Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Dentro L’Etna

May 10, 2018

Sicily Yoga and Hiking Retreat is in full-swing and there is no time to blog…will post these photos of our exhilarating trek up Etna.  Climbing Etna was tough, but we did it!  It is one of those bucket-list activities that we dream of doing.  Yes, we did it!  We were accompanied by our trekking guide, Federico, plus a volcano specialist, the vulcanist Amilcare, and we also invited Darwin to come with us.  At one point, the vulcanist Amilcare shouted, “Siamo DENTRO l’Etna! (We are INSIDE Etna!) and my skin was covered in goosebumps by the very fact of it. I looked around me! There we were inside this great mountain, on the cinder slopes, looking down at Etna’s massive crater.

It was incredible!  It was a high that I have never felt before. Stay tuned for next year’s Sicily Retreats September 2019.  (only one of those weeks will be focused on yoga and hiking and we will be sure to trek Etna!)

Below is our group at the start of our trek up the mountain. We look so fresh and excited in anticipation of our adventure.  At this point, Amilcare explained to us that Etna is a woman, a mother, one who deserves our respect.  He told us that we were about to enter her sacred territory and that we should approach the mountain with reverence for Mother Earth, Etna, Gaia.

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Fantastic Federico of Step Siracusa Trekking and our volcano specialist, Amilcare:

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Dramatic cloud formations:

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Sweeping views:

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Mountain-Man Vulcanist Amilcare:

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Clouds clear so we can see Mt Etna’s peak:L1400879

Dentro Etna:

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Mounds of new growth on Etna’s lava fields:

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One of our Hale and Hearty Yogis:L1400885

Looks like a lunar landscape.  We practically floated and flew down these ashen slopes, boots full of ash.L1400897

Rick, my Mountain-Man:

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Us, the little specks on the mountain:

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In the Jungle: Kerala

January 16, 2018

From two days ago…only getting around to downloading photos now.

We are in Kerala. Everything here is very clean and pleasant.  There is an emphasis on healthy living.  The air is pure and the jungle very green. The whole town is built around Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary where, if you are lucky, you can see tigers and elusive leopards.  We did not see these big cats, but we did see wild elephants, deer, sambar, buffalo, a boar, otters at play on land near the water.  We also saw wild dogs which look like beautiful wolves with a big thick coat and black tipped bushy tails.  We saw giant squirrels, and countless exotic colorful birds. The birds here in the jungle whoop, whistle, chortle, and whip out a cacophony of songs that delight and entertain.

Elephant and Tiger Territory:

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Seeing the pack of wild dogs was indeed a rare sighting.  The wild dogs had just taken down a sambar (a deer) and were feasting on it.  We saw this from the boat. I’d say there were about 9 or 10 dogs in the pack.  They were a far cry from domesticated dogs.  Not wolf-like, not domestic-looking, not coyote looking.  They were beautiful but vicious looking. I would not want to encounter one in the jungle!

Kerala, South India is lush with vegetation.  Ayurveda massages are offered seemingly everywhere.  Our hotel has an Ayurveda Spa and a medicinal herb garden.  Most people in our group booked an Ayurveda treatment or massage and I have to say my treatment was exceptional! There is an Ayurveda doctor on staff who gives free 15-minute consultations when a spa treatment is booked. There is a yoga studio here.  A yoga class is offered daily for the hotel guests and I have permission to use the pristine and lofty yoga room for my group anytime when the regularly scheduled evening yoga class with the hotel yoga instructor is not taking place.

Kerala has a ban on plastics! Absolutely no plastics used in this city.  No plastic bottles either! That means the water here is purified and safe for drinking.  Elsewhere, we only drink out of bottled water. Here the water is doubly purified and filters and brought to our room in glass bottles.  Arvind says that we can most likely brush our teeth with the water from the faucet, but just to be extra careful, he advised us to continue using the doubly purified and filtered water from the glass bottles and avoid drinking faucet water.

The word jungle comes from the Sanskrit word “jangala”.  It refers to a wild tangle mass of vegetation.  The air is rich here and the temperature is perfect. We are walking distance to organic Spice Plantations and Periyar Tiger Reserve.  We are at 900-2000 meters above sea level.

