The Angelic Villas of Bidadari (Bali)


Bidadari Villas at Ubud is a Balinese destination in and of itself.  It is, at once, a physically amazing place.  Lush, beautifully landscaped grounds surround opulently appointed private townhomes, perfect for a romantic stay or better yet a honeymoon.

Setting Sun from Our Villa

Artistic Accents Abound

As its name implies – “Angel,” Bidadari certainly holds a lease on a little corner of heaven here on earth.  As a high-end resort, it is a unique place by which the remote nature of Bali can best be experienced.  The amazing panoramic views, the unique, spacious and private villas, and an overly attentive staff make these accommodations worth every penny of a costly stay there.  Time melts away as guests are pampered and relaxed.  A stay here is a time of elegance.

Evening Views from our Villa

Balinese Doorways

Drama in Stone

Jody and I quickly fell in love with not just our Villa, but of the place.  Bidadari is mystically located, nestled in a jungle ravine, where rice farmers tending their terraced fields can be enjoyed from each room’s private infinity pool, all overlooking the jungle canopy of the river valley below.  The property is beautifully constructed of the finest materials, situated vertically along a steep ridge, giving each room almost 100% privacy and unadulterated views.  Be forewarned though:  the spa is located all the way at the property’s bottom, and after one of the best massages you’ll have in your life, the climb back up to your room can be a challenge.

In-Room, Private Dining

Private Chef

Surprise Birthday Celebration

The bar for service at Bidadari is set and held to the highest standards, with a personable staff all around and private butler for every room on-call 24/7.  As corny as this may sound, the employees really do seem to possess a genuine desire to provide an exceptional experience at every turn.  Mr. Rana, the site’s manager, makes you feel as welcomed as family, and having our own butler, driver and maid which we personally got to know made us feel completely at home, even in the midst of such luxury.  Each detail of our stay at Bidadari was simply a perfect balance of extravagance, relaxation, and service.

Delicious Room Service

The staff at Bidadari arranged for a diver on multiple days for us, an employee of the resort who was local to the area and spoke very good English.  The vehicles provided are well maintained, and the driver provides welcomed cold bottles of water between stops and sarongs which are required at most temple visits.

Open-Air Breakfast

Breakfast is served each morning open-air in a shaded living area by your secluded pool, and featured fresh fruits and a menu to order set the evening prior.  But it was the “special” meals we ordered which were so unforgettable.  On one occasion, we requested the local grilled sampler of local fare and favorites.  For this meal, a formal dining area was set in our villa, and a grill and private chef actually cooked out meal there not far from our table-side!

Romantic Dinner for Two

The food service at Bidadari will surprise and delight.  Personal and friendly Butlers provide gracious service for each room service menu.  All dining is private and luxurious, delivered to and served in your private villa.  Dining is open-air, complete with stunning vistas of the Ubud valley spied over your private pool.  The chefs at Bidadari source their produce, delivered daily, locally from Ubud Markets, and the room-service menu includes a wide array of Indonesian specialties and a fusion of other international foods.  To compliment the food, a wide array of wines is also offered, including selections from Australia, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand.  And, of course, to help pass the time, a full range of cocktails are just a phone call away.

Dinner in our Room

On another occasion, we decided to pamper ourselves (and to help celebrate Jody’s birthday) and ordered their romantic dinner for two.  Coming “home” after a day of touring we found our villa decorated with rose petals and candles, which really set the ambiance for the rest of our evening.  Needless to say, the food at Bidadari is exceptional, personal, and hand-crafted to order.

Romance

An amazing aspect of a stay at Bidadari is that you truly can feel like the only guests on property.  Given the private dining and pools, limited number of rooms (6 total), and the gated nature of each villa, only on very few occasions did we see anyone else…besides the staff.

Goodnight Desserts each Night

We stayed in Villa Melati.  Entering through iconic Balinese-inspired doors, and passing a fountain providing a soothing sound of splashing water, the main living areas of the villa are encountered.  To the right is a large couch, perfect for napping and watching TV, one of which we did hardly any of (you can guess which one…I hope).  To the left is the private infinity pool and dining area, both with wide views of the ravine across and below.  Passing this area and going downstairs, a fully appointed kitchen is found; moving upstairs the master bathroom and bedroom are found.  The only air-conditioned area is the bedroom, but AC is not really required anywhere else.  The furniture and decor all are designed to complement a stay and highlight the unique culture of Bali.

