2007/10/25

Being Present

I frequently ride my bicycle into town about 12 miles (7 miles) and usually travel via a straight, level road which lets me get where I'm going in about 35 or 40 minutes. The road isn't terribly scenic however, as it lined with trees, businesses, and homes, so sometimes I take a parallel route that goes through open fields and has less traffic. The other day, after finishing grocery shopping in town, I decided to take a third route home by riding along lake Kitaura. Though it adds ten to minutes or so to my trip, and requires a bit of a hill climb, the scenery can be well worth it and allows me to just "be present" and enjoy it.

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A grey heron sweeps over lake Kitaura on two meter wings.


As people whiz past in their stereo sound filled, climate controlled automobile "bubbles", I feel fortunate to have the time to cycle, to exchange a smile, nod or greeting with other people - a farmer in a rice paddy, someone fishing, another cyclist; to feel the air at whatever temperature it is, hear the insects, birds, or splashes of fish, or stop to watch a hawk or heron show what millions of years of practice has done to perfect a mastery of flight we humans can only dream of.

2007/10/24

Engakuji - Honoring One's Enemies

Sixth in a series that began with Road Trip (Railroad That Is), continued with Putting On Airs followed by The Pirates of Ashinoko , Dîner Français and the First Kamakura Shogun ,
and Katsu! or How to Make a Zen Vacuum Cleaner

The first thing likely to come to mind when one reads or hears the word "Kamikaze" is likely to be the brave Japanese pilots of World War II who crashed their planes in to American ships in a desperate effort to save their homeland and protect their families from impending invasion. But as most of you know, the meaning behind the label given those pilots, that of Kamikaze ("Divine Wind"), is much older and refers to a series of typhoons which destroyed much of the Mongol fleets of Kublai Khan who attacked Japan in 1274 and again in 1281.

Hojo Tokimune (1251-1284), the 8th regent of the Kamakura Shogunate, dedicated a Zen temple to those on both sides who lost their lives in the battles between Japan and the Mongols. Tens of thousands were killed in those battles and the temple was built to appease their souls. I found it remarkable that Shogun who was a warrior and executed Kublai Kahn's envoys, would also have such a grasp of the Buddha Dharma that in the end would dedicate a temple to all who died regardless of which side they were on.

The temple is called Engakuji and was our next stop on our fast paced exploration of Kamakura. 'En' means enlightenment and 'gaku' means to feel. It is the stage of Self-Realization or Enlightenment. The next stage after this is to enter into Buddhic consciousness where one experiences the true meaning of cause and effect. (The suffix "ji" indicates a temple.)

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Enkaku-ji is at the top of this map of Kamakura

As we made our way from Kenchoji up Kamakura-kaido Street in the August heat, we crossed a rail line - or tried to. We stopped several meters short, along with many other tourists, as the gates came down and trains flashed by, first in one direction, then almost immediately in the other. The gates rose and people started crossing again, but before we even reached the gate, the signal flashed and yet another train approached. Either our timing was off or this is one busy stretch of track. As it happens, we were crossing the JR Yokosuka line by which we had arrived the previous day.

We arrived at the rather nondescript looking path which leads to Engakuji. Unkempt stagnant ponds were on either side of the path (someone needs to put some monks to work down there), and I soon discovered we were actually on a road as an approaching car tooted its horn at me to get the bleep out of the middle of the street. The ponds are a part of Engakuji property and called Byakurochi (egret pond). Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a Greek-born journalist and naturalized Japanese, visited the Temple in 1894 and described it in detail in his book "Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan". Crossing over the train tracks yet again - this time without interruption - we came to the temple gate.

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Steps to the inner gate, Sammon, of Engakuji

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Strangely, it seemed to me, a glamor photo shoot was in progress under the gate, which was reconstructed in 1783.


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A priest's residence rests above Myokochi Pond (pond of sacred fragrance) which was originally designed by an early chief priest, Muso, but remodeled in 2001. The rock is called "tiger head rock".


The Butsuden was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the present hall was built in 1964 using reinforced concrete, but still has a Zen Buddhist style.
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The object of worship in the Butsuden (Buddha Hall) is a statue of Shaka Nyora (Sakyamuni - the historical Buddha). Sorry for the blurred picture. The statue is 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) tall.

