Between May 2020 and June 2021 I moved my family to the remote island (ritō 離島) of Ikijima. To find out why, check the FAQ. Three months after leaving Japan and returning to Canada, I would like to reflect on that year.
Real quick though, in case you don’t already know:
Looking at this data I think you could say I have underperformed. Since my first retreat 4 years I would have liked to have meditated at least 20 minutes once a day, which means I should be over 1400 sessions. I only have myself to blame, since I sit alone and rely on a mix of podcasts, books, and IT Guided Meditations with no teacher. I would really like the opportunity to sit with a group and get more instruction, but that has yet to happen.
If we look at monthly performance, specifically # of Sessions and Total Time per month, we can see some trends that looking back, line up with what was going on in my life. (Not 100% of my sessions are tracked, but it is close enough.)
At a bare minimum, I should have a sit at least once a day, which means those blue bars should be around that horizontal red line of 30 sessions. After my retreats in 2017 you can see the slow decay of dedication, which is expected. That is why you have to periodically “re-up” with a new retreat. 2019 was a very stressful year for me, and I went on retreat finally, but it didn’t quite stick. Funny how the times when you are most stressed out are the times you should be meditating but don’t? We came back to Canada in June and my Dad passed away soon after, but you can see I maintained consistency then, so I am making progress.
This year I rededicated myself to a daily meditation practice and you can see the difference from Jan 2021. Bullet journaling had a big part in that, making it much more visible and helping to build the habit. Since the beginning I have been using Insight Timer. I haven’t really tried a bunch of other apps, since IT has some pretty good guided meditations (lots of bhikku and bhikkhunī), and the timers do a good job. If you have recommendations for others I am certainly open to hear. Having all my data already in this one though makes the lock-in strong.
In the community we lived in on Ikijima there is a kids club that meets every Friday after school. A local non-profit put together a small office out of bits of wood and corrugated plastic to do its work. It had a concrete floor and big table in the center for meetings. There were strategic maps on the wall beside which were handmade shelves that sagged under the weight of donated toys and books. Every Friday this space was made available after school until 5 o’clock for elementary kids to gather and do homework or just hang out. Occasionally there volunteers show up — young adults who help the kids with their homework. We went pretty much every week that it wasn’t shut down due to corona. We planned some fun year-end events for the kids there too.
Before we left Japan we wanted to give the clubhouse a small gift, a book in English that a lot of the kids could understand. I am a big fan of Ibram X. Kendi after reading his astonishing book How to Be An Antiracist (a 5-star book on Goodreads for which I never wrote a proper review, but you can see my status update notes here.) His book Antiracist Baby had just come out in translation, so we bought the English and Japanese pair and gave them to the clubhouse as a parting gift.
When I asked the dealer to take a photo he said “Do you want the big bow?” and I was like “Yes please sir I would very much like the big bow!”
It is a Nissan LEAF, a fully electric vehicle. This is our first electric vehicle. In fact, it is our first vehicle. We held off on owning a vehicle for a very long time, but the only place we could find to rent is quite a ways out of town so we thought it was time. There is a lot more involved in the decision, but today I am here to tell you a different story, a tale of woe. Cue ominous (and foreshadowing!) thunderclap…
Okay, what follows is a rant full of wild generalizations about Canadian “culture.” While on the one hand all I really want to do is vent about how terrible our experience was moving back to Canada (under both emergency and pandemic conditions), I also think the experience uncovered a fundamental truth about how society works in Canada, especially when compared to a place like Japan.
Now that the preamble is done, let me further digress with a preface. 😉 On the exact same day we left Japan, Thersa Matsuura of Uncanny Japan (an excellent podcast, highly recommended) also left Japan for a few weeks in the US. Upon returning to Japan she had this to say:
Observation: The stay in the States was absolute heaven. Well, except for some serious incompetency by the clinic who did our final PCR test (to be done within a 72-hour window before our flight, they got my time wrong and wouldn’t correct it). I was flabbergasted at how (in general) no one will take responsibility for anything or apologize when a mistake is made, even if its on behalf of the company/institution/store. It made me re-appreciate how (for the most) part people here take pride in their work, try to help, keep things tidy, and don’t bad mouth you or their jobs so other people can hear. I’m still shaking over that.
