Letter from Kamakura (or, how London and Japan are the same but different)

I’ve never been in Asia before, and right now I’m standing at the very front of a train, riding from Tokyo’s Narita airport towards the first Japanese city I’ve ever visited, Kamakura. There’s a window straight into the driver’s cabin, and through his windshield down the track ahead, where the rails gleam in the murk of late afternoon in November. It feels good to be up at the front, watching out for approaching points, guessing whether we’ll switch tracks, enjoying the sense of the whole pristine Japanese train following us, as the carriages articulate themselves through the junctions.

In the distance off to one side, dense clumps of office blocks move past, their heads lost in low cloud, all their windows glowing distantly like columns of light in the rain. Street lamps are already lit, each one weaving a small web of light in the fabric of mist. It all looks like the London suburbs. Then we leave the urban sprawl, and rattle through clean and tidy commuter towns, with tall garden fences visible from the height of our track, and level crossings where dutiful lines of small cars wait for their chance to cross. We pass farms of grey fields, and copses of deciduous woodland climbing small hills, grey in the drizzle. It all looks like England, my homeland.

Some places are unspeakably exotic to Western ears, yet disappointingly normal to Western eyes. I remember reading an account of a traveler arriving in Lima, Peru, by ship, only to find fog overhanging the whole shore, and the desert grey and drab. There weren’t even palm trees. Altogether, the deliciously exotic sound of the names – Lima, Callao, Peru – was nothing like the reality.

Something akin happens to me here in Japan. In many ways it feels disconcertingly familiar, like a doppelganger of England out in the Far East – another maritime island nation, rainy, a former imperial power, with a large industrial economy, and traditions going back to the Middle Ages, and an antiquated social system, and elaborate etiquette, and an obsessive fondness for tea. Like England, it seems built up with many small two-story houses, and full of small cars, and narrow roads, and tidy gardens. People even drive on the left.

But the way the train guard checks my ticket is anything but familiar.He bows to me, takes my ticket in two white-gloved hands, bows to it, hands it back, smiles, and bows to me once more. Apparently all is in order. What can I do but bow in return?

In Kamakura I put up in a hotel near the station, a large European house from the turn of the twentieth century, built during the Western-oriented days of the Empire. Even this was just a bit disappointing. It looked and felt so like England I even started wondering why I had come at all.

But the first morning, I borrowed a bicycle from a friend of a friend (as it happens, the preferred means of transport in my hometown, Oxford), and gradually Kamakura started to reveal its treasures. First, not tea, oddly, but the coffee. Coffee is treated here with the kind of reverence usually reserved for scientific experiments. The first coffee shop I stop by is so small I can barely move once I’m installed behind one of the tiny antique tables. It has a genteel atmosphere – little cloths on the table tops, tiny vases with a single flower each, some smoky jazz from the Forties playing softly, and only two other customers politely sipping from their cups.

When I walked in, I didn’t know what kind of establishment it was. A diaphanous strip of curtain hung over the open doorway, and a series of characters had been painted on a board beside it, unintelligible to a non-speaker like me. But I brushed through anyway, feeling the need of a little refuge from the strange familiarity of the streets. Once I was seated, I hardly dared breathe in case I knocked something over. And when the coffee came – a rich café au lait – it was so perfect, so fragrant and just the right strength, it was almost too good to drink.

As in Oxford, here too there are many lanes and narrow roads dating from ancient times. I cycle down them, past many other cyclists and pedestrians, past the ubiquitous small cars, exploring. I find myself arriving at small groves of bamboo, and mossy cliffs rising unexpectedly among the houses, and at golden Buddhas glowing in darkened shrine-rooms beneath huge oak beams, and at the foot of the Daibutsu, a giant old Buddha made of greying bronze who sits with his back slightly hunched, while Japanese tourists queue up to walk inside him; and at the home of the thirty-foot high statue of Kannon Hasadera, goddess of Mercy, the Japanese Mary, bathed in the shifting light of a thousand candles, the atmosphere around her fragrant with wax and incense. I stop for a big bowl of buckwheat noodles that I slurp down with chopsticks and a deep spoon, and for many small cups of tea.

Kamakura was the mediaeval capital during the Shogunate of the 1200′s and 1300′s, and like Kyoto, has many glorious old temples. It’s the temples I’m really here for, and for the Zen. The Zen lineage in which I myself have been studying for a number of years has its headquarters here in Kamakura, in a small zendo with tatami floors – a zendo which over the past half century has been responsible for spreading more Zen to the West than perhaps any other zendo in the world. Square foot per square urban mile, the ratio is impressive.

