After a year and a half in Japan, I went to a rental agency and asked for a cheap apartment (in Nagoya), and I puzzled the clerk when I specified that I was looking for rentals below thirty thousand yen. With a characteristic Japanese gesture (cocked head and an aspiration sound through the teeth which comes to mean “difficult, if not impossible”) he turned around and headed for the files placed at his back. After rummaging through the drawers for a while, he put a gesture of surprise and turned toward me waving a paper in his hand indicating that there was actually an apartment that met my tough requirement. He started spinning in circles his finger and when he finally landed it on a map of the city I had a hunch that would be my new home, since it was in the block next to the temple I stopped by every day in my way by bike to the university campus, and in front of whose Daibutsu (a colossal statue of Buddha sitting in meditation), I often did a slight bow.
The apartment, located on the second and top floor of a building that survived the Second World War, was what could be expected for such a price. It consisted of a sixteen-square-yards cube with dislocated walls of mud and bamboo, windows without glasses, soft tatami, a single tap on a single sink, and a toilet shared with the neighbor across the corridor. I loved that simplicity!
With a lot of silicone, paint and work, I left the apartment, not only habitable but even welcoming. I installed a folding shower over the sink where every morning I took a shower, cool in summer and freezing in winter. With that and a camping gas, I had covered the minimal comforts. At the upper part of the in-built closet I would keep my clothes, and at the lower the foam mat and the sleeping bag. In the remaining space on that wall (not occupied by the closet), I placed a low shelf with some Sutras (with commentaries by Master Hua), and an altar on top of it. On that wall I hung a triptych of Amitabha Buddha flanked by Bodhisattvas Guan Yin and Great Strength, who were sent to me (by surprise) by my brother from the monastery of Berkeley where he had gone to do a retreat of a couple of months, and which fit perfectly into the available space. Also, the day before the Sutras arrived (I had bought them by mail), I found an abandoned shelf on the street, with just the fitting size and capacity. How comfortable I felt in there!
During those years, I went to bed early, and got up also early to meditate and to read slowly the Sutras. Moreover, given the proximity of the apartment to the campus, I could also come home to eat lunch, which became my only meal of the day. A pot of boiling water with a lot of mixed vegetables that tasted glorious with no other flavor than their own. I discovered the subtle tastes of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, pumpkins or rice, previously always coated with oils, salts an onion-garlic-loaded admixtures.
There came a time when I did not even produced garbage because I learnt to buy the fruit and vegetables in a little market with local products, avoiding the incredibly sophisticated, excessive, unnecessary and wasteful packaging with which all, even single pieces of fruit, are wrapped in the Japanese supermarkets. Moreover, with the few remaining organic debris, I prepared an excellent compost in a pot placed on a platform that extended under my window (by the way, that platform also served as a makeshift solarium!).