Marau Yabaki Vou!

"Me Nomuni na marau ni siga ni sucu dei na yabaki vou" , is Fijian for "Merry Christmas and a happy new year".

The New Year will begin a moment after midnight at the 180th Meridian - the international dateline - of our planet. It lies over only ocean except where it crosses the eastern most tip of Russia in the far north, Antarctica in the far South, and Vanua Levu, Rambi, and Taveuni in the Fiji Islands. As a result, the only people to experience the first seconds of the new year are likely to be those on Taveuni. Because time zones deviate from the meridian for convenience sake, other island nations can claim this as well, but only these Fijian Islands lie right on the meridian.

In the old days, European plantation owners - sneaky and greedy bunch that they were - took advantage of this situation. They would work their employees seven days a week by having them work on the west side of the meridian through Saturday. They would then move them to the east side of the meridian, where they would awake on Saturday all over again, thus denying them a day off. Christian missionaries were particularly upset by this little trick as you might imagine, if for no other reason than a lack of church attendance. The practice was soon abolished.

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Fijian Girl With Her Left Foot in Yesterday and Right Foot in Today!

Technically speaking, the whole idea of the day beginning on Taveuni does not hold much water anyway. The international agreement of 1884 that set the position of the meridians placed the Prime Meridian (zero) at Greenwich, England, which is where the day officially begins for purposes of astronomy and navigation. The international dateline is not established by any treaty, though widely accepted for the convenience of telling time. But why spoil the fun?

As the hour approaches, please remember this my friends:

No matter how intelligent, or how wealthy, or how powerful we may become,
we cannot create a single grain of rice, the beauty of a flower, or the smile of a friend. These things are gifts for which we should be truly grateful.

Wherever you are on this big blue marbel in space that we call home, I wish you all a very healthy, mindful, and joyous New Year.



Pandas 'sparked diplomatic fears'

The BBC has reported (click the title above to read the article) that papers from the 1974 and 1975 files of PM Harold Wilson, two Pandas stirred fears of a falling out between Britain and China.

China gave two Pandas, Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia, to the previous PM, Edward Heath, in a gesture of friendship. They have done this with so many countries that it has been dubbed "Panda diplomacy". But later, the London Zoo told the government that the cost of importing bamboo shoots was worrisome for the nearly bankrupt zoo (Pandas eat 45 kg or 100 pounds a day), and that the Pandas also needed a shelter, which would cost 70,000 Pounds (about 68,000 of today's US dollars). Another, ahem, weighty matter, was that China was receive two white rhinos in return for the Pandas. Another big expense. It fell on the Wilson government to deal with the situation.

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The Wilson government feared that if it did not help the zoo financially it would be seen as an affront by China and hurt relations. They were also concerned about losing face at home. As one Foreign Office memo stated, "Given the notorious sentiment of the British public about animals, this could make the government look unnecessarily unsympathetic."

Governments big and small in this world can find any amount of money (or debt) to buy ships and nukes and fighter planes and such, and even to wage wars. But take care of a couple of peaceful, adorable Pandas in the hope of smoothing relations and preventing the need for those weapons and maybe save a species in the bargain? No.

In the end the British government did not give any money to the zoo. The Pandas got along as best they could, and apparently there were no international repercussions from the incident, which is all the humans in either country's government really cared about.

The BBC News report only focuses on the fallout for the humans and their governments. But what of the Pandas?

Ching-Ching, the female, needed much medical attention in London and died of a bacterial infection in 1980. Chia-Chia went to Mexico in 1988 (via Cincinnati) for mating. He died in Mexico City in 1991.

The London Zoo was without any Pandas for some time, and the Pandas had been their star attractions (of course!). The zoo hoped that Koalas would replace the Pandas in that role. Please! Koalas are cute, but half the time you can't even see them up in the trees, and they are nocturnal animals and so sleep all day besides.

I have seen Ling-Ling at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. Ling-Ling has been flown to Mexico three times, and female Pandas brought to him as well. It is so pathetic to see such a magnificent animal (if may I say so myself) kept in a concrete, tile, and glass enclosure with just a few stalks of bamboo as a cruel reminder of what his habitat should be.

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Some people argue that having these animals in zoos may help their chances of survival through breeding and helps to educate people about their plight. Maybe. But think of all the millions of dollars that have been spent on sending these animals to zoos around the world, flying them from place to place - often repeatedly - in attempts to get them to mate, maintaining walls around them, feeding them, and trying to keep them healthy. I can't help wondering that if all that money had instead been spent on anti-poaching efforts and protection of their forest habitats, might not the Giant Pandas be much better off than they are today?

Instead, their fate is to be used as the main draw for zoos and as mere pawns on the chessboard of international politics.


Momo's Naka Castle

April Fools! - a few months early - Yule fools, perhaps? The Moody Minstrel does NOT really have three new canines in his neighborhood. That was just a strange dream. ;o)

The real story is that we fortified our small lot. There has not been a castle in Kashima City for hundreds of years, but I feel like there is now. We bought heavy golf netting, cut it into three strips about 3/4 of a meter wide and eight meters long and used metal posts woven through the net and pounded into the ground to stretch the net along the lenth of our hedge.