Napping Couch

But it’s not just Bidadari that makes a holiday here so fantastical.  The Villas are located just outside the mystical Bali village of Ubud, our favorite locale while in Bali.  The property runs a free, on-call shuttle to the village center, about 4 kilometers away, and around a 10-minute drive (or so).

Upstairs Master Suite

Artistic Accents Abound

Ubud’s specific collusion of its particularly beautiful surroundings and gracious way of life have historically made it a haven for celebrities and artists.  But since being spotlighted in the famed book by Elizabeth Gilbert and movie of the same title Eat Pray Love, it has become a destination of choice for peoples from all over the world.  It seems that Ubud, at least for now, has maintained its traditions despite the onslaught of tourism.  Here the Balinese still place offerings gracefully on the side of the road and at every temple.  While they may now ride scooters everywhere (there seem to be about 6 billion motorbikes in Bali!), the Balinese still maintain their traditional beautiful dress.

Balinese Beauty

Ubud is the meditational heart of Bali.  Many come here purely to recharge and recover from the damages of suffering the unsustainable pace of western life.  Private yet open-air yoga studios and schools abound, surrounded by dense green jungles, myriads of rice fields and beautiful tropical gardens.  The village has a very relaxed vibe to it, and seems to actually physically resist those who are rushed in their lives.  Rather, it is a place to relax and live in the moment.  Have a casual meal on one of the many street side cafes or restaurants.  Slowly stroll around and do some window shopping and perhaps a big of haggling.  Or, better yet, just sit idly by with a good book and ingest the colorful and delightful Balinese life that passes you by….

Natural Relaxation

The vision behind the design and construction of Bidadari was focused on private relaxation within the natural foliage and fauna of Bali.  Plans insisted that each villa be totally autonomous, private, and secluded; once the gated entrance is enclosed, guests should be able to relax and indulge their every desire…without ever having to leave.  Nestled into a ridge meandering down to the River Wos, the six multi-story luxury villas are surrounded by breathtaking lush tropical gardens.  The villas have been constructed to artistically blend into a landscape of coconut palms and exotic foliage, undisturbed as much as possible.

Spa Staff

The on-site Bunga Matahari Spa is a captivating and casual stroll down meandering steps deep into the tranquil atmosphere which permeates Bidadari.  The spa is totally secluded, fringed by the running waters of the ravine’s river, and surrounded by the vibrant tropical rain forest and lush gardens that it nourishes.  Relaxing spa treatments and blissful massage unique to Bali are relished while your senses soothed by listening to the rush of the river below.  After your treatment, a warm soaking flower bath for two is drawn so that you can continue to relax while overlooking the river and the hidden valley of Ubud.

Our Spa Room for the Afternoon

To date, for me and I’ll go out on a limb and say this for Jody too, our stay at Bidadari remains our most luxurious holiday, and probably the most enjoyable and memorable.  We stayed for just over a week, and not only was our time at the Villas the highlight of that trip to Bali, it’s one of the highlights of our lives.  If you are wondering if the price of staying there is worth it, yes, absolutely it is.  When we return to Bali we will stay again without a doubt, with much love and eternal thanks.

Check out the Bidadari Villas at Ubud for yourself, or find them on Facebook here.

Thanks & Giving in the Far East


 “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”

thanksgiving-japan

The smell was the first thing that hit me. That unmistakable odor of a human being who hasn’t bathed in what surely was many months. I was headed to the trash to dump the remains of dinner but fond myself searching for the malodorous source, when suddenly a hand reached out to stop me.

It was a man, apparently homeless…and evidently of some minority ethnic background of Chinese.

Fortunate Leftovers

Fortunate Leftovers

I stopped, somewhat shocked. While I’ve certainly been accosted by homeless in many areas of the world, it’s never happened in the confines of a fast-food establishment. Clearly he was hungry, and after only the slightest pause, he started ruffling through the debris and trash on our tray….

Christmas Celebrations were a Pleasant Surprise in Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing.

