Strolling with the Spirits: Okunoin Cemetery


“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ~ Stephen King

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“Spirit, are you there?” I find myself tentatively whispering in my mind not wanting to ignore the screaming silence as Jody and I stroll the depths of the massive and picturesque cemetery in Japan called Okunoin.  I have always wanted to experience a “ghost.”  Not a poltergeist or the terrifying experiences as depicted in TV’s A Haunting, or like those in the book The Amityville Horror, but an interaction that could easily and with some certainty confirm that there is something more to this life than the here and now….

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My inclination was no different when Jody and I visited Okunoin, one of Japan’s most popular and largest of cemeteries located in the sacred mountaintop town of Koyasan (see Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan for more).  Along a meandering cobblestoned-path surrounded by immense and enchanted ancient rustling cedar forest, I hoped for an encounter with souls of those departed long ago.

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost....

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost….

27882656570_c8ce23b86d_bI have always been fascinated with the idea of the supernatural.  I was the kid that would take the creepy shortcut at college through the cemetery in the rolling hills not far away from campus.  I am that guy that seeks out the reportedly most haunted places in New Orleans, and then goes to them, taunting spirits to appear.  But my intrigue didn’t stop there; while flying and at sea with the US Navy during my 20-year military career, I was constantly scanning the skies and heavens for something not of this world.  I guess you can say that I want to believe.  But I remain doubtful.

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

According to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, there are no dead in Okunoin, only spirits.  Spirits awaiting the arrival of Miroku, the proclaimed “Buddha of the Future,” at which time Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon religious community will arise from his eternal meditation and raise all those around him in order to realize enlightenment.  The number of graves in Okunoin, well in excess of 200,000, continues to increase, making it the largest cemetery in Japan.

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

27548767373_602d8d1b0c_bThe idea of spirits and the spiritual world is very different in the Far East.  I first was drawn to the Thai Buddhist idea of “spirit homes,” structures one can find place property lines of domiciles and businesses alike.  Literally, the edifice is a “house” in which spirits can live, and to which offerings are brought to appease those spirits.  In other words, spirits are everywhere, so might as well live peacefully and respectfully among them.  This resonated so well with me that I purchased one that has stood in every home I’ve lived in since 2000 (except for my time in Japan).

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28109931581_ec74da80b2_bAnd at the highest point within the graveyard is found Okunoin (奥の院) Temple, the most sacred site for followers of the revered Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, the central pillar of their faith.  His mausoleum is located here, but the monk is said to not have died but instead entered a deep and eternal mediation, praying for collective salvation, awaiting the Buddha of the Future.  Eons ago, Okunoin was a gathering place for samurai warriors.  Today it is one of the region’s primary tourist attractions and as one of the most sacred places in Japan it is a very popular religious pilgrimage origin and destination (see Pilgrimage of Eat, Pray, Bathe for more).

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs!

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs (Thailand)!

In other areas of the Far East, specifically China, Japan, Okinawa and to some extent Korea, the idea of protective lion-dogs is ubiquitous.  These are referred to by various names, including Shi-shi, Shisa, and Foo depending on the region; see Guardian Shisa for more.  While in Japan, my spirit house is replaced by shisa (see Intimidation for my latest set of protectors).

Sorry, Couldn't Find a Good English Map....

Sorry, Couldn’t Find a Good English Map….

28129834416_23d80c1afd_bThe walk through the cemetery starts with the crossing of the Ichino-hashi (一の橋) bridge (first bridge), the historic and traditional entrance to the site.  Prior to crossing, visitors should join their hands together and bow to show their respect to Kobe Daishi.  This bridge marks the entrance and the start of a pleasant two kilometer walk through the enchanted cedar forest found here which lines the well paved cobblestone path.  The neatness of the trail however is surrounded by the ordered disorder of the cemetery’s vast and varied collection of moss-covered gravestones.

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Across the bridge starts Okunoin‘s cemetery, where a quarter of a million tombstones line the winding approach to Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum.  Wishing to be close to their religious leader in death to receive early and constant salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries.

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28083984472_5a00a5e330_bOnce across, the atmosphere changes dramatically.  The dizzyingly-tall cedars on either side of the cemetery’s main twisting pathway blot out much of the sky and obscures what lays ahead.  The almost countless graves, tombs and memorials vary tremendously in style, creating a scenic sensory overload in every direction.  While the finer details of the graves can be easily lost to the sheer size of the place, the most spectacular cenotaphs do demand attention.  Massive monuments and tall memorial pagodas of famous and powerful feudal lords and samurai warriors from across the ages are sprinkled here for those who wish to seek them out.  But then there are also the unexpectedly interesting ones, such as a monument one insecticide company dedicated to all its termite victims.

