Jack wandered through the kitchen.
“Hey Jack,” I pointed at the extra serves of shunkan we had. “Do you actually like any of this?”
He came over and peered at the beautifully arranged plate. “I’m not a big fan of this,” He said pointing at the grey lump of konyaku, “Or this,” the squishy, yellow rectangle of koya dofu. “Pretty much anything artificial, I’m not just not keen on.”
“So basically all of it.”
“I guess you have been eating the same stuff for weeks now. Ever since Mori was quit/fired the chefs won’t make you anything…”
“Yeah. Why is that?”
“I don’t know. They’re just cranky all the time. “
Itacho and Yoshida, are our petulant, kitchen demons. Itacho is tall, and silver-haired, and wears his chef cap on a jaunty angle. When he’s in a good mood, he simpers to the girls, “Yuko chan~~” but that sing-song sweetness can evaporate in a second, especially if we miss count the fruit plates. Yoshida is short, fat and even more temperamental. He drinks like a fish, and this makes him grumpier during the day when he’s forcibly sober (usually). One evening after mopping the kitchen, he came out and violently threw the mop against the dishwasher where it rests. Physics intervened and it bounced off the dishwasher and onto the floor. Enraged, Yoshida kicked the mop. This still failed to put it back up in its proper place. Chastened, he was forced to bend down, pick the mop up, and place it gently upright.
These two toddlers rule our kitchen and we sneak around for fear of setting them off.
“Oh, I heard you had a bit of a cultural experience recently?”
“Oh, yeah… Seems like eating tofu with one chopstick is not the right way to do it. They got a bit upset.”
“Well, I think you’re doing a really great job anyway. Hey, maybe if you’ve got time later let’s head over to the veggie restaurant?”
“Sure! Sounds good.”
I’m a big sister and have been missing my brothers for years now. I see Jack like a little brother and want to help him where I can. Though usually, we don’t have much time together while at work, he is easy to talk to and kind. When I’m chatting to people, I sometimes get distracted and do embarrassing things like drop trays, or let hot water overflow from the kettle. If he’s around, he invariably helps me clean up. He wears a purple jumper with flowers on it most of the time, over 5 layers of long shirts and his room-mate Hamu says he is sensitive to the cold. His smile is always worth waiting for, it makes his whole face light up, and you can see the cheerful spirit beneath. But maybe through shyness or his own quiet personality, his face tends to be more expressionless, his long, dark blonde hair falling around it. We cut his hair one afternoon. I brought out scissors from the 100 yen shop and we wrapped him in bath towels. His hair at the time hung below the shoulder and was tangled and curly like his beard.
“How short?” I asked. Yuko, Hoku and Momoka sat around on the boys’ smoking verandah, watching.
“Not too short, but like, below the ears. It’s getting a little long even for me.”
“But you don’t want it shaved like a monk?”
My first chop brought gasps of alarm from the girls. It was a bit high, and a bit too much at once. Yuko quickly took over, and even despite having no prior hair cutting experience, quickly got into the slight clipping motions, trimming away in more or less a straight line.
Jack’s hair is naturally curly, which perhaps was the saving grace. We held a tiny make-up mirror behind him and took pictures with our phones.
“What do you think?”
“Good, good.” He said, “I’ve had worse.”
Lunch that day was boiled fish, and rice. Again. Ever since Mori left/quit, the quality, variety and nutrition in our staff meals had reduced significantly. My first month I can’t remember eating the same thing more than once. Now it’s fried pork cutlets, watery curry, weak ramen and udon at least once a week.
“We’re not getting any veggies at all.” We girls grumbled mutinously.
“Sweet. It’s always sweet.” Yuko pulled a face while pouring vinegar over her meal. Sen sucked on a pickled plum. “When Mori was here he would cut us a salad. Hey Feli, you want to see Bushi tonight? He said he wants to take us to dinner.”
“Yeah, sounds great.”
“Ok, don’t eat too much tonight.”
If you ever decide to stay at a temple in Koyasan, and then at the last minute decide not to: Please, call and cancel. Cancellation is free and it saves us so much work. Almost every night someone cancels, sometimes as many as 6 people, without calling and we toss all the carefully crafted food we spent an hour working on. Please don’t be one of those people who wastes other people’s food and time.
“Oooh!” Bushi greeted us.
“Bushi-san, you’ve cleaned up!” Sen exclaimed.
Bushi had not changed. The wizened manager of a rival temple still sat amongst his shochu cartons and overflowing cigarette trays. But the centre of his rubbish dump had been improved by the inclusion of a kotatsu. A kotatsu is a wonderful invention. A small heater in the base of a low table covered in a blanket. Bushi’s kotatsu either hid some of his normal mess, or it had been actually cleaned, perhaps by the young monk Jo who had recently come back from training. Bushi’s thick grey eyebrows rose up.
