Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sayonara Nihon

It had to happen sometime.

Looks like it's three days hence. I am homeless for the moment, having moved out of my apartment on Monday, but my buddy Brad has graciously opened his door to me for the remainder of my time here. A couple more days to wrap up the last few tidbits that have been left untied, and then I'm off. Christian will be here the day after tomorrow and we are heading up to Tokyo for one last hooplah in the biggest, busiest metropolis in the world. ShiBOOYA! The following day, (most likely suffering from intense hangovers,) we will set off for Narita airport and all point beyond. The first place taking focus in our sights is Singapore, and thusly my next report will be coming from there. As such, this blog is now defunct. I will be creating a new space to blog the upcoming journey. Anyone who is not already connected can contact me at the soon to be defunct: madhattah (*nospam*)

There is no possible way to accurately summarize an experience like the one I've had here. And it's a much better story in person anyway. If detail is truly required you'll just have to wait for my book. This country and its generous, polite and honest people are all treasures. The friends I have made here are indelible and the places I have been will remain etched in my memory for rest of my life. I came here thinking that my life was going to be significantly different than back home, and although in many ways it has, the day to day has been very similar. I may have said this before, and perhaps used it as an excuse for not posting so many blog entries. Life truly goes on, doesn't it? The fresh perspective is always welcome, but there have been many parts of this experience that served only to remind me how much I love living in Canada. And going to school. Hopefully after the long trek is over that will be the next step, but at this point "we shall see" is an understatement.

The difficultly in looking back at this moment is also that I have shifted focus, and for the next few days especially everything is pointing towards the future. Once I arrive in Singapore there will be no more of either, as far as I can help it. This is the adventure I've been waiting for, and I'm ready to wander for a good while.

Goodbye Japan. It's been swell.

(and I'll probably be back...)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The "Who Wrote the Bible" Rant

Robert Beckford, an academic theologian from Oxford, England sums up his documentary for Channel 4 very neatly:

"...use your experience to work out what's in front of you. And if I apply that to this journey: "Who Wrote the Bible?" Well, I've learned that biblical authorship is messy, and it's messy because life is imperfect, and if we can find God in the imperfections of our lives - of my life - then maybe we can find God in the messiness of the text... and that tells me that to have faith in the world today is to ask questions and never have the wool pulled over your eyes."

This was the apt conclusion to a very informative, insightful, and I would even dare to say inspired documentary regarding the true authorship of the bible, tracing the story from the origins of the Torah to its present-day manifestation in English.

Anyone who knows me well is probably aware of my distaste for organized religion, with fundamental Christianity as the bane of the Western world. This would inherently suggest a bias, so I specifically made the effort to leave myself open to the opinions of the scholars and representatives of different religions and affiliations. I found Beckford himself to be very perceptive. He was able to interpret each expert's information for the audience in a way that was easy to understand yet still highly intelligent and insightful. Although I do recognize that the aim of the reportage was to cast a wholly skeptical eye on bible authorship, I found Beckford to tow that line a little too finely. The summary hammered out the dents rather well.

Without getting into the specifics of the history of authorship of the bible, I will go so far as to say that it is obvious that there is a real issue in contemporary society that is centered around belief in the bible or other holy texts as coming from the lips of God himself. What a little research and scholarship can show you is that this is not the case. In the case of the old testament, the gospels in their original languages and in translations all the way down to the King James bible, the story is the same. Every time it is the work of men, either individuals or groups, putting their own ideas down on paper, just as ever author has ever done in the history of literature. My real problem here is that by the time it became popular and widespread, and especially the solidification of the modern Christian cannon by Emperor Constantine, the bible went from being a collaborative reworking and re-interpretation of previous editions to one infallible, and specifically tailored book.

Having said this, I want to make it clear that I am neither discounting nor accepting the verity of any of the books that make up the bible. During the documentary I was surprised by the comments of a British bishop. He seemed very well versed in the history of the authorship of the bible, and made the point that regardless of questions of authenticity the case has always been that the writings in the bible were divinely inspired; even if the disciples didn't write their versions of the tale until years later, they believed they were working to serve their lord. He also makes the point that before the written word and mass media had become the main mode of communication, stories - especially ones with such magnitude - would have been told and retold countless times until they were a part of the public consciousness. I definitely do take these points into account when considering my position.

Some of the most poignant and telling points of the documentary are interviews with religious leaders from generally more fundamental groups. Two in particular were a rabbi from Hebron in Israel - a fervent Zionist, and the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Both were equally frightening in their own way, but share one unassailable similarity: they both believe that the bible (in the former case the Torah, in the latter the Holy Bible) is the unquestionable word of God, and that anybody who doesn't believe is pitiable. This is getting to the heart of my concern about the state of religion today. There is an inflexibility, a rigidness and a need for control in modern religious organizations that is, for the most part, frightening. I make this not as a blanket statement; not every organization, and definitely not many religious and spiritual people from every religion reflect these attributes. However, from observation, from experience and from research I would say that the more fundamentalist the organization, the more likely one is to find these traits. Even more frightening to consider is the scope of fundamentalism all over the world.

Which brings us back to the quote above, and my reason for writing this in the first place. Let's really dissect it. "... use your experience to work out what's in front of you." I couldn't express it any better. But a problem arises when one considers that many fundamentalists and devoted worshipers are never given the opportunity to study or experience a different perspective from the one into which they are born. (This is covered quite nicely in Richard Dawkins' documentary "The Root of All Evil".) Then later Beckford says: "... to have faith in the world today is to ask questions and never have the wool pulled over your eyes." Here we have reached the most important message. It is important because all over the world, especially in the Western world, people claim to have faith, and to display it in their devotion to their God, yet fail to behave in a manner that befits a spiritual person. I believe the direct cause is a lack of questioning of one's faith, values, system of belief, social relationships, worldview, existence. So what ends up happening is that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of millions of people, and it's being done with their permission because they have better reason NOT to ask questions and actually seek real answers.

Finally, let's consider the middle of the quote, and the notion that sparked my desire to write this in the first place. "Well, I've learned that biblical authorship is messy, and it's messy because life is imperfect, and if we can find God in the imperfections of our lives - of my life - then maybe we can find God in the messiness of the text." Here's what came to me when I heard that: "If it is given that life is imperfect and that God also exists in the imperfections of our lives, then doesn't that really make God quite inescapably imperfect?" And then I thought: "Well, that makes a lot of sense, because we're supposedly made in God's image." But then I countered with: "Actually, that doesn't much make sense because God is supposed to be omnipotent and omnipresent, and if He's not, if he's imperfect, (as we are surely proof,) then this whole damn setup was flawed from the get-go and that doesn't seem to me like the way things really are."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Prodigal Son Returns... and Re-returns

Alright. Enough putting this off. I had to surf to my own blog to refresh my memory of my last posting. June! Ridiculous. I’m not going to get into why I didn’t post anything up, because at this point it’s been said before, only this time to a much larger degree. Sufficed to say my life has not been completely stagnant, and therefore I will now indulge you with a description of my most recent exploits.

I finally left Japan! I apologize if the previous sentence is somewhat deceiving, since it does not imply my final departure, but rather a short (very short) vacation in California with my folks. It was only ten days, but well worth the long flights. Actually, the trip from Tokyo to L.A. was really no sweat. I don’t know what made it go by so quickly, but it did. Time was not my friend however when it came time to pick up my bags, and I was left standing alone, the last person from my flight at the baggage carousel as I waited for my guitar to come through. When it did I was out the door, and greeted lovingly by my dad, whom I had not seen in over a year.

Let me tell you, if you’ve never been to California, it’s a beautiful place. Not so much in and around the parts of L.A. that buffer the airport, but once you get going south past the O.C. on the highway it’s quite nice; more specifically the area around my parent’s house in Solana Beach. The flora and its manicured, landscaped beauty is a welcome change from the systematic but grand beauty of Japan. Also, and I’m not sure exactly why, but the Pacific looks so much better from stateside. Maybe it’s the general lack of cloud cover. Yeah, that’s probably it.

So let’s see. I could easily spend many paragraphs discussing my observations of social, cultural and other differences, but I don’t think they would necessarily make for engrossing reading material. I’ll keep it short. It’s no joke when people say that there is an obesity problem in the U.S. Also, the work ethic in Japan is unparalleled. No matter the job, Japanese are glad to do it, (or at least seem to on the surface), and they will tell you so over and over again. Here you do battle for who can say the final thank you, whereas in the states you’re lucky if you get greeted warmly or with more than a few short words when you walk into a restaurant. Other than that I can’t really say there was much of a sense of culture shock for me, or I suppose reverse culture shock in this case, but I’ll be able to explore these themes further when I return on a more permanent basis.