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Innumerable excursions can be taken from the main path via trails left and right, where visitors can venture among seemingly forgotten tombs, constructed of now eroded stones, covered with thick, moist green moss.  At their furthest recesses, nature is well on her way to reclaiming what remains ultimately hers.

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Conversely, the site’s more modern entrance, located across from the Okunoin-mae bus stop, not only shortens the journey through the place by about half, but also transverses the more recent additions of the dead, complete with refined granite polished to mirror finish, quite incongruous with the feel of the more ancient aspects of the graveyard.

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There are various accessories which adorn the almost incalculable number of Buddha statues found here.  Most often found is a vermilion bib, an offering left by mothers to help protect their living children in this life, and to bring them luck in whatever comes next.

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The two paths through the cemetery both lead the to the Gokusho Offering Hall where a row of Jizo statues called Mizumuke (water-covered) Jizo are found.  Jizo is a popular Bodhisattva (enlightened being) that looks after children, travelers, and the souls of the deceased.  Pilgrims and the faithful leave paper and wood offerings here at their feet and then throw water upon the effigies while praying for departed family members and loved ones.

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28164150725_4469ec55db_bThe Gobyo no Hashi Bridge crosses a stream which runs immediately behind the Mizumuke Jizo, and serves as not only the cleansing waters used at the temple, but as a physical separation between the innermost grounds of the temple from the rest of Okunoin.  In a very real sense, it is a break between the spiritual realm of the dead from the sacred dominion of Kobo Daishi.  Visitors should again clasp their hands and bow before crossing, and photography, food and drink are strictly forbidden beyond this point. To the left of the bridge are a group of wooden markers placed in the stream as a touching memorial to unborn children and those lost to drowning.

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28085563811_9b3ae63336_bLeaving the bridge, a short way down the path, visitors will find on the left a small wooden cage-like structure that houses the Miroku Stone.  Legend has it that this stone, when lifted, weighs the sins of the person lifting.  Through small gaps in the walls, the stone can be manipulated; it is customary to lift it with one hand only and move it from the lower platform to the upper shelf.  The stone is said to be much heavier to those who sins bear burden, and much lighter to those who remain more saint-like.  In what I will consider a good omen and not a testament to either my American heft and strength or any pretense of sainthood, the stone was, for me, relatively easy to move.

miroku-stone

The Miroku Stone…which made me a saint…of sorts….

Leaving that test behind and continuing up the path, the temple’s Toro-do Hall (燈籠堂), the main area for worship, emerges through the trees.  Originally built by the second generation successor of Koyasan, Shinzen Daitoku, it was further enlarged and refurbished in 1023 to its present-day appearance and size by Fujiwara no Michinaga.

Torodo, the Hall of Lamps/Laterns

28059896532_15b162f49d_bThis “Hall of Lamps” houses tens of thousands of luminous lanterns, some of which are said to have been burning continuously for almost 1,000 years.  Many if not all of the lanterns found here were donated by worshippers, some which include past Emperors and members of the Royal Family of generations past.  Such lamps include the Kishinto, a lantern offered by Kishin, the Shirakawato, one offered by Emperor Shirakawa, and also the Showato, a lantern dedicated by the Emperor and Royal Family during the Showa period.

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27572325303_5945aebc52_bBut perhaps the most moving involves Hinnyo-no-Itto, a poor Japanese woman of age-old times who cut and sold her precious long black hair to purchase a lantern to donate to the temple; it remains proudly and prominently displayed to this day. The lanterns all remain lighted 24/7, and together the lamps create a sacred shimmering space, the last area visited before visitors reach the holy heart of the complex, the ultimate destination of one of Japan’s most famous pilgrimages, the mausoleum and eternal dwelling of Kukai, the Kobo Dashi.

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Behind the Toro-do is the mausoleum called the Gobyo (御廟), which houses the famous monk in deep and eternal meditation.  Each day, meals are deposited at the Gobyo’s door to provide sustenance for the monk within, while living monks and laymen reflect in silent support while chanting sutras in a low voice.  It is not uncommon to see pilgrims in deep reflection here.

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28085560281_0883df3543_bWe found that one visit wasn’t enough to grasp the extent and discover even a handful of its secrets.  That and our first visit was at night, a time I would highly recommend if you want to wander among the spirits completely alone!  I found the nocturnal tranquility of the complex very soothing, for not just me and the residents alike.  In the day expect to find many visitors; at night after about 2100, expect no one to be visiting (we were there in July).  A night time visit indeed provides a special atmosphere that is quite different from that of a day time visit, but note that some parts of the path are poorly lit.  It is possible to venture all the way to the mausoleum during the night none of the temple halls are open.