“Australia!” He said emphatically pointing at night. “Sydney, right?”
“No, further north.”
“Not near that…” He makes the shape of a trapezoid with his hands, “That rock?”
“Yes, Uluru! I want to go there.”
“Sorry Feli, you might have to answer the same questions. Over, and over, and over.” Sen said and disappeared to fetch some of Bushi’s beers for us.
I’ve been to Bushi’s place a half dozen times at this point, and it’s pretty much the same pattern every single time. Today, however, sharing the kotatsu is another older Japanese man, and hovering outside with a big grin is the young monk Jo who is happy to see Sen.
“Don’t settle in, we’re going out soon,” Sen said passing me a beer.
Bushi showed me some pictures he’d taken that day of himself with a pretty, blonde guest. It was his new Facebook profile pic. Above his head were strings of tiny, magnetised koalas and CANADA magnets that thoughtful guests had brought. Unfortunately, the idea was far from unique and Bushi’s collection was getting out of control.
“Jo, call the place.” Bushi ordered, “Tell them that four of us are coming. It’s a small place, so you can’t come this time ok? You stay here and look after things for me.”
Jo complied, calling up the restaurant and putting in a reservation. From karaoke bars to eating establishments, everything in Koya is small and fills up fast.
Sen and I reluctantly untangled ourselves from the warmth of the kotatsu and went out. When I saw the car’s lights on, I stopped. For some reason, I guess I hadn’t thought until that point that we were going to drive.
“Um, hold on,” I said to Sen in English, “He’s driving?”
“Yes,” Sen replied.
“He’s drunk.” Bushi had obviously been drinking for hours. Japan has a zero tolerance towards alcohol. I have seen people refuse to eat tiramisu for fear of being pulled over.
Also, drink driving is… wrong, immoral, potentially lethal… “That’s terrifying.”
“Mmm, yes.” She agreed, “But in Koyasan everyone does it. The monks in our temple do it.”
“That… what…” That is just not an excuse. “You know what, I can walk, or I have a license, I could drive.”
“iiyo, iiyo, we’ll just tell him, and he’ll change the place.” Sen went back inside, as the two older men were coming out, bags and keys in hand. Bushi stumbled a little. It’s probably not surprising what happened next.
Sen said, “Bushi, can we drink somewhere else. Yappari, you driving is a bit scary for Feli.”
Dumbfounded, Bushi halted, then swung around to go back to his room.
We started to hear his grumbling. “Homma ni,” Over and over.
Finally, he announced, “That’s it, we’re going. I’m taking Jo instead of you. Give me the phone. I’ll call them, and change it to 3, instead of 4. Homma ni kuso. You just leave. Don’t come back again.”
“Ok, ok.” Sen nodded, laughing, “You always say that, but we’re going.”
“I mean it!” He stepped out to yell at us. “Don’t ever come back!”
Why is drink driving ok, and eating tofu with one chopstick is not? Because everyone does it? Do adults, or monks, get to use that excuse when I would never give my grade 1 students the luxury? I am still angry about this. I haven’t been back to drink with Bushi since.
Despite the dangers of being on the roads at night, my coworkers and I ventured out one evening in early November to enjoy the light up at Kongo Buji. Unfortunately, only a few trees had changed colour at that point, but it was a moment of serenity: sitting on the smooth, wooden balcony, overlooking raked stone gardens warmly lit by lanterns.
“Let’s go to karaoke,” Sen said.
Momoka agreed enthusiastically.
“Are you going, Hoku?” I asked.
“Ok, then, I’m in.”
“There aren’t booths in Koyasan,” Sen cautioned, “Only snack bars. The place we’re going charges 1000yen entry, but the songs are free. Some places charge 100 or 200 yen per song.”
Hoku dropped us off at the entrance and went to park.
Momoka froze just before opening the door. “Look!”
One of the red umbrellas by the door was from our temple.
“Itacho,” Momoka whispered. We loitered on the doorstep.
“Should we call the mama-san to check if he’s really in there?” Sen asked.
Momoka opened the door a fraction. “He’s there,” She said, “But he’s at the far end of the room. If we sit on this side, we won’t be bothered by him.”
We sidled into a booth in the corner of the room furthermost from our moody chef. He sat at the counter, a woman on each side, one of them acting like she enjoyed being in his proximity. Like most establishments in Koya, the bar is small, and we sat at its only table. Everyone else perched along the bar, with a bowl of nuts and snacks before them. Some peered at an electronic karaoke index, considering their next song choice. Three TVs on the walls played enka ballads that an elderly woman was crooning, while the rest listened attentively. Excluding our group, the average age of the room was 65.
Momoka made our presence known to Itacho as she squeezed past him en route to the toilet. She bowed and mouthed greetings to him which he ignored.
