2020NYinJapan Part 4: Iki

That narrow corridor of water between Japan and continental Asia, the confluence of three seas — East China, Yellow, and the Sea of Japan — is called the Korea Strait. It is about 200km wide, and is bisected by the long and narrow Tsushima Island. From Tsushima, on a clear day, it is said one can see Korea across the Western Channel. In the opposite direction, across the Tsushima Strait, it is a mere 65km jaunt to Kyushu, one of the four major islands of Japan.

The Tsushima Straight bears a heavy historical significance for Japan. It is over Tsushima Strait that a metaphorical “bridge” stretched from Japan to Continental Asia through the ages. The Jōmon Peoples crossed the Straight 14,000 years ago, one of the first settler groups to the Japanese archipelago. Thousands of years later Buddhism and all sorts of Chinese culture crossed over. The straight was plied by wakō pirates for centuries, and the Mongols crossed it a couple times in their attempts to invade. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the “great unifier” of Japan struck out across the Strait on his failed attempts to invade Korea. At the turn of the 20th century, the Straight was the site of a decisive battle between Japan and Russia — the first time an Asian power defeated a Western power in the modern era.

There has been more than just pirate ships, Mongols, and gunboats floating in these waters. In legendary times there was a magical island that roamed around called Iki Island (or Ikijima). The gods decided that was inconvenient and pinned the island within eight pillars (one in the shape of a giant monkey).

In the final foray of our New Year’s trip around Japan, we headed for the “Lucky Island” of Ikijima.

Continue reading “2020NYinJapan Part 4: Iki”

2020NYinJapan Part 3: Ise

In a time before time, the sibling deities Izanagi and Izanami (who were married, but that is a different tale) stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven. They had a jewelled spear which they dipped into the ocean below. After pulling it out, the drops from the spear formed the islands we know today as Japan.

Later, Izanagi was washing his face. When he washed out his left eye he “begat” Amaterasu — the goddess of the sun. Amaterasu’s brother, the god of the wind named Susano-o was begat when Izanagi was washing his nose.

Susano-o was a bit of a bully, and did some really mean things to his older sister. Once, when Amaterasu couldn’t handle things anymore, she hid herself in a cave. This was problematic as she was the sun goddess, so the other gods got together in the dark with a plan and tricked her into coming out using a mirror. There is obviously lots more to the story, but the mirror is important: it becomes one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.

Amaterasu comes out of the cave
Amaterasu comes out of the cave (Source)

Much later, about 2000 years ago in our history, the daughter of the emperor of Japan at the time set out to find a permanent location for the worship of the Sun Goddess. She settled on Ise, in Mie prefecture, a beautiful area with spectacular sunrises. Two millennia later Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingū) is the most important of Japanese Shinto holy sites, considered the “home” of Amaterasu, and houses the mirror from the myth. It is a primary pilgrimage destination for people all over Japan. Ise Jingū is actually two complexes consisting of 125 shrines to various deities.

We travelled to Ise on the Shimakaze, a very fancy sightseeing train. The weather was fairly chilly, but we warmed ourselves multiple times a day in the hot springs of our hotel, the Kashikojima Hojoen. We ate very well (lots of Japanese spiny lobster — or “Ise Shrimp”) and I took a ton of photos of sunrises.

Continue reading “2020NYinJapan Part 3: Ise”

2020NYinJapan Part 2: Kyoto

Kyoto was a short stop during this trip. We did all of our regular traditions when visiting home: met with family for our own New Year’s, went for hatsumōde at Yasaka Jinja, visited the family grave.

Sun rays on Kyoto tower as we visit the grave
Sun rays on Kyoto tower as we visit the grave

One day I had a couple of hours alone time so I decided to take a little walking tour of a couple of spots that I had recently read about, but had never visited. The first stop was Otafuku, a cafe I have walked by countless times, featured in Merry White’s excellent book Coffee Life in Japan. I had a little jam-toast and a cup of coffee and live-tweeted my observations.