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Although there was no paranormal activity noted at Okunoin, I need look no further than inside to find all the ghosts I ever need to worry, and sometimes indeed they do win.  However, here there is a spiritual energy collecting from wishes and prayers that has the power to cleanse souls.  A stroll through this Garden of Stone is a must if you visit Koyasan, and a stop I would make even if you find yourself visiting only this region of Japan.

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Shukubo: Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan


“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”  ~Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese philosopher and poet

Entering Through Our Temple's Gate

Entering Through Our Temple’s Gate

“Here is our drink menu,” our apprentice monk says as he prepares one of our suite’s tatami rooms for our first vegetarian shojin ryori (vegetarian) dinner.  Picking out a nice white Riesling, Jody and I are quite surprised since we are sitting in the middle of a practicing Buddhist temple atop Mount Koyasan, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites in all of Japan.  In fact, it is the very place where Buddhism took hold many centuries ago in this island nation.  The monks here, in progressive and pragmatic fashion, simply don’s take offense at the idea of alcohol.  After all, as they say, they are not the ones partaking!  And like I say, “what would Jesus drink,” right?  Many sects of Buddhism in Japan are not anything like your Mamma’s Southern Baptist Church, Catholic Cathedral, or Jewish Synagogue.  And that’s exactly why this temple will serve as our luxury hotel accommodations for the next three nights.

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

28253113885_da4d5c10c8_bShukubo is a type of accommodation in Japan that is actually part of a working Japanese temple or shrine.  But it’s really so much more than that.  Shukubo is about capturing the tranquility and the beauty of Japan, which in large part emanates from that country’s legendary spiritual culture and zen-like harmony.  A temple stay can help calm your body and mind, where Japanese rock garden can be peacefully and privately contemplated, and where healthy yet extravagant vegetarian dishes are served privately in your room by resident monks.

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

28149079872_44610a4d08_bHistorically, this type of lodging was offered only for worshippers, especially those on pilgrimage.  Today however the clientele have expanded and the temples and shrines have become well-accustomed to foreigners of all flavors.  Koyasan is perhaps one of the best places in Japan to experience a night at a temple, with something in excess of 50 of the 117 temples found there serving as shukubo.  But be careful though; the accommodations run the gamut from in expensive hostel-like digs to high-end ryokan (see Live Fishbowl Prime:  Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan for more), and the staff there may not be proficient in your language, or even English.  Reservations can be made online if you are careful; the typical cost for a stay starts at around $100, although there are cheaper and MUCH more expensive rates.  Those with private bathroom facilities, which only a few offer, can climb up in excess of $300 a night, with luxury accommodations costing even more.  Note that like for the rest of Japan, these rates are quoted “per person, per night.”  Most stays include dinner and breakfast, some served privately while others serving family style in a common area.  Many accept credit card, although be sure to check as some still operate on a cash-only basis, although this is becoming more and more rare in Japan.

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

The wooden temple structures, sparse décor, and tatami covered rooms all promote a warmth of form and function which focuses your energy not on things, but on the moment.  The courtyard gardens of sand, rock and foliage, viewed from the rooms’ long, narrow corridors, dictate the essence of a deep spiritual harmony with nature.  And the floor-centric culture found throughout Japan literally grounds one with Mother Earth, resulting in a renewed perspective and one of the most fabulous nights of sleep, EVER.

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

28253136925_eacb41890e_bTemple lodgings typically offer private, traditional Japanese style rooms with tatami floors, paper-covered sliding doors (fusuma) and shared or communal toilets and sinks.  There actually are very few temple stays in Koyasan that offer en suite washrooms.  Thick futons and rice or pellet-filled pillows are spread on the tatami floor in the evening after dinner, repurposing the room’s dining and living room into your bedroom for the night.  There is sparse furniture, if any.  Some shukubo have typical Japanese air conditioning and heat provided in each room by remote control; other more basic accommodations utilize gas heaters in cooler weather and offer no cooling other than a portable dehumidifier during other seasons.

Living and Dining Area

Living and Dining Area

28253131585_92b4003563_bThe temple we selected (“Sojiin,” booked through Booking.com) went far beyond these average standards, and instead offered facilities more aligned with nicer ryokans, complete with private a private washroom, soaking tub, and lavishly prepared and presented meals in our suite that probably approached the size of smaller houses in Japan.  The Japanese measure rooms by the number of tatami mats, and our living/dining room was 12, and our bedroom area was 8.  Since we had a corner suite with long corridors on two sides overlooking the gardens, add another 16.  Then there was our closet/kitchenette area, separate toilet, sink basin, and washroom (waterproof room with shower and soaking tub), say another 4 mats.  Converting 34 mats into square feet returns a value of roughly 700!

