The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Back to bidness

Hey y'all.  I've been back to work for a few weeks now, and although it has been totally fine, I'm kind of feeling the "second semester blues" kicking in.  I have the same students as last term, they have all figured out that I'm doing the same basic kinds of classes as last term ... if they had any hopes for some exciting new changes, those hopes have been dashed!

I've been quite busy writing papers, one for the university's journal, and one for my course.  I managed to get them both done, but neither one is particularly great. (Why am I announcing that publicly?!)  I did what I could, but the timing kind of meant that I had to submit the one, and then rush through the next one.  Ahh, well.  Next time, I'm sure I won't procrastinate!
For my birthday, I got a nice new book bag.  My old bag had served me well for about 8 years or so, but the handles and strap were starting to get frayed and fall apart. The metal parts were corroded and squeaked horribly whenever I carried anything heavy (like, say, books).  So I was happy to get a new one ... but it also meant throwing out the old one.  I'm hopeless at getting rid of things, especially personal items.  ("But ... but ... it's still usable!!  The zippers all work and everything!")  I'm compromising by publishing one last photo of Bookie before he goes to his final resting place...

Godspeed, Bookie.  You served me well, old buddy.  Now it's time for a rest.  You earned it!
(Now THAT is some riveting content, isn't it??  A photo of my dirty old book bag?)

On to more exciting topics: the weather!  Actually, it's been so awesome lately; we are really into the gorgeous fall weather that I love so much.  It's sunny and nice most days ... wish it could always be like this.  Fall is typhoon season in Japan, so storms are pretty common, but when it's not stormy, it's great.

I'm looking forward to going on a little trip to Oita mid-October, and I also found out today that I have a week off in November, so hopefully I'll be able to put together another little trip somewhere in Japan or I could live dangerously and go to China or something ...  I'm just in the process of deciding where I should go. On one hand, I want to go somewhere I've never been, but my personality being what it is, I almost prefer to revisit someplace I went before but haven't been in a while.  (That's like how I prefer to re-read my favourite books, or re-watch movies I like ... I think I enjoy that familiarity, the knowledge of what to expect!)

Not much else to report.  Business as usual, pretty much!  Talk to you soon.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Typhoon 18

A photo I stole from
I just got back from my summer vacation in Canada where, as usual, a number of people chastised me for never updating my Blog anymore.  I guess the problem is that I was trying to write epic Blog posts once in a while, instead of smaller, more frequent posts.  And those epic posts tended to be pretty daunting!
So, I'm going to try and write a bit more often, maybe about once a week or so(?)  We'll see how that goes.
I've had a pretty lazy week since coming back.  I had a nice birthday dinner at a fancy steak and seafood place in Ikebukuro,  and I've also been catching up on my sleep.  I always used to say that jetlag was worse going East (i.e., Japan to Canada) and not so bad the other way, but this time at least, I've had a hard time getting back to a normal sleep schedule.  I'd get extremely tired around 2 p.m., take a nap for an hour or so, wake up feeling like death, then drag my butt around in a daze until 8 p.m. or so, at which point I would get so tired I would have to sleep.  I've gradually been able to wean myself off of the afternoon naps, fortunately.  I go back to work tomorrow, so I hope I'm back to normal otherwise I'm going to find myself dozing off mid-lesson.
In the news, we had a big typhoon last night and today. It was kind of strange, I thought, because we had a big storm two nights ago with high winds, torrential rain, and apocalyptic thunder and lightning.  I thought it was the typhoon come early, but apparently it was just the prelude!  The actual typhoon started late last night with high winds and rain.  I waited and waited for the typhoon to approach the strength of the previous storm ... and it kind of never did.  The winds got quite strong, and sometimes gusts of wind shook the glass doors on the balcony ... but it wasn't all that bad.  I guess the storm hit Kyoto and Aichi much harder, resulting in a lot of flooding, some mudslides, and a couple deaths (so far).  But Tokyo, despite being directly in the path of the hurricane, seems to have gotten off lightly.
I was going to go into school today to plan for my lessons, but the typhoon meant I couldn't go in.  So ... I guess tomorrow I will be flying by the seat of my pants! 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Kyoto Part 3

On my third day in Kyoto, I woke up as early as I could (not very) and headed up to the northwest part of the city.  My first stop was Ninna-ji, which Wikipedia tells me is the head temple of the Omuro school of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.  Shingon is to Buddhism as Roman Catholicism is to Christianity in that it is comparatively old, it has a lot of ritual, and they believe in a lot of magical stuff.  (Really stretching an analogy there, but you get the picture.)  The temple was built in 888, although it was destroyed by fire (like a lot of things in Japan) and rebuilt.  Still ... pretty, pretty, pret-ty ... old.  The main gate below, contains the two Nio, muscular deities who guard the Buddha.

