Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category.

A Trip to Mt. Hiei, Kyoto Japan

I wrote the following while living in Kyoto Japan in 1993. Noise pollution in Japan remains an issue today.

Kyoto is a city of a million people lying about 35 miles north of Osaka. Although mass transportation and urban sprawl have turned Kyoto into a suburb of Osaka, Kyoto has retained its identity as being the cultural and historical capital of Japan, even managing to retain its distinctive dialect of Japanese. It sits in a broad valley with low mountains to the north, east and west with a thin and shallow concrete banked river running north-south through the eastern half of the city. The city is a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial spaces with the edges predominantly residential and the southern part of the city industrial. Centuries old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the city. Although Kyoto escaped the bombings which leveled other cities like Osaka during the war, most of the temples and shrines in Kyoto were destroyed in the various civil wars which raged in the area between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries or by accidental fires which periodically spread and laid waste to the city.

Late one summer the Wife and I  decided to escape the heat and city life by visiting Mount Hiei in Eastern Kyoto. Hiei is a cone-shaped mountain rising about 3,000 feet above sea-level at the northeastern edge of the city. We chose Hiei because we were craving outdoor activity after months spent living and working in the city. Plus Hiei’s history is irresistible to any serious Nipponophile.

In the 12th century monasteries of the Tendai sect of Buddhism were established around the summit of Mt. Hiei. Thousands of warrior monks lived, prayed and trained at the “Enryakuji”, the great monastic headquarters of the sect. As the power of the rulers in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto ebbed with the general collapse of centralized government during the period, the warrior monks caused problems. At various occasions during the next three hundred years the monks would descend on Kyoto to rape, pillage and generally wreak havoc in the city and the surrounding areas, returning to the safety of their heavily fortified monasteries before an organized defense could be mounted. Weakened by corruption and the shift of power to the provincial nobility, the central government could do little to combat the raids and the threat the monks posed to feudal society.

Oda Nobunaga was the first of three great leaders who unified Japan in the 16th century. He was a provincial lord from the east of Kyoto who, using diplomacy and force, began the unification of Japan which his successors Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu completed in the early 17th century. In 1568 Oda seized Kyoto and for 3 years worked to control the various sects of warrior monks living in the mountains surrounding the city. In 1571 he laid siege to Mt. Hiei in an attempt to subdue the monks of the Enryakuji. With the failure of various diplomatic overtures and military attacks and no sign that the monks were suffering from the siege, Oda installed archers at the siege line circling the mountain and the set fire to the trees. The heavily forested mountain of cypress, fueled by dry summer winds created an inferno which trapped the monks at the mountain’s summit, setting fire to their wooden fortifications. In desperation the monks ran through the flames and were picked off one-by-one by the archers. Thousands of monks were killed and at a single stroke he power of the warrior monks was destroyed. Only in 1992 did the monks of the Tendai sect begin to include Oda Nobunaga in their prayers at their annual memorial of the event.

We took a city bus to the foot of the mountain then a cable car which ratcheted up the side of the mountain on geared tracks. Halfway up we switched to a rope-way which lifted us above the cypress-covered valley and carried us to the summit. As we exited the car and stepped on the broad summit of the mountain, all thoughts of a quiet hike in contemplation of nature and history were blasted out of our skulls by a barrage of Japanese pop music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles and trees around the summit. Expecting to find quiet Buddhist temples and hiking trails we found a miniature golf course and game center with a grass-ski lodge where one could strap on roller skis and ski down the mountainside while being serenaded by Japanese pop stars. Searching the woods for an escape from the cacophony we stumbled upon a broad asphalt parking lot flanked by small open air kiosks selling souvenirs and fast food such as fried octopus and squid omelets. We crossed the parking lot and ignored a chain across a trail head and set down the path strewn with soft drink cans. cigarette butts and even rusting refrigerators. Although quieter the noise echoed between the ridges and trees to become an even more annoying din.

