In downtown Kyoto, near the theater district, there’s a shrine that sits between the river and a large department store. The shrine is one where people pray to cure sickness, eye trouble, and blockages in life’s path. I finished a roll of film in there. An old woman clapped and cupped smoke into her eyes while she stood beside an ornate incense burner. I took a picture of that. A Buddha the size of two grown men rests behind the smoke. I took a picture of that too.
I’ve decided to join the photography club at my new High School. This was a difficult decision because, in Japan, extra-curricular activities are taken very seriously. I chose the photo club because it’s a small group. I am one of two members. Another benefit is that photography is relatively simple compared to sword fighting or chess. My bad Japanese will be less of an obstruction this way. Besides, the teacher in charge speaks English, a little.
When I met him in his office he gave directions to our lunchtime meeting place, the lab. He told me to “go down… one floor…westernmost room.” It seemed simple enough. If his English ability was such that he could use the word “westernmost”, I shouldn’t have to ask for the directions in Japanese. When lunchtime came, I descended, photo of the Buddha in hand, to the science lab. It was right where the teacher said it would be, one floor down.
There didn’t seem to be a photography meeting in progress. First of all, there were too many people in the room. Maybe they were new members too. I milled around with the other kids for a while, hoping that the meeting was about to get underway.
A girl put one of the lab hamsters in my hand and told me to hold it while she fed it a fist full of sunflower seeds. That hamster was really fat. After half an hour in the lab I discovered two things. First, I had just spent HALF AN HOUR being genuinely interested in the proficiency with which a hamster can crack open a nut and (second) so had the other kids. We were clearly here for milling about purposes only.
I went to the teacher in charge and asked, “Is this the photography meeting?” He looked confused. Surely, so did I, because I couldn’t tell if this was the same teacher that I’d met before. “Photography…” he said, and in a whirl of lab coat tails he made for the file cabinet full of little picture albums. They were full of photos of plankton, paramecia, and microscopic organisms. I spent another half an hour actually interested in these. Then I thanked the teacher and left.
The next morning in the photography teacher’s office I was again given directions to the lunchtime club meeting. “Please go to the first floor, floor one, not one floor down, two floors down, westernmost room.” Then the teacher asked if I’d like to submit something to the Kyoto High Schools’ Photography Exhibition. I had already taken a great picture, and when I heard Buddhist monks sponsored the contest, my mind was made. But in Japan it is considered unwise to make a decision right away, even about the small things. My teacher said to let him know later in the day, at the meeting if I found it.
Once I found the darkroom, I filled out the paperwork for my submission. It had to be faxed right away since I missed the deadline the day before. In the blank space for the photo’s name I wrote “A Prayer for the Eyes”. The teacher helped me “blind practice” the tricky business of spooling film in a black bag. He taught me the trick. He said, “No power… relax.” I had it down by the third try.
I like the darkroom. There’s a little living room in there.
I gave my picture of the big brass Buddha to the teacher and told him I’d like to send it to the competition. It was a beautiful photograph. The Buddha glowed in repose behind a veil of smoke. But the focus was on the smoke. The Buddha was almost hard to find, which was perfect, just perfect because the shot was taken in a shrine for the blind. My teacher stared at the picture for several minutes. He was thinking, perhaps of a beautiful thing to say about it in English.
Finally he said, “This is no good. Your photo must be interesting… in all the Four Corners” (gee, thanks). “Where did you take this?” I told him and his face lit up. “Wonderful!” he said “but still too difficult…you must only show. Not tell.”
I would have to take another photograph. The problem was that my submission was already named for the old photo. The new one was named before it was taken. With work to do, I grabbed my picture and left. (C’mon Buddha, let’s go.)
I set out to find another prayer for the eyes. This proved to be more difficult than my accidental discovery of the first one. Whatever it was, wherever it hid, I decided that I’d find it on the way to school. I get off the train everyday at the foot of Monkey Mountain, walk through the park by the river until I get to the street. I follow the street until I get to a temple, and turn right. That’s how I get to school.
I spent a week with the best color film I could buy, taking pictures of swans in the pond, old men on fishing boats with their torches lit to keep the bugs away, things like that. But none of these things were very prayer-for-the-eye like. I did find that, on the temple on the way to school, every day at about eight in the morning the sun hits the wood god gate guardian in such a way that the camera can only see a red hand and a yellow eye. The rest is in shadow.
My teacher took that roll of film and said, “This is no good…. Color film… you must use white and black. I am sorry I did not tell you. Please use this roll.” A red hand and a yellow eye cloaked in shadow on black and white film are basically worthless. So I had to find yet another prayer for the eyes. (Why didn’t I name it number six?) I spent yet another week lugging my camera around with me. I couldn’t find any swans. A typhoon hit that week so there were no pictures of fishermen to be had either. I did, however, get pictures of a man feeding ducks. There was a line of six crows on each side of him and one in the air, ready to steal from the ducks.
I developed the second roll of film and the teacher helped me take it out of the spool. He saw the film first and said, “Oh, it’s no good!” (I was getting sick of hearing him say that) The whole roll was unexposed but for the last frame which was a snapshot of my host sister drumming on a paper plate with a pair of raw hot dogs. That was hardly a prayer of any kind.
Another roll had to be taken. What was worse, it had to be done that day, the day of the deadline. I had an hour. I ran to the park, where all the kids my age hang out. But it’s extremely difficult to take pictures of them. As soon as they detect the presence of a camera in the hands of an American, they pose. Strangely, they all make the same pose, unfailingly. They ALWAYS hold up two fingers and say “peace”. I have enough pictures of my friends’ fingers; I didn’t have time for more.
Pigeons sleeping on a lamppost would have made a nice picture but the birds flew off at the sight of a man in strange clothing. I watched him and waited for something photogenic. He looked around in all directions, mine included. Eye contact was impossible because of his dark glasses. Still, something about his face seemed sad, as if he was bagging me, “please don’t take my picture.” I didn’t but I did watch him gingerly reach into a trashcan, pull something out and eat it. That could have been the winning photograph, if I only had the guts to take it.
I returned to school, dejected and ready to quit. Then, I stumbled upon a couple of gargoyles in a bonsai garden near my school. The gargoyles looked so fierce, the garden, so peaceful. The print came out nicely. I framed it myself and showed it to the teacher. He liked it, but questioned whether its title was appropriate. Flabbergasted, I asked, “You mean I can change the title?” “Yes” came the answer, “didn’t I tell you that?” No, but the point was that I had to search the world over for a prayer for the eyes when a simply picture would have done nicely. I could have turned into an amoeba. I couldn’t decide on a new title right away. It took an hour, until the absolute last minute before my submission was due to be put in the box. When I turned it in, I called it “pretty monsters.”