2005/05/31

Japan As Disneyland - What A Country!

Forget about Tokyo Disneyland for the moment. Some have said the entire country of Japan is a theme park, and I can see their point. Everywhere one goes there are scenic train rides, boat rides, tour buses, ropeways, pedestrian bridges, cutesy mascots, and machines that vend most anything. There is an observation tower about two kilometers from my house in the middle of nowhere. It has nice little park, I admit, but the view from the tower is of flat farmland, the Pacific Ocean, and in the distance on a good day, Mr. Tsukuba, which rises to the majestic altitude of 2,877 feet (yawn).

Popular temples and shrines have a wide variety of merchandise to sell you, and on festival days, the paths to the shrines are lined with booths selling everything from toy balloons to fried squid (I'm talking one kilometer of booths lining the city street and shrine path to the gate). The police mascot (a bird in a blue uniform) and local soccer team mascot may be on hand as well to pose with you for a photo. Every place one visits seems to be ranked so as to impress: the longest footbridge in Japan, the third highest ropeway in this or that prefecture, one of the three most famous shrines in the Kanto area, and so on. The geographical area is always adjusted so that the object viewed always falls somewhere in the top three.
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I'm not complaining, it is a lot of fun. It could make one wonder how Disneyland ever made it over here, until you remember how well commercial "branding" works in Japan (think women spening their paycheck on a second hand designer label bag). In that department, Disney characters rock. Seems like half the cars I see on the road being driven by a female are shared by a plethora of Winnie the Pooh or Mickey and Minnie Mouse plush toys - in the back window, hanging from a suction cup from the side window, on the dash, and who knows where else out of view. ("Guy" cars have Antlers soccer team stickers).

Well, perhaps I should tread more carefully here. K's car has a back seat full of plush Snoopy dolls in various outfits (peacenik, sailor, surfer Joe, etc), Cookie Monster is stuck on the right rear side window, Dumbo's Timothy mouse in a band uniform on the back shelf and a large Panda (representing yours truly of course) amidst all the Snoopy's. Oh, I forgot the clip-on Koala on the passenger handhold, which I hit my head on while getting into and out of the car. I am vaguely reminded of a Manila taxi or perhaps a Pakistani bus every time we go anywhere.

I have recently been convinced that Japan is in fact a very large theme park. The final evidence that tipped the scales for me occurred just the other day as I walked Momo the Wonder Dog on the street behind our house. On the other side of that street is an empty lot where they have been dumping vegetation and soil from time to time for the last year or so, filling the edge of a deep ravine. As we walked up the street, a dump truck pulled up to the lot with a fresh load of dirt. I looked up to make sure that we were not about to be road kill, and was surprised to see a young woman driving the truck - not because I am a chauvinist and don't think women can do anything men can do, and better (an oblique reference to the musical "Annie Get Your Gun", inserted for you music buffs). Rather it was because Japan is a rather chauvinistic country, especially in the work place. Anyway, what happened next convinced me. As the driver shifted into reverse and started to back up, her truck did not sound a warning horn. It did not making clanging noises, nor play a recorded warning message. What it did do, was to play a familiar Disney tune: "Its A Small World".

Now if you are like me, just the mention of that song will cause you to hear it in your head and it will take a you week to shake the annoying little ditty. Sorry for that . "It's a world of laughter a world of tears, la la la la la......"

What a country!

2005/05/30

Memorial Day

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Today, in Hawaii, there will be flower leis offered at the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. School children around Hawaii will have made 50,000 leis to be laid by Boy Scouts and others, along with flags, at the 38,000 graves of the Military Cemetery of the Pacific, known as Punchbowl. Today, across America, many will pause to reflect on the meaning of the lives lost in wars, so many wars. Sadly, it is also true that many will not.

If I could be granted a wish on this day, it would be that Americans would ignore the shallow speeches of people in power who send young men to die, yet never have served themselves. Nor to use this holiday as just a long weekend and an opportunity drink beer while watching motor sport, or worse, to drive and waste yet more resources and possibly raise the death and dismemberment toll on the highways. Rather, I would wish us all to reflect deeply on this day. All of us should fly the flag - those who support the concept of war, and those who oppose it, for we are all Americans and the flag belongs to all of us. I refuse to relinquish it to fanatics of any camp.

And while we contemplate the terrible loss of what might have been of the lives of those who served and died, let us also mourn for those innocents of war - far greater in number - whose lives were also sacrificed and ask "what for"? Let us hold to account those politicians and war profiteers who, in their lust for power and profit, use cynical lies to send another generation of victims to an early grave. This is an age old game, my friends, which can be read about in the writings of the Romans and Greeks, as far back as history reaches. Someday it must stop, or humanity will.

I am sure some will criticize my point of view. There is another US war on right now, two actually, that are overt, and at times like this the intollerance of those who believe that war solves problems becomes intense. So be it. I prefer to stand on the shoulders of Thoreau, Twain, Dos Passos, I.F. Stone, Rev. King, and so many others who have said "no" to war and to challenge the economic and political powers-that-be to prove their case and answer for all those whose lives have been lost. Let us learn from history on this day as we offer our gratitude to all those who paid the ulimate price to teach it to us.