Early in the morning, we went Jungle Trekking in Periyar Tiger Reserve.  The reserve is 925 square kilometers.  Only 44 square kilometers are open to trekking and trekking is only allowed with a guide. We walked among teak trees, rosewood, and enormous ficus trees. Our guide told us there are 100 species of ficus in this jungle reserve.  Of the 100 species of ficus, 16 are strangling types.  The ficus below is a strangler!  It strangles other trees.  You can see how this would be possible with all the swirling limbs.

I like to think we were safe with the guidance of our trusty trekking guides. Our group split in two because my small group of three wanted to have our guide identify birds and the other group wanted to MOVE and cover territory.  Well, we all got a lot of hiking in, but we did see the other group MOVE across the way from us, when a family of India bison came into view and the second group’s guide said, “Bison is coming.  Move quickly!”  My small group of three saw all the action from a distance.  I’m glad to report that Group Number 2 ran quickly and avoided the Bison family.

As we walked, bird song filled the air.  You might think me crazy, but walking in the Periyar Jungle is a spiritual experience. I could say the jungle is a cathedral, a temple, a shrine, a mosque.  And it is more.  When you walk in the jungle or forest, I believe you are as close to the divine and universal consciousness as is humanly possible.  When the bird song blots out all extraneous thoughts and you walk among the precious protected and rare sandalwood trees and hear the chortles and whistling bird songs and see blue flycatchers, and see many of the 165 types of bamboo growing in this forest, some reaching as high as 75 meters, you don’t ask questions. You just know this singular experience is a sacred one.

There are 342 species of birds in this jungle. There are 262 species of butterflies. A golden oriole caught my eye. And next to it, a black hooded oriole surpassed the other in beauty..if that is possible. Then a plum headed parakeet shows its head and we all say, OH!

As our guide identifies specific types of orioles, mynahs, parakeets, bulbuls, and orange and scarlet minivets, langurs and giant squirrels (115 cm in length) make noisy alarm sounds as we approach.  We are in another world.

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And look what we saw on our jungle trek!  Tiger claw marks on a tree:

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Below you will see more photos from our time in this marvelous healing place.

Our walk down to the sightseeing ferry boat for a ride on Lake Periyar, where we sighted the wild elephants:

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And later, leaving Periyar Tiger and Elephant Preserve and heading to the houseboat in Aleppi, we passed tea plantations and a lovely Catholic church.  18% of the population in Kerala is Christian. St. Thomas the apostle came here in the 1st century.

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Deep Freeze

December 28, 2017

 

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Sayulita: birdsong wakes me up, birdsong and ocean waves are music to my ears as i write, sheltered, here at the casita, from the noisy sun-and-warmth-seekers’ holiday madness in this beach town

here at the casita, an enormous stuccoed wall painted white and covered in pink bougainvillea creates a container of safety, comfort, and cleanliness, of lush elysian tropical greenery inviting bright orange butterflies, boisterous parrots, comedic oversized chicken-like chachalaca birds, sun-bathing lizards, and lazy iguanas hanging out in the trees above

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i watch them from the poolside lounge chairs as the palms sway, as the scarlet hibiscus flowers beckon iridescent-colored hummingbirds, as the mammoth indigenous salate tree loudly drops forearm-length-sized leaves, and the ominous-looking frigate birds fly overhead

silly me, forgot my laptop and ipad back home..really? that’s what i get for bragging about how fast i tap tap tap out words on a keyboard..this little phone mocks my fingertips, makes them feel fat, makes a lefty out of my right hand

suddenly i am a swimmer who cannot float

so much work to do before taking off to india for the whole month of january..quiet time away in sayulita was supposed to give me ample time to work about two hours each day.. to finally catch up…i fear i’ll never catch up on all the correspondences, emails, texts, facebook messages, phone messages, what’s app, line app, etc etc

doesn’t matter now

photos will have to wait until i can download them onto my computer when back home

so i read, lots of reading, and plenty of time for new year’s reflections

a free mind dredges up a storm of memories and rick generously lends me his computer upon my asking so i can tap tap tap while he frets about lending me his computer

my sisters tell me how cold it is in indiana..my nephew gives me reports of freezing temperatures in ohio, my cousin in toronto tells me it is very cold there, that they are in the middle of a deep freeze, that winter came in pretty strong this year…and even though i am immersed in a tropical paradise, sweat gathering in the small of my back as i write, my mind easily slips back to past winters in indiana

the lake effect is something i grew up with, a weather phenomenon bringing on fierce winds, bitterly cold temperatures, heavy snowfalls, blizzard conditions, icy roads