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We then attached the top of the netting to the hedge using gardening ties and pounded tent stakes into the ground at the base to make it taught so they can't slip under it. The hedge is thick, so blocks them above a level of anywhere from 10 to 40 cm from the ground. The other three sides of the lot have concrete walls and the driveway is blocked by an acordion gate. To top it off we bought some sand that has a stong medicine smell to it and is supposed to repel dogs. We put some at the gate and some at the point where the strays used to enter. It only has a range of about 1 meter, so it doesn't bother Momo. Actually, I don't know if that stuff works or not, I just wanted to do something non-life threatening to those dogs for spite.

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Momo's Horse - her favorite toy.

It is a bit of an inconvenience to have to open and close the gate each time we leave, but at last Princess Momo in her Naka Castle can enjoy her toys in peace, and we can all sleep at night.

No longer able to get into our yard, they have stopped hanging around. Perhaps in a few weeks time, or less, they will move on to find easier pickings....in Aso Town perhaps!

Final Solution?

Momo is secure again and enjoying the first of her replacement toys. The solution to the roving dog gang was simple, but not easy.

First I stopped throwing stones at them and started talking softly to them instead. I also carried some pig ears in my pocket and when they came close enough, offered them to the dogs. One by one they came to me. Having thus gained their trust, I started to pet them, each in turn and finally was able to grab hold of the collar. I then tied a rope on the collar as a leash and led them to the garage.

When we had all three in the garage, we opened the back door of K's car, put a blanket over the back seat and put the dogs into the car. We then drove down to the lake, across Kitaura bridge to the part of Namegata City that used to be called "Aso Town". We drove around until we saw a house with Christmas lights in a back window, and left the dogs in the street there.

Merry Christmas, Moody Minstrel! Enjoy your new pets!


DokiDoki Redux

Oh, yeah.

We had dinner tonight at "The Little House That Serves Homemade Dishes In The Woods" at "Pocket Garden DokiDoki". I can't help but think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears when I read that. See the post "DokiDoki is Yummy Yummy" if you don't know what I'm writing about. It is a bit of a drive from here - fifty minutes - but worth it according to my driver. (That comment should get me some attention from certain quarters)!

We got there about 6 PM, 30 minutes after they opened, so there were not so many people yet and we were seated right away. We piled our plates with our favorites from last time, plus new dishes, like a bonito salad with thin slices of bonito sashimi that had been lightly seared on the outside beforehand, mixed veggie and mushroom tempura, and boiled daikon radish in a miso sauce. Mmmm.

Half an hour later, in the midst of our repast, the pianist arrived. She was better than I expected and played music that was very suitable for dining - not too loud or dramatic, but interesting enough so as not to put one to sleep. Windham Hill kind of sound. Some were very familiar, like "Stella By Starlight", and others more vaguely familiar like (I think) music from the movie "Spirited Away". We went back for seconds, strawberries and apples, and a desert of milk curds, apple jam and azuki bean sauce. We were satiated to say the least.

A bit of a drive, but the food is wonderful, the staff gracious, and the atmosphere warm and relaxed. I noticed this time that the decor includes dividers filled with charred bamboo, as well as plants. The open beam ceilings are really large wood trusses, and the wall space has painted line drawings - if you can picture that - with homey natural themes - a mother and child; a woman surrounded by roses; evergreen trees; and thoughtful words. The price of about $11 for all you can eat seems amazing.

Next time, we'll go for lunch. The music, only offered on Sunday and Monday evenings, was nice, but we'd like to go when the store and the garden shop are also open.

DokiDoki is more than "Okay Doky" with us.

Well, just so you don't think I'm heartlessly teasing you with my good fortune at dining, here is my recipe for a healthy, warm meal to get you through any winter day or night. I make this from scratch in big batches and store it in the refrigerator and freezer for a quick lunch or dinner. Don't let the simple name fool you. This is not like what you may have come to expect from a can or truck stop - guaranteed, or I'll treat you lunch at DokiDoki (travel expenses to Japan not included).

Pandabonium's Vegetarian (you won't miss the meat!) Chili and Rice

First, the chili:

1 small onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
(I use a combination of green, yellow, and red ones mixed for visual interest)
3/4 cup (180 ml) chopped celery
3/4 cup (180ml )dry red wine or water
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped - I love that aroma and it keeps vampires at bay
2 (14.5-ounce) (428 ml) cans recipe-ready diced tomatoes, undrained
1 1/2 (354 ml) cups water
1/4 cup 60 ml) tomato paste
3 teaspoons (15 ml) vegetable bouillon granules
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 tablespoon (5 ml) chili powder

Okay. Hold it right there. I am sensitive to hot spice, so I use a small amount - sometimes half of this. If you like it really hot, and I know some of you are used to much more spice, you can use up to six times a much - after that I take no responsibility ;^) Experiment a little. This amount tastes plenty hot enough for me without overpowering the other flavors.