This poor guy's eye has cracked.  His mouth is open, forming the first sound of "Om".  His companion's mouth is closed, ending the "Om" sound.

Like I said, Shingon Buddhism tends to have a lot of ritual and like Roman Catholics, they get to wear cool robes and do processions and things.  I was lucky to catch a procession (who knows, they probably do a procession every hour or so).

Ninna-ji was wonderful, and I took a lot of pictures there, especially of the very nice garden, but I'm trying to finish this Kyoto trip (3 parts, already!) so let's keep it brisk ... On to Ryoan-ji!

Ryoan-ji is home to the most famous zen rock garden in Japan.   Answering why it is the most famous would be kind of like answering why the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world.  Is it the "best"?  Who knows?  How do you even define that?  But in any case, at some point, it acquired the reputation as the being the representative zen rock garden, and since then people from Japan and around the world have been going to check it out, and (at the risk of blaspheming both Western and Japanese culture simultaneously) as with the Mona Lisa, most people have probably been a bit disappointed.

Well, I like it.  Again, lifting from Wikipedia: "[The fifteen boulders] are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder."  That's pretty cool, isn't it?

After Ryoan-ji, it was off to Kinkaku-ji.  This place is kind of divisive.  Some Japanese people I've spoken to think it is gaudy and not really representative of the demure tastes of the Japanese.  (Little do they know that its style is typical of the Muromachi period's reliance on visual excess!  Thanks again, Wikipedia.)  The upper floors are completely covered in gold leaf.  I don't care what anyone else says, I think it is spectacular.

It was getting on and I was getting thirsty, so I took a bus downtown and dropped in at my friend Randy's tea and coffee shop.  Randy has been living in Japan for 30 years or so, maybe more, and is a martial artist and expert in the tea ceremony.  He decided to open up a tea and coffee shop in Kyoto a few years ago.  It's a beautiful little place call Ran Hotei, that captures the spirit of early 20th century Japan by blending art nouveau and traditional Japanese furnishings.  Here he is entertaining some customers...

One of his other customers suggested that, if I was on my way to Kyoto station, I should stop in at Nishi Hongan-ji.  I didn't know anything about it, but it was on the way, so I went in.  I was immediately told that they would be closing it up in a few minutes.  I dashed around and got a few pictures (none of which was very good) before getting kicked out.  I got this semi-nice picture of the guards shutting the gates on me.

I was then approached by a very interesting American-Japanese man, who works at the temple as a priest and as part of their outreach center, I guess.  He informed me (little did I know) that Nishi Hongan-ji is the main temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect, the largest Buddhist sect in Japan.  It certainly was immense.  Unlike some other temples in Kyoto, this temple is a functioning place of worship (respectful veneration?) in addition to being a historic site with a lot of unique treasures.  If I have the chance, I'd like to go back there again.

And so ended my Kyoto trip!  Just to try to balance out all that traditional Japanese culture I had soaked up, I grabbed a bite at McDonald's and hopped on the bullet train, which would take me back to the hustle, bustle, and (relative) rudeness of Tokyo.  It was great to get out of town for a while.  I really enjoyed the kindness and friendliness of people in Kyoto.  It reminded me that, pretty much everywhere outside of Tokyo, Japanese people are amazingly nice.  Maybe it's time to move out of this city?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Kyoto - Part 2

Ah, so where was I?  It's been a while ... sorry.

Picking up where I left off:  after going to Tofuku-ji, I headed north towards Kiyomizu-dera.  Finding the temple was somehow more difficult than I anticipated, especially as I have been there before.  I was led astray by the inadvisable method of trying to follow 3 sets of directions simultaneously.  In my hand, I had my iPhone and was using the Maps function.  Meanwhile, I was also trying to follow the (often irregular) signage, and at the same time, following people who seemed to know where they were going.  I ended up following a large group of people down a side street that I thought might be a shortcut.  It wasn't.  These people were all on their way to wash their family graves and leave off flowers on the tombs in a huge cemetery, this being a custom on national holidays.  And so I ended up here:

That's a lotta graves.  My detour didn't actually take much time and I eventually found my way to the temple.

