2020NYinJapan Part 1: Tokyo

We spent less than a day here, getting up early on Jan 1st — known as gantan (元旦) in Japanese. A friend who I had not seen in many years picked us up from the hotel, and we all went for hatsumōde together. My friend lives mostly in Dubai where his three kids go to British school. His brother-in-law also came with us with his two kids who are schooled in Singapore. My kids obviously are educated in Canada. It was amazing to see all the bi-racial kids, educated in totally different countries, interact with one another at a shrine in the Yoyogi area of Tokyo. The became fast friends, griping about how difficult Japanese school is. 😂

While my buddy and his family were gathering over some osechi ryori [sidenote: get a nice binaural intro to osechi at the Uncanny Japan podcast] we took a quick jaunt to the New National Stadium, a 1 billion dollar multipurpose stadium built to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Walking through the streets of Tokyo in the morning, I was struck by how empty it seemed. Of course most stores were shuttered, and people would be at home having New Year’s meals with their families, or be outside of Tokyo in their hometowns. Yet “empty” Tokyo was a little spooky. That said, we still had to line up for 30 mins for the local shrine.

We took a taxi to the Olympic Village where in front of the official Olympic Museum there is a display of giant Olympic rings that people lined up to get photos with. It was pretty busy around this area. The New Year’s cheer and Olympic fever was in the air. Everyone was really helpful, politely offering to take photos for other people. We were able to get a family shot, and then quickly headed to Tokyo Station where saw the countdown clock for the 2020 Olympics before catching the bullet train to Kyoto.

The weather was amazing: clear blue skies. I was happy to be sitting on the right side of the train because we would get a clear view of Mt Fuji. However, the only clouds in the sky had gathered around that mountain obscuring the view. Alas, the only good photo I got of Fuji-san from the Shinkansen was this one.

2020 New Years in Japan recap

In just 10 days we covered quite a bit of the country.
In just 10 days we covered quite a bit of the country.

This year I celebrated New Year’s in Tokyo for the first time. We landed at Haneda on New Year’s Eve, stayed in the airport hotel, and over the next 10 days crossed about 2200km of the country. As I summed up on Twitter:

  • 🏟️ 1 Olympic stadium
  • 🚤 1 Hydrofoil
  • ⛴️ 1 Ferry
  • 🎂 2 birthdays
  • 🤝 2 Handshakes with politicians
  • 🚄 3 Bullet trains
  • 🌅 4 Amazing sunrises
  • ✈️ 5 Airplanes
  • 🎥 58 Videos
  • 📸 538 Photos

Over the next four posts I will share some of the highlights of this whirlwind trip. If you would like a preview you can see the pruned album of 160 photos and 27 videos on Flickr here →

UPDATE: List of all pieces of this series

Fear not the Blank White Page

Writing is how you complete your thoughts.

An excellent quote from a piece on writing by Drew Magary. He writes about how he keeps a notebook of as-yet unformed thoughts so he never starts with the dreaded Blank White Page. Once you have collected all that primordial material:

Then you get to catalog it, tinker with it, and puzzle it over.

This gets to the core why I prefer writing to live debate… as the thoughts in my brain pass to my mouth, they remain incomplete (malformed?). I prefer the reorganizing, the working out of all paths, the understanding myself to make it understandable to others. Drew quotes author George Saunders:

Writing is a matter of sketching and building and arranging and fixing what is in your brain.

Even take this blog. Most of the stuff I write here is half-formed. Some might call it anodyne or callow. To me blogging has always been about sparking a conversation, a small slip of litmus paper to be dipped into public discussion — the reaction leads to refinement (or outright refutation!) which is ultimately the desired result. The Blank White Page too does not require perfection. It is merely a piece of litmus paper, waiting for your experimental thoughts.

Read Drew’s full piece here →

Symphonic society

In many Buddhist traditions monks and nuns depend on the support of the surrounding community to survive. Thai Forest Monastery monks will walk to the local village with alms bowls in which villagers will place rice and fruit — which will be all a monk will eat for that day. Furthermore, monastics are not allowed to do many mundane tasks such as drive or handle money, and thus are dependent on the laity for non-spiritual support, as the laity depends on them for spiritual support. Thus, it is amazing to see successful monasteries (like Birken here in BC) and abbeys (like Sravasti in WA) operate with the support of their local communities, even though we are in a larger social context that barely acknowledges the existent of such places. Running a traditional monastery in rural Canada has fundamental challenges when compared to Thailand or Sri Lanka.

