Island of Gods, Island of Demons

According to the old stories, Iki was one of the first islands of Japan, made by the creator gods themselves. It is the island of the Moon, with Tsushima across the strait being the island of the Sun. The gods had to raise up heavenly pillars to keep the island in place. Iki is said to be home to 1200 shrines despite being only 17 km long and 14 km wide.

But gods are not the only ones that tread here.

According to different old stories, Iki was a Demon Island (鬼ヶ島). Not the one from the Momotaro story, a different one. Demons ran rampant in old Japan, and you can see the evidence today here on Iki: there is the famous Devil’s Footprint and many shrines have demon-shaped wooden dolls to keep away evil (and Mongols). But where did all the demons go? The answer to that question can be found in the traditional kites of Iki.

The ondako (鬼凧) or “demon kite” is one of the symbols of the island. You can see them on the backs of tour buses, at the entrance to the museum, and they sell little versions of them as souvenirs. They are ubiquitous.

There is a kite flying festival in April, but on windy days, if you go down to Sakyobana, the north-facing cliffs, there is a group of older gentleman that fly the kites. They are quite large, and when they go up into the strong winds, they make a sort of buzzing sound that is loud. It is like one of those murder hornets, a warning.

The ondako depicts a fierce looking warrior, with upturned moustache, wearing an ornate helmet. The warrior is looking upwards, because perched on top of the helmet is the head of a demon. The story goes like this:

The hero Yuriwaka came to Iki and killed most of the demons, finally facing down their Poison King. The evil demon king attacked Yuriwaka with his massive golden club, but Yuriwaka was able to decapitate the king. The demon king’s head then flew up into the heavens to get some medicine that would help re-attach his head to his body. Meanwhile Yuriwaka hid the body, and waited for the demon head to finally die. When the Head of Poison King returned and could not find his body, the demon attacked Yuriwaka by chomping on his head! The helmet protected Yuriwaka, and soon the demon head died. Since then the people fly kites celebrating Yuriwaka’s deeds high up into the heavens as a warning to any demons who might be thinking about coming down.

Statue depicting a warrior fighting a demon
Yuriwaka fighting the Poison King, statue in downtown Go-no-ura

Negotiating the seas

It has been busy recently for Japan’s three disputed territories.

Early in October China opened a new digital museum about the Senkaku Islands, and China has had coast guard vessels near the Senkakus for a record number of days this year.

Just a few days ago the “Day of Dokdo” in South Korea was to be marked by singer Kim Jang-Hoon by holding an online concert while cruising around the islets.

Two days later Russia deployed a new missile system to the Kuril Islands during military drills.

These and more are just some of the happenings in these longterm disputes that have been drawn out for decades. Luckily there have been no clashes, and the “fighting” has been mostly taking place in the legal realm. If you are looking to get a good foundation on one or more of these conflicts, check out my review Serita Kentaro’s book The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis for BooksOnAsia.net. The review is posted on BooksOnAsia.net, check it out here → Negotiating the seas

Cover for The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis

This is my first piece for BoA, and I hope to have a couple more before the year is out.

Articulate Noise — Review of Better Living Through Criticism

cover of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

For a book with “how” in the title, there is not much instruction. Better Living Through Criticism is more of a “watch me think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth” which is much more entertaining. If writing described as “pontificating” or “a meditation” does not immediately turn you off, you will probably enjoy A.O. Scott’s reference-filled critique on the practice itself.

Imagine sitting at an outside cafe on a brisk autumn Sunday morning, steam rising from three coffee cups as you look across the cold, green, metal table at your Uncle A and your other Uncle O. They both super smart, well read, and are going through a sort of mid-life crisis, questioning everything. Also, the only way they can communicate is in references, stringing together literary quotations like a pair of (Philadephia-based) conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, they have been meeting here every Sunday for weeks and still haven’t come up with any solution. But there have been lots of conclusions.

To some, this might be the worst kind of excuse-inducing scenario. I would immediate pull up my chair and take an expectant sip of coffee.

