Excerpt on travel luck

I have been working on a feature article about travel writing for a magazine, an essay on my thought processes while writing a travelogue. Below is an excerpt that I cut from of the piece (which focuses on Japan) that thought I could share here. It’s an anecdote to demonstrate one of the joys of travel: serendipity. Lucky encounters can be a feature of daily life, if you let them, but sometimes it is easier to put yourself in the path of serendipity when you are in a completely different cultural context.


The sea of people swept me along the streets. My backpack was strapped tightly to my back. I raised my camera up as high as my arm would stretch to capture the crowds. High above and to the left I looked up to see a helicopter hovering. Television news, I thought, here to film the tens of thousands of people protesting President George W Bush ahead of the election. It wasn’t a mob though. It was just another Friday in Tehran. Men in their “Sunday best” walked alongside one another chatting. Behind them came women, occasionally in chador, with children in tow. We made our way to the Grand Mosque to hear the countries highest ranking imams speak. There were far too many people for the mosque, so crowds flowed out into the streets. Pious men lined up their prayer rugs to make their devotions. On the ground it did not feel like a protest, more like a festival, although I expected that is not how it would be portrayed on CNN tomorrow morning. I took a rare chance to capture a photo of a smiling boy holding a sign depicting a burning American flag. On that long walk through the streets I only saw single effigy of George W Bush. We rounded a corner of some official building with a wrought iron fence, which I promptly scaled so I could take some high angle photos. “Hey! You!” someone called out in English. I nervously looked around. A tall, young Persian man with closely cropped beard grabbed my attention. He stood a few meters away and had a big friendly smile on his face. “Dude, are you from Vancouver?” I was flabbergasted. He met me at the bottom of the fence as I climbed down. Here in a crowd of 40,000 people I had randomly encountered a young engineering student, fluent in English, who had spent his high school years studying in Vancouver, British Columba, Canada. He had spotted the maple leaf patch on my backpack as I climbed up the fence. This was Mo, and he was to become one of my best friends in Tehran, introducing me to all sorts of places and people, including another young man who introduced himself to me as “a terrorist.”


Here are some photos from that experience. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I went to downtown Tehran to Friday prayers with my camera, but I was very glad to have been there with all those people. I have never been part of such a crowd. Below you can see a snap I took of the helicopter mentioned in the text (the fence I climbed is to the right in that photo). What you can’t see below is the huge, friendly smile of the boy wearing the poncho/sign of the burning flag. He was really nice, and not scared at all to get photographed when I asked (I cropped his face for obvious reasons).

What’s your travel philosophy?

Cover for the book The Meaning of Travel

I have finally finished Emily Thomas’s short book The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. I started this fun little read in the summer on my last trip to Kyoto, and held off on finishing it until I was back here, as I knew I would be coming to think deeply on why I travel (and why I write about it) — an important topic both for my book project, and an upcoming magazine piece I am working on.

This is not so much a review of the book, but I thought I would share my chapter summaries. Thomas uses each chapter to raise philosophical questions about various aspects of travel. Each chapter is a stimulating jumping off point for thinking about your own reasons for leaving your cozy world behind, or vicariously reading the accounts of others who did. Furthermore, each chapter actually introduces a particular topic or subdomain of academic philosophy. She doesn’t always come right out and label it, so I have included it in square brackets in my chapter summaries below. As an amateur philosopher, these are merely my best guesses. People in the know would be able to categorize these better I expect.

All in all, this is a great read, and if you are interested in travel, well worth it. Beyond asking the deeper questions she opens and closes the book with some excellent “vintage tips” for travelling well from famed philosophers of yore, including such nuggets as label your luggage legibly, do not hurry, or “Have you considered all the dangers… what if some Patagonian Polyphemus [Cyclops] were to tear you to pieces and then straightaway devour the throbbing and still-living parts?” (Joseph Hall, Another World and Yet the Same, 1605); and my favourite: “No young person under forty is ever to be allowed to travel abroad under any circumstances” (Plato, Republic, 380 BCE).