Whatever your politcal point of view, philosophy or religion, please use this day to pause and reflect.

2005/05/27

Red Hot Real Estate!

Hot real estate here, come and get your red-hot real estate!

I am referring to a certain phenomenon in the island nation I called home for over half of my life - Hawaii. I say nation rather than state because the Kingdom of Hawaii, a sovereign nation, was illegally invaded and occupied by the USA in 1893, so that rich American land owners could do business without the interference of the much beloved Queen, Liliuokalani. In spite of support from President Grover Cleveland, whom she had met personally, she was forced to give up her throne in 1898. Sound like a vaguely familiar pattern? Those who fail to learn from history... Many Hawaiian people still maintain their sovereignty and demand to have control of their lands returned.

The Queen was quite an accomplished musician, by the way (as was her brother, King Kalakawa) and played piano, organ, guitar and ukulele. She wrote over 150 songs including the world famous 'Aloha Oe'.

The marvel I am referring to, of course, is the very active volcano named Kilauea on the Island of Hawaii. You many not know that Hawaii reaches further South than the State of Florida - and Kilauea is far from finished. It still keeps pumping lava from deep within the earth's crust into the sea, expanding the land area of Hawaii. Beneath the sea, volcanic activity to the South of Hawaii is building a new mountain on the ocean floor, which someday will break the surface of the ocean to become an island of its own.

Last year we flew to the Big Island, so called because it is bigger than all the other islands of Hawaii combined, and undertook a hike to see red-hot lava pouring into the Pacific Ocean.

Rather than fly on one of the two major airlines that serve Hawaii with 150 passenger jets, we took a small rival, Pacific Wings, which flies single engine turbo-prop, ten passenger Cessna Caravans. Lower altitudes and big windows mean better views, and besides, they have several flights a day to our destination rather than the two offered by the 'heavy iron'. As a pilot myself, I like riding in smaller planes. It is more like real flying as opposed to the 'spam in a can' bus ride one gets on a big jet. Besides, I can keep an eye on the pilot. Another benefit of Pacific Wings is the lack of long lines to board or even to go through one of those Orwellian, Constitution bending, 'security' screenings at the gate.
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We had a beautiful trip along the East coast of Maui, past Hana - "oh, there's George Harrison's house on the cliff" -and across the rough Alenuihaha channel to the Big Island. We cruised past Waipio valley, the very cradle of Hawaiian civilization, along the Hamakua coast, once a major sugar growing region, and on into Hilo, capitol of Hawaii County. The air was smooth and clear, the views of the coast, inland waterfalls, and Mauna Kea volcano, simply stunning.

From the airport, we went out to Kilauea National Park and visited the Kilauea Caldera, museums, and walked through the Thurston lava tube, stopping for lunch at the hotel located on the rim of Kilauea crater. This is the domain of Pele, Hawaiian Goddess of fire and creator of land. Sometimes she appears in the firey lava as young beauty, other times as an old woman. There are many Hawaiian legends about this important figure in Hawaiian mythology.
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[An aside here. Forgive me. The car that we rented was a GM product, a company that is now facing great financial difficulty. I say, let them go peacefully into oblivion and let the government help the employees transition to a new, truly productive life. Have these people - management and workers alike - ever driven a Toyota? If they had they would know why their company is bleeding billions and is doomed to the old "dust bin of history". There! I feel better for having vented my anger about being forced to drive such a piece of .... but I digress.]

That night, we stayed at a B&B just outside of Hilo. The property is located in a macadamia nut orchard on 22 acres by the edge of a a gorge with a 120 foot high waterfall in the back yard. Nice room, nice people, awesome scenery. Should you ever go to Hilo, I highly recommend this B&B: The Inn At Kulaniapia Falls

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The next morning we took in some local sights, such as Rainbow Falls, and then stopped at a grocery store and stocked up on supplies for a picnic lunch. We made our way back to the national park by a circuitous route which took us through another park of lava encased ferns and along the coast where earlier eruptions had cut off roads and formed black sand beaches when the lava crystallized as it hit the sea.

Finally we drove through the main entrance of the National Park and down the very long and winding road to the coast where all the action was. Dropping K off at the road's end (where lava has covered it) I drove back to the first available parking space about 1/2 a mile up the road - Madam Pele has many disciples.
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The park service had marked a trail using reflective tape every so many tens of meters across the new lava toward where the present flow was occurring. We hiked across the lava for about an hour and came to a sign, which basically said, "that's all folks", we won't guarantee your safety beyond this point. In fact, in 1998, a bench of new lava had calved into the sea, taking one sightseer with it.

Of course, a whole lot of people went on. I was hesitant, coward that I am, until hearing from a returning hiker how neat the lava flow was to see.

Another hour of hiking over new lava flows still warm under our feet brought us to where we could view the hot lava. The rock under our sneakers was still warm. What we witnessed was not a large flow (maybe that was a good thing), but rather it was piping into the sea from small tubes at the edge of a cliff. Three tubes were sending red-hot lava out and into the sea, as if from a garden hose. Clouds of steam rose as it made contact with the water. One tube was running very slowly and just dripping great globs from the point.
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It was both fascinating and invigorating to say the least, and worth every effort and risk to watch up close, the Earth, some 4 billion 550 million years old now - still hot, still churning, and through Pele, making new lands in the middle of the vast Pacific.