Once fortified with magical java juice, I walked westward down Shijo all the way to Omiya, checking out what was new (Kyoto Apple Store!) and listening to the familiar street sounds of Kyoto. While travelling and walking I never put in my headphones to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. I want the full sensory experience.

From Omiya I turned north and headed towards Nijo Castle, famous for its Nightingale Floor (mentioned in another post). This time I stopped at Shinsen-en, the oldest existing garden in Kyoto. This was the private garden of the Emperor built in 794. But that is not the reason I wanted to visit.

A couple of years ago, during New Years 2017-18, I travelled alone to Mount Kōya, one of the holiest mountains in Japan. (Unfortunately I never wrote a travel log of this amazing experience, but you can see the obligatory Koya-san photoset here). Koya-san is a sprawling temple complex of the Shingon tradition of Buddhism. It was masterminded by the tradition’s founder Kūkai in 819. Kūkai was an amazing person with many legends surrounding him. In fact, his body is still sitting in meditation on Mt Koya right now, 1185 years after his “death.” I spent a lot of time researching him before visiting Koya, and that’s when I learned about one such event in Kyoto.

Kūkai was very famous in his time, and was tipped to run Toji, a very important temple in Kyoto. In 824 there was a long drought in Kyoto, causing all sorts of fear about crop failure and famine. The emperor called on Kūkai for help. It was here, at Shinsen-en, where Kūkai performed the rain-making rite, calling upon the Dragon King who lived in this pond. The temple area of this garden is small, but there is quite a bit to see in the details since it is a curious mix of Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist symbolism and architecture.

After leaving Shinsen-en I walked down Oike, a street I used to live on, and stopped by a very crowded “Money” shrine to pay my respects for the previous year (when I finally became debt free) and the future (who knows!). The crowd was insane, so I just gave a quick bow and word of thanks across the street from the gold torii. From there I walked to Teramachi, swung by Honno-ji to see Nobunaga’s mausoleum and this really creepy statue before heading home.

So much to see in a mere 5km jaunt! I really love Kyoto.

See all photos of Kyoto on Flickr →

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

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”

Sharing some Asia podcast discoveries

I love podcasts, and have been a regular user for about 15 years. I also love audiobooks, which means when I discover a podcast and start going through the backlog, my GoodReads Reading Challenge suffers.

This year I have discovered a number of deep podcast catalogs that I thought I would share (in no particular order).


AnalyseAsia

analyse asia cover art

Topic: Startups in Asia

You probably know who the “unicorns” are here in North America, but do you know what is happening on the Asia side of AsiaPac?

Map of the most well funded started in Asia-Oceania
Credit: CB Insights

Bernard Leong’s AnalyseAsia podcast features interviews with various startup founders, VCs, institutional tech economy people from all over Asia. He is based in Singapore, and there is a good amount of content about Southeast Asia which is what interested me.

For a quick hit, check out this informative interview with Justin Hall on VC in Southeast Asia →


Disrupting Japan

Disrupting Japan cover art

Topic: Startups in Japan

Earlier this year LinkedIn listed Japan’s 20 best startups to work for. On the list is a company I was interested in called Shizen Energy, a utilities startup based in Fukuoka (a place I really want to visit!) that has been building renewable energy

Looking around I found this English-language interview with founder Ken Isono on the Disrupting Japan podcast. This was a fascinating interview as it turns out the podcast host Tim Romero works for TEPCO Ventures. I did my master’s thesis on energy security in Japan, so hearing two energy people discuss how to revolutionize Japan’s (and the world’s) energy mix was brilliant. They discuss all sorts of things, including the decentralization/localization of energy projects, which reminded me of the Citizen Energy project I learned about in Ikoma-shi, Nara.

During the interview Ken Isono uses a very interesting metaphor. He argues that in the future renewables will make energy free — so cheap it won’t be worth metering. He points out that in some areas of Europe the energy price is negative. In thinking about what that future looks like for utilities, he says they will have to shift much like telecom industries after the rise of Skype 20 years ago: “International calls became free. I think the same thing will happen in energy.” That didn’t destroy the phone companies, but they had to shift their business model away from charging for long distance calls to selling other value-added services. The same thing could happen in energy.

