2006/05/28

Fiji Elections - And A New Blog

Fiji's Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase

Unnoticed by most of the rest of the world, Fiji held parliamentary elections in May. (Ever notice how "the news" tends to focus on the places where things are going badly wrong?) Though the election process is a complex one in Fiji, things went pretty smoothly. Often when I mention Fiji to people, they bring up the 2000 coup as a reason to be wary. I love to point out - especially to US citizens - that the USA also had a coup that year. In the case of Fiji, it was put down and people involved went to prison. In fact people are still being brought to justice over that event. In the case of the USA, well, do I really need to elaborate?

For those of you who want to learn more about the outcome of Fiji's 2006 elections, please check the relevant posts on the following Fiji blogs:

Babasiga, Stuck in Fiji Mud, and Vakaivosavosa.

While I'm mentioning other blogs, take a look at Geelong Visual Diary, brought to you by Peceli and Wendy who also write Babasiga. This newer blog features stories from their home in Geelong Australia illustrated with art by Wendy herself (not to mention poetry). It is an interesting blend of local life and contrasts of different religions and cultures. Living in Fiji and Australia and with their religious background (Peceli is a Methodist minister), they are able to present a unique perspective on our world. Please check it out. I promise you'll like it. In fact, if you don't like it, I'll eat a bug.

2006/05/25

Out of the Mud

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White Lotus, Itako City


The Lotus is often used as a symbol in Buddhism. As it grows from the mud (samsara), up through muddy water it appears clean on the surface (purification), and finally produces a beautiful flower (enlightenment). The white blossom represents purity, the stem stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raise the mind above worldly existence (the mud), and gives rise to purity of mind.

Symbolism aside, I just find them very beautiful.

2006/05/24

Poked Pup

You've probably heard of a "pig in a poke", but what about a "poke in a pup"? And no, I don't mean that children's book, "The Pokey Little Puppy". I'm talking needles here.

I thought I just was getting an extra walk Saturday morning when Pandabonium took me to our community center down the street. I'd forgotten about going there last year. Wow, that means I've been living with Pandabonium and K for over a year already!

There were lots of other dogs there and I was a little nervous about that. The owners all had their dogs on leashes and Pandabonium made sure he kept me close and would pet me and tell me everything was OK. He paid some lady money and then we went over to a van where a man in a lab coat was standing. He turned out to be a doctor.

One big dog got really scared and poohed right there. Another dog peed when the man touched him. Then it was our turn. The doctor asked how old I was and the next thing I knew I got poked with a needle just behind my left shoulder. Then Pandabonium put a new metal tag on my collar and walked me home.


Here I am with my new tag.

The poke was quick and didn't hurt much so I just about forgot it by the time we got home. Pandabonium said he was proud of me for being brave and said the vaccine would keep me from getting a bad disease called rabies. Can't say I enjoyed the experience, but at least I don't have to do it again until next year.

- Momo, the wonder dog.

2006/05/22

"Fowl" Weather

The locals were saying "atsui desu ne" (sure is hot), but to me it felt normal for a change. Cumulus clouds offered some shade off and on and a gentle breeze made the weather feel just right. I rode down to Lake Kitaura and found that the fair weather was really fowl weather - as in birds. Along with some ducks, two species I rarely see were there - a falcon and a blue heron.

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Falcon in hover.

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Great Blue Heron

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2006/05/21

The Red Gazebo

Picking up from "The Greatness of Little Things" -
We arrived at Izura Kaigan, in the Northeast corner of Ibaraki Prefecture, our final destination of the day. We had chosen this place for many reasons, one of which was our connection to the ryokan and spas here.
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Itsuura Kanko Hotel

Last year K, with a bit of assistance from me, did translation work for an organization of "Okami" (the women in charge of guest services at Ryokan and traditional hotels in Japan) to create a tourist guide for Ibaraki Prefecture in both Japanese and English. Some of these establishments are in this area. But our main purpose was to see the home and gazebo of artist, author, and teacher Tenshin Okakura (1863-1913).

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Looking down on Izura Kaigan and the red gazebo - "Rokkakudo"

I tried to imagine how this looked a century ago and could see why Okakura had chosen this location for his home and art institute.


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The beach of Izura Kaigan (kaigan means sea shore) is behind Rokkakudo.

We moved the car closer to the grounds of the Izura Institute of Art and Culture and went to take a look close up. Being a holiday, parking was scarce, but eventually we got a place right in front of the entrance. The Okakura family put the land into a trust in 1986 and the public can now enjoy it for a mere 200 yen (about US$1.80) entrance fee. A small museum is also on the property.

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Tenshin Okakura's cliffside home.

