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“That’ll be fifteen dollars,” a woman behind glass announces, and cranes her neck to see what I’m handing her. She gives me a red band for the Japanese Festival, and a park map. I follow the crowd through the botanical garden into what I expect to be a slice of the East in the Midwest, as scheduled annually. I’m calculating how much I can spend, how many calories I’ve consumed; and how much time I have is probably visible on my face. I smile when I cross paths with another festival-goer. I should be more aware of my surroundings. Even if I went back to Japan, nothing would be the same.
In my memories of Japan it is always summer, the cicadas buzzing, the sun raining its golden sedation. I am bouncing along to the commotions of Kamakura despite the sakura ice cream swishing in my belly. No amount of walking has me defeated, so we head on through the garden gates. If Dad were here, we wouldn’t be allowed to pour water over rocks in cleansing prayer to a material god. My sister questions Mom’s leniency about it, to which she is given an answer of cultural insight; that we shouldn’t be ignorant of our surroundings. I slowly tip my wooden ladle until the smooth stone before me is wet on all sides. If I pour with enough grace, perhaps I will become a Spice Girl.
We move forward, up the stairs of the Taiizan Kotokuin Shojosenji temple, to an open atrium to meet the unshut eyes of Buddha. I stand where his tilted gaze might have been focused on me if he weren’t blinded in mediation. His curls are in stiff whirls that leave a scalloped shadow on his forehead. His large ears drip low. One day they will reach his shoulders. Under his round nose runs a broken line similar to the one on papers where my teacher would write: cut here. Buddha’s head was torn off and flung towards the coast in a tsunami a long time ago. The locals reattached it, making the line of hyphens his mustache. From his round shoulders hangs a garment loose enough to display his celebrated vegetarian gut. A nearby Buddhist tells us his hands are eternally asking for enlightenment to eclipse the illusions of the material world. When he began asking, centuries ago, he was gold. He is now tea-leaf green. He is almost enlarging with each breath, and this makes me want to look elsewhere at an enormous pair of hand-woven hemp sandals hanging from a wall. An elementary school fashioned them in accordance with the legend that at night he gets up to walk the garden like a peaceful King Kong.
Sister always wants to explore what’s inside this musing figure. I take out my yen and place them in the tray to pay the entrance fee. For a split second, I am in darkness. My pupils dilate, and my eyes speculate on shapes that don’t initially make sense as they are reversed. From inside Buddha, it can be seen that there are two slits where his eyes are, that the sky is bluer than a blue raspberry Gusher tastes. There are two staircases leading to a pair of windows to see out of his back. After we exit, we usually leave the atrium to see the plants.
The garden is spacious. There are white pebbles where I have seen dirt in western gardens. The movement of the trees causes shadows to sway, and the garden is in motion. Among the pink cherry blossoms floating in the breeze, a familiar face appears. We chat with a family friend, take pictures, and then it is time to leave. I don’t yet know that in the visits to come – four more in person, and the rest in memory – not one thing is exactly the same.