Thursday, May 19, 2016

Are you experienced, pilgrim? (Part II)

Day 3: Payback
We made a tactical error by not finishing at temple #10 on day 2.  Not being able to start the day’s hike there added a few kilometers to day 3’s tally as payback.  So Dad and I were out of the hotel and back at the gates of temple #9 quite early. Pitter-patter—we had to hoof it.
Dedicated scientist that he is, pop had calculated that a walking speed of about 5 km per hour would be necessary to reach the next temple by a decent time figuring in the distance and available daylight for the day’s expected journey of nearly 30 kms. Thus, we hauled ass across Tokushima city’s comparatively flat terrain and rivers that lie in the valley between its northern hills and the mountains to the south.
We got lost near temple #10, further complicating matters.  I went over to ask an elderly farmer, who was serenely tending his field, for directions, but when he looked up he was so startled to see a Caucasian guy asking for something that I could almost see a giant “WTF!!$?”dialogue bubble form over his head. He probably didn’t expect that when he woke up that morning! After recovering his stoicism, we all chuckled and he pointed out the right way.

Pop and I pressed on. Ate a perfunctory lunch at temple #11 and headed up the steep mountain trail, which was brutal. We were facing up to 600+ meters elevation from the valley floor, quite draining after about 17 kms done crossing the city that morning. Kept on going with the right amount of rest stops and water.
Luckily, the weather cooperated, and we were smart about it: not too fast, not too slow, so confidence levels and morale remained high. Took in some panoramic views of Tokushima’s cityscape but then we turned into the mountain’s guts and climbed toward our goal,  temple #12, Shosanji, and its hilltop shrine.
We saw only a few other hikers on this trail. Some of the people we’d chatted with said our goal to reach #12 that day was a ‘temple too far’ and pushing the envelope of good sense. Yes, it was bullish but we had little choice—our lodging was booked but still many clicks away on the downslope of Shosanji. So we just kept going, laughing sometimes, conversation flagging on the steep parts because we had no extra breath for chitchat, then back to talkative on the flat parts. Looming fatigue.
When sunshine broke through the dense forest foliage,  I’d hear an internal soundtrack in the quiet spells, and occasionally Jimi Hendrix would make an appearance—appropriate given the mystical element to our hike:
Are You Experienced?
Ah! Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have.
Finally, after the third steep section of the trail that crested the mountain passes, we made it to temple #12. Hallelujah! Dad rang the bell at the shrine, informing Kukai and God that we’d made it. It was the highest point of our trip, the closest we got to the heavens, as it were. Time to rock the Kasbah.
Then we descended down the trail to a traditional Japanese inn about four clicks from the shrine. We arrived, bathed and soaked our tired dogs, then were slightly chastised by innkeeper for not coming to dinner at the appointed time—within 5 minutes of the cowbell rung at 1830! He sported wild Beethoven hair and a manic demeanor, but the dinner was a sumptuous set course of super-healthy Japanese fare.

Day 4: Blisters and Bliss
Despite the path to semi-enlightenment I’d been following, I’ll admit to checking my email and the weather over a canned coffee the next morning. The kooky proprietor popped his head into our room doorway ("hey, let’s go. breakfast.") just after the other guests – also pilgrims from the look of them – obediently went to breakfast. Huh? So we artlessly downed the calories, packed up, and started down the highway toward the next temple.  My feet were not amused by the cumulative punishment delivered the previous days, but we got into the rhythm again quickly. Dad and I followed the route that we'd planned along the highway but only after some 10 kms did I realize I goofed slightly by taking a southern route. ZOINKS. I had been a moderately successful navigator so far during our hike hither and yon but this was a pure misread that added 4 kms to the journey.  But, in so doing, we avoided some major up and down trails. In any case, it was another slog to get to temple 13, but we completed the 20-odd kms in a few hours. Stopped at a 7-11 and cleared the mechanism. Temples 14, 15 and 16 all held their own charms, but for me, it was all starting to blur together. Dad appeared to be moderately less into it, too. Temples became like fine wine: the first one was like a Chateau Lafite 1961, but after a few glasses of other vintages, it all started to taste like a Carlo Rossi jug plonk. The standout feature was this funkadadelic private trucker’s wheels—zowie
Finally, thankfully, we made it to our "final" temple, #17 a.k.a Idoji. It was the last time, so I paid more attention to the rituals expected: first bowing at the temple gate, then washing my hands and mouth with the purified water near the entrance, and Dad’s announcing our arrival to Kukai by ringing the temple's bell. Lingered there a bit longer than the prior four, taking it all in, but it was clear the walking part of trip was over. A pleasant numbness tinged with humility. It’s a cliché, but there was a tangible sense of accomplishment to complete what we had aimed to do. Dad rang one more bell to signal our triumph. I can only imagine what it must feel like to walk the entire pilgrimage to 88 temples. Maybe one day I’ll find out.
This isn't Idoji temple, but is the best Batman and Robin photo of us 
What I learned:
- (Re-learned) that it’s good to occasionally bite off more than you can chew
- Parent-child bonding remains important even when the child is middle-aged!
- Take a good map and guide book on the 88 temple pilgrimage
- Nothing beats one-on-one time with your parents to get better insight into each other’s lives
- Healthy outdoor activity does put things in perspective