Okakura bought the house and land in 1903. I don't know how old the house was then. He remodeled it to his liking and built two other buildings for his art institute. Down a winding path from the house one comes to Rokkakudo, the red gazebo that he built as place to meditate and be inspired by the natural beauty that surrounds it.

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The hexagonal gazebo.

From this point one is treated to ah panorama of the sea. The inner shallows are colored red and green and purple by seaweeds on the bottom, which sway rhythmically with the surge of the waves. On a clear day, even more of the coastline to the north would be visible than we could see today.

In addition to "The Book of Tea", Okakura wrote "The Ideals of the East" (also in English), which starts with the words "Asia is one." You can read these works online as by clicking the titles. "The Ideals" is a concise history of Asian art from a Japanese perspective. He distrusted the West and feared that Asia might lose its cultures and art if it merely mimicked the West rather than learned from it to create new Asian art. He derided those who wore Western style suits and silk top hats as well as Japanese architects who copied European buildings which themselves were nothing more than copies of ancient Greek and Roman themes. His analysis was deep and brilliant, if still controversial amoung art historians.

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View from the gazebo of the bay and coast to the north.


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View south.

An American art historian, Langdon Warner (1881-1956), studied under Okakura. Later, Warner followed Okakura's footsteps as curator at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, and during WWII compiled a list of Japanese art treasures which the US would take into account and try to avoid in planning bombing raids. There is a bust of Langdon Warner at Izura.

Sadly, in 1913, on a trip to Tokyo to visit family, Tenshin Kakuzo Okakura died from influenza. He was 49 years old. Even worse, years later his work and the statement "Asia is one" was co-opted by Japanese nationalists and misrepresented to reinforce Japan's imperial aims and its phony "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". But today, his work can be seen in a more accurate light and appreciated as it should be on its own merits. His legacy to Japan and to the West for a better understanding, appreciation and respect for Asian art and culture live on.

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Leaving Izura, we passed a shop selling smoked fish, sardines or mackerel perhaps.

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Further south, near Hitachi, the late afternoon sun made this lighthouse glow as surfers waited for a good wave below. I gave them a wave. (tee hee).

A long, slow trip along the crowded highways brought us home at last.
The return trip was 106 km or 66 miles and took 3 hours and 45 minutes. That works out to 28 kph (17.5 mph). Poor K. Ah, that modern marvel of personal transportation, the automobile! Next time I'll take the train.

2006/05/16

What A Gas

From the "Stranger Than Science Fiction" department, comes this news:

"Sales of canned oxygen to create
fresh market for Seven-Eleven Japan"


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Japanese convenience store operator Seven-Eleven Japan announced it will add cans of oxygen to its shelves. Each can will contain enough oxygen for 35 two second inhalations.

The oxygen comes in two flavors: "strong mint" and "grapefruit" and will cost 600 yen (that's about US$5.45) a can, including consumption tax.

Before you laugh yourself silly think about this: 25 years ago, if I had told you that in the 21st century, people would buy their drinking water in 1 liter bottles shipped by sea or even airplane from the other side of the planet, you would have laughed me out of the room. Today, 154 billion liters per year are consumed, most of which is shipped from one country to another. Most of the emptied bottles - 2.7 million tons of plastic - can be seen on any ocean, beach, or roadside in the world and will take 400 to 1000 years to degrade.

I'm all for drinking and breathing clean water and air, but I prefer to achieve that by not allowing either to become polluted in the first place.

2006/05/13

The Greatness of Little Things

Picking up where I left off in the post "Blue Eyed Dolls".....

After leaving the birth home of poet Ujo Noguchi, I walked into to the quiet side street to take a photo. I found beneath my feet a clue to our next destination in Kita-ibaraki City. It was just an iron manhole cover, but like most sewage manhole covers in Japan had a picture cast in its surface. (I plan to do a post on Japanese manhole covers one day). This one showed a hexagonal gazebo for which Kita-ibaraki City, is famous.

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Kita-ibaraki City Sewer Cover

We drove north again toward Izura, an area that reminded me vaguely of a town on the opposite side of the North Pacific: La Jolla, California, with it's curious but beautiful mix of beaches, rugged coast, luxurious ocean view homes both old and new, artists, and the Scripts Institute of Oceanography .

At Izura, the seaside cliffs and onsen (hotspring spas) have made this a popular vacation spot and several upscale Japanese Ryokans (the subject of yet another future post) are to be found here. This is also the area where our gifts of seafood came from that I described in the October 2005 post
Bountiful Sea - Or - Fan Mail From Some Flounder?
The local port of Otsu was filled with fishing boats of every size.

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Otsu Harbor

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If you look up the term "rust bucket" in an illustrated dictionary, you may see a picture of this boat!



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We were making our way by guess after that, but soon spotted this lighthouse.
While designed to help ships navigate the coast, it was very useful to us as well as it marked our destination. We parked at its base and walked to the cliffs.

