Kenrokuen Garden’s Kotoji Lantern

Photo of the Day

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a photo from Japan, so it’s time to rectify that situation.

Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen gardens make it onto one of Japan’s weird lists: “the three most beautiful landscape gardens.” I don’t know many other cultures that would feel the need to make that kind of ranking, but I consider that one of the endearing things about the Japanese.

In any case, yes, it’s a truly gorgeous place. I saw it while on a trip with my co-workers and I got a taste of the Japanese’s penchant for whirlwind visits. I had to be quick to get away from the pack and set up the tripod for a few moments.

This image is of The Kotoji Lantern which is said to look like the bridge on the Japanese traditional instrument, the koto. It’s an iconic view of the garden and a symbol of the city. I was fortunate to have some of Japan’s spectacularly-coloured autumn leaves in the background.

Click to see the image on a black background:

Kenrokuen in Kanazawa

Motsuji Gardens Panorama

Photo of the Day

This is one of the few panoramic images I shot while living in Japan. It’s the gardens surrounding the Motsuji Temple in Hiraizumi, a historic town just north of Ichinoseki which was my home while in Japan.

A bike ride to Hiraizumi made for a great day out with places like Motsuji and the nearby Chusonji as destinations. I miss Motsuji’s tranquil gardens surrounding the lake and I wish I could just hop on a bike and jaunt over there for an afternoon again.

Click to see a larger image:

Motsuji Gardens Panorama

Photos of Harajuku

Oops. I kind of forgot that I put up these photos last week. It has been a busy week after all (and they just keep coming!).

So, in case you haven’t already seen my photos of Harajuku, wander on over and have a look.

This Tokyo district is home to the majority of Japan’s weird trend setters. Scores of boutiques serve up every kind of fashion imaginable. Bands line up on the sidewalks and blast their music into the streets. Flea markets cover the ground with clothes of all types. Pompadoured, leather-pant clad rockabilly dancers do the twist in the park. Goth teens feign indifference to the photographers that give them the attention they crave.

Harajuku is a cornucopia of people watching delights, but if you tire of the weird and wild, nearby Yoyogi Park offers tranquility and respite with quiet lakes and lovely picnic spots in the woods.

But it’s hard to get tired of the vibrance of Tokyo’s youth showing off their creativity and earnest yearning for individuality in an frequently conformist society.

Check out the photos here.

Harajuku Goths

Harajuku Rockabilly

Yoyogi Park

Photos of Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine

I’ve been homesick lately, but strangely, not for my actual hometown of Calgary. Instead, I’ve been longing for some time spent in one of my second homes: Japan. I think it may just be itchy feet longing for someplace exotic.

To scratch that itch, I have just uploaded a gallery of photos of the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo. Surrounded by the modern weirdness and teen-oriented shopping of the Harajuku district, this temple is an oasis of traditional Japan.

The shrine is reached by walking a long, wide path through the perpetually-green Yoyogi park. Enormous torii gates signal your imminent arrival to the shrine but suggest a building far more grand than the austere and low shrine. These torii gates are absolutely huge and their scale suggests something equally large awaits.

Though this isn’t the case, the shrine isn’t a disappointment. Though it isn’t an old building, it successfully pretends to be. It was built with traditional techniques and materials that make it fit in with any of Japan’s ancient temples.

Being Tokyo, you can’t expect to find it vacant of visitors, but part of the charm lies in the people watching that can be done there. On weekends, the Meiji Shrine is a popular location for weddings and if you visit, you may be lucky to catch a glimpse of a couple in traditional dress tying the knot.

Photos of the Meiji Shrine here.

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

More Photos of Kyoto Temples

On my last full day here in Bangkok, I have another couple sets of photos to present to you. I have just uploaded a couple more groups of photos of temples in Kyoto: Sanjusangendo and Ginkakuji.

Sanjusangendo is home to 1001 human-sized Buddha images inside Japan’s longest wooden building. Unfortunately, photos are prohibited inside the temple. As it turns out, photos of the inside of the temple are also prohibited from the outside of the temple. I found this out after I snapped a shot through an open doorway and one of the caretakers promptly shut the door in front of me. Thus, I only have one shot of the Buddhas and it only gives a tiny sample of the grandeur inside.

Ginkakuji is referred to as the silver pavilion despite not being silver at all. Long ago, plans were in place to have it covered in silver to make it more like its cousin across town, Ginkakuji, the golden pavilion. That goal was never reached but the building’s wooden frame still retains its metallic moniker. It stands in front of a pool, carefully-sculpted zen gardens and lush hillside forests.

Photos of Kanazawa

While living and working Japan, my office at the Board of Education in Ichinoseki planned a trip to Kanazawa. Both Sarah and I were invited along, so we took the chance to go see an area of the country that wasn’t especially accessible from our northern position.

The big draw of Kanazawa is the garden of Kenrokuen which has been labelled one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. Yes, the Japanese like to make lists like this. But, in this case, maybe they got it right. Of all the gardens I visited in Japan, this was definitely towards the top of the list.

On our first evening, we partied with the folks from our section and I was treated to my favourite bit of dialogue ever heard from my supervisor. As we were leaving, he and his best buddy at work were the last ones out of the room with me. With arms around each other and faces flushed red with the evening’s sake, they turned to me and my supervisor said rather seriously in his meagre English, “We… are drunk.”

He then proceeded to break into song, “We love love love love drinking!” while doing an uncoordinated dance all while never letting go of his friend’s shoulder (a wise idea since I’m sure it was about the only thing keeping him upright).

The next day, I woke absurdly early to walk over to Kanazawa Castle to catch the morning light then hustle back to the hotel to meet the rest of the group to part together for the day’s activities.