I could conclude with a steaming pile of father-son bonding bromides. I won’t.
This ending is simple, Spartan, apt: Dad, you da man.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Think you can make it, pilgrim?

The walking expedition I took with my dad in March began as a random idea. It became a mini-pilgrimage. In retrospect, it was just plain good fun. Here’s the story:

What is the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage?
Shikoku is the smallest of the four main islands of Japan, but is the birthplace of one of the most revered figures in Japanese Buddhism, the monk and teacher Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi). Kukai imported an offshoot form of Buddhism to Japan from China in the 9th century. These days, a 1,200 km/750 mile pilgrimage route circles this mountainous island, connecting 88 separate temples and shrines that have some kind of connection to Kukai. 

The Shikoku Tourism Bureau website captures it better than I can: “This circular pilgrimage route is the most famous pilgrimage in Japan. It was established by disciples [many over a thousand years ago] of…Kukai, who trained at several sacred places in Shikoku, and many believe this route follows his footsteps. This is a journey to find your true self and attain piece of mind.” Each leg of the long journey is a supposed to be a step toward nirvana—encouraging discipline, austerity, enlightenment, and sore feet. Many thousands undertake the pilgrimage every year, on foot, bicycle, car and tour bus. Old-school pilgrims hoofing it take about 45-60 days on foot. Yikes.

I can’t quite recall when the idea of this father-son hike first surfaced. Certainly it was years ago when I was living in Hiroshima, because the prospect of a long trek around parts of Shikoku seemed less remote than it does now amid my super-urban lifestyle in Tokyo/Yokohama. Regardless, Dad said he wanted to try the 88 temple circuit, it was on his bucket list, and I wanted to go myself. So he carved the time out of his busy retired traveler/golfer schedule and came to visit us. Let’s face it, the main draw was seeing the Rising Granddaughters during their spring break, but the part of this visit involving the temple pilgrimage appealed to his spiritual vision quest – it being Lent after all – and that sealed the deal. So we decided we would go as far as we could along the circuit within three or four days. 
Temple #1, Ryozen-ji, viewed from outside. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Day 1: Challenging
Thus prepped, off we went. “We” means just me and the old man, on a father-son bonding journey. I thought of the word “pilgrim” and what that implied--the spirituality aspect; childhood images of earnest black-hatted pilgrims in colonial North America escaping religious persecution in the New World. A pilgrim, after all, is someone who travels a great distance to fulfill a religious or similarly momentous purpose. Think of the pilgrims who went to the west of North America to colonize/civilize it. That’s some deep resolve. Me being me, the gravitas soon evaporated and I was left with my usual sophomoric take on the pop culture elements the “88 Temple Circuit,” namely:
- the slashfest scenes of O-ren Ishii’s “Crazy 88” kill squad from the Kill Bill movies;
- in the Back to the Future film trilogy, 88 mph is the speed that Doc Brown’s DeLorean must attain in order to travel back in time;
- and John Wayne. Yes—John Wayne. Even middle-aged Gen Xers like me remember the Duke’s prolific use of the word "pilgrim."
The prospect of walking and hiking an estimated 80-100 kms in three or four days with little to no preparation inspired this thought: “Think you can make it, pilgrim?”