“Those two really have a bad relationship,” Sen muttered.
The Mama-san, her hair piled high and curling on her head, brought us hand towels, beers, the song index and a warning to be quiet while other people were singing.
“What will you sing Feli?” Momoka asked.
“Nothing too screamy, or loud maybe,” Sen suggested. Behind the bar, the Mama-san shushed at us. “Ahh, I wish we were at a booth.”
“Ok, I think I might know a song they’ll like. It’s in Japanese… but, I’ll give it a try.”
The song is called Ue o muite aruko, also known as Sukiyaki in English. The melody is so bright, and catchy, that everyone who knows it will sing alone, and even those who don’t will have it spinning around in their head for days. Meanwhile, the lyrics are sweet and sad:
“Looking up, let’s walk so that my tears don’t fall
I remember that spring day, on this night I am alone.”
It’s also an older song, perfect for the crowd. I think I heard someone “woo!” Itacho in the corner raised his glass in our direction and paid for the rest of our drinks that night.
“Itacho, can I ask a favour?” I decided to use my improved, post-karaoke standing with Itacho for good.
“One of my friends is coming here soon. She’s a vegetarian. You don’t need to make her special food, but maybe something with more vegetables or the meat separate would be nice. Jack is working too, so it would be…”
“Make vegetarian food? They should just eat the same as everyone else! They can’t expect to have special food from the rest. You can ask me anything else but that.” He escaped back into his kitchen.
“It’s so unfair.” I complained to Momoka, “Jack works as hard as anyone else, yet he has to eat the leftovers, and whatever else we can find everyday. It wouldn’t be so hard even to cut up a salad once in a while. Then when my friend comes, to help us out when we’re short-staffed, what will she eat?”
“Maybe talk to Okusan,” Momoka suggested, “Then she can tell Itacho, and he has to listen to her.”
Okusan listened to what I had to say.
“I think Itacho thinks that vegetarians are selfish, but actually we’re all missing out on eating more veggies recently.”
“I have to agree with Itacho.” She said, “Asking for a different diet to the others is selfish. You can’t expect the monks to come in from work and eat only vegetables! They will complain! If staff want to have special meals, then like the other people in the past, they will just have to buy it for themselves. I will talk to Itacho though about more veggies in our food. It’s something I have to talk about with him frequently…”
It’s a topsy-turvy world when being a vegetarian in a Buddhist temple is the selfish act. When on the 23rd, Kobo Daishi Day, the one day of the month when, by tradition, the monks are supposed to eat only vegetarian fare, they go out to local restaurants later to eat beef sukiyaki. The image of the monks in Koyasan leading aesthetic lives is an illusion. The only people who eat traditional Buddhist meals here are the guests who pay for it.
As per Sen’s prediction the week he arrived, much of Jack’s food was gathered by the staff. One of the older monks would invariably raid the fridge for veggie leftovers for him, Momoka cooked for him, Fuka brought him avocados, Hoku would buy anything he mentioned he liked (even kimuchi, which is a spicy Korean cabbage dish, though unfortunately, we found that it contained squid. Jack said thank you, the other monks ate it, and we never told Hoku…), and I scavenged raw carrots from boxes left in the kitchen. I later found out these were offerings to Buddha. I figure though that if one vegan in the temple can get a free feed, that he wouldn’t mind sharing with another.
Some months later I was asked to sign a petition against the new anti-smoking laws coming into Japan that will affect hotels, bars, night clubs etc.
When I explained that I am pro the new anti-smoking laws, they listened without argument, but everyone signed it and then went out on the balcony for a smoke.
There are days when the hypocrisy really gets to me. I realise that I’m living in a world that is in many ways false. That world extends beyond the temple I’m in, beyond the temples of Koyasan and Japan. I saw signs of the same issue even in countries where abeyance of Buddhist laws is more carefully kept. Even there, money has corrupted Buddhism.
But, I know it will be hard to leave Koyasan. I like the monks a lot, despite the fact that they don’t live an ideal Buddhist lifestyle, and my female coworkers are like sisters.
In my own consumerist way, I love how comfortable I am here. I love my small but comfortable room. Every convenience is laid on. I can use the heater as much as I want. There’s always a hot bath filled. Cooked meals come 3 times a day, and there’s always extra rice or leftovers from previous meals. Visitors to the temple bring a range of amazing snacks from across Japan that the Okusan shares with us and the monks.
The toilets are high quality in this temple generally, but I think our female staff toilet is perhaps the best toilet in Japan. Apart from the standard heated seat, the light switches on and the toilet opens automatically on entering the room and then flushes automatically on leaving. It’s frustrating to actually go back to reality when I’m at home and have to cook for myself, wait for the water in the shower to heat up, and to remember to flush the toilet…
But at least when I go home, I will be able to eat like a vegetarian again.