And yes, I got to be a Japanese tourist. On a precise schedule, we rode through town never lingering too long at our stops and being suitably impressed at each site along the way. Happily, we had some extra time at Kenrokuen and it was just enough time for the afternoon’s rains to momentarily so that I could take some photos of the gardens.

I would have gladly stayed longer, but of course, that’s just not how you do things in Japan.

Photos of Kiyomizudera Temple

I’ve added yet another batch of photos to the gallery. Photos of Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto are now available for your viewing pleasure. It’s both interesting architecturally and ritualistically. Countless locals visit this temple to worship, to find luck and to taste the water that pours from a nearby spring. The long lineups to sample the spring suggest that the rumoured healing properties of the water may be worth a substantial wait.

Photos of Odaiba in Tokyo

The photo processing machine keeps rolling on here in Bangkok. I have again opted for some images from Japan with some photos of the Odaiba district. This series of man-made islands in Tokyo bay features futuristic architecture that will make you feel like you are in a video game while the Rainbow Bridge arcs across the horizon back to Tokyo’s the glow of distant Tokyo. I only visited during the evening, but that is when I imagine Odaiba is at its most futuristically surreal.

Photos of Sensoji Temple in Tokyo

Just as with my photos of the Petronas Towers, I noticed that my photos of Tokyo’s Sensoji temple were not representative of a few visits I had made there. I’ve stayed in the Asakusa area and walking over to the temple with camera in hand is a great way to spend an evening. It may not be the most architecturally ornate or elegant of Japan’s temples, but the size of the gates, the iconic, five-story pagoda, and the active visitors of the temple make it a great shooting location.

Photos of Osaka

I was only able to spend a few short days in Osaka when I was travelling through Japan. It seemed, even more than Tokyo, the very definition of ‘urban.’ Many people have a vision of Japan as a futuristic, modern city that covers virtually every inch of the archipelago and if they only visited Osaka, they would be justified in believing that.

The photos I have uploaded include images of the Osaka Skyline, the Dotonbori Shopping and Entertainment District and The Umeda Sky Building. When time permits, I also have images from Osaka castle and Osaka Aquarium that I intend to process and upload as well, so stay tuned.

And as always, a few samples:

The Umeda Sky Building

Osaka Skyline


New Photos of Japan

A few new sets of images from Japan are now up in the gallery section. This time it is a bit of old and new with photos from two Kyoto Shrines (the Yasaka Shrine and the Heian Shrine) as well as the brightly-lit Ginza shopping district in Tokyo.

And of course, a few examples of what to expect in the galleries:

Yasaka Shrine


Heian Shrine

Images of Himeji Castle and Okunoin

As I mentioned in my previous post, instead of being busy exploring Bangkok (I told you, I have plenty of time here!), I have been busy working on processing some of my older images. And perhaps it’s just because Japan is still fresh in my mind, or perhaps it’s just due to my fondness for the country, but I have decided to upload some images from the country I called home a year ago.

I have uploaded images from the Okunoin cemetery on Mount Koya (Koyasan) as well as photos of Himeji Castle. Okunoin is a magical place where ghosts must certainly be happy to roam. It’s a mystical place and is either my favourite or second favopurite cemetery that I’ve visited. (I know some people may find it weird that I like cemeteries, but really, some of them are just beautiful.)

Himeji Castle is a great remnant of Japan’s feudal past. It has survived the ages and countless disasters to remain towering over the city of Himaji.

Here is a couple of samples:

Himeji Castle


Back to Bangkok

My damp shirt combined with the air-conditioner in this internet cafe are conspiring to make me forget that it’s 30-plus degrees outside. The rain tried to soak me, but only splashed me a little. So, I’m now killing time while the clouds pass.

My overnight bus from Ichinoseki to Tokyo was a relatively restless affair. I lack the ability of most Japanese citizens to fall asleep like a narcoleptic. They can pass out anywhere, anytime. Me, I need a bed, silence, total darkness, no movement and no one around me and even then it’s a dodgy affair. I’m like the princess and the pea, but you’re not allowed to call me princess.

The flights were fine and China Airlies did a fine job on today’s meals including some spanakopita, so that was a nice surprise. Remember to always order the vegetarian meal on flights folks – it always gets served first and the food seems to be a bit better than the usual airline fare.

And now here in Bangkok, just off the ever-popular Khao San Road, I’m feeling a little bit lonely. I’ve just made the transition to solo traveller again and I’m not quite used to it after being surrounded by so many good friends in Japan. Plus, the last time I was here, I had Sarah’s lovely company and we could laugh at the hippie backpacker stereotypes together.

But, since I haven’t seen the city at all really, this will be my chance to check out what will surely be a few impressive sights. They ought to put some travel energy back into my solo traveller feet.

My Second Departure from Japan

This post marks my departure from Japan and a return to travel for me. That means that I won’t have the opportunity to waste endless hours scouring the Internet for all things photographically interesting. Instead, I will now shift back into travel writing mode (and I hope that’s at least somewhat interesting).

My upcoming plans are vague and mutable, but here’s the gist: I will be leaving Japan on July 1st and heading back to Thailand. My return ticket takes me to Bangkok where I will spend a little time photographing the city. When I first swept through the metropolis, I took a stroll up and down Khao San Road, and that was about it before heading off to other parts of Thailand (and many people have said I made a wise choice).

But, I will have at least a week or two to spend in Bangkok and/or nearby destinations inside Thailand. That may turn into a month depending on how much I’m enjoying myself.

