Tag Archives: Japan

The Zen of Soba

“There’s nothing equal to wearing clothes and eating food. Outside this there are neither Buddhas nor Patriarchs.” (Zenrin Kushû)

Soba Master Takashi demonstrates
Soba Master Takashi demonstrates

During our last few days in Japan, our friend, Toshiko, said that she wanted to show us something, a surprise. Not having any clue, we met her near a subway station and followed her to a rather nondescript building, which I don’t think either of us could find again.

I was about to be inducted as novice soba maker.

In Japan, wheat flour is called udon, and so are the noodles made from it. (Udon usually refers to the fat noodles; ramen, to the thin version.) Soba, on the other hand, means buckwheat, and also the flour and noodles made from buckwheat.

Buckwheat flours used to make soba noodles
Buckwheat flours used to make soba noodles

We entered a room that had large wooden work benches and a small kitchen in one corner. At each workbench was a big empty bowl, a couple smaller bowls with flour and a huge dowel.

Zen, karate, aikido, iaido and many martial arts from the East, are transmitted from teacher to student in a line of tradition. So also is the art of soba noodles. Soba makers attain levels of achievement awarded to them by the master, much like the colored belts in martial arts.

I didn't get my name (or rolling pin) on the wall
I didn’t get my name (or rolling pin) on the wall

This class was taught by Soba Master Takashi Ueda, a man who has trained thousands of students including four masters in the central region of Japan. Other men, who were already advanced in the art, joined me that evening.

I'm going to be serious about this. Seriously.
I’m going to be serious about this. Seriously.

They unwrapped their custom rolling pins and special noodle-cutting knives, Japanese blades that cost hundreds of dollars. This was a heavy investment in both time and money. Why? Like Robert Pirsig wrote “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a motorcycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”

How did he get that perfect circle?

The essence of Zen Buddhism is the mind’s total occupation in the meditation itself. The connection between this kind of meditation and the practice of one particular physical task dates back to the time of Bodhidharma, the Father of Zen. He taught at the Shaolin Monastery in China where he developed focused exercises that would later become the Kung Fu of so many Hollywood movies. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it for the benefit of Bruce Lee, though.

Does this look like a lotus flower?
Does this look like a lotus flower?

In soba making, there are many steps, each requiring concentration, craft and art. It’s an understatement to say that it would be a mistake to lose concentration while rapidly slicing the noodles into thin strands with a razor-sharp knife.

Fortunately, the master and the advanced students were quite accepting of my antics and laughter. It’s one thing to concentrate in quietude. It’s quite another thing when someone nearby is being a total clown. I managed to make soba though (barely).

Look, a perfect ball!
Look, a perfect ball!

When the noodles were made and the tools were cleaned and put away, Master Takashi cooked the noodles that he made and served them up to us. There is no describing how different fresh, handmade soba noodles taste.

The noodle, the texture, the size, the bite, the color and the flavor are a personal interaction of the grain and the maker. As in art… as in poetry… the maker is in the noodle. So also is the Buddha.

There Are Cemeteries. And Then There Are Cemeteries

… like the Père Lachaise in Paris where Jim Morrison is interred, the Jewish cemetery in Crakow, Westminster Abbey or the Komarovo in St Petersberg.

Okunoin in Japan is one of those special places. Centuries old, it holds the ashes of famous emperors, shoguns, samurai and poets. Sprawling into the forests of the Koyasan valley, it has an enchanted feeling. Indeed, it is enchanted.

Koyasan is a valley between eight mountain peaks that make its geography like the lotus flower that is the symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism. The location was chosen in the ninth century by the Japanese monk Kukai, who brought esoteric Buddhism to Japan from China. He built a monastery here, and now this little town in the mountains has over 100 shrines, temples and monasteries.Koyasan20140625_0706

The entire valley is infused with spiritual energy. The monk, Kobo-Daishi as he is now known, requested of his disciples that he not be cremated, contrary to Japanese tradition. Rather, he asked them to place his body in a mausoleum in the forest. Legend has it that his body, in spite of not being embalmed, has not decomposed. Like the Jesus fable, believers say that Kobo-Daishi did not actually die, but rather he has entered a state of deep meditation and samadhi, and is waiting for the rebirth of The Buddha.

Regardless, it is certainly true that the cemetery around him has an amazing power of attraction and peaceful spirituality. We saw new, polished monuments and graves, modest but well tended markers and some whose family has forgotten, died off or moved to other lands.

