Wednesday, April 26, 2006

City Lights and Good Fortune

It's quite late here; I've been sitting on my couch, looking out over Nishinomiya and Kobe through my balcony windows. My apartment occupies the third floor of one of the compound buildings, and my nighttime view is a cityscape that stretches from here to the mountains. This includes five, unevenly spaced skyscrapers whose roofs are decorated with red warning lights; they pulse steadily, slightly out of time with one another. Watching them from the living room with the lights off, the effect is reminiscent of fireflies. I spend a lot of time in the evenings, sitting in my night clothes, drinking tea and watching the strange fusion of the organic and inorganic in their blinking. I'd like to be reading or studying, but I don't have the stamina. I understand the value of the work I'm doing, but it does not make it any easier to cope with the constant stress of forced interaction.

This past weekend I took a long walk through the town two stations over, closer to the mountains. It was such a relief to be out by myself exploring, to be able to control my intake of outside stimuli and just think and reflect on things... I found a path which led up the side of a mountain to the city's shrine.

To describe the atmosphere at a 'hidden' or hard to reach shrine is difficult: I find it different from that of Buddhist temples, different from mere gardens... At heart, Shinto is all about separating the polluted from the sacred, and these shrines are sacred spaces in the truest sense. They exist solely to perpetuate the sense of the sacred. They feel pure.

In Japanese there is a verb ochitsukeru -- it literally means 'to fall and stick', but translates as 'to calm down' or 'to steady oneself'. Lately, I have not felt very steady. This job -- with its constant stream of people and constant talking with no real conversational progression -- wears me down over the course of the day, so that at night I feel exposed and vulnerable and very very tired. It's as if my skin is being sloughed off with every visa I adjudicate; it leaves me raw and exposed and completely drained. To be at the shrine, even for only an afternoon, was such a blessing. Just to be quiet, to ochitsukeru... I think it was the first time I was able to achieve that in the month I've been here.

I bought a fortune (omikuji) at the shrine. It predicted kichi -- good fortune. I am hopeful that things will improve as I get more used to the demands of the job, as I make more time for the sacred and learn how to recover from this sense of over-exposure... I know that this work has value, and it's what my country needs me to do. Perhaps there is a certain sacredness in service and sacrifice. Even if it is only consular work.

2 comments:

Crawdad said...

Hi K! great to read your blog again. I hope adjudicating stops being as wearing over time, that you build up your visa strength. I find I am so much better when I get enough sleep....

Say, I didn't know that at shinto shrines there were those ropes that look like the tsunas that the sumo yokozuna wear. What exactly do they mean?

Best,
C.

Katie said...

As I understand it, the ropes are a reference to a myth concerning the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu-ohimekami. She was angry at her brother because he had desecrated her house by throwing a skinned horse inside of it as a prank, so she hid herself in a cave, robbing the world of light. The other gods couldn't cajole her into coming out, so they very cleverly held a huge party in front of the cave, complete with drinking and dancing. When one of the other goddesses started to do a particularly racy dance, Amaterasu's interest was piqued by the cat- calling, and she stuck her head out of the cave. The other gods quickly grabbed her and dragged her fully out, putting a rope in front of the cave so that she could never enter it again. Those are the ropes you see at Shinto shrines. And this also explains in part why dances are still regularly offered to the gods.

A sumo ring is actually one large shinto shrine; if you look at it, you'll see the shrine roof hanging above the ring. This is the reason the wrestlers purify themselves with salt before entering, and also why women are forbidden to enter the ring (we are traditionally unpure due to menstruation, childbirth, etc.). Wrestling, along with dance, is a traditional offering to the gods. In fact, you'll often find a homemade sumo ring in the courtyard of shinto shrines.

Oh, and visas are getting better. You're right: more sleep is definitely helping!