More photos

I have put up some photos relating to the posts here. The titles of most of the posts are now linked to related photos on my .mac homepage. Please try it out. They open in a new page, so you can continue reading while you look at the photos. I hope you enjoy this feature. Also, let me know if you have any requests or suggestions.

2005/05/22

Hasaki Power! Tilting At Windmills

In early January, we spent one morning in Hasaki Machi (Town), which is South of us on the other side of Kamisu Machi. Hasaki is on a narrow strip of land on the South end of Ibaraki Prefecture between the Tonegawa (river) and the Pacific Ocean. Later this year, Kamisu Machi and Hasaki Machi will combine to become Kamisu City.

The weather was nice, even though it had gotten down to freezing at our house the night before. We were going there to find something which I had noticed in 2003 from several thousand feet in the air as the airliner I was riding in flew along the coast before turning towards the airport at Narita. The flights from Hawaii often fly North along the coast here, then turn left toward Narita somewhere over Kashima City.
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What I had seen was a stretch of beach with twelve humongous wind turbines along it (there are two more a couple of miles further South). K had not heard about them, as they are new and just came on line last year. I love it when I, a gaijin, find something she doesn't know about.

We drove out to the beach and parked as close as could without risking getting stuck in sand. The wind turbines look like a row of sentinels standing quietly guarding the coast. I don't think even Don Quixote would challenge these, however, for their size is truly colossal. We had a ways to walk to get to them, so we combed the beach picking up shells and sand dollars as we walked and tried not to focus our attention of the piles of debris that wash ashore here each winter waiting for clean up day in May. [People, we really need to pay attention to what we "throw away". There is no such place as "away", it is all still here either in the land fill, in the ocean, on the beach, or as pollution in the air. Oh, and put the shells back when you're done looking at them. Got it? Good. End of lecture.]
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A good breeze was up and the machines were steadily turning. A family was flying kite nearby, dwarfed by the giants which rose to twice the height of their kites. It gave me some perspective.

From a distance, it is difficult to comprehend their true size, especially as in this location there is not much around to compare visually. (Like when I would I take someone on their first flight in my Cessna 172. They'd look out the window and say "Wow, this flying thing is really something, those people down there look like ants!" And I would turn and say, "Those are ants, silly, we're haven't taken off yet." ) It's all about perspective learned from experience, and it becomes meaningless when you are looking at something which is outside your experience. It is exciting to stand beneath them as the blades quietly whistle by over head.

Just how big are they? The each steel tower is about 13 feet in diameter at the base and stands 211 feet tall (314 feet to the top arc of the rotors). The rotors have 3 blades with a diameter of 203 feet. They are an awesome sight which my words and photos cannot convey well. It is easy to get bogged down in numbers when try to describe big things. Perhaps a comparison with something more familiar will help. If you stood a Boeing 777 on its tail beside one of these wind turbines (I'm not recommending that this actually be done, as the folks at the Civil Aviation Bureau would get rather upset), the nose of the 777 would just reach to 2 feet below the hub of the rotors, where the generator is located. The wing span, from tip to tip, of the Boeing would be exceeded by the diameter of the wind turbine's rotors by 12 feet. Mind boggling.

For you engineering types, the generators are rated at 1250KW, so 12 of them can produce 15 megawatts. That's enough energy to power 10,000 Japanese homes. That's 15 megawatts of energy created with a free resource that creates no greenhouse gases, has a minimal environmental impact, requires no transport, and will never run out. They were built by a German company by the name of (I am not making this up) DeWind. Ausgetzeichnet!

2005/05/21

Momo the Wonder Dog Update

The response to the 'Momo the Wonder Dog' post has been great.

Momo is doing well. We took a long time to trim all the matted hair, twigs and burrs off of her as she was very shy about us doing that at first. We just did a bit every day and eventually she realized we weren't going to harm her and she got to like the attention that grooming brought. Now she's free of such things and is sporting a fashionable "summer cut". She seems very comortable with it. Momo is also getting used to living with us, and us with her. Two square meals, a long walk, and lots of attention each day agree with her.

She has learned to communicate well too, only barking when it is something that really needs attention - "I snarled my tether", "I'm hungry", "I spilled my water", "I need to go for my walk", "there's big nasty looking dog walking by!" Yes, her progress in teaching us humans how to meet her needs is going well.

I cannot say the same with regard to our attempts to communicate with her on topics such as "don't strain at the leash", "stop jumping on our clean clothes when we approach you", "hold still as we take off your teather to take you for a walk" and so on. We ignorant humans obviously need work in this area. (I told you dogs are smarter than humans, a subject I may go into more seriously in a future post.)

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Here is a new photo of Momo. It is the result of many attempts. I have an older model digital camera and there is a delay of a couple of seconds between the time I press the button to when the camera actually records what is in front of it. I have many photos of a blurred Momo, half a Momo, Momo's tail, and even just Momo's cloth dog bone toy, but no Momo! Sometimes, I feel like a physcicist trying to capture a sub-atomic particle.