When my Thailand fun is finished, the plan is to head down to Australia. The cheapest entry point is Darwin – one of the most Northern cites in the country. I’ve been told that there’s not much good reason to stay in Darwin, so I expect to quickly buy a ticket out of Dullsville (if that’s what it turns out to be).

But that’s where the planning ends. I mean, I don’t even have a guidebook for Australia yet. I just know that soon after arriving in the country, I will likely be putting that working holiday visa of mine to use with whatever job I can find. Prices down under are going to come as a shock to my stretched budget, so I expect to be temping/fruit picking/working construction/dreaming of a photography job/whatever work I can find sooner than later.

I aim to keep posting fun stories and adventures on a regular basis, so I hope you’ll come back and keep up with me.

Photos of Japanese Cherry Blossoms

This April, I was lucky enough to catch the ephemeral Japanese cherry trees in their full spring regalia. The previous year, I circumvented their arrival in Japan by heading on a vacation to the south of the country at exactly the wrong time to catch them.

So I was quite pleased to find myself in a static position in the north of Japan this year and I could let the fleeting flowers come to me and I could see for myself why the Japanese loved these tiny, pink flowers so much. The sakura really are spectacular, though they seem to have special significance to the Japanese and for them, each tree almost seems imbued with divinity.

I have just now uploaded a gallery of photos of cherry blossoms and their arrival in Ichinoseki, Iwate, Japan.

Photos of a Shinto Shrine in Nakasato

Not content to have yesterday’s gorgeous weather pass me by while I stayed inside and worked all day, I was compelled to visit one of my favourite places in Ichonoseki, Japan: the shrine on top of the hill in Nakano district.

The cedar-forested hill is as peaceful as you can imagine – the only hint of movement is the slowly undulating shadows on the forest floor as the light passes through the gently swaying tree tops. At the base of the hill is a small garden where a butterfly landed on my cheek as I approached – evidently, with my fully-sprouted beard, I now resemble lichen.

Long stone steps begin at the entrance to the forest and lead up to the shrine. Less than halfway up the steps is a group of miniature stone houses where spirits undoubtedly live. A red-bibbed Jizo statue also chooses this isolated location to loiter.

The shrine itself isn’t Japan’s largest, most beautiful or most holy, but it certainly gets high ranks for peacefulness. During my whole time there yesterday, I only saw one other person willing to hike up the plentiful steps to reach a piece of privacy. I can only imagine the experience of visiting some of Kyoto’s temples in such solitude. If it was ever possible, lonely visitors to those places were lucky.

I took along my camera despite the harsh midday light. Here are my three favourite shots of the visit:

Stone Spirit House

Jizo Statue

Rope on Tree

Something Resembling Normal

I now spend a lot more time in front of a computer than I do behind a lens or in front of some wonderful spectacle. And for now, I have no complaints. By July, my feet may regain their usual itchiness and I will be eager to hit the road once more. But for now, I’m happy to stay off them for a while.

The next couple of months will be spent recharging my batteries after the three months of constant movement, reconnecting with friends in Japan, and making all my pretty pictures that much prettier (and of course, sharing them with you).

So, now that I’m here in Japan and temporarily resuming something akin to a normal life, my travel adventure tales may be a little less frequent. Of course, bizarre sights, sounds and times abound in Japan, so I’m bound to find myself getting into some kind of fun. Already the treasured, ephemeral cherry blossoms have swept through Ichinoseki and are now drifting to the ground like snowflakes, but not before I photographed them and joined a hanami (cherry blossom viewing party) party with friends old and new. The blossoms couldn’t escape me this year! Already I have regained my private rock star status in the city’s best karaoke joint. Already I have been bewildered and enchanted by this strange country and this quaint city that is still so foreign and yet so familiar.

But until I find myself being tackled by kids, climbing a mountain, or appearing on morning TV, I may actually turn this blog of mine into less of a travel journal and more of a… well… blog.

When taking breaks from processing photos, the Internet is of course, my number one distraction, so from time to time, I’ll pass along some of better material that has left me feeling not exceptionally guilty about my procrastination.

And without further ado, the talked about story of the weekend is Steven Colbert’s appearance at the White House Correspondents dinner. Dishing out scathing and hilarious commentary on George Bush is one thing. Doing it to his face is another. And for that, Mr. Colbert gets my official Big Cajones of the Day Award.

Video of the roasting is available in three parts through YouTube:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Japan, the Sequel

Bathed in the orange glow of the electric heater, George and I look around the room. George’s gaze darts a little more frantically because George is Sarah’s fish. He’s fat and has bug eyes. He’s a black goldfish that can take more punishment than most aquatic house pets. I suspect, right now, he is having similar thoughts to me: ‘Someone turn up the heat.’

Though, George being the hardy fellow he is, he’s probably used to this temperature. Not me. I mean, only a couple days ago, I was sweating out 40 degree days. This 30 degree shift down has me recalling all too vividly my winter in Japan and cursing the architects who did not have the foresight to install insulation or central heating in these Japanese apartments.

I know this really isn’t cold, but you have to think relatively here. 40 degrees down to 10 is shrinks a lot of mercury (among other things). Give me a week and I’ll be back to asserting my Canadian mastery over all things cold. With ice cubes down my pants, I’ll be hunting for some frozen poles I can lick. But for now, I’m going to shiver under my blanket and recall to myself that other than this delay in the Japanese spring, everything is pretty much perfect.

I’ve only made a quick sojourn from the apartment today, but while walking those familiar streets, I couldn’t help giggling to myself, ‘I’m in Japan again!’ while a huge grin preceded each of my footsteps.