Upon returning home is such pithy advice as “banish ‘all affectations, and apish tricks, and fashions of other nations’” (Thomas ‘The Travailer’ Palmer, An Essay of the Means how to make our Travailes, into forraine Countries, the more profitable and honourable, 1606.) as well as the very good advice of “do not bore people with travel talk.”

Read below for a short description of the content of each chapter, with some of my thoughts thrown in.


Continue reading “What’s your travel philosophy?”

Invoking the God of Letters to fight Coronavirus

In the fight against coronavirus, some in Japan are pulling out all the stops. Kyodo reports that a temple in Kyoto recently held the Kitano Goryoe, a Shinto-Buddhist rite which hasn’t been held since since 1467. The rite originates to the 10th century, and was meant to appease Tenmantenjin (Tenjin for short), a raijin or thunder god, who rained down all sorts of terrible upon Kyoto in 903. I want to take a moment to explore a little of the history of Tenjin as I have been running into him quite often recently.

Sugawara Michizane
Sugawara Michizane

It all starts with the story of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a minister in the Heian Court, and a prodigy. He came from a family of scholars and was an accomplished poet. He held a number of posts including professor of literature for ten years and governorship of Sanuki province (modern day Kanagawa) for four. After that governorship he returned to Kyoto and was promoted to high court by the Emperor, who was trying to beat back Fujiwara influence in Heian at the time. In 901 Sugawara was outmaneuvered by the Fujiwara, who accused him of plotting against the throne, and he was stripped of all his offices by the new Fujiwara-backed Emperor and sent to Kyushu, far away from all the action in Kyoto.

Being “exiled” to the frontier lands of Kyushu was very disappointing for Sugawara Michizane. He made the long journey to Dazaifu, the seat of the Japanese government in the West at the edge of the Japanese realm, where he spent the next couple of years writing poetry protesting his innocence and lamenting his fate at being relegated to irrelevance. Within two years he died, age 58.

A few months later heavy rains started pouring in the capital of Kyoto. Lightning ravaged the city. Many Fujiwara clanspeople died and their houses burned to the ground by the lightning. Putting two and two together, the court appealed to the Emperor who destroyed the original exile letter of Sugawara Michizane, restored all of his offices, and then deified him as Tenjin, or Sky God.

Woodblock of Sugawara no Michizane invoking a thunderstorm from atop Mt. Tempai by Hiroshige (1797 - 1858)
Woodblock of Sugawara no Michizane invoking a thunderstorm from atop Mt. Tempai by Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)

Although a thunder god, eventually Tenjin became worshipped as a deity of poetry, scholarship, and letters, in respect to the skills of Sugawara Michizane.

Kitano-tenmangu shrine was built in 947 and backed by the government as an insurance policy against future pandemics. This is a very prominent shrine in northern Kyoto that I would pass through nearly every day on my commute when I worked at Ritsumeikan University many years ago. I have been to many festivals and events there.

Last week I was in Fukuoka, where I came upon Suikyō Jinja (水鏡神社), “Water Mirror Shrine”, built on the location where Sugawara was said to have stopped to use the local water to look at his face. Later a shrine was built there and dedicated to Tenjin, and it is said this is where the name of Fukuoka’s downtown core neighbourhood came from (I am talking about Tenjin, obviously).

Suikyō Jinja, the Water Mirror Shrine
Suikyō Jinja, the Water Mirror Shrine

Sugawara Michizane’s grave is located near Dazaifu, the seat of the old western government where he died. On his gravesite is now is the sprawling Dazaifu Tenmangū, a shrine dedicated to Tenjin.

Dazaifu Tenmangū
Dazaifu Tenmangū

Below is a video from last week I took of the walk from Dazaifu station, through a fairly empty shopping street, and into Dazaifu Tenmangū where a prayer ceremony is being held.

Near the Tenmangū is a museum that has many artefacts related to Sugawara Michizane, including what is said to be his carrying sword, which has been handed down to the head priest of Dazaifu Tenmangu for generations.

Note the distinct ship of the grip. This is known as a “tweezer shaped handle” sword (毛抜形太刀) and is representative of swords in that era, before the invention of the famous Japanese katana.