Literally "Temple of Pure Water", Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous tourist spots in Kyoto.  The most famous building consists of a large structure overlooking a small waterfall and valley.  Historically, it was thought that, if you jumped from the verandah and survived, your wish would come true.  According to Wikipedia, 234 jumps were recorded in the Edo period, with a survival rate of 85.4%.

The temple building was constructed in 1633 and apparently contains not a single nail.  They were doing some construction when I visited, unfortunately, but the upside of that was that I got to see how one does (temporary) construction with no nails...

It is spectacular in spring when cherry blossoms are blooming, and also in fall, when the leaves turn.  Unfortunately I was visiting in early spring before the leaves were even out ...

 Another view of the temple and the sad lack of foliage

As the name suggests, the waterfall at Kiyomizu-dera is thought to be very pure and drinking it supposedly grants good luck and/or wishes.  (It seems to be an easier way to get your wish than jumping from the verandah.)  I didn't try it.  (The water, I mean.)  The line was really long.

 After Kiyomizudera, I continued north and made a brief stop at Heian Jingu.  I just looked up a history of the shrine on Wikipedia, and it doesn't make much sense to me, honestly.  But basically, Kyoto was the old capital of Japan, starting in 794, and the shrine was apparently built as a replica to mark the 1100th anniversary of this in 1895.  But somehow it only ended up being a scale model of some original building, and then it burned down in 1976 ... I dunno.  Somebody needs to rewrite that Wikipedia page!  Anyway, my impressions of the shrine were, uh, a bit sterile, maybe?  They could do with some more nature in there. But the buildings were very nice.

Very close to the Heian Jingu is the old Butokuden, or "Hall of Martial Virtue".  This place is kind of a mecca for martial artists, so I poked my head in.  As it turns out, the headmaster of a sword style called Tennen Rishin-Ryu was visiting from Tokyo and giving an afternoon training there.  He actually encouraged me to try practice, which I did for a while, along with a young woman (in the right foreground, who was just anticipating watching I think, and so wasn't wearing a uniform).  I was struck by the number of young women in the group.  (That would be funnier if I had said "I was struck by a number of young women in the group."  They look pretty fierce, don't they?)  I think it has to do with a recent increase in "reki-jo", or "history girls" - young women who have become interested in history (particularly samurai history) as a result of the popular portrayals of samurai and warlords on TV and in film.  Anyway, lots of girls with sticks.

I started to work up a sweat, and I still had places to be, so I made my excuses and left.  It was a fun, random experience though.

Next stop: Ginkaku-ji, or the "Temple of the Silver Pavilion".  This temple is a favourite of a lot of Japanese people, I think because it embodies a lot of the qualities that Japanese people themselves think of when it comes to Japanese gardens.  The landscaping is busy and extremely well-controlled.  There are some interesting sand-gardens, this one in the shape of a miniature Fuji.  I don't know, but I would guess that it has to be painstakingly tidied up every single morning.

There is also a Kinkaku-ji ("Temple of the Golden Pavilion") that many Japanese tell me they consider to be rather gaudy (see my next entry!)  By contrast, the main building at Ginkaku-ji is quite plain, although elegantly shaped.

 The grounds at Ginkaku-ji are quite amazingly tended, and I took dozens of pictures there because there was just so much to look at.  Unfortunately, most of the pictures didn't really convey the atmosphere well.  Sometimes, I thought "Wow, look at all that amazing moss!" but then, pictures of moss aren't so impressive, are they?

By this time it was late afternoon and I was tired, hungry, thirsty, and sunburnt.  So it was time to retire to my hotel for a nap, followed by dinner, and a quick trip to Yasaka Shrine, which was quite close to my hotel.  On the way, I met a couple girls from Osaka who said hello to me.  People from the Osaka-Kyoto part of Japan are notoriously friendly, although I think it is just the case that everyone who is not from the Tokyo area is friendly by comparison.  In any case, these girls struck up a conversation with me. Here we are on the steps of Yasaka Shrine, striking a pose with some other random people.  I think I thought I was doing Disco Fever, and they thought they were doing Power Rangers.   Cultural differences, I suppose.