Koyasan20140625_0708I myself would love to have my ashes placed in the shade of those graceful pines and the spot marked with coral rock (something geologically out of place I hope). Here, on this special mountain, it’s easy to imagine an afterlife communing with Japanese poets, having ethereal tea ceremonies or learning skills from legendary samurai blade makers. All the while, we will keep an eye on Kobo so we will be among the first to learn of Buddha’s rebirth.

Click on a thumbnail below for the picture viewer.


What We Miss in Japan Now That We Are in Taiwan 

Travel, for us, is all about our interaction with people; not seeing all the tourist attractions that a destination offers. So, the first thing we miss now that we are in Taiwan, are those good friends we made in Japan and with whom we shared a lot of good times.

Rice fields in Nara

It took me so long to research Japanese language learning systems to find the one that ’spoke’ to me. I just wanted to communicate on an easy, not even grammatically correct, simple level. But, learning Hiragana, and Katakana was not enough. The language begged me to delve deeper and deeper by introducing culture and tradition. I began learning radicals as a foundation to begin learning the Kanji, which was really exciting, but it diverted me altogether from practicing any conversational language. So my progress was tediously slow.

And now that we’re in Taiwan, I miss being able to ask my friend, Hiroko, all those language questions that she was so skillful at answering during our mutual language exchange.

Kimono School with Toshiko

I really felt welcome each time I entered or left a convenience store, retail shop, restaurant or bar. There was always a greeting chorus by every employee offering “welcome to my store”, “can I help you with something?”or maybe something playful like “welcome strange and funny foreigner to our establishment” or whatever it was they were saying, because I had no idea. I enjoyed hearing their singsong welcome but never knew if it warranted a response from me so I could only pleasantly acknowledge them and smile. I know the greetings were a management directive and not really sincere, but I always imagined them to be.

We dined one evening at a restaurant with our friend Hiromi and she pointed out a button on the wall by our table. She pushed it to summon our server just to ask a question. Then she used it again to ask our server how to get the advertised discount for our meal. She called her again to ask for help loading the app that offers the discount coupon. After getting over our hesitation to use the button, we grew to love it calling for more water or an explanation of what dish was served. The wait staff would come running, actually running to our table at our slightest whim. Tipping is not done in Japan so there was never a promise of extra money for the speedy service delivered always with a smile in Japan. This courteous and attentive service may just be unmatched elsewhere.

at the Costume Store with Hiromi

I miss the dollar stores where I can buy everything and it all works perfectly as you may expect an item that cost much more to perform. There are Japanese Daiso stores ($1 stores) in Taiwan, but I preferred the Seria 100 yen shops. The Daiso stores carry more utilitarian supplies. The Seria stores had not only the whimsical items with no practical purpose like a toast stamp that makes an imprint of some anime character on a piece of toast, highly specialized gadgets like cute plastic stoppers for laundry poles to prevent hangars from flying off the ends, but also the traditional Japanese items like fans and (empty) bento boxes to pack your kid’s lunch.

The train system in Japan that you can set your watch by does not exist in Taiwan. Japan’s vast and efficient train network connecting every part of the city and its adjacent towns with precision and orderliness is something we may never see anywhere again. Those clean and comfortable trains that posted official signs admonishing riders to behave properly while aboard, were always within short walking distance no matter where we were. They were not inexpensive but the ease of use and convenience made up for the cost.

Gion Matsuri (Festival) with Hiroko

Sidewalks in Japan are built for pedestrians and bicycles. Some have lane markers so both can share … politely. Drivers in Japan are so careful of others and give people on foot and on bicycles the right of way. Taiwan is not friendly to pedestrians and we decided early on that riding bikes would be impossible. The few sidewalks we have seen have been monopolized by scooters driving or parking on them.

There were so many little hole-in-the-wall bars everywhere in Japan. There was a building with an entire floor sporting almost 50 bars side by side along narrow hallways. Each bar had it’s unique theme and clientele. We have not yet spotted a drinking establishment in Taiwan.

Toilet controls

Last but most importantly, I miss the Japanese iconic electronic toilets. I miss the warmed seats, butt and bidet sprays leaving you clean-as-a-whistle, and the pleasant bird songs or classical music masking sounds I may make in the toilet lest I die of shame.

Just when I was feeling my loss most profoundly, we happened upon Dawn Cake, a pastry business with an ice cream parlour and pastry/dessert retail outlet on the main floor and a fabulous restaurant on the second floor. They had Japanese toilets in one of the most posh bathrooms I have visited in a long time, including Japan. We dined at this restaurant, which we highly recommend, and luxuriated in their bathrooms fondly remembering toilets in Japan. Yes, toilets in Japan are what I miss the most and I want one.