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Unlike many of the buildings which over time were consumed by fire or leveled by the great earthquake, this beautiful old momiji (Japanese maple) still stands.


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This is called Shaiden and was once the main hall of a nunnery that was abandoned in the 16th century after the chief nun was kidnapped during a war. It was built in the early 1400's and is the only building in Kamakura to be listed as a National Treasure. It is the oldest Chinese style building in Japan


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This building, which is surrounded by a wall, is called Butsunichi-an. It was built after the death of Hojo Tokemuni who meditated there and houses his ashes. As he died on the 4th of April (1284), a tea ceremony is held there on the 4th day of each month.


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Up a very long flight of steps (140 to be exact) is the temple bell which was cast in 1301 and is a National Treasure. It is the largest bell in Kamakura, measuring 2.6 meters in height and 1.42 meters in diameter.


Next to the bell, is a tea house with a covered patio that has benches covered by tatami. We had tokoroten - a traditional Japanese summer snack of cold jelly strips made from tengusa seaweed in a vinegar dressing with powdered green tea and horseradish. Tokoroten has been eaten in Japan for 1300 years.

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Tokoroten


The tokoroten was cooling and the tea house has a lovely view of the valley. There is much more to see at Engaku-ji, but morning was almost over and we had more temples to visit before heading home.

つづく (to be continued)

2007/10/21

Mikan Season

We have a number of fruit trees in our small yard and this year has been a very productive one. Our persimmon tree and pomegranate bush did very well (though the birds took more than their fair share). Right now our mikan tree is loaded with fruit. Not only are there a lot of them, they are bigger than in years past.

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Mikan (the Japanese name) came from China where it is called Whenzou migan, and was introduced to the West from here. It is known as mandarin or tangerine in North America and satsuma in the UK.


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The average tangerine has 22 mg of vitamin C, plus folic acid and 512 iu of vitamin A. These not "average" sized, the largest being about 8 cm in diameter (over 3 inches). Not to mention how tasty they are.

I don't know what conditions made for this bumper crop, but I'm sure happy to have fresh organic fruit right outside my door. Now if I could just find a variety of bananas that do well here...

2007/10/12

Katsu! or How to Make a Zen Vacuum Cleaner

Fifth in a series that began with Road Trip (Railroad That Is), continued with Putting On Airs followed by The Pirates of Ashinoko and Dîner Français and the First Kamakura Shogun

As we left Hachimangu Shrine, we walked up Kamakura-kaido Street, past the Prefectural Modern Art museum annex. This street is part of an ancient highway network that was built to connect Kamakura with Kyoto and other parts of Japan.
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The first gate "Somon" was built in 1783 in Kyoto and brought to Kenchoji in 1943

The next stop on our sightseeing adventure was Kenchoji, an important Zen training center that was founded by Hojo Tokiyori (1227-1263) - fifth Regent of Kamakura and Zen follower - in 1253. Minamoto Yoritomo's wife Masako who was mentioned in the previous post about this trip was from the Hojo clan. They took over the Shogunate following the turbulent times which ensued upon Yoritomo's death. The temple is the oldest Zen temple in Kamakura and one of the oldest in all of Japan. It was operated by Chinese monks who came to Japan to escape the repression of the Mongolians who had invaded China. As with many temples in Japan, the buildings have been the victims of fire over the years and have been rebuilt at various times.

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The 30 meter high Sanmon gate - rebuilt in 1775

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The main bell, cast in 1255



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This is the Butsuden (main hall for worship). I found it quite interesting because it was built in Tokyo for the purpose of memorial services for the wife of Hidetada Tokugawa (1579-1632), the Second Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and brought to Kenchoji in 1647. Also, it was constructed for a Jodo sect temple, so the architecture is much more ornate that one usually sees at a Zen temple. Another curious fact is that the statue(s) within it is of Jizo Bosatsu - the bodhisattva who helps children and others who are lost in hell to find their way to nirvana. Jizo is perhaps the most popular Bodhisattva in Japan, but is not commonly the focus of worship in Zen temples. In this case it was done because the grounds were once a place where criminals were executed and Jizo is there to help those who were killed cruelly or who were innocent.