The weirdest country I’ve to which I’ve ever been, this place is re-revealing it’s odd contradictions and making me recall why leaving here those many months ago was a mistake. But I’m not attempting to live in the past here. I feel, instead like I’m caught somewhere between past, present and future. It’s both like I never left and my whole life is ahead of me.

But like many of Japan’s mysteries, I have decided not to delve too deeply. It’s not a land that reveals its secrets easily. Instead, I will just go with the flow and bypass these strange temporal eddies.

Soon, George and I will greet Sarah’s return from a day at work and succumb to her pressure to watch American Idol. I like to pretend watching that show causes me some mortal wound so that perhaps I can curry some favour. But, it’s really Sarah that should be thanked for allowing me the chance to come back here to Japan. Maybe tonight I won’t make any jesting complaints. I can’t speak for George though. I think he really hates that show.

Thailand to Japan

I’m about to say au revoir to Thailand (I don’t know how to say it in Thai, so I’ll with French, not because of any French tradition in Thailand, but because I’ll be seeing this country again in a couple months).

When I return from Japan, I plan to stay at least a little while in Bangkok because I saw nothing of the city while I was there. People seem to either love the place or loathe it, but I really don’t know it enough to tell you either way. I also figure that having spent this amount of time in Thailand, I should have at least a few photos of its capital city. As it stands, I didn’t take a single shot while I was here.

Yesterday, I spent the entire day relaxing after my bus journey from Chiang Mai. I wound up in a hostel that had a TV in the room for the first time in a long time and the bulk of my day was spent with a steady stream of movies.

You can’t blame me for relaxing a bit because my trip to Bangkok was a little bit stressful. I had been expecting to take a bus from Chiang Mai on the 17th in the morning. I would wake early and 12 hours later, I would arrive in Bangkok in the evening. The day before, I looked at my ticket and something told me to double check the time.

I hopped over to the guesthouse where I originally bought the ticket and made my query. The woman who sold me the ticket replied with shock. ‘Oh no! We don’t have buses in the morning!’ To which I responded, ‘Huh?’ It said 5:30 am right on the receipt. But apparently, while writing, accuracy of any kind was not on her agenda. She should have been writing 6:30 pm.

So, the bus for which I was now booked was departing at 6:30 pm and would arrive in Bangkok at 6:30 am. My flight is at 8:25 so I would be cutting it far too close. Frazzled, I enquired about my options and with a previously unknown efficiency, the woman called up the bus company and managed to get me a seat on the next bus that evening. (Thank you to whoever it was that cancelled! Much appreciated!)

I hurriedly packed and got myself some dinner before I was whisked off to the bus leaving an audible ‘Whew!’ in my wake.

Now, I’m freezing in this terminal’s overzealous air conditioning and trying to prepare for the even worse cold I’m told awaits me in Japan. Spring is arriving late this year. On the plus side, that means the cherry blossoms should not quite have bloomed yet in Iwate. And since the sakura are just about the most beautiful thing in the world (or so the Japanese would have you believe), I’m in luck. Last year, through irritating scheduling coincidences, I missed their full force. This year, I should be fortunate enough to stroll through their flowery midst.

Though by no means is this what I’m most anticipating in Japan. Seeing my friends there again is going to be great. I’m giddy at the excitement of gathering up as many people as possible and heading to karaoke (though my voice is a little shot after the mirthful yelling of Songkran). I may already have a karaoke date scheduled this Friday, so I better rest up the old pipes. I’m just thrilled I’ll get the chance to see these good friends again in the place where our friendships grew.

And for those following along, get ready for a deluge of photos. While travelling, I haven’t had the chance to upload much new material, but for the next couple months, the bulk of my time will be spent preparing images for my site and my agencies. First up will be photos from Songkran because I met so many people there who want to see my photos. But after that, I’m flexible. If you have any requests from any of the places I’ve been, drop me a line and I’ll throw it towards the top of the queue.

An Overdue Update

Well, it’s been a ridiculously long time since I’ve done any writing. I hardly know where to begin. I last wrote about my experiences being enthusiastically tackled by Japanese four year-olds while teaching kindergarten and that feels like it was about a year ago.

Since then, I’ve compressed a year’s worth of experiences into the last few months. I’ve grown immensely close with a number of my friends from Japan, worked my butt off, turned 30, watched others turn other ages (usually younger), sang hours and hours of karaoke, said more painful goodbyes than I ever needed to, visited Tokyo with my sister, travelled in Hong Kong, moved to Kuala Lumpur, and started a new life.

So, I haven’t had journal keeping as a top priority for a while now. However, as I settle into my new home in KL, I hope that perhaps I will eventually get more time to record some of my thoughts and experiences. A number of the events of the last few months deserve their own entries and I may retroactively fill in some of the gaps. We’ll see if life cooperates with this endeavour. If my Internet connection remains as terrible as it is now, we may be in luck – I can write in between page loads’

A Birthday Update

I’m not a terribly materialist person. Fancy cars, expensive watches, gold-plated diapers; these mean little to me. I tend to go for function over form with most of my possessions.

The lone exception may be gadgetry. I like having nice toys. While my financial situation rarely affords me the opportunity to indulge in my fantasy of an unlimited shopping spree through Yodobashi camera, I do have a few chip-laden tools that are near and dear to me.

The most prized of these possessions is my computer. My lovely little Powerbook, over the course of the last year has become my darkroom, my journal, my stereo and CD collection, my DVD player, my video arcade, my answering machine, my post office, my newspaper and even my television.

So, when my hard drive on said Powerbook decides to quit the world of the living, I get sad. Fortunately, however, before slipping into eternal slumber, I was able to diagnose its terminal condition and backup the contents of the drive. Very little data was lost, so that was a big plus. The downsides were the big sum of cash I had to pay to get it fixed and the two-week delay in its return to me.