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Out on the water, a steady breeze pulls a sailboat along, slicing through the waves on a windward tack.

Below us, on small point in a rocky bay called Izura-Kaigan, was "Rokkudo" - a red hexagonal gazebo - as immortalized on sewer manhole covers. Other than the great location, what is so special about it? The gazebo belonged to this man.

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His name was Okakura Tenshin, also known as Kakuzo Okakura, who lived from 1862 to 1913. This period encompasses the Meiji Restoration, when Japan was reopened to the world and was learning all it could of other cultures. Okakura was an artist and man of letters who played an important role both in bringing Western art to Japan and in presenting Japanese art and culture to the West. Once president of the Tokyo School of Arts, he founded the Japan Institute of Art in 1898. He traveled to Europe, India and China and was fluent in English. You can read one of his books in English, The Book of Tea, written in 1906, online by clicking on the title.

Some Americans may have been touched by his life without realizing it (as I was) if they have visited or even just seen the gift catalog of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, for Okakura was the museum's curator of Asiatic art from 1906 to 1913. No doubt he is the reason MFA has perhaps the best collection of Asian art in the Western Hemisphere. At the museum is a Japanese garden called "Tenshin-en" dedicated to his memory.

I won't try to write his entire biography in these posts, but if you are unfamiliar with his name, I invite you to become more aquainted with this most interesting figure who contributed much to the mutual understanding of very different cultures.

I'll have more to say about Okakura in the next post, as well as many more pictures, including his cliffside house, Rokkokudo and Izura-Kaigan bay. For now, let me leave you with a quote to ponder from Okakura's "The Book of Tea":

"Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others."



To be continued....

2006/05/11

Red Sky At Night

The old saying goes, "Red sky in morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor's delight" - the sky being an indicator of fair or foul weather ahead. There must be some delighted sailors in these waters tonight.

After a rainy day, toward sunset the sky brightened and I jumped on the bicycle to race down the hill to Lake Kitaura and see what I could see. I think I missed the better part of it, but the sky was still beautiful, so I hung around the rice paddies and lake shore to take a few pics even though it meant riding back up the hill in the dark.

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Now, as the darkness deepens, an owl is calling from somewhere nearby. It is the first one I've heard this spring.

2006/05/05

Blue Eyed Dolls

This week has been "Golden Week" in Japan, a time when national holidays pile up and most people get a vacation. April 29 is Greenery Day (replaces - wink, wink, nudge, nudge - the birthday of Emperor Showa, the "Peace Emperor" who presided over WWII), May 3 is Constitution Day (thank you Douglas MacArthur), May 4 is Beethoven Day, oops! I mean "Between Day" (because they were too lazy to think up a reason for it), and May 5 is Children's Day (really Boy's Day, but we have to be politcally correct about it nowadays guys).

Many families take to the roads and trains and planes while others try to escape the crowds by flying to Hawaii and other overseas destinations.

We decided to drive up to the northeast corner of Ibaraki prefecture and have a look at several points of interest there as well as the picturesque coast. As it turned out, the day held some disappointments as well as pleasant surprises. I had never been to this area and it had been a long time since K had. The name of the town we were headed for is "Kita-Ibaraki City", population 51,412 (I counted).

The weather was excellent and we decided to get going by 9:00 am. As usual, after washing dishes, walking Momo the Wonder Dog, etc., etc., that turned into 9:40am , but at last, we were on our merry way up the coast. At least for the first fifteen minutes or so. We were not the only people heading north and soon found ourselves in a long line of slow traffic which lasted until the road widened next to the nuclear power institute in Ooarai. That respite was a brief one, and when we got onto the route which would take us most of the way to Kita-Ibaraki City, traffic once again slowed to a crawl. At this point we had spent two hours going a distance we are used to traveling in about 40 minutes. The rest of day would follow the same pattern - bumper to bumper through areas with lots of traffic lights, interspersed with more smoothly flowing traffic.

Fortunately, I had prepared a lunch and packed it in a small cooler. We picked up some radioactive drinks at a convenience store across from the Tokai nuclear power plant, and a little ways down the road when the Geiger counter calmed down, pulled off onto a side road with a nice view of open fields and hills and had lunch.

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I'm flying... Bula Shirt Weather!

As we neared our destination, we stopped to enjoy a view of the coast. The wind was blowing the tops of the breaking waves into mist, something called "ehu kai" in Hawaiian. The air was warm and I was happy to be comfortable wearing my Fijian "Bula" shirt (same idea as a Hawaiian "Aloha" shirt). A weathered islet stood stubbornly against the sea. I liked the symbolism in that and claimed it for my nation - "Pandabonia". This is not a new idea for me. In college, a friend and I laid claim to an island (one truly unowned) to start a new nation and ended up involved in some international intrigue involving Princess Grace of Monaco, Abu Dhabi, Israel, France, the FBI, and Interpol. It was quite an education.

