Continuing a Japanese porcelain legacy — Review of The Art of Emptiness

In the mid-seventeenth century the nobles of Europe were thrown into an addiction crisis. With the fall of the Ming Dynasty, and the chaos that ensued, where were they to get fine porcelain to decorate their palaces? As luck would have it, a new source of kaolinite — the key mineral in the manufacture of ceramics — was discovered in a much more politically stable region: Tokugawa Japan.

The kaolinite deposits were discovered on Izumiyama near Arita in modern-day Saga prefecture. The ruling clan of the day was Nabeshima, a very shrewd and fascinating clan. They had control of Nagasaki, and so had a window to the outside world.

(In fact, a couple hundred years later in the 1840s Nabeshima Naomasa would use the foreign intelligence he gathered through Nagasaki channels to find out about the Opium Wars and the coming wave of colonialists and their modern weapons. He made the astute decision to start looking into developing modern weapons, building Japan’s first reverberatory furnace used to make modern cannon. When Perry’s Black ships came, the shogun ordered 50 of these cannons to be positioned on Odaiba, at Tokyo Bay. Later, Nabeshima and his people went on to be very important in the new Meiji government. A very fascinating house.)

Anyways, back to Arita. The Nabeshima clan saw an opportunity to fill a gap in global porcelain market, so with the help of Korean potters “brought over” during Hideyoshi’s failed invasion, they founded the craft of Japanese porcelain was born.

Sun setting behind a torii made out of porcelain
Ceramic shrine dedicated to potters in 1658

Narrow river valleys wend their way along the foot of Mt Izumi and the surrounding mountains. The town of Arita is nestled in one of these valleys, long and narrow. Other sections of town have worked their way up into other tight gorges and canyons. The town layout sort of resembles the claw of some massive bird or dragon.

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Interviewing Superintendent Kubota

This month I was in Unseen Japan for a piece called How Schools on Remote Japanese Islands are Fighting Depopulation→

In that article I detail the genesis of the study abroad program my family and I went on for our year on Iki Island (see FAQ). In writing the article I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the driving personalities of the program, Superintendent Kubota Yoshikazu.

I wanted to take a moment to tell you a little more about him, since he featured a lot in our life on Iki. The Iki School District office is high on a bluff above the elementary school my kids attended, in the northeast part of the island. When the four major towns of Iki merged a few years back in a cost-cutting measure (one of the ways remote areas deal with depopulation and smaller tax bases), the town hall of Ashibe was turned into the main school building for all the schools on the island. Kubota-sensei works from this office, but often drives down to the biggest town Gō-no-ura to attend meetings at city council.

I was able to visit him a few times in his Ashibe office, sitting across from him on a low leather lounge. One of the remarkable things about him is how intently he listens to people around him speak. Then, when it is his turn to talk, he has a gentle low voice that brings about a hush in the room.

Kubota-sensei’s short-cropped hair seems the type for a former high school baseball coach (he coached my friend who runs the Wasabi guest house — see the video tour in this post — back when he was in high school) but actually it is because he is from a line of Nichiren priests. His temple is just at the foot of the hill below the District building. For Kubota-sensei, educating children is his number one priority. He said the job requires trust and moral fibre, so feels the temple members are proud of what he is doing.

When Kubota-sensei is not on school or temple business, he is often picking fruit from the trees around his house. Often we would get a knock at the door at our house and he would be standing there in his rubber boots with a bag full of biwa or other seasonal fruit or garden vegetable. His granddaughter would come over with all the neighbourhood kids to play hide-and-go-seek and eat snacks in our house.

I would like to thank Kubota-sensei for accepting a weird Canadian family into his school district with open arms. Him and his team did everything they could to make our stay comfortable, and to help our kids adjust to life in Japanese school. And he was gracious enough to sit down with me for a couple of hours to discuss education theory and the thinking behind the Ikkiko remote island study program. 本当にお世話になりました!