So, that explains why I haven’t exactly been punctual with my journal entries as of late.

Instead of the verbose, bored-in-the-office-with-little-else-to-do entries that could have occurred in the last couple of weeks, you will now get the condensed version.

The past couple of weekends have featured a couple birthday parties. The first was Brent’s whose bash included a great deal of food consumption and another spectacular round of karaoke. Sarah and I spent a good part of the day grating the raw materials necessary to create Sarah’s delicious veggie sausage rolls. Every tear shed into the grated onions just added the flavour of devotion to the project.

Sarah was also the mastermind behind our gift to Brent: a shrine devoted to the legendary Cliff Richard. Now, Brent holds a large place in the bottom of his heart for the master English songsmith, so it seemed only appropriate to find a leopard-print picture frame to house a photo of the young Mr. Richard at his pouty, come-hither best. Add to that some incense and candles plus a custom-made CD of Cliff’s magna opi (or magnum opuses to all you folks you don’t like to try to conjugate Latin) and Brent was pretty much in hysterics. Mission accomplished.

The next day, a group of us headed north to Kitakami for Italian lunch then a performance by Kodo, the drumming troupe from the Japanese island of Sado. An ear-ringingly good time was had by all.

The next five days counted as my fourth successive week of elementary school teaching. Even now, after being here for a year, I am still going to new schools and giving, self-intro lessons. That made for a few fun moments on June 21st when I inevitably had to tell the curious class when my birthday was. I was treated to numerous choruses of ‘Happy Birthday’ with each of them stumbling when they had reached ‘Dear Da-bi”

That evening, Sarah was kind enough to cook a quiet dinner for me en lieu of a party – that was coming later. Gnocchi was followed by brownies that were destined to become the first in a long line of heavily-sugared foodstuffs to be delivered to me as a birthday gift.

Everyone here knows that I’ll be heading off to Malaysia soon and I don’t want to pack along a lot of extra baggage. They also know I have a sweet tooth that can bite through just about anything. What they may have overestimated, however, is the ability of my body to actually process the amount of refined sugar that now sits in my apartment. Maybe if I had a few months to eat it all, I could manage, but with only a month before I live, I suspect I will be passing out sweet gifts here and there.

My birthday party this Saturday was a well-attended affair, but there were a few people I would have loved to have there that couldn’t make it. Despite a few absences, a great time was had at a party designed to have me feel like a twelve year old instead of a thirty year old. It was pizza and bowling and the only thing that could have heightened the sense of youthful nostalgia would have been a local Chucky Cheese’s franchise. For the record (and because this is my blog and I’m allowed to be a little vain) I did manage to record the highest bowling score of the evening, a respectable (for me) 141. Jonathan was inches behind with a 140 in a hotly-contested match that came down to the last pin.

Yesterday, Sarah, Josh, and north-side Sarah returned to Kitakami to witness the awesome cinematic spectacle that is Batman Begins. A great movie topped off a great weekend.

Now, with my computer back, I can resume my insatiable consumption of information (though I did manage to finish off a few books while it was gone). But more importantly, I can resume work on my now behind-schedule website. I had hoped to have it finished before I left for Malaysia, but that may now be a difficult proposition. If only all this teaching nonsense didn’t get in the way’

Dancin’ at Kindergarten

If you’ve never seen a five-year-old do the twist, get on it. It’s one of the cuter things you’re likely to witness in this life.

Now imagine 20 five-year old Japanese children all shaking their little hips as best as their uncoordinated bodies will let them and you get an impression of my morning. I spent the morning at Gembi Kindergarten and doing an impression of Vincent Vega with the kids is an image I hope I never lose from my mental imagery file.

Visiting a kindergarten is actually pretty easy. The instructional component of each class is minimal (even more so than elementary school). For the most part, I just play games with the little tykes. In today’s case, I spent half the time dancing with the budding Baryshnikovs. Okay Baryshnikovs is a stretch, but you get the idea.

Any difficulties are addressed (mostly) by the Japanese teachers I work with. Shy or undisciplined students are given hugs or glares respectively and not too much trouble ensues. Really, the only concern I had was for my health. If they weren’t trying to shake my hand with their snot-encrusted fingers, they were plotting ways to get close to my butt to either grab it or poke it. Not that a four year old can do much damage to my butt, (in fact, my butt can probably do more damage to a four your old’), but you can never be too careful. Not to mention, you don’t want to set a bad precedent – bum poking now turns into the infamous kancho later.

I didn’t fear for my safety while being tackled by a hoarde of three years olds. You could probably pile a couple dozen on top of me before I would be unable to burst forth like He-Man in a swarm of enemies. No, the tackling was good fun and the kids made no effort to exploit my vulnerable position.

Instead, the only time any harm came my way was while playing London Bridge. In this harmless game, it’s pretty hard to get injured in any way, but one kid managed to help me to that end. While filing into line, one boy ahead of me decided that giving me an upward-motion karate chop to the groin. He landed a direct hit. But again, he was only four. So, while such a blow delivered by an adult would have landed me in a heap on the floor, this was only mildly surprising.

Though it wasn’t painful, it was, however, a little disappointing. I had managed to make it ten months in Japan without any of my students hitting, groping, poking, pinching, slapping, fondling, kicking, head-butting, elbowing, biting, setting fire to, or otherwise making obviously intentional and inappropriate contact with my genitals.

Sure, at every second urinal where I have a neighbour, I find them trying to sneak a peak at my gaijin endowments (I swear, one day, I’m just going to pee on someone), but no one has really tried to do any damage there before. Fortunately for me, his attempt to render me infertile was unsuccessful (at least, I assume so – we’ll have to wait for the test results).