1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground cumin
2 (15-ounce) (443 ml) cans kidney, black, or pinto beans, rinsed and drained

Frankly, I don't use canned beans. I cook organic dried kidney beans in a pressure cooker. It does take longer of course. If you use canned beans, try to use low-sodium kinds, and be sure to rinse them very, very thoroughly to prevent, well, you know, gas, and wash away some of the added sodium.

Sour cream for accompaniment (optional) or yogurt. We like to use a little grated cheddar cheese on top, when we can get it, or some yogurt. Here in Japan sour cream is very expensive and most cheese is depressingly bland. Besides, plain yogurt is a healthier choice. Try it. It's a great substitute.

Combine onion, bell pepper, celery, wine and garlic in large saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Add tomatoes with juice, water, tomato paste, boullion, cilantro, chili powder and cumin; stir well. Stir in beans. Bring to a boil; cover. Reduce heat to low; cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Serve over rice with cheddar cheese, sour cream or yogurt topping.

Makes 6 servings.

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This recipe with shredded cheddar cheese topping.

The Rice:

Most people are used to white rice. I prefer to use brown rice. White rice is just brown rice stripped of alot of fiber and nutrients. Why do that? I really can't understand taking all the time and effort to grow a food crop, then throw away much of its food value like that. Kinda weird, yeah? But we get into habits. Brown rice does take a bit longer to cook, and white rice stores much longer than brown, which is reason people in earlier times chose white rice. Today this is not a big consideration, but people have aquired a taste for white rice.

If you use brown rice in this recipe you will probably not even notice the difference anyway because of the flavor of the chili. But suit yourself. As a favor to me, at least try mixing 1/3 to 1/2 brown rice into your white rice, before you judge. We get "free" white rice from K's family rice fields, but I have gotten her to mix in brown rice and even K - one raised on white rice - doesn't mind. Personally, I find brown rice has a more satisfying flavor and in addition to nutrition, there are - ahem, shall we say - digestive benefits.

To serve, put rice in a bowl, spoon chili on top of the rice and add your favorite topping of sour cream, grated cheddar cheese or yogurt.

You can freeze the chili and rice (separately) for up to two months. Pop it in the microwave or heat in a saucepan for a quick meal that will satisfy the biggest of appetites. Sometimes I get my hands on some whole wheat tortillas and we make burritos with this recipe.

And forget the meat, O.K.? I know we've been brainwashed about the need and taste for meat, but that is all just advertising. Eat steak if you want, but leave it out of this chili. For me. For you. For the animals the rainforests, the atmosphere. For hungry people. For the Earth. Trust me. You won't miss it. And you don't need it. There is plenty of protien here. You'll love the chili without the "con carne". Gauranteed.

Bon Appetit!


Rude Awakenings

Wow. I thought I lived in a pleasant, rural community with friendly neighbors and little in the way of serious crime. But lately I have made a very sinister discovery about some of the citizens here. We have organized crime right in the midst of our little village! As the ‘Music Man’ song goes (sort of): Trouble, oh we got trouble, right here in Oono Village! with a capital "T" that rhymes with "C" and that stands for ..... canines?

A Canine Street Gang

For two nights in a row, Momo has awakened us around 3 o’clock in the morning with whining or barking. Not my favorite time to wake up, grab a flashlight and venture outside (where the temperature is hovering around freezing) in my robe and rubber beach slippers. The culprits each time have been neighborhood dogs - two or three of them at a time. I think that they are usually looking to take left over food from the dishes of dogs that are tied up. Momo eats her two meals each day in a matter of seconds, leaving nothing in her dish – ever. Sometimes we don’t even make the five meters back to the house before she has devoured dinner. Even if we are going out and won’t be back until late so leave some dry food for her, the concept of saving anything to eat "later" is totally absent from Momo’s doggy mind. She is very Zen-like and lives in the "NOW". And besides, as we remind her, there are dogs starving in China!

So the prowlers got nothing. I chased the dogs away, dragged the metal accordion gate across the driveway entrance and went back to bed until 6:45 a.m. when the local pubic address system loud speakers chimed like Big Ben, as they do every morning, six days a week.

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The Great Gate of Kiev, err, Momo

Uninvited Guests

Some dogs are pretty persistent. One female dog, which is at least four times Momo’s size (not hard to achieve) and that lives next door to Momo's friend Goma, (see the post “Momo’s Walk – Talk of the Town” for a picture of Goma), got loose the other day and came to tease Momo by rushing at her and jumping around as Momo growled and tried to get a bite of the pest (and she did give the intruder a nip before I could intervene!). The other dog probably just wanted to play, but there was something mean spirited in the way she would not take a hint and just buzz off. I had to take the visitor by the collar and literally drag her to the street, closing the gate behind her. She later bugged us on our walk until her owner drove up and took her home.

The Quadruped Yakuza!