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This is the Karamon gate which leads to the "Hojo" - Chief priest's quarters. It was brought here along with the main hall in 1647 and was only used for receiving special emissaries. Even now, it is only used on special occasions and one enters the Hojo through a door off to one side.

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Inside the Hojo looking back at the Karamon gate. The tall building behind the gate in this picture is the lecture hall, or Hatto, which was built in 1814 and is dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Mercy.


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This part of the Hojo is where Zazen (sitting meditation) sessions are held for the laity.

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The garden designed by Priest Soseki Muso (1275-1351). The building on the right contains offices and guest rooms.


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On the way back out, we saw monks gathering at the Hatto (Lecture Hall). The giant cypress trees in the background of the above picture were planted by Priest Rankei, the founding priest, who brought the seeds from China. The trees are known to have been there since at least 1331.

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As we got closer to the Hatto, the monks were filing in through a side door.

Then we were treated to another fascinating and colorful sight.
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As we rounded the corner of the building, a VIP - perhaps a visiting Abott - was entering the front of the Hatto in his beautiful gold robes and red slippers, being shaded by an attendant with a red umbrella. No doubt he would be speaking to the assembly of monks. Martin, of Kurashi - News from Japan fame, spent a year training in a Zen temple. He informs me that such visits called for a great deal of temple cleaning and attention to detail down to the arrangement of the food and tea offered to the VIP. Yet, when engaged in conversation, they were always delightful people to speak with.

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On the way out, we stopped at the temple store and got t-shirts. Mine (above) says "Katsu", a word with no meaning that Zen priests shout at their students, often accompanied by a blow with a stick, to break their train of thought and thus help them to a deeper understanding of a koan. At least that's what I hear. I hope Martin will correct me if I've been misinformed.

Oh, I almost forgot. How do you make a Zen vacuum cleaner? Easy. Just lose all the attachments!

2007/10/08

Cool Salty Air

by Momo the Wonder Dog

Pandabonium and K took me to the beach on Sunday. I hadn't been there since last year (see Beach Blanket Momo to read about that trip and see more pictures). When we left home, I sat on Pandabonium's lap and looked out the windows of the car, just to make sure we were really on our way. Then I curled up on the floor for the rest of the trip.

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The beach park, Kashimanada, isn't really very far and we were there in less than 30 minutes. Kashimanada Park has a big grassy area near the road, plus a parking lot, restrooms, and a farmers market. There are some other buildings that can be used for nature talks or meetings. They don't allow cars, motor scooters or bicycles within the park, but dogs are welcome (woof!).

The smell of the salty ocean air excited my senses and I needed to "5-4-4" (go shi shi) - it means pee - as soon as we arrived and so bolted out the door as soon as it was open. Pandabonium was not at all happy about that and worried I might get hit by a car, but I made it to the grass strip on the edge of the parking lot. Then I let him put me on the leash and we headed for the beach which is down a long path paved to look like brick. There was a marching band practicing music and formations on the lawn.

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At the beach level, the park runs up and down the coast, with a nice grass area in the middle and long elevated boardwalks that go through pines. I like the grass best, as the ocean is really loud and scary, but they took me down to the beach first. There is a walkway there and lots of people were playing in the sand, fishing, or just enjoying the fresh air and watching the ocean.

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They wanted to walk me along the sand, but I didn't want to be that close to the water. I was pulling as hard as I could and K had to hang on to the leash with both hands to hold me back. Finally they gave up and took me back up to the grassy area.

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There were lots of people there with young kids who were playing on the big "flying saucer" and slide or rolling down the steep part of the grass hill. We went up to the wooden watch tower and sat on the bench there watching the waves and people. Some of the kids came up to see me.

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This is me on the flying saucer last year, but since there were kids playing on it this time, I stayed off of it. In 1803, a woman in strange clothing came ashore here in a mysterious circular craft. You can read all about it in "Alien Encounter!" on this blog.

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The sun felt warm, but the air was cool and there was a little breeze blowing up the coast. Sea gulls were flying up and down the beach, occasionally swooping down to the water or sand, perhaps to pick up a sand crab to eat.

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Pandabonium and K shared some pretzel sticks with me. They brought my water dish so I could have a drink. One boy and his mom were playing a game of catch with a Frisbee. He looked like he was having fun, but I was more interested in the pretzels.

