Yume no Ie (Dream House), Niigata, Japan
A few weeks ago, on a crisp, early autumn Saturday morning, I excitedly boarded a train for a weekend adventure.
I was going together with my good friend My–a fun and outgoing Swede whom I just adore–to spend the night in a 100+ year old traditional Japanese house that had been refurbished into a permanent art installation in Niigata prefecture, one of the coldest regions of the country, wearing special magnet-lined “dream pajamas”. Oh, and sleeping inside a wooden box.
That’s right: We were on our way to the Dream House–the love child of Serbian performance artist Marina Abromovic and her own psyche–to take part in one of the weirdest dream-related rituals I had ever heard of. I had only recently become familiar with Abromovic’s work after having helped translate her recently published (and aptly titled) “Dream Book“, a collection that recounted the project’s history and also included descriptions of over 100 dreams that previous visitors had recorded in the specially provided “dream diaries”. Having lately become very interested in interpreting my own increasingly vivid and bizarre dream life, I was fascinated. I snagged one of the few remaining available reservations for overnight stays at the facility before it closed for the winter, and convinced My to join me for the adventure.
Abramovic originally designed the Dream House as part of the Echigo Tsumari Art Trienale, an outdoor art festival that was designed to help revitalize the rural Niigata villages, which were facing decline and a rapidly aging population as young people abandoned them to move to the cities. In addition to helping visitors access their latent potential to get in touch with their subconscious selves through the usually-ignored realm of their dreams, the project also aimed to involve local residents with the ongoing management of the house, which would itself also serve as a clearinghouse for local culture.
My and I arrived to the local village just before dusk, after having enjoyed a relaxed lunch of delicious soba (buckwheat) noodles, a long and relaxing soak in the waters of the Matsunoyama Onsen–one of Japan’s top three medicinal hot springs–and a soul-warming cup of coffee at an adorable little jazz cafe that we were lucky enough to find just before embarking upon the 20-minute uphill climb to our destination.
“Soba and jazz cafe with an extremely warm heart” :)
We were met at the the Dream House by an extremely friendly woman named Takahashi san, who gave us a tour of the house, took us to two other nearby formerly abandoned homes that had similarly been restored into permanent art installations, and then left us on our own. I chuckled to myself as I realized that our relaxed and easy-going guide had forgetten to remind us of several rules that the Dream Book had made adamantly clear were necessary when staying overnight at the facility, such as listening to a tape recording where Abramovic’s stern voice herself instructed guests regarding the precise rituals to be followed.
Breaking another rule after Takahashi departed, My and I savored our evening meal–a gorgeous spread of local treats including fish, vegetables, soup, rice, pickles and tea– not in silence, as Abramovic had instructed, but while talking for hours about life, love, loss, and yes, dreams. My is similarly interested in dream interpretation, and so we finally decided to call it a night to see what our dreams would reveal to us. First, we engaged in the called-for ritual of soaking in a bath of fresh, locally-grown herbs before putting on the special dream pajamas and going to bed (i.e., lying inside of fake coffins with–I swear I am not making this up–a pillow made of marbled rock).
Fresh herbs for the bath
Part of my dream exploration, which has been guided by various resources such as the richly informative Dream Tribe website, has focused on “incubating dreams.” According to the dream experts, if you ask the universe/your spirit guides/your own higher self to help provide guidance regarding a specific question that you have asked. you will receive answers within your dreams in the form of symbols, images, and sometimes just even fleeting feelings or understandings . Abramovic’s approach, according to the literature on hand at the Dream House–as well as my own readings on her work–is to help us access this deep intuition through a series of steps designed to coax ourselves into “dreaming mode”: the silence (whoops!), the bath, the placing of 12 magnets inside the dream suit pockets that are aligned with the meridians of the body corresponding to Chinese acupuncture, and sleeping in a manner so uncomfortable as to ensure a light sleep conducive to remembering your dreams.
Above: My room (the purple one)
Right: The red room…can you imagine waking up to this light?!