Yesterday, I noticed that Momo had only one toy in the yard. She owns several and they are usually scattered within her reach, so this was very odd. Sometimes they get moved by wind or tossed a few meters away by Momo, but the missing toys were nowhere to be seen. As I was taking the “non-burnable” rubbish to the local collection bin by bike (brrr), I soon found her toy hedgehog laying in the middle of the road 20 meters or so from the house. Later, while walking Momo a hundred meters from the house in the opposite direction, we came across her favorite toy – a cloth cow dressed in red polka dot under pants. I can only assume those dogs made off with her toys. Pirates! Thieves! Scallywags!
I rinsed off the hedgehog and K ran the cow through the washing machine, hung it to dry and returned it to Momo by day’s end, though the squeakers no longer functioned in either one.

Last night I closed the gate across the driveway before going to bed hoping to nip the problem in the bud. Momo whined a bit last night, but when I went to the door I saw nothing out there except Momo looking at the gate. Dogs passing by on the street I assumed. This morning I discovered that all of Momo’s toys were gone! Walls on three sides, and a thick hedge on the fourth side surround our property. Though we had already put wire border in the few holes there were along the base of the hedge in order to keep Momo in when she was off leash, I found a hole in one corner of the hedge where a larger dog had pushed the wire aside to get through. Today I’ll need to devise a means to block that hole securely.

Exhibits A, B, and C:

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Hopefully these measures will keep this local street gang of Canine “Yakuza “ out of the yard. I am sure that they are jealous of Momo’s breeding, high social status in the neighborhood, her two meals a day, bi-monthly showers, heated dog house (yes, it’s true), two walks a day and all those toys. I’m sorry if their lot in life is not as good, but I will not tolerate them terrorizing her, stealing her toys and leaving them in the street somewhere out of spite!

Compassionate or Just Soft on Crime?

Were it not for the fact that Japan has the death penalty for stray animals with a very short wait on canine death row, we would call the dogcatcher. We’ll have to fend for ourselves instead. Maybe we should send for Max and have him stand guard at the gate wearing those cool sunglasses. Or perhaps a social worker for dogs could raise money for a canine youth center. We'll see. Not that Momo is any sissy! To borrow a line from "The Princess Bride":

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My name is Inigo Montoya Momo The Wonder Dog. You stole my toys. Prepare to die!

Santa doesn’t usually come to this house, but this year I think Momo will find he made a special trip with some new toys just for her.


Cool Yule

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This is Max. He lives in Tuscon, Arizona with the brother of a Maui friend of mine. I think Max was hoping for a gig with Santa this year.

By the way, there's jazz song by the name of "Cool Yule" that was written by Steve Allen and performed by Louis Armstrong. (nice trombone part too - hehe) Here's Satchmo on trumpet and vocal.

I wish you all "A YULE THAT'S COOL"!

- Pandabonium


Shinto Notes - guest post by the Moody Minstrel

When I took that orchestra from Garfield High School in Seattle on a tour of Kashima Shrine last July I had the opportunity to talk to the high priest there, and I learned a lot of things about Shinto. Some were things I had never heard before, others were additions and corrections to what I had learned elsewhere.

Shinto was originally a shamanistic faith (rather like Native American or Australian Aborigine religions) and its practitioners were exclusively women. Every village had a priestess (or order thereof) both to perform the necessary rituals and to consult the counsel of the spirits before any major undertaking. Quite often the high priestess was the true ruler of the tribe (something you can see in the movie Princess Mononoke ).

During the Asuka Period (5th to 7th century), when Buddhism was brought over from Korea and became firmly established, Shinto was literally absorbed into the "new" religion, considered separate yet part of it. When that happened, the original priestesses were eliminated (because Buddhism was strictly paternalistic in those days), and the Buddhist priests served dual roles. This continued until the two religions began to separate again after the end of the Heian Period. (Perhaps that's why Shinto priest robes look like Heian Period courtly dress!)

Even though it was more or less a distinct religion again, Shinto continued to be subservient to Buddhism until the Edo Period (late 16th to 19th centuries), when it was given new recognition by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, who practiced any religion he could find (including Christianity, apparently) in order to give himself as much divine aid as possible. Tokugawa was the one who had Kashima Shrine fully restored as a pure shrine, as it had mainly served as a Buddhist/Zen monastery from the 7th century.

Interestingly, after the Meiji Restoration, when Imperial rule was restored, Shinto actually came to be the dominant Japanese religion again as the newly-empowered emperor was believed to be a Shinto deity (a direct descendent of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-no-Omigami, to be exact). This continued until the end of World War II. Now it seems to be more of a mere custom than a religion people actually believe in and practice.

I had a Shinto wedding. The Heian Period courtly music they played was eerie!

- Moody Minstrel


Beseeching The Gods

Most religions in the world, being a part of people's daily lives, have some way to commemorate events such as the building of a home.

In Hawaii, when land is developed or a new home or other building erected, a blessing is held. For public buildings and businesses, in order to cover all the religious bases in Hawaii, there are often multiple blessings at one ceremony. A Hawaiian priest will chant a prayer and sprinkle water using a ti leaf. A Christian minister will offer prayers too (often the Christian minister is also the Hawaiian priest), and a Buddhist minister will say a few words as well. The last not asking for a blessing in the future, so much as acknowledging the blessings we already have already received and asking those present to be mindful and grateful in the future.

