By John Gribble
people build villages
of small secure houses, concrete,
sometimes polished granite,
with single low doors
and porticoes, wide porches,
which extend out generously
into yards formed by low walls.
All for the dead.
The doorways, though small,
are sufficient for urns of ash.
The residents don’t use the doors
nor have any of those protective lions
on their roofs or at the gates.
What are you going to do to the dead?
They come out in the shade
or lean against the courtyard walls.
Having no substance, they can all stand
in the same place at the same time,
sharing a common vista—the tiny village,
the stream, the valley. Together they hear
the distant passing traffic
and smell the far-off sea.
Night Moon at Izumisaki by Hokusai c. 1832
Bon Festival Dance by Takahashi Shohei (1871-1945)
at a summer festival
She’s rapt, with moonlight on her face,
no costume, no plans beyond attending.
She stops to watch the dance,
the one about fishing—cast the net,
push the oar, take three steps,
now pull the line—then joins the group.
They circle the stage under dangling lanterns,
across the asphalt, past the murmuring generator
and tinny speakers, deep in rhythm.
For those mindful and lucky,
some of this will linger.
The Village of Praying Hands
Shirakawa-go, Ogun, Gifu Prefecture, August 2017
It is more a park than a place to live. Buses arrive
at the edge of town and empty out tourists.
The parking lot fills with cars. The Visitor Center
dispenses maps and smiles, suggestions and directions.
The few visible locals
move through the day oblivious
to the chattering groups who’ve come to stare,
who walk among the thatched A-frame houses
and perfect tiny rice fields.
Chores are done, deals and deliveries made,
gossip shared, all quietly, without much display.
The reason for the village is lost. Maybe a band
of religious ascetics found a safe, harsh haven
to practice what they needed to do.
More likely, the surviving losers of a clan war
escaped to this canyon to scrape out a life.
As they built they learned from loss:
make the roofs steep. Aim the houses
north, into the wind, like boats in a storm.
Build them far apart so fire won’t spread.
Remove the snow once a winter.
Make stone walls on the small floodplains
to create the paddies. Establish a shrine.
Do all this together.
Perhaps a traveler passing through,
once a road was finally built,
first called the houses gassho, “praying hands.
Afternoon ends early here.
Once the sun passes the ridge
darkness comes quickly. The buses load up,
the parking lot empties, the shops close.
The few outsiders spending the night
find their ways to inns. After dinner
the village is silent, the roads unlit.
Often storms come through,
pounding the thatch, the cobbled paths,
the gardens and the fields. In the morning
the roofs steam in the sunlight as mists move
through the mountainside trees.
But imagine a clear night, the last full moon of summer,
the house shapes glowing, the small yellow windows
like candlelight reflections on praying hands.
Perhaps Lao Tsu was thinking of a place like this
when he wrote, ...their homes secure,
they are happy in their ways. Though they live
in sight of their neighbors, hear crowing cocks
and barking dogs across the way,
they leave each other in peace
as they grow old and die.