The seasons of life keep cycling, moving along at their own pace. There’s nowhere better to feel this than Japan. In the high humidity and hot sun of Tokyo in September I sought out cool in air conditioned galleries and shady gardens. At Nezu Museum in Ometesando, I walked into the exquisitely tended, deep green landscape of the garden and felt myself stream gently into being in Japan.

I was drawn along paths of stepping stones, paths which were streams in themselves. There seemed to be every texture of leaf among the trees.

Hospitality in a garden

I stopped to look at beautifully placed artefacts and noticed maples, faintly touched with yellow and red of autumn approaching. There are layers and layers of interest in a well nurtured Japanese garden.

My heart is touched in a mysterious way by the tsukubai or stone water basin, covered with moss. I love water and that it receives good care. These vessels are often fed from bamboo pipes. You find them placed on the sunny side of the path. This is so that when the guest kneels to take water they’re in the shade. In the garden I felt a deep attentiveness to the comfort of others. I’m not great with Japanese but I understand this to be omotenashi – the way of treating a guest. It is at the heart of the Japanese hospitality that makes such an impression on us westerners.

In our culture the roots of the word ‘hospitality’ lie in the medieval Middle East. Here the Knights Templar set up ‘hospitals’ that rescued those crusaders who fell ill or went crazy. Our ‘hospitality’ springs from Christian charity, where the Japanese is based on tending to the other for its own sake.

I’d helped plan and conduct a large funeral in the week before leaving and the devastating impact of sudden death on those I worked with was still with me. Some seasons of life are very tough. Sadness lingered. Mortality felt deeply real. An image came to mind of knots of nervous people entering the room. The bereaved immediately made them at home. They saw the event as a time to thank their friend for his life, and to help everyone who came to do the same. Their intention was to bring to light the many layers of relationship, expression and interest in a wonderful man’s life.

I was touched by the way they fulfilled what they set out to do. It was impressive to see them, warm, generous and welcoming even in their grief. At a big complex funeral so many experiences, interests and histories are brought together in one room. Together  we found ways for layers of story and expression to be woven together in the program.

People played their instruments. There were wonderful reflections. The first line of a Johnny Cash song ‘I keep a close watch on this heart of mine…’ would have meant something different to every listener. There was a fabulous moment when couples in well tailored outfits stepped on to the floor and danced. The guests were respectful and warm as well, deeply appreciative that the hosts had taken so much care with the ceremony. They remarked on the attention to detail in the program and the way the grand piano ‘shrine’ had been set up. They felt that they had been given an occasion to heal.

I’d been approached because the person who had died had asked for a Zen Buddhist funeral. In the end it was a ceremony that was simply influenced by the Zen spirit, attention to detail and balance. The quality of the host-guest relationship gave the ceremony the desired atmosphere of calm and quiet in which to acknowledge the reality of suffering and the impermanence of all things. Listening together we were drawn along the beautiful paths of a man’s life, pausing here and there to take it all in. My clients had been like the gardeners at work in the Nezu garden, cultivating beauty and a nurturing experience for all who came.

Here Riley Lee plays Safe Passage.