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Hawaiian/Christian Blessing

I had a friend and fellow real estate broker on Maui, Cliff, who went flying with me once, along with a mutual architect friend, to photograph some property in Kona, on the Island of Hawaii. Kona is an hour's flight by light plane over water from Maui. Although Cliff is of Japanese heritage, he has Hawaiian ways, and I will never forget my surprise when he showed up at the airport with a calabash (wooden bowl) full of water, and some ti leaves, and proceeded to "bless" the wings of my airplane with water for a safe flight! Well, perhaps appropriate, as I had named the plane "Manu Mele", Hawaiian for "song bird". Whether it was due to the efforts of my excellent mechanic and my own piloting skill, or Cliff's blessing and the Hawaiian gods, the flight was uneventful. It made Cliff feel more comfortable in any case and it is worth a lot to a pilot to have his/her passengers at ease.

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Manu Mele - Song Bird

In Japan, when a house is to be built, a Shinto priest is called to perform a ceremony. Such was the case just a couple of days ago, right across the street from our house. I had gone outside for something or other, and noticed a priest on the lot across from us setting up a kind of alter. The owners of the lot, some of their family members, and their builder were there as well. It was interesting timing, as just the other day, having passed Buddhist priest on our street where new homes were under construction, I had asked K if it was customary to bless a new house here, and she had explained a bit of the tradition.

Over the 14 months I've been in Japan, the people who own that lot have brought in fill dirt (sand really), built a low retaining wall, and planted the perimeter with some trees. We have been expecting a home to built soon and apparently that time has come.

Unsure of the protocol, rather than ask directly myself if I could take a picture and risk getting off on the wrong foot with a new neighbor, I came back in the house and asked K to seek permission for me. She wasn't sure either, but permission was cheerfully granted.

Not wanting to intrude, we stayed on the street and I just took a few pictures.

The Shinto ritual for this is a request for permission from the kami (gods) to build a house on their land, purify it, and protect the future inhabitants from disasters.

Let me say at the outset that this post only represents my own limited understanding of what took place and I don't guarantee that my interpretation of the meaning is entirely accurate.

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Momo Keeps An Eye On Things, Thinking "I wonder if they have food?"

Under the watchful eyes of Momo, looking on from our driveway, the priest set up four bamboo poles in a square at the center of the lot. A portable shrine, or alter, was set within this square, upon which offerings of rice cake, sake, and fruit were placed. A mound of soil was made to one side. A twine, or rope, called shimenawa, was strung between the bamboo poles at about eye level. Shimenawa is used to designate the presence of spirits - "kami". This was adorned with folded pieces of white paper called gohei, which are representative of an ancient Shinto myth. In the myth, the sun goddess got mad one day and shut herself up in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. Lesser gods convinced the goddess of mirth, Uzume, to do a dance and showed tree branches covered in jewels and silk. The sun goddess could not resist the sight of this and light was restored. I assume from that myth that the gohei papers are to attract the attention of the kami, so they will come to enjoy the sake and rice cake and grant the requests.

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Click to Enlarge

The priest went to one corner of the lot and put a bamboo stake in the ground. This was also adorned with gohei. Gohei were placed at various intervals around where the house was to be built.

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Returning to the shrine, the priest then chanted a "prayer", clapping his hands twice (to alert the kami that he was there) and bowing deeply at times as he chanted. Having taken my photos, I retreated to our house, but the chanting and activities went on through the afternoon.

When I went out again to have a look in the late afternoon, there were several more bamboo stakes in the ground with shimenawa strung between them, and a bamboo stake had also been pounded into the small mound of earth.

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Looking back at our home from the lot.
Late Afternoon

Bamboo grows quickly and straight, so it has come to represent vitality. It was also used to make bows and arrows with which "evil" could be fought, so is thought to have holy properties.

While the robes of Shinto priests are similar to many of those worn by Buddhist priests in Japan, I've always admired their "cool" looking hats and shoes. Sorry if they don't show up well in this post. Perhaps another time I'll post a better photo of a Shinto priest.

I don't know how long or how often I will be living in Japan, so it was a treat for me to have a close up look at this tradition.


From Russia With Love

The Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra performed its fifth annual classical concert last Sunday night. K and I were really looking forward to it as I had played in this orchestra for its pops concert last June, and K had attended many of the rehearsals for that. So, we knew most of the performers, some better than others of course,and their respective musical talents and weaknesses.

The Moody Minstrel has posted four articles on his blog "Life In The Land Of The Rising Sun" covering the four days of final rehearsals and two performances of the orchestra last weekend, as well another non-classical gig he played. Busy man. If you haven't done so, give them a read. You will find out how difficult it can be to put a concert together and perhaps a clue as to what can make the Moody Minstrel get, well moody.

I attended the early rehearsals for this concert but bowed out when I realized (hoped) I might be off to Fiji at some point and miss too many rehearsals or the concert itself. As it happened I did not go anywhere, but the good side of that was that I got to watch the performance.