If you want to read more about the program, take a look at my article in Unseen Japan →

Chad poses with Kubota-sensei in his office
Chad poses with Kubota-sensei in his office

My year on Ikijima, a remote Japanese island

Between May 2020 and June 2021 I moved my family to the remote island (ritō 離島) of Ikijima. To find out why, check the FAQ. Three months after leaving Japan and returning to Canada, I would like to reflect on that year.

Real quick though, in case you don’t already know:

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Meditation stats snapshot

It has been a while, so I took a bit of a snapshot of my meditation tracker data on Insight Timer today, exporting it into Numbers for some visualization. Some quick stats:

930

Total sessions

14,800

Total minutes

753

Days with at least 1 session

  • Timer 37%
  • Guided meditations 63%
    • Meditation 99%
    • Chanting 1%
  • Consecutive days best 132
  • Daily avg 19m
  • 77 bookmarks on Insight Timer

Looking at this data I think you could say I have underperformed. Since my first retreat 4 years I would have liked to have meditated at least 20 minutes once a day, which means I should be over 1400 sessions. I only have myself to blame, since I sit alone and rely on a mix of podcasts, books, and IT Guided Meditations with no teacher. I would really like the opportunity to sit with a group and get more instruction, but that has yet to happen.

If we look at monthly performance, specifically # of Sessions and Total Time per month, we can see some trends that looking back, line up with what was going on in my life. (Not 100% of my sessions are tracked, but it is close enough.)

At a bare minimum, I should have a sit at least once a day, which means those blue bars should be around that horizontal red line of 30 sessions. After my retreats in 2017 you can see the slow decay of dedication, which is expected. That is why you have to periodically “re-up” with a new retreat. 2019 was a very stressful year for me, and I went on retreat finally, but it didn’t quite stick. Funny how the times when you are most stressed out are the times you should be meditating but don’t? We came back to Canada in June and my Dad passed away soon after, but you can see I maintained consistency then, so I am making progress.

This year I rededicated myself to a daily meditation practice and you can see the difference from Jan 2021. Bullet journaling had a big part in that, making it much more visible and helping to build the habit. Since the beginning I have been using Insight Timer. I haven’t really tried a bunch of other apps, since IT has some pretty good guided meditations (lots of bhikku and bhikkhunī), and the timers do a good job. If you have recommendations for others I am certainly open to hear. Having all my data already in this one though makes the lock-in strong.

Antiracist baby in Japanese

In the community we lived in on Ikijima there is a kids club that meets every Friday after school. A local non-profit put together a small office out of bits of wood and corrugated plastic to do its work. It had a concrete floor and big table in the center for meetings. There were strategic maps on the wall beside which were handmade shelves that sagged under the weight of donated toys and books. Every Friday this space was made available after school until 5 o’clock for elementary kids to gather and do homework or just hang out. Occasionally there volunteers show up — young adults who help the kids with their homework. We went pretty much every week that it wasn’t shut down due to corona. We planned some fun year-end events for the kids there too.

Before we left Japan we wanted to give the clubhouse a small gift, a book in English that a lot of the kids could understand. I am a big fan of Ibram X. Kendi after reading his astonishing book How to Be An Antiracist (a 5-star book on Goodreads for which I never wrote a proper review, but you can see my status update notes here.) His book Antiracist Baby had just come out in translation, so we bought the English and Japanese pair and gave them to the clubhouse as a parting gift.

The English and Japanese versions of Antiracist baby sitting on a tatami mat
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A bumpy ride into the electric car future

So, we bought a thing.

Chad standing in front of new car with a giant novelty bow on the hood

When I asked the dealer to take a photo he said “Do you want the big bow?” and I was like “Yes please sir I would very much like the big bow!”