it is a cold one can never forget

i am the little girl who digs deeper into my warm slippered-feet as I look outside the window to watch mom in her heavy winter coat, well insulated against the deep freeze, shoveling snow from the walkways…daddy, looking like an eskimo in his fluffy warm fur-lined hooded coat, walking the snowblower up and down the driveway, clearing a trail for us, i watch them producing high banks of snow on the edges of the sidewalk and driveway, they are my superheros

they’d open the garage door, start up the car, run back into the warmth of the house until the car’s engine warmed up before driving the family off to one destination or another…from warm house to warm car to warm shopping malls, avoiding the cold at all costs

how fast could i build a snowman? pretty fast then dash into the house and defrost my hands and feet as i admire my mr frosty from the windows

in the middle of a vicious blizzard, bracing against howling winds, i bravely walked with daddy, hanging on to him as he walked the overworked struggling snowblower towards my big sister’s house, to fetch her and bring her and her little ones safely to our house where there is always lots of food, big sister very pregnant, due any day and her husband got stuck at the steel mill, my young mind wonders if we’ll have to deliver the baby or will a helicopter come fetch my sister if she goes into labor? the look on my parents’ faces tell me they are having the same thoughts

catholic school and the nuns make us wear the silly uniforms in the sub zero temperatures, plaid skirts that expose a portion of our legs from knee down to bobby socks, the silly saddle shoes giving our feet no protection against the ice and frost, my mom made me go against school rules by having me wear slacks under the skirt, “if they have something to say, tell them to call me, i have a word or two for those nuns, believe me, they’d be best off not dealing with me”

the nuns of sts peter and paul make us go out for recess, out into the deep freeze, “keep moving kids, run run run move stop complaining it’s good for you,” their cruel smiles take pleasure in watching us shiver

we invented a playground game to deal with the cold…we found a corner where the dark brick walls of the church shielded us from the winds..we girls took turns crowding crushing each other into the corner..gradually the girls on the outside got a chance to go into the corner to be warmed and crushed by the bodies of the others girls…it was fun and it worked as long as you were in the corner for a brief moment..years later when i watched the film march of the penguins, i saw a similar survival technique practiced by the polar penguins

brilliant!

wish my mom had a chance to deal with the nuns on the issue of cold

maybe she did?

my cousin came to visit from europe one christmas…we had so much fun with him..we finally had a handsome very entertaining young man in the house..he was so much fun…he loved us five girls and coddled my pregnant sisters jeanie and zina, made them feel like a million bucks and had my mom and dad rolling in laughter…then, while he was visiting, the chicago blizzard of 1979 hit! the forecast called for 2-4 inches of snow but ended up dumping 21 inches..the howling winds-gusts of up to 40 miles per hour-, which lasted for over 38 hours, blasted snow drifts that banked up against our roof! Dad had to shovel out a tunnel to get us out of the house…O’Hare was closed for 96 hours, my cousin was stuck with us, and we all went stir crazy…all roads closed, insanely beautiful meringue roads with no tire tracks, no footprints, subzero temperatures, rose colored sunsets across the flat hoosier horizon

where did the birds go

just days before my cousin was finally going to leave, my friend simone and her boyfriend peppy called and invited us to go out for a ride in peppy’s van….major roads were now cleared, peppy had chains on his studded tired..my parents were angry because they didn’t like simone, had never even met peppy, didn’t want us leaving the house, thought my girlhood friend simone was wild…

and she was

wonderfully wild

peppy and simone showed up in a decked out hippy van, a volkwagon van complete with shag carpets and lava lamps..we headed out to lake michigan of all places, wicked cold…peppy pulls out some beer and a joint and my cousin parties with him…peppy suggests we go out to walk on the frozen lake…so we did, was like walking on a glacier but we didn’t have yak tracks and the waves, whipped up by blizzard winds, had frozen into peaked waves and we kept falling and laughing hysterically… a panicked frozen sensation in my hands and feet came on suddenly and i strongly urged us to all go back in the van… stoned and drunk peppy had trouble finding his keys because his hands were so frozen..fear crept into me, daggers in my head, what if i die out here with stupid peppy and my cousin from england and my wild friend simone? in a surge of terror, i ran over to fumbling stumbling peppy, took my gloves off, and started a mad search into his pockets, i found his damned keys, got the frozen door to the van unstuck with the help of wild simone, started up the van and stuffed still-laughing-idiot-peppy into the passenger seat while wild-captain-simone took over the mother ship