This post gets its title from the music that the conductor, Mr. Keiji Ogawa, chose for this concert. No, not music from the James Bond movie, rather, the theme was Russian classical music. The pieces were Mussorgsky's "A Night On Bald Mountain", "Pictures At An Exhibition", and the Tchaikovsky "Concerto For Piano & Orchestra No. 1 In B-Flat Minor, Op. 23". The soloist was to be a guest pianist from Russia. Quite an ambitious program for a community orchestra to attempt.

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Maestro Keiji Ogawa

We arrived at the hall early and parked in the lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street. The statue of Colonel Sanders was wearing a Santa suit, and I could not help but think of Moody's story about his son asking him about that statue (sans Santa suit) something along the lines of, "Papa, is that Santa Claus or Jesus?"

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Is that Santa or Jesus? - I guess we have the answer now.

In the concert hall there was already a line of people waiting. That line grew until it took up the length of the hallways that surround the building's central atrium. K had made a donation to the orchestra six months ago and had a reserved seat in the center of the hall. I had purchased my ticket through Moody just a couple weeks back and it was open seating. K and I expected that we would not be seated together. When the doors opened and K explained the situation to the ticket collectors, they made a quick adjustment and put me in the reserved seats next to K. Good thing as the 700-seat hall was about full. Did I feel guilty about that? Short answer: No. Great seats too, top of the first section with an isle behind us. Unobstructed view of the stage and right in the center of the hall for good acoustics. Off to the side of the stage, a piano tuner was doing a final going over of the instrument. The Mayor of Kashima City came out to give a welcome. This year marked the 10th Anniversary of Kashima being a "city" and the politicians have not missed the opportunity to speak at every event they can.

You can read Moody's blog for a detailed account of the performance of each piece of music. While the concert was not totally perfect, it was great and any criticism I make would be "nit picking". So I'll just highlight a few of my own reactions, mostly of what went right.

With "Night on Bald Mountain" they got off to a great start, except perhaps a little trouble in the trombones (wasn't that a Star Trek episode? No, that was The Trouble With Tribles, sorry.) Pictures At An Exhibition has a lot of fast runs up and down for the woodwinds and strings. The brass parts are high and powerful. Every one performed very well inspite of the difficulty of the music. I was most impressed.

We were surprised when we opened the program notes and saw that the pianist was not a Russian after all, but was from Germany. As you can read on Moody's blog, a couple of months before there had been a rush to find a replacement when the Russian backed out of the performance citing health concerns.

The replacement was eighteen-year-old Janka Simowitsch, native of northeastern Germany and even at her young age, winner of many prestigious international piano competitions. I love Tchaikovsky. My first ever recording was 45 rpm record of the 1812 Overature. [If you don't know what a 45 rpm record is, you may be too young to fully understand this blog.] I bought it through the Quaker Oat cereal company which used the music in their advertising - "Quaker Puffed Oats, shot from guns!" - and sponsored one of my favorite TV series of the time, "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon" (and his dog King). I also love piano concertos and have listened to this one many, many, times both at live performances and of course recordings. I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time, let alone get my fingers to cooperate with a keyboard, so I'm no piano expert. This is a favorite piece of mine though and over the years I've formed an opinion on how it should sound - my favorite is a recording by the late, great (Russian) pianist Sviatoslav Richter with Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Obviously, I would never hold a community orchestra or a young pianist to that standard.

Miss Simowitsch seemed nervous as she took her seat and adjusted the piano bench, which surprised me coming from someone with her experience. The orchestra was obviously tense as well, which I could fully appreciate.
But from the beginning the performance was excellent. The soloist getting everything out of the piano that it could give, the orchestra staying with her and sounding fantastic. I was surprised to learn later that she was not satisfied with the performance and was holding back. If that is holding back, I'd like to hear what an all out rendition sounds like.

The thing about a concerto is that the orchestra is there to provide musical backdrop for the solo instrument. No, more than a backdrop, but still subservient. The conductor is in charge of the orchestra, but must follow the soloist. Tricky business, yet everyone did their part and made it almost seamless. To me, that is part of the great magic in playing music with a group. When the players get on the same wave length or groove or whatever you want to call it, everything comes together and becomes one.

We had a good view of the Moody Minstrel and I could see the smile on his face. He was obviously a pleased and Happy Minstrel. Chuck, another fellow expat in the orchestra, usually hides himself in the back of the second violins, but I actually could see him clearly as well. I was surprised with just how good the violins sounded and how well they stayed together. There are a lot of very young musicians in the strings, and they should be proud.

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Janka Simowitsch

Individual performances were the best I've ever heard from this orchestra. I was particularly pleased with the French horns, led by husband and wife team, Noriyuki and Noriko Ohsuka, in 1st and 2nd chair. They nailed their entrances and their sound was rock solid. The cello solo by Mr. Ohe sounded beautiful and moving.

The audience expressed its appreciation with long applause. The second movement is fast with a dramatic climax, which inevitably leads to people applauding even though the piece is not over. I've often been amused by that when playing in an orchestra. I appreciate the applause but also wonder why people can't follow a simple program and count three movements. Sunday night I found myself making the same mistake! (Fortunately accompanied with most of rest of the audience). Oops! But the music sounded so good it was easy for one to get carried away.