In terms of activities while in California, I spent most of my time just relaxing at the house. Let me tell you, the creature comforts were fully appreciated. Before leaving Japan my folks had asked me for a menu of dishes I would like prepared, and they definitely came through on all counts. Although I’m not happy to say that I put on some weight from the trip, I was more than happy to indulge myself while I was there. A big thank you undoubtedly goes to my mom for preparing all my favorite childhood dishes and for stocking the house with plenty of bagels and a box of Golden Grams. Other than food one of my greatest joys was being able to watch basketball. Although I check the NBA website all the time, it in no way satisfies the way live action does. And since I was on the west coast I was able to see all of my favorite teams play, except the Raptors, but who cares since they are again in last place this season. Ah well. Rebuilding, they say. Meh. Oh, but one other quick thing to note is that I forgot about television commercials and their utter inanity. I’ve been downloading my TV for over a year, and kind of forgot about their existence. I suppose that I’m just not used to them anymore, but how can people stand it!?!?

So I do want to make it clear that although food and basketball were much appreciated, there is no comparison with being able to spend time with my folks. Mom and I speak often enough over MSN or on the phone, but we had several very intense conversations while I was with them, and I relished every one of them. I had forgotten what it was like to talk to her like that. And thinking this really makes me understand why she made such a big deal about missing me so much, and about not wanting me to come back to Japan. It was just nice to be able to share ideas and information in ways that I haven’t done in several years. And my Dad. What a guy. I think he took three or four days off of work just so he could spend time with me. We spent a couple of days exploring downtown San Diego since I had never been there before, and we even got to a couple of spots he had never seen including Point Loma, where Cabrillo became the first European to touch down on the west coast of what would become the United States. There was an incredible view, albeit somewhat mired by the haze that day, looking east back over the bay towards downtown, and facing west nothing but blue on blue. It was great to joke around with him, and to share some new music since I burned a bunch of CDs he had been wanting to listen to.

Speaking of music, that reminds me of another well-appreciated aspect of my trip: live music. Twice during my stay I was able to make my way down to the Belly Up Club. The first time was on the Tuesday night, and my mom and I went to see guitar legend Adrian Belew. The music wasn’t exactly what I normally go for, and the crowd was comprised mostly of fourty-something prog-rock heads, but Belew’s skills on the axe cannot be questioned. The second time was Saturday night for The Brand New Heavies. This time all three of us went and had reserved seats in the balcony for a funk extravaganza. The band had great energy, especially the bouncy, petite lead singer who frolicked all over the stage while pumpin’ out the good vibes to the absolutely packed audience. Again, the music wasn’t quite on point for me, but it was a very good show, and they did kick out some nice jams.

And then it was over. Somehow my dad and I beat the insane L.A. traffic back to the airport and I was off. The whole trip was really just a flash in the pan, but a wholly welcome one. And now I’m back in my apartment, and it’s almost like things never changed…

Oh, but they have. I’ve noticed when walking down the street, that I am much more in my own world than before. There is a sense of distance, definitely self-manufactured, that is in play. This is most likely due to my forthcoming departure at the end of January. That’s right... it’s finally time. But instead of heading back to North America, I’ll be heading off on the adventure of a lifetime with my boy Christian MacInnis, who himself just concluded a visit with his folks, done however on this side of the ocean. We leave on the 27th for parts semi-unknown. One way tickets have been purchased to Singapore, and from there we will begin by working our way northward through Malaysia. I’m hoping that this blog entry will spur more in the near future so that by the time I’m in Southeast Asia I’ll be raring to document everything. I’ve decided on a three-fold plan of attack: a written journal, copious amounts of photographs, and also video. Although the screaming fans will have to wait for my return to digest the writings and photos, I will be posting videos to YouTube along the way. I’ve actually already got one up there from the Adrian Belew show if you care to watch. My user name is Farbulous007, so you can just search for that.

So for now adieu, and hopefully I will be more diligent in the near future when it comes to keeping track of my many adventures, or at least ramblings, so that there aren’t giant gaping holes in my memory where the blog can’t fill things in.

Lots of love to everyone on both sides of the ocean. Hope you are happy and well.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Platinum Week '06 - or - Krystene Komes to Kyoto

Be prepared for a posting of epic proportions. This took me weeks to write, and is as much for my own memory as it is for your entertainment, so please bear with me. You have been warned. The events herein took place from May 20th to the 30th.

It’s Saturday night, and I hadn’t heard from Krystene since she left the airport in Toronto, so at this point I was assuming that everything was going OK. I’m at Kakegawa station, where we have planned to meet, and I see people start to come down off the platform. The swarm comes and passes through the gates, but even after the last few stragglers trundle by me I don’t see her. At this point I’m starting to worry, and wondering what my next move should be. Before I get too frantic, I look over and notice that the platform this group of people descended from was not the one from which Krystene was expected. Phew. Lo and behold, two minutes later she walked off of the escalator and our adventure began.

The first order of business, since it was Saturday night and we were already in Kakegawa, was to call my buddy and owner of Mal’s Bar, Mr. Mal Adams. He arrived promptly at the station a few moments later and whisked us over to the bar. There were a few folks sitting around enjoying the fare and not long after we had arrived my friend Aaron showed up. We had a nice time quaffing a few drinks and shooting the breeze. It had been more than a year since the last time I’d seen Krystene so there was plenty to catch up on. Our time was fairly limited at Mal’s because the trains in Japan stop running around midnight, so we paid up and hopped a cab back to the train station and made our way to Fukuroi and my apartment.

I had intended our first full day together in Japan to be a slow and gradual introduction to the Japanese experience, and it turned out to reflect that quite well. We began with a walk around my neighborhood including a stop by my closest classroom so that I could show her where I worked and how I taught my students. We proceeded north along the main road and eventually veered off Eastward toward Kasuisai. I figured what better way to introduce someone to Japan than to show them a local temple. I really enjoy Kasuisai temple not only for its natural beauty, but because I think it is simultaneously low-key and yet perfectly representative of the majority of temples right across this nation. We walked around the grounds and she was able to snap away the first set of what was to be many pictures on her new digital camera. By the time we were finished touring the temple we were both hungry so I proposed we go for sushi. To my pleasure and amusement she was completely unprepared for the true Japanese conveyor belt sushi experience. We had to wait quite a while at the restaurant, even though it’s a huge place, because we had arrived smack dab in the middle of lunchtime. Eventually we were seated at a table and began our feast. Krystene was so impressed with the conveyor belt system that she proposed starting something similar back in Toronto where the concept has not yet been attempted to my knowledge. Although I’m sure it was just an idea, I think it could really be viable there.

When we returned to my apartment Krystene pointed out my sorely sunburned neck, the pain of which lasted for the duration of her stay. She was tired so I let her nap for an hour while I caught up with emails. I woke her up at around 4:00 p.m. and we got ready for a night out in Shizuoka city. We took the local train into Hamamatsu so we could get her train pass sorted out and then hopped on the bullet train to Shizuoka. There we met my buddy Brad and made our way to our favorite pizza place to eat dinner. Afterwards we spent a few hours tooling around downtown Shizuoka waiting for Shiho and Tetsu to finish work at the Stussy store so we could all go out for drinks. Once they were done we all got together and proceeded to Doma Doma, which is a nice izakaya (Japanese style pub) fairly close to the station. We settled down into our booth and proceed to let the libations flow. Tetsu made several interesting selections from the menu for us to try including raw horse meat and some sour mackerel sashimi (raw fish), both delicacies here in Japan. Up until this point I had been able to avoid the notorious busashi (raw horse) but I was pleasantly surprised by its tenderness, and now I order it every time. Once we finished our food and drinks we walked around the corner to another bar where Krystene and Tetsu proceeded to have their way with a bottle of tequila. Only later did I hear that Tetsu was sick all over Shiho’s driveway that night. Poor guy. I appreciated that he was having a good time hanging out with us, but Brad told me he had never seen him drink so hard before. It was definitely a good time, but I will encourage Tetsu to control himself a little bit better in the future when we hang out together. When we left Shiho and Tetsu, the rest of us hopped in a cab and beat it back to Brad’s place in Shimizu to sleep because the trains had stopped running. Although we were exhausted after our long first day, Krystene and I were both still very excited to be on our way to Kyoto the next morning.

After returning to my apartment to get changed, shower and pack up our things we made our way to Hamamatsu and got on the bullet train to Kyoto. It’s not a very long trip, but we were both still tired from the previous night so we nodded off for a bit but woke up with about fifteen minutes to spare before the train pulled into the station. I guided us through the train and subway stations until we got up to the northern end of the city and boarded a local bus. Three stops later we arrived in front of Daitoku-ji temple and made our way around the corner to our accommodations. I had found this place while searching through the Japan travel guide Krystene had brought, and boy was I glad we ended up staying at the Tani House. The hostess, Mrs. Tani, has been running this place for at least 30 years and it was as pleasant and quaint as one could expect. We were shown to our large, traditional Japanese style room in the back of the house on the first floor. Not only was it relatively inexpensive to stay, but it was an authentic Japanese house and Mrs. Tani was a superb hostess, bringing us fresh green tea in the mornings and helping us navigate around the area. There are pictures of the place on my photo website, so have a look, and I would definitely highly recommend this place to anyone visiting Kyoto.