Christmas Celebrations were a Pleasant Surprise in Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you areJody and I visited China last week, the first time for both of us. And last week was the week of “our” Thanksgiving. While Peking Duck is certainly the obvious choice in China for celebrating the day (there is no turkey there to speak of), we were saving that perhaps most famous culinary of China for our last night in Beijing. And although the Holiday Inn where we were quartered was actually offering what was billed as a “traditional” American Thanksgiving (at a reasonable price of about $65/person), we opted instead for a celebratory feast at the most popular western fast-food chain in China: Kentucky Fried Chicken!

China 2014, Thanksgiving, holiday treats at the Holiday Inn

China 2014, Thanksgiving, strange menu choices in China!While traveling throughout China we had heard an awful lot from our tour guides about KFC. Kentucky Fried Chicken, the world’s second largest restaurant chain in sales only after McDonald’s, has about 19,000 outlets in almost 120 countries. KFC became the first Western fast food company in China in 1987 with a franchise opening in Beijing. This Beijing outlet had the highest volume of sales of any KFC in the world in 1988. Capitalism and the West is a wonderful thing. Or is it simply crispy fried food?!

Happy Fried Goodness!

Happy Fried Goodness!

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you areOf course KFC had an early and sustained advantage against other Western fast food rivals, fried chicken being a staple Chinese dish since antiquity. Hamburgers, on the other hand, remain “foreign” and largely unknown outside the context of the Gold Arches and that creepy King. Twenty-eight KFC franchises were open by 1994 in China; by 1997 there were 100 outlets. A few years ago they passed the 300 mark and growth, while slowed, continues exponentially.

Picture Menus are a must in Asia

Picture Menus are a must in Asia

Japan also celebrates both KFC and a Thanksgiving…of sorts. While the biscuits in Japanese franchises are shamefully bad compared to their American counterparts, Thanksgiving Day in Japan is eerily similar. Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日 Kinrō Kansha no Hi) is a Japanese national holiday held annually on November 23 as an occasion for commemorating labor and production. Like most other modern holidays around the globe, Labor Thanksgiving Day is the modern name for an ancient harvest of cereals festival known as Niiname-sai (新嘗祭), tracing back as early as the 7th century BCE. In modern times, this event encourages thinking about the environment, peace and human rights, all a result of the post-World War II Japan and her new constitution which focused more intently on fundamental human and workers’ rights. Oh, and by the way, the Chinese KFCs don’t even bother to offer biscuits, much to their credit.

ThanksgivingJapanMenuFront

mao-portrait-2In China, however, having seen KFCs throughout Shanghai, Xian and Beijing, it became somewhat of a dare to eat at one. And what better time than on that most American of American holidays: Thanksgiving. Arriving late at the hotel after a long day of touring, we invited all those traveling with us to come and celebrate, but only three others took us up on our offer. Walking just a few short blocks away from our hotel in the Christmassy temperatures of nighttime Beijing, we arrived with smiles on our faces and grumblings in our bellies. Unfortunately in China there is no effigy of Colonel Sanders like there is in Japan (see Christmas is for Lovers in Japan for more on the central role of the Colonel and his food in Japan). Oh the photo-ops the Colonel dressed as Chairman Mao would provide!

Dressed in green the Colonel would be a terrific Chairman Mao!

Dressed in green the Colonel would be a terrific Chairman Mao!

Chinese outlets are typically two to three times larger than those found in America and Europe; many are open 24 hours a day. And most provide home delivery…via electric scooter…where the hotbox of fried goodness is strapped directly on the diver’s back.

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screen%20shot%202014-10-08%20at%2011_12_51%20amKFC has adapted its menu to suit local tastes throughout the Far East, and China is no exception. With items such as rice congee, egg custard tarts and tree fungus salad, over 50 different menu items are offered in each store. While the “Dragon Twister,” a wrap that includes fried chicken, cucumbers, scallions, and duck sauce sounds delish, it’s the “Zinger” burger that tops the best-selling list: a 100% breast fillet chicken coated in “zinger flavoring” combined with lettuce and mayo for those seeking a full-on hot and spicy flavor hit.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you are

I actually ordered the Zinger (unknowingly), but realizing the wimps that most Americans tend to be about Asian-inspired spiciness, I was asked whether I wanted it “spicy or mild.” The sandwich was good, the fries where excellent, the cobbed corn was soft and bettered just like the ones back home, and the mash and gravy were actually very Kentucky-like. All-in-all it was a fitting meal to which the Colonel would most like offer his heartfelt “xie xie” (“thanks” in Mandarin Chinese, pronounced “she-she”).

