Sitting in stillness, the silence is at first shocking, deafening in a way unimagined but there. Within the lack of sound lies a thousand sounds you never heard in the din of life. You hear the young monk at Senso-ji approach the great bell and pull back on the log shu-moku, straining. You hear the laugh of school aged children hand in hand walking through the Temple grounds as pigeons gather. You hear the cat, sitting at the foot of Daibutsudan, staring out and the deer waiting at the gate. You hear your breath and that of a million others as they sit on their cushions sharing what is.
By hour six, the plane was just a lumbering beast dividing the sky, halfway from God knows where to nowhere special. His body cried for sleep but he knew he had to deny it. That much he had learned from prior trips. For when he landed, made his way painfully slowly into the city, it would be early evening when he arrived at his hotel. He knew he needed to be on the edge of exhaustion. Only that way could he grab a meal from the 7 Eleven down the block, and finally get to sleep, reasonably fresh in the morning. It would be a long day. Each day in Tokyo was a long day of endless meetings and negotiations. It was mind numbing, but he was paid well to suffer it. And he knew that on his last day in the city he would have time to board the subway for Asakusa. There he would wander slowly down the line of stalls, to the great gate of Senso-ji Temple, its giant lantern shedding no light, and peer at the Buddha Hall in the distance. There would be school children in neat uniforms, always hand in hand, and pigeonss, flocking around them and anyone who looked gaijin, easy marks for photos and handouts. And the orange tiger cat would huddle at the base of the nearby Buddha seeking enlightenment. For that hour or so he was in a different world. The giant city melted away. His thoughts grew placid as he placed his incense into to giant earthenware jokoro then washed its smoke over his face and shoulders. He bowed to the young monk carefully writing the prayer sticks. He stood silent at the foot of the Buddha Hall, a conversation no one could hear, one that everyone here was having simultaneously. Time does not yield, and as it ran thin, he headed back to the subway knowing his fortune without purchasing it for 100 yen. A simple fortune really, a return visit on his next trip to Tokyo and maybe a side trip to Kyoto, and as the icing on his taiyaki, a trip to Nara, to again wander the grounds of Todai-ji and commune with the deer at first light, in the shadow of the Daibutsu. On the flight home he thought of the moments in Buddha’s shadow, the resounding of the great bell. He smiled recalling the red bibbed jizo, knowing they gave up Buddhahood to help those like him, still lost on the path. He is saddened knowing he will soon be back in his world, the daily grind, this trip shortened, as all return trips are. And when he lands, goes through Immigration and customs, when they ask if he has anything to declare, he may say “just a moment of kensho.”
Some day I need to return to Tokyo and walk its streets listening for the soundtrack that Haruki Murakami requires of the city, bebop jazz in Shinjuku, classical when wandering Asakusa and Senso-ji, and rock on the streets of Shibuya.
I have often been there, but my soundtrack was that of horns and the clatter of a pachinko parlor, or the pitched giggles of young girls walking hand in hand down Omotesando, dreaming of what they could buy in the shops of Aoyama.
In Asakusa amid the stalls of trinkets and swords why do the gaijin all speak German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish and English is reserved to a couple if Nisei.
In a small laundromat in Akasaka an old woman clucks and shuffles on wooden sandals pulling kimonos from the dryer. My t-shirts are still damp.
In Shibuya there is a small storefront pet shop, its windows full of cat ryokan some with beds others replete with toys, balls. In the largest a tiger striped Persian sleeps, her back to the passing crowds.
At Meiji Jingu I toss my coin and bow in prayer hopeful that the gods speak English.
On the Ginza line a young woman all in black carries a carefully wrapped poster of John Lennon. In thirty years she will look like Yoko Ono.
First published in Around the World: Landscapes & Cityscapes, Sweetycat Press, 2021