After intermission came "Pictures At An Exhibition". I always had trouble with this in rehearsals for two reasons. One being that the trombone parts are written in tenor clef rather than bass clef. That is because the parts are high and the tenor clef reduces the number of lines above the staff for a given note and theoretically makes it easier to read. (Jazz charts almost never use tenor clef no matter how high, and I suspect the real reason it is used in classical music is for the benefit of the copyists and printers). It would in fact be easier if I read tenor clef a lot, which I don't, so I am slowed by it and make more mistakes. The other problem is that the brass don't play a lot in this piece, but what they do play is important. That means having to count long rests and not get lost, then jump in with (usually) high and loud notes. I'm not alone with the counting problem, as during rehearsals the first trombone player, Mr. Kuboki, was selling small copies of the score to help people keep track of where H*** we were. (I was reminded of my friend Lisa Owen, the tuba player on Maui who used to play in the San Fransisco Symhony Orchestra. She was once hired to play an opera gig where she had only a few notes to play, but was paid the same as everyone else in the orchestra. Paid for counting rests.) Did I mention the notes in the Mussorgksy pieces were high?

Once again, the orchestra performed well. Better than the first piece. Individual solo parts went really well. The tuba solo was hauntingly beautiful. If I had one criticism to make it would be that Moody Minstrel did not play the saxophone solo. When I heard Moody play it in the rehearsals it sounded great, so smooth and with a much better tone than the person they brought in. Ah well, it would have been too much to ask of Moody anyway; he had plenty to do already. He and Mrs. Ogawa had a duet that sounded perfect. And his clarinet solo (in the same movement as the sax solo) was likewise flawless.

Mr. Ogawa's 9th grade son, Sanshiro, on trumpet put in an excellent performance. I was happy for him. Must be tough playing for "Dad", and I like him as he always went out of the way at rehearsals to talk to me and make me feel welcome. Nice kid. The brass over all sounded good without any of the cracking of high notes that I had half expected - knowing how much they tend to over blow during rehearsals. Third trombone, Kosuke Uchida - in his second year of college - played a perfect concert from what I could hear. The first and second trombones had a few problems at the beginning of the concert, but redeemed themselves with a solid sound for the rest of it.

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Click Photo to hear "Sleigh Ride"

For the encore, Mr. Ogawa donned a red Santa hat and conducted a bright rendition of "Sleigh Ride". It was a good choice for lifting everyone’s spirits for the trip home after some pretty heavy duty classics. Send 'em home humming a tune. As soon as Sleigh Ride started K had to stifle a laugh, and then myself as well. I am always complaining of the cold weather here and K gets tired of my Pandabonium grumbling. So now, when it gets freezing cold - which it does at night - instead of grumbling I start singing Sleigh Ride (or Frosty the Snowman) as a more cheerful expression of my distaste for the cold. Sunday evening, at the end of the tune, the trumpets stood up and made a sound like horses neighing. Just before they stood up, they put on caps with horse faces on them, which brought laughter from the audience.

The audience applauded non-stop until Mr. Ogawa had come back on stage for a bow three times. It was well deserved and I think everyone was proud of their hometown orchestra and appreciative to have great music performed so well in their concert hall. The musicians must still be riding high after that concert. Bravo!

And yes, I was singing "Sleigh Ride" on the way home.


Around the World...Pop Quiz!

There have been many records set by people who have circumnavigated the earth - on foot, by submarine, boat, plane, balloon, space vehicle, even wheelchair.

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It was in the Spring of 2000 that I met one such person, Hans Georg Schmid (pictured above), when he landed his single engine homebuilt airplane on Maui during a record setting solo flight around the world. Hans was a pilot for Swissair at the time, and usually flew an MD-11 widebody passenger aircraft on international routes. This day he had flown his "slightly" smaller personal plane from San Francisco to Maui, a flight which had taken 16 hours and 31 minutes. I was President of the local chapter of the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) at the time and had the privilege to greet him at the airport and dine with him the following night. Hans was setting another record in this plane, by circling our planet twice, once eastbound, and then westbound! You can read about his amazing adventures here: Millenium Flight.

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Schmid in his "Long EZ" Homebuilt

Voyages such as this inspire awe, admiration, interest in other lands and peoples, and a feeling that one can accomplish nearly any goal in life that one sets one's mind to.

The world's FIRST circumnavigation of the earth caused a paradigm shift in the thinking of the people of the time, for it demonstrated in concrete terms what had been theorized for centuries. It proved that the earth was finite - a sphere floating in space. That certain knowledge sparked fear in some quarters and a rush among European powers to grab what they could of the limited land, resources, and even 'souls' of this planet. There were explorations in years before, but once the globe had actually been circled, its finite character was absolutely confirmed. The result was an explosion of exploration, conquest, and colonization.