This Red Guard no doubt is proclaiming:  Eat More Chicken!

This Red Guard no doubt is proclaiming: Eat More Chicken!

But our meal, being more of a gimmick than a worthy celebration, failed to do justice the serious side of giving Thanks and acknowledging the bounty present in our accidental lives being born American. I can’t really recall what was moving through my head as the homeless man started to sift my tray for leftovers, other than I needed to let this man take what he could. There actually was still a lot of food left on the tray, and he took it all. I remained numb and paralyzed by inaction, an odd state for me, a person who’s rather decisive and prone to action sooner rather than later.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving Dinner

He moved away to the next person approaching the trash, and I dumped my tray in silent contemplation, bordering on shame. And as we five Americans all exited the eatery, wrapped warmly in our quality western-wear and bellies bloated with Kentucky’s finest, and headed to our expensive, securely heated hotel for an overpriced and fattening dessert, we returned to our light banter and happy chatter. As if nothing profound had happened.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, classy desserts and tea at the Holiday Inn

China 2014, Thanksgiving, dessert cooler at the Holiday InnBut something profound had happen, and it continued to eat at me: the thoughts of that man who had to scrounge for food…on Thanksgiving. It continued to vex at me during our dessert at the hotel, and while we finished drinking our nearly $5 cups of tea.   And it nearly consumed my mind as Jody and I laid down to slumber in our well-appointed King-sized bed…. I’m not one to believe too much in mere coincidence, and I choose to believe that the Universe was indeed speaking. It was simply my choice to listen.

Be-kind-whenever-possible

“Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle,” is a quote I hold dear. While its attribution to Plato is suspect and highly questionable, there is little doubt of its lasting and constant voracity. It doesn’t matter why that man in the KFC was homeless or what derailed journey took him to such a dark place. What matters is that any of us could so easily find ourselves in a similar situation. A bad gene, a really stupid decision, an unrecoverable traumatic event or PTSD, mental illness, or just a bad car accident for those without insurance or a decent job….

And waking up the next day, I knew, much too late, what I should have done, and what I so easily could have done: I should have celebrated our American Thanksgiving with this Chinese homeless man by giving Thanks for all that I have in my own life by buying a proper meal for this man who lacked the most basic necessities.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Kings...in China...at KFC.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Kings…in China…at KFC.

Happy Thanksgiving. Be kind. Be pitiful. And be sure you give the proper Thanks for all that you have in your own life.

 

Escape…to China!


escape-key

Xian_guerreros_terracota_generalShanghai_yuyuan_gardens2The Far East Fling is getting ready to be flung to China for a well-deserved vacation!  Due to the rather poor connectivity we are expected in China, crossed with their fascinating paranoia with Social Media, Jody and I will be taking a much-needed escape from the digital world online.

Vacation_Club_china

xian-city-wall20110517014512571257We are spending 7 days/nights in China, traveling to Shanghai, Xian, ad Beijing.  Of course, I’m traveling with all the camera gear, so please stay tuned for what promises to be a few entertaining tales from our continuing Far East Fling abroad the first or second week in December.  In the meantime, perhaps it’s time that you got caught up here in the Far East Fling blog.  Enjoy – and leave a note!

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Hopefully we’ll have no issue in escaping back to Okinawa….