Jody Enjoying our Temple's Zen Garden from our Suite

Jody Enjoying our Temple’s Zen Garden from our Suite

28253133865_57d70b9bc8_bJapanese Buddhist temples serve a kind of vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori.  This is a cuisine completely free of fish, meat, and many of the stronger spices, like garlic or certain onions.  Our monk explained it all this way:  true Buddhists do not eat any animal or animal product from life that is sentient – the ability to feel or perceive and respond to sensations of any kind.  Monks, however, can eat meats and fish if offered to them.  At shukubo, many small delicately prepared and visually stunning dishes served over a number of courses that span sometimes well over an hour, and are thought to be the very origin of Japanese food which has become so popular.  Prepared by the right chef, the meals can be quite delicious, but certainly are different for most Westerners.

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Since Shukubo accommodations are an integral part of working temples and shrines, guests are usually required to follow a certain decorum, or even some house rules.  While some have curfew hours (usually around 0600-2200), others do not.  But they all will have quiet hours, and respect is required at all times throughout the complex.  However, since ancient times, Buddhist Temples and to a lesser extent Shinto Shrines have been accepting of many peoples while offering little or no judgment.  Regardless of your country of origin or religion of choice, as long as you can respect the religion of others, you remain welcomed at shukubo.

Kevin and an Early Dinner

Kevin and an Early Dinner

27972082880_40392c3e9f_bGuests are also invited to participate in morning prayers, which typically begin promptly at 6:00am.  Go at least once to soak in the timeless traditions of esoteric Buddhism of harmonic chanting, rhythmic gongs, and the thick fragrance of incense permeating the air.  The ceremonies last about 30-45 minutes and are followed by breakfast around thirty minutes later.  During your stay, ask for a formal tour of the temple grounds:  each temple has its own unique cultural treasures, painted screens and Zen garden that the staff will happily share with you.

Suite's Sitting Area

Suite’s Sitting Area

28149071702_f7d029f616_bThen there is zazen.  Not every shukubo offers a zazen experience, but it’s worthwhile to find one which does (see Temple Transcendence:  Zen Meditation in Kyoto for our experience).  Sitting still, eyes closed, attempting to empty your mind in phase with the mesmerizing chants, you can begin to feel that the very essence of time slows and moves around you rather than through you as it so harshly does in our normally overly hectic lives.  Zazen provides much-needed escape, a way to break from the inertia of everyday life, stilling forces which normally compel frenzied thought and chaotic motion throughout the day.  In fact, after just fifteen or thirty minutes of focused, controlled breathing, a measure of tranquility can be felt.  It is said that the more demanding a person’s life is or the more cluttered someone’s mind may be, the more relief which may be realized.  Take this opportunity to refresh and revitalize yourself!

Vegetarian Meals

Vegetarian Meals

But why so many shukubo here in Koyasan?  The mountain top serves sometimes as the beginning, but almost always the end of an important pilgrimage for spiritual Japanese (see Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe” for more).  And all those pilgrims need places to stay and eat during their spiritual quests.  Further, more and more tourists flock to this area of Japan just a short train ride outside of Osaka since it has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, in large part due to the important and expansive temples and famous cemetery located here, along with ancient cedar forests, historic gates, local restaurants, quaint cafes and of course discount souvenir shops.

Gates Closed at 2200

Gates Closed at 2200

With a town population of only about 3,000, Koyasan stands at the very genesis of Shingon Buddhism, a Chinese-influenced esoteric philosophical interpretation of Buddha introduced to Japan in the year 805 by a man named Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most revered religious figures, who’s mausoleum is also found here.  Kongobuji Temple in the town serves as the headquarters for this sect, which has more than 4,000 temples and missions throughout the world.

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The foot of Mt. Koyasan can easily be reached by train from Osaka station or Kansai airport with one switch.  Your fare will include a final funicular ride up the steep mountainside (the Japanese refer to this mode of travel as “cable car”), where a bus can be taken to the stop nearest your shukubo.

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And be sure to clink together a couple of glasses of wine during your stay; the monks will happily oblige, and besides, what would Jesus drink, right?

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Intimidation: Shisa of Okinawa


 “Straightforwardness intimidates people. They prefer the veneer, despite what they claim.”  ~ Donna Lynn Hope 

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

Intimidation,” the artist said upon walking up as he noticed me admiring a large set of traditionally styled and fired clay Okinawan Shisa dogs. “That what I call,” he continued in very broken English, still much better than my skoshi Japanese.