2005/05/20

Poetry Corner

"The Weather forecast
It will be cloudy today
With a bomb or two
But kids will still find sunlight
And shower town with light drops"

From "Flowers and Bombs" by Kaoru Kobashi

Note from Pandabonium: This is a tanka poem, an ancient Japanese form which has 31 syllables divided into five lines having the pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. Tanka dates back to the early 8th century. This particular book of poems was written in 2004, in both Japanese and English, as plea for peace.

2005/05/19

Walk On The Wild Side

Sorry, jazz fans, I'm not refering to that great tune by Elmer Berstein that the Buddy Rich Big Band performed so well. Nor is this post about sexual escapades as in the movie for which the music was written. I know some of you will be disapointed to read one or perhaps both of those statements, but better to do so now than halfway through the post.

This "walk on the wild side" is about hiking along the East coast of the island of Taveuni in the Fiji Islands, one of the most ecologically pristine islands in the world. It seems modern society has forgotten we are all a part of nature, not something separate from it. Nature is not something there for us to exploit or rule. The opposite is true, we are dependent upon its existence and to survive we must bend to its wisdom. We evolved from and are a part of and interdepent with the world around us. If it dies, we die. And by the way, so far, we're not doing so well.

It is on the island of Taveuni that you will find the Bouma National Heritage Park. While only a small percentage of the forests remain on other Fijian islands, having been logged for their mahogany and other beautiful woods, Taveuni's rain forests remain intact. The national parks cover 80% of Taveuni's total area, covering about 150 sq km (57 sq mi) of rainforest and coastal forest.

Taveuni is just 42 km (26 miles) long and 11.26 km (7 miles) wide but is host to many rare species, including the silktail bird, the Fiji flying fox, and Dakua trees, giants of the rainforest. Others, found only on Taveuni, are the Orange Breasted Dove, Fiji Ground Frog and the extremely rare Crested Iguana. There are in total, over 80 unique species of terrestial and fresh water birds on Taveuni. Fiji's national flower is the brilliantly red Tagimoucia that only grows high in the mountains of central Taveuni, which reach an elevation of over 4,000 feet. Taveuni is truly an ecological treasure chest.
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The park is the result of cooperation between the New Zealand Fiji Ecotourism Program, and the Fiji Native Land Trust Board. Rather than sell off the forests for logging and some quick cash, as has happened all too often in other locales, they decided to preserve their forests - their heritage - for future generations to come. They have built trails, picnic tables, bridges and so on to make parts of the forest, waterfalls and beaches, accessable to hikers. They charge a modest fee to enter the park and offer native guides at addition charge. The money goes to maintain the trails and help the villages. One can do anything from a 15 minute walk from Bouma village to their beautiful waterfalls, to an all day guided hike deep into the forest.

So join me, won't you?, as we hike the coastal trail from Lavena Village to Lower Wainabu Waterfalls - a walk on the wild side!
Our check in point is the visitor center at Lavena Village, a 45 minute ride by taxi or public bus from the airport at Matei. There we pay our park fee of F$5, and sign the guest book, noting the countries of origin all around the world of hikers who have gone before us. We have already become familiar with Fijian customs with regard to behavior in their villages. This is private property after all and we are guests. The hike is relatively easy, but will take us about 2 hours each way allowing time for photography, meeting villagers, and swimming.
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Path initially leads between the village and the beautiful white sand beach. There is a good view of the island of Qamea from here. On the other side of Qamea, out of view, is Laucala, small island that Malcolm Forbes, at one time one the richest people in the world owned. His remains are entombed there now, and his home is run as a hotel. About one hundred meters down the path, we reach Ucuna Point, a great spot for a picnic or swim, but we came early today and will wait. This is the area where the movie "Return to the Blue Lagoon" was filmed. A lousy movie perhaps, but fantastic scenery. (The orginal "Blue Lagoon", which starred Brooke Shields, was also filmed in Fiji, but on another island).

After 30 minutes or so we come to an area where there are rock pedestals rising above the reef, looking like giant mushrooms or perhaps aliens from another planet. They are the result of a lava flow and erosion. After a few photos we find the settlement of Naba (pronouced Namba). It is a small community of immigrants to Fiji from the Solomon Islands who have been accepted as an integral part of the Lavena community. The "one salt water" principle in action. We admire their crops of dalo, cassava, papaya and yaqona (kava). As it is not a school day, children come up to greet us with the Fijian greeting "Bula!" and ask us where we are from. At home, they speak Fijian, and at school they learn English, the official language of Fiji. Other people are gathering plants or walking on the shallow reef and picking up dinner. Don't be surprised to find that these people live in "grass shacks", think of them as practical, recyclable homes. And don't mistake their non-Western lifestyle for poverty. These people are wealthy in ways we of the so-called "first world" (Orwellian Newspeak) have forgotten long ago.
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Another ten minutes and we find ourselves crossing the Wainisairi River which drains lake Tagimaucia at the top of the mountains, the largest lake in Fiji and home to the official flower of Fiji - the bright red Tagimaucia which grows only at that lake. We cross by means of a wood and cable suspension bridge. Woe be it to anyone who starts to whistle the theme of "Indiana Jones" while I am on the bridge.