Cheers, and as always, thanks for the Far East Fling flyby.  Kevin & Jody, Okinawa, Japan

Blog Break Sign

Sub-Tropical Summer Vacation: Iriomote Island


“He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.”  ~ Chinese Proverb

“No man needs a vacation so much as the man who has just had one.”  ~ Elbert Hubbard

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.”  ~ Lao Tzu

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nakara001iriomote-guide-4It’s that time of year for, yes, you guessed it:  Summer Vacation!  The wife and I are departing tomorrow (Saturday, 24 May 2014) for a 4-day retreat in the southern most reaches of the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa anchors.  We will be staying at a rather remote resort on Iriomote island, and although it is the 2nd largest island in the Ryukyu (after Okinawa) chain, there are only about 2,000 residents…but over 150,000 tourists every year!  Most of the interior of the island remains rugged  and inaccessible jungle, which has become one of Japan’s largest National Parks.    We look forward to some serious unwinding, river kayaking, waterfall trekking, eco-tours, and ox cart taxis to name just a few….  Oh, but mostly just vegging by the pool and on the island’s “Star Sand” beach.

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star-sand-beach-okinawa-japan-woe3-690x44710084627204_b211c83338_zUpon our return we will have less than 24 hours to do a quick laundry and repack our bags for our first trip back to the states since being flung over to the Far East.  We will be checking in on family in South Carolina, I’ll be giving my daughter away in her wedding in South Beach (Miami) and visiting with my granddaughter who is now 18 months old, and then we’ll finally head “home” for a few days in Pensacola, Florida, to check on our rental home and catch up with all our close friends.

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Between being pretty seriously ill most of this month and these upcoming vacations, May has turned out to be a blog-lite month for the Far East Fling.  No worries though; I plan to return to publishing our Far East Flirtations with great fervor upon our return to our sub-tropical paradise in mid-June.

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Stay tuned.  Our Far Eastern Flirtations never end!  Cheers, Kevin and Jody, Okinawa, Japan.

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Bad Year? Forgetaboutit…by Bonenkai!!


“Do not anxiously hope for that which is not yet come; do not vainly regret what is already past” ~Chinese Proverb

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.” ~Chinese Proverb

new-year

If you thought Halloween and Christmas were big now in Japan (see Cosplay in Japan and O Half-a-Christmas Tree), the end of the year and the New Year that follows are simply a celebratory season of festive fun and occasion, often to an elaborate degree.  Although traditionally the period around New Year’s in Japan (お正月 oshōgatsu) is one of the times in the year for family to formally come together, the holiday has a far larger and longer cultural and temporal reach.

1327469918663_6268088The New Year in Okinawa is actually celebrated twice, first based on the Gregorian (sometimes referred to here as the “baby New Year”) and then by Lunar (Asian) calendars, which seldom if ever coincide.  Although the Japanese have used our calendar for official and cultural New Year’s celebrations since 1873, here in the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the seat), a separate cultural New Year is still celebrated based on the Chinese New Year, widely throughout broader Asia, as a remnant of Okinawa’s close historical ties with China throughout the ages.  Unfortunately for us, we’ll be in Kyoto for the Chinese New Year.  But fortunately for us, we’ll be Kyoto!!

Japanese businesses and employees often hold festive bonenkai (“forget the old year parties”) throughout December, and similar shinnenka parties are held in January to welcome the New Year.  These are not formal events, but more traditional social get-togethers, were intoxication is expected and a night’s indiscretions are customarily forgotten at work the next day.  This is one idea the West needs to import from Japan!

There's probably some indiscretion here....

There’s probably some indiscretion here….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is also during this time that houses and some personally-owned businesses are cleaned in an ancient Shinto custom called susubarai (“exorcism or purification of the soot,” sometimes referred to as osoji), a chance to purge physical spaces of the last vestiges of the old, passing year in order to start anew with a clean slate.  We were surprised at just how extensive these cleanings could be – many of our local businesses were closed but not idle; we could see all their furniture piled up outside as the inside underwent its ritualistic cleansing.

Shimenawa

Shimenawa

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu

Shimenawa are iconic here at this time of year.  Made up of sacred rope woven with straw decorated with white stripes of paper, these are topped with an auspicious Japanese bitter tangerine (橙 daidai).  Daidai originally means “several generations,” a reference to this fruit’s custom of staying on the tree for several years if not picked and its color returning to green in the spring.  Thus, they reflect wishes for good, long life through the years and generations of the family.  The completed talisman are then hung over entrances to mark dwellings as a temporary abodes of Toshi-Gami (New Year deities), which are gladly accepted.  Finally, kadomatsu (門松, literally “gate pine”), an arrangement of pine, bamboo and ume tree sprigs representing longevity, prosperity and steadfastness respectively, are often placed in pairs on either side of thresholds to welcome and temporarily house ancestral spirits.  We have a set outside our door, but I’m not sure anyone is visiting.  I do believe they help spiritually guide our directionally-challenged feline friend back to the correct condo door…since they all look exactly alike!  The doors, not the cats.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