The trail zig-zagged down the mountain but try as we might we could not escape the noise. Just when we thought we had found a place where the noise was blocked, the wind would shift and we would be assaulted by the noise again. After half an hour of hiking down the mountain, the litter and omnipresent noise were too much and we decided to leave.

As we turned and began the hike back up the trail we heard the sound of a distant temple gong. Behind a thicket of trees we could make out a Buddhist monastery. The gong sounded again and for an instant I imagined the how the valley must have looked hundreds of years ago during Oda’s siege. The encampment and bamboo barricades at the foot of the mountain. Oda’s banners flapping in the summer breeze. The smoke and advancing wall of flame. But the gong stopped and the din from above muscled out the thoughts. We slowly made our way up the trail and left the mountain.

2014 Update: Beat poet Gary Snyder once said of Japanese Buddhism, “They got the message but didn’t open the envelope.” While living there I was never able to bridge the dichotomy between what the Japanese present and what they really are. Pollution was everywhere, and noise pollution in particular made it impossible for one to ever be alone with his or her thoughts. There were even speakers at the famous rock garden temple of Ryoanji that never shut up. The idea of tranquility never became reality, and the Japanese couldn’t understand it because they had grown up with the noise pollution and so couldn’t understand why foreigners complained. They just didn’t get it.

 

The Watch

The following was written by me on August 22, 1996 while living in Kyoto Japan. I refer to this event in the About Me page of this website.

I witnessed the pathetic end of a rather sad life today. A young woman killed herself beneath the wheels of a commuter train. Her life ended this afternoon at 12:33, and now some dozen hours later I cannot think of anything else.

Leaping in front of commuter trains is a common method of suicide in this part of Japan. In other parts it is relatively rare from what my friends tell me. Most suicides choose a station with a beautiful view and near a bend so that the train drivers have no warning. As some stations are only served by local trains, these are also more popular as the express trains fly through them – often at speeds approaching sixty miles an hour. On stations where the bullet train pass, they do so on outer, inaccessible rails with tall fences constructed to deter the jumpers.

The young woman chose Tofukuji station on the Keihan line – a station on a bend affording a pleasant view of the eastern mountains of Kyoto. It is also served by local trains only. So at 12:33pm, just before a Kyoto-bound train was to pass through the station and pass my Osaka-bound express train, she threw herself onto the rails. I’ve heard that when the suicides jump, they instinctively land on their feet. I wonder if this girl did the same. Did she stand and see the train driver’s stunned face? Or was she looking at the eastern mountains?

There is a wall of air that surrounds any fast moving object, and hitting this is the equivalent of hitting concrete. The would have sucked her body under the train carriages, dragging it along for several hundred yards until the train stopped. Supposedly death is quick, though I’ve often wondered whether that last instant of life stretches for the doomed, turning into infinity. In all the dangerous scrapes I’ve survived time seemed to become quite elastic, with seconds stretching into minutes before reality snapped back on itself and the flow of time resumed once the crisis was over.

My Osaka bound train had been scheduled to pass it’s Kyoto-bound counterpart at the station. Her leap changed all that. Both trains stopped, with mine halting a car length or so from where she laid beneath the wheels. Any commuter knows the rhythm of her train or bus, and the sudden slowing down of the train broke me away from my newspaper and awakened numerous dozing passengers. A group of high school boys at the very front of the train began chattering, and as the train came to an abrupt halt, I knew there was trouble. The driver scurried between a window and a telephone and the high school students along with some curious old people stood up. I moved forward expecting the worst but drawn forward nonetheless by the irresistible force that draws strangers towards the site of a tragedy.

She laid face down on the tracks beneath an axle, her body covered by the shadow of the passenger car  above her. The high school students and the old people began asking each other, “Is it a man? A woman? From the heap laying on the tracks we couldn’t tell. The driver of our train left and trotted to her body, putting on some latex gloves as he did so. I noticed some station attendants appear, each removing his white gloves and replacing them with purple-colored latex ones. One of the station attendants carried a green tarp which they spread on the ground next to the body. They lifted her gently from under the train, and I was surprised by how limp her body was.