it took a while to defrost our hands and feet… i cried because it hurt so bad

one never forgets such cold

and stupidity

 

one more memory floods my mind…my parents are now old and very ill…zina, jim, and i are visiting them, it’s our last christmas with dad, we didn’t know that fact for sure at the time but, in an unspoken kind of way, we knew

a call comes in around 8pm from the nursing home where our youngish sister lives with old people in a home where she gets 24 hours care, her life plagued with the intricacies and hosts of problems caused by MS… she is in the ICU again, gone septic again, has had a seizure again, is fighting for her life again..but wait, we can’t tell our parents…it will do them in..they are already so fragile, so spent, they have suffered so much already, everybody knows a parent cannot take such sadness…if jeanie dies tonight, how will we tell them? will they be able to survive such a loss? we don’t know what to do…all we know is that mom and dad will go to bed soon and zina, jim, toni and i will sneak out to the hospital to see jeanie..

it is finally around 10:30pm when we leave the house…mom and dad are asleep….it is december…we are in a deep freeze…i am filled with an eerie sense of dread…jim and zina also moved away from indiana long ago, but my brother-in-law jim knows the way to the hospital..could get us there with his eyes closed if he had to….when we arrive, we walk in the sub zero temperatures from the car to the hospital door, it is 17 below with the wind chill factor, the lake effect has us in danger, within seconds my nostrils are frozen, my lungs feel restricted, is it the cold or the fear of losing my sister again and again and again?

jeanie survived that night, my parents never figured out that we sneaked out like teenagers on a clandestine date, to witness my sister jeanie bravely hanging on to life on that

cold night

that cold night….

And i’m back now, to jump into the pool

in the sunshine of sayulita

jeanie still alive in my heart, my parents as present as ever…still

and i continue my new year’s resolution thoughts

for those of you in the deep freeze, stay warm, be safe, live life in a big and brave way (like jeanie did), the only way for all of us to live

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What’s in a name?

March 31, 2017

Source: What’s in a name?

Up the Holy Mountain

November 6, 2016

Last night was our last night at the monastery in Mt. Koya. Mt Koya is the center of Shingon Buddhism, a sect introduced to Japan in 805AD by Kukai (also known as Kobo Daishi), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures.  Mt. Koya is also the site of Kukai’s mausoleum and the start of Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. 

We have been staying at a Shukubo (authentic temple lodging and Buddhist monastery) and have a huge tatami room for yoga. It’s not the easiest place to stay, but we have had rich experiences here.  The monastery is very spartan.  Monk-like living quarters.  Very authentic. We sleep on futon mats placed over the tatami mats.  Our shared bathrooms are a schlep down the hall.  And if you prefer a shared bathroom that has Western-style toilets, and has one room designated for women and the other for men, then it is worth your while to wind your way down two flights of stairs, across long hallways and over an outdoor bridge (in the frigid weather at night) and across long corridors that are not heated and walled in by paper windows.  In this special bathroom, you will find a heated toilet seat and all is clean and pleasant.  I think it was worth the hike!  Bathing is in a sento (one for men and one for women) and the hours for hot water are restricted between 4:30pm and 9pm. Our life here is filled with the monks’ chanting, prayer and fire ceremony in the morning, a walk through the mysterious ancient forested Buddhist cemetery Okunoin, making Buddhist prayer bead bracelets, visiting various temples and shrines, seeing gorgeous autumn leaves.  The chanting, prayer, and fire ceremony was a deeply meditative and powerful experience for all of us.  Here we experience sunny days that warm the heart and fill your vision with views of brilliant red maple leaves and golden ginko leaves, and cold nights that bring frost over tiled roofs and pine branches. 

To counter the purity of vegan meals and the simplicity of sleeping on futon beds spread over tatami mats within a room with paper doors (shoji) and paper screened windows, many of us gather at night to enjoy clandestine  sake/whiskey/wine. These furtive parties take place in Kevin’s “abode” or in the Richardson’s tatami “suite”.  We sit on cushions piled high.  We drink the bootleg from our tea cups.  Here on this most sacred Buddhist mountain in the world, it may be 34 degrees Fahrenheit outside at night, but, indoors, we embrace the warmth of our group as well as the warmth from the heater in the corner of the tatami room. Our hearts are full and our spirits rich.