By the time we were settled in and had turned around to take the bus down to Kiyomizudera it was close to 5:00 p.m. This meant it was too late to do the East-Higashiyama district of Kyoto as I had planned. Instead we ended up walking around Gion and doing a little bit of shopping. I took her to one of my favorite shops called Sou-Sou which specializes in tabi shoes (split-toe or ninja shoes) and wonderful clothing including jimbe and yukata (Japanese robes). We both bought a few things and then settled down to dinner at a local restaurant somewhere along the shopping arcade just off the main road in Gion. Once we got out of the restaurant it was dark and the shops were closing up for the night. Since there wasn’t much more in the way of tourism or shopping we could do, we hopped on the subway and made our way back to Tani House. Earlier in the day I had seen a sign in the foyer about a local public bath, so I suggested that instead of bathing at the Tani House we make our way down the street five minutes to the Funaoka onsen. Coincidentally, this was the exact same onsen I had read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook of Japan and the one I had intended on taking us to during our stay in Kyoto. Since public baths are segregated by sex, we each went to our own side and enjoyed the clean and the soak for about an hour. After meeting up by the front desk at the appointed time we were both very relaxed, mellow, and ready for bed. We stopped at the convenience store across the street for some ice cream and then meandered our way back up the street before crashing hard on our piles of futon mattresses.

Reaching Kyoto station, we took a peek at the train map and figured out the quickest way to get to Nara. There was a special rapid train that would get us there in an hour, so we got our tickets and hopped on board. Nara is the one place on the entire trip that I had never been to. I was very much excited to see the old capital of Japan, and all the famous old temples there. The train ride was over in the blink of an eye, so we got out of the station and approached the information desk so we could get a map of the area. The kind lady behind the counter not only gave us a map but gave us a little explanation of the best places to go and marked them off for us on our map. Not ten minutes after we had started up the main drag towards Nara Koen (park) it began to rain. We stopped in a dollar store and picked up a pair of shoddy umbrellas and continued our way up the street.

The first stop on our Nara adventure was the central park with both the 3-tiered and 5-tiered pagodas, as well as many other temples and shrines. I took lots of pictures there, which can be seen on my photo site. This was also our first contact with the domesticated deer of Nara. These are “sacred” deer that are basically given free reign to wander wherever they please in Nara Koen and the surrounding area. Let me make this clear… there is no specific pen for these animals. They are free to wander wherever they like, and there are people scattered all through the area with wafers to buy so that you can experience feeding the deer. At first, the whole experience of chillin’ with the deer was alright, but after a while we were a little put off. These animals are not afraid of people at all, and in fact are quite greedy and pushy when it comes to getting fed. Let’s just say they went from being cute to being annoying in a tremendously short amount of time.

After snapping some photos of the 5-tiered pagoda, which is the symbol of the city of Nara, we continued on deeper into the park. Along the way we found the Nara National Museum, and since it was raining fairly hard at this point we figured it would be a good idea to get in out of the rain. We also had been seeing banners all over the city advertising a new exhibit, so we went to check it out. The exhibit was focused on this man, Priest Chogen, who was responsible for the restoration of Todai-ji temple and many other buildings in Nara after they were burned down in an attack hundreds of years ago. The halls were filled with statuary and relics retrieved from the surrounding area temples before they were rebuilt. Krystene was in heaven at this point because she had been studying Asian art in a class before she came over to visit, and she was able to see some of those very pieces up close and personal. I was most impressed with the tapestries and statuary that had been donated to the museum from various temples around the country.

It was still raining when we had finished our tour of the museum, but we decided to brave it anyway. Another few blocks up the road and we came to the causeway approaching Todai-ji, jam-packed with people, umbrellas in hand and filling the width of the path. As we approached the gates we saw another large group of deer. The cobblestones were covered in a thin wet layer of their liquefied crap, and it was unavoidable to step through this stuff on the approach to the temple gates. This is the point at which my awe of the deer turned to disgust. But once we reached the gates the dirty deer were swept from my mind. Up a few steps, under the roof of the gate, stood the two massive guardians. I got Krystene to take a picture for size reference. Once past the gate we made our way up the main path to the front of the temple wall. We joined the throng of people crowding their way inside and once we finally got past the entryway we were treated to a spectacular view of the main temple building. I was later to learn that in its current, rebuilt state it is only half of its original size; regardless, it still remains one of the largest wooden structures in Japan, perhaps even the world.

Although the size of the building itself is impressive, nobody can prepare themselves for the massive presence of the bodhisattva itself. This gargantuan statue was also rebuilt after the temple was burned, but the head is still original. I took many, many pictures both before and after trying to spend a moment gathering myself and trying to wrap my head around the scope of what I was seeing. That day was busy at Todai-ji, so it was hard to just allow myself to feel the inherent energy with the gaggle of people about. We walked clockwise around the main statue, and its two flanking statues, snapping photos all the way. Behind them were another set of guardians like those at the gate, made out of wood, along with a scale model of how Todai-ji used to look and some other random statuary. Once we reached the other side of the bodhisattva there was a large gift shop and fortune booth set up where we saw a sign advertising Eternal Happiness for $10. The idea is that you use a paintbrush to write your name and personal message of peace on a roofing tile that they use for repairs. Both of us paid our money, scribed our tiles, and I know at least I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that Buddha comes through for me.

We ate lunch at a local place and then decided it would be fun if we hopped in a rickshaw and had them take us to the last locale on our agenda. A wonderful chap named Kou-chan gave us a lift and a mini-Japanese lesson to boot. In the ten minutes we had on the way to Kasuga shrine we learned the Japanese terms for rickshaw (jin-deki-sha, which literally means human-powered-car,) and some greetings and other pleasantries in the local Kansai dialect. He dropped us off at the parking lot near the shrine and we made the rest of our way on foot. The shrine itself was a bit underwhelming, but had a few details that are definitely worth mentioning. The first was an ancient tree inside the complex itself. I’m not sure of its age, but it was massive and beautiful. Secondly, and what this particular shrine is famous for, were the hundreds of stone lanterns just outside the southern gate. They extend into the surrounding forest and give a solemn and ancient air to the place. Some are cracked and broken; most are covered with vibrant emerald moss. At this point, since we were both templed-out for the day, we made the walk back through the city to the train station, and eventually back to Kyoto highly satisfied with our rainy day in Nara.

Having been in Kyoto for two days and nights I was glad to finally be able to show Krystene some of the real sights. We got up and out early and made our way over to Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion. This is the starting point for a 1.5 km route called the Philosopher’s Walk. It is named thus because a Kyoto University philosophy professor used it for his daily constitutional. Lined with cherry trees, the path winds its way along a canal at the foot of Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains). Ginkaku-ji itself was very disappointing for me, but worked well as a starting point for our journey. It has an interesting rock garden, and the grounds are nicely landscaped, but the setting and the pavilion are wholly underwhelming. We did the tour of the grounds fairly quickly and then found the canal and worked our way south alongside. Although the cherry trees were not in bloom it was still a very beautiful and peaceful walk; worlds apart from the bustling shopping mecca of Gion mere blocks away. We passed small boutiques selling clothes, kimono, sculpture and other artwork as well as quaint little cafes and restaurants. We stopped a few times along the way to see some of the local shrines and temples, which line the entire length of the trail. None of them were overly impressive, but I was more than pleased just to be outside on what was a gorgeous day, especially compared to the rain of the day before. Eventually we made our way to Nanzen-ji temple, where I would have liked to spend more time examining the architecture including the impressive old aqueduct the runs through the grounds, but we were on a tight schedule at this point because we had arranged to participate in a traditional tea ceremony nearby.

After eating lunch at a local okonomiyaki (like a frittata that you cook yourself on a grill built into your table) restaurant, we made our way to the tea ceremony. I had my doubts about whether or not it would be an interesting experience, but Krystene wanted to do something traditional, and in the end I was pleasantly surprised. The room was a small, comfortable and lined with tatami mats, which we were bidden to sit upon. The hostess was very professional and for me it was most impressive just to watch the precision of her movements as she prepared the tea. The air was completely still and I became mesmerized by the ceremony and procedure involved in every little step. First the hostess prepared tea for us, explaining each step along the way, and then we were both given a chance to make a bowl of tea for each other. Looking back, this was probably one of the most memorable moments of our entire stay in Kyoto, and definitely the most evocative.

Since we had had a nice break to rest our feet we were ready for what I think is the highlight of sights in Kyoto: East Higashiyama district. We entered through the Gion gate and made our way up and in. Passing temples and shrines in every direction we worked our way along the old cobblestone streets. Eventually we came to an old stone stairwell that was familiar to me so I bade Krystene follow me up the hill. When we reached the top the object I had brought her to see was still obscured so I told her to prepare herself for something mind-blowing. We rounded the corner of one of the closer buildings and there it was, the Ryozen Kannon, magnificent in her glory. She is the goddess of mercy, and in this case she is a massive 24-meter concrete statue sitting perched in front of the Eastern Mountains, shining her glory down upon the whole city from her viewpoint on top of the hill. What has always impressed me most about this statue is how it contrasts against the lush green trees lining the sides of the mountain behind. Sufficed to say, Krystene was amazed. Although the tea ceremony was the highlight of the day for me, I think this was the brightest moment for her. The only reason I wasn’t as ecstatic was that I had been there before and had already been humbled.

