I now had to wait for them to be done taking photos so that I could lose myself in the words, and not in contemplation over how my butt looked on their iPhones.

Now fuming, I sat down on a bench, making sure my crossed arms and death stare conveyed my impatience and disapproval. At the same time, the other Masha, the one who set out walking around the world, sacrificing four toenails in the process all in the quest of greater love and compassion was gently whispering (she never raises her voice, not even at herself) “What are you doing? I thought we talked about this.”

She was right. We had agreed to stop judging people a while back. We also agreed to stop acting entitled. Or bitchy. This was a public space, where anyone could and should take as many pictures as they like and those of us who are bothered by it need to suck it up.

While being gently chastised by my higher self, I began to feel ashamed and as all four women walked away, I made a promise that would last no more than five minutes to send only love and understanding in the direction of the two budding photographers. The next temple was only a short climb of stairs away and when I got there for a second I thought I had taken a very short trip back in time— there were the two pilgrims in prayer, and in front of them the two women snapping photos of themselves. Equally Groundhog Day-esque was my reaction. Again, I sat down on a bench, proudly wearing my discontent on my face, even as I began reading the sutras under my breath. “ With the deepest respect for the Buddha’s fundamental vow of universal compassion, I will establish myself in the pure conviction that we are all one, and not apart.” Except for those girls, they get blacklisted. “As a disciple of Buddha, until the end of all future time I will not have thoughts of ill will.” Totally, but with the exception of the two newest additions to the aforementioned list.  “ With my whole heart, I offer this prayer. May all people be happy and may every being in the world be benefitted equally.” Damn it. I had to admit defeat. I was being a jerk in the house that Buddha built with all of his compassionate wisdom. And now I was using bad language as well.

In my annoyance, I had rushed through my prayers, finishing just ahead of the other women. I was in front of them as the three of us walked over to the office to get our pilgrim notebooks stamped. And then I did something really tiny, something that probably went unnoticed by everyone but me—I paused and pretended to look something up in my guide thereby letting the two other pilgrims be first in line to get their stamps. It was a pinprick of a gesture, but it was the first thing I thought of to try and make amends for my foulness and tip the scales of the morning back to happy.

Once they finished taking care of pilgrim business, the women came up to me, smiling, oblivious of the battle that had raged mere inches from them not ten minutes before, and asked me where I was from, expressed their disbelief and their awe that I was doing the whole circuit alone and on foot and then one of them reached out her hand, holding a friendship bracelet, with pink knots in the thread creating a pattern of hearts. “Ossetai” she said, gift. I reached into my bag and found one of the small strips of paper that pilgrims drop into boxes with wishes written on the back and hand out to anyone who has offered you an ossetai. I handed her the white slip, bowing my head slightly.  In return both women reached into their bags for their own wish-granting bits of paper. Then we took a selfie. And then one more with me wearing one of the women’s conical henro hats. Before we said goodbye, I received yet another gift– a bright red scallop shaped charm with a green bell. And just like that, my hands full of unwarranted presents, my lukewarm heart melted.


It’s possible that had I not let the women go ahead of me things would have turned out exactly the same, but it’s much more likely that had I taken my turn at the stamp office, fair and square, I would have kept the dissatisfied look on my face and left before either woman had a chance to so much as breathe in my direction.

I have seen this a million times—taking one baby step beyond the standard baseline of human decency that is expected of me creates a force of goodness that is inequitable to the energy I’ve exerted. I believe that making the choice to extend that tiny bit of kindness paved the way for everything that came after, and I don’t just mean the warm exchange I had with the two pilgrims. Their giddy gift giving rippled out through out the day. It stayed with me as I sailed past the two girls with the camera in the parking lot, still snapping away. It made me want to sit down on a grassy lawn on a riverbank to watch baby ducks and a puppy in a pink striped sweater for no other reason than that it brought me joy. I hold the feeling of gratitude  brought on by the ossetai responsible for the little ceramic pilgrim a woman gave me on the street, the green tea offered at the next temple and the two bean paste filled mochi that another pilgrim bought for me.

In the name of full transparency, I have to admit that the feeling almost wore off by the end of the day as hotel after hotel told me they were full. I was sitting on a swing, in the dark and in the rain eating the mochi I had been saving for when I’d find myself in warm room. The small inn that the swing belonged to looked brand new and warm. Though I rang the bell repeatedly, no one came. Looking at the amount of worn, muddy boots gathered at the entrance, I figured that they were full and so were ignoring any calls this late at night. While my mouth was busy with the sugary chewy sweets, and my heart was sinking as my brain tried to think of a place to safely pitch my tent, some other part that I am not entirely sure belonged to me was busy convincing me that a day like this could only end well.

I sat glued to the swing for almost twenty minutes, but then as I am sure you’ve already guessed, the front door of the inn swung open. Two minutes later, as my host was leading me up the stairs to a clean, cozy room, he told me that it was the last bed he had available. “You’re very lucky,” he added. Don’t I know it.