New Year’s Eve (Omisoka) observances, while becoming more and more Western, are not nearly as party or drink0-oriented as ours.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to easily get a reservation at one of the nicer but smaller restaurants in our neighborhood just a couple of weeks ago.  The time just before midnight is usually quiet and reverent, although firecrackers are commonplace as an ancient Chinese tradition thought to ward off evil spirits.  There was a nice fireworks display given at our local American hangout, American Village, but which itself was not overly crowded or boisterous…by US standards.  Most traditional Japanese will visit their local shrine or temple at midnight.  Although we did share our late-night dinner with a fair amount of well-dressed and happy, young, and perhaps less traditional Okinawans, the urban seawall where we live was relatively quiet.

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Hatsumōde (初詣) is the first Shinto shrine or Buddhist Temple visit of the Japanese New Year, traditionally called for between the 1st and 3rd of January.  This visit is so important that the vast majority of businesses are closed during this period (29 December – 3 January) to allow their employees wide latitude for this visit, where wishes and prayers for the new year are made (the closest analogy to our New Year resolutions), new omamori (charms or amulets) are bought, and old ones are returned to the shrine so they can be burned (to release whatever spirits may reside in them).  Thus, there are often long lines at major shrines throughout Japan and Okinawa.  During the hatsumōde, it is common for men to wear a full kimono, a now very rare occurrence here, with many families making their pilgrimage in their finery.  The act of worship at the shrines and temples is generally quite brief and experienced individually, but more extensive domestic worship usually is included with family and relatives at home in a more intimate setting.

Anime character "Good Luck Charm Himari".  Not if you're on the other end of that sword....

Anime character Omamori (Good Luck Charm) Himari. Bad luck if you’re on the other end of that sword….

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

This is probably not a traditional - or Shinto - way to experience Hatsumode

This is probably not a traditional – or Shinto – way to experience Hatsumode

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, year of the horse placardWe decided to make our own tradition and visited one of Okinawa’s most popular Shrines the day before New Year’s!  I’m not sure this would meet the de facto assertions of the Shinto faith, but I do believe that God will understand.  By visiting early, we had ample time to explore the Shrine and its sacred cave (you must ask for entry, but does not require a guide), and contemplated our well-wishing for the coming year before drawing our fortune and leaving our prayers.

Readying for New Year Celebrations

Readying for New Year Celebrations

First we entered through the Torii – a timeless Asian symbol designating sacred ground, and conducted a cleansing ritual on ourselves, conveniently outlined by a picture board for the many foreigners who visit.

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, a written oracle number 26A common custom during hatsumōde is to buy a written oracle called omikuji.  The omikuji goes into detail about the coming year, but like most fortunes, they are vague and can be interrupted pretty much anyway one would like, thereby ensuring their continued popularity!  If your omikuji predicts bad luck you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in the hope that its prediction will not come true….

Jody's was Better

Jody’s was Better

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!  Dang, too late for us:  not knowing any better and basically playing monkey-see, monkey-do, we ended up tying our pretty ding-dang good fortunes to the strings surrounding one of the trees on the Shrine’s grounds….  I guess we need to return there, ASAP, to pull a fortune that we can take home and keep!!

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

ChionInBellThe times around midnight on January first are much more significant here as sonorous reverberations of cast-iron bells ring to coincide with the dawn of the New Year.  At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times (除夜の鐘 joyanokane) to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, and allow the Japanese to cleanse themselves of such trespasses of the previous year.  This is a ritual that we will make a point to take it next year.  I already can’t wait!

Jody's "First" Soba on New Years Day

Jody’s “First” Soba on New Years Day

Of course meals during this time are ritualistic.  A common meal on New Year’s Day in Okinawa is toshi-koshi-soba, literally “year-crossing noodles,” when the sound of slurping the long soba noodles helps to secure lasting good fortune for the eater’s family.  We, quite by accident, happened to have soba on New Year’s Day, and maybe, just maybe, this will make up for tossing our good fortunes at the shrine!