On his podcast, Ajahn Sona (abbot of the monastery where I do my retreats) uses the symphony orchestra as an illustration of how society supports endeavours of excellence. Listen to the short clip below:

This example can be extended to other endeavours, of course. I was reminded of this on the weekend watching an interesting documentary on the construction of the Kyoto State Guest House. The craftsmen involved we not just asked to complete a task (“put up a building”) but were respectfully asked to bring all of their expertise and creativity to bear — and they themselves wanted to create something that delighted people and would leave a legacy. As in Ajahn Sona’s example, it requires many different parts of society working in symphony: the buyer respects the craftsman’s experience and is willing to pay to support; the viewing public is willing to educate themselves thereby reinforcing respect for the craftsman, and also raising the awareness of quality within society; and of course the craftsman is willing to spend decades honing his craft, and to outdo himself every chance he gets. It is the complete opposite of society whose only values are convenience and cost performance. And it isn’t just limited to craft and art… think of health and education and the climate crisis as more examples that require a symphonic society, yet we are sorely out of tune.

The best of 2019

It has been a couple years since I did a year-end roundup of books and film. This year was one of ups (finally travelled to India) and downs (lost my last living grandparent), of self-reflection (learning about leadership, going on retreat again), and of coming to decisions for closing out the decade and kicking off 2020 (more on that later). In between all those things, I was still able to watch and read some great media that I would like to share with you here.

51 Books

Since I wasn’t teaching this year, I thought I would try and hit a 50 book reading challenge this year. I made it, but just barely. Since I discovered some excellent podcasts my listening time for audiobooks was limited (73% of my books read were in audio). It was probably too frenetic of a pace since there are a few I don’t even remember.

However some had a lasting impact. In fiction, Sadie was the most engaging as an audiobook; I loved finally getting into the lore of the wuxia Condor Heroes; and Lincoln in the Bardo showed me that there is still new ground to break in novel-writing (tip: don’t listen to this one, read it in text it will make more sense).

In non-fic, Another Kyoto was a standout that inspired me to do some “walking and talking” while I am in Japan next year. The Culture Map was a useful business book (review forthcoming), and also in “business” I enjoyed Shoe Dog, which I think is best enjoyed in audio (and which I argue is not really a business book, but tells you a lot about the base mentality of some founders).

I just finished Ibram X. Kendi’s excellent How to Be An Anti-Racist, which I am processing and hope to write a little review of soon.

42 Films

Of the five I rated as 5-stars, only one film wasn’t a rewatch: Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story. In fact 16 of the 42 films I logged were rewatches (lots of Harry Potter and Ghibli films with my kids. I was even able to see Totoro in the theater this year! So brilliant! 😭).

This year I subscribed to the Criterion Channel for a couple of months and was able to see some brilliant films such as Le Cercle Rouge (I loved Le Samouraï), Chunking Express, The Hidden Fortress, and King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn. That is a really great service.

This was the last year of watching MCU movies in the theatre (I have been waiting to get off that train for a while, but I am a completionist). Also the Skywalker saga came to an end, but I will likely continue seeing Star Wars films in the theatre. It is part of my heritage. 🤷‍


See previous entries:

Considerations for planning out your online portfolio

I am looking for advice from online creatives. How do you organize your various projects online?

Let me give you some context. I have a couple of ongoing projects I am planning to start next year. I would like to blog/photo/video/post the progress of these projects, but I don’t think doing it on my main chadkohalyk.com domain is the right spot.

Historically I used to use different domains for various blogs and podcasts I have done, but in the past few years I have tried to consolidate all my work under one URL. The main thinking behind that was authorship: to establish that all these projects are done by the same person. Generally, I think keeping traffic in one place is desirable since it allows you to keep your focus on growing a single audience. You also get the added benefit of increasing the discoverability of other projects. That said, I want to make things easy for the audience to only look at or subscribe to the project they are interested in, without having a bunch of stuff they are not necessarily interested in crowd things out. And I want each project to have URLs that last forever… I don’t want old projects to die or move so that years on people can’t find them.

Splitting things up into distinct silos could be the best way to achieve that, but I am not really interested in forever maintaining a small network of sites. I know I will have chadkohalyk.com forever.

However, there could be some technology limitations. I currently have this domain pointing to a hosted instance of WordPress.com. I can use subdomains for projects like the Timeline of Japanese in the Okanagan. For photos right now I just put everything on Flickr, and Twitter becomes a sort of aggregator. It is super low maintenance, and it is fine for just a personal online presence. But there probably is a better strategy when you have some specific, distinct projects. In the past I tried various lifelogging and aggregation services (remember when Google+ was supposed to solve this?) but none panned out. It seems there are a few tradeoffs that need to be balanced here.