Dad being Dad, he pre-planned the route as best he could, we’d bicker over small details via email, then laugh about it in person. He opted to follow the chronological route, by starting in Tokushima at the first temple, Ryozen-ji, and following the directions.
Finally, off we went: flight from Tokyo to Tokushima, deplane and exit the airport, and immediately hop in a cab to the first temple. We arrived and it started drizzling just a bit. Dad forgot his tablet on the airplane. Shrine #12, which we had planned to stay overnight, had stopped accepting overnight guests. In sum, bad juju. We pressed onward.
Impressions of the first three temples were the quiet that envelops you inside the temple grounds after you cross the threshold of the two ogres standing guard in the front entrance. The occasional scent of burning incense or candles, and the soft shuffling sounds of the pilgrims themselves as they walked furtively from one shrine to another inside the temple grounds, and the sharp gong! of the shrine’s bells being rung by the pilgrims . The dedicated ones said their prayers from memory.
We engaged in a conversation with one 75-year-old man who was on his third full pilgrimage, likely his last one he said. It had taken him about three months to walk to all 88 temples. This time, he would go to number 88, then come back in reverse order. Godspeed—literally. On the first day we got used to the rhythm of walking along the asphalt next to the highways and the sometimes-confusing directional markers. We managed to get from Temple #1 to #3, then took the train back to the main train station and our economy hotel.

Day 2: Temples 4-9
It was pretty cool to have Dad all to myself for an extended period for the first time in years. Suddenly, we had all this time to talk about how he was doing, catching up on how our immediate family members were doing that we usually cannot cover in a Skype session. We passed the time and we had a lot of laughs, and a delicious lunch at a run-down but very welcoming B&B. Great weather; warm at about 20 degrees Celsius with clear blue skies. Local people, famed for their hospitality shown to pilgrims, were saying hello and waving all the time. A distinguished-looking older gentleman saw us, pulled over and parked his car, and handed over some ginger-flavored sweet rice candy. And we had plenty of conversations with people on the pilgrimage, most of them Japanese. As we established a walking rhythm we ran into quite a few of the same faces and Dad couldn't help himself, he was competitive about who was ahead of whom. “Pick up the pace, Chris” he’d cajole, half-joking.
We got to Temple #9 and called it a day.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


This post is not about a CD by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's an account of the day trip the Rising Family® took last weekend to the Sagamiko Illumination, about an hour’s drive west from our home. It’s the Tokyo area’s largest festival of lights with 5.5 million LED bulbs dotting the landscape.
I have always enjoyed the Christmas season’s light-ups in Japan. In December 2015 we had intended to go to the Sagamiko amusement park/resort’s illumination as well as our annual jaunt to Yomiuriland. Fate intervened and we only made it to the latter. Naomi recently found out the last chance to hit the Sagamiko light-up fiesta would be the 2nd week of April. The weather forecast looked good. Let’s go for it, we thought. And it in the end, we may have discovered a new way for these resorts to draw visitors:
Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) + illumination (kaleidoscope of color) = Hanamillumination
Upon arrival, we bought an everything-included family day pass so the daughters could go wild on the rides. Ferris wheel, tea cup spinning, revolving Octopus, go-karts—all your typical family fun. Lady E. enjoyed the g-forces on the “Ozora Tengoku” (blue sky heaven) monstrosity, which I admit had a pretty high pucker-factor. It reminded me of a trebuchet, a medieval siege weapon used to fling bombs at the enemy. 

But the amusement ride enjoyment was compounded by the surrounding cherry trees, which were still in full bloom. So as we walked from ride to ride, the cherry petals were floating down to earth. Not exactly an atmosphere of quiet reflection about the fragility and fleeting nature of life. But it was certainly a gorgeous backdrop to the day’s frenetic entertainment.
As the shadows crept across the valley floor, the prospect of 5.5 million LED lights beckoned. It was wave after wave of colorful visual stimuli energizing the senses, and a source of something truly extraordinary.
In other words, we took in the spectacle of these lights criss-crossing and enveloping the park grounds to light up the valley. It was a memorable display. I hope some of these photos do it justice for you, dear reader.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Elena’s world at nine (2)

Part two: things
What’s your average day like? Share some of your secrets!
I get up, usually in a foul mood. Just not a morning person. When we’re eating breakfast my friend F.-san calls up to three times about something or other. We walk to school, do a little exploring if the weather’s nice. My first and second period classes drive me crazy, but I recover a bit when we sometimes head outside to tend our class’s little vegetable garden. I’m usually home by mid-afternoon, craving and demanding a sugary snack. Then I hang with little sis and alternately terrorize or help mom. 

Who are you wearing these days?
Oh man I have these uber-funky jeans with vivid peacock stitching running down the leg; these jeans draw a few views from the competition on the playground. Mom and Dad have to convince me to try new clothes, and occasionally I indulge them on that. I’m very fond of this black long sleeve shirt with “Pretty Stars” embossed on it that flatters my hair color. And I got these fabulous Roller Shoes for Christmas; basically, athletic shoes with a small roller embedded in the shoes’ rubber soles that enables me to slide on pavement or down hills. Love that technology! Plus they are black and hot pink. Solid fashion, I think.
What’s your favorite food? You’re quite thin—any diet tips for our readers?
No brainer: fox udon soup, known as kitsune udon. No, it’s not made with fox meat, that’s just what it’s called. And “stinky senbei”, the salty rice cracker treat that smells like farts but tastes great. And I adore those fake teeth gummies that Grampa sends to us from the Loblaws Bulk Barn because he knows M. and I love them and cannot get them here in Japan.