The news of priests in Kyoto invoking Tenjin at a temple I visited often in my twenties, stood out to me as I am here in Kyushu seeing his legacy first hand in my forties. History, whether mythical or personal, has a way of coming around. Here’s to Tenjin helping us all with coronavirus. 🙏 ⛩️

First island typhoon experience

[This is a long post. At the very bottom is a condensed list of lessons learned if you do not have the time to spare.]

Since the typhoon was due to strike on the Monday, we started shopping for supplies on Friday morning. The 9th typhoon of the season, Maysak, had just passed a couple of days ago. We deployed the rain shutters and slept all together in the large guest room, 8 tatami mats, as the wind rattled and rain battered the house. Our house is very well built, so weren’t too worried. But the next typhoon, Haishen, was supposed to be way bigger. It was dubbed a Super Typhoon.

The North Pacific typhoon season has an annual average of 30 typhoons. Of those only about eight will hit Okinawa and the southern islands, usually petering out or veering away at the southern tip of Kyushu. About three will make it further to strike at northern Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu.

The more I went around town to pick up supplies, the more I saw people boarding up their stores and taping their windows, and the more rumours I heard about how this was a “once in a 30 year storm” or “No! Once in a 100 years!

Series of screenshots from a weather app showing the typhoon approaching

On Friday afternoon, the kids came home with a letter: school on Monday was cancelled due to the approaching typhoon. Things were getting serious. Haishen was massive, and the nightly news showed endlessly looped footage of historical typhonic destruction. The townspeople were getting anxious. Historically this area had never been hit bad, but with global warming, who knew what to expect? I certainly had no clue. Even though I lived in Japan for eight years, I was far from the truly destructive effects of a typhoon. Living in Kyoto and Nagoya, a typhoon to me was a massive rain storm that meant you needed to take an extra set of clothes and shoes to work, as you would likely be ankle deep in water and totally soaked when you arrived. Typhoon Number 9 hit in the middle of the night, so we barely experienced it. Although we had done some disaster prep, it felt like a practice run for Haishen who had our little island right in the sight of its menacingly calm Eye.

Continue reading “First island typhoon experience”

Writing macrons on macOS and iPadOS

This is a quick tutorial on how to easily type macrons on Apple devices with a hardware keyboard. The onscreen keyboard on the iPad makes this easy, but not when you are using an external hardware keyboard.

This will be particularly relevant to academics needing to write Japanese terms in rōmaji. I searched the web and found all sorts of non-solutions, either out of date or irrelevant, so I am putting this up on the web for others to find. As of 2020, this is the best way.

Hat tip to Hiromu Nagahara on Twitter who told me the answer: set all your input sources to ABC-Extended. This allows you to use Opt+A to insert a macron before you type a vowel.

First, for macOS go to System Preferences → Keyboard → Input Sources, hit the plus button and choose ABC – Extended.

screenshot of the Input sources screen. An arrow indicates where you will see the ABC - Extended listed, and also points out to uncheck the Romaji setting for your Japanese keyboard

This used to be called US Extended, but thankfully they made the name more neutral. It won’t mess up your spellcheck settings, which are actually set in from the Text pane of the Keyboard settings. See below.

screenshot of Text Pane of keyboard settings. An arrow indicated where to set your spelling

Now you can use the Opt+A keyboard shortcut to add a macron:

Animated gif of typing "I love the colours of the kōyō at Kitano Tenmangū in Kyoto"

On your iPad you can do a similar thing. Tap on Settings → General → Keyboard → Hardware Keyboard then your language — mine is English (Canada) — and select ABC – Extended.

screenshot of Hardware Keyboard settings on iPad with an arrow indicating where to select ABC -Extended (it is at the top menu)

Now the Opt+A keyboard shortcut works on your iPad’s hardware keyboard too!

Summer Break

It is the last day of summer break. The kids’ school here on Iki had a 3 week summer holiday, shortened by the school missed in April due to coronavirus measures. Although our break was shorted by a couple of weeks, we are lucky. Some schools only got 9 days. We are also lucky to be going back to school. In my home province in Canada, some kids have not physically been at school for more than six months!