(To read the full post check out her Patreon, and give the podcast a listen!)
Yes, yes, and yes! I can agree with all of that. And I would like to make an observation of my own: one thing that I think drives at the heart of all this is planning — or lack thereof.
In our move to Canada we were failed by pretty much every system and process in place. It was laughable. (Skip the next section if you don’t want to hear all the gory and frustrating details)
(This is the first of a video series driving around Ikijima. I will be uploading more vids as I edit them.)
Iki is just a small island, only 17km long and 14km wide. Many of the attractions are outdoors, so when people visit, I would often take them on driving tours like this. On a beautiful day it is a pleasure to drive. And when it isn’t too windy, it is a great cycling destination, as there aren’t too many steep hills.
Today’s trip is from the port at the southeastern corner of Iki to the island’s famous model Yayoi village. Come along with me for the drive. Feel free to put on your own tunes while you watch in 4K and enjoy the beautiful May scenery of Ikijima.
Our first summer spent on Iki in 2020 was a bit hectic. We had just arrived in May: new community, new house, new school, new life. We didn’t know the roads, weather, where the good beaches were, the best times to swim — we didn’t know anything about island life. So we were very much looking forward to spending summer 2021, after a year of settling in, revelling in the summer riches the island of Ikijima has to offer.
In my previous post on adventure travel I listed a number of adventure writers that have inspired me over the years. You may have noticed that they were almost exclusively men. The reason is because I wanted to do a separate post specifically highlighting women voices in the genre. (The reason I mentioned Gertrude Bell in the last post is because I think if you ever mention T.E. Lawrence you are obliged to bring her name up!)
To recap from that last post: a “culture high” is that rush you feel in a culture shock situation, the risk involved as you are doubting your instincts about what to do next in an unfamiliar social context. It is sort of like the disoriented exhilaration you feel on a rollercoaster. Let me give you an example: for North Americans I think industrialized nations like Japan are particularly sly at springing these situations on you, firstly because it is so safe here that you are not in constant fear for your survival, secondly because “on the outside” it looks a lot like the West, so one can be easy to be lulled into certain expectations. Countries that look very different from where you grew up will likely have you on edge, making you more observant and cautious. The point of this example is to illustrate cultural relativity. Depending on where you are from, you can get that culture rush in a different manner. Therefore, reading women’s accounts of exploring a different country/culture as a man delivers a sort of double culture shock for me.
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.
The Arashiyama bamboo grove is one of those must-go places when you visit. Located in the west of the city, at the foot of Mount Arashiyama, it is a major tourist area offering all the amenities you would expect of a trip to the “ancient” capital (including Rilakkuma pancakes!). Likely the most photographed sight in the district is that path through the bamboo forest. Many people even pay $30+ for the privilege to be pulled through the grove on a rickshaw!
I was stunned after a few days living on the remote island of Ikijima to learn that farmers hate bamboo. It grows very quickly and is difficult to remove — an invasive species that can ruin a field. I had no idea. Back in Kyoto people write poetry about the stuff!
Another local guy here on the island is married to a woman originally from Kyoto. She used to work in a high-end department store selling fancy watches. He told me about the first time he went to Kyoto to visit her family. They took him around the city to see the sights, and finally to Arashiyama. He was shocked when they walked him through that bamboo grove, wistful and yet proud in that Kyoto manner. He was flabbergasted that they were so pleased with their highly manicured weeds.
The urban-rural divide defines our modern era. Bridging this is one of the reasons we moved to Iki in the first place. Living here is like simultaneously living in Japan’s past and future — a real eye-opener that I am still processing. Some of the lessons I have learned on Iki, and many more besides, are found in a new book from Camphor Press: Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan. I had the opportunity to read the book and write a review for Writers in Kyoto that you can check out here. I share a few more lessons from remote island-living in that piece. Check it out, and if you are interested, get the book!