I understand that there are those such as paramedics, firemen, and police who know how a dead body looks when it is moved, but to someone whose experiences of death are thankfully few and far between it is quite stunning. When dead bodies are moved in movies, they never look like that. To me it looked as if the station workers were picking up an odd shaped sack of cement. There was no muscle control or rigidity to the body whatsoever. She was completely, impossibly limp. It may have looked like a sack of cement to me but it wasn’t. What those men laid gently onto the tarp had moments before been human, and I suddenly felt sick.

As they arranged her body on the tarp we saw the gold watch on her arm. It was a slim watch, obviously a woman’s, and the students and the old people said almost in unison, “It’s a woman.” For having a five hundred foot long train run over it, her body was surprisingly intact. The head and all the limbs were all where they were supposed to be. She wore blue jeans and was barefoot. She probably had been wearing shoes which had come off during her death since no one walks barefoot in the street of Japan. To be honest I forget what top she wore, but I can see the watch clearly. It was a gold watch, a slim woman’s analog. Had it been a gift or had she purchased it herself? How often had she looked at it, and had she used it to time her death?

As they carried the body across the rails in front of our train the Japanese boys twittered excitedly among themselves as an old woman gazed upon the scene solemnly. The station attendants and our driver hefted her body onto the train platform and blood gushed upon the concrete, eliciting shouts of “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” from the high schoolers. I found myself shaking and noticed that some old people sitting on the train station platform turned their bodies away from the scene only a few feet away from them, gazing up the tracks and waiting for the next train to come and take them away from the little human drama unfolding nearby.

They were not alone. I noticed that quite a few people remained in their seats on the train throughout this little drama. Some of them were reading newspapers or the ubiquitous comic books which occupy the time of so many Japanese when they aren’t working or sleeping. Others simply stared into space, off in their little worlds seemingly oblivious to this scene. Others waiting in the train which had hit the woman looked annoyed as they looked back and forth between their watches and the station attendants, as if their fidgeting would send the body quickly to the morgue and get the train back on schedule. Their train conductor no doubt was making the same train announcements as ours throughout the ordeal – apologizing for the inconvenience and promising we would soon be underway.

And soon we were as our driver returned, removing his latex gloves as he entered the train. The train conductor announced his thanks and appreciation for our wait. The woman’s body laying covered by the tarp, station workers beside it, slowly slid past outside our windows as our train continued on its journey. Next stop Fushimiinari, famous for its Shinto shrine dedicated to prosperity.

We returned to our seats, the students still chattering excitedly. I stared at the newspaper and at the article I had been reading but couldn’t concentrate. At this paragraph the woman had been alive and I hadn’t known it; at the next she was dead, and that I knew.

No doubt some would scoff at my apparent naivete and sensitivity regarding this woman’s suicide. My wife and I are expecting our first child in two months, and we were warned that parenthood would make us more sensitive to certain events and stories in the news. Perhaps that explains why I have spent the past hours thinking about that watch and that girl, imagining the future.

Somewhere a person was living their life and received a phone call that changed it forever. Their lives, along with those of her family, were now part of a very ancient play in which loved ones are mourned and their bodies consigned to oblivion. The funeral would last several days, and from what I know about Japanese funerals, they are quite extraordinary affairs. Given the state of her body, the family may forgo the usual dressing of it and placing it in a futon, as if the dead were asleep at her family home. On the next day she would lay in an open wooden casket with a large portrait of her hanging above as a Buddhist monk chanted and incense filled the air. Later she would then receive her death or spirit name, the name which would appear on her gravestone. This practice where the dead are given different names makes tracing ancestors by searching headstones in cemeteries impossible. But the Japanese maintain meticulous family histories, some of which go back a thousand years. Finally on the third day she would be cremated.