The trail leads around a rocky point from there and finally up the riverbed of the Wainibau. Another 20 minutes and we will reach our destination. The going can get tedious on hot humid days (read: usually) as the trail goes up and down earthen steps. Strange calls of forest birds distract us from our efforts. Finally, we see our goal, the lower Wainibau Falls. Stripping down to swim suits, we are rewarded with a cool dip in the stream and swim between the rock wall of a narrow gorge into the main pool fed by the falls. Flag tail perch swim with us, but not to worry, they don't bite. We stay to the left to avoid the stronger current and find that there is not one waterfall, but two. Braver than I (how far are we from medical help?) some people climb the rocks and slide down the falls to the left, others jump off the higher falls to the right. I just swim and take in the sounds of the water and birds and sights of the surrounding jungle.
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Resting on rocks, we unpack our simple lunch of fruit, sandwiches and juice, which looks like a feast now. I contemplate the wisdom of the people who chose to save this place. Here, at this moment, there are no politics, no religion, no job titles, and no status symbols. There is simply us and nature. We just are. I feel at peace and at home. This is,after all, the kind of place we all come from, the true first world - the wild side.

2005/05/18

Ume Festival: When Is An Apricot A Plum?

Growing up in California, I ate my share of apricots and plums. Well, my neighborhood was actually full of orange trees, so I ate those mostly as a quick snack stolen right off the tree. But I knew the difference between a plum and an apricot. The former smooth skinned, a glorious deep purple in color, with a sweet taste and a soft juicy texture. (Makes me long for the taste just thinking about them). Apricots on the other hand have a more firm texture, a skin not too different from a peach and a flavor that is less sweet. Right?

These days I am less certain about that. In late February through the month of March, the ume trees (pronounced "oooh-meh") blossom in Japan. I have some in my yard and there are lots of them around the neighborhood. The blossoms can be white, red, pink or combinations of colors on the same tree. They are a heart warming sight after a winter of more subdued colors, and reassurance that the weather really is getting warmer.
Image hosted by Photobucket.comIn Mito City, the capitol of Ibaraki -my fair prefecture- there is a park called Kairakuen. It was built by Lord Tokugawa Nariaki in 1841 and is considered to be one of the three best landscape gardens in Japan. Kairakuen, which means "park to be enjoyed together" was the first park of its kind to be built not just for its lord but also for the public. I boasts 3,000 ume trees of 100 different varieties, some of which were planted by visiting royalty over a century ago. As we walked along the paths, our field of vision full of the colors of the flower petals bursting forth, we were also steeped in the gentle sweet fragrance which permeated the air. In addition to the ume trees at Kairakuen, there is a bamboo forest, cedar grove, and a beautifully designed villa, which is open for tours. The park has a lovely view of Lake Senba which is surrounded by cherry trees.

Somewhere along the line, long ago, the word ume was translated as "Japanese Plum", though it is now sometimes translated as "Japanese Apricot". Yet all the bilingual signs and most guide books still say "plum". The fruit now growing on my ume trees sure look like apricots to me.

A common use of small varieties is to pickle them (ume boshi) and use a single one as garnish for the rice in a Japanese box lunch (bento). We treated ourselves to delicious bento lunches, which we ate as we sat on the lawn, admired the blossoms and watched others, from toddlers to a group of pensioners in wheel chairs, do the same.
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(note the "ume boshi" atop the rice)

Other varieties are made into liquer or delicious deserts such as honeyed ume covered in mochi (pounded sweet rice). Yum.

Perhaps the confusion caused by the translation into English as either plum or apricot is why they now have "Ume Ambassadors". During the festival, there were three lovely young ladies dressed in kimono with sashes which read "Ume Ambassador". They stood along one of the main paths of the park, smiling and greeting the hundreds of people who had come to enjoy the blossoms. Their sole function appeared to be to look sweet and perhaps reassure people that what ever an Ume is, apriccot or plum, it is harmless, tasty, and has a lovely blossom, so please not to worry. I for one, was reassured.
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Ah, the lovely ume blossoms! If these are the ambassadors, where do I sign up for duty in the Foreign Office?

2005/05/16

A Bridge Too Far

In early May we drove up to a place in the low mountains of Northern Ibaraki called Suifu Village (known as "the treasurebox of nature"). The weather was beautiful - warm and clear. The area is even more rural than Naka and the hills or low mountains are lush with trees and bamboo. The wisteria trees are in bloom and look like a lavender version of Hawaii's shower trees. We only drove 60 miles, but it took over two hours as the fastest road we were on had a limit of 50 kmh or about 30 mph, and we had to go through surface streets of Mito city as well. Our average speed for the trip was 25 mph. [I am not complaining. We got to see a lot more than one would at freeway speeds.]