So aside from the testicle punching and germ-ridden hands, kindergarten is actually a good time. But next time, maybe I’ll wear a cup.

Recent Memories

I want to share all these thoughts, memories and experiences with you, but the days are too short.

I want to tell you about chest bumping with my students and being hurled halfway down the hall when one of them, with the build of a junior sumo wrestler, bumped me and sent me flying. His low centre of gravity and pudgy frame makes him into an immovable object and me into an off-balance, stumbling clown. He is the chest bump champion.

I want to tell you about how I utter miniature prayers for deliverance every time I walk to Yasakae Junior High. There is a stretch of road where the sidewalk ends and I have to walk on the street while 18-wheelers carrying crushed cars, agricultural equipment, or toxic waste scream past. Their unstoppable frames push me aside with their currents and each time I hear them approaching from behind, my brain whispers, “Please don’t kill me.”

I want to tell you about the low-flying clouds and the light and shadow they cast over these rural hills. I want to stop and set up a tripod, but instead I have to continue on from the bus stop to the school to do my job. But these clouds, you would just have to climb a low hill and you would be able to jump up and touch them. I had never understood how enormous Calgary’s skies were until I left them.

I want to tell you about teaching my students to call me “handsome sensei” and hearing them giggle endlessly through class.

I want to tell you about the girl at in grade four Ichinoseki elementary who speaks better English than any of my other students at any level. When I told her that her English was great, she matter-of-factly told me, “I’m half.” I later learned she has lived in America. But every time I see her, I am so thrilled because I get to interact with one of my students in a more meaningful way. We can actually understand each other. The language barrier doesn’t exist and it is so freeing.

The other day, I was playing basketball with her and some other students when one of my shots bounced off the back of the rim, over the backboard and got stuck between the backboard and railing above it. Already giddy from playing with the kids, I laughed, “I don’t think I could do that again if I tried!” She understood perfectly and said, “I don’t think you could either!”

Now, I don’t know if I can communicate to you just how significant this is. As I have often said, my Japanese is terrible. And I must now say the awful truth here: these kids, their English is terrible. It’s an unfortunate fact that I am trying to change, but for now, it’s a fact. Yes, we can communicate with each other, but it’s only through considerable effort on everyone’s part and the messages are always simple.

But with this girl, I can actually converse with her. In the middle of English class with me, while learning such simple phrases as, “I like baseball,” she occasionally turns to me and blurts out, “This is too easy!” I think I might make her teach the class next time.

I want to tell you about every moment of my recent tour of Japan and how I felt so alive behind the camera. My feet ached after 15 hours of walking in a day, but the only reason I went to bed was so that I wouldn’t get sick and prevent myself from seeing more. If I could have, I would have shot and explored all night.

I want to tell you about every soccer goal I’ve scored and every basket I’ve made. And I want to tell you about every shot scored against me and every basket scored by the opposing teams. I’m competitive enough with myself that I still get excited when I score a basket – even if it’s against a bunch of 12 year olds. But, I love these kids enough that when their efforts against me yield success, I am just as happy.

Sometimes, I actually impress myself. At one of my schools, the basketball games sometimes resemble rugby more than basketball. The gym often gets full way past capacity and a hundred kids crowd a single court. At any given time, there may be three or four basketball games going on one court and dozens of other kids playing tag or twirling hula hoops or just running over to say hello. This turns the gym into a living obstacle course. When I impress myself is when I am capable of running the length of the floor without toppling over a tyke. Occasionally, I’m able to finish a play with some Jordan-esque reverse lay-up or a dunk on their less-than-regulation height baskets. At those moments, I truly am the best basketball player in Iwate.

But then, they come back at me. They get near the basket and start their passing. I’ll get in front of one determined to take a shot and he or she will pump fake. I’ll jump into the air and while soaring above a body I already dwarfed, the young star will step around me and deftly flip the ball in for two points. And I yell in mock frustration at my defeat, then in praise and celebration of their skill. We all smile together, then run the other way so I can try to get a pass to a teammate to score.

I want to tell you about the caretaker at Yasakae Junior High and how, if I were staying in Japan for longer, would probably turn into a very good friend. He’s my age and likes video games, snowboarding and punk rock. He’s a kid like me and that’s hard to find in Japan. Something seems to happen to people here when they go to university and enter the workforce. They each emerge from that cocoon as a worker any and only let loose at the occasional enkai.

But not Sato-san. He chest bumps the students with me. He plays soccer and basketball with the kids and me. He takes every chance he can get to ask me about the Rocky Mountains because he would love nothing more than to carve trails through endless powder on his snowboard.

I want to tell you all these things. I want to empty the contents of my brain into a bucket from which you could drink. I want to let you see through my eyes and hear with my ears – hear not only the world around me, but also the din in my head.

But I can’t tell you all these things. There is no time to express everything I feel and think. I am greedy. I want more of these experiences. And I don’t want to miss anything because I was taking too much time to write about yesterday.

South of Japan Trip Recap

I’ve returned from gallivanting in the South of Japan and the hard drive of my laptop is just about full of photos. Time to do some editing…

The trip was fantastic and the weather could hardly have been more cooperative (with the exception of a permanently hazy Mt. Fuji). I walked holes into my shoes and blisters onto my feet (which have now turned to callouses – my formerly baby-soft feet now genuinely have the appearance of a wanderer).

I would love to detail every sight of the trip, but any such writing would quickly become frighteningly long. Instead, I’ll share some more general impressions and events from the past couple of weeks.

