Three White Russians, a Buddhist Priest and a Gaijin

Japan is as littered with peculiar contrasts as any country, but having modernized so quickly and completely, having lurched into modernity at such a pace while simultaneously remaining quite distinct from the outside world, it often finds these two faces cheek to cheek. The traditional kneeling next to the contemporary is like any distinction, sometimes held up with pride and oft times a source of friction. Like two tectonic plates colliding, new masses will be formed and shock waves will ripple and as always people will rebuild on what’s left.

The Japanese living in a land where the earthquake is no stranger to their lives, have designed buildings that bend and flex with the violent forces beneath their foundations. The people I would suggest are built much the same. Marrying elements of their own culture with surprising ease to a variety of other cultural influences until it is barely distinguishable from the native. Often the only reason my particularly young students know something isn’t Japanese in origin is that the word appears in katakana, the written form of Japanese for loan words. Otherwise it’s simply part of their world and they’re none the wiser.

However, despite the global invasion, and the seemingly universal love of a cheeseburger I’ve yet to see a kid out here devour anything quite as quickly, or quite as gleefully for that matter, as a bowl of rice. It’s like watching a vacuum cleaner attached to a set of chopsticks. Sometimes globalization simply doesn’t make a dent.

The time I experienced this mix of cultures most clearly was last New Year’s Eve.  Nagano was covered in snow. The mountains with their white capped peaks were stunning to behold, while out in the countryside the snow drifts, pristine and white under a clear night sky shimmered in the moonlight. No electric lamplight to dull the stars as I sat far out in the countryside in a beautiful Buddhist temple run by one of my students.

I’d been looking for a way to spend New Years and very kindly two of my older students invited me to spend New Year at their temple. What I hadn’t expected, and nor had they, was that my lift to their temple would drop me off a whole twelve hours early.

So there we sat dictionaries in hand, both beginners in each other’s languages, drinking green tea and trying to stay warm under the kotatsu (essentially a heated coffee table with a blanket/duvet wedged under the table top and covering your legs – it’s amazing). For a while he showed me how some simple kanji (the Chinese characters used by the Japanese for part of their writing system) had developed over time. Then how two wholly separate ideas could combine to create new meanings and how these would then be refined down to their bare bones to create the modern form of the word as the technique for writing it became the standard in much the same way as Johnson’s dictionary locked English spelling into place.

Before long the conversation has drifted towards what I’d done for a living before I’d become an English teacher. So I listed my litany of crimes, library worker, dish washer, petrol station worker and finally bartender. In England this receives a barely perceptible nod, as pretty much everyone seems to have pulled a pint at some point in his or her university life. But in Japan, and with an ageing couple, a young man who once shook a steel container filled with booze and ice is apparently quite exciting.  However, the conversation moved on and soon my student and I were on a New Year’s Eve errand, running gift boxes temple to temple with my erstwhile profession forgotten… or so I thought.

On the way back to his temple my student suddenly veered off into a Megaten, a large chain of off licenses here in Japan, and I was asked to pick up the ingredients to produce a cocktail. Aiming for simplicity and not to bankrupt him with the cost of liquer I quickly grabbed two smallish bottles and headed to the till where of course he wouldn’t let me pay.

Once back at the temple I was guided towards the kotatsu in the room adjacent to the kitchen where my students were preparing the New Year’s Eve feast. I offered to help as often as possible but eventually took the hint that my help would be more of a hindrance. So instead I ended up watching Casablanca with Japanese subtitles.

Before all the local people began to arrive we sat down for an early meal and I duly made some Black and White Russians. A traditional feast next to western cocktails, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to say the least. Fortunately they thought the creations to be rather nice, but another consequence was on its way. Knowing the English, ‘do you like…?’ rather well, but being quite limited in other areas of communication they decided to make use of that phrase as often as possible with the addition of a different alcoholic beverage at the end each time. Sake, wine, gin, beer…

By the end of the evening I was outside by the fire in front of the temple, attempting to keep warm with the other visitors. There is a tradition in Buddhist temples at New Year that the bell should be rung precisely one hundred and eight times (representing the 108 sins as recognized in Buddhism) and so with my belly warmed by hot sake I rang the bell twice, the number of times I had been told was appropriate. Eventually as the night drew on and toes began to freeze someone gave me a nudge, ‘go ring the bell again would you, we’re getting cold.’

Tradition is pretty flexible it seems.

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