It is a Nissan LEAF, a fully electric vehicle. This is our first electric vehicle. In fact, it is our first vehicle. We held off on owning a vehicle for a very long time, but the only place we could find to rent is quite a ways out of town so we thought it was time. There is a lot more involved in the decision, but today I am here to tell you a different story, a tale of woe. Cue ominous (and foreshadowing!) thunderclap…

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A systematic culture of failure

Okay, what follows is a rant full of wild generalizations about Canadian “culture.” While on the one hand all I really want to do is vent about how terrible our experience was moving back to Canada (under both emergency and pandemic conditions), I also think the experience uncovered a fundamental truth about how society works in Canada, especially when compared to a place like Japan.

Now that the preamble is done, let me further digress with a preface. 😉 On the exact same day we left Japan, Thersa Matsuura of Uncanny Japan (an excellent podcast, highly recommended) also left Japan for a few weeks in the US. Upon returning to Japan she had this to say:

Observation: The stay in the States was absolute heaven. Well, except for some serious incompetency by the clinic who did our final PCR test (to be done within a 72-hour window before our flight, they got my time wrong and wouldn’t correct it). I was flabbergasted at how (in general) no one will take responsibility for anything or apologize when a mistake is made, even if its on behalf of the company/institution/store. It made me re-appreciate how (for the most) part people here take pride in their work, try to help, keep things tidy, and don’t bad mouth you or their jobs so other people can hear. I’m still shaking over that.

(To read the full post check out her Patreon, and give the podcast a listen!)

Yes, yes, and yes! I can agree with all of that. And I would like to make an observation of my own: one thing that I think drives at the heart of all this is planning — or lack thereof.

In our move to Canada we were failed by pretty much every system and process in place. It was laughable. (Skip the next section if you don’t want to hear all the gory and frustrating details)

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Driving Iki: Indōji to Hara-no-tsuji, the ancient Yayoi settlement

(This is the first of a video series driving around Ikijima. I will be uploading more vids as I edit them.)

Iki is just a small island, only 17km long and 14km wide. Many of the attractions are outdoors, so when people visit, I would often take them on driving tours like this. On a beautiful day it is a pleasure to drive. And when it isn’t too windy, it is a great cycling destination, as there aren’t too many steep hills.

Today’s trip is from the port at the southeastern corner of Iki to the island’s famous model Yayoi village. Come along with me for the drive. Feel free to put on your own tunes while you watch in 4K and enjoy the beautiful May scenery of Ikijima.

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Sudden Goodbyes

Our first summer spent on Iki in 2020 was a bit hectic. We had just arrived in May: new community, new house, new school, new life. We didn’t know the roads, weather, where the good beaches were, the best times to swim — we didn’t know anything about island life. So we were very much looking forward to spending summer 2021, after a year of settling in, revelling in the summer riches the island of Ikijima has to offer.

Then came that dreaded phrase: “It’s cancer.”

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Women adventurers

In my previous post on adventure travel I listed a number of adventure writers that have inspired me over the years. You may have noticed that they were almost exclusively men. The reason is because I wanted to do a separate post specifically highlighting women voices in the genre. (The reason I mentioned Gertrude Bell in the last post is because I think if you ever mention T.E. Lawrence you are obliged to bring her name up!)

To recap from that last post: a “culture high” is that rush you feel in a culture shock situation, the risk involved as you are doubting your instincts about what to do next in an unfamiliar social context. It is sort of like the disoriented exhilaration you feel on a rollercoaster. Let me give you an example: for North Americans I think industrialized nations like Japan are particularly sly at springing these situations on you, firstly because it is so safe here that you are not in constant fear for your survival, secondly because “on the outside” it looks a lot like the West, so one can be easy to be lulled into certain expectations. Countries that look very different from where you grew up will likely have you on edge, making you more observant and cautious. The point of this example is to illustrate cultural relativity. Depending on where you are from, you can get that culture rush in a different manner. Therefore, reading women’s accounts of exploring a different country/culture as a man delivers a sort of double culture shock for me.

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