When I first enter this silent, peaceful room, I realise that this is exactly why I have come – to sit still on the floor in the golden silence of my lineage’s home. It’s a small room, and could hold 40 people on their cushions at most. Yet the Roshi’s Yasutani, Yamada and Maezumi all sat and studied here, who between them brought the West much of its available zen training. My own teachers sat here. At one end of the room, I light incense on the crowded altar, cluttered with photographs, candles, incense burners, and various statues of Buddha in different forms. Then I make my bows of gratitude.

Fifty years ago, Zen was as exotic as anything. But zen is the study of human nature. Can it really be so exotic anywhere? Now that I have come to the fount – or the conduit – of the river of teaching that has flowed into my life, somehow it’s not surprising that it doesn’t seem exotic at all. It just seems beautiful.

To walk into the quiet, still atmosphere among the wooden buildings of an old temple is like suddenly becoming a carp in a carp pond. One’s very breath slows down. One walks slower. Most of Kamakura’s famous temples – Kochoji, Engakuji, Hojoji – are built in clefts in the wooded hills that encircle the middle of town, and stand deep in the green shade of enormous trees. The quiet here is strangely submarine, with the sunlight filtering through the canopy of trees. Beyond, cemeteries reach up into folds in the hillsides, studded with moss-covered boulders and narrow tombstones.

In some, shrine rooms are left open, and it’s possible to sit quietly on their tatami floors while trails of incense smoke rise up in front of massive bronze Buddhas seated up on a dais in the partial gloom.

There’s a sense of order here that is not the maniacal cleanliness one associates with zen; rather, a natural human tidiness. Even the gravel gardens that some temples have are browned by recent rain, strewn with fallen leaves – far from the obsessively raked affairs familiar from famous images. Altogether, the wooden complexes with their ornate, flaring eaves, their many trees, and the stone paths threading over their damp soil, give the impression of well-tended mountain villages – tidy but with a lived-in feel.

One of the dangers of an imported religion, such as Zen Buddhism in the West, is an over-zealous pursuing of the forms of the new faith. Here, one senses that the generations of Zen practitioners have rubbed off the sharp corners, giving its campuses the feel of rounded river-stones. Each time I leave a temple on my bicycle, I find myself moving at a slow, fulfilled pace, turning the pedals gently as I cruise down alleys towards the next temple.

One evening, I cycle to an “Okonomakiyaki House” – a restaurant of several low-ceilinged rooms, where each floor-level table has an iron burner in the middle, on which diners prepare their own okonomakiyaki – a kind of cross between a pizza and an omelette, with all kinds of ingredients poured into the sputtering mix on the griddle. A family at the next table helps me out, showing me how to do it, and we raise our glasses of beer to one another.

England has nothing quite like this. Yet rain is tapping against the window, and the low-beamed chain of rooms reminds me of a medieval pub in Oxford. My borrowed bicycle is waiting outside, its saddle growing damp. I check my pocket – reflex of decades of rainy Oxford living – and find I do have a handkerchief on me for wiping it down later.

I could hardly be further from that other rain-soaked, post-imperial island where I grew up. Yet once again it feels just like home. Just like it, yet utterly different.

The next day I walk in the small wooded hills that surround the center of the city, visiting various shrines. Implausibly, the worn paths among the trees remind me of the park where I used to go for Sunday afternoon strolls with my family as a child, under overcast English skies. I’m half expecting to find conkers on the ground – the gleaming chestnut treasures of my youth.

Many of the first western Zen pioneers were English. Jiyu Kennett, Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, all started exploring and spreading Asian religion before most American pioneers. Yet zen has been slower to take root in England than in America. In the old country it has to contend with staunch Anglo-Saxon empiricism, and with the entrenched values of a culture proud of its traditions. Yet there’s a history of contemplative practice in England that goes back to the 1300′s – an age comparable to the first flowering of zen in Japan.

Somehow it’s weirdly reassuring to find this place so familiar, in spite of its strangeness, as if confirming that the alien path I have chosen is in the end not so alien. After all, wherever we go on this globe, we tend to find much the same things: trees, hills, and that most lambent treasure of all, the human heart. When I board my train back to the airport, it’s with a sense of being at home wherever I go. As Hakuin Zenji said in the 1700′s, “Coming and going, we are never elsewhere.” Or, in the words of a contemporary western Buddhist: “Wherever you go, there are you.”

[Photos: Flickr | d'n'c; Guwashi999; InfiniteSites; OiMax; kalandrakas]