Next, we made our way through the old streets of East Higashiyama, passing innumerable craft shops along the way. This neighborhood has such a wonderful atmosphere, reminiscent of how things must have been a hundred or more years ago. In fact this area of Kyoto has been catering to tourists and visitors for hundreds of years. This area is always bustling with people, locals and tourists alike. Many of the stores carry the usual touristy, Japanese souvenirs, but really I don’t think there is a better place in the whole country to buy stuff like that. There are also specialty shops, including great places to buy mochi (soft, sweet rice cakes) in a plethora of flavors. I definitely indulged myself with a handful of free samples along the way. Eventually we found our way to the main street that winds its way up, up, up to my favorite spot of all in Kyoto. Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple) is comprised of several giant buildings surrounded by woods and overlooking the entire city from halfway up the Eastern Mountain. It was founded in 780 A.D. and was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. One section of the temple holds the Jishu shrine, which is dedicated to the goddess of love. There are two rocks embedded in the ground and the idea is that if you can walk with your eyes closed from one to the other then you will have good luck in your love life. Krystene was successful on her attempt, and I swear it was nothing to do with my words of guidance. After the love shrine we made our way around the main buildings and walked down to the Otowa-No-Taki (Sound of Feathers waterfall). This is where Kiyomizudera gets its name, and the water from the fountain is one of the ten most famous pure water sources in Japan. After we finished having a drink we made our way back out to the street and meandered our way back out to Gion so that Krystene could finish up some shopping that she hadn’t completed two days earlier. This included buying a beautiful and authentic Japanese kimono from a shop along the main street. When we were done shopping night had fully fallen and we were both loaded down with bags. We found a bus stop and let it whisk us all the way back to the Tani House. It was still fairly early but we were both so tired after walking around all day that we just made a quick trip down to the onsen and then came back and fell asleep happy with having another great day under our belts.

The next morning we packed up all of our stuff, and this was no mean feat considering the plethora of shopping bags that we now had on top of the luggage we had both brought initially. The lovely Ms. Tani helped us by calling a cab and directing the driver to take us to the main post office right next to Kyoto station. Krystene had bought so much stuff that it would have been impossible for us to lug around all the things she had bought for the rest of the trip, so we had to get a box and ship as much as we could back to Canada. The whole process at the post office took almost two hours because immigration and terrorist prevention laws have changed and now Canada requires all packages to have specific listings of contents including individual item weights. By the time we were done it was already after noon and we were famished. We grabbed a quick bite and then hopped the next train bound for Himeji; it was a quick journey of only an hour or so. Upon our arrival we made our way to our hotel and checked in. We had only intended on spending that day and night in town because I had wanted to get us to Hiroshima the next day, but we were thwarted from achieving our main purpose in Himeji, which was to see the castle, because we had arrived too late in the afternoon. Although I was mighty frustrated at this point, we conceded to dropping Hiroshima off the itinerary in favor of another day in Himeji. Missing the castle meant we had quite a few hours to kill before Christian would be finished work and ready to meet up. Krystene was exhausted so I brought her back to the hotel so she could nap. In the meantime I walked around downtown Himeji in search of some new batteries and a memory card for my camera. When I returned she was good to go, and it was about time to meet Christian so we got ready and left to find him near the castle. It had been decided earlier that we were going to visit an onsen that Christian and I frequent, a mere two blocks away, so we moseyed on over. By the time we were changed and in the bath the place was closing up, so we didn’t get much of a soak, but it was nice all the same. At this point it was already getting fairly late so we pretty much just called it a night. Slightly less exciting than the rest of the trip up to this point, and a bit of a disappointment for me, but at least we got a day off from the hectic pace we had set thus far.

It was nearing 11:00 a.m. by the time Christian met us at the castle gate. I had been to Himeji-jo on my first trip down to visit, but I felt that it was important for Krystene to see since it is the largest authentic castle in the country. We started in the West Bailey, which was a section I had missed on my earlier outing and an interesting preamble to the main attraction. I won’t bore you with all the details again, because I described the experience in my very first blog posting. In the end it was just nice to have Krystene be able to appreciate such a significant part of Japanese culture, or at least significant from my perspective; Himeji castle was definitely one of the places I had intended to be a highlight of her trip.

That afternoon was very low key because I had gotten somewhat sick a few days earlier and was feeling beat. Christian bid us farewell and made his way off to work. Krystene wanted to visit the nearby art museum and then walk around the shops, so I sent her on her merry way and went back to the hotel to take a nap before what I knew was going to be a late night. Hop forward to several hours later in the evening and we all reconvened near the train station for the first stop on our night out. On our way to the hotel I had noticed that there was a Doma Doma above some of the shops there, so we ascended and soon found ourselves in a booth drinking sake and eating some delicious fare, including repeat appearances of several delectable dishes we had had a few nights earlier in Shizuoka. After slaking our thirst and hunger we hopped around the corner to The Sports Bar to pay a visit to the owner Matt (as mentioned in the last blog entry) and some of the other local boozehounds. Another drink or two later and we scooted upstairs to Tiger Pub so that Christian could say hello to some friends. Somehow we ended up befriending a French guy named Julian who ended up coming with us to karaoke. You heard it right. I gave in and went to karaoke, and I did it for Krystene believe you me because although it is a Japanese institution, it is not something I would volunteer to do. And it’s not because I don’t love music; far from it. It’s because I DO love music. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? Regardless, and again without going into the gory (oh yes it was) details, we were there until near 5:00 a.m., not at my request as you can imagine. In spite of myself I must say it was an enjoyable night, and Krystene had a blast, which was more important than some temporary discomfort to my eardrums.

Early the next day we checked out of the hotel and caught a cab down to the train station so that we could board the bullet train bound for Tokyo. This was to be a four hour journey, so we both settled in with our books and then promptly fell asleep. About twenty minutes outside of Tokyo we woke up and got our things gathered together. Tokyo station was vast and confusing, the people undulating in never-ending waves. Through a trick of pure magic I found the train platform we needed and got us to Ueno station. A few blocks later the cab we had hired deposited us at our hotel. It was really a nice place, somewhat quaint and totally family-run, but by far the nicest western style room we had during the entire trip. As soon as we had dropped our bags off in the room we turned around and walked down the street to a Chinese restaurant. Once we had eaten and returned to the hotel it was agreed that a nap was in order since this was going to be another late night.

Several phone calls to Brad were needed in order to find the shuttle bus outside of Shibuya station. Eventually we tracked it down and settled in for the half hour ride to Ageha, the largest nightclub in Tokyo. Situated just outside the city proper, it is a massive space with three main dance floors and countless other rooms, VIP and otherwise, not to mention a pool. It was just after midnight when we arrived and I was slightly disappointed with the smallish size of the crowd since I had expected the place to be packed to the walls. We made our way to the bar, ordered our drinks, and then made our way around the entire venue getting our bearings. Once this was accomplished we basically settled into the hip-hip room which to me was possessed of the best vibe. After enough rum and cokes I was definitely letting loose, and I can’t tell you how nice it was to get out on the floor and dance; it had been at least half a year since I had busted out the moves like that. At some point in the night while I was wandering around Krystene had been picked up by a young Japanese fellow named Aki who turned out to be a really cool guy. They were basically inseparable the rest of the night, so I three-wheeled it as best I could. I got his number and we agreed to meet up at some point in the next few days so that he could show us around Tokyo. At 4:00 a.m. we were both ready to leave so we hopped the shuttle bus back to Shibuya followed by the most expensive taxi ride I’ve ever had all the way back to our hotel. Silly us, we could have just waited until 5:00 a.m. when the subways start running and saved ourselves fifty bucks. Ah well. I think we were both just too tired and tipsy to reason that out properly.