There is a story surrounding both Okinawan Shisa lion-dogs and the ones Jody “owed” me from so poorly mistreating the ones I brought home from Okinawa back in 2001. See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa for that back-story. Long story short: Jody thought the dogs were rather creepy, and relegated the indoor set I had to the harsh Pensacola outdoors for the 2+ years I lived with her before moving to Okinawa. Needless to say, I have been looking intently for just the right set, without much luck since coming to Okinawa in the summer of 2013.

My dated - and damaged - set of Shisa from 2001

My dated – and damaged – set of Shisa from 2001

Jody, since moving to Okinawa and seeing just how ubiquitous these protectors are in this corner of the Far East, had finally come around to the idea of the lion-dogs as effective spiritual guards of the household. She finally, in the last few months, moved past favoring the “cuter” stylized dogs portrayed in more playful stances, lacking the teeth-filled grimaces of the more frightening lions. And she knew that I really wanted a uniquely Okinawan set, a pair of guardians that we could take with us from the Far East to wherever we happened to hang our hats.

Now to get Jody past her dislike of hats. But that’s for another story….

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Camp Foster, one of the really large Marine Corps bases here on Okinawa, was holding a Spring Festival this past April, where the Marine Corps invited onto base a whole host of Okinawan vendors who could offer a wide variety of wares for perusal and purchase. The Festival started on Friday, and continued over the rest of the weekend at the base’s field house, a huge facility which ended up being filled with more product and crafts then we expected.

We stopped by late Friday afternoon, after attending a rather sad memorial service for one of Jody’s co-worker’s untimely demise. As you might imagine, we weren’t in the best frame of mind to do some serious shopping. However, to ease our troubled spirits, we decided to grab some comfort food and take a slow walk around, taking in all that the vendors had to offer. There was some Tibetan furniture that immediately caught our eye, and we engaged the vendor is some light haggling, something so common in the Far East but almost wholly missing on Okinawa. See Opportunity Knocks for more on our previous purchases from this Korean family.

We continued on and found other interesting Okinawan crafts, and decided that we would return the next day and take a longer gander at the merchandise on offer.

But then we spotted them. The dogs. The ones that immediately caught my eye.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation WM

They were large, expensive, and yes, intimidating. And there didn’t appear to be any wiggle room on the price….

We returned the next day, and the two Tibetan items that we were clearly interested in had been sold, and at prices that were offered to us the previous evening. We had learned the hard lesson of Okinawa once again: if you see a unique item of the Far East that speaks to you, get it while you can. We rounded the facility again, where Jody bought some rather large antique kokeshi dolls. And we again stopped by to revisit the Shisa that had so captured my imagination.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation face 2 WM

The vendor was, and I’m sure this is a loose translation, Soul (Soulful Handwork Pottery Art). The Potter, Sano Toshio, is one of the more acclaimed on the island which still uses the old traditional Okinawan ways of pottery. He has won numerous awards, including the highest prize at the 2014 Okinawa Prefecture Craft Pubic Exhibition. His work can be seen at his personal website and the shop’s blog.

The dogs are at once intimidating. Their stance is one in which they are ready to fight, ready to pounce with teeth frighteningly displayed along with their fixed stare. They are made in and using traditional Okinawan ways, finished with highly stylized twists and turns, lacking the refined finishing and glazes of what many westerners consider higher-end pottery. Until very recently I had not favored such earthenware, but have come to really appreciate such works as truly and only Okinawan. These examples were actually perfect.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation 2 WM

But still that price. I wasn’t ready to spend so much money on something I could see being broken on yet another military move back to the states. We left that Saturday afternoon, and decided to return Sunday to take one last look around.

Unlike the furniture and some other items we were potentially interested in the days prior, the dogs were still there. It appeared Sano-san wasn’t moving much product, so perhaps he would be more willing to drop his price. But I had also had a change of heart. In the last 24 hours I really thought about the idea of value, about what was worth an expenditure of treasure and what wasn’t. For example, we didn’t hesitate to spend large sums on travel. And for specialized scuba diving equipment that allows for deeper and longer explorations of the deep. In such context, the price becomes not just tolerable, but congruent with the valued offered by such works of art.

Okinawa Apr 2015, New Shisa, Shisa purchase intimidation face WM

Intimidation resides safely in our home. As treasured Okinawan customary works of art they are impossible not to admire. But it is only in their physically menacing presence that the moving power of these protectors can be truly felt. It’s hard to put a price on protection.

See more Okinawan Shisa dogs in my Flickr photo-stream here.

“Above the East China Sea,” a Book Review


“Children, I’m singing you the story of Miyako

The beautiful, the blue, the deepening indigo,

And the red soil made from crushed bodies

That lay down their genealogy of bones.

The Spirits are whispering to you: all of this is what is.”