Funerals are always bizarre affairs in any culture, so perhaps what I’m about to describe isn’t as strange to some as it was to me. But I find the custom of Japanese cremation to be downright spooky. The Japanese cremate their dead at a much lower temperature which burns away the flesh but leaves the bones. Afterwards the bones are removed from the oven and laid out before the family members. Each member then uses a pair of large wooden chopsticks or tongs to pick up a bone and place it into a special ceremonial box. The rest of the remains are then added to the box with the skull placed on top. The box is then covered and carried home where it remains for several days until the family gravestone is opened. One student told me about her grandfather’s funeral. She mentioned the smell and the warmth emanating from the box as she carried it home. Small ceremonies where a Buddhist monk chants, burns incense and rings a bell are then carried out forty nine days, one year, three years, seven years and thirteen years after death. Each year during the Bon holiday in August her relatives will come to her gravestone and pour water over it as they offer a prayer to her soul.

And so it shall be for this girl whose broken body I saw on my way to work today. I will never know her name nor what drove her to a death which mildly inconvenienced several hundred passengers on the Keihan line for a few minutes on a hot summer day in Kyoto Japan.

Post script: There was no mention of her death in the local media.  I don’t know whether this omission was meant to protect the family or because such acts are relatively common here.

Update: The woman has been dead almost 18 years now. Her broken body has faded into shadow, but the raw emotion of this scene still stirs within me. The watch remains clear.

 

TESL PTSD Leaves Me SOL

Long ago I was a conversational English teacher in Japan. It was my first real job, and killed any idea of my becoming a teacher. By my count I taught roughly 7,000 lessons between April 1992 and February 1997 with a year away in Africa and a three month break in the US waiting for my work visa to clear. Even though my last lesson was 16 years ago, in my dreams I often find myself in a crowded teacher’s lounge, struggling to find the manilla folder containing the student’s record, my heart sinking to learn that I’m stuck with a 7C – the least capable of students. It’s then off to find the blue edition of American Streamline, a book that I have memorized. 16 years later I can still recite Lesson 25, prepositions of location: “Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late.” The bell-tones sound and I see the high middle school student forced to take the class by her mother waiting for me. Her face shows a smile at first then her eyes fall ever so slightly as she realizes that handsome Greg or Steve are not her teacher for today, but me. It’s going to be a long 40 minutes “man to man.”

Worse, I’m back in Japan and inevitably have a pocket full of American cash that I need to change to Yen. How am I going to get to a bank when all the trains and buses take yen only? In fact, what the hell am I doing here anyway? Wasn’t I married with a kid living with a passel of dogs, cats and chickens in the rolling hills of North Carolina? Where is my passport and my return ticket? And why am I living in this disgusting gaijin dorm anyway? I thought Norwegians were a clean people, so why am I smelling one in my dream?

I wake up sweating to find myself back in reality. Dr. Wife believes I have a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and the dreams are part of it. The level of PTSD does not rank up there with that suffered by servicemen and women, or refugees fleeing terrors of their home country. But anyone who has lived in Japan and taught “eikaiwa” at a conversation school knows where I am coming from. I suppose there are all types of stressors that can lead to PTSD, and my experiences while living 4 years in Japan must contain some of them.

It has been 16 years, but every few nights I find myself back In Country, in a lonely jungle filled with the bored faces of my students, teaching the exact same lessons I’ve taught hundreds of times before, in a land where I struggle to communicate, am a foreigner and unwanted.

Tactical Driving in Ireland

Or How to Enjoy the Land of Your Ancestors Without Meeting Them

By my estimation I’ve driven about half a million miles throughout North America without a major accident or speeding ticket, yet the idea of driving in Ireland filled me with trepidation. I agreed to doing so early on in the vacation planning phase with the Wife figuring how bad could it be tooling around a country of four and a half million the size of Indiana? That was before I learned that my credit card would not insure my rental there because of the number of insurance claims in Ireland. The travel guide Frommer’s rates Ireland as the second most dangerous country to drive in Europe, trailing only Greece probably because Greece have fewer sheep.