Leaving the island for some mainland adventures

We travelled back to Kyoto for Obon during the break. We visited the family grave, I picked up a charm I needed from the 10th century occultist Abe no Seimei (photos), and I also did my first “anime pilgrimage” to Omi-jingu inspired by the show Chihayafuru (photos). Other than Kyoto we spent a day in Fukuoka (photos), took a couple trips to the local beaches on Iki, and got shocked by the biggest live jumbo shrimp ever (photos and video). We had an eventful summer holiday.

Which of course meant I did almost no work…

At the beginning I was really beating myself up for not hitting my daily reading/writing goals… not checking off the chapters and watching the inbox of papers pile up. I had a good number of blog posts right up until school let out. I tried getting up extra early, and doing things before the kids got out of bed — but I was so tired out from the 42 degree heat and travel throughout the day that I needed my sleep. Plus, it was summer holidays! I realized that even though I “work from home” and keep my own hours, I am still allowed to take time off.

So I let go… played with the kids, helped them with their summer homework, painted with them, and watched some movies (including Knives Out which freaked them out a little, but it was all I had on my iPad and we had limited internet access), and made memories with them. I also got to read some books just for fun, without taking notes in my zettelkasten!

And the great thing is, while I was not stuck in the details, buried up to my eyeballs in footnotes during my daily research, my brain was still working.

Before break I was having trouble with the progress of the book. Finding the right narrative for a travelogue is tough when everyone is isolating and you cannot follow the serendipitous lifepaths of strangers you meet on the roads. In Iran it was chance meetings that allowed me to meet a both a self-declared “Islamic terrorist” and an Armenian Christian who taught me an important lesson about being a religious minority. These kinds of random encounters have somewhat dried up during the pandemic. Before the break I was struggling with the dryness of the manuscript. It was reading more like a white paper from the OECD. During the summer break I had a chance to get some distance which lead to some insight and somewhat of a breakthrough. I am excited to get back to writing, and I have learned the lesson of taking summer breaks seriously even while having lots of fun cavorting about the countryside, splashing in the ocean, making dumb jokes and laughing with my kids!

Me getting mildly sunburned on the ocean this summer
Me getting mildly sunburned on the ocean this summer

The statues of Koganemaru Ikuhisa

In 1971 a surprising archeological discovery was made on Iki island: the remains of a stegadon (in fact, the remains of two). While mammoths and mastodons have shaggy hair, stegadons have hide like modern elephants and their tusks go outward, which also is apparently different than other prehistoric elephants. Here is a picture of me hanging out with one… well a statue of one:

Me chillin’ with the local stegadon

It’s a fun statue for visitors to take pics in front of. But right beside the stegadon is an art museum dedicated to a famous artist born on Iki: Koganemaru Ikuhisa (小金丸幾久). Born in 1915, Koganemaru has pieces all over Japan. You might be familiar with the “Oath of Peace” outside of Ōimachi St in Shinagawa (Tokyo). Or if you have been to Sasebo on Kyushu, you might have seen the massive statue at the Urakami Repatriation Peace Park (here are some Google Images of it… it is very much in Koganemaru’s style of abstract women). I haven’t been to that repatriation site but I have visited the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum where 6.6M Japanese landed from Manchuria and Soviet improsonment after WWII. Anyways, a couple of months ago I was in Omura city and stopped to see a statue depicting the first Japanese embassy to Europe, a group of 12 year old boys who went over in the late 16th C. Turns out this piece too was a Koganemaru! I didn’t know that until I walked into his memorial hall on Iki, close to that stegadon. Prehistorically predetermined?

Below are some samples of his work on display in the hall. (These pics are all on Flickr as well if you want to see them bigger.)

All the above are life-size, except the Meiji emperor who is 2x. As you can see Koganemaru primarily worked in metal. It is quite stunning to see these in person, and not being a connoisseur, I have no idea how he made them. There are quite a few effects showing off his different techniques.

Koganemaru’s last statue, erected in 1997, is just across the bay from my house. It is of Shōni Suketoki, a local hero who saw his first battle against invading Mongols at the age of 12. In the second Mongol invasion at Iki, at the age of 18, he led a force to once again defend Japan. This time was killed in battle. A local park is named after him, and his epic statue is right at the front of the Ashibe ferry terminal.