~from The Ocean of the Dead, by Yonaha Mikio

Princess Lilly Girls

Princess Lilly Girls

Above the East China Sea is one of the few books – in English – that takes place on Okinawa and doesn’t directly involve the “Typhoon of Steel” which struck that island paradise in 1945. Yes, war flows throughout the book, and at first glance it could be branded as yet another attempt at telling the dramatically sad tale of the Princess Lilly Corps and other such sufferings of the Okinawan people. Alternatively, the work could also over-simplistically be viewed as a “coming of age story” as its central characters are both teenaged girls.

But it is so much more…than either. Intertwining dual storylines of two troubled teenaged girls, one modern American and the other an Okinawan teenager of 1945, the book cleverly makes a spiritual connection between these lives which, at first, seem rather incongruous, both in focus and in time.

A Princess Lilly

A Princess Lilly

The real star of this book, however, is the Okinawan culture, and how it bonds lives across seventy years and offers healing to those which have suffered profound loss through its enduring strength of ancient tradition combined with the redeeming power of family love.

Describing the main characters or the horrors of war that serve as the backdrop for half the story is really not necessary here. Read the book! Needless to say, I have visited and blogged, first-hand, about exactly the things the author, Sarah Bird, does so well in describing through her written words. See my blogs about the Typhoon of Steel, Haebaru Tunnel Hospital and the Princess Lilly Corps for photo essays that may help illuminate some of the harsher aspects of Above the East China Sea which may be hard for a reader to wrap their minds around.

Today's Peace Prayer Park, with the "suicide cliffs" in the background

Today’s Peace Prayer Park, with the “suicide cliffs” in the background

Having spent now three tours with the US Military on Okinawa, and well into my 7th year living on this island that my kids and I call our “second home,” I feel that I’m pretty well-versed on Okinawan culture because I chose to be by taking a very active role in trying to experience and understand it. The vast number of Americans that pass through Okinawa though, have not. It’s all too easy for ego-centric Americans to assume it’s just another part of Japan, and that somehow we have the right to do what we will since America did, after all, win a war “they” started.

But Sarah offers some great insights to Okinawa and its wonderful cultural heritage. Okinawans are not Japanese, no more than Hawaiians are descended from North America; they offered no violence and took part in no aggression outside of their historical kingdom’s boundaries until invaded and subdued by the Japanese. And they remain caught in the middle between American and Japan, just like they were back in WWII.

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Sure, the characters may be a bit overdone and over-the-top in personality and deed. Yes, there are some incongruities with time and place. Some elements of the culture are somewhat artificially combined. And certainly there is little comment on the ultra-slow moving traffic! But all these minor transgressions are rather easily forgotten. Besides, one really has to know the geography of the island and the scheduling of festivals to truly appreciate these small nuances.

bird1Above the East China Sea is a remarkable tale of not just how war, loss and suffering shapes lives, but its central themes of family, friendship, and love all transcend time. When placed within the rich tapestry of the Okinawa culture and heritage, Sarah does a rather clever melding of stories from East and West concurrently and rather obliquely from both spiritual and human planes. And even though I have a solid working knowledge of the cultural aspects of the book’s storyline from my knowledge and experience with the Okinawans, Sarah’s chronicle remained suspenseful until the very end of the novel. My only issue? Perhaps the story came together, finally, just a little too cleanly and too easily…. But most importantly, Sarah shows great deference to what I believe she feels as an obligation to be respectful to Okinawans. She is hugely successful in portraying their beliefs, their history, and their culture as accurately as possibly. And therein lies the genius of this book!


Sarah is the author of eight novels. The ninth, Above the East China Sea, was published in 2014. Sarah has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers series; a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list; Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize; People Magazine’s Page Turners; Library Journal’s Best Novels; and a National Magazine Silver Award for her columns in Texas Monthly. In 2012 Sarah was voted Best Austin Author for the fourth time by the readers of the Austin Chronicle; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received the Illumine Award for Excellence in Fiction from the Austin Library Foundation. In 2013 she was selected to be The University of Texas’ Libraries Distinguished Author speaker, and was featured on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour.

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She has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, Hemdale Studio, and several independent producers. Sarah’s screen adaptation of her sixth novel, The Flamenco Academy, is currently in development as well as two original screenplays. She has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and is a columnist for Texas Monthly. Sarah, who moved all over the world growing up with her air force family, lives in Austin, Texas.

“Only if you’re ugly:” Japanese Low Cost Carriers (LCC)


“The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.”  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“I’m so ugly – I worked in a pet shop, and people kept asking how big I’d get!”  ~ Rodney Dangerfield

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  ~ Robert Frost

We all have baggage.

We all have baggage.

“I’m SAR-re, you must out one kilogram,” the Peach Airlines Japanese counter attendant said as we tried to check in for our flight home from Kyoto.