I started out with an early shinkansen ride to Tokyo where I headed for the Ueno zoo. Ling-Ling the panda and his fellow residents of the zoo provided me with a days worth of photo opportunities in a park packed with locals soaking up the Saturday sunshine. In the late afternoon, I briefly explored more of the Ueno area where I felt my time was severely lacking. I love Tokyo and I’m looking forward to when my sister comes to visit me so that I can see more of it.

My hotel for the evening was located in Asakusa so that gave me a good excuse to spend the evening at Senso-ji – a Tokyo temple famous for the hustle and bustle surrounding it.

Sunday saw me making my way to the Fuji Five Lakes where I hoped to catch a glimpse of one of Japan’s most recognizable landmarks: Mt. Fuji. My prospects looked good when I left Tokyo on the highway bus; the snow-capped peak was clearly visible in the distance.

Approaching Kawaguchi-ko, however, haze had enveloped the mountain and its form was an indistinct blur in the sky. So, I decided to do some walking in the area. Kawaguchi is a cute lakeside town and a couple of temples, cherry-blossom-covered cemetery and a seriously bizarre private zoo greeted my steps. While the sun arced toward the horizon, that great cone giving the area its popularity suggested that it might come out to play. As I reached a suitable spot for taking a few photos, the haze once again shrouded the mountain and my photos lack the clarity I had hoped I might enjoy.

The next morning, Fuji-san drifted in and out of the clouds and I hurriedly bussed to one area I was told would yield a good view of the mountain. After a quick hike up a nearby mountain (whose stature paled in comparison to Fuji’s) I found myself observing a curious meteorological phenomenon: small clouds hovered in front of the peak and eventually drifted towards me and to the left. In their wake, they left more clouds hovering directly in front of the peak.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have all day to wait out the clouds and I descended the mountain to check out the nearby Narusawa ice caves. This brief stop could probably have been skipped – the caves aren’t really that much of an attraction.

So, with a cloudy Fuji toying with me, I decided it was time to start the next leg of my trip and I struck out for Kyoto. Of course, while riding the bus out of Kawaguchi-ko, Fuji taunted me by shooing the clouds from the sky and towering over the landscape. When climbing season rolls around, I think I’ll have to climb that sucker just out of spite…

Kyoto was six days of glorious temple and shrine hopping. I had been warned not to overdose on temples, but I think my temple tolerance level is pretty high. Each one was unique and would pose its own set of photographic challenges, so I was happy to bounce from one lovely, old Japanese building to the next. Rather than list off each of the locations I visited, I’ll let my photos do the talking in this case.

With Kyoto having turned my feet into chum, I headed for the relative peace of Koya San where my accommodation was a Buddhist temple. Finally, I was going to get the chance to sample some traditional Japanese vegetarian food – the stuff they used to eat before the dominant sect of Japanese Buddhism went all flaky and allowed for the consumption of meat. The multi-part meals had some parts better than others and made for a fun glimpse into the culture.

Among other sights on Koya San was one of the most fantastic cemeteries I have ever seen. In fact, I think it ranks a close second to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Okuno-in’s extensive grounds were rainy the evening I spent there, but that set the mood quite nicely. Huge cedar trees surrounded enormous and varied tombs fighting a never-ending battle with the forest’s moss.

The next morning, the rain eventually abated, first yielding to atmospheric mist, then to pristine blue sky. Having wandering in the cemetery for the morning, I changed gears from traditional Japan into modern Japan and boarded the train for Osaka.

My hotel there was in the worst neighbourhood I have yet seen in Japan, but that doesn’t say much. The worst neighbourhood in Japan is still a lot better than the best neighbourhood in some places I’ve visited. Scores of homeless folks wandered the streets near my hotel, but I later saw them at their best in the park near Osaka-jo: Their limited resources somehow manage to pool together enough resources to have a karaoke session of old-time Japanese ditties under the trees. So, they seem to be getting along okay.

I spent that afternoon at the Osaka Aquarium marveling at the whale shark gracefully meandering through the world’s largest tank. He was definitely the highlight of the visit, but other notable sea creatures included a sun fish, a manta ray, the biggest sea otters I have ever seen and a few flocks of jellyfish.

Osaka acted as a base to explore a couple of nearby sights. First on the list was Nara. Nara is home to hundreds of semi-domesticated deer and the world’s largest wooden building featuring one of the world’s largest bronze figures: a meditative Buddha who would crush hundreds if it ever toppled thus hurtling the religion’s doctrine of compassion into a paradox…

On this day, a ceremony involving what appeared to be some rather high ranking religious officials crowded the area immediately in front of the daibutsu, but the building still afforded great views of the statue.

The whole area was packed with people on enjoying one of their Golden Week vacation days – this made for some good people watching and eventually, some very satisfied deer. By the afternoon, the deer cakes (biscuits sold by various vendors meant as food for the local fauna) that were once inspiring the ungulates to chase down the bearers of these treats were being rejected. Disappointed children kept shoving crackers into deer faces only to have them fall to the hooves of the disinterested animal.

I suspect it was this large number of people and animals mixing that lead to a few good buttings later in the day. I saw one deer with goat-like horns attempt to use them to gore a ten-year old boy who had penetrated the deer’s comfort zone. The kid got away completely unscathed and didn’t even cry after the deer had pushed him back a few feet with its head. He just looked stunned and returned to his father’s side.

The other child I saw get hit was less fortunate. Saying I saw it, however, is a bit inaccurate – I heard it. I was shooting photos of some distant deer when the sound of a spectacular collision filled the forest. About 30 feet to my left, a deer hovered over a now crumpled mass of a child who started bawling once the air had returned to his lungs. The boy’s father rushed him away from the irked animal, but not before a fear of ungulates imprinted itself in this kids mind.

