Echoes of Okunoin

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Every step took me deeper into the ancient heart of Okunoin, the largest and most revered cemetery of Japan, a shadowy forest of giant cedars and stone markers; of mists and mosses; of ghosts present and past. The trails, hidden under mud and needles, pulled me away from the well-maintained and heavily visited formal areas of pagodas and pavilions. Water dripped from overhead branches. Old stones leaned gently together. I slowed and followed a weak beam of sunlight to a mismatched pair of eroding markers, when a sudden vibration in my pocket interrupted my reverie. Was someone trying to reach me?

It was the fall of 2015 and I was staying in a temple in the small mountain town of Koyasan, between visits to Tokyo and Kyoto. Previous travels in Japan, some years ago, had involved my high tech business career. At that time, the enigmatic silent politeness I encountered made negotiation challenging. It hadn’t start smoothly. One of the first executives I worked with casually mentioned that women walked two steps behind in his culture, a comment he came to regret when he learned I controlled his investment budget.  His culture and I never matched wavelengths.

But now I wanted to see what it felt like to explore freely, to not worry about the next meeting, or how to dress for dinner with high-level executives and Geishas. My life changed radically some twenty years ago when my husband Harold was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. We both left successful business careers to appreciate days suddenly made incalculably more valuable than any possible financial gains. He successfully battled against all odds for sixteen years—almost half of our time together—and we savored life even as the enemy stalked relentlessly. 

But now he was gone and I dove into writing and photography and surrendered fully to my travel addiction. I was exploring different ways to see, and learning to appreciate the Zen aesthetic in my life and art. Surely a land where the wabi-sabi values of imperfection and naturalness were venerated had much to teach me. What I didn’t know was whether I was open to learning from it.