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Do kids get to have heavier baggage, you know, since they weigh less?

Do kids get to have heavier baggage, you know, since they weigh less?

Jody and I were prepared for this eventuality.  We packed for our Far East foray together, sharing one small suitcase because we would be using so much public transportation.  And bringing extra stuff like we always do, we were slightly overweight.  It seems that the Japanese LCCs (Low-Cost Carriers) only allow for 20 kilograms (44 pounds) per checked bags, but will go to 21 kilos (and additional 2.2 pounds) by placing a “HEAVY” tag on the bag, but you can’t pay for any extra weight beyond that absolute cutoff.

Our bags weren't free, but still only $25.

Our bags weren’t free, but still only $25.

Adjusting the bag and taking it back through x-ray, we bring it confidently back up to the counter for re-weighing, and perfect!  We are at 20.6 kilograms.  “Oh-kay,” the attendant says with a beaming, courteous smile like really only the Japanese can provide in a customer service setting!

About all she did was make our carry-ons heavier....

About all she did was make our carry-ons heavier….

She gets out a “HEAVY” tag, and on the back she writes some things.  “You must sign,” she says, still with a smile.

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Not knowing what I’m signing for, I pause.  She must sense my confusion because she continues, “You sign only if you are ugly,” again with a smile.  “So we not responsi-ber because you are ugly.”

This is kind-da how I felt...(sigh).

This is kind-da how I felt…(sigh).

Now both Jody and I are confused.  I smile back, thinking to myself in my inner voice, “Okay, I get it:  all us gaijin look the same.  But did she really just tell us we were ugly?”  And worse, we have to sign and acknowledge that unpleasant characterization?!?

Wait a tick!!  Maybe she’s talking about our luggage!  However, the bag is not that bad as to be summarily and nonchalantly dismissed as ugly, regardless of how much she may be smiling.  The bag may be worn, it is certainly not handsome, and possibly it’s beyond its prime, but ugly?  That’s a little extreme.

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Not satisfied and not understanding what was Lost in Translation in this transaction, I ask – just to be sure – and with my own pleasant but now slightly bruised ego, “What are we signing for?”

“Sign only if you’re ugly!” came another overly cheerful response.  Boy she is “real-ree” happy about me being so unattractive….

No, ThIS is ugly, and certainly no virgin.

No, ThIS is ugly, and certainly no virgin.

Best flight attendant uniform ever.  Or at least since the 40s....

Best flight attendant uniform ever. Or at least since the 40s….

I turn and face Jody, with a grimacing smile that silently says, “Is she really saying that to us?”  Jody, recognizing that all three of us were due for some much-needed clarification, turned to the attendant and asked, “Do you mean ‘HEAVY?’!”

“YES-YES!” came the hurriedly excited reply matched with exaggerated head-nodding.

Whew.  What a relief.  Jody and I aren’t ugly after all.  And neither is our luggage.  Now we’re just…“heavy.”  That’s a lot better than being ugly; nothing a diet can’t take care of….

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I still don't get the whole "Peach" thing.  But sex always sells.

I still don’t get the whole “Peach” thing. But sex always sells.

A LCC (Low-Cost Carrier, aka no-frills, discount or budget carrier or airline, or better yet, plain’ole cheap bastards) is an airline that generally has lower fares but offers fewer amenities.  To make up for revenue lost in decreased ticket prices, the airline often will charge for extras.  They are not to be confused with smaller, regional airlines; LCCs in fact quite often offer wide domestic and limited international services.

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Really, they dress their dude stewardesses in THAT??

Really, they dress their dude stewardesses in THAT??

0020_peach2In 2012, three new budget airlines entered the Japanese market serving Okinawa (where we live), creating increased competition and thankfully much lower fares on several domestic and international routes.  Interesting enough, while competing directly with the established JAL and ANA Japanese full-service airlines, almost 40% of Peach is held by ANA, a direct competitor.

"Cute" in Japan has no price.

“Cute” in Japan has no price.

Yes, that's plastic lawn furniture in their terminal.

Yes, that’s plastic lawn furniture in their terminal.

Yes, that's basically an empty hangar/warehouse....

Yes, that’s basically an empty hangar/warehouse….

The fares offered by Peach were truly unbeatable.  In fact, since they were about 30% (or less) of what ANA or JAL would charge, we actually made inquiries as to their safety, performance, and validity at our on-base Japanese travel agency, who quickly vowed on all three points.  While Peach doesn’t use the standard passenger terminals, which for the Okinawan hub means a bare-bones operations involving plastic lawn furniture and a warehouse like environment, their services, aircraft, and performance were impeccable.  Actually, being in their own terminal building, while necessitating an extra shuttle ride, makes check-in and security quite easy and simplistic:  there were no lines anywhere and we never had to wait for service.  We boarded on-time with seat assignments situated together, and their departure and arrival times were as advertised.  And, they were flying new Airbus aircraft, an industry standard by any means.  The service is so good actually that there is really no need to ever fly with the “heavies” at three times the cost.