I would advise anyone going to the area to keep a short leash on their kids while interacting with the wildlife. While these critters are extremely habituated to human presence, they’re still wild animals and their behaviour can be unpredictable. You never know when one is going to think it sees a target on your butt.

The next day I struck out from Osaka once more to visit Himeji and Japan’s most-famous castle, Himeji-jo. I certainly enjoyed this well-preserved fortress, but I think I must be partial to European castles – Himeji castle just didn’t overwhelm me like it perhaps should have. That didn’t stop me from spending a good part of the day there though.

On my return, I explored Osaka and found myself on top of the ultra-modern Umeda sky building for sunset. Good views of Osaka kept me out in the open air before wandering through Amerika-mura and the neon glow of downtown Osaka.

I had some time on the following morning to see a little more of Osaka, so I decided to check out Osaka-jo, the city’s castle. The experience was rather different from the pervious day’s trip to Himeji-jo. Himeji castle was completely persevered in its original state. This was most noticeable inside the castle – visitors are able to see the original wood and plaster in which the feudal lords once lived.

In Osaka-jo, however, the castle is now a concrete museum. It was rebuilt in 1931 and refurbished in 1997. It’s full of modern displays of artwork, artifacts and history. The castle still makes for an interesting visit, but a decidedly different atmosphere resides inside Himeji-jo’s original walls.

The best part of the visit to Osaka castle, however, was the group of samurai milling about at its base. Characters of all ages were dressed din authentic samurai gear and spent a good portion of their time blowing through conch shells. Ever more warriors seemed to answer their call and by the time I left, a couple dozen armor-clad anachronisms were guarding the area beneath Osaka-jo’s main tower.

Hiroshima was next on my itinerary. I didn’t expect a busy day of shooting photos, but when I arrived, I soon discovered that the Flower Festival was in full swing and I wouldn’t be having the peaceful night I had expected. The main boulevard leading to the Peace Park was closed to traffic and crammed full of people wandering from vendor to vendor, stage to stage, performance to performance. Marching bands, traditional dancers, orators, baton twirlers, cheerleaders, singers, etc. all kept the throngs busy.

The Peace Park was also host to festivities. A giant pyramid of potted flowers topped by a torch beckoned all passers by and the dim evening light was soon outshined by thousands of candles lit in the name of peace and spread out on tables leading through the Peace Park.

The candles made for quite a sight in the park and brought home just how much the residents of this city are still tied to its past. The latter point was re-enforced the next day when I visited the Peace Memorial Museum. A comprehensive history teaches visitors about each detail of the attack on Hiroshima. Needless to say, it’s a moving display and a necessary stop for anyone who makes their way to Hiroshima.

That afternoon, I boarded the ferry to Miya-jima, an island just off the coast whose fame lies in possessing one of Japan’s “Three Greatest Views.” Let’s just put it this way: the Japanese like lists. Miya-jima’s spectacular sight is the floating torii gate that rises out of the ocean and into the sky. This huge red gate is the scene of endless postcards and is indeed a magical sight.

I was greeted by intermittent rain, but not so much that I couldn’t enjoy my evening walking by the ocean and dodging the deer (yes, Miya-jima is host to another group of people-habituated deer).

The morning brought grey skies which soon turned to clear blue and I meandered through the ocean-side shrine of Itsukushima-jinja. The tide was in and made the whole structure feel like it was an island to itself.

As the sun broke through, the tide waned and the clam diggers materialized. Dozens of rubber-boot-clad locals descended on the now-exposed stretches of beach and began digging holes and sifting through the exposed sand to reveal crustaceans a plenty. Tourists flocked to the nearby torii or had lunch on the sea wall while fleeing from hungry deer. I walked through the hills and found a lovely temple (Daiso-in), some waterfalls and more deer.

I spent a quiet evening in Hiroshima in preparation for my early shinkansen trip the next morning. I headed to Tokyo as soon as my body could be roused from slumber and quickly made my way to the Kokugikan Sumo stadium.

What I would have given to have a press pass at this event. My seats were in the first row of the balcony and were fine enough spots to take in the action. But, never content with fine enough, I slipped down to the floor level and found myself a nice spot only a couple rows back from the ring. I suspect this was a common practice, since most of my neighbours didn’t look like they belonged there either.

This was the first day of competition and thus the celebrations and pageantry were plentiful later in the day. But, early on, fighting was the only thing on anyone’s mind. The salt-tossing and thigh-slapping were kept to a minimum and every rookie fighter just got in the ring to try to knock down the other guy. It made for some good fun. These gents were not quite as behemoth as the later wrestlers, but just as fierce.

When the lights rose signaling the beginning of the television broadcast, I was, unfortunately, ushered out of my posh seat and forced to re-assume my position high above the ring. I snapped away at a distance for a while then realized there spots at the pack of the lfoor level, so I started wandering down there once again while the larger, more adept fighters battled each other.

My last act before heading home was to partake in the uniquely Japanese tradition of omiyage. I found some great little chocolates in the shape of sumo wrestlers that won me some favour back at the office. Everyone thought they were a great little gift. It was my plan all along to get sumo omiyage both for the novelty of it and for the fact that I wouldn’t have to carry it throughout my trip. It’s all about the planning…

I caught one of the last bullet-trains home and lamented the end of my trip. Wandering with my camera is the life for me and Ichinoseki just isn’t as exciting as say, Kyoto. But, you make the best of what you have. It was, however, great to come home to see my friends and to get some much-needed rest.