What’s on your reading list lately?
I do like reading at night before we go to bed. These days, Magic Tree House is super-cool. I read it in Japanese and my Chinese character reading skills are coming along nicely, thank you very much. For English, we all like the SpongeBob Squarepants books. And the Disney storybook and songs compilation we got from Grampa. I know the plots of the Disney stuff Inside-Out. Get it?
And I am becoming interested in music. Like my Mom, I am more partial to the English music than Japanese pop, probably because that’s all we hear. I like Carly Ray Jepson’s work, and of course Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, most stuff by Taylor Swift. I am oddly fascinated by one of Dad’s songs that I heard—Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.” He said I would understand the lyrics someday, so just enjoy the words for now.

Have a joke for us?
Nothing specific. In general, though, we laugh a lot, even when Marina and I are alone. For example, I will ask something to Marina, she replies with something nonsensical or silly, and I will stare at her, then blurt out “BWAAA Haaaa Haaaa HA!
We usually both burst out laughing. It’s very cutesy-girly but damn it’s funny.
That’s it.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Elena’s world at nine (1)

In late 2015 we interviewed Marina on the state of her life, her worldview, and how she goes about her daily business. Equal airtime dictates we should do the same for her elder sibling, Elena. As a double-down, we’ve broken it into two parts.
Part one: thoughts
What makes you proud? Can you give us one fearless move you’ve made that establishes your mettle?
For me that means “ichiban ganbatte koto” [Things for which I worked the hardest to achieve.] That’s a softball question! So let me give you something you want to hear followed by a kicker. Hey, I know I am among the world’s worst in putting off doing my homework. But lately I am getting better and doing my homework faster and more accurately, with less psychological torment of my little sister as my stress release. That isn’t too shabby in my book. But honestly I am proudest that I could make myself eat an umeboshi [sour plum] in my school lunch once this year. I couldn’t make myself do it before, and haven’t done it again since.

Embarrassing habits?
Last week I was in this heated talk with a couple of girlfriends and I waited for them to finish speaking (good manners-ed.). When they finally finished and I’d forgotten what I wanted to say--just a teensy bit mortified about that. I’m no airhead so lapses like that bug me.
The other one is definitely my tendency to apply mental pressure on my little sister when I don’t want her to come with me to play at a friend’s house, or if I have a sh---y day and get cranky because of homework. On the plus side, lately there’s fewer body blows between the two of us, so that’s progress. And I sometimes eat my own boogers.

Three things that make you unique at school?
I’ve been to Canada, probably the only person in my school to do that. Definitely the only one whose dad is a Canuck. And, yeah, I can speak a little English and have memorized some pretty awful words that Daddy uses when he’s driving. I was in the school cheerleading team this year for sports day—the only one from my class. Maybe that’s why my family is always saying I am l-o-u-d.

Boys or girls—who is more fun to play with?
Girls, no question. They’re just easier to understand and get along with, most of the time. Sometimes we fight, though. On the other hand, I do get along OK with the boys but they aren’t a priority right now due to the majority of them having some really disgusting habits.

To be continued.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The rules of having fun

Japan loves stability, hierarchy and public order. I’ve observed a tendency among Japanese to believe that the country’s vaunted social order and love of punctuality are qualities embedded in the Nipponese DNA. It isn’t--it’s learned behavior, environmental conditioning, social engineering--call it what you will. Wherever you go, there are signs or instructions which tell people what is OK to do and what isn’t. Sometimes there’s noise pollution, too, in the form of public broadcasts. Nothing nefarious--it’s all done with the public good and general safety in mind, but there’s a bit of a Nanny State complex going on here. For example:

“When stepping onto the escalator, please take care. Please ride the escalator with your hand on the rail. Do not do XXX and XXX.”

“The train is coming to a stop. Please be sure hold the hand strap.”

I don’t hear those kinds of announcements piped into the public airspace in too many other countries. Especially so politely. If it were Canada, it would have to be something like:

“C’mon, buddy, keep off the grass.” 

“Hang on. Or you’ll fall over. Your responsibility if you’re dumb about it.” 