The following two days, Krystene’s last in Japan, were a blur of shopping. There was definitely no sightseeing; basically no activities other than sleeping and eating. On the second day we had separated briefly so that I could return to Harajuku, which we had visited the previous day, to buy a pair of shoes while she made her way around Ginza. In the middle of the afternoon Aki called me and we met up before going to find Krystene amongst the upscale shoppes that are the trademark of the Ginza neighborhood. Definitely right up her alley. By the early evening we were all shopped-out and in need of sustenance. Aki suggested his favorite sushi place back in Shibuya, so we made our way over and squeezed ourselves in between the other patrons at the counter and ate our fill from off the conveyor belt. At this point as a quick aside I do want to make it clear that not all sushi restaurants in Japan are of the conveyor belt variety – only the cheap ones. Once we were back outside Aki lead us to Tower Records because I had mentioned earlier that I had wanted to find a bookstore. Let me tell you, not only was there a foreign book section, there was a whole floor! This place was better than some of the major bookstores I’ve been to back in Toronto. Of course the problem was that this was the last place we went to after two days of spendspendspend, so I was nearly tapped out. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to get books - the pickings are surprisingly sparse in Shizuoka - I managed to find more than a few worthy titles but in the end only settled on one or two. Back on the street I made excuses about being tired so that I could leave the two of them alone for a while. I bade Krystene to give me her bags and begged off back to the hotel after instructing Aki to take her to Tokyo Tower, something she had requested doing when we first arrived in town. So I went back and cracked open one of my new books while they went off gallivanting. Just before the last trains Aki dropped her off at the station nearest our hotel and I met up with them to get her safely back. We bid him farewell and thanked him for all his kindness, and in fact I’m going to be seeing him in about a week when Brad and I go up to Tokyo for a big night out at Ageha.

Well… that’s about all there was to the trip. The next day we took a few hours touring around Ueno park, visiting the National Museum, examining some of the Rodin sculptures outside the Modern Art Museum, and getting lunch at the Hard Rock Café in Ueno station. Afterwards I brought her to Tokyo station and got her to the platform where the express train to the airport was waiting. We were in such a rush by the end that Krystene didn’t realize that I wasn’t getting on the train with her; we had enough time for a brief hug and a quick goodbye and thanks and then she was gone. I went back upstairs to retrieve my bags and then got on my own train bound for Shizuoka. As laden as I was, it was nice to be heading home. I surprised myself with how ready I was to get back into the swing of things, a testament to the lulling comfort of routine. I’m glad she came to visit, and that I was able to share some of my experience here. If anybody else wants to come I’d be glad to host. And now I have plenty of experience so please be my guest. Come and be marveled by the land of the rising sun! (Don’t I just sound like the perfect posted boy for Japan tourism?)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Golden Week '06

Keiko’s small and utterly Japanese car was well packed with gear by the time I had stuffed my guitar, backpack, futons and pillows inside. We set out from Fukuroi at around 3:00 pm and headed for the highway, which we knew was going to be pretty bad since the entire length of the major roads in this country become a traffic jam during Golden Week. Once we got outside of the city proper it was pretty much bumper to bumper until we were past Toyohashi, which takes only about 45 minutes to get to by train. It took us 4 hours.

Once we were past the majority of the traffic I took over at the wheel and we had a fairly uneventful ride until we got to the outskirts of Osaka. Keiko switched back with me since driving in the sprawling metropolis of Osaka can be daunting even for the locals. We worked our way right across the whole city and onto the highway heading for Kobe and beyond. Somehow we took the wrong fork at some point and ended up on Rokko island, which is the middle of nowhere, especially near 10:00 pm on a Sunday night. Once we got ourselves turned around and pointed in the right direction it was only another two hours or so until we were in Himeji.

We met Christian right smack downtown and stopped at the Sports Bar, owned by Matt, the friendly anti-semite. Christian is a quasi-celebrity in these parts, evidenced by many digital photographs containing his likeness in rotation on Matt’s computer screen, facing the bar for all to see. We didn’t stay for long because it was after 1:00 am at this point and we had just completed a 9 hour drive to get there. We made one more stop at this other watering hole, whose name I happen to forget, but the purpose of which I remember well: absinthe. We had a drink or two with a few of Christian’s other friends while the gentle lad behind the bar, with glasses similar to my own, mixed Beatles songs on his CD turntable and Kaos pad. After this we packed it in and soon enough we were back at Christian’s apartment and he and I jammed out on our guitars until about 5 in the morning while Keiko attempted to sleep. Sorry Keiko!

We all finally awoke and breakfasted, or I suppose lunched might be more appropriate, sometime in the early afternoon, and Keiko packed up and left for Osaka to visit a friend of hers for a few days, leaving Christian and I to our own devices. Those devices turned out to be an afternoon spent on the grounds in front of Himeji castle with our guitars and a frisbee. After some jamming out and some sweat build up we trundled over to the nearby sento (public bath) and had a leisurely soak before we continued on our merry way. Eventually we sauntered over to the Sports Bar, and instead of ducking in and out so that we could catch the last train, we ended up hooking up with a couple of older Japanese dudes, one of which Christian had known for a few weeks, and their two accompanying lovely ladies. Unfortunately names of all four happen to escape me now. This is disappointing to me, especially considering their generosity. First of all, the gents didn’t seem to be too taken with the ladies, so they were bidden to sit with Christian and I. We talked for a while in the Sports Bar and then had our tab paid for before being carted off to a late-night okonomiyaki restaurant, which was also taken care of by our gracious hosts. Sufficed to say it was probably for the best that we missed the last train.

The next day we took our time getting up and out, but once we did we caught a bus from the downtown terminal over to Mt. Shosha, which is a famous spot which houses many Buddhist temples, and perhaps one of the oldest religious buildings in Japan, built in 922 A.D. This place was made famous recently by being used as one of the locales in the movie The Last Samurai. In fact we even caught a glimpse of one of the resident monks who had a role in the film. The special treat here, other than the spectacular architecture and beautiful natural setting was the fact that they had an interesting shrine set up in the main hall that had been hidden behind one of the larger statuaries for the past 800 years. One very kind monk, whose English skills were quite impressive, gave us the low down on the hidden shrine as well as the rest of the statuary. After we toured around the top of the mountain, visiting the other buildings and seeing the 700 year old tree, we decided to walk down instead of taking the ropeway we had used to ascend. The walk down was beautiful as Himeji city grew larger and larger the further down we went.

The following night it took forever for Keiko to get back to Himeji from Osaka. Something like 6 hours of ridiculousness. Poor thing. So that night we took it relatively easy and just got nice and glowing on a few bottles of red wine. Christian and I got into a nice rhythm with the guitars, working on a few of my old songs, and eventually we all passed out, satisfied. Oh… at some point during my time with Christian we took a trip into Osaka for some shopping and people watching. Somehow my chronology concerning that time is a little off, but I’m sure it did happen. There are pictures to prove it. Damn you, red wine!

On the 4th we bid Christian a fond farewell and a thanks for all his hospitality before setting off for the Sea of Japan and the city of Fukui where my friend Chris was awaiting our arrival. Keiko was still pretty out of it from the previous night so I took the wheel and drove us the entire 4 hours from Himeji to Fukui through the breathtaking, mountainous back roads of central Japan. We arrived at Chris’ place in the mid to late evening and just spent the evening in listening to music and chatting with him and his lovely girlfriend Yukari, whom I had met on my previous trip to Fukui. Before we slept we ended up watching the movie Constantine, which I had reservations about not only due to the presence of Keanu Reeves, but also because of the admonitions of friends, although I did end up being pleasantly surprised.

Our first day in Fukui we spent well. The first stop on our tour was Maruoka castle, which despite its meager size is the oldest original castle in Japan. It wasn’t very impressive for me, especially having just come from Himeji, which has the nicest and one of the largest original castles in Japan. Two nice things about it were its collection of photographs of most of the other castles throughout the country, and the views from the top level of the main building. Next, we continued down the road to Tojinbo which is hailed as one of the three most beautiful natural settings in Japan. Right on the coast of the Sea of Japan are these volcanic cliffs, all hexagonal and pentagonal formations created by rapidly cooling magma meeting cold ocean water. As we walked down towards the water we stopped and bought a whole barbequed squid on a stick, which Keiko and I shared, while Chris enjoyed a freshly ‘cued corn on the cob. Once we made our way out to the rock formations we found dozens of people there all waiting for the sunset, which was slowly happening right in front of us over the water. We clambered out onto the rocks and sat for a while until it got a little too chilly to remain. That and we decided the sunset wasn’t going to be overly spectacular due to cloud cover. Once we found our way back into the city we stopped at the bowling alley where we were rejoined by Yukari for a couple rounds on the lanes. Chris turned out being the big winner of the night, and although it is usually a close race between Keiko and I, that night I had somewhat of a groove and unfortunately she did not.

On Sunday Yukari had the day off so she took Chris and I to Eiheiji temple, which is a famous Buddhist temple and monastery in the woods just south of Fukui city. And what a place it was. By far the most amazing and gorgeous temple and wooded setting for a temple that I have seen so far in my travels. There are plenty of pictures that I posted to my site, and I can only hope that they convey the slightest understanding of what I claim here. The ceiling of one of the rooms in the interior, the Sanshokaku, is filled with 230 paintings of birds and flowers created by 144 different, leading Japanese artists. There were just so many different rooms and buildings, all connected with old wooden walkways and built on several levels right into the hillside. The giant redwood-like trees surrounding the temple were so impressive. I could easily imagine shaving my head every 5 days and generally living the life of a monk surrounded by such natural beauty. This was by far one of my favorite parts of the whole week.