Oh, Japan! You are slipping away too quickly….I hear gongs in the distant night as I pull the covers tight and fall asleep. And again, upon waking, I hear the gongs as the monks gather to chant at 6am.

 

Photo by Karin ...Autumn Leaves at Mt. Koya

Photo by Karin Bigman …Autumn Leaves at Mt. Koya

Autumn in Japan, Mt. Koya

Autumn in Japan, Mt. Koya (photo by Karin Bigman)

Mt. Koya's temples

Mt. Koya’s temples

Temple Walls

Temple Walls

Prayers and Lit Candles: Inside the temples

Prayers and Lit Candles: Inside the temples

Oh, let's pose with a monk! with Ginger and Woody Howse

Oh, let’s pose with a monk! with Ginger and Woody Howse

Stone Garden

Stone Garden and Temple

Perfectly raked stone garden temple

Perfectly raked stone garden temple

Pillars inside temple

Pillars inside temple

Panorama of Fall Leaves Mt Koya

Panorama of Fall Leaves Mt Koya

Autumn Leaves and Rooftops

Autumn Leaves and Rooftops

Novice Monk fallen asleep on drum

Novice Monk fallen asleep on drum

Mt Koya cemetery: Okunoin, situated in the middle of an ancient forest

Mt Koya cemetery: Okunoin, situated in the middle of an ancient forest

The great Buddhist Monk, Kobo Daishi Kukai. Koyasan (Mt Koya) was founded by him twelve centuries ago.

The great Buddhist Monk, Kobo Daishi Kukai. Koyasan (Mt Koya) was founded by him twelve centuries ago.

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Okunoin

Dressed statues commemorate children who did not live long in this world

Dressed statues commemorate children who did not live long in this world.  They wear red bibs and are called Ojizu.

these stone carvings represent earth, water, fire, air, and ether, often the elements are marked in Sanskrit

these stone carvings represent earth, water, fire, air, and ether, often the elements are marked in Sanskrit

Ojizu

Ojizu

Moss covered head stone

Moss covered head stone

Autumn Leaves..Koyasan is the only place where the have leaves started to turn red already.

Autumn Leaves..Koyasan is the only place where the have leaves started to turn red already.

Cemetery Statue

Cemetery Statue

Cemetery Statue

Cemetery Statue

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Give Peace a Chance

November 4, 2016

Six years ago, I wrote a blog post about Peace Park in Seattle. If you blink you will miss this gem of a park because it is so tiny.  The park embraces the story of Sadoko, a short term survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Below is what I wrote six years ago on my blog post:

I have been wanting to go over to Peace Park for a while, so off we went.  If you blink, you just might miss Peace Park!  It is alongside a busy road, the University bridge, and an on-ramp.  I pass this park a few times a week on my way to teach yoga classes at St. Joe’s, but I have never really stopped and visited the park.

“Peace Park was the dream of Dr. Floyd Schmoe, who after winning the Hiroshima Peace Prize in 1998 used the $5,000 prize money to clear a small lot near the University of Washington. From a pile of wrecked cars, garbage, and brush, he worked with community volunteers to build the beautiful Peace Park.”

The main feature of Peace Park is the sculpture,  Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, created in 1990 by artist Daryl Smith. The statue is a life-size bronze of Sadako Sasaki, the young Japanese girl who survived the Hiroshima bombing only to die of radiation sickness at age 12.  She lived one mile from Ground Zero.

Sadako and the Thousand Cranes

“Sadako Sasaki was a Japanese girl living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan  on August 6, 1945. In 1955, at age 11, Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia, cancer caused by the atomic bomb.

While in the hospital, Sadako started to fold paper cranes. In Japan, there is a belief that if you fold 1000 paper cranes, then your wish will come true. Sadako spent 14 months in the hospital, folding paper cranes with whatever paper she could get. Her wish was that she would get well again. Sadako also wished for an end to all suffering and to attain peace and healing to the victims of the world.

Sadako died on October 25, 1955, she was 12 years old and had folded over 1300 paper cranes. Sadako’s friends and classmates raised money to build a memorial in honor of Sadako and other atomic bomb victims. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial was completed in 1958 and has a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane. At the base is a plaque that says:
This is our cry.
This is our prayer.
Peace in the world.

In Seattle, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Floyd Schmoe, built a life-size statue of Sadako. The statue was unveiled on August 6, 1990, 45 years after the bombing of Hiroshima. The statue is in the Seattle Peace Park and often has paper cranes draped over it.”