Our Peach-sweet ride to Kyoto

Our Peach-sweet ride to Kyoto

In a truly humorous note, the LCC sharing the hangar with Peach is called Vanilla, probably the perfect name for a budget airline!

Peaches and cream.  Sort'of.

Peaches and cream. sort ‘of.

But be careful when you are “ugly.”  These cheap bastards are not afraid of calling you out and making you answer for such transgressions!

Photo-Bombed by the Asian Dude!!

Photo-Bombed by the Asian Dude!!

Soybeans and Shadows: Myths of Spring


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“We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.”  ~ Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

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It’s indeed strange how myths East and West can and do converge.  Take, for instance, the idea of the end of winter and beginning of spring, which for each direction, basically comes down to soybeans and shadows.

Let me explain.

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

Setsubun bean throwing festival at Zoujouji Temple3Setsubun is a traditional Asian ceremony with origins from the Chou Dynasty of China (introduced to Japan in the 8th/9th centuries), designed to dispel demons at the end of winter/beginning of spring, and is usually observed on 3 February.  The practice of scattering roasted soybeans (豆撒き mamemaki) to drive away any malcontent demons that might have been lurking during the cold winter months is one of a number of magical rites performed to ward off evil in Japan.  The term setsubun originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as setsu (節), but has come to be specifically applied to the last day of the setsu called daikan (大寒, “great cold”), which also corresponds to the eve of risshun (立春, “the first day of spring”), the New Year’s Day of the ancient lunar calendar and the traditional beginning of spring.  Since risshun and the traditional celebration of the New Year fell at about the same time, setsubun became associated with rites of purification and exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing oneself for the coming year and the spring planting season.  Mamemaki originally began as an imperial event, but later mixed with indigenous customs of throwing beans at the time of rice-seedling planting during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867).  To this day, in many places in Japan, setsubun rites include those associated with forecasting the year’s crop and spells for a plentiful harvest.

Sounds crazy and superstitious, right?  But no more than our own Groundhog Day….

I chose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

I choose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

Groundhog Day, on the other hand, is celebrated on February 2nd, just one day apart from its counterpart in the East, and is to a harbinger of spring.  Amazing how ancient time-keepers managed to independently align these events based on the sun and moon!  According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a gopher emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early (he doesn’t see his shadow); if it is sunny, the gopher will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.  Given this tradition, setsubun seems not so silly, and, in fact, seems to be a lot more fun!

setsubun-mask

P5211316ONIDuring setsubun soybeans are roasted (peanuts are becoming more popular) and placed in a small wooden box of the type used for measuring rice or sake.  The “fortune beans” are scattered inside and outside the house or building by the male head of household to the common chant of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (鬼は外! 福は内! “Out with demons!  In with good luck!”) and the sound of slamming doors.  It is customary for family members to eat the same number of beans as their age for good luck, and then one more for the year ahead.  In more recent years, especially in the Kansai region of Japan, famous temples and shrines host well-known personalities born under the Chinese zodiacal sign for that year that help throw beans at evil spirits during “demon dances.”

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than...say...top hats.

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than…say…top hats.

The celebration of Groundhog Day in America began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it has origins much deeper into ancient European lore wherein a sacred badger or bear was used as the prognosticator of the weather, in preparation for the planting season…much like setsubun is tied to early farmers!  By the way, it also bears (pun intended) similarities to the Pagan festival of Imbolc, the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar (lunar-based, just like that of China), which is celebrated on February 1 and also involves weather forecasting.

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So, spring this year – and each and every year – comes down to customs and traditions East and West:  Soybeans and Shadows.  But, if we take a step back and really look at culture, custom, tradition, and even religion, we can find many more similarities than differences.  It seems that the human condition is inescapable; we all, ‘round the world, live around the same physics, share the truly international language of math, endure all the same trials and tribulations of life, and embrace very similar metaphysical wants, hopes and dreams.  We all need to strive and remember that we all much more the same than we are ever different.

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Punxsutawney Phil, however, seems to be accurate only 39% of the time since 1887 on the length of winter.  I, for one, will embrace the myth of throwing soybeans to ward off evil rather than depend upon the myth of a shadow for the warmth of spring.

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.  That myth is more potent than history.  That dreams are more powerful than facts.  That hope always triumphs over experience.  That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”  ~Robert Fulghum