It was 1993, the beginning of the Clinton years. The Wall had come down and Yeltsin had gone up onto the tank. No longer impeded by a curtain of iron, there were now fifteen new “FSU” states strung along the old Silk Road joining China and Europe. It seemed more open than any time in recent memory. So two buddies from Queens New York took a chance. Inspired by The Travels of Marco Polo, the famous 13th century travelogue, Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell spent the next two years going 25,000 miles overland in an attempt to retrace the steps of Marco Polo from Venice to China and back. Their adventure is covered in the 2008 documentary In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. I watched this documentary last weekend on the recommendation of an old friend (who I actually travelled to Chinese Turkestan with many years ago) and had a wide grin on my face the whole time. I thought to myself, “I would love to do this!”
Not everyone would have that reaction. Adventure travel inherently involves some sort of danger or risk — it requires the traveller to step outside of her comfort zone. Whether climbing remote mountains, or paddling jungle rivers, adventure travel is about striving for a rush. I am not really the physical type, so I don’t chase the “climber’s high.” Rather, my particular fascination is with other cultures. There is something exciting about being in an unfamiliar surroundings where even the most basic daily problems are a challenge to solve. I realized I get a rush from the feelings of culture shock. Rather than the extreme mountaineer’s “climber’s high” I crave a “culture high.”
The two main characters of In the Footsteps are total characters who do some crazy things and meet some very crazy people along the way. The show is a whirlwind of locales, but I felt gratified to recognize a few things I have seen with my own eyes: the animal market in Kashgar, the Taj hotel in Mumbai, the prodigious peaks of the Pamir plateau, and anti-US demonstrations in Iran.
Just north of the hypocenter where the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki is a commemorative park honouring victims of mass destruction. Walkways wend through trimmed lawns dotted with sculptures gifted from nations around the world in a mournful solidarity. The piece that caps the display is of a powerful man, one hand pointing up at the threat of the bomb while the other is stretched out in tranquil peace. He sits in a partially meditative pose, but with one leg up, ready to leap into action to help humanity. This ten meter tall statue was created by Kitamura Seibo, a renowned artist, at the age of 70.
Seibo is a curious figure and prolific artist who lived until the age of 102. You can see him spryly climbing up the statue and his fantastic moustache in this short NHK profile on him. I have seen his pieces in Nagasaki City but also in Shimabara City including some temples and Shimabara Castle.
You can drive from one end of Ikijima to the other in about twenty minutes. The narrow roads twist either along the coastline, between fishing villages, or bend back upon themselves into the hills, connecting farms in the interior. I don’t think there is a road on this island that is more than two lanes. Many are single, meaning you need to keep your eyes on the roadside mirrors to watch for oncoming traffic around the corner. I estimate about 90 percent of the vehicles on the island are kei cars.
So, after four months of not going anywhere I was a little freaked at the thought of driving a few hours across Kyushu in a seven seater van!
The latest edition of the quarterly Kyoto Journal just dropped with a new article by yours truly. travel, revisited is KJ’s 99th issue. The magazine has long been a staple in the English language media on Japan. I was asked to consider the topic of travel writing as it pertains to my book project. While on writing retreat in Kyoto earlier this year, alone in our apartment there, taking daily walks and runs, I reflected on the question of “why I travel.” It turns out, this is a very heavy question, and had me questioning my own being. Anyways, I tried to encapsulate my approach to travel literature in a couple thousand words and some photos taken from around Kyushu. You can see some select pages from my piece titled “on location” below.
I am very honoured to be included in the pages of Kyoto Journal with such famous writers as Natalie Goldberg, Pico Iyer, and others. You can purchase the magazine digitally for about 5 bucks here. Check out some of their other issues. This is a really high quality magazine.
While working on my book this year I thought I would try to keep my skills sharp by writing more essays for various publications. These short pieces for different outlets gives me a chance to work with a variety of editors, something I really appreciate. So far I have been lucky to have had only good experiences. I come away from each with some valuable (and practical) lessons. I feel like I have been improving my writing craft these past few months, and am very hungry for more!
This year I have returned to writing more on Asia, especially coastal Asia: from Japan down to Southeast Asia. This reflects my research interests (for the book and beyond) and ties back to my graduate work on shipping lanes through the South China Sea. I read quite a bit in the areas of Japanese Foreign Policy and regional international relations, and thus started contributing reviews to Books On Asia, a site I had been following for a while. Currently I have three pieces up there, reviews of:
BoA reviews are very tight, unlike some of my more (ahem) “expansive” reviews posted here. Doing different kinds of pieces is helping me to grow. Check out Books on Asia, they have lots of fiction and non-fiction recommendations for Japan and all over Asia. You could start with the best books we read on Asia this year.
Speaking of writing different kinds of pieces, I had one other essay go up on an external site this year. Hōjōki is a classic Japanese text written about a hermit and his three-meter square hut. I first read this book a few years ago. This year a new translation was released by Professor Matthew Stavros, an engaging fellow very knowledgeable about Kyoto. Writers in Kyoto, a group I am a member of, asked me for a review. Rather than writing a very technical review, I decided to take a different approach inspired by my recent reading of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott. As I noted in my review of that book:
one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader
This year was successful in terms of connecting with other writers and editors. I have a couple more pieces in the hands of editors right now which should appear in the first couple months of 2021. I also plan on pitching some more publications in 2021. If you, dear readers, have any suggestions on what stories I should tell or where you think I would be a good fit, I would be grateful for any advice.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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. 🙏 ⛩️
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!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.