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. 🙏 ⛩️

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

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.

The Bridges of Nagasaki

In northwest Kyushu, on a peninsula of a peninsula of a peninsula, like a fractal made from prehistoric solidified lava, lies the vibrant city of Nagasaki.

Satellite image of peninsulas, with Nagasaki location labelled
Nagasaki City lies on a branch of three interconnected peninsulas. Two volcanoes can be seen, Unzen to the east, and Taradake to the northeast.

Nestled amongst rugged volcanic hills, Nagasaki is one of the most important ports in all of Japanese history. The narrow bay quickly gives way to steep mountains, carpeted with thick, sub-tropical jungle fauna thanks to the rich soil and humid weather. Here and there buildings cling tenuously to the hillside, almost stacked upon one another.

Street in front of a building, with hill behind and many houses and buildings on a steep hill
The Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. The hill behind gives you a sense of the steepness of the city.

Below are narrow gullies where rivers flow into the bay. The rivers are interconnected by a series of canals, crisscrossed with bridges supporting the movement of people and goods. Higher up, the mountains are connected by bridges and tunnels. Driving into the city from the airport your view constantly alternates between smooth concrete lit by drab fluorescent lights, and soaring vistas of cities, rivers, and farmland below. Just entering the city one sees how Nagasaki has conquered its rocky landscape with feats of infrastructure.

The ruggedness also has its boons too, beyond natural beauty. That craggy geography protected much of the city from history’s second atomic bomb in August 9, 1945. Fat Man was a bigger bomb too. Little Boy, the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan, flattened about 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings, leaving another 6-7% severely damaged. An old teacher of mine was a child living in the suburbs when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. He described to me his memory of coming over the hill to see a total wasteland. He could see all the way to where Hiroshima station used to stand, an unimaginable sight for a 6 year old. It was now a plain of rubble, the only things standing were the occasional telephone pole. A few days later, Nagasaki’s furrowed topography frustrated the Fat Man who could destroy only (!) 40% of its buildings.

That was 75 years ago. Since then the city has built itself back up. Nagasaki has long been a city of industry. A 150 years ago Nagasaki was at the center of Japan’s industrial revolution. Scholars from all over the country would come to Nagasaki to engage in 蘭学 rangaku or “Dutch Studies.” Engineering, medicine, technology — much of the transfer of knowledge from the West happened here in Nagasaki. Specifically on one little island. You just had to get over the bridge.

Continue reading “The Bridges of Nagasaki”

A successful move to Ikijima, the Lucky Island

In the last post I described moving to Japan during a pandemic. After all that drama we followed up with an inter-prefectural move within Japan under a State of Emergency! The drama never ends around here…

Golden Week is around the beginning of May when a series of holidays fall in place almost almost one after another (a couple of Emperor’s birthdays, Constitution Day, Children’s Day etc.). Many people take the whole week off and travel around the country — either to visit relatives or for tourism — in the beautiful May weather before the rainy season brings the oppressive heat of summer. Since everyone has the same week off, everywhere is packed. But not in the year of coronovirus: the government asked everyone to stay home on their holidays.

The State of Emergency called on April 7th was to go to the end of Golden Week on May 6th. We considered waiting until the SOE had lifted before moving, but feared another outbreak as the country started up again. Travelling while everyone stayed home seemed like the best way to mitigate the risk. We paid attention to the news, and when the numbers came out that the Bullet Train only had about 6% ridership, we decided to head to the island.

It was a good move. We took the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka and there were only a handful of people waiting to get on the train. At most there were 10 people in our car, which had a capacity of 100. Everyone was wearing masks and we disinfected our seating area. It was the plane flight to Japan all over again. By the time we disembarked in Hakata there were only two people other than the four of us in the car.

Shinkansen scenery — shot and edited entirely on my iPhone

The jetfoil to Iki was a similar story. We were the only passengers on the upper deck, which holds about 90 people. Downstairs, I saw maybe another handful of people. Thus, we were able to traverse the 700 kilometers through 7 prefectures safely.

Jetfoil to Iki was pretty empty
All aboard…? An empty jetfoil to Iki.

Staying at Wasabi

We still didn’t have a home to go to though. So we stayed in a local guesthouse we found online called Wasabi. This cool little backpacker’s hostel is situated high up a hill overlooking Ashibe Fishing Port. I took a few photos around the guesthouse and made a little tour video:

[That whole video was shot and edited on my iPad Pro. I was really surprised at the capability!]

We stayed here for a couple of days while we met with the school district to secure our house and finalize the selection of our school. But we took the day after we arrived off to recover from the trip, and the master of Wasabi took us on a quick tour around the island (photos). We only drove around the outer rim of the island and visited a series of white sand beaches, some historical sites, climbed the biggest mountain (212 meters) to take a 360 video, and of course saw the famous Monkey Rock. I plan on going to each of these sites again and taking lots of pics and video, but this was a quick taste test since the weather was really nice (but windy!).

Moving into the house and first day of school

On our second day in Iki, a Thursday, we decided on a house and a school. After two and a half months of basically being homeless, we finally secured a place of our own! Friday was fridge and washing machine shopping, as well as other home stuff, and we picked up the 19 boxes we had sent from Kyoto. On the Saturday we began the move. We were going to take a little more time, but the school district wanted the kids in school for Monday, since school here just started up again after Golden Week and a bit of a hiatus during the State of Emergency (they only had 4 school days during the month of April).

Monday came soon enough as we spent all weekend unpacking boxes and cleaning. During the weekend some neighbourhood kids came over and offered to walk to school with my girls. On Monday morning they came over at 7:05. My kids were up and changed before the alarm went off at 6, and were out the door with big smiles on their faces. A couple of hours later, while cleaning, I came across this note:

To: Mom and Dad. I hope you will have a nice day by yourself. Mom and Dad thank you for letting us go to school.

Since Monday was an auspicious day (金剛峯日) we decided to make that our official move-in day. Thus we waited until then to set up Baba in the butsudan, enshrine the Sun Goddess ofuda we got while in Ise a few months ago, spread some Ise sand around the four corners of our house for purification, then we walked up a nearby hill (which reminded me a lot of that scene from Totoro!) to pay our respects to the local kami who oversees this area.

After planning this for nearly six months, we are finally here, and our island life can finally begin.

On May 4th the Japanese government extended the State of Emergency to the end of May, but already they are letting up restrictions in rural areas where the impact has been limited. Ikijima has not had any infections since the original six people back in early March, and is taking passenger temperatures before they board any ships or planes before heading to the island. There are still many restaurant and hotel closures on the island, and everyone is still wearing masks, but it seems to be pretty much a return to normal life here. We’ve been here for just 1 week and have settled into a house, saw some sites, made some friends, and enjoyed some beautiful weather. So far so good! Now I just need to get my internet and desk sorted, and then I can get down to some serious work.

iMac sitting in empty tokonoma
Current (temporary) workstation

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 →