It goes on today, under the label "globalization", whether for the benefit of mankind or for the exploitation of them and their resources by the most powerful corporations and countries of the world. Whatever one's world view, it was undeniably a pivotal event in world history. Not until Apollo 10 astronauts on the way to the moon in May of 1969 photographed the earth from 36,000 miles in space, was mankind made so acutely aware of our true situation.

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It's all we've got people...

So here's the question:

Who was the very first person known to have circumnavigated the globe?

I will post the answer after I receive 'enough' answers - arbitrarily at my whim, so please answer as soon as you can.


The Way Home

Our way home from "Pocket Farm Dokidoki" was pretty much the way we came, except that it happens that there are two "Route 18s" which run roughly parralel to each other, an old one and a new one. The "new and improved" one is not quite finished, so we had been on parts of each without knowing it. Turns out that for now, the old one is a bit of a short cut which was just as well as we wanted to make a stop at place we had spotted earlier in the day – a temple along that narrow section that I complained about.

We pulled into a dirt parking lot across a side street from the temple grounds. The temple building sits atop a hill that is covered in cedars, maples, and other trees. The entrance at the base of the hill has new-looking stone walls and lanterns, yet the long steps leading up the hill and a gate at the top are obviously hundreds of years old.

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I immediately recognize the large wisteria crests engraved in the stones on either side of the entrance. It is the symbol of the Hongwanji temples of the Jodo Shinshu or “True Pure Land” Sect, which is widespread in Japan and Hawaii. The Moody Minstrel’s blog has pictures of the home temple of this sect in one of his recent posts about Kyoto.

I had not come across a Hongwanji temple in Ibaraki before, though I had read there were two historic ones (the other is in the north end of the prefecture in Hitachi). The name of this temple is Muryouju-ji and it was originally built in 806 by members of a different sect. 806 - wow. Almost 1,200 years ago. In Japan that is during the Heian era, and the first year of the Daido period. Those were early times for Japanese Buddhism, just two years after emperor Kammu had sent the priest Saicho to China to study and he had returned to found the Tendai sect in Japan.

I was excited to find this temple and eager to learn more about it. The temple building is not visible from the entrance so we started up the 100 or more steps - a bit of much needed exercise after our big feast at Dokidoki.

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At the top of the first set of steps, there is a driveway that crosses, and a path leading down to Route 18. Several maple trees are there and the leaves were in their full autumn glory.

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At the top of the steps is the main gate. It has a new looking cedar bark roof, but the wood planks of the gate and hinges look to be the originals. From here we see the temple on the opposite side of a courtyard. It too looks to have a new roof. In the courtyard are a large bell tower, an old stone storage building, a stone water basin, and a statue of Shinran Shonin (Saint Shinran), the 13th century monk upon whose teachings the Hongwanji temple is based.

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In 1221 Shinran came to this temple, which was in disrepair at the time, and rebuilt it. He spent three years running the temple. Five years ago, it was once more renovated which accounts for the new looking roofs and new stone entrance. It also says something about the wealth of the members of this temple. Some things are going well around Hokota it appears.

A legend says that beads from Shinran’s onenju (Buddhist prayer beads), which were carved out of the wood of a bodhi tree, fell on the ground here and grew into a tree. There is in fact a bodhi tree there that is over 700 years old and may have been planted by Shinran. This is the type of tree that the historical Buddha is said to have sat under as he meditated.

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The bell tower was built around 1725. I look forward to ringing in the New Year with this bell. It must have an awesome ring to it that can be heard far and wide in the valley below.

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Though I did not see them this day, I have since read that inside the main building is an artwork, with accompanying text, which is shown once a year, and a carved wood statue of Amida Buddha whose 48 vows are central to Jodo Shinshu teachings.

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The new beautiful, thick cedar bark roof

I have also discovered that priests from this temple were involved in a political intrigue that occurred in the 1830’s during the Edo period. Some of the priests, including the head priest, were among people who allegedly wanted to sail to the distant Bonin Islands (now called Ogasawara Islands) located 1000 km south of Tokyo and possibly to Hawaii, and even the USA in order to make contact with Westerners and study their ways. At the time there were Dutch, British and Americans from Hawaii living in the Bonins. The Bonin Islands were thought by Japanese to be a kind of island paradise. Contact by Japanese citizens with Westerners was strictly forbidden back then. The charges turned out to be false, a charade to provide cover for political maneuverings behind the scenes. Interesting none the less.

We had not finished exploring the temple grounds when my digital camera batteries ran out of juice. The sun was getting low in the sky anyway and it was time to promise to return another day and head home. Besides, a certain dog would be waiting for her walk and dinner.

As we drove south along Kitaura, an orange sun was peeking around some fluffy cumulus clouds and was reflected on the smooth surface of the lake. "Red sky at night, sailors delight" the saying goes. It would be a fine day tomorrow.

It seemed a perfect ending to a perfect day that had started on a fluke, a whim, and unfolded on its own before us, one surprise after another. It had given us a beautiful autumn drive, a splendid meal, and an unexpected historical and spiritual journey back into ancient times as well. I can’t ask for more than that, and I suddenly felt a deep awe and gratitude for this day, this life.