Back to Basics in Japan.

Many a woman has had this fantasy—you come in after a long exhausting day and to your delight find that the man of the house has drawn you a hot bath and put on the kettle.  After a peaceful soak, red faced, wrapped in a bathrobe you come down the stairs to find that the man has not just made you a cup of tea but has also left you a generous slice of cake. Oh, this is a man who really knows you, right? Except he doesn’t, at least not in my case.  When my fantasy finally came true I was sitting in nothing more than loungewear in a stranger’s living room, shoveling his cake into my mouth, unable to ask him about so much as his day because of the aforementioned cake mouth situation but also because I do not speak a lick of Japanese.

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Such is my life as a henro, one of the pilgrims who walk the contours of Shikoku Island, visiting 88 Buddhist temples whose histories are linked, sometimes only in legend with Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Thousands of henro undertake the 1200 km journey every year, often staying in family-run inns called minshiku along the trail, which is how I ended up soaking in a stranger’s bathtub.

Though this was already the third minshiku that I had stayed in, it was the first one where I had a wash. Before you gasp in horror, let me explain.  On my first day of walking I had to pass through six temples, performing a series of rituals that were completely unknown to me. More than that, I had to figure out which of these felt right to me, which left me baffled more than enlightened and so had to be abandoned and which ones I could afford. Purchasing incense and candles was out. The Heart Sutra was in, but seeing as to how the sound of my own voice pronouncing Japanese syllables traumatized me I switched to reciting it in English.  Ladling a cup of spring water into my hands was appealing, though by the sixth temple my freezing hands protested.  My favorite part became filling out a bookmark-sized piece of paper stamped with the image of Kōbō Daishi, writing my name, the date and where I come from on the front and a wish on the back. I believe the personal details are safety guard against wishes that you wouldn’t want traced back to you.

By the end of that first day, after saying the Heart Sutra thirteen times, once at each of the Main Halls, once at each of the smaller Daishi Halls, and once at an administrative building that I mistook for the Daishi Hall, I was templed out. Arriving at my first minshiku I wished for nothing more than to maintain the little body heat I was still producing and to take a nap.  The elderly woman who ran the inn had other ideas.


“Yes, sure“ I lied and nodded my head.  I had about as much desire to strip off my clothes as I did to listen to a recording of myself reciting the Heart Sutra in its original. As planned, I took a nap instead, waking up to a phone call from downstairs for dinner.

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For a newcomer to Japanese cuisine suppertime might be difficult, especially I imagine for the newbie who has never held a pair of chopsticks. Somewhere in hell there is a group of Western tyrants sitting around a lavish table, cursed with an eternal ravaging hunger and chopsticks taped to their hands. My New York upbringing has given me a lot to be thankful for (a high tolerance for smells after years spent waiting for trains on subway platforms, for one) and the ability to eat raw fish with a pair of wooden sticks, eyeballing just the right-sized smear of wasabi to swirl around in the soy sauce.  Equally handy at dinnertime is my Russian upbringing, which has trained my palate to enjoy all things fermented and pickled.  Whether it’s octopus and yellow fin tuna sashimi, sour cabbage, tart, salty fruits or fermented soybeans, I will happily partake in its consumption.

What I wasn’t so happy about was dinner being an intricate ploy to get me clean.

Bath?” The owner asked hopefully while I sucked down a pile of noodles.

“Too cold, “ I pleaded, wrapping my arms around my shoulders and shivering. Dramatically.

“Later?” she pleaded.

I smiled noncommittally, as though in addition to Japanese I no longer spoke English and went back to my soup. Before she could corner me again, I snuck upstairs and still fully clothed, was unconscious by the time my body hit the floor mattress.

My second time staying at a minshiku I didn’t have a wash because I had no idea where the washing place was.  In fact, I didn’t exactly know where I was either. After being turned away at the 12th temple where I had hoped to stay, I passed on sleeping on a bench outside of a Shinto shrine and kept walking despite it getting dusky in the mountains.  A village neatly arranged along one street hugging the curves of the valley looked fast asleep by the time I reached it minutes before sunset. The wooden window shutters and sliding doors of the squat houses let no light in and projected no signs of life out. Near the bus stop bathroom where I was now thinking of letting myself freeze that night, an old man in a dark blue woolen hat was standing near his car. “Something, something Japanese” he said. In reply I put my palms in sideways prayer and rested my icy cheek on them. “Sleep! I desperately want somewhere warm to sleep!” I’d hoped the gesture would convey. “Something else and one more thing in Japanese?”  I smiled, as he looked me over. He then made a gesture with his cupped hand, that after eight months of travel I learned could mean on of two things depending on the country— “Shoo, shoo, go away” or “come, come, right this way!” Not knowing if the person you’re speaking to wants you to depart immediately or come closer is about as much social anxiety as anyone can take.