When Monday finally rolled around I was ready to get back home. Keiko and I bid Chris and Yukari a fond farewell and a big thanks before we set off again through the Japanese countryside. This time we drove down through Gifu prefecture and it was absolutely spectacular once we got into the mountains proper. We had the road pretty much to ourselves as we wound in and around the base of mountain after mountain, around streams and rivers, past lakes and by snow-covered mountain tops. It will be hard to leave this wonderful land once that time rolls around. And with that I will leave you to picture its beauty for yourselves. Of course you can get a hand with that by checking my photo website, (link above and to the right, as always.) There are LOTS of new pics, so be sure to check the new folders as well as the old, especially the Himeji and Fukui folders. Enjoy!

So cheers to Golden week, and cheers to my upcoming, so-called “Silver Week” because starting this Saturday I have another 10 days off… paid! My friend Krystene is coming from Toronto for a holiday, and I’m going to take her around to a bunch of great spots throughout the country, so be on the lookout for a forthcoming update in early June. I hope everyone is doing well and keeping their respective chins up. I love and miss you all. Apologies for the lack of posts lately, but I’m sure you’d all rather just get the tastiest parts of my adventure. I’ll save the longer ramblings for the novel. (Yeah… right.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Setsubun and Snowboarding

Another long absence, and it’s finally time to write again. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if my readership is near zero, but hey, do y’all really want to hear about the mundanities of my everyday life? Didn’t think so. Actually, yesterday I stopped by a large bookstore in Hamamatsu and sat to read an article in the Japanese edition of Newsweek regarding the dissolution of culture and traditions in Japan. Quite an interesting read. Basically, as I have been feeling since my arrival, this country is quickly losing its identity to westernization. Since they were so desirous of assimilating after the war, they got exactly what they wanted, and globalization has absorbed Japan. At one point in the article the author said something to the effect of: If Japan were picked up and dropped in the middle of Europe they would fit right in without a hitch. I don’t want to go through the whole article, but if you are interested at all please seek it out because I felt the author’s perspective was on the money.

Now, on to some more personal details. Roughly a week ago was the Japanese festival of Setsubun, which represents the changing of the seasons. It’s nothing big, but it is interesting, and I got to participate with a couple of girls I know. It was February 3rd, as it is every year, and they came over to my house for a movie night, yet unbeknownst to me in was also the night of this festival. Kumiko pulled this little set out of her bag that had two simple things in it: a bag of dried beans and a devil mask. The entire purpose of the festival is to drive the demons away, so what you do is throw some beans outside your house and then throw some on the inside as well, saying: “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” which means: “Demons outside, happiness inside!” My friend Emiko held the mask up to her face and we threw beans at her, laughing and saying the line. Afterwards we picked up the beans and the tradition states that you have to eat the number of your age, therefore I had to eat 26 beans, and let me tell you, the next day it felt like the demons were inside… my stomach! Happiness was definitely without. An interesting if somewhat inconsequential festival.

The following evening I was picked up at my apartment by Kumiko and taken over to her house at around 10 p.m. where we sat with Emiko and waited for Kumiko’s sister and her sister’s boyfriend. At around 1 a.m. they arrived and we set out for Gifu prefecture to go snowboarding. There was another car full of their friends that we followed all the way up on our four hour drive into the heart of the mountains. We got to the resort at around 5:30 a.m. and everyone promptly went to sleep so they could be rested for the day ahead. Unfortunately it didn’t really happen for me, so I laid still and tired for three hours while the rest of them slept. At around 8 a.m. they woke up and we got ourselves dressed and ready for a day of skiing and snowboarding. I was the only one who had to rent equipment, so we got that sorted as soon as possible. What big feet I have! The boots I rented were so big that the toes overhung the edge of the board and made it very difficult to turn until I learned how to compensate.

I won’t go step by step here, but by the end of the day I was really getting the hang of it. I had been snowboarding only twice before this time, and that was about five years ago. For what was basically my first time I was very happy with the progress I had made, and by late afternoon when the group wanted to start heading home I really wanted to stay because I was finally able to get down the mountain without falling on my face every couple of turns. Needless to say, it was a ton of fun, and has given me a little bit of a snowboarding bug. Although I have to be saving most of my money for the big trip I plan at the end of my time in Japan, I hope I can set a little aside for another trip or two up to the mountains before the season is over.

What I did want to mention was just how beautiful the land was up in Gifu. When we got to the top of the lift every time I was awestruck with the beauty of the surrounding mountains. Everything was white and dark green, all the pine trees covered with a thick layer of snow. And it was such a nice day, the sun would come and go behind the clouds, illuminating the other clouds that lay encircled about the mountains in the distance. Unfortunately, since I knew I would be falling a lot that day I didn’t want to bring my camera up the hill with me. I did get some shots of the group and the area from the parking lot, but in no way do these pictures do the landscape any justice. One thing I have learned without a doubt from my time in Japan is that I need to live somewhere near mountains. I don’t know exactly what it is about them, except how they are obviously awe inspiring, but it’s more than that. There is something epic and grand about mountains that just strikes and inspires me whenever I see them.

So that’s the update for now. Not much else to report. Plans are going ahead full steam for Christian and I and our journey across southeast Asia. If you would like some more detail on our proposed route Christian has posted up some maps that we devised on his blog. The link is above, on the right side of the page. If anybody reading this has any advice or recommendations in terms of our journey, all information would be greatly appreciated. On another note I will be posting some more photos soon, so keep your eyes out for those. Hope you are happy and well and loving life wherever you are.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Heading South for the Winter

Well, it's been near a month and now, finally it is time to write again.

Part of the reason for my extended abscence was a literal abscence in the form of a vacation I took over the holidays. I flew down to the southernmost island of Japan, Kyushu, to visit my friend Bruno, whom I hadn't seen in almost a year. He lives in the smallish farming town of Miyakonojo which is about an hour inland (west) of Miyazaki about as far south as one can get on the Japanese mainland. Past that and you're in Okinawa, and from what I've been told, it might as well be a seperate country for all it's differences in language and culture.

I left from Nagoya the afternoon of the 23rd of December and arrived in Kyushu a mere hour later. Still, no matter how short a flight it was I love flying. Because Bruno doesn't have a vehicle I had to take the bus an hour to Miyakonojo, but I was heavily engrossed in a book, so it was no sweat. He and his lovely girlfriend Shimon picked me up at the bus terminal and we were off immediately. It seems that we had already been invited to a family dinner with some friends of Shimon's. It was a great time, and Japanese people are always curious about foreigners, so there was plenty to talk about. The matriarch was an English teacher as well, so that helped things along a bit. There were two small children there, and although I can't recall their names they were precious. There was a whole room adjoining the dining area that was literally littered with toys, and during a break in the meal just before dessert Bruno and I dove right in and got those kids laughing up a storm. The whole evening was good wholesome family fun. Nice way to start my trip.

I won't go into the details of the entire trip day to day because much time was spent relaxing and playing scrabble and chess with Bruno, along with watching movies. Again, not having a vehicle hampered us somewhat in terms of getting around Miyazaki prefecture. There are, however, four occasions worth mentioning.

The first was Christmas dinner at Bruno's house. There were about 10 of us in total I think, and what a feast! It was my first experience with a Japanese tradition called 'nabe' and let me tell you, I hope it's not my last. In the afternoon we had gone to the grocery store nearby and stocked up with all manner of vegetables, meat and fish. There was a plethora of edibles, and I could barely imagine the group of us finishing off half of what we had bought. Needless to say I was dead wrong. The easiest way to describe nabe is that it is a kind of stew. You put a broth into a stoneware crock-pot and put it on a burner to boil, adding vegetable and meat once it gets hot enough. Then, as the meal progresses and the food gets consumed you just keep adding more broth and more delicious morsels until there is no more. Even at that point, if people are still hungry often udon noodles will be thrown into the pot, and beyond that point, although I couldn't imagine getting there myself, some people even put in eggs and steamed rice to sop up the remainder. All of this was arranged on two portable gas stoves that were set on the two tables, and we had two different pots going each with their own broth. The night was spent eating, drinking and making merry with all of these folks I had just met, minus Bruno, and it was spectacular. He is a lucky fellow to have such good friends.

The next adventure I want to relate regards the day that Bruno and I took the train into Miyazaki city to do some shopping and to meet up with his friend Chie. She picked us up at the train station and took us to a large mall nearby where we ate lunch and cruised around the stores for a while. Nothing special there, but Chie is a very nice girl and it we were having a great time laughing it up and mostly window shopping. Then she drove us downtown where we dropped off her car and proceeded to the bar/restaurant where she works because she was working that evening. It was a nice place, very stylishly decorated and all wood inside. It felt very cosy, not that the all-you-can-drink beers didn't help some. Bruno and I ordered a pizza there, which he had told me was delicious, and it turns out he was right. When we were sated we strolled over to the train station and headed back to Miyakonojo.