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Well, when the pretzel sticks ran out I was ready to do something else. The sun was starting to go behind the tree tops and Panda loaned K his windbreaker since she was feeling a chill.
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We decided it was time to head for home. On the way back to the car we saw lot of dogs on their way to the beach or just playing on the grass at the park entrance. Some of them looked kind of scary and I didn't want to walk past them, so K and Pandabonium took turns holding me the rest of the way. The marching band was still practicing, reminding Pandabonium of his high school years. Back in the car, I once again sat on Pandabonium's lap until we got out on the road, then curled up on the floor. It had been a fun afternoon, but just then I was looking forward to home, dinner and a good rest.

2007/10/07

Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL

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This is Nissan's new concept car, The Pivo 2 that will debut at the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show. Powered by advanced Compact Lithium-ion Batteries and featuring a unique rotating cabin - meaning no reverse gear required - the first Pivo became a cult hit at shows from Beijing to Geneva.

Pivo 2 takes the idea of an environmentally friendly electric urban commuter vehicle and adds fun, functionality and a unique relationship between the car and driver. Pivo 2 is powered by advanced Compact Lithium-ion Batteries and employs 'by-wire' technologies for braking and steering. There are no axles which allows the wheels to change angle.

Where the first Pivo, with its fully rotating cabin design, made reversing obsolete, the Pivo 2 takes that easy mobility concept to a new level. Each of the four wheels are powered by Nissan's advanced electric In-wheel 3D Motor and can turn through 90 degrees to allow Pivo 2 to drive sideways as well as forward. The rotating cabin also means that when parked on the street, you can exit or enter directly to or from the sidewalk. The seating faces the door, on which the controls are mounted.

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The Robotic Agent, which moves and uses lighted eyes and mouth for expression, can converse with you in Japanese and English, offering directions - such as where the nearest parking lot is located and which one is cheapest. But it can do much more than that. It can even read your facial expression to see if you are having a good day and if not, say things to help cheer you up. Or if you look sleepy, it might offer to show you to the nearest coffee shop.

Being a "concept car" there are obviously a few things that need addressing before turning into a production vehicle. You wouldn't want to open that door in the rain for example, and there is no place to stash the groceries for another, but the whole purpose of this kind of project is to explore ideas.

Pivo 2 won't tear me away from my bicycle, but I really appreciate a concept car with a truly innovative design that focuses on the environment as well as the practical utility and comfort for the user of the vehicle as opposed to merely cranking out yet another (yawn) muscle car. Attention to the enjoyment of day to day life is something I've come to deeply admire about Japan. A recent article in the International Herald Tribune (thanks Kurashi - News from Japan) put it well -

"...(Japan) has quietly gone about its business, applying the same kind of meticulous approach long ago made famous by its industries, of relentless small improvements to quality of life."



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Thank you, HAL.

2007/10/05

Ketchup!

I know, it should be "Catsup". But actually I mean "catch up".

I'm falling behind in my posts. I still have to finish my series about our excursion to Hakone and Kamakura. Then there was the lantern festival at Kashima Shrine during which I was hit by a tree full of lanterns, and a fantastic air show at Hyakuri Air Base we went to on the 9th of September. Not to mention a new Fiji post. Whew.

I'd better get caught up soon, because on the 16th of this month I'll be taking pics of some of the over 100 classic cars which will come through Kashima City during the four day "La Festa Mille Miglia" - Japan's version of the famous Italian race/rally which was first held in 1925. Mille Miglia is Italian for "1000 miles". This is the 1oth year for Japan's rally and the cars date from 1924 to 1967 - all classics, no replicas allowed. More about that after the event.

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Meanwhile, here are some pictures I took yesterday while cycling down by lake Kitaura. I hope you enjoy them even half as much as enjoyed taking them. Most can be enlarged by clicking on them.

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A couple rides their bikes along the levy on this picture perfect afternoon.

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A heron looks for an afternoon snack in a rice paddy.

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Frightened by my picture taking, the heron flew over to the lake and perched on a post.

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Egrets at the "sushi bar".

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An egret takes flight. Ah well. I try to live without 'egrets.

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A fisherman mends his net.

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Another hawk gets airborne.

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A man enjoys cruising along the lake on his custom motorbike with sidecar.

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Hawk eyes checking me out as I prepare to leave.