Cleanliness is Next to Buddha-ness

By Ernie Witham   |   May 17, 2018

“Are you chewing gum?!” Pat asked.

“Hai!” I said, using one of the many (three) Japanese words I knew.

We were standing next to The Great Buddha of Kamakura “Daibutsu”, the largest outdoor Buddha in Japan. Built in 1252, the 44-foot-tall, 121-ton seated Buddha draws more tourists than the world’s largest ball of saved wire ties in Cornhole, Iowa. 

Daibutsu wasn’t always outdoors. The hall which housed him was blown away by strong winds a couple times in the 1300s, a bad century for winds, apparently. Now he sits outside and the wind hasn’t blown since (I may have misread that last part).


“Why did they build such a big Buddha, you mean?”


“Oh. Why are there hundreds of people walking through my award-winning photograph, you mean?”


“Oh. Why am I not in line to go inside the Great Buddha with a bunch of wide-eyed kids, you mean?”

“No. I mean why are you still chewing that gum. It’s been hours.”

“Because there are no outdoor trash cans in Japan, and I figure if I patooey-ed it into the cherry blossom trees, they’d take away my Japan Rail Pass.”

We knew trash was going to be a problem when we first got to our exchange home and there was a 26-page set of instructions titled “How to Sort and Dispose Recyclable Items and Garbage – Revised Version Standing for 2015.” Seriously!

The trash system in Japan is amazingly complex. They collect trash five days a week, but only certain things on each day. There are collapsible green bins in each neighborhood. Someone opens them in the morning and you put out your food/beverage cans and bottles (if it’s Tuesday), or your “yard waste” if it’s the alternate Wednesday. If you put something in the bin that’s for Thursday, they take it out, set it beside the bin, collapse the bin, and you have to take it back home. 

We put out the previous visitor’s wine bottles, as they missed their window of recylatunity, but we put them in a plastic bag. A no-no. They were sitting beside the bin when we got home from our day exploring. 

Not only do some items have to be bagged, but some have special bags. For instance, combustible waste (described on page 3) must be put into a “pay bag.” It says: “Any waste which is not put into a pay bag cannot be accepted in all fairness.” Unsorted waste is affixed with a rejection sticker. That’s right. They can reject your trash. But I am sure they bow quietly in your general direction as they are doing it. The Japanese are some of the politest and most respectful people I have ever met.

So, unfortunately, I had placed a piece of gum in my mouth much earlier in the day. And, because there are no public trash receptacles anywhere, I now either had to chew it to death or swallow it and hope it didn’t “cause a dam” in my digestive tract.

I took several dozen photos of the Great Buddha and we headed off for our next destination, Hasedera Temple, which houses a 30-foot-tall, 11-headed wooden statue of Kannon, carved in 721 A.D. in Nara. 

There were two Kannons carved from the same tree. The one from the top of the tree was cast into the sea with a prayer that it would reappear as the Goddess of Barnacles (oops, misread that also). It reappeared near Kamakura in 736 A.D. with the purpose of saving people.

Kannon is commonly called the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, but actually it is neither male nor female, nor a Buddha – yet. Kannon is a future Buddha. I’m not sure how long you have to wait for enlightenment in Kamakura, but 1,400 years seems like quite a stretch. 

“Are you hungry?” Pat asked.

“Well, I just swallowed a piece of American Trident that had been in my suitcase since 2016 A.D., but I could eat.”

There is a nice restaurant at Hasedera, right near Kannon-do Hall, that looks out on the tops of a bamboo forest. Pat ordered a noodle dish and green matcha tea. 

“Make sure you finish it,” I suggested. “I think we missed the day for recycling doggie bags.”


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