It turned out that Yasaka Shrine was having a light-show that night, so we went and took that in.  The endposts of the beams in the eaves are painted white, while the building itself is dark brown / black.  So projecting lights onto the side of the building creates a digital effect that was really cool.  Hard to describe, but pretty amazing.  Here's a video that somebody else took and posted on YouTube!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Kyoto Trip - Part 1

I was fortunate to have the whole month of March off. The problem is that, when you have a lot of time off, there's not really any urgency to get anything done. Before you know it, 2 weeks have slipped by and you haven't done anything or gone anywhere. So, at some point in mid-march, I woke up and just decided to go to Kyoto. I went online and booked a hotel, then hopped on the bullet train and went. It was a fantastic trip, for a lot of reasons.

One was the ease with which I went there. About 2 hours by bullet train, and I was there. I suppose I was also lucky to find a good hotel so easily. I booked online without investigating things much at all. My friends recommended a hotel, I booked it, and it turned out to be great - cheap, clean, comfortable, and central. (The 4 C's!) And, lucky me, I got upgraded to a double for free. So that worked out well.

I arrived in the evening and by that time, it was too dark to do sightseeing. I picked a restaurant from a guide they had in my room. It was supposed to be recommended, but on what basis, I have no idea; probably because the restaurant had paid to be included in the guide. The food was ... well, here's a shot I took of the menu.

I left there and went strolling into the bar area of town. I eventually found a very small bar with large glass windows in front, lined with shelves displaying dozens of different kinds of sake and shochu (Japanese vodka). That looked like what I was after so I went in, and was immediately greeted by the other patrons. This was to be a theme of my trip: the friendliness of Kyoto people! We got to talking and I quickly felt like I was befriended by this group of strangers. It doesn't sound like much, I know, but when you are in a strange city, it means everything to be welcomed and treated like an old friend.

I don't even know the name of that bar, nor do I remember the names of the people I met there. I would like to send them a postcard from Tokyo, thanking them for their kindness, but I'm not sure how.

I went back home feeling very good, and woke up early the next morning for a full day of sightseeing. Day 2 was going to feature temples on the east side of Kyoto station. I started with Tofuku-ji. According to the pamphlet I received, and Wikipedia:

Founded in 1236, Tofuku-ji is (one of?) the main Rinzai-sect Zen temple(s) in Japan. It has maintained its Zen architecture since the middle ages, and boasts a wealth of medieval Zen artifacts, including a rarely-seen image of Buddha on his death bed.

Tofuku-ji isn't one of the most famous temples in Kyoto, and as it was only 10 a.m. on a weekday, the place was almost deserted. Perfect for pictures!

I don't know why Tofuku-ji isn't more famous; its rock gardens are better (in my opinion) than the much more famous one at Ryoan-ji, for example. (More on Ryoan-ji later.)

Many temples in Japan have a dragon painted on the ceiling. I took a sneaky shot of the Tofuku-ji dragon ... not sure if I was allowed to do that but ...

The rock garden is one of 4 very interesting and unique gardens surrounding the Abbot's residence. Rock gardens are often meant to evoke islands in water, mountaintops poking up out of cloud banks, or other natural imagery. Sometimes, they are more abstract. In any case, they are designed to lead the viewer into quiet contemplation, which this garden certainly does.

Another garden on the opposite side of the Abbot's residence is this more modern moss garden. I don't know exactly what the gardener had in mind, but one thing that struck me is the strength of nature, held in check by careful and constant pruning and weeding, but suggested in the readiness of the moss to overwhelm and engulf the stone squares.

The main gate is the oldest 3-doored gate in Japan.

I notice that the Japanese are very fond of stating, very specifically, that something is the oldest example of this exact kind of object. It's kind of amusing. They also like making lists (for example "This garden is considered to be one of the top 3 most beautiful gardens in Japan") but it is not always agreed what the other entries are (which means there are sometimes 7 or 8 temples vying for "top 3"). Very Japanese - nobody has to feel bad about being left out.

That brings us to lunchtime on Day 2. My afternoon was a busy one, so I'll make that a separate post.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Failed Blogger Returns

So one of my friends called me a "failed Blogger" in jest, but I suppose it's a pretty accurate label insofar as a Blog is supposed to be updated on a daily (or perhaps weekly, but at the very least regular) basis. Whoops!

It's not like I've been busy. Perhaps the opposite. I've just been trundling along in my rut, so I haven't really felt like there's been much to post. But I've accumulated a few things in the last 3 months, so here we go.