Each chapter takes on a fundamental topic (What is criticism? What is the role of the audience? What is the role of the critic? What is the business of criticism?) and is interleaved by conversational asides where Scott interviews himself, revealing more of his thinking in a sort of disarming, conversational way. (Chapter summaries here)

Although at some points the book feels like a drawn out magazine article, I do appreciate the philosophical approach he takes on the topics he covers. Although I do a lot of book and movie reviews, I have never really considered myself a critic. Better Living Through Criticism did make me think more seriously about my approach. I attempt to read every book with a critical eye and engage with the ideas within when I write about it. I want to add value, above and beyond any value judgement. This is the result of the “thinking” that goes both into criticism as into writing. A.O. Scott quotes Elizabeth Hardwick in the inaugural New York Review of Books:

“[T]he great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

H.L. Mencken declared that any good critic was motivated to “make an articulate noise in the world.” This advice I took to heart, but I was struck by Scott’s definition that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Of course this does not mean a critic should “sell” the work. Scott returns often to the “struggle between criticism and publicity” throughout: critics shouldn’t be PR or marketing, nor should they hack down everything. For Scott, if he doesn’t like a work, “the only ethical and honest course of action for me would be to remain silent and leave the discussion to others.” (I have not always followed this advice, but as you can see I read many more books than I review). For the works that are worthy, one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader. Scott describes a budding cineast who “dreams of casting a spell like the one he finds himself under.” Critics are artists too.

Better Living Through Criticism didn’t give me a map, but certainly gave me a destination to strive towards in my own practice of criticism. There are many ideas in the book to grapple with and I have a stack of notes that I will return to. Also, there are many referenced works for me to look up and appreciate next. To better living!

Immersed in audio dramas

There has been a spate of new Audible Original Dramas out recently, and I have been hooked.

As everyone knows, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Audio accounts for about 2/3rds of the books I read each year. My very first audiobook, way back in about 2007 was Ender’s Game. Though not a full cast production with sounds and music and the like, this audiobook had a multiple readers and was a great first listening experience. I was in Tokyo at the time, staying near Akasaka Circus, doing some stuff at the Canadian Embassy, and I remember just walking around the streets of Tokyo endlessly in the evening while listening to this audio drama, not wanting to go back to the hotel. I just couldn’t put it down.

Since then I have been a huge consumer of feature length audio content (and podcasts too of course). I get my audiobooks from a bunch of different sources (library, Downpour, Audible is my last choice since I avoid DRM where I can) and you can see a full list of what I have listened to and my recommendations on my Goodreads Audio Shelf.

Full cast audio dramas, especially well-produced ones with professional voice actors, are a great way to escape while you are doing chores or just walking around. I remember listening to the Star Wars audio dramas from the 1980s, and while in graduate school I soothed my tired brain by listening to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC production while shovelling multiple feet a snow a day in Kingston Ontario.

Recently I have been listening to some classic adaptations such as The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island, both adapted by Marty Ross and lots of fun. The one that has blown me away is the newly released audio drama adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the classic comic book series.

Gaiman’s audiobooks are always good, especially when he shows up as a creepy narrator, but this drama, with all the great foley and musical score was just brilliant. Just look at that cast list! There is one arc that was a bit too gore-horror for me, but in general it was all top-notch creepy Gaimanisms. I respect him so much as a storyteller, his ability to weave such emotional tales with the barest of suggestions, rather than saying anything outright. I admire the way he sets up his stories with a simple hook that pays off by the end with an arrow to the listener’s heart. The final chapter of The Sandman, involving a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the perfect example of Gaiman’s use of historical and literary references as a guide for the reader, only to subvert the reader’s expectations in a particularly heart-wrenching way. While reading Gaiman I feel as though I am his mere plaything, and this is only enhanced by the performance of professional actors whispering sweet nothings directly into my ears.

promo image for The Sandman, an audible original based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted and directed by Dirk Maggs

Pure Invention

cover of audiobook for Pure Invention

First of all, this is not really review of Matt Alt’s new book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. The book is great, it is a fun romp through Japanese history using the lens of some of its most popular products. Go get it, you will love it. What I want to do here is to engage with a specific set of ideas as presented in the book. As a pop history of Japan and a selection of Japanese products, I think this book is wonderful. But there is a (small) aspect of the book that I found jarring, and I think it comes down to the framing — “conquering the world.” The commentary below is pretty in the weeds (not to mention possibly pedantic), and assumes that you are familiar with the content of the book. So, if interested, go read the book, then come back and check this out. I’ll wait. 😉

Continue reading “Pure Invention”

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!