“If you destroy public property, that gives us an excuse to raise your taxes again.”
Come to think of it, the Japanese aren’t too far from the “peace, order and good government” mantra that Canadians flock to. 

Recently we went to the Yamato Yutori Park in Atsugi, near Yokohama. The park was created in 2014 by Yamato City after the US Navy and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces released some land next to the NAF Atsugi runway where Navy fighters/cargo planes and MSDF sub-hunters are stationed. The park itself is an amazing piece of work. Immaculate grounds. Thoughtful design with safety in mind, but not boring. Pleasant and amusing things to do for families with toddlers through to pre-teens. Several ballparks and soccer pitches for tournaments. We really appreciate this park and have been visiting it regularly. 

So what’s the point of this post? One of the park’s play areas features huge white jumping pillow mounds that are kept inflated with compressed air so the kids can jump, roll, and generally go berserk. Many of the parks that have these jumping pillows try to keep elementary school age “big kids” in separated from the pre-school kids, who get their own space. 

Order is paramount. You must sign in at least once with name and age. And, at Yamato Yutori park, well-intentioned retirees in bright, distinctive jackets patrol the area and scold any kids who dare to do headstands, backflips, or body rolls on the jumping pillow/fluffy domes. So it’s policed merriment.

I just dig the way rules are hammered into kids’ heads by soft, fuzzy, cute characters. Case in point, Yutori no Mori Park’s Rules of Fun below (all translations mine).

And we’ll have fun, fun, fun ‘till the geezers take our funning away.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Elena’s icy bloody Sunday

January 10th…a day that began with delight but ended bloody. Sound ominous? Let me explain.

Scuttle skating at Kodomo no Kuni Rink
My wife and I had decided we would take the girls out skating this year. Like having a “real” Christmas, I was resolute to provide them some Canadian content by strapping on the blades. So, off we went to Kid’s Country (Kodomo no Kuni) which has an outdoor rink during winter. As mental prep, I told them that I first put on skates at two years old and played ice hockey until junior high school. This left them visibly unimpressed.
Changing tactics, I said if they didn’t moan and complain about the skates, and gave it a real try, we’d “think about” a sugary celebration after the skating was done. That got their positive attention. To my surprise, Elena had remembered some of her previous ice adventures, and took to the idea immediately. Marina was a real gamer and didn’t complain too much once we adjusted the skates to her feet. It was her skating debut.
I coached them all a bit even though I felt my own lack of ice time would affect my authority should I dump it on the ice. Luckily for me, there were about 5,000 people crammed onto the regulation rink’s space, so there was no way to fall over. It was like a mosh pit at a Rage Against The Machine concert.
And yet we managed to have a wonderful afternoon in the sun; it was about ten degrees Celsius out, yet the ice was firm, with Zambonis periodically prowling the surface, thus just a little bit of Canada was magically transferred to Yokohama for the afternoon. The Rising Family™ had some good old-fashioned fun. No budding Kristi Yamaguchis in this lot, though.

Tenacious tooth tale
Lady E. lost a few teeth over the past few years and she currently sports a gap between her two upper front tusks that would make Vanessa Paradis proud. We are taking metal countermeasures for that; namely, braces. But her remaining baby teeth keep popping out—she’s at that stage.

After a wonderful day of skating and then dinner at Kappa Sushi, the kids went to bed. Soon afterward, Elena came out of her bedroom and said that her latest wobbly tooth was hurting. She demonstrated with a probe, visibly in pain. I said she had to choose whether she wanted to wait or to take matters into her own hands. To my surprise, she chose the latter.
She was sniffling and quite agitated, so I knew was time to shift into Dad Mode. She wanted help, and my mission was to take her mind off the pain. So we used ice cubes to numb the gums, and I started in with distracting chatter. Gave her a toothpick and showed my boyhood technique to push and prod, twist and pull the errant tooth, then lift it up by its exposed bottom edge, and gently rip the remaining roots to pull it out. It’s painful. Almost as painful to watch your child in pain.

As her discomfort grew, so did her determination to get it over with. I was proud of her fortitude. I shifted into Barack Obama mode:

Me: “You can do it, E-chan. Say ‘I can do it.”
She repeated “I can do it” several times with genuine conviction. And she eventually pried the tooth out. I was – am – extremely proud of the toughness and guts she showed me.
We packed her gums with Kleenex to stem the bleeding, and she went back to bed, looking slightly satisfied. This ended one rather special Sunday for the Rising Family.

All I am wondering now is when will Elena finally put the tooth under her pillow for the Tooth Fairy to come?