Our destination was a gorge where a flood control dam is located. Above the reservoir, spanning the gorge, is a steel suspension foot bridge 310 meters long (a little over 1,000 feet), called Ryujinkyo (god of the dragon) bridge. It is the longest pedestrian foot bridge in Japan. It goes to, well, nowhere actually. Why did the chicken cross the bridge? To fly a carp streamer I guess. It was built simply as a tourist attraction so people could enjoy the views of the otherwise unscarred natural beauty. Inscrutable logic - like those people who wanted to put an ariel tram across Haleakala. "This is such a beautiful unspoiled place, we should build a tourist attraction here!". On the other hand, Japan is a densely populated country, and places like this allow everyone from kids to retired folks to enjoy nature easily. The bridge has a nice wide walkway and plexiglas panels at a few points that allow you to stand on the plexiglas and look straight down at the lake some 300 feet below your feet.

There were two cables stretched across the gorge, one on either side of the bridge about fifty to a hundred feet out, with hundreds of koinobori - carp streamers - on each one, in honor of Children's Day. It was a pretty sight as the carp filled and moved with each breathe of wind and appeared to swim through the air. The sound was neat too, like sails luffing. The bridge was closed for an hour just before we went across it due to the wind being too high. Comforting thought.
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Flying koinoboru on Boy's Day, now called Children's Day, is an old tradition Japan. In ancient times, when a baby was born, the family set up a tall pole in front of a house because it was believed that gods came down along it from the sky to protect the child. In order to make one's house stand out from other houses and get the attention of the gods, strips of different colored cloths were put on a tip of the pole.

During the feudal period warrior families celebrated the birth of boys by decorating miniature sets of armor with hana-shohbu (a kind of iris) and setting up family-crested flags and streamers outside.

In the "Edo" period rich merchants started flying Koinobori with five-colored streamers wishing for good growth and success for their children and this custom became popular among the common people.You can still see them flying on tall poles by rural homes, one carp for each boy in the family. Carp swim up stream to spawn and are known for their determination and strength, characteristics that parents want their sons to have. Now days, as there are more and more crowded conditions, there is not room in many areas for people to fly koinobori, so towns put on large displays of them for the public to enjoy.

There is also a restaurant and souvenir shop to take your money of course. We had a lunch of soba (buckwheat noodles) and tempura. The soba was predictably "so-so", but the tempura was elegantly prepared and delicious. It only costs 300 yen to get on the bridge. There is a demonstration of solar and wind power by Mitsubishi Electric on display - a solar voltaic array and a small wind generator with large digital readouts to show the watts being generated. The solar array was cranking out a steady 1500 watts, even with carp streamers shadowing it at times. The wind turbine was producing 100-450 watts.

We drove down to and walked across the dam and looked up at the bridge and koinobori from below. The dam is not hydro electric, but strictly for water management. It has some impressive gates that weigh about 17 tons each. There are steps from the bridge down to the dam, but going back up 300 feet of steps was not on my agenda. There were beautiful views of the mountains in every direction.

It was a great day out and an interesting blend of natural beauty, traditions, and engineering marvels. Carpe Diem! (sorry - too obvious a pun to leave out).
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Guest Comments from the Moody Minstrel:
I have been to the bridge in Suifu. My wife was doing something up in Mito at the time and, just for the heck of it, I took a "quick" solo jaunt over to Ryujinkyo. (Actually, I've heard that translated as "Celestial Dragon Bridge" before). It was autumn, so there were no carp streamers, but there were some autumn leaves to be seen.

When I went across, I passed what was evidently a small family group as it consisted of a middle-aged couple, a younger adult couple, and a teenage girl that looked like the younger adult woman. They had been conversing very animatedly, but when I passed by they immediately stopped and stared at me.

The middle-aged woman muttered, "What in the world would a gaijin be doing here?" When that got a laugh out of the others, she followed through by saying in a louder voice in my direction, "Hey! This isn't Kyoto! There are no temples here!" That got an even bigger laugh out of them.

Evidently, they hadn't thought I could understand Japanese, because when I then said in that language, "This is very beautiful scenery," the laughing came to an abrupt halt, and they quickly hurried back across the bridge. That left me to enjoy the scenery all by myself until it was time for me to go back and rendezvous with the rest of my family.

I'm such an evil barbarian. - the Moody Minstrel

2005/05/15

Momo the Wonder Dog

In early April we had nice, if brief, visit with our dear friends from Virginia, D and C and their precocious 8 year old, M. They are also of the Pacific Islander spirit and have a home in Hawaii and land in Fiji. After picking them up at the airport, we shared the sight of cherry blossoms at Katori Jingu, a major Shinto Shrine in the town of Sawara and then took them to see Kashima's busy sea port. The next day there was an early morning earthquake of 6.1 on the Richter scale to welcome them to Japan! Shaken, but not stirred, we all went to Kashima Jingu (our major shrine) and also took them to see Daihukuji (subject of an earlier post), but it rained cats and dogs and we had to retreat to home for some hot ocha (green tea) and soba (buckwheat noodles).

Not long after our friends left for Tokyo, we had another visitor, this one unannounced, in the form of a Shitzu dog that we spotted wandering up and down the roads by our home. It was obviously lost. Later in the day it came into our yard and I spoke kindly to it, but told it in no uncertain terms to go home. Well there's a picture - an English speaking human trying to communicate with a Japanese dog. If the message doesn't get across, who's the idiot?
Reminds me of the Gary Larsen cartoon (The Far Side) of a man scolding his dog saying something like ""Oh Ginger, that was a bad thing. You're a bad, bad dog, Ginger." What a dog hears: "Blah Ginger, blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah, Ginger."

