VIII. Toko-ji Temple

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Morinobu Okabe, 31st priest of Toko-ji Temple. (SA)

Among the coolest things Ken and I did together was a talk about the Vietnam War to the congregants of Toko-ji Zen Buddhist Temple in Amakusa. Five years ago, at the request of Morinobu Okabe, 31st priest of the 350-year-old temple, Ken and I had translated and adapted a poem by the late Shinmin Sakamura, which Okabe-san makes available free for visiting English speakers (along with the original in Japanese for Japanese speakers). Here’s what we came up with:

The sun comes up each morning in silence;

the moon disappears, but nobody sees.

Flowers dance by the roadside unnoticed;

birds twitter sweetly, but nobody hears.

People don’t stop to consider what matters.

People work hard all their lives to achieve

a dream of success that will make them happy:

position or power, fortune or fame—

until they are old and they realize too late

that the beauty of living has passed them by

while the river travels alone to the ocean,

the wind sings alone in the tops of the trees.

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After the talk is concluded, it’s party time! Ken & Bill, standing, share a toast. (SA)

When the priest heard that Ken and I would be in Amakusa, he asked Ken if we could give a talk about the war—its history and our experiences—to the supporters of his temple, most of whom know nothing about the war. Beneath a huge banner written almost entirely in Japanese, of course, except for “Bill Ehrhart” and “Kazunori Takenaga,” we spoke for about an hour to an attentive audience of 50 or 60 people, after which we all sat down to a multi-course feast washed down with beer, sake, and another Japanese specialty called shochu.

 

IX. The House in Hue, 2011

Then it was on to Vietnam. In Hue City, the old Imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, we visited the Citadel, made famous by the Tet Offensive of 1968, and the tombs of Emperors Tu Duc and Khai Dinh. We drove up to the old DMZ and walked across the Ben Hai River. In Da Nang, we climbed Marble Mountain. In Nha Trang, we toured the Cham Hindu temples of Po Nagar, the earliest dating to the 8th century.

But the most amazing thing of all was finding the very building Ken and I had been in when we were wounded. It took some work to find the place—a lot changes in 43 years—but we found it. Completely renovated, the house is now the business offices for the four-star Duy Tan Hotel. The yard is now a tiled driveway and parking area with a motor-scooter rental operation and an outdoor coffee shop.

Indeed, one has to look hard to find any evidence of the American War (as the Vietnamese call it). One evening Ken and I stood on a hotel balcony overlooking Hue. We could see the university that had been used as a refugee center, the roofs of what had been the MACV compound, even a corner of the building we’d been in, now dwarfed by the hotel built around it. But the streets were crowded with noisy, jostling, energetic people. The River of Perfumes bisecting the city flowed with colorful tour boats. The bridge across the river glowed yellow, then green, then blue. The Huda Beer sign on the far bank of the river scattered ribbons of neon over the water.

Who would have imagined, 43 years ago, that Ken and I would be standing here together tonight? Who would have imagined that I would stand in the very street in Yatsushiro where Ken had grown up, or give a talk to Zen Buddhists in Amakusa about that long-ago war in Vietnam? This was the trip of a lifetime. This was a dream come true.
>> A special tour package in tribute to Dr. Ehrhart’s travel is now on sale.

Text copyright: W. D. Ehrhart
Photos copyright: Sachiko Akama (SA
Anne Ehrhart (AGE)
W. D. Ehrhart (WDE)
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