I have decided that I like the temples on the mountainsides the most. And I have visited many temples during my time in Japan (more than my series of blog posts has disseminated). I think the monks who choose to live in the hills value solitude more than the monks who build temples near the villages.
This is not to say that town monks are an extroverted, sociable bunch. Almost every temple I visited was surrounded by some kind of tall wall with only a few entrances. In fact, when first arriving in Japan, I had to circumnavigate just such a wall for about 2 miles before I found an entrance to the temple in which I was staying. It was, in that case, quite frustrating.
I prefer the temples that are secluded by trees. I have always thought that the forest inspires wisdom. UNESCO has designated many buildings in Japan “World Heritage Sites” but the trees around them have been there for hundreds of years more than the buildings. And the mountains themselves have been there since the motions of the tectonic plates created them. At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I can always sense it when I enter an old forest. It is somehow more quiet like the way that elderly people are quiet. Like you can sense and know that somewhere behind those kind, old eyes is a wealth of knowledge and experience you might be able to tap into. Old woods seem like they are harboring some kind of secrets humans may never be able to know.
I very clearly remember experiencing this for the first time while on a hiking trip. I was hiking north on the Appalachian Trail and crossed into the Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The forest around the Smokies is somewhat new-growth with lots of small shrubs near the forest floor and plenty of sunshine streaming through the young, sparse trees. But the Smokies themselves are majestic. I didn’t even need a sign to tell me I had entered into one of the oldest forests in the United States. Not only did the vegetation change when I crossed into the park but I could also just feel it in the air. It was a sense of reverence and history not unlike the feelings I experienced when I visited temples in Japan.
And I think the Monks who built Kurama-dera, where I visited on my final day in Kyoto, felt the same way I did about old trees. They chose to build their complex amongst an amazing forest with fantastic, panoramic views of the valley below. Whatever the arduous process is to become a monk, I definitely could have completed it if I woke up to that environment every morning.
As a musician, I have spent a solid chuck of my lifetime in a basement practice room devoid of any source of inspiration beyond the graffiti on the walls (usually proclaiming a hatred for Schoenberg or something like that. Music students have rage about the weirdest things…) Imagine how the monks felt who learn their craft in an amazing place like a mountain-top temple. Imagine the Shakuhachi players who practice outside wherever their whim takes them that day. This is the kind of practice that I want to do and the kind of practice I have decided to dedicate a certain amount of my time to pursuing. I cannot overemphasize the importance of occasionally getting out of the dreary practice rooms to play.
The one barrier to this is that you will seldom find a completely isolated spot in which to practice. Indeed there will almost certainly be people around. I think that this is part of the point because it will help cure stage fright. It is nice as a sort-of middle way between practicing completely alone and playing on a stage with people staring at you and only you; the people at your local park might look for a moment or two and then move on so there is somewhat less pressure. But it does take some guts to get out there in the first place.
And I had found some of my guts in Kurama on my final day in Japan. In addition to Kurama-dera, the town is known for its natural spring onsen. This is a public bath house which is particularly popular in Japan. By which I mean it is popular to foreigners and the older Japan natives. The one in Kurama is a sort of hot tub filled by the waters coming straight out of the ground and enriched with natural minerals. Furthermore, it is outside and overlooks the magnificent mountain range that surrounds Kyoto.
This sounded lovely when I heard about it but there was one thing holding me back from experiencing it: there was no cloth allowed in the bath. Which would mean I would have to take off all my cloths in front of complete strangers and, additionally, sit next to said strangers in the buff in a hot tub.
Some background about my modesty is needed before proceeding with the story. I didn’t even shower in gym class in high school! When I was at Boy Scout camp when I was younger, we all showered in our swim trunks. Bathing in the nude with other people was just not in my wheelhouse. It certainly wasn’t in the forefront in my mind of things I would want to do. And to be clear, I think a lot about stepping outside of my comfort zone. I frequently make hypothetical plans to skydive (it is usually the money that stops me). I force myself to play scales in the park where nobody wants to hear them and where I know I will feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I wander into the wilderness with nothing but what I can carry on my back in the hopes of making it out alive. But when the thought of public nudity comes up, it is not even discussed further than “nope!”
I have written before about the value of a “Screw it, let’s do it” moment. And this was one of them for me. And so I found myself in a locker room staring at my belongings and fingering the clasp on my belt. But at this point, I had already paid the entrance fee money so I would just be wasting it if I didn’t do this. I thought to myself, “Here we go…”
There is no feeling quite like dropping one’s pants in a public place. For me, it is a mixture of terrifying awkwardness and adrenaline-fueled excitement. Of course the Japanese guys in there paid no attention whatsoever while my inhibitions were waging a war against my thrill for adventure. Luckily, the inhibitions eventually lost and it was the most amazing experience of my trip. I felt like I was floating afterwards for the rest of the day.
I try to remember that feeling of boldness whenever I get nervous about something. Some people say you should picture the audience naked to calm performance anxiety. Well I say picture yourself naked and let it all hang out!