September, 2006

This page is written monthly
by Harumi Okochi.
Sometimes Harumi's friends join.
We'd be happy if you look at
previous issues.


Footsteps with Ryokan-san

I hope you are safe and well after the heat.
Is autumn stealing by in your neighborhood?

This month, I would like to introduce you Mr. Michael Podlin. He stayed with us in July after his pilgrimage in Japan. I was amazed to hear about his journey. So I asked him to write about his experience on this page. I am quite sure you will like his essay.

Before you proceed to Michael's essay, please read an article from Wikipedia. It will help you to understand who Ryokan-san was.

Please enjoy!

from Wikipedia

Ryokan [ryoh-kan]
A Zen monk & poet

was a Zen Buddhist monk who lived in Niigata Japan 1758-1831. He soon left the monastery, where practice was frequently quite lax, and lived as a hermit until he was very old and had to move into the house of one of his supporters. Ryokan was famous for his poetry and calligraphy. His poetry is often very simple and inspired by nature. He was a lover of children, and sometimes forgot to go on his alms round to get food because he was playing with the children of the nearby village. Ryokan refused to accept any position as a priest or even as a "poet", which shows his great humility. In the tradition of Zen his quotes and poems show he had a good sense of humour and didn't take himself too seriously. However his poetry also gives illumining insights into the practice of Zen. Ryokan lived a very simple, purelife, and stories about his kindness and generosity abound. On his deathbed, Ryokan offered the following poem:

ura wo mise
omote wo misete
chiru momiji
showing their backs
then their fronts
the autumn leaves scatter in the wind

Footsteps with Ryokan-san

Michael Podlin

In June of 2006 I fulfilled a lifelong dream of traveling to Japan, a country and culture that has intrigued me most of my life. Four years ago I began a personal and spiritual journey through a meditation practice that would eventually point me directly to Japan. It was my meditation teacher, Rev. Eido Frances Carney Roshi, Abbot of Olympia Zen Center in Washington state, who introduced me to the poetry of the Zen master Taigu Ryokan, Japan’s beloved hermit monk. My trip this summer was a pilgrimage to trace the footsteps of Ryokan-san, a journey that would bring alive his poetry and Japanese culture.

Ryokan-do in Entsuji
Led by our meditation teacher, Eido-san, and joined by four other students, our pilgrimage began at Entsuji Temple in Tamashima. Founded nearly 300 years ago, Entsuji is where in 1779 at age twenty-one Ryokan-san followed his teacher to undergo austere priest’s training. It is an especially meaningful temple for members of Olympia Zen Center, for this is where our teacher studied with her teacher, the abbot of Entsuji, Rev. Niho Tetsumei Roshi.

To our jet-lagged surprise, we were met at the train station in Kurashiki by a film crew who would record our next five days at Entsuji for a documentary. Among the most memorable moments at Entsuji were those with members of the religious and lay community. We were welcomed with the most incredible generosity, graciousness and hospitality I have ever experienced. We were deeply honored to be invited to stay at Ryokan-do, the original house where Ryokan-san lived. I slept soundly and dreamlessly on the same floor that he walked some 225 years ago.

Sweet memories linger--sitting zazen at dawn washed by the sound of heavy rain, and the immense spider who joined
At Entsuji
 Rev. Niho Tetsumei Roshi
(front center)
us. Sleepily, I was sitting with eyes closed when a quick nudge from my meditating neighbor, Kate, alerted me to the spider crawling directly in front of us. It meandered back and forth until it began to crawl up the robe of my other neighbor, Fletcher. Only our eyes moved to follow the path of the spider. Then in one quick flick of his robe, Fletcher flung the spider inches away, where it curled into a ball and slipped into a hairline crack between the platform and wall. For the rest of our pilgrimage during zazen, my eyes remained half-opened as they should for meditation practice!

At Entsuji we were treated to a music performance, tea ceremony, Tai Chi, a dinner in our honor, and the warm embrace of the community. We took a day trip to Hiroshima Peace Park, where we chanted the Heart Sutra in memory of those who senselessly lost their innocent lives, as well as those who continue to suffer the bomb's devastating impact. I felt frightened and sad that today the world remains dangerously capable of such mass destruction.

We continued our journey to Izumosaki, in Niigata prefecture, where Ryokan-san was born and died. We climbed Mt. Kugami and visited Gogo-an, the forest hut where he lived for some 26 years, coming down into nearby villages and towns to beg, play with the children and drink sake with the villagers. Perhaps because it was almost lunchtime, we enjoyed nearly an hour in solitude, free from
busloads of tourists. We visited the Ryokan museum and, having read his poetry and seen his calligraphy only in books, we were awed by the tangibility of the original work before our eyes.

As the pilgrimage part of our journey came to an end, we spent a night at Eiheiji Temple in Fukui prefecture, which is regarded as one of the world’s most influential Zen temples. Eiheiji was founded in 1244 by Zen master Dogen Zenji, who studied Buddhism in China and introduced Soto Zen to Japan. As one of two head temples of the Soto sect of Buddhism, it is an active monastery with some 200 monks in residence and training, with a great number of visitors
practicing Zen meditation.