Whether or not he intended me to, I followed the capped man down a driveway and into a warm house. He opened a door and pointing at a toilet, clarified by saying the only word I understood so far—“toilet” and then led me up the stairs to a room with bunk beds and a neat stack of blankets, said something else that I imagine was “bedroom,” and then departed. Given that it wasn’t my house, and that unlike my previous hosts this one was not keen on getting me into a tub of water, I decided to not raise the issue and settled for using the washing machine in the hallway or doing “laundry,” as my host called it.

By the time I was neck deep in a bath on the third night where this story began, I regretted declining the first offer so insistently and not being insistent enough the second time around.  There is just no feeling better than having your tired limbs submerged in water that’s at a temperature just shy of scorching in a bath where even a tall girl such as myself can have her knees and shoulders submerged.  Japanese bathtubs make American ones seem like ambitious kiddie pools.

In every accommodation, from the cheapest minshiku to the spa hotel I stayed in two weeks ago there are always two things waiting for me in my room—a wraparound robe, called a yukata and a porcelain tea set.  The robe sometimes comes with a very alluring flannel vest made for a man of Santa’s stature. To my delight, this post bath outfit is completely appropriate dinner attire, even if you have not shaved your legs in a desperate attempt to grow an additional layer of protection against the elements.

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What’s even better than wearing pajamas to dinner? Still wearing them at breakfast the next morning, of course! Though I must admit, my furry vested self is not as enthusiastic about the first meal of the day. My Americanized Russian stomach fails me when it is asked to eat bowl of rice and tiny translucent fish, their glistening eyes filled with horror before I’ve had a coffee.  I crave bacon. Or cheese. Or preferably both together with a fried egg on a bagel, with a touch of Heinz ketchup.  I think that if I were to end up at a table in hell, my punishment would be starting the day with a plate of seaweed while a breakfast sandwich lies just out of reach.

Does it sound like I’m complaining? If so, I have a confession to make—I’m actually reveling in the unconventional breakfast and the lack of language and the confusion about bath time.  After two decades of travel, I’ve all but lost that feeling of complete newness and unfamiliarity that is one of travel’s greatest gifts.  I’ve been incredibly lucky to see as much as I have, but with the exception of India (oh, India) everywhere I go I experience a flicker of recognition, even as I try my best to retain a sense of wonder.

I remember what it felt like to be on my own in Barcelona at the age of nineteen, learning to operate in a new world of tapas and siestas or how victorious I felt when I finally figured out how to order a cup of creamy coffee in France that isn’t just a shot of espresso with a side of milk. I clearly remember the relief I felt when finally, after some terrible drawings of a turtle and a stop at his English-studying daughter’s office our Mongolian taxi driver understood that my husband and I wanted to go Turtle Rock.

Enter Japan, where I am slowly making sense of the puzzle, one piece at a time. I now recognize some Japanese characters when I look at names of places, though only the ones that remind me of something—a robot, a TV stand, a window and a smiley face. I think I now know when someone is asking me where I’m from— “something something deska?” or maybe not, and I’m just the weird girl who only ever says “New York!” to every Japanese person who tries to talk to her. I’ve also found out that the bathtub I so happily jump into is a communal one, making it imperative to shower before getting in and to trust that the person before you has done the same. I’ve heard enough people reciting all of the mantras that I can imitate the melody and the rhythm of the shortest one and have successfully gotten it stuck in my head so that all day the inside of my head sounds like this: “On Abokya Beiroshanō Makabodara Mani Handoma Jinbara Harabaritaya Un” You didn’t even try reading that, did you. I understand, but trust me, it’s an improvement on what was I was singing on a loop before—“ Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto.” Slippers still pose a challenge, as there are three pairs, one for the toilet, one for shared spaces, one for your room, but not on the bamboo matting.  Given that just today I face planted on a highway after tripping over my shoelaces, you won’t be surprised when I tell you I’ve ended up in bed still wearing my toilet slippers.

I know what you’re thinking— have I not heard of Google? Couldn’t I have just prepared myself more thoroughly? My answer is an emphatic yes. Absolutely, I could have done a whole lot more research and downloaded all the apps, and maybe asked more questions of my Japanese friends. I’ll let you in on another secret—I avoided doing all of that on purpose. I feel like I’m a new traveler again, the traveler I was before I took a punch in the face on a street in Paris, before the hospital stay in Hong Kong, before haggling with tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand, Cambodia and India. In Japan I get to be the slightly awkward, excited traveler I watch fumble at the MetroCard vending machine at Rockefeller Center, both disoriented and ecstatic at figuring out how to do the simplest of tasks.  Like opening a door, for example, which in addition to the anxiety provoking push or pull options, has the delightful sliding possibility in Japan.  I am a fumbling mess of faux pas like fashioning my yukata in a way that is customary to do only for the dearly departed.  But I am gleeful and grateful for the chance to see the world as brand new again, lighting up with recognition, one tiny sliver at a time.





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