  • time/cost of maintaining different sites/platforms
  • convenience of using different tools/platforms for specific projects
  • siloing of audiences
  • challenge of aggregation

So, with those in mind, I have some questions for you:

  • Do you use different URLs for different projects?
  • Do you use subdomains?
  • Are you a fervent cross-poster?
  • Do you integrate private audiences with public audiences or keep them separate by posting “family things” in a totally different place? (I love Flickr’s permissions work… a single stream with three views: Anyone, Friends, Family. Super low maintenance.)

I would love to hear your strategy. Please comment below and feel free to post links to your “portfolio” of web projects as an example.

To witness excellence

This past weekend Skate Canada International was held in my small city of Kelowna, BC. It brings together some of the top figure skaters in the world. I am not really a figure skating fan, but thought this would be a great opportunity to see some amazing athletes at the top of their game (and in the flesh!). I went in with an open mind, and was certainly amazed at the level of precision these athletes brought to the ice — and at such young ages! Even to these untrained eyes, I could tell that they were special. All the skaters were amazing, but two stood above the rest: Hanyu Yuzuru and Alexandra Trusova.

Hanyu is a legend in Japan. Maybe more like a god. He won two Olympic gold medals back-to-back, and is the recipient of the 国民栄誉賞 (People’s Honour Award) in Japan. Once we found out that he was coming to Kelowna, we bought tickets right away back in early July. And we weren’t disappointed.

Tons of the local Japanese community turned out to see Hanyu, as well as lots of diehard fans from Japan and around the world (a Japanese fan sitting beside my wife came to watch Hanyu from London England!). It is probably easier to see Hanyu here in Canada than getting tickets to see him in Japan.

Rows of fans seated holding Japanese flags
The Japanese fans sure turned out!

And when Hanyu finished his last, first-place-winning routine which put him 60 points ahead of second place, the crowd reaction was amazing to behold.

The aftermath

There are lots of YouTube videos, live television broadcasts and DVD sets that allow you to see excellence, but it is a whole other thing to witness it — to experience it collectively with a group of other admiring human beings.

Like I said, I know nothing about skating, so I had never heard of Alexandra Trusova, the “Jumping Queen.” Trusova is the first female figure skater to land a quadruple lutz (one of those spinny-jumpy things) in a competition. During this event, she scored over 100 “technical” points, the first for a female in history. Oh, and she is 15 years old.

She was amazing to watch. At the very end of the event, when only the diehards were left in the arena to catch one final glimpse of their heroes, Hanyu and Trusova came out and had a “quad-off” (I caught it on video). Seeing them fail repeatedly; to not give up; to strive and not be satisfied until they have done it… is very inspiring. Combine all the hard work and the drive with the natural talent that the two of these have, and it is a privilege to see them in person. They are very rare beings on this earth.

It made me think of all the other human endeavours (besides figure skating or even sports) that I know nothing about and could experience. Even if I am not of their world, I can still go and appreciate their skill at a human level, and take away a feeling of awe and inspiration. You might be thinking sarcastically: “Boy, Chad just discovered the joy of sport…” Well, yes, I don’t think I am saying anything particularly insightful. I just feel a great sense of appreciation and freshness(?) after my Skate Canada experience. I am otherwise content by myself in my little office, reading and writing; or to walk places I have never been and take photos to share with friends and family. But now, I think I shall endeavour to get out more and witness excellence.

Advocating for the teaching of knowledge to kids

Having been in the Canadian education system for a few years now, I am very impressed with the high-minded ideals of the early education system here. Things like teaching critical thinking, creativitiy, breaking down a problem, LID, etc are challenging and interesting, and meant to get a jump on the future. However it is pretty unsettling how little our kids actually know.

A few weeks ago I tweeted a recommendation for this piece on skills vs knowledge-based curriculum in The Atlantic. This is an extract from The Knowledge Gap, a book by Natalie Wexler that challenges the shift in elementary education away from teaching knowledge (often derisively referred to as “rote learning”) to teaching skills “that will enable [students] to discover knowledge for themselves later on.” Wexler covers some of the history in the article, but I think her argument can be captured in the example she gives about an experiment in reading comprehension using baseball:

… they constructed a miniature baseball field and peopled it with wooden baseball players. Then they brought in 64 seventh and eighth graders who had been tested both for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

[The researchers] chose baseball because they figured lots of kids who weren’t great readers nevertheless knew a fair amount about the game. Each student was asked to first read a description of a fictional baseball inning and then move the wooden figures to reenact it. (For example: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”)

It turned out that prior knowledge of baseball made a huge difference in students’ ability to understand the text—more so than their supposed reading level. The kids who knew little about baseball, including the “good” readers, all did poorly. And all those who knew a lot about baseball, whether they were “good” or “bad” readers, did well. In fact, the “bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the “good” readers who didn’t.

