28 April 2014

“Z” is for - "Zeina and the Zen Garden"

This is the last article that I have to write in this draining and debilitating challenge - the A to Z thing. With the great benefit of hindsight I was rather foolhardy in accepting it although it has driven home the fact that writing is a discipline. It is sometimes hard work.

It was laborious and tough writing six nights a week by the letter of the alphabet.

I am glad that it is over.

There is no prize or trophy to be won – it was simply a call to arms for writers by a couple of people who I don’t know at all.

They are strangers.

I don’t really know the point of it actually – it just seemed like a good idea at the time - but I do like to write and I write to be read.

It is satisfying to complete the challenge.

I have been guilty of taking such rash actions before with things and places and people. They seemed like good ideas at the time but they turned out to be very difficult and different to what I imagined - and in some instances they were disastrous.

This is particularly the case with people.

Shit happens.

We move on.

So this post is not about Zeina either - however it is about a Zen garden. It is a continuation of my “J” post that was titled “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan”. That post was about a plane trip I had from Singapore to Tokyo where I met a Japanese Godfather – yes of the mafia type – and his entourage. Some of his entourage had only nine fingers and one was the gorgeous and elegant Myoki-san with whom I instantly fell in love.

Myoki had all ten fingers.

If you wish to know why the word ‘san’ is added to the end of some Japanese names you will have to read the “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan” post.

A Godfather-of-the-mafia type is known as an Oyabun in Japan. They are immensely wealthy and wield enormous power – but they undertake their crime-world activities within a strict code of conduct.

They are ethical criminals.

I shall reveal no further information about my “J” post - “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan”.

I couldn’t be bothered.

Read it for yourself.

I dislike the term ‘post’ too but I feel compelled to use it.

I don’t know why.

However my writing is simply writing and a ‘post’ to me is something related to mail or a wooden thing that is driven into the ground and to which an animal is tethered. Or it could be a bed-post or a lamp-post.

I am very old school.

I have drifted off again. This is something that I quite often do and I make no apologies.

Why the fuck would I?

This writing is not really about Zeina though.

I titled it “’Z” is for Zeina and the Zen garden” because I do have a friend called Zeina and she does know that I am up to “Z” in this challenge thing and I thought I might take the piss and freak her out a bit by making her think that I am going to write about her.

However I am not.

Going to write about her.

Well I might just a little bit.

‘Zeina’ is an unusual name and it has Arabic roots – as does Zeina. I have had to ‘add’ her name to my Mac’s dictionary as the fucker autocorrect function utterly rejects the spelling and it puts a red underscore on it.

I don’t like that.

Zeina’s family comes from Algeria – or at least some of them do. I am not sure whether this is from her mother or father’s side nor is it at all significant to me.

Sorry Zeina but it isn’t.

Significant to me.

Many of her friends and I too refer to Zeina sometimes as “Zee”. If I were American I would just spell this as “Z” – but thank goodness I am not.

American that is.

Zeina herself is not Algerian. She is English. I have no idea from where in England Zeina comes from nor again is it significant to me.

It doesn’t matter.

Zeina speaks like a bit of a London Geezer and it is the type of English that I like a lot. People who know London and Londoners will know what I mean. Geezers say things like “Y’oright?” as a form of greeting and they use words like “Innit?”

“Y’oright?” can be directly translated to “Are you alright?” and is used by Geezers to say “Hello” and “Innit” translates to “Isn’t it?” and is used by Geezers much like the Singaporeans use the word “La”.

It is nonsensical.

When a Geezer says, “Y’oright?” to you it is appropriate protocol to say, “Y’oright?” straight back. You could even say, “Y’oright init?”

The Geezers would like that.

I have known Zeina for about four or five years and I think that she has been on the Island for a few years before me. She worked on the construction of the Marina Bay Sands monolith. She is gorgeous and funny and smart and feisty and I like her a lot.

Zeina married another English Geezer last year - who I don’t know very well and whom I won’t name here in respect of Zeina’s privacy. By all reports he is a very good bloke. They now have a little Geezer baby girl who is simply beautiful.

She really is.

So that is all I will write about Zeina. She plays Facebook quite a lot so I am sure that she will read this not long after I post it. After reading up to this point she will be less freaked out than when she saw the title.

Am I right Zee?

Chill out babe.

All is good.

So now to the continuation of my “J” post - “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan” – and my encounter with the Oyabun and the delicious Myoki-san and my visit to the Zen Garden.

I should point out that whilst I would like to reveal much of what transpired in my encounter with the Oyabun and his underlings - and indeed the name of the Japanese mafia Godfather - I cannot.

For I have taken an oath.

An oath is not a stupid or loutish person.

That is an oaf.

I know this because I work with many.

Oafs that is. 

They are predominantly English.

An oath is a sworn promise and I made one to the Oyabun and I will keep it.

I should also say too at this early stage of the Zen Garden tale - do not worry Mum – don’t panic – I am quite OK. My ten fingers are intact and I remain un-inked by any Yakuza cult tattoos.

I promise you this.