Eiheiji is a deeply powerful, sacred place that awakens the senses all at once-- the enormity of over 70- inter-connected buildings nestled in a valley of 700 year-old pine trees; the aroma of cedar from the buildings and lingering incense from ceremony; the smoothness of steep wooden steps, well worn from the slippered feet of monks and hundreds of thousands visitors; the loud silence of the forest interrupted by the rustling of monks’ robes, ceremony bells, gongs and taiko drums.

The official part of our Ryokan-san pilgrimage now over, we spent a few days in Kyoto soaking up culture, temple gardens, and shopping for gifts for family and friends at home. Instead of returning to Seattle with my fellow travelers, I continued on to the island of Naoshima to Benesse art site, the Chichu Art museum, and the Art House project.

In Kyoto Mr. Miyake from Entsuji, Rev. Eido Frances Carney Roshi, Michael Podlin. Kate Crowe, Fletcher Ward, Mickey Olson
Switching from the richly historic aesthetic of Zen temples to the contemporary concrete and glass architecture of Tadao Ando was a dramatic yet seamless transition from visiting holy sites to mainstream culture. I love the sleekness of contemporary architecture and, when done well, it expresses the most elemental aspects of Zen. Stunningly set on a bluff above the ocean, Benesse House is a luxury hotel and contemporary art museum all in one, exhibiting the works of illustrious visual artists such as Sam Francis, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and many others.

From Naoshima I traveled to my final destination, Ryokan Yoyokaku. It is there in the caring comfort of the proprietors, the Okochis, and their attentive staff that I made my home for six days as a base for exploring Karatsu and the surrounding area. While anticipating my pilgrimage, I happened upon the August 2005 issue of Gourmet Magazine and the feature about the form and function of pottery and food. The article cited Yoyokaku and immediately I knew I would go there.

Through a Seattle friend, I was introduced to Terry Welch, who has a long-time close personal connection to the Okochis (see Terry’s essay on the garden). It was Terry who helped refine my personal itinerary and focus on the gardens of Kyoto during my time there.

Back in Karatsu, I explored the local area and indulged my interest in fine pottery. I had the good fortune one Sunday afternoon to visit Takashi Nakazato in his studio. Working clay into vessels with baroque music playing
Takashi Nakazato
softly in the background, his work is meditation practice. What I saw is an authentic man fully present and engaged in life and the creation of art. I brought back to Seattle a tea ceremony water jar made by Takashi, and it sits where I can see it as a daily reminder of my visit with this national treasure!

I will always remember the people of Japan and my good fortune to experience the country as an “insider.” I spent my birthday on a day trip to Arita, which also happens to be the day when children decorate trees with hand-made ornaments in celebration of the Milky Way. On the way to Arita riding a single-car, yellow diesel train, a mother with her two children left another warm impression on me about the generosity of the Japanese people.

As I boarded the train, one of the children--a boy about 8 years-old--looked up at me from his ice cream cone, laughed and shouted “Gaijin!” He continued to watch me curiously from across the train and finally came over to sit beside me. “American?” he asked. With body language I made a motion as if swinging a baseball bat. “Yes, from Seattle-Ichiro!” I said. His eyes lit up and he presented me with a small bag of candy that moments before a businessman man had given him from across the aisle. My heart melted. He sat next to and leaned into me until his mother, sister and he got off the train at their stop.

I fell in love with Japan--the land, people, culture and food. Land of great care! It will remain among the fondest memories of all my travels and I will be back again soon. I am grateful to the many people who reached out to me with openness, curiosity, and generosity.

With dedication and deepest gratitude to my family, teachers, and friends,

     Michael Podlin    

Michael Podlin was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and lived for ten years in San Francisco. He now lives in Seattle and is Assistant Dean for Advancement in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington. Michael may be contacted at mpodlin@sprynet.com

Thank you, Michael-san, for sharing your journey with us.
I wish I could go on such a pilgrimage someday.

The last days of Ryokan-san's pure life, the old monk lived being taken care of by Nun Teishin, who adored and respected Ryokan-san as the lifetime teacher. The "agapё" between Ryokan and Teishin was more beautiful than any other love stories ever written. Ryokan and Teishin wrote poems to each other. Here is one of Teishin's.

Here with you
I could remain
For countless days and years
Silent as the bright moon
We watched together

So, good-bye until next month. I wish you a beautiful autumn moon.

Ryokan" (The monk) and "ryokan" (a Japanese inn like ours) are spelled same in alphabets. But please don't get puzzeled. Ryokan ( Buddist name of the beloved monk) is pronounced Ryoh-kan. Here, the "o" is longer than pronounced in "ryokan" (inn). Chinese characters are completely different.

Thank you very much for visiting this page.
I hope you will return next month.
Yours, Harumi Okochi

Proprietress of

  Mail to Harumi Okochi