A couple of days later, I think maybe the night before New Years eve, Bruno, his roomate Laughlin, a wonderful chap named Izaku and I drove up into the hills heading for Izaku's favorite hot spring. The place was called Gokuraku, and it was an authentic onsen, let me tell you. It wasn't very big, and it didn't have the variety of baths that the sentos in Kyoto had had, but it was very comfortable and the water was excellent quality. They even had an outdoor bath which was delightful, allowing the cold air to mix with the warm, natural spring water. By the time we left, as with all times leaving a place like that, one feels completely cleansed and at ease. I think these Japanese people are onto something.

I'll end my tales with New Years, and although the telling of it may seem underwhelming, it was a good time. Long ago I gave up believing in some major significance tied in with this one moment in time that the Gregorian calendar declares is a distinct change from one year to the next. I don't know if I'm describing my disillusionment accurately enough, but that's not really important. The evening was actually quite similar to Christmas in terms of everybody gathering at Bruno's place, eating and drinking and making merry. Soba noodles are the traditional New Years eve fare in Japan, and it just so happened to be my first time trying them. I was pleased, but I can't say that they have replaced udon as my favorite type of noodle. Before I continue, I just want to make a brief aside to explain that New Years in Japan in the most important holiday of the year. I couldn't even begin to go into the significance of it due to my own ignorance, but there are many traditions tied into this time of year for Japanese people. Shrines are packed full of revellers of all ages, performing 'hatsumode' which is a prayer, and buying fortunes and good luck charms. Having said that, I can now explain that that is exactly what we ended up doing. Just after midnight when the last of our party finally showed up, we all put on our jackets and grabbed our umbrellas and ventured out into the rainy night for a walk to Kambashira shrine. The entrance to the park where the shrine is located is flanked by what is believed to be the largest torii gate in Kyushu. You can refer to my online photo album for pictures of this monstrosity, and if you look really, and I mean really, hard you can actually see an infinitesimal me underneath the looming beast. So we went, took some snapshots, got our fortunes for the year and bought some charms. Although it didn't seem terribly significant to me, I was glad to have been able to experience the traditional New Years as it happens in Japan.

One last thing I want to mention about the trip before I go, and perhaps one of the nicest things about the whole thing was just how warm it was down there! Warmest Christmas/New Years ever! One day I think I was out in a t-shirt. At the end of December! Since I had originally planned to go to Thailand over the break and it fell through, I was glad to have at least had a little taste of warmth before having to resume life in chilly Fukuroi. That being said, at least there is no snow here, and that too is a welcome change from life in Toronto. I do also want to extend my thanks to Bruno for putting me up, and for putting up with me for such a long stretch. You were a kind and gracious host, and I hope soon to be able to repay that generosity.

Cheers to everyone, and I hope your holidays and New Years were the best possible. Here's to a fruitful and joyful 2006.

P.S. - There are many, MANY new photos on my website, from both this trip and Kyoto. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Colors of Kyoto

I truly didn’t know what to expect as I packed up my things and headed for Hamamatsu to get the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Now, I did have some idea what I was going to see there in terms of touristy sights, but I was staying with a fellow named Simon who used to live down the street when I was roughly 4-9 years old. He was best friends with my younger brother at the time, and I haven’t seen him for over 15 years, regardless of the fact that he claims there was an interim meeting at the Pickle Barrel in Toronto some years back. It never happened, Simon! Have you ever re-acquainted with someone you only knew as a young child? It’s a strange experience to say the least.

The train ride was comfortable and easy; it took only just over one hour to get to Kyoto from where I live. Simon met me at the terminal and we had a moment or two of sizing up and seeing if our expectations fit the bill. To me he looked exactly the same as he did all those years ago, except with a beard and 15 years older. It was fairly late by the time I arrived, so we took the subway back to his house and dropped off my things before heading out for a quick bite and some drinks; we couldn’t do much of anything else by that time. Afterwards we simply relaxed, watched some episodes of the Simpsons and tried to get to sleep relatively early so that we could get out and about early the next day.

After morning rituals were complete we were on our way to the heart of Kyoto and the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, and there were two unfortunate things here, it began to rain and the Imperial Palace is not much to see. The grounds themselves are quite nice, especially with the autumn foliage, but the palace itself is blocked from view by a surrounding wall. We made a circuit around the wall and then took to the street again to be on our way to somewhere a little more engaging. Making a brief stop for lunch, I phoned Christian and told him to get out of bed and come to Kyoto. After lunch we hopped a bus bound for Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion.

While waiting for the bus, we spoke to a few fellow Canadian sightseers who mentioned going to see Ryoanji temple, whereupon Simon and I decided it might be good to see a few places so close together. We got off the bus with the others and took a stroll into the wooden area that held the temple. Ryoanji is one of those places that are perfectly exemplary of something that I have come to marvel at regarding Japan; it is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, often side by side. We walked off a residential street and into a beautiful treasure of a wood with a lovely old temple that one would never expect having only seen the street. Walking up the various paths was a wonder of color, the trees all shedding their leaves for the impending winter. The temple is somewhat famous for its rock garden, which unfortunately at that time had scaffolding all over its walls, yet was still impressive. The trees surrounding the temple were blazing with reds, oranges, pinks and golds. I took many pictures which you will soon be able to see on my picture site. The grounds were lovely as well, and Simon and I strolled through the paths and the trees, examining the sub-temples and other structures throughout.

Instead of taking a bus back up the street to Kinkakuji we decided to walk. It was a short trip through a little residential district until we got to the gates and the throngs of people. The golden pavilion is a big tourist attraction and so we waded in with the rest of the people until we got to the lake and the pavilion itself, which is very nice, if not a little tacky. I mean, who wants to live in a gold house, even if it is your retirement palace. The grounds were fairly nice, and obviously very highly sculpted and landscaped. After Ryoanji though, Kinkakuji was a bit of a step down in terms of my own enjoyment and wonder. About the time we were finishing up there Christian called and let me know he was coming into Kyoto any minute, so Simon and I hopped on a bus bound for the station so that we could meet him, and meet him we did. By the time this happened it was a little late to do much else, but we had been on our way to Kiyomizudera so we continued on our way, hoping that there might still be some light left by the time we got there for taking pictures. As we ascended the winding street that led to the temple grounds I was surrounded and marveled at the amount of people and shops lining either side. It was raining and so there were umbrellas everywhere, and people constantly raising and lowering them to avoid one another. Every shop along the way sold various souvenirs, some specializing in pottery, especially tea and sake sets, and some sold many different varieties of tea or mochi, which is a kind of chewy rice treat. The three of us gorged ourselves on the free samples as we climbed our way through the street to the temple proper. By the time we got to the top there really wasn’t much to see so we promised to come back the next day and turned around to head back down through the throng. Instead of busing back downtown, we decided to walk through the local area, and what an amazing place it was. This was old Kyoto, and the streets we walked are hundreds and hundreds of years old. The shops and the lay of the place were incredible and inspiring. So many souvenirs! I will have to return there to stock up before leaving Japan.

That night we passed through the famous Gion shopping district on the way back to Simon’s house. We dropped off our stuff at his place and set out for a local Indian restaurant, which was decent if not a mite expensive. Returning to Simon’s apartment we waited there for his friend Peter before heading off to the Sento, which is a public bath house. What a great deal! Less than four dollars a person for as much time as we wanted in the spa. There was one catch, though, and that was the fact that we all had to go completely naked. Yes, that means along with being naked myself I saw my three compadres naked as well. Makes me wish I was in a little better shape, but good thing I wasn’t trying to impress any of these guys. Some of you might think this is a little unnerving, and even others of you might be thinking what’s the big deal? And truly the latter of you would be correct. It’s not a big deal at all. So we sat and soaked in the various baths for at least an hour or two, probably unnerving some of the elderly Japanese gentlemen, especially myself because of my tattoos which are generally a taboo in Japanese culture, although they are gaining more acceptance nowadays. Regardless, this was exactly what we needed after a day of walking around Kyoto. Afterwards we went back to Simon’s place to watch some videos before all four of us curled up on the floor to get what sleep we could before one last day of adventure.

Peter had to leave early in the morning, so we all ended up getting out of bed at around 9:00 a.m. This is a time of day I do not normally see, having a schedule that is so late in the day. But it was alright because we got out and on our way bright and early. We took a stroll down to the Gion shopping district, which was mostly closed at that time in the morning. We found a little place to get some udon noodles for breakfast and then walked the rest of the way through Gion to the entrance to the Kiyomizudera area. First we made our way up the hill to the giant statue of Kennon, a bodhisattva. This thing is amazingly large and epic, sitting in front of a small hill and gazing its grace down upon all who pass. We stopped and took some photos before heading back down the hill to Kiyomizudera proper. We wound our way back up the hill, again sampling mochi along the way, until we reached the top and I finally saw the majesty of the structures at the entrance to the temple. As we got to the gate at the entrance a few snowflakes began to fall, and gazing out across the expanse to downtown Kyoto as they fell seemed like a bit magic. We ascended the steps and entered the temple along with the many other people there and walked around what might be one of the most beautiful scenes to which I have ever been witness. Below the massive structure of the main temple stretches a valley that runs between itself and downtown Kyoto, and at the time it was ripe with the bursting colors of autumn. There were sub-temples and shrines dotted all over the area, with many images and icons of Buddha scattered throughout. The three of us walked all through the grounds and descended to where there is a spring that is said to have magical properties. Three spouts pour water down and there are cups welded on the end of long poles from which to drink. Each of us drank from all three spouts, and I don’t know about the others but I ended up having to pee three times later that day, and they were all mighty excretions indeed. Magical, even. The whole experience of Kiyomizudera was magical, and was amazing for me because it reminded me of why I came to Japan in the first place. Of anywhere in this country where I have been so far I could easily see myself living in Kyoto. The atmosphere and the people there are incredible.