So at the end of my “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan” post I was awaiting a call from the concierge desk of my Roppongi Hills hotel. I was waiting for them to inform me that a car had arrived to take me to the home of the Japanese Godfather. You will have to read the “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan” post for the background information of this invitation for I shall not repeat myself here.

Again - why would I?

I received that call pretty much at the appointed time and I then went downstairs where two imposing Japanese bodyguard-type men awaited me in a very expensive German motor vehicle. The car had black tinted windows – the type that you can see out of but no one can see in.

The men were different from the ones who accompanied the Godfather on our shared plane and helicopter trip - and both appeared to be fully digital in the hand department. The rear door of the vehicle was opened for me and inside was awaiting the gorgeousness that is Myoki-san.

If you have read the “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan” post you will know that Myoki-san is the personal assistant of the Oyabun-who-I-cannot-name and when she greeted and smiled at me my heart melted, imaginary turtle doves flew around her head, harp music played and I felt all weak at the knees.

I was definitely love struck.

Myoki-san and I chatted pleasantly as the large German motor vehicle drove us through the Tokyo traffic into the Shinjuku district of the city.

Shinjuku is one of my most favourite wards of Tokyo and whilst it has always been popular with residents and overseas visitors - it shot to international fame following the release in 2003 of the Hollywood movie “Lost in Translation”. This film starred Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and it was set in the luxurious Park Hyatt hotel.

It was a love story.

The car manoeuvred its way along impossibly narrow streets before it entered a non-descript driveway and it came to a halt. The two big boys opened both my and Myoki-san’s doors and we alighted simultaneously. We walked up a narrow pathway and approached an intricately and beautifully carved set of wooden doors that miraculously opened just before we arrived.

I suspect that security cameras were monitoring us.

At the doors was a smiling Japanese man of an indeterminable age. He was splendidly attired in full butler’s livery. Myoki-san paused in her stride – as did I – and deep bows were exchanged.

It was very Japanese and formal.

Myoki then spoke some rapid fire Japanese to the butler dude, a further bow was given – and returned - and we then walked through the doors into one of the most beautiful gardens that I have ever seen.

It was like stepping into Shangri-La.

My words will be quite inadequate to describe the stunning vista that Myoki and I entered and I think that I must have gasped out loud – for Myoki asked me if I was alright. I told her that I was and I tried to take in the majestic glory of the garden that surrounded me.

For a moment I suffered a sensory overload.

Our first few steps took us onto one of many arched wooden bridges that crossed a series of interconnected ponds that were teeming with enormous koi fish. A small waterfall cascaded down grey-blue rocks and there were intricate beds of sand in which were traced patterns of concentric circles. They were also impregnated with smooth pebbles of all shapes and sizes. Incredibly ornate and wonderfully shaped Japanese Maple and Cherry trees of blazing red and deep green were everywhere and I had to pause on the little wooden bridge to take it all in.

“I have seen many Zen gardens before Myoki-san – but none quite so beautiful as this”

“Yes Peter-san” the Japanese angel replied.

“Senpai spends much of his time when in Tokyo in his garden and he enjoys times of reflection and contemplation when he is here”

There is no literal translation of the word Senpai. It is a term used in deference to someone who is greatly respected or honoured. Zen gardens are a very ancient part of Japanese culture. They have been around for more than a thousand years and are deeply symbolic. Buddhist monks initially created them.

Myoki explained to me that the word ‘Zen’ is actually a western one. She told me that the Japanese refer to these gardens as “Karesansui” - which means ‘Dry Mountain and Water Garden’.

There is much beauty in the meaning of many Japanese words.
There really is.

Myoki told me that the Godfather employed monks to maintain his gardens and that these monks regularly raked and re-raked the sand and gravel into new patterns to simulate the changes that oceans go through. She explained that this was symbolic of the way that human minds experience such changes – and that by altering the patterns it prompted meditation, introspection and careful consideration.

I told her that I thought that this was very beautiful and she told me that she agreed.

We walked slowly through these peaceful and serene gardens and eventually arrived at another large courtyard where the Oyabun-whose-name-I-will-not-mention was tending to some bonsai plants that were laid out on a long marble bench. He was wearing some sort of black silk traditional costume and he was holding some very ornate looking scissors that he put down when we approached. Some more formal bows were exchanged before he shook my hand warmly in the Western way and he asked me how I was. 
His English was very broken but his smile was intact and it was very genuine and warm.

I told the Oyabun that I was very well and that I thought that his gardens were incredibly beautiful. Miyoki translated this for me and he beamed even more.

I asked Myoki to tell the Godfather that my son was learning to become a bonsai master back in Australia which sparked off a three way translated conversation that was as interesting as it was protracted.

I showed both Myoki and the Senpai some photos of my boy’s bonsai on my I-phone and he seemed genuinely impressed.

I also told them that I sometimes referred to my son as my ‘little tree’ because of his love of bonsai and they both thought that this was very funny.

After a while we moved into yet another courtyard where a very low table was laid out with a stunning ceramic tea set and a vast array of food. We sat down cross-legged Japanese style while two young girls dressed in gorgeous kimonos poured us steaming cups of ginger tea.