As intrigued by spirituality and intuitive pursuits as I am, I must admit that my first thought before heading off to bed was a decidedly corporeal one: How in the hell was I supposed to go the bathroom with heavy magnets dangling all over the place inside this freaking oversized “dream suit”?! I inevitably have to wake up once and sometimes twice every night in order to do the deed, and considering the endless cups of tea that My and I had consumed, I knew tonight would be no different. Sure enough, shortly after falling asleep (which must have been sometime around midnight), my first dream came in the form of having to go pee, badly, and actually standing up on the toilet seat for the best aim, urinating in a thick stream that seemed to go on forever. I am soooooo thankful that this did not result in a bedwetting incident (don’t know how I have escaped my entire life without one of these, or at least so I’m told ;), but needless to say, when I awoke, I sucked it up and trudged across the house to the toilet. (Side note: Can you imagine looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror in the middle of the night and having a Teletubby staring back at you? Yeah.)
After crawling back into my box together with some blankets and futons I had grabbed from the closet to try to warm up (do NOT tell Marina Abramovic!!), my mind drafted back to the dreams that I had translated from the Dream Book. I had been shocked at the number of erotic and violent dreams that people had recorded into the dream diaries, and part of me wondered whether some of them had been exaggerating or even lying. Now, inside the house itself, I realized that there likely was some truth to the artist’s recipe for unleashing the raw and wild parts of our psyches that are often kept hidden. Indeed, the next dream that I had after finally falling back asleep was even more bizarre than the first. Before heading to bed earlier in the evening, I had asked for a dream to help me find out what had happened to my sweet cat Yoda, who disappeared three months ago, and whose loss I am still deeply grieving. When I bolted awake several hours later, after my bathroom visit, I was horrified to slowly realize that the dream I had just awoken from was one where I was calmly stripping the skin off of a black and white cat, with a voice speaking the words “We must stop the practice of skinning cats.”
One of the many ways that I had attempted to find Yoda following his disappearance was plastering flyers all over a very wide swathe of our neighborhood, and after I returned from a trip home to see my family in the States one month after his disappearance (which was partially to help take my mind off the despair of losing him), my partner Sheila told me that she found one small flyer posted very near our home with the bodies of skinned cats, which bore something akin to the same message that had just appeared in my dream. What did this mean? Was this truly the fate of my gorgeous, amazingly intuitive cat, whom I hoped would be with me for far longer than just four short years? If so, why did he have to suffer like that?
In this case, I badly want to think that this was “only a dream”; my brain simply recalling Sheila’s words about the flyer, with no connection to reality. And yet, I know that even if this thankfully did not happen to my precious baby, in any case, this *is* the fate of countless other animals, many perhaps equally as loved; none of them deserving such ill treatment. One of the many animal rights organization representatives whom I spoke with in the initial days following Yoda’s disappearance spent our entire conversation telling me that animals were often yanked off the street by yakuza (mafia) members who sent them to factories for animal testing, and I remember dismissing this possibility completely, disgusted that she would even bring it up. At the time, I was thriving on the positive words that my friends were feeding me constantly on Facebook, telling me not to give up hope, that he would be home soon. What if she was right, though? Yoda is a docile and friendly creature with gorgeous fur–both qualities that would make him attractive for any number of sinister doings. What if our immediate cat-loathing neighbor had not dumped Yoda in a faraway field, as I had imagined at one point, but had done the unimaginable and called some kind of animal kidnapper to come and take him away?
Staircase leading up to the bedrooms
My mind can easily go to this kind of ominous place, and frankly speaking, this kind of mistrust is not something that I wish to cultivate within my own heart–particularly as my partner and I prepare to welcome our own children into the world. And yet, once again I know that it is real, that animals–and human beings, for that matter–are suffering via this type of inhumane and cruel treatment. And since it was *me* who was calmly skinning the cat in the dream, I must ask myself: is this some kind of call to vegetarianism? To become an animal rights activist? Some other message that I have yet to comprehend?
Needless to say, the questions that danced around within my mind as My and I left the Dream House on Sunday morning were not of a light and easy nature. Nevertheless, I found myself very grateful for her friendship as I shared my dreams with her (and she did the same) back at the jazz cafe over yummy breakfast and coffee.
I must also send thanks to Marina Abramovic, for her passionate vision in enabling people to explore realms of our consciousness that are mostly off-limits during our waking life. I will continue to explore my own dreams with regard to the question of my beloved furry one, as well as other looming life questions and challenges–and encourage others to do the same (the Dream Tribe offers a fantastic guide for beginning dream interpreters here).
The Yukiguni blog also has a lovely post on the Dream House (with lots more photos of the interior)…
Me n My
Gorgeous Niigata countryside