Leaving Kiyomizudera we headed back downtown and again passed through Gion. This time we stopped and shopped. Christian and I picked up a few things there, him especially considering the ease with which he found suitable gifts for family back home. After another day of walking around we decided upon another trip to the Sento before we were all to go our separate ways. Simon took us to a smaller one closer to his apartment which was just as good as the larger one we had gone to the night before. We stayed roughly an hour before returning to Simon’s place to pack our things. When we were all saddled up we took the subway back downtown to the station and ate dinner together before Christian and I bid Simon adieu and boarded our trains.

Thanks again to our gracious host, Simon, for putting Christian and I up for the weekend and being such a wonderful tour guide. He made the entire trip a hilarious ride because he is a unique, smart and hilarious person, unafraid to approach complete strangers and speak to them in English or Japanese. We met many people this way throughout the weekend, and it was wonderful being around someone so uninhibited and direct. Simon, you may have changed in some ways, but you’re still the same old kid I remember from Albertus Ave. all those years ago. Cheers to Simon and to Kyoto!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Fun in Fukui

It was the second day of the autumn training seminar. All of the teachers in Shizuoka prefecture had been together for the past two days each giving presentations and having a grand ole time. See, we don’t often get a chance to be together as a group, so it was nice that we had two days straight to finally feel like more of a team. More than half of the group is new, with at least 4 or 5 people having arrived after myself in July. After a day of fabulous presentations, the rest of the group were heading off to Sunpu Park in Shizuoka city to go to Daidogei, which is a huge festival that takes place all over the city and is a showcase and competition of street performers from all over the world. The night before we had walked around it as well, and seen some wonderful performances ranging from mime and acrobatics to juggling and dancing. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to spend in Shizuoka over those few days, but I would have loved to spend more time checking out the performances. The whole park was lit up and bustling with people from all over the world with their faces upturned to the various acts, being dazzled and amazed. What I did see was wonderful but only reminded me of how much of the festival I was going to be missing.

So the rest of the group went off to party it up, and I walked back to the station to hop a train home so that I could pack up and get going to Fukui to visit my friend Chris for his birthday. He is a friend I made in training and someone I have kept in contact with ever since. Great guy, and we have much in common, especially when it comes to music. So I threw a bunch of close in my knapsack, packed up my guitar and my laptop and got myself on the road. I left Fukuroi at roughly 7:00 p.m. and arrived in Fukui just before 11:00. I won’t bore you with the details of the journey, because it was rather uneventful, but I will say one thing and that is that I was very proud of myself in terms of how my Japanese has come along. When I was in Nagoya station waiting for a connecting train, the clerk at the ticket counter had told me that it would be another hour for the train I wanted. If I had waited for that train I would have missed the last one to Fukui from Maibara, where I was headed. So I took it upon myself to go up to the gates and asked the clerk there if there was an earlier train that stopped in Maibara, all in Japanese, and he understood me perfectly and told me that yes, there was a sooner train. So on it I got, and the rest was a breeze.

Chris was there at the station waiting for me when I disembarked. We went and got his bike, and trucked over to a wonderful little blues bar called Swing n’ Base for a couple beers. Just as the place was closing down for the night, we went outside and met up with a couple of friends of his, Lotus and Yukari. They were very nice, and I was looking forward to hanging out with them more the next night at Chris’ birthday party, but we all had to head home, so they went one way, and we went the other, back to Chris’ apartment, which was about a ten minute walk from the station. I got settled while Chris cooked me up some pasta with his home-made bolognese sauce, which was spectacular, and pulled out my guitar, played a few songs and then handed it over to Chris. He hadn’t played one in some time, and was itching to get one in his hands. I was glad to oblige. In the meantime I set up my laptop and when he was done playing we watched a few episodes of the Simpsons before crashing after what was certainly one of my longest days in a while.

The next day we got up nice and late and wandered around downtown Fukui a bit. We ventured into a couple of the shops, including a great bookstore and another place called Muji, which means “no mark.” It’s basically a brand free store. Think of a mix between Ikea and the Gap but without any labels. Very simple but nice furniture, kitchenware and clothing. Chris and I spent some time in there trying on the clothes before we each settled on a piece or two. Afterwards we stopped at a little sushi place before heading back to his apartment to change for the party. We got ourselves primped and primed and ready to go in about an hour and left to go meet the rest of the party at a wonderful izakaya called Akiyoshi. There were about 10 of us by the time everyone arrived, and we got a large table all together on the upper floor. For reference you can check the Fukui folder on my photo website (link at the top on the right.) What a great group! We all had plenty of food and drink, and the conversation was flowing easily. Chris is a lucky guy, having a great group of friends like that. After a good half dozen beers or so we all picked up and wandered down Katamachi, which is like fun zone of Fukui, to a nice little bar called Vilae Naf where we were able to get a deal where we could drink all we wanted for $20 a piece for two hours. I can’t remember what it’s called here in Japan, but damn is it a good deal. So we continued to get Chris as drunk as possible, and unfortunately it went a little overboard so I had to take him home around 2:00.

I didn’t sleep much that night because one of his other houseguests was snoring like saw mill, but because of this I was witness to some early morning hilarity as Chris tried to make it to the bathroom. He stood up on his cot for some time, just staring out at us folks on the floor before he stepped off and out into the front hall. I heard him putting on his shoes, so I figured I should get up and see what he was doing. As I reached the front door he was already out and halfway down the hall. I called after him and asked where he was going. He said he was going to the bathroom. I pointed to the door next to where I was standing and told him it was right there. Then he started mumbling something about “oji-san” which means grandmother, so I just let him go. He returned about ten minutes later but I was already settled back down on the floor and feeling comfortable, having stolen his blanket. He came back in the room and stumbled into bed. I asked him if he wanted his blanket back and he said no, but then he asked me if my blanket was motivated. Trust me, it makes as little sense to me as it does you, but I can’t really blame the guy, he was still quite out of it. The next morning was a hilarious time as we explained to Chris what happened the previous night while we lounged around his apartment.

That afternoon we got a ride out to a mall where there was an entertainment complex. We went in and played a bunch of games, mostly air hockey and a few rounds of bowling; something I haven’t done in a long, long time. It was pouring down rain by the time we were ready to leave, so we popped downstairs from the bowling alley and bought some cheap umbrellas before venturing out. We walked around for a while, getting soaked, until we made it to the bus stop. That night we were so tired and wet that we decided it might be best to just take it easy. We watched a couple of movies and more Simpsons before we crashed, and I finally got a decent night’s sleep. The next day Chris had to work, so for a few hours before he had to leave he took me on a whirlwind tour of some of the cultural sites in downtown Fukui, (pictures of which are also available on my site.) Afterwards I ventured back to his apartment where I spend the evening while I was waiting for him burning an incredible amount of CDs from my collection. When he got back he whipped us up a wonderful stir fry with some tempura he picked up at the grocery store. Lucky bum! Not only does he have two burners, but they’re gas as well! Gah! I wish I could cook here, but my kitchen just won’t accommodate. So we ate and got ourselves ready for a little get together that evening. As it happened, my friend Emi from Fukuroi was there in Fukui that night. She had come into town earlier during the day for a conference, so we decided to meet up with a few of Chris’ friends as well and all went out for a drink. It was a nice time, very relaxed in a quiet bar just off the main drag. We didn’t stay late because I knew I had to get up early-ish the next morning to catch my train back home. We got up at a reasonable time the next morning and Chris walked with me down to the station to bid me adieu. I know I’ve said it already, but thanks again Chris for your hospitality and for showing this boy such a good time. Hope you had an amazing birthday, my friend.

So that’s the trip to Fukui. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains, and on the north coast of Japan. It’s about 3 hours away from me by Shinkansen. There are many lovely pictures from my adventure, although I was unable to get any good ones of the eagles that populate the hills around his apartment. They were amazing to see though, soaring above the river looking for food and floating on the thermals. It was nice to get out of Fukuroi and see Chris, for it had been four months since we had seen each other in Nagoya during training. Four months! I’ve been here almost five months now, and I still can’t believe it. Time moves simultaneously fast and slow here for different reasons, but it’s a great time at whatever speed it happens to be moving.