Statue of young samurai on a rearing horse
Shōni Suketoki statue in front of Ashibe Ferry Terminal

Statues in Japan actually have a very interesting history. If you want to learn a little more about public history and monuments, check out this podcast on the politics of public statues and monuments in Japan with Dr. Sven Saaler →

75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki

The 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb was a couple of days ago. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki 75 years ago today, on 9 August 1945 at 11:02.

I was in Nagasaki a couple of weeks ago and stopped at the hypocenter monument pictured above. The black monolith points up where at 500 meters the bomb exploded, killing a third (75,000 people) of the city and injuring another third. At least 182k deaths have been attributed to the bomb.

There are a number of displays at the hypocenter, including this heart-rending statue:

Statue of woman carrying baby

She looks out onto a plaza that is covered in chalk scribbles — like what you would see on an EKG readout. The lines cover the whole plaza, all leading towards the hypocenter. Here and there a small section has a chalk frame and a number.

White scribbles on bricks

Turns out this is an AR art installation by Shinpei Takeda. You download the app and point it at those special markers and you can hear the stories and see pictures of the aftermath. Take a look at this video to see a quick demonstration.

Further up the hill is the Nagasaki Peace Park, filled with statues made by local artists and gifted from countries around the world in sorrow and solidarity.

They call Hiroshima “The City of Monuments”, but Nagasaki has its fair share. On this 75th anniversary, spare a thought for the second and last city in all of human history to be the victim of an atomic weapon.

Remote island logistics: getting on and off Iki

The term ritō means “remote island.” Japan has lots of remote islands. When living on islands like this there are some things you need to take account of such as transportation to and from the island. Iki Island has three main ways to get on and off the island:

  1. Jetfoil: this is the high speed hydrofoil that leaves from two of the ports on the island, and connects us to Fukuoka, the biggest city on Kyushu (1.5MM population). Time: about 1 hour
  2. Ferry: there are a few ferries that operate from all three ports. Two routes go to Fukuoka, and one to Karatsu, in Saga prefecture. Time: about 2 hours
  3. Air: Twice daily are flights from Iki to Nagasaki Airport. Time: about 20 minutes

In the other direction, you can catch a ferry or a jetfoil to Tsushima Island from which you can head on to Korea. The boats that go to Tsushima from Fukuoka have a stopover on Iki.

Of course, if you had a boat yourself you could probably make the trip to the Kyushu mainland, but these three modes of transportation are the usual way people and products go to and fro.

Jetfoil docking at Ashibe Port

The jetfoil is pretty quick so people take it on day trips to Fukuoka all the time. Some islands are very remote, but Iki is lucky to be so close to the biggest city in Kyushu. It is like a bus from the suburbs: you jump on and in an hour you are in the big city for shopping and good eats. You can catch the afternoon jetfoil back, or even catch the late night ferry back if you want to stay out a little longer. The parking lots at the terminals are free for locals, so people just park their car for the day, or for a few days, or even a week or more while they are away on the mainland.

Locals also get the benefit of something called the “Islander Card” (島民カード), or more literally the “Frontier Remote Island Islander Discount Card”. This is a residency card that gives you all sorts of benefits, the best being travel to and from the island at about half price. A flight to Nagasaki is normally about $100 but only $50 for me.

My "Islander Card"
My “Islander Card”

The Islander Card system is run by the prefecture of Nagasaki, which Iki is part of. It is one of the ways that islanders benefit from all the development money that flows from the national government to support the remote islands (more on that in the future). Another thing we get from the Nagasaki prefectural government that connects us to civilization is access to the interlibrary loan system. I can use the amazing Mirai On prefectural library and get books shipped over to one of our small libraries on the island for pickup.

So, hydrofoil, ferry, and plane, those are your options. Of course, weather being weather, these often get interrupted. It was my first time here when I learned the term 欠航 kekkou, which is “flight cancellation” but is also used for ships. When we first came to the island back in January the seas were too rough due to wind, and our jetfoil was redirected to a southern port. Then on the way back, our jetfoil was cancelled completely, and we had to take the ferry. The ferry being bigger and heavier, can withstand a lot more weather wise. But even then it can be cancelled. When it does, the island doesn’t get that days newspaper, and a bread shortage will happen.