I found Sadako’s story very poignant and moving!  Right after the Japan earthquake, there were so many paper cranes covering Sadako that the statue itself was hard to see.  I could only see the statue covered by paper cranes from the car, (soggy paper cranes because of the rain!) and I have felt inspired to come to the park on foot ever since.  Yesterday, we found Sadako covered with thousands of fresh paper cranes.  There were a dozen roses at her feet.

Two days ago, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima, Japan. To see the memorial is necessary.  To see it is a punch in the gut. The museum displays clearly show the horror of war and the devastation of the A-Bomb. The mass human suffering is relived as you walk through the galleries.

There were hundreds of school children with their notebooks, observing and taking notes.  The presence of children, who are so innocent and who have never experienced war, gave me hope for a more peaceful world.  I watched them hover over Sadoko’s photographs, looking at horror at her tattered school uniform, reading her pleas for peace, looking at the display of folded 1000 paper cranes.

  • On August 6, 1945, during World War II (1939-45), an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The explosion wiped out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people; tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure.
  • The Gingko Biloba species of tree is 270 million years old. It rarely suffers disease or insect attack and was one of the only living things to survive the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. The trees healed quickly and are still alive today.
  • The oleander is the official flower of the city of Hiroshima because it was the first thing to bloom again after the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945.
  • The Flame of Peace in Hiroshima, Japan has burned since 1964 in honor of the victims and will be extinguished only when all nuclear weapons are removed from the world and the Earth is free from nuclear threat.
You can see the peace flame burning!

You can see the peace flame burning!

The peace park was established in 1949 and serves as a symbol of peace.  The museum and park were built to remind future generations of the terror of war and the terror brought on by atomic bombings.

A commitment to peace (written by the Survivors of Hiroshima):

We cannot simply wait.

Who will make this world peaceful?

The future, overwhelming with hope and dreams,

Is something that we, every single one of us, shape.

We treasure life and desire peace.

Below are my photos from two days ago:

City of Hiroshima.  Ground Zero is right by the one existing skeletal building (a few others survived the blast but this is the only one still standing)

City of Hiroshima. Ground Zero is right by the one existing skeletal building (a few others survived the blast but this is the only one still standing)

Statue of Sadoko

Statue of Sadoko

1000 Paper Cranes

1000 Paper Cranes

Near Ground Zero

Near Ground Zero

Where are we?

Where do you want to go?

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

Himeji Castle

November 3, 2016

Rick lived in Himeji for over thirteen months.  He spent a lot of time walking around the moat, admiring the castle, photographing it and the surrounding grounds in all seasons.  He was hired by the city of Himeji to write all the English signage on the castle grounds and within the castle.  That was over thirty years ago, not too long before I met him in Chiba.

Today the signage is different.  There are signage warnings with drawings depicting how using selfie sticks can lead to electrocution if the stick hits an electrical wire.  There are warnings not to talk and text with drawings that show a texting-walking figure colliding with a wall.  Modernization has taken root, but the castle itself remains a preserved beauty.

The city of Himeji was hit by air raids twice during WWII and the town was in ashes. However, the snow-white Himeji Castle was miraculously unharmed by the air raids of WWII.  In fact, wars, fires, and natural disasters have left this castle entirely intact and have not affected the structure in any way! Last year the castle was fully renovated, fortified, painted, and earthquake-proofed.  Even though yesterday was a national holiday and the castle was absolutely packed with other visitors, we felt so lucky to be able to walk inside and see this incredible structure!

Himeji Castle was build over 600 years ago (the building of the castle started in 1331). This national treasure, also known as the White Heron (some refer to it as a white egret), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It comes complete with a moat, 21 gates, 32 tall stone curving walls, firing holes, towers, thick latticed lacquered windows, wooden flooring, and incredible tile work on the roof bearing eight different family crests on the ridge end-tiles.  Himeji Castle offers unique defenses that many other Japanese castles do not include, such as the path maze leading to the castle:

  The path maze to the main keep includes many dead ends, to prevent attackers from entering and allowing those inside to defend much more effectively.

It took us about 45 minutes to walk through the castle.  The views from the top were breathtaking. We could not have had a more beautiful day to do this tour.

Map of the castle and grounds

Map of the castle and grounds

Detail: the ends of the tiled roofs are always in the shape of waves. The waves were thought to help thwart fire in the wooden buildings.