Japan already has island disputes with Russia, South Korea, and China. Now they have another. But Pandabonia is a reasonable and peaceful nation and is open to negotiation for a price. (I hope you know I'm pulling your leg - somewhat).

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New Pandabonia Island

Refreshed by our stop at the beach, and territorial conquest, we rolled into Kita-Ibaraki City. K noticed a sign and pulled into a small parking area in front of a house. It was the best surprise of the day for us - the birth home of Ujo Noguchi (1882-1945) a famous poet, song lyricist, and author of many children's nursery rhymes.

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Ujo Noguchi's birth home.

The house, where Noguchi family members still reside, is 140 years old. It has been turned in part into a museum. Photos, personal items, his wife's wedding clothes, calendars, and explanations of his life and work are on display. Many phonograph records, cards, and copies of magazines containing his work are also there to see. Noguchi and other poets cooperated in a publication called "Golden Ship" and later "Golden Star" which were beautifully illustrated. Many of his poems and songs were put to music and are still popular today.

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Ujo Noguchi


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Cover of an issue of "Golden Star" featuring the song "Akai kutsu" or "Red Shoes"

The wedding sashes or obi of Noguchi's wife are on display and in one room you can see what items were used and worn by a bride of those times.

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Early 20th century wedding attire.

In 1921, Noguchi wrote a poem called "Blue Eyed Doll". It became very popular with little girls all over Japan. An English translation follows:

A blue-eyed doll,
Made of celluloid,
Was born in America.
When she arrived at a harbor in Japan,
She had many tears in her eyes.
I do not understand the language.
If I get lost, what should I do?
Warm-hearted Japanese girls,
Please be my friends and play with me.
Please be my friends and play with me.

In 1926 it was set to music by Nagayo Motoori. To hear the tune, click below.



At this same time, unbeknownst to Noguchi, an American, Dr. Sidney Gulick was putting together a project involving dolls. Dr. Gulick had been a missionary, and taught Math, Science, and Religion at universities in Kyoto and had lived in Japan for twenty-five years before his health forced him to return to the United States in 1913. He loved Japan and was troubled by the worsening relations between the two countries.

Utilizing a Christian church group, he organized an international exchange of dolls between Japan and USA as a way to teach children the values of friendship, cooperation and peace between nations. In 1927, people around the USA donated 12,739 dolls which were sent from the USA to Japan in time for the Hina Matsuri (doll festival).

The dolls were distributed to kindergartens throughout the country and were received with great enthusiasm. In return, money was collected from Japanese children to pay for 58 elaborate handmade Japanese dolls that were sent to the USA in November of that year, and distributed to each state.

Because of the popularity of Noguchi's poem and song in Japan, the American dolls were referred to as "blue eyed dolls", even though many of them did not in fact have blue eyes.

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Blue eyed doll on display at Ujo Noguchi's home.

In spite of such efforts, relations between the countries deteriorated to the point of war as we all know. Dr. Gulick was viewed as an enemy collaborator by his fellow Americans. In Japan, the government wanted the dolls to be destroyed as they represented their enemy, but many people, mostly teachers, risked severe punishment and hid them away. There are only about 300 of the dolls still in existence. Nearly forgotten after the war, a television special about them in the early 1970's brought them out of hiding. Most of the Japanese dolls in the USA have been recovered. Further exchanges have taken place with the dolls and people are learning of the story all over again. It is a poignant fact that both Ujo Noguchi and Dr. Gulick died in the year 1945, without seeing relations between Japan and America repaired.

We left the house and passed by the larger musuem dedicated to Ujo Noguchi. Our time was precious and having seen so much in the house of his youth, the bigger museum with mostly written exhibits would have to wait. There was much more to see and absorb in Kita-Ibaraki.

To see and hear more of Ujo Noguchi's songs, please visit this beautifully done web site: Children's Songs.

to be continued....

2006/05/02

Sakura Fubuki - Cherry Blossom Snow

These pictures, taken this morning, are in response to my friend Robin in Singapore, who wished to see cherry blossom petals on the ground like fallen snow, which I had described in an earlier post. One of my neighbors has some late blooming cherry trees and this morning I saw petals all over his driveway and more drifting down. Click on the pictures to enlarge them and you will see some petals floating down as well.

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detail of above showing falling petals.

Sakura fubuki is not a phenomenon that is easily conveyed with a camera. The petals are small and scarcely show up in the image. Zoom in on the petals and the context is lost. Eerything about it is subtle - the breeze, the colors, the way the petals fall. It is perhaps something one needs to experience first hand to fully appreciate.

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So, there you are Robin. I hope you enjoy them.