Practicing Inner Zen in Japan

February 7, 2020
japan, japan living abroad
Practicing Inner Zen in Japan

“We have landed at Narita International Airport. Welcome to Japan!” says a voice through the intercom.

I have arrived and my life in Japan is about to commence! I am thrilled, but my excitement starts to wane when the summer heat begins to seep into the plane now that the air-conditioning is off. No matter—I am dressed for summer, my bright orange midi skirt breezily swishes around my legs as I file in line, slowly making my way off the plane.

Slow, slow, ever so slow. Why can’t people walk faster?! I must hurry, I have places to go, people to meet! Finally, an opening! Slipping between two passengers, I find a gap and start to pick up pace. It is going well, but then I feel a slight tug. Followed by the shredding sound of fabric. I stop and turn, catching sight of surprised faces and widened eyes. As soon as my eyes meet the those of the onlookers, they look away, quickly rushing past.

A large rip spreads from my waistband, running across the right and all the way to the left side. The once beautiful skirt flutters apart in tatters, waving open in bright orange banner flags. I have become the first sight-seeing attraction for those entering Narita.

A voice from deep within reaches me through my despair. Find your center, it says.

Now, I have to make a choice between many options, and it must be lighting fast, because I don’t have much time. I can freeze in shock. I can crouch down and gather my thoughts. I can blush and cry in embarrassment. I can wait for the passengers disperse. I can continue standing still, pondering my choices, letting time pass me by.

Or, I can freeze time within myself.  I can find my center, my Zen.

After all, I have reached my lowest point, my nadir: the ultimate embarrassment. The only way from here is up. Time to find Zen, to find Zenith.

It is only for a moment. I shut out the world around me, the passengers fade away. I am still.

Then, my temporary solution is obvious. I grab the lowest dangling piece of my skirt, pull it, tying it to what still hangs from my waistband. In a matter of seconds, I have made a lopsided wrap. I’ll call it  “fashion”. Holding my head high, I continue out, full of purpose. Later, I am able to retrieve a pair of pants from my luggage in an airport bathroom, where I change before continuing onward to my hotel.

After I reach my hotel, all goes smoothly, until I am at the end of a group tour the following night.

Confusion over subway tickets delays my return. I am exhausted, it is already 10 pm, and it will take more than an hour to get back to the hotel. My feet ache, and I have spent the entire day in Tokyo summer heat. Finally, I get my ticket and rush down the stairs to the subway. Just as I reach the platform, the doors close and the subway train speeds off into the night.

I am devastated. Alone, in an unknown part of Tokyo, I stand looking over the platform. The earlier ticket fiasco plays back in my thoughts, and the combination of delayed jetlag and heat sickness pile together within my psyche. I am lost and a little frightened. I don’t yet understand trains or subways, and although I can speak some Japanese, I feel uncertain and nervous.

Finally, I find a weary station worker who says the next train will arrive in about 35 minutes. I see that a train will be arriving a little sooner but he shakes his head: that is the limited train for special express tickets, which I don’t have.

As I watch him walk away, a warm rush of stinging tears well up behind my eyes. My apprehension spreads quickly in a train of frantic thoughts. How will I know if I am on the right train? Will I be stuck here at this unknown station overnight? Even after my train arrives in Narita, I will still need to get back to my hotel. I don’t have a cellphone and cannot contact the hotel front desk.

Turning off the light, I close my eyes, I center, and I fall asleep. Readying myself for a new day of challenges, stillness, triumph, and ascension.

Stop! A voice from deep within reaches me through my despair. Find your center, it says.  You have reached your lowest point, your nadir. Now, find your Zen in Japan, find your Zenith.

And so, I take a deep breath. I close my eyes, and I focus to calm myself.  First, I am alone, in my center. I cut off the outside world and listen only to my breath, feel only my heartbeat. Once I am calm, I journey outward, I feel the cooling summer night air on my face. The ground beneath my tired feet. I listen to the sounds of laughter, the rustling of bags from late-night shopping. I smell the scents of the train, perfume, cologne mixed with cigarettes, fried food. I feel Japan, and as I do so, I feel renewed. This is Japan, and I had been welcomed, after years of dreaming of my arrival.

When I open eyes, I see in the distance the light of the limited subway train approaching. I have a choice.

I make it without thinking. I walk onto the limited subway. I will simply pay the difference when the ticket master goes by, I tell myself.

The car is full of empty seats except for one elderly gentleman. Quietly I make my way to the seat behind him. I ask just to make sure, if this ticket can work, and if my destination of Narita will be one of the stops. He nods, yes, I will make it to my destination. He then says that seats are assigned and my ticket doesn’t match, but he is sure it is okay since the car is so empty. Later, when the ticket master comes by, he helps me explain my situation, and everything is resolved. I feel relief rush over me and I settle down, watching the lights of Tokyo rush by the window.

This is the lowest point, the nadir, rock bottom. The only way from here is up, on my way to finding Zen in Japan.

Time continues, until I all but forget I owned a bright orange midi skirt, until my Tokyo adventure becomes an anecdote. Continues until I am in my apartment during a typhoon, wind and rain shaking the walls. One of the pipes in my bathroom has broken, and water is flooding the floor. I struggle to tighten the steadfast water valve, praying the power doesn’t go out while I am trying to stop the water. It does. Then I am fumbling in darkness, water still spraying me in the face, as the sound of branches and store signs being dragged by the wind fills my ears. I lean back from the spraying water. I realize then what is happening.

This is the lowest point, the nadir, rock bottom. The only way from here is up. Time to find Zen, to find Zenith. I must find my Zen in Japan.

I close my eyes. I shut out the world. In my quiet, I hear my heartbeat. I feel the movement of my lungs as they expand to take in and release my breath. Then I move outward. I feel the rumbling of my walls, and listen to the hum and whirs of the wind and splashing rain. I feel my cold wet clothes, dripping with water.

I adjust my eyes to the semi darkness. I stand soggy, groping my way through my home to find my flashlight and some extra blankets. After balancing the flashlight on my towel rack, I spread the blankets out over the pooling water. Using my hand towel as grip, I am finally able to shut off the water. After I shower and settle into bed, the light returns. Is it a sign? Have I achieved transcendence? For now, perhaps. Turning off the light, I close my eyes, I center, and I fall asleep. Readying myself for a new day of challenges, stillness, triumph, and ascension. Ready to strive and find my Zen(ith). To find my Zen in Japan.

About Julietta Jones

Julietta JonesJulietta Jones is an English teacher living in Japan, who has studied several languages and writing in college, and majored in Japanese and French. Her love is ancient history, and language is the way she bridges her modern world to the ancient one she loves. She has recent;y begun studying Hebrew.

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