Myoki told me whilst I was taking my first sip that the tea set was more than four hundred years old and it belonged to the Senpai’s great-great-great grandfather. I nearly choked when I heard this for I am famous for my clumsiness. From that point on I drank my tea very carefully and with both hands gripping the cup.

We chatted in an easy and relaxed manner for nearly an hour and having Myoki-san interpreting every word that was said was no burden at all.

Like the waterfall in the godfather's garden, our conversation flowed.

After tea the godfather asked if I would like to see his collection of Samurai swords. If you have read the “’J’ is for a jaunt in Japan” post you would know that this was the primary reason for me being invited to the Oyabun’s house.

If you haven’t read it - bad luck.

I once again replied with the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?” I uttered this same response on the plane where we first met and it elicited a similar reaction of amusement from the old fellow.

He expressed much mirth.

Senpai led Myoki and me through a series of corridors and rooms decorated with beautiful Japanese art and furniture and we eventually emerged into a huge hall. The dude’s house was simply enormous. The hall that we entered was lined with swords that were all hung on a wall. There must have been at least one hundred of them.

Possibly more.

They were exquisite.

The Oyabun led me up and down each wall and he paused often to tell me – through Myoki - about the history of many of the swords – which era they were made – and by which craftsman.  It was one of the most fascinating displays that I have ever seen. We must have spent a couple of hours in the hall but it is difficult to tell. 

It was one of those moments where time gets lost.

Then it suddenly ended.

The Godfather announced that he had meetings to attend and Myoki informed me that we had to go. I bowed very deeply to the Senpai as we left – and I asked Myoki to tell him that I felt most honoured and humbled and privileged to be invited to his home. My bow was returned and I was a little surprised when the old dude then gave me a hug.

It was my first cuddle with a Japanese Oyabun and I was quite chuffed.

When we got into the car Myoki asked me if I wanted to go to one of the Senpai’s clubs that was nearby and I told her that I did. She barked some Japanese at the driver and ten minutes later we were in a back alley in Shinjuku. We walked up some stairs and emerged into a very high-class club that was throbbing with the ‘doof doof’ of music and it was full of beautiful people of every race and gender.

The place was pumping.

Myoki and I were ushered into what I presume was a VIP area and over the course of the next few hours I met an amazing array of characters. I had a couple of funnily named cocktails – which is quite unusual for me as I am not much of a drinker.

I recall chatting to one very big and much-tattooed Japanese guy with a missing little pinky.

Miyoki-san told me that in the ‘family business’ as she described it, the cutting off of one's finger is a form of penance or apology and it is not just ‘being in the gang’ as I initially thought. She told me that such an act is called “Yubitsume” - where the transgressor must cut off the tip of his left little finger and give the severed portion to his boss. She told me that sometimes an underboss might do this in penance to the Oyabun if he wanted to spare a member of his own gang from further retaliation.

Myoki informed me that the origin of “Yubitsume” stems from the traditional way of holding a Japanese sword. The bottom three fingers of each hand are used to grip the sword tightly, with the thumb and index fingers slightly loose – and the removal of digits - starting with the little finger – and then moving up the hand to the index finger - progressively weakens a person's sword grip.

Nice huh?

I told Myoki-san that my son Tom - the little tree - had many tattoos and I would be happy to cut off one of his fingers and send it to the Oyabun as a token of my respect. She laughed at this and so did I. 

I don't think that Tom will be too happy about it though.

As night moved into early morning I met and conversed with a number of interesting people including some men who I first assumed were African Americans – but I soon established that they were actually English. Like Zeina they were Geezers. These ones wore hoodies and they said ‘innit’ a lot – often in quite strange parts of their sentences. After a while they referred to me as a ‘Geezer’ too.

I recall quite firmly correcting them and telling them that I was most certainly not – I was Australian - but I spoke and understood the Geezer language.

For example I was asked:

So you live in Singapore innit?”

To which I replied with some delight:

“Yes I do innit”

I recall a bit of a drunken conversation with a group of these Geezers about the fact that I go to Nepal and Hong Kong quite a lot and I recollect talking about the subject of illicit drugs and mules too.

A mule is a hybrid breed of animal that is formed when a horse is bred with a donkey. They are commonly used to carry people and things and they are regarded as beasts of burden. However mule is also a term used by gangsters to describe very silly people who smuggle illegal substances across international borders.

I think that the hooded English Geezers were referring to the latter rather than former type of mules in their conversation with me.

At one point I suggested to the Geezer lads that I thought that it might be a good idea – if they were that way inclined – to use an actual mule as a drug mule – and to declare to immigration when they arrived at the country of destination that they had a mule.

For some insane reason they said, “that is fuckin brilliant bruvver innit’

The whole night was madness but was great fun and I arrived back at my hotel not long before the sun came up.

Myoki sent me back in her employer’s car.

On the drive back to the hotel I wondered whether the monks were then tending to the Oyabun-whose-name-I-cannot mention’s beautiful Zen garden as dawn broke.

I imagined that the Zen garden at dawn would be very beautiful indeed.

I saw and heard a whole heap of other stuff that was interesting and kind of secret that night but I can reveal none of it here.

I will not.

I have taken an oath.   

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