A Few Stylish Nenga

A Few Stylish Nenga

Nenga Postage

Nenga Postage

Sending New Year’s cards – nengajo – to relatives, friends, teachers, classmates, and co-workers is a very important custom in Japan.  The cards must be delivered after January 1st, and the Japanese Post actually accepts and holds New Year’s cards, marked “nenga“ under the postage, from mid-December for delivery starting on the 1st!  But they must never be delivered to a family in mourning who refuse to accept such New Year’s greetings.  See here for some really funny if not odd Japanese New Year greetings!!

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, celebration bannersCelebrating the New Year in Japan is also analogous with marking “firsts.”  Hatsuhinode (初日の出) is the first sunrise of the year, and many Japanese will drive to the coast or climb hills and mountains so that they may be some of the first to see the first sunrise of the New Year. Kakizome is the first calligraphy written at the beginning of a year, traditionally on January 2.  “First laughter” (waraizome) is an important to express at midnight.  First dreams (初夢, hatsuyume) are often recorded and retold, and “first letters” (hatsudayori), often in the form of haiku, are exchanged.  Shigoto-hajime (仕事始め, the first work of the New Year), keiko-hajime (稽古始め, the first practice of the New Year), hatsugama (the first tea ceremony of the New Year), and the hatsu-uri (the first shopping sale of the New Year) are all special events here that hold equally special meaning.

Equally as Important:  the FIRST cotton-candy of the year....

Equally as Important: the FIRST cotton-candy of the year….

Prayers and  Wishes

Prayers and Wishes

With all its ritual, tradition, and celebratory “firsts,” the New Year here is a grandiose reminder of the constant and relentless passage of time.  Such passage is welcomed, encouraged and embraced, warmly and spiritual in Asia.  However you decided to celebrate the New Year and time’s passage, and whatever you have resolved or wished, Happy New Year to one and all.

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

And please, whatever you do in this coming year, take heart the lesson of the opening Chinese proverb:  enjoy yourself this year.  Time’s passage can be insidious, but always relentless; more likely than not, it’s later in our lives than we all would like to think.

There is anime for EVERY occasion!

There is anime for EVERY occasion!

O Christmas Half-of-a-Tree!!


“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:  the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  ~Burton Hillis

“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”  ~Larry Wilde quotes

“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree”  ~Charlotte Carpenter quotes

(See Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan for even more fun Japanese Christmas music)

Everyone seems to almost instinctively know what a Christmas tree is, and that is now no different here in Okinawa than say, in Duluth, Minnesota.  Such icons universally consist of a decorated tree (usually an evergreen), real or artificial.  But how many of us really know or understand the roots (pun intended!) of The Christmas Tree?

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Christmas trees have long been traditionally decorated with foods widely available, such as apples and nuts, but today can consist almost of anything with strong emotional or sentimental value, but often include garland, tinsel, and candy canes.  In the 18th century candles were often added, which then morphed to modern lighting with the wide introduction of electricity.  An angel or star often tops the tree, usually in representation of the Star of Bethlehem (from Jesus’ story).

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

Our current cultural and religious custom of the Christmas tree comes from 15th and 16th century devout Christians (including the reformist Martin Luther) who resided in the area of Europe now associated with modern Germany.  However, what most of us may find rather surprising is that the Christmas tree didn’t acquire popularity beyond this area until the second half of the 19th century, or well into the mid-to-late 1800s!  The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree” (or Tree of Life), especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.

Original Sin.  It's her fault.  Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

Original Sin. It’s her fault. Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

tumblr_mxnxjvkXQ61qdg05vo1_500While the origins of the modern Christmas tree are clear and undebated, there are a number of speculative theories of such custom and tradition prior to the 1400s.  Such icons are frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter pagan rites and rituals.  Such use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands has long been utilized to symbolize eternal life by widely diverse cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  Thus, a type of “tree worship” became common in ancient times and thus was common among the pagan Europeans when Christianity started to sweep the continent.   And, luckily for us, the rite and ritual survived the pagans’ conversion to Christianity (mostly through its continued use as the “Tree of Paradise” stage prop in the popular Paradise Plays of the 11th century), and became decorations for the house and barn alike (sometimes as wintry homes for song birds at Christmastime), and were sometimes used at the New Year to scare evil.