The Irish road system has an international character. The vistas are pure Irish and one could easily pull over every few feet to see something so beautiful it will bring tears to your eyes. Do so and you’ll be run over by the Irish who drive like Italians on roads built by drunk Greeks following traffic rules dreamed up by the same country that brought you cricket, Hugh Grant and English spelling.

The best advice I found can be viewed here. The only thing I might disagree with is the comparison between Dublin and New York City. I’ve driven in New York City, and there is nothing quite like it. Dublin driving is challenging and I wouldn’t recommend driving around it initially, but after a few days of driving in the countryside and small towns it should be okay. Also, be sure to educate yourself on insurance including CDW, and super CDW insurance. American credit cards will not insure your rental so you will be on your own when it comes to insuring your vehicle. In my case I ended up buying all the insurance offered by the rental company and then going with a super CDW through a third party. Insurance ate up about 2/3rds of my total rental bill, but the peace of mind is worth it because your mind will be too busy keeping your car on the road.

1. Rent the smallest car you can tolerate. Here in the states I drive compact, fuel efficient vehicles except when I’m renting – then I get the biggest, most comfortable boat I can reasonably afford. If you are like me, forget it in Ireland and get the closest thing to a skateboard you can stomach. It’s certainly not to save money: as mentioned above the rental fees are miniscule compared to the cost of insurance, it’s because you will find yourself doing 60 mph on what is known here in the US as a bikepath, with an ancient stone wall covered with sharp rocks on one side of you and five hundred feet of beautiful but life-ending air on the other.

2. Learn how to drive a manual transmission before you visit. This will be a challenge due to the disappearance of the stick transmission here, but try to borrow a friend’s car or even rent one for a day to learn. While uncommon here, renting an automatic will easily double the cost of your car rental. The upside? Better gas mileage. The downside? Learning a skill that you’ll probably never use again unless you buy a high performance sports car. People say learning to drive a stick is easy, and it is with some practice. The problem in Ireland is your busy learning to navigate winding streets as narrow as the hallway to your bathroom, in a car where the steering wheel is on the right and the stick shift is on the left, on the left side of the road, with unfamiliar street signs, lane markers and of course, wandering sheep. More on those later.

3. Ask for a diesel. Diesel is cheaper in Ireland than unleaded and provides better gas mileage. I got 38 mpg combined driving a diesel Ford Focus with manual transmission. At $8/gal, the pain at the pump was the same as here when I fill up my SUV that gets 19 mpg combined at $4/gal. Just remember at the filling station over there the black (diesel) pump is your friend. Fill up your diesel with unleaded and be prepared for a big tank cleaning bill. All that insurance you buy does not cover idiocy.

4. With a friend’s help, using a piece of hotel soap pull the left side of the car so that the passenger mirror just hangs over the line. Be alert behind the wheel, sitting up as if you were driving and note where the line is on the left fender or hood, then have your colleague mark that spot on the hood. Adjust your passenger mirror so that the line is clear there, then move the car onto the right line and do the same on the driver’s side of the car. Those marks will help you stay in your lane, and you know when you are approaching them that bad things such as bills from smashed mirrors and scraped paint appearing on your credit card are in your future.

5. Drive with a navigator, preferably a living, breathing one although a GPS will do in a pinch. A second set of eyes will help see signs you miss and help you negotiate the chain of roundabouts that will set an American’s hair on end. You thought the occasional roundabout our jug handle in New Jersey was bad, imagine three of the things one after the other filled with Irish driving like New Jerseans minus the crude epithets and hand gestures. A GPS unit will not warn you that you are about to enter the roundabout exit the wrong way or sideswipe the thistle covered rock wall on your left. The Wife, who bless her heart could get lost in a walk-in closet, by the end of our trip navigated us through rush hour clogged Dublin streets after the piss-poor directions given to us by the Slovakian front desk clerk failed, managing to not only get us to the airport on time but also avoiding the M50 in the process. After that performance I won’t be trading her in for a GPS unit anytime soon.