We had New Year's. Here's a picture from the shrine I went to at midnight on New Year's eve.

Winter came and went. Thankfully, winter in Tokyo is no big deal at all. It's pretty pleasant, actually. The air is cool and dry, but rarely frigid by Canadian standards. Sure, it gets cold at night, and Japanese apartments aren't well insulated, so you really feel the cold in your bones when you get out of bed in the morning. But the days are often sunny and bright. It is unusual that it actually snows (perhaps this is due to global warming? Edo-era woodblock prints show no shortage of snow in old Tokyo, it seems) so I took a picture from one of the classrooms at school.

I had a couple months off work in February and March. Well, I had to work a couple weeks in there, but that was actually a welcome distraction from the boredom of having all that free time! I had planned to try and get to the pool every day. That happened for the first little while. I had also planned to try and eat healthy. This was also good at the start, but petered off gradually. One thing that helped me though, was the fact that, just around the corner from my place (literally a 1-minute walk or so) there is a vegetarian, organic cafe that serves really nice lunches. The people who run it are really nice, too.

So anyway, spring is coming and the first sign of spring is the plum blossom. People usually associate spring in Japan with the cherry blossom, but the plum blooms first and is, in my opinion, quite underrated. The cherry is more delicate, so it gets all the praise, but the plum is pretty great too. And, it smells nice.

I went to a park that is famous for its plum trees. They light up the trees at night, too. This shot reminds me of a VanGogh painting, which is funny because of course Van Gogh got his inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints of plum blossoms, among other things.

The park was freezing cold at night and my fingers were so numb I could barely take this picture.

I took a day trip to Kawagoe, which is not that far from where I live, but I haven't been there for a long time. Kawagoe still preserves some old kura or warehouses from the late Edo-period. You can still see the thick shutters and the bars over the windows on the second floor of many of these warehouses, which were to deter burglars. Most of these warehouses are shops selling traditional sweets or handicrafts.

Kawagoe's most famous building is its old bell-tower. They rung out the hours on a large bell which you can see at the top. Presumably, most Japanese towns and neighbourhoods in large cities would have had towers like this. Unfortunately, most are no longer standing.

Japanese buildings were usually made of wood and paper (stone and brick did not fare well against earthquakes) so they easily succumbed to fire. I heard that Japanese buildings were (and by weight of tradition, often continue to be) flimsily built to (a) be flexible in the event of an earthquake (as mentioned above) and (b) so they could be torn apart easily by firemen in the event of a fire. Since there was no way in the Edo-period to transport large volumes of water, firemen did not battle fires directly but tried to stop the spread of fire by tearing down buildings to create a fire stop.

So that's what I got up to in January and February. I was busy in March, so I should have updates soon!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Belated Christmas and Happy New Year

So Christmas passed without any major disasters here, and I hope you had a nice holiday too. Christmas is always a bit of a bummer in Japan, I've found. Christmas is of course highly commercialized in Canada, but I always felt that, on some level, people were a little bit friendlier to each other, too. It always seemed that most people were taking the whole "goodwill towards men" thing to heart.
In Japan though, Christmas is a commercial nightmare of flashing lights and screaming hawkers in Santa hats, and there is none of the underlying gentleness or goodwill. I guess they don't know it, because they've never experienced it.
Back home, I feel like there was always a sense of decorum and an appreciation of Christmas as a time of peace. Music, for example, was at least somewhat tasteful (as I recall). Here (as I've mentioned before) you go shopping and you just hear Mariah Carey and some awful synth version of "Last Christmas" by Wham on repeat. You almost never hear any of the Christmas music that I like, which is of the more somber, old-school variety like "O Come All Ye Faithful" or "Good King Wenceslas" - the kind of music that highlights Christmas as a time of light in darkness, warmth in a world which can be literally and figuratively cold.
So anyway, Christmas was fine, but I've come to expect almost nothing from Christmas in Japan. The only way to avoid feeling depressed, I think, is to lower your expectations and treat Christmas as "just another day", basically. I did go to a friend's house though, and had dinner and drinks with a few people from work, so that was nice.
For New Year's, I am going to Nagoya for a few days. New Year's is a much bigger deal in Japan than Christmas, so maybe I will be able to get my fill of festive feeling in a few days' time!
Meanwhile, here's wishing you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! All the best in 2012.