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

Cycles: 2019 Meditation retreat

sunset with different hues with building in foreground

For a third time I went on retreat to Birken, a Buddhist monastery in the Thai Forest tradition. I try to do retreats like this annually as a way to reset my meditation practice. Going up on Friday, we stayed three nights and enjoyed complete silence, 45m meditation sessions at least twice daily, and lots of time in our rooms for introspection. I spent most of my alone time reading The Just King (review forthcoming). However the first day and a half I actually just spent sleeping! It took time simply to drain all the emotional stress of a busy 2019.

Since it had been nearly two years since my last visit, I was surprised to see so much change. There are newly transformed buildings at Birken, including a new studio and editing room (YouTube channel here) and a brand new state-of-the-art Abbot’s kuti (a meditation hut) with a 40 foot walking meditation path and super-insulated for the cold winters. The Abbot Ajahn Sona has been known for designing and building zero-impact “green monastery” facilities for cold weather climates.

The monastery is completely off the grid and not easy to get to. They added a new battery station and solar panels to the roof of the office building. Apparently the monastery generates more power than they can use in the summer months.

building with solar panels on roof
The office building’s solar-panelled roof provides electricity to all the buildings on the property.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Birken’s wonderful meditation facilities. The main sala, with its cool, reflective black floors, is a wide open space that facilitates the cultivate of a wide open mind.

mural of Buddha with rays of light emanating from him, and reflection on floor

Going down into the lower level to the eating area, my companion exclaimed, “Well! This place is special!” (in an awed whisper of course!). The eating area is adjacent to the walking meditation space, lined with ferns and vines to evoke an image of a walking meditation path in a Thai jungle. Amongst the plants are a number of wooden pillars adorned with beautifully lettered tiles — inspiration for introspection.

A series of concrete paths lined with plants and pillars. The pillars have words on them.
The walking sala

The words on the pillars are the Ten Pāramitā – or 10 Perfections – a list of characteristics that will help you on your way. Although meant for those pursuing a spiritual path, I think they could apply to lots of endeavours in life. Simply, the list is:

  • dāna – generosity
  • sīla – virtue
  • nekkhamma – renunciation
  • paññā – wisdom
  • viriya – energy
  • khanti – patience
  • sacca – truth
  • adhitthāna – resolve
  • mettā – loving-kindness
  • upekkhā – equanimity

These are real basics of Buddhism, but are useful reminders. And that is what retreat is about: periodically disconnecting from the noisy world and spending some time reminding yourself about what is important. You take that back to your daily life and practice at a higher level, until the daily noise gets too overwhelming and you struggle to stay on that straight and narrow path. Then you go on retreat again, and the cycle repeats. It is simple, but a very useful technique for self care, whether your path is Buddhist or not.

Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort

geometric patterns of cieling of gate to Taj Mahal

I had thought the roads in Mumbai were bad. The streets of Agra are less developed than Mumbai, and much less than Delhi. The current capital had the smooth, well-maintained roads befitting the nation’s capital of one of the world’s nuclear powers. The streets of the old Mughal capital of Agra were more reminiscent of a developing nation — an irony considering the Mughal empire was known for its amazing infrastructure. The (busy, of course) streets were lined with huts, piles of bricks and garbage strewn about. Holy bulls moved nonchalantly through traffic from garbage pile to garbage pile to feed.

Traffic jam in Agra

It took about three hours to get to Agra from Delhi. I had flown into Delhi from Mumbai the night before on a late flight and stayed in the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life. But it was very late and I could not enjoy the amenities since I had to be up at 6:30am to drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. People in Mumbai told me that the road would be nice since it was a new highway, and it was. Although it took an hour of driving through dense fog to get out of Delhi, once we got on the highway it was smooth sailing.

Rear lights of vehicles barely visible in fog
Dense fog while leaving Delhi

The highway was surprisingly empty. Not only was there nearly no traffic (which was surprising enough in India!) but the countryside was empty too. For a country with 1.2 billion people I was expecting more density, something more akin to driving between cities in the population corridors of Japan… each city and town just sort of melds into one another with no break. On the road to Agra I stared out of the car window watching endless farmland and tiny villages pass by. Vehicles passed by us as well. Apparently our hired vehicle had a speed inhibitor limiting us to 80kmh, a common thing for commercially licensed passenger vehicles.

