Echoes of Okunoin


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.
I wasn’t a natural for the subtle courtesies of Japan. My roots were close to the surface, as my immediate family had fled from Russia and the Balkans. My upbringing was raucous and combative; family members expressed themselves loudly and fervently. I worked hard to keep my sense of self, to not be overrun by their strong beliefs. I was outspoken and articulate; I shouted loudly and persistently. My writing is still more Tolstoy than Tanka, raw personal expose rather than symbolic measured Haiku. But the pull of delicate Japanese brush painting has, after years of hard work, helped me create some of my favorite photographic images. And I have learned that even short sentences can sing.

I explored. 

In Kyoto I visited a pottery collector and, unexpectedly, found a unique instrument called the hamon. Made of rough cast iron and shaped like half a giant ostrich egg, this simple object, similar to a slit drum, converted my inexpert taps to tones as delicate as water drops in a hollow echoing cavern, a sound that spread like a ripple of water. 

I walked the Philosopher’s Trail along a creek bed, then veered onto side streets. An open door brought me to the studio of a world-class artist working with the ancient art of dry lacquer. Using mother-of-pearl and abalone among other natural materials, he took a small river stone and fused a gilded dragonfly onto it. While many of his pieces had a refined elegance, some an almost modern aesthetic, this one melded the innate beauty of a rough stone with his personal creation. It didn’t hurt that he was more Santa Claus than Samurai, told me he was pleased I found his work beautiful, and assumed I knew the dragonfly was a symbol of self-realization and growth. 

In Tokyo I roamed for days, confident in aimless exploration because my phone always knew where I was and where my hotel was. I walked through glossy department stores selling hundred dollar mushrooms and lunched in a yaki-soba noodle shop for less than a tenth of that amount, having watched a round-faced chef create the noodles by spinning dough in the air. I passed canals reminiscent of Amsterdam with a local artist painting boat scenes. I marveled at the cleanliness of this city of millions.

And then several trains and a funicular brought me to the mountains, and to Koyasan. In the morning I explored temples of an austere intimacy that contrasted radically with the elaborate and vibrant Russian Orthodox cathedral of my youth. Instead of nearly explosive singing in many keys I heard modulated male voices chanting, their haunting tones escaping into the surrounding fog and forests. Memory and reality mixed and melded.

The town had over a hundred temples, and eventually my mind needed a radical change of venue. I stopped for a brief rest in my room, and settled in to finish reading a book. Worlds away from Japan, temples, ancestors and meditation, it was the newest mystery by Louise Penny, a favorite Canadian author. In the final sentences, the protagonist discovers the name of his newest grandchild.

"Her name is Zora," says his wife. I read it three times to confirm that she was, in fact, given the same name as my mother—not one that commonly rolls off the tongue in any part of the world outside the Balkans—then closed the book, ready to move on. But those final words stayed with me.

I had known little of this town of Koyasan—but found it a perfect place for an avid hiker and nature lover to explore. Its giant cedar trees and steep hillsides reminded me of the redwoods of my home in Northern California, where Harold's ashes are scattered. And then I reached that spot in the cemetery where the moment was briefly shattered by my phone vibrating.

Except it wasn’t the phone. It was my calendar. I don't know why I pulled it out, but the first reminder, that it was my wedding anniversary, made me laugh. We were so bad at remembering dates that for almost thirty years in those days before smart devices it was my mother’s phone call which first alerted us to the day’s significance.
But there was a second reminder. Tomorrow, September 13, would mark the anniversary of my mother’s death. Suddenly everything about the day took on new significance. Harold and my mother had always been extremely close. My two loved ones were evidently tag-teaming from beyond this world to make sure I remembered them. I don't visit my parent’s graves, but here I was, in a cemetery, and they were using vibrating airwaves to communicate with me. How very Zen, I thought. It was an uncanny marriage of tradition and technology, of the sublime and the annoyingly pedestrian. Of my high tech past melded onto my more contemplative present.

The brief rain that had been falling turned to wispy tendrils of mist that wafted like the smoke from swinging incense burners at my parent’s funerals. I had just taken a picture of two stone markers—one short, one tall—the short one lit by the brief sun's glow, the tall stone in deep shadow. The pairing was perfect. My two-meter tall husband towered over me as my father had over my tiny mother. I was in a perfect place, physically and spiritually, to receive and understand my mother's message. The very next grouping I saw held my whole family, everyone I had lost, represented by old stone markers covered with bright green moss, glowing in the dark, transcending temple and cathedral. I lost myself in that amazing mountain for hours, walking mostly alone in silence although many pilgrims and tourists passed on the lower trails.

As I walked in that forest, I reflected back many years and remembered the continuing interchange with my hapless Japanese colleague. Late on the day that we first met, I was in my office when there was a gentle tap on the open door. I looked up.

"Amochaev, San," he said, bowing gently. “May I come in?"

“Of course," I replied, putting down my pen.

"Amochaev, San," he continued, with words that were unexpected and surely the result of some anguish. "I need to confess,” and he paused, looking down at the floor rather than at me, “that my own daughter refuses to walk two steps behind.”

It was his way of inviting me to his country, acknowledging that I—and my investment funding—would be welcome. It also spoke to the future.
I don’t know how much Japan has changed over the last thirty years, in which his daughter has grown to middle age and I have moved beyond that. The women I met indicated it was still hard to get ahead. But that’s equally true in Silicon Valley. It is I who have learned to leave judgment a bit further behind, to listen to what isn’t said, to appreciate the beauty in the subtle. 

As a result, my experience of Japan was radically different on this trip from my previous travel. I was relaxed and able to deeply absorb a culture that was open to my exploration and easy to appreciate. I even saw the Geishas as women expressing an ancient art rather than submissive servers of sake.  It was in its new accessibility that Japan showed me who I was, who I had become. 

It was in Koyasan, as I moved in quiet contemplation, that my ancestors found me. They sent calm, rather than guilt over my lack of care for their gravesites or memory for dates. In that forest cemetery far from all our homes—past and present—my tears blessed their memories, and I walked for hours in a peace I have rarely found anywhere else, listening to them without fear that they would overwhelm my ability to think clearly.

Like baby Zora's arrival near the end of that mystery novel, life continually presents me with unexpected synchronicity and powerful signs. I no longer manage businesses or control investment budgets. The knowledge that we control little beyond ourselves has settled deep within me. My need to shout has moderated greatly, although I know it will never entirely disappear. 

I reveled in my experience of Japan not because of how the country had changed, for it always held both complexity and subtlety. It was I—in the earlier chapters of my life—who saw the world mostly in black-and-white and was blinded by my need to transform it. It was definitely I who had changed. Who had learned.
To hear. To see. To just be.