Now that's a tree, Japan!!

Now that’s a tree, Japan!!

I hope she doesn't celebrate ANY other holiday....

I hope she doesn’t celebrate ANY other holiday….

Given this backdrop, and having no tangible ties to any particular strong religious tradition (I think of Christmas and all its trappings, including the trees, as more symbolic of a generalized spirit of love and giving), we decided to leave all our more conventional holiday decorations at home during our move to Japan.  Sure, we brought a Santa hat and our stockings (we both still have our Mother-made stockings from our childhood!), but not much else, including our tree.  We decided to let the spirit of Okinawa and our living space dictate a new holiday rite for me and Jody.

When space is an issue....

When space is an issue….

First thing we had to do was find a tree.  Not a real one – those are hard to come by in Okinawa, a relatively remote sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, but an artificial one.  But, we had to contend with our relatively low condo ceilings, along with a want for space.  On top of this, we find out that the initial artificial tree shipment to the base exchanges sold out in mere days…and, of course, we missed what only could’ve been a mad rush for trees.  Lucky for us we meandered one afternoon into the base craft shop looking for extraordinary ornaments for our as of yet unsourced tree, and behold:  a room full of artificial, pre-light, small-ish Christmas trees!  Expensive ones, but we were in luck.

Whole or Half:  You Decide

Whole or Half: You Decide

11491260433_bd0d618afe_bWe actually found (and purchased) a “half-tree.”  And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like:  a half of an artificial tree, with a stand that will support its lopsidedness, but which also has an anchor point/hook high up on the trunk in case you have to deal with, say, an unruly cat who may decide to climb the tree when no one’s looking….

Charlie Brown's Tree, the Japanese interpretation

Charlie Brown’s Tree, the Japanese interpretation

11491247796_7593c905da_bThe tree works perfectly in our place!  It is maybe 6.5 feet in height, and since it’s only half a tree, we were able to push it back into a corner to conserve space while allowing us to fill in the visibly accessible part of the tree that much more.

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally-sized box!

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally sized box!

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11491176634_19e24c83fc_bFor decorations we went with our initial Asian, Japanese, and Okinawan-inspiration.  So, our ornaments consisted mainly of origami art (cranes, butterflies, and angels), paper crafted shapes, wooden dolls, miniature obis, and other flirtations with the Far East.  These, combined with the minimalistic white lighting of the tree, results in a quite unconventional appearance by most western standards.  We love it!

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11491244823_1861dafb41_bBut, to top off our tree, we wanted truly spectacular and of local custom and tradition.  What we found was perfect for the occasion:  a Hanagasa.  The Hanagasa is a brilliantly colored, flowered-adorned hat worn in many areas of Japan, but here the Okinawans have developed their own particular tradition regarding this type of headdress.  Worn by Okinawan women performing a dance called Yotsudake (“four bamboo,” referring to the bamboo castanets played by the dancers), the large and unique silk hat features a gold-trimmed design of a stylized lotus flower and ocean waves, set against a backdrop of blue skies.  It’s mesmerizing to watch one dancer on her own with her slow, graceful movements; it is breathtaking to see five or six woman so adorned move as one.

...Cleo waits patiently....

…Cleo waits patiently….

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11491181675_17fb20f702_bWe found a smaller version of the Hanagasa designed for display on dolls, and it worked perfectly to complete our tree.  Like the symbolism that a topping star may hold for others, our Hanagasa makes for an unforgettable sight, and its harmonious flowers seem to sway in time to the carols we often play in the background, things which should remind us all of the beauty, resilience and connectedness that we all share, with each other, and with every other living thing, during this spiritual time of love and giving.

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11615344235_28dcdd1a5c_bMerry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays.  Whatever YOU prefer to say, please don’t forget to pause your daily grind, express your thanks to those that deserve it, be giving to those that need it, and let Love and Hope win for just a few fleeting moments as you gaze upon your own tree, or other perhaps more appropriate symbolic icon of the season.

coexist-holiday

How are you celebrating Christmas this year??

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