Fascinating interview. Give it a listen.


The Meiji at 150 Podcast

UBC Meiji at 150 Podcast cover art

Topic: History of the Meiji period

I love Japanese history, but my focus has always been the Sengoku and Edo periods because of my background in classical Japanese martial arts. I almost minored in Japanese history when I was an undergrad at UBC. This year I have been exploring other parts of Japanese history by reading a few books. Then I discovered the Meiji at 150 history podcast — produced by my alma mater UBC — and well, I have been stacking up the books on my Want To Read shelf all year listening to this thing.

Last year the 1868 Meiji Restoration celebrated its sesquicentennial, and UBC kicked off a lot of projects to explore that period of Japan’s modernization. In the show, Dr. Tristan Grunow interviews academics on various aspects of the Meiji, and I have learned a lot. Just listen to the show on coffee in Japan (I bought the book).

Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

Continue reading “Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time”

Remembering through facsimile

This weekend I finally sat down to watch Shinkai Makoto’s breakout anime hit of 2016 「君の名は。」Your name.. It was an entertaining story with some nice twists, great voice acting, and some cute scenes.

In preparation for this film I watched two other Shinkai films in order to get more familiar with his work. First was his homemade work Voices of a Distant Star which was pretty trippy. Then I watched 5 Centimeters per Second, which, even though it is ten years old, feels like a predecessor to Your name. All three of these films deal with unrequited teenage love, mobile phones, and lense flares.

Setting that aside, what I really want to comment on is Shinkai’s depictions of Japan in his films, especially 5cm and Your name. (Voices was handmade by Shinkai on his Power Mac G4 in 2002, so the quality of visual is not as tight as the other two films). These two films are visually amazing… art imitates life with extremely detailed illustrations of the objects daily life. His camera work makes normal things seem foreign, since he can place the point-of-view in spots that only the sharpest animator’s pen can fit. It is beautiful.

Yet, it is cold. The lines are surgical. I get a very different feeling about Japan when I watch these films compared to when I watch Ghibli films. Pretty much every film Miyazaki and his crew produce makes my eyes fill up with the tears of nostalgia. I can’t put my finger on it… they are so gentle. Even Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle — which aren’t even set in Japan!

Does the lack of fidelity in Miyazaki’s work leave room for my own idealized notions of Japan to creep in? Whereas Shinkai’s photo-realistic facsimile keep any and all emotion at bay?

Or maybe it has to do with relationships. It could be because I didn’t grow up in Japan as a lovesick 15 year old. Pubescent relationships are central to the three Shinkai films. Ghibli films on the other hand tend to focus more on inter-generational stories — on families. Maybe that is why I identify more with them?

Either way, I find it interesting that I don’t have the same natsukashii (懐かしい) feeling watching Shinkai’s hyper-realistic Japan, even though it is much closer to my own experience of that place. I sure hope I am not falling for some sort of idyllic Ghibli Japan. It has already changed so much in the seven years since I left and if ever I move back to Japan, I would hate to be disappointed by my own remembrances.

Timeline of Japanese in the Okanagan

May is Asian Heritage month in Canada. Here in the Okanagan our local Asian Heritage Month committee has been working for months to ensure that there are a number of events and activities to raise awareness of Asian-Canadian contributions to our communities, and empower immigrants. It all kicks off next week. Asian history month opening gala poster This year, the Japanese community will be hosting the opening gala on Saturday May 6th. I will be there helping out, and I am going to other events such as Family Sundays and getting a tour of the Kelowna Buddhist Temple. The Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Indian communities are all going to be doing different things so check it out.

In preparation for this year’s celebrations I did a little research into the experience of Japanese who began settling in this valley at the turn of the last century. I put together a simple timeline slideshow, to place some of the more important historical people, organizations, and events into the wider context of Japanese-Canadian history. Take a browse by clicking below, and I hope to see you at one of the AHM events this year!

Japanese in the Okanagan timeline