The Buddha over your shoulder

Sometimes in Japan, when you least expect it, you look up, or down, and there’s The Buddha. He might be poking his head through the trees or staring out the window of some shop. The other day I was sitting at a train station that nobody has ever heard of, when I chanced to look up and there he was. A giant Buddha watching over me and the stray cat that paced the platform as if he had more business being there than I did.The cat probably knew that the Buddha was watching all along, so he was on his best behavior. He had that cat smugness that seemed to tell me he had something on me. I looked up at that big Buddha behind the trees and wondered what he was doing there. Who put him there, in the middle of nowhere, no more than a few meters from the steel mill on the other side of the tracks. The look on his face was content enough, as Buddhas often are, seemingly unaffected by the noise of the mill, the occasional passing train, the smug cat or me.  The way he poked his head over the trees was almost unbelievable–unrealistic–as if I were dreaming his presence, or watching a Hayao Miyazaki film. So I searched the unmanned station to find some information about this Buddha–something to point out its rich history or cultural significance. There was no mention of it, no maps of the area, no tourist information of any sort, only a local events bulletin board with a few outdated local events, some posters advertising Meitetsu Railways, and a button to press in case you needed to talk to a real (or quasi-real) person. I thought I could push the button and ask about the Buddha , but I knew the person on the other side of the speaker was likely sitting at some switchboard in Tokyo or Calcutta. So I stayed seated on my bench, watching the cat rule his domain, as the Buddha watched over us.

The Sendai half marathon

A couple weeks ago, in the heart of earthquake/tsunami/meltdown ravaged Tohoku, there was a footrace. It’s an annual event, this footrace, called the Sendai Half Marathon. It goes without saying that last year in the wake of the devastation, the race was cancelled. This year the Sendai Half Marathon returned. A friend of mine was there. He’d gone up there before. About a year ago he went up to one of the most damaged seaside towns to help with the clean up. What he saw there was exactly what we all saw on TV. Cars smashed into the second stories of buildings, ships resting on highways and in rice fields, buildings ripped off their foundations and delivered miles from their addresses. Now, a year later, he was back on the quiet seashore whence the demon wave had come. Most of the big debris is gone. There are no more cars in second floor windows, no more ships on highways. But the towns are gone too. Rebuilding is slow, and the clean-up continues–gradually. Still the rice fields are not fit to grow rice. The salt residue from the seawater will kill the plants. Years of flushing the land is necessary before the first rice crops will be possible. But no flushing can be done until all the debris is removed. That’s what scores of volunteers are doing now–doing still–ever since the Tsunami receded. It’s still difficult for the people of Tohoku. Towns are still gone, but temporary buildings have allowed people to leave the shelters and begin pulling their own lives back together.  Jobs are hard to come by, yet there is so much that needs to be done. Instead of  buildings, piles of rubble as big as soccer fields fill the skyline. This is what my friend encountered when he went back. While he was there, my friend ran in the Sendai Half-Marathon. He told me that as he ran, he heard the voices of the people cheering him on. They cheered each runner as they passed with words like “Fight,” “Ganbare,” and “Forward.” As he ran, he felt the spirit of these words enter his soul in ways that no other race crowd’s cheers had ever done. At first he wondered how the words could be so powerful–how, with every word, his tired legs seemed to find the strength to continue. As he felt himself rush to the finish line with a power that hardly seemed his own, he realized that these words were not really for him. The words in the air spoke to everyone around him. The people of Sendai… the people of all the Tohoku region… were encouraging each other to continue fighting. They were cheering for themselves.

My own daylight savings

Japan doesn’t go on daylight savings time. No spring forward, no fall back. No climbing up on a step ladder twice a year to change the kitchen clock. Which is why we haven’t bought a step ladder yet. It’s weird – not having daylight savings. I guess it wouldn’t matter much at the equator, but here, on the north side of the Tropic of Cancer, it seems like such a waste. In the spring the sun comes up about 4:30 AM here. Even the birds are surprised. Then, at about 6:30 or 7 PM the sun disappears. That usually happens when I’m in the subway heading home. So the last lights of day are the rays that linger in the subway station tunnels, as I make my way down to the train. Summer or winter, it’s dark when I get home. Sure, I know daylight savings is like fake time. No sun dial ever went on daylight savings. Daylight savings is not natural, so it’s probably not good for you. But I hate missing all that daylight. So I decided to make my own daylight savings. Here’s how I did it: I get up earlier. A lot earlier. Like 5 AM. Not everyday. That’d be crazy. Usually 2 or 3, or even 4, times a week. It’s pretty great actually, getting up early. Nobody else is up. Just the sun, some confused birds and you. The streets are silent. All the stores are closed. Oh, there is the occasional old geezer shuffling along the river path next to my house, feeding the confused ducks. I like seeing these grandpas. I feel a kinship with them. The daylight savings club. A club where the members never actually speak to each other–except for the occasional “good morning”–yet they understand exactly what the other is feeling: peace. So daylight savings does exist in Japan, if you make it yourself. But it’s not “springing forward,” it’s more like “falling back.”

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