Anyway, perhaps needless to say, the dog didn't go home. It was definitely lost. Perhaps one of the cats and dogs that came down in the rain when our friends were here. The next morning we discovered that it had spent the night on our front porch. Dogs can sense a sucker a mile away. It is one of their instincts, like their incredible sense of smell. If you don't know this yet, it is time you learned. Humans did not domesticate dogs. Dogs (wolves) adapted to take advantage of humans. The wolf who was not scared off by humans was the one who got the easy table scraps. Thus did dogs evolve. This dog KNEW which house to sleep at.

Well, she was right. After seeing her for a whole day and night; lost, hungry, and covered in burrs and twigs that matted her hair, we decided to feed her (see how I deftly make K share the responsibility for this decision by inserting the word "we"?) and gave her a slice of bread and a can of tuna. To a human that is a small act of compassion, for a dog its like signing a contract.

We put ads on the internet in Japanese to find the owner, called around, and finally called the "dog catcher". Sadly, they don't have animal shelters in Japan and the pound is so crowded, they can only hold a dog for three days and if it is unclaimed it gets a lethal injection. Jeeze, like George Bush's Texas for dogs. So at this point the dog is facing death row, and only we can offer clemancy. I'm not going to condemn this animal to death. Why bother helping in the first place only to do that?

So she stayed - outside. We have tatami mat floors, so like Snoopy its "no dogs allowed" inside the house. We made a bed (of among other things one of my good cotton polo shirts), bought a leash, a tether, dog food, treats, toys.... Deeper and deeper. We take her for walks every day, picking up her poop, two or three times on one walk. (Dogs are geniuses. Far superior to humans. Does anyone feed you without fail every day? buy you toys? play with you? take you for walks? pick up your POOP? yet require nothing in return? I rest my case). We bathe her, clip the matted hair off of her along with the burrs. This dog is beginning to be like Uncle Remis's tar baby. At one fateful moment we realized we needed to call her by a name. She became "MOMO" - the Japansese word for "Peach".

Now, weeks later, there is a vet day at the local community center. We walk her down, meeting every other dog in the area as we go, and register her as "our dog" and get her vaccinated against rabies. (There has not been a case of rabies in Japan for almost 50 years, but they're not taking any chances). The vet tells us that it is common for people to abandon pets around here. How childishly irresponsible and heartless humans can be.

We're now focused on looking for a new home for Momo, while taking good care of her. We like her, and she grows on us day by day, but we know some day we will be off to Fiji, and when that happens we will need to know that she is in good hands. Fiji will not accept dogs except from Australia, Hawaii, and New Zealand. Three places which have always been free of rabies. Besides, Fiji is no place for a lapdog. Meanwhile, she's a "peach" to have around.

Honestly now, could you say no to a face like this?
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Further Back In Time

A few weeks after I found the Rinzai Temple, I went looking for another temple that I had seen marked on a local map. It too was only a kilometer from the house (as the crow flies). I walked around for some time looking for it and finally caught a glimpse of its golden spire through some trees.
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It turned out to be a very old Shingon (a Japanese Buddhist sect) temple called Daifukuji (or great fortune temple) that was built in 1189. Wow, Mr. Peabody to Sherman - "set the wayback machine for 1189"!

That was during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) which started when the Genji clan ousted the Taira clan and set up their own military government just South of present day Tokyo, and Japan fell under control of the Shoguns for several centuries. According to a sign at the temple, the daughter of Kagekiyo, who was the highest ranking warrior and leader of the Taira, fled to this area after the defeat of her father.

Kagekiyo himself gouged his own eyes out after his defeat, and was exiled to Kyushu in Western Japan, where his daughter later found him. There is a famous Noh play about that.

Within the temple, which is about the same size as the Rinzai one I had found earlier, there is a gold leaf covered statue of Juichimon, or eleven headed Bosatsu. It is a Buddha of Compassion or Mercy. The statue dates to the 14th century in the Muromachi period and is 90 cm (neary three feet) in height.

Next to the temple, a grave yard with stones commemorating those who have gone before us for centuries past. I have since learned that the priest of this temple is the father of the priest at another Shingon temple just down the street from me. I had not thought of looking into local temples until I stumbled onto the Rinzai "hidden" temple. Now the subject of the local history which is far more rich and connected to Japan's history as a nation than I ever thought possible intrigues me.

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2005/05/14

The Time Capsule in my backyard

"You're travelling to another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound... but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land, whose boundaries are only that of the imagination.." Words that easily came to mind as I experienced the following...

Even though the area where we live is "rural" for modern Japan, and is surrounded by small farms, it is still a somewhat developed area with small businesses, small tracts of summer homes, power poles and car traffic.