The land was flat and green. Rice paddies and mustard seed fields were divided by deserted single lane dirt roads. Occasionally we saw Hindu temple, or a Muslim mausoleum. Every so often there was a roadside stop with a gas station and some food amenities. We stopped at a nice one that was decorated “Chinese” style and had veggie sandwiches and masala chai served in traditional clay cups. I walked around the corner to the washroom and saw that there was a Starbucks… even here in the middle of nowhere.

Entrance of a Starbucks Coffee shop
A Starbucks in “Chinese” style

After a while the verdant fields gave way to the concrete interchange of dusty Agra, the old capital of the Mughals, Islamic conquerers with roots to the Mongol hordes who ruled India from the mid-16th century until being in turn conquered by the British in the mid 19th century. Agra is partially bisected by the Yamuna river, which wends and winds its way through the plain, and whose shores are decorated with spectacular Islamic architectural treasures. Today we would visit the two most famous.

Continue reading “Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort”

Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water

Swallowing a malaria pill, I was enjoying the “inflight entertainment” of scores of seagulls flying alongside our ferry to Elephanta Island. The ferry was laden with Indian tourists going to see the “city of caves.” It took about an hour for the little boat to make the 12 kilometres to the island, puttering out from the Gateway of India, past the naval base with its aircraft carrier museum, weaving through dozens of ships at anchorage, and finally past an oil terminal before docking at an ancient stone jetty.

A small ferry in the foreground, with shore in background
Ferry to Elephanta. Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India in background. (Photo credit to PB, my traveling companion)

Being on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has been an important port city for millennia, an important crossroads for products, cultures, religions and empires from East to West and back again. This fact excited me the most about the opportunity to visit India.

Continue reading “Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water”

Mumbai — Opportunity and Diversity

Andheri is a neighbourhood of northern Mumbai, just past the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a beautiful wood-panelled facility where white paisleyed pillars gently swirl up to the ceiling covered in a pattern meant to resemble the feathers of a peacock, the national bird of India.

I had been in Mumbai for four days and was standing on the roof of an office park in Andheri, looking out at the surrounding hills. Green trees grow tall making the hills look like lush jungle, even though underneath that canopy are millions of people, a tangle of traffic, and blocks and blocks of factories. Andheri is home to the SEEPZ Special Economic Zone. Every factory here in these 100+ acres are building products that can never be sold in India. The building I stood on held software companies, all providing services overseas. The pattern of greenery was occasionally broken by the pastels of a slum complexes, boxy rooms stacked upon one another, each a different colour, all clinging to the hill. 40% of Mumbai’s 18 million population live in slums.

Andheri from rooftop
Continue reading “Mumbai — Opportunity and Diversity”

Kashgar, 15 years later

I have been thinking of this very impressive New York Times photo essay of Kashgar, and how it has changed in the 15 years since I visited. Kashgar is an old Silk Road city in the westernmost reaches of Xinjiang province in Chinese Turkestan. A friend and I had crossed the Taklamakan Desert on a 36 hour sleeper bus journey where we were given bunks in the front (since the back is where the goats and chickens went). We used Kashgar as a base to travel up the Karakoram highway, through the breath-taking Pamir Plateau, to the Pakistani boarder checkpoint.

In those days, the city was divided by the main road, with mostly Uighur communities in the north, and Han in the south. After days of eating mutton, we crossed the highway to the south to have some “Chinese” food for a change. Our beautiful hotel used to be the Russian Consulate during the days of the Great Game, romanticized by one of my favourite authors Peter Hopkirk. I remember walking through the old town, the narrow streets and clay multi-story homes transported me back to a different era… something like 1001 Nights. According to the Times, these buildings are being destroyed by the Chinese government as the state increases the surveillance burden on the Uighur population. Even 15 years ago I thought Beijing’s presence was overwhelming. The People’s Square, where there was a Nowruz festival being held with all sorts of Uighur folk dances, is overlooked by the second largest statue of Mao in all of China. We saw government propaganda written in the Uighur Arabic alphabet on wide red banners strung across overpasses. That was nothing compared to what is happening now. Watch and listen to the photo essay and see what Kashgar has turned into, and read this Twitter thread by one of the journos for some behind the scenes material.

screencap of the linked tweet from the NY Times

Some pics from Kashgar in 2004