Detail: the ends of the tiled roofs are always decorated in the shape of waves. The waves were thought to help thwart fire in the wooden buildings.

Himeji Castle.

Freshly painted Himeji Castle.

Door at the entry gate

Door at the entry gate

Some of the roofs of the 7 level roofed castle.

Some of the roofs of the 7 level roofed castle.

Another gate door at the castle entrance

Another gate door at the castle entrance

View of Himeji from the 5th floor of the castle

View of Himeji from the 5th floor of the castle

Tourists float along the castle moat.

Tourists float along the castle moat.

Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest and Cycling Tour

November 3, 2016

The best way to see Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest?  Cycle your way through.  This blog is short…I have about 15 minutes to pack my bags and take off!

Ready to ROLL!

Ready to ROLL!

We were split up into small groups of five or six. Each of us had a guide.  This is my group!

We were split up into small groups of five or six. Each of us had a guide. This is my group!  I had to pre-arrange for us to have helmets.  The helmets were on the small size.  Woody was practically choking because it was so small for him.  He wore his helmet like a turban!

Kinkakuji Temple, Gold Temple!

Kinkakuji Temple, Golden Temple!

Cycle tour temple visit!

Cycle tour temple visit!

Japanese Scarecrows!

Japanese Scarecrows!

A wonderful stop in the bamboo forest

A wonderful stop in the bamboo forest along with THRONGS of people!

My cycle group

My cycle group

Next stop: yoga in Kameyama Park!  Wonderful outdoor standing yoga class!

Next stop: yoga in Kameyama Park! Wonderful outdoor standing yoga class!

Cycle tour

Cycle tour

Nijo-en Castle in Kyoto...has incredible Nightingale Floors, floors that squeak and sound like birds.. the sound is to alert imperial family and samurai families of approaching thieves or intruders

Nijo-en Castle in Kyoto…has incredible Nightingale Floors, floors that squeak and sound like birds.. the sound is to alert imperial family and samurai families of approaching thieves or intruders

wood work at the castle

wood work at the castle

A Night in Gion

November 3, 2016

I have fallen behind in my blogging!  We are no longer in Kyoto, but spent 4 incredible nights there.  Below are photos from some of  the highlights of our visit to the Gion district of Kyoto.  Whenever I go somewhere I love, I always say, “I could live here!”  Well, I could live in Kyoto and never grow tired of exploring this fascinating city with all of its rich culture. Gion is the entertainment district of the city.  It is also known as the Geisha District.

We took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto. This is the high speed train.  The average delay of the shinkansen in ONE MINUTE.  It basically runs on time!  Exactly on time.  When it arrives at the station, we have exactly TWO minutes to board.  There is no messing around.  You get on and the train takes off!  The shinkansen bullet train began operating 50 years ago, nine days before the opening ceremony of the first Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo (1964).  Since then, the bullet trains have carried 5.6 billion passengers between Tokyo and Osaka. It reaches speeds of 311 mph.

Divya photographs a bullet train speeding by!

Divya photographs a bullet train speeding by!

Kyoto was largely untouched by World War II bombing, so many of its gorgeous ancient temples, shrines, and tea houses are perfectly preserved. It is located in a peaceful green alley surrounded by mountains on three sides.  17 of historic monuments of ancient Kyoto are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Kyoto is the cultural and spiritual heart of Japan.  Its renowned silk industry dates back to 794. Over 30 million people a year come to soak up the Kyoto experience, to visit more than 2000 temples and marvel at the Zen gardens and bamboo forests.  I feel so fortunate to be among the 30 million visitors!

Kiyomizudera Temple, built at the end of the 8th century.  The entire temple was built without the use of a single nail.  The temple is dedicated to the thousand armed goddess Kannon

Kiyomizudera Temple, built at the end of the 8th century. The entire temple was built without the use of a single nail. The temple is dedicated to the thousand armed goddess Kannon, also known as Guanyin, a spiritual figure of mercy.  She is a bodhisattva associated with compassion. The name “Guanyin” is short for Guanshiyin, which means “Perceiving the Cries of the World.” Some Buddhists believe that when on of a fellow Buddhist departs from this world, they are placed by Guanyin in the heart of the lotus, and then sent to the pure land of Sukhavati (Sukha means “easy” or “place of ease” in Sanskrit).  Guanyin/Kannon originated from the