We'd had a couple of days of cold rain and wind in mid-March here in Naka, an outskirt of Kashima "City" in the Southern tip of Ibaraki Prefecture. Then the weather turned fine, so I decided to get some exercise and go for a walk - something I do every day, weather permitting. What a delightful adventure it turned out to be. The sky in the morning was clear, wind calm, and air a comfortable 16 C. After a few minutes of walking along familiar roads and paths, I started down a dirt road I had never explored before. Turning a corner, I saw man pruning some tall bushes and I startled him when I said "konichiwa". I apologized for sneaking up on him, and we talked a bit, as much as my broken Japanese would permit, about how pretty his camellia flowers were and then I went on my way.

The road went down hill into an old stand of tall bamboo with very thick trunks, then turned and fifty meters later I found myself in front of an empty wooden pavilion built for a large temple bell, and beyond, in a small clearing, a very old temple. In the yard were three apricot trees with white blossoms in full bloom, and there was stone path lined with daffodils leading up to the temple. There was an evergreen by the path, trimmed and twisted like a bonsai. Someone was clearly keeping things up there. There was a small house, no doubt for the priest, but no one was home. The house itself looked fairly old as I could tell by the style of the foundations and walls, but had new roof and storm shutters.

The temple is perhaps 8 meters on each side, with a veranda of thick cedar planks surrounding it. There are very intricate carvings all around the front of the building. It is very weathered and the only color remaining of the paint that once adorned them is the red of the eyes of animals in the wood carvings. The roof supports of the entrance are topped with a carved lattice depicting lotus flowers. Lions and Bodhisattvas inhabit other carvings. Ovef the entrance, a carving of Monju Bosatsu with a red halo, a student of the historical Buddha, with a scroll in his right hand indicating wisdom, and a sword in his left, with which he cuts through illusion. He is riding a stylized lion. (Japanese artists in the old days did not travel abroad, and so never saw a real lion. That is why the lions in old carvings and paintings tend to look like fantastic dragons). The solid wood pillars holding up the roof over the steps, each about twenty five centimeters square and three meters high, are warped in two graceful parallel arcs, as if tired from their long burden.
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The tile roof is high and rises to a single point with a simple family crest near the top. Behind the temple, against a backdrop of tall bamboo, there is a small grave yard with very ornately carved stone markers. Some have reliefs of Bodhisattvas on them and most are covered with lichen. A few are much newer, of polished stone. It is well maintained and there are fresh flowers at many of the graves. On one side of the temple are four larger graves and beyond them, a steep slope covered in bamboo. Stone steps rise steeply up the slope leading to a small altar.
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Leaving the temple, I walked on down the road and entered a long narrow valley covered with rice paddies and surrounded by trees. The nearest house I could see was perhaps a mile or more away toward the mouth of the valley near the lake Kitaura. No cars, no electric or phone lines. It was very quiet except for the sound of insects, frogs, and birds. There were "uguisu" (Japanese bush warblers) in the trees making beautiful music on either side. One paddy had just been tilled, as it was getting to be planting time. I turned up the valley on the gravel road which runs the length of it. I soon met three older women. One was in a rice paddy picking some kind of plant, the other two were sitting on the road by their bicycles sorting through piles of the plant. I asked what it was, but all I heard was a long sentence that I did not understand with my limited Japanese language skills. Excusing myself, I continued to the end of the valley and found a small newly constructed reservoir which was stocked with fish, and there were two men fishing. Soon, the road became covered in tall grass and ended at a creek amongst the trees.

On the way back, I stopped by the women, who were still on the road, determined to learn what the plant was, and asked again what they were picking. It was "seri", they said, Japanese parsley. I had seen it before because it is one of the 7 herbs in "nanakusa-gaiyu" (literally seven herb rice gruel) served at the New Years celebration at larger Shinto shrines. The ladies asked me about myself, where I lived, where I was from, what I did and so on, and I tried my best to answer. That was fun.

I told K all about it when I got home. It piqued her curiosity, so after lunch I took her there. There is a sign by the temple and K read it for me. The temple, of the Rinzai Shu (a Zen Buddhist sect), was originally built in 1765. It had burned twice and the present temple was constructed in 1805. I showed K the graves and she read the kanji characters on the older ones and learned they were from the Genroku era (1688-1703) during the Edo Period. Then she said that she had never seen the temple before. That surprised me as it is less than a 30 minute walk from where she has lived almost all of her life. Of course, I've been exploring this area on my many walks ever since I got here last October, and only that day discovered it myself.

When we reached the reservoir, we noticed a red torii gate at the base of a hill, indicating a Shinto shrine. We went under the torii and up a very steep slope of earthen steps framed by small split logs. At the top was a small Shinto shrine. The old shrine was perhaps a meter wide and half again as tall, with the usual small stone foxes (inari) protecting it. A new shelter of wood posts with a corrugated aluminum roof had been built over it to help preserve it. Another path led us beyond the shrine and we came out onto a paved road that we were familiar with and followed it home.

It seemed amazing to find such an isolated valley, old shrine and temple so close to home, yet unknown even by someone who grew up in the area. Now I visit there every week or so and it always feels like I am going back in time. Before the mid twentieth century, many areas around here must have been like this - small farming communities, each with its own temple and shrine. I hope this "time capsule", not much changed for hundreds of years, can remain hidden and untouched by the blade of the bulldozer and the frenzy of modern culture for a long time to come.