Ferry pulling into Ashibe Port and unloading people

Out here on the ocean fog and mist can be a big deal, and this causes flight cancellations all the time. A few weeks back, when I was to take my first flight to Nagasaki, the plane was cancelled due to visibility concerns. I had to postpone for a few days.

The planes that service Iki are Dash 8s, operated by ORC — Oriental Air Bridge — which has a codeshare with ANA. The Dash 8 can only haul just under 40 people, so they are quite small, and I don’t think there is a ton of instrumentation.

Dash 8 on the ground with ORC markings

The flight to Nagasaki is just 20 minutes, and the route is Nagasaki to Iki and back. Even if there is iffy weather they load up all the passengers and cargo in Nagasaki, then take off, then come over to Iki, fly around for a bit and wait and see if there is an opportunity to land, and if not, head back to Nagasaki. I was waiting in the lounge, having passed security and everything, when they cancelled my flight. It was a bit annoying, but probably not as bad as the poor people who were stuck in the plane and had to go back to their starting point!

With cancellations being pretty common, all of these travel agencies, and even the hotels on the mainland are pretty forgiving in terms of refunding or rescheduling. I don’t have a ton of experience, but so far every time it has happened to me, all the companies involved have been very understanding.

Iki Island is a great place because it is self reliant: fish, rice, beef, freshwater, and electricity are all produced on the island — great for emergency preparedness (knock-on-wood for the coronapocalypse). However, with such a small population (26k) it can be a little inconvenient for getting certain products. There are no malls here… not even a McDonalds or a Starbucks… never mind an Apple Store. Having a few daily ferries, jetfoils, and planes each day means that you can get products shipped pretty easily and quickly, you just have to watch out for the ritō price — a lot of places will charge you extra to ship here. Luckily, Amazon Prime actually includes Iki so we tend to order things from there if possible.

When the Japanese became “yellow”

Inspired by his recent interview in Japan on the Record I sought out some of Professor John G. Russell’s work on race in Japan. In his analysis on the Nissin whitewash scandal last year, this extraordinary paragraph:

Even though the Japanese have been seen to whitewash themselves, it hasn’t been simply a matter of skin color and that is why the term “whitewashing,” at least in the Japanese context, is inadequate and misleading. After all, the Japanese have traditionally viewed their own skin color as white, as did early European missionaries and merchants to the country, whose accounts of the Japanese they encountered were otherwise devoid of descriptions of their physical appearance. Indeed, according to University of Haifa professor Rotem Kowner in “From White to Yellow” (2014), it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the Japanese came to be seen — and eventually came to see themselves, at least rhetorically — as members of “the yellow race.”

Hence in lightening Naomi Osaka’s countenance, Nissin was not trying to minimize her blackness but possibly trying to emphasize her Japanese-ness. Ironic.

In fact, Russell refers to anthropologists Hiroshi Wagatsuma and Toshinao Yoneyama who point out:

Japanese have not only traditionally viewed their skin as white but that they view the texture and color of their skin, smooth and unblemished with freckles, as purer and more aesthetically appealing than Caucasian whiteness.

This might sound wacky to Westerners, but only proves (once again) how race is a social construct, not a fixed reality. For example, “whiteness” has gone through many iterations. From my review of The History of White People:

The ranking and re-ranking of people by those at the top of society is highly dependant on the prevailing political winds and threats to the position of the elite. During the first World War, the Germans were down-ranked out of whitehood, and soon Americans were to worry about “Soviets” and “the feebleminded Juke-Kallikak-Polish-Russian-Jewish-French-Canadian-mongrelized-Alpine Under-Man.” Later, as America faced immigration “crises” from Asia and Eastern Europe, the Irish and Italians, previously outsiders, were invited into whiteness. The race to whiteness is competitive and relativistic.

John G. Russell’s piece shows how as the Japanese were introduced to Western race theory, they were constructing themselves, and also how the result was unique and independent from the West. Racial constructs are not universal (though they are universally wrong).