Though I downloaded a book for the trip to my iPad, I quickly realized that reading on the fast moving train was making me quite queasy. Instead, I decided to look out at the Tokyo sprawl-line. There was no haze and no clouds, and distances were no object in the clear morning air. Amazingly, above the urban sprawl of Tokyo, in the distance was a clear and beautiful snow covered Fuji-san. Having no camera, I quickly grabbed the iPad – it was going to be useful for something – to capture pictures of the mountain. It was going to be a great opportunity, I thought, for another iPad photo essay.
Photographing Fuji-san was fairly easy. The mountain is huge, so you have plenty of time for a good shot, even on a fast moving train. Even the iPad can catch great shots, so I took picture upon picture, from every conceivable angle. Each one was unique – at least to me.
Hokusai, the great Edo period ukiyo-e artist published a set of prints entitled “Thirty-six Views of Fuji.” Each print, be it of a giant wave, courtesans, or peasants working in fields includes an image of Mt. Fuji. Some are realistic, while others are but a few lines, which capture an impressionistic image of the volcano. Today, as I took picture after picture, I could understand the artist’s delight in capturing the many faces of the great mountain.
Sadly, however, iPad photography, especially from a speeding train, is not as easy as it looks. Objects smaller than Fuji-san were much more difficult to capture on “film.” Half the pictures were out of focus, and in many of the rest, the desired object was only partially captured.
The Nozomi Shinkansen reaches up to 300k per hour, so the landscape seems to speed by, making it difficult even to photograph known landmarks. Nagoya Castle, for example, quickly hides behind more modern buildings, and even the Solar Ark (a very distinctive, large building outside Nagoya) was cut off by a finger that was just a second too slow. Opportunities for other pictures vanished as the desired image sped by before I could raise the iPad to the window to snap the photo.
Yet, even with limited success my concentration on the scenery was enlightening. The costal plain between Tokyo and Osaka is amazing, not in its beauty, but in the diversity of usage. While the urban sprawl rarely stops, it is intermixed not only with light (and occasionally heavy) industry, but also with an amazing variety of agriculture.
While the rice paddies were mostly brown – it must be a spring or summer crop – I saw and recognized tea plantations, flower beds, vegetables of many kinds, and orchards of citrus trees. There were also hundreds of greenhouses whose crops were hidden under glass. This fertile plain is not only the home of most of Japan’s people, but it also is a breadbasket (metaphorically, as I saw no wheat).
A friend of mine recently complained about the urban sprawl, and industrial buildup, even up to the very foothills of Mount Fuji, which to his mind marred the scenic beauty of the mountain. But, as I traveled down the line, it was obvious why it was necessary. The mountains rise sometimes close and sometimes distant, but always in sight of the train. They are beautiful, but inhospitable for habitation. It is only on the limited coastal plains of Japan that a modern country could arise.
My increased focus on the passing countryside also allowed me to see things that I had missed on my many other trips to the west. There was not one, but rather four castles, three of which were invisible before today. There was a old unpainted tori (shrine gate) on a mountainside, with a path leading into the secluded wood to a still unknown and unseen Shinto shrine. There were also beautiful old farm houses set on raised earth above their rice paddies, sometimes surrounded by large towns and cities.
I can only imagine what else I might have seen if I wasn't rushing by at 300k per hour.
In Fukuyama, just outside the train station there was an imposing white castle on a high hill. Originally built in 1619 CE, its buildings were beautifully restored in the 60’s. As I walked through the grounds, and a lovely Japanese garden, appreciating the views and the small details I could imagine the samurai who built and defended it.
If I had still been on the train, the castle would have been just a quickly moving image at the edge of my vision.
It seems that many of us are always in a hurry. Even when we are not on the Shinkansen we go at 300k per hour, barely glancing at the world around us. Everything needs to be quick and we never take the time smell the flowers. We don't remember to take Simon and Garfunkel’s advice to slow down and make every moment last. Though I must admit, I am still unsure what “Groovy” means.
We have been in Tokyo for more than a year, and Shelley still complains that the city is opaque to her. We pop up out of a variety of subway stations, with little sense of where we are or where we have come from. We think we need to move fast, so the city remains a series of largely unconnected islands. Yet, even for Shelley, our maze like neighborhood is easy to navigate because of her many walks with Pete and Jerry z’l.
The Jewish tradition teaches that we should work to develop a sense of appreciation. The world and everything around us expresses the creative power of the Divine, and we miss out when we rush through the world and through our lives. To enable our sense of thankfulness, the rabbis instituted a long series of blessings to be recited when we experience the world and its wonders. There are blessings for lightening, rainbows, lofty mountains and even earthquakes. The requirement to bless forces us to stop and appreciate rather than rush on with our lives.
Shabbat provides just such a moment in time, requiring us to slow down and appreciate the world. During the week we depend on our technology, which allows us to isolate ourselves, and to rush from place to place ignoring the world. Shabbat, a day without cars, cell phones and computers is a weekly “earth day.” Just as God on the seventh day traditionally moved from creation to appreciation, so too we are asked to move from creation – and indeed destruction – to appreciation. Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to make the moment last.
Yet, there is a belief in our tradition that in the future everyday will be like Shabbat. This expresses the hope that one day we will make the most of every moment, that we will find the divine presence wherever we look, and in everything we do. To me this is expressed in the traditional law that one should put on the right shoe before the left. While this commandment sounds silly, to me it teaches that we should take the time to appreciate and be thankful for even the most seemingly mundane things that happen in our lives.
Blessing upon seeing a lofty mountain –
ברוך אתה יי אלוהנו מלך העולם עשה מעשה בראשית
Blessed are You, Divine Ruler of the Universe, who makes the works of creation.