There is a lot more in the article (read it!) — but it really hit me coming from an international family. We are always straddling the line between the British Columbian education system and the system “back home.” Furthermore, my day job is related to the US education system and kids’ education is probably the main topic of discussion amongst our immigrant friends, all who bring different perspectives. There is a lot of (amateur) comparative analysis going around, and a lot of confusion. Wexler’s article really captures one of the main challenges in understanding elementary education here when you come from Asia. It also makes me wish there was a way to mash the East with the West.

Now, I bring this article up again after reading an intriguing essay on developing transformative tools for thought. This essay argues for a new ways to leverage technology for efficient memorization techniques. It is adjacent to the “skills vs knowledge” argument from the above article, but hits some of the same notes.

For example, Matuschak and Nielsen present a caricature of a “skills first” proponent:

“Why should I care about memory? I want deeper kinds of understanding! Can’t I just look stuff up on the internet? I want creativity! I want conceptual understanding! I want to know how to solve important problems! Only dull, detail-obsessed grinds focus on rote memory.”

This sounds so much like the “we teach concepts not memorizing facts. The students can look up facts on the internet!” that I have heard from local elementary teachers.

Matuschak and Nielsen then go on to illustrate some challenges experienced in teaching quantum physics:

He noticed that people often think they’re getting stuck on esoteric, complex issues. But, as suggested in the introduction to this essay, often what’s really going on is that they’re having a hard time with basic notation and terminology. It’s difficult to understand quantum mechanics when you’re unclear about every third word or piece of notation. Every sentence is a struggle.

It’s like they’re trying to compose a beautiful sonnet in French, but only know 200 words of French. They’re frustrated and think the trouble is the difficulty of finding a good theme, striking sentiments and images, and so on. But really the issue is that they have only 200 words with which to compose.

So, in order to understand concepts, you need a certain fundamental layer of knowledge. I am not advocating a total swing back to a Confucian-centric pedagogy — there is certainly a balance to be had. We struggle with this as we try to support our kids’ learning from home. It would be ideal if schools took advantage of those little sponge-like young brains in their early years and filled them full of facts before introducing higher-order thinking skills. But in lieu of that, I suppose it is up to us parents to provide them with actual knowledge (eg. in the forms of structured textbooks, encyclopedia, atlases, etc.) to fuel the skill-based curriculum they get at school. We have tried a few things (tutors, workbooks from other education systems, etc) but are always looking to improve. If you have any recommended resources or techniques for supporting your kids, please share!

Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Alex Kerr’s latest book Another Kyoto is another take on an old city, but in an old sort of way. Those of us who read a lot of historical work are conditioned to diligently check each footnote and to closely examine the bibliography (silently judging the book, even before we read it). Non-scholars too expect sources even when doing the daily task of reading an article on Wikipedia! However, Another Kyoto is an oral history, a conversation with a tour guide of deep knowledge, and not beholden to your scholarly standards. He says it right in the Preface:

Much of what I saw may turn out not even to be true. Although it should have been.

That doesn’t fill one with much confidence so early in the book, but Kerr’s conversational tone and profusion of insights (mundane, holy, and profane) draws the reader in quickly. Another Kyoto is a pleasurable read, bursting with knowledge, and it is best to just go along for the ride.

Continue reading “Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto”

Growth

self portrait of Chad with bristly beard and sombre expression

The last time I shaved was 2 weeks ago. It was the last time that I saw my grandmother alive. She was in hospice and I had been driving up to Vernon to visit her. We knew this was the end. (She was 87). So, I decided to stop shaving.

I have done something similar only a couple times before. Like when my wife told me she was pregnant, I stopped shaving for the whole pregnancy. I let my hair grow and everything for nine months and then shaved it once the baby was born.

There must be something deep — evolutionarily speaking — to do this kind of ritual at important life events. Some sort of inner emotional need to externally represent cycles — whether birth or death. I am not sure. I don’t think I learned it, it is just a feeling… a thing that has to be done.

My grandmother — my last living grandparent — is gone. She passed away on her terms, helping people while she went. It was pretty amazing actually. She will be missed.

Her funeral is soon. It has been exactly two weeks, so tonight I will shave the beard.

Let a new cycle begin.