If you don’t have a navigator, either bring a GPS unit with you or take the hit and add one to the rental. If the former, make sure it has an updated map of Ireland. Some units do not. Either way I do not recommend navigating Ireland on your own. The signs are small and from an American perspective oddly placed, and occasionally missing altogether. A wrong turn is often difficult to determine until after you are dozens of kilometers down the road, resulting in wasting $8/gal fuel and time.

If all else fails, and it will, stop and ask the locals. I did this three times on our trip and each time the locals were friendly, eager to help, and more importantly accurate. Do not hesitate to do this if you find yourself lost, just be prepared to pay with a brief chat about how your trip is going so far.

6. Signage – Signs are often small and placed using a logic that differs from the US. English appears often, though not always, below the Gaelic, even though Gaelic isn’t spoken by many people aside from a few words that are useful in a pub brawl. The biggest difficulty I found with the signage was the time wasted skipping the Gaelic to read the English, by which time I had to switch my gaze back to the road. Navigators are best for this.

7. Road hazards. There were times that I felt that I was driving in a video game. Roads are often flanked by walls and hedges on both sides. The Ford’s headlights were focused too near to the front end of the car so that I had to drive with the high beams on as much as possible until oncoming traffic appeared and I was forced to turn them off then watch the lines to stay in my lane. It rains a lot in Ireland so the streets are often wet, but it doesn’t appear to slow down the Irish. People often walk pushing strollers or bicycle on the road, making focused driving critical. While I was there two children were killed when their stroller was hit by a car. The worst was a bicyclist dressed in black at night in the rain on a narrow rural road. Then there are these things which are everywhere outside of the big cities:

Irish Sheep in Road

Ireland is famous for its sheep, and they will appear in your way at some point in your journey. Usually they will move out of the way, but only after they realize you are there. Amazingly enough I only saw a single dead sheep as road kill, and very little road kill overall with foxes and cats predominating versus the possums, raccoons and squirrels here in the South. I see more road kill on my way to drop the Kid off at school than I did the 600+ miles I drove in Ireland.

These were some of the tactics I learned while driving in Ireland that I thought I’d share if for the only reason that driving there intimidated me to the point that if I could have I would have chickened out and taken a bus tour. But I grew some stones and did it, maybe not with as much cool and aplomb as I might have liked but did it nonetheless, and I am glad I did. Ireland is an incredible place, and after all the places I’ve been in the world it’s the first where I felt truly comfortable outside of the US. It’s true there is a family connection as there are for many Americans, Australians and Canadians, but there was more to it. It has moved me in a way that I haven’t felt before, and while it was happening I knew it would take time for me to fully comprehend. I suppose it may be similar to the Jews who visit Israel for the first time, or perhaps a Muslim who makes his first hajj, but there is something truly magical about the place – and it has nothing to do with leprechauns, Guinness, or U2. It’s more sublime than that, undefinable. I mentioned it to my sister and she immediately understood. She felt the same way about the place and even though she hadn’t been there in 30+ years she spoke as if she had been there yesterday. I’m still feeling it, wondering what it means but happy that after all the far away places I’ve been to I’ve finally made to some place close to home – in more ways than one I suppose.

Don’t let the driving scare you from visiting this country and taking it in the way it is meant to be: person to person without tour guides, strict itineraries or coaches. I spent a total of 8 days there and when I started I was terrified of driving. Now it’s a non-issue and I’m already plotting my return to see things I missed on this trip, and to chase sheep in a rented Fiat 500. Hopefully these tips will come in useful as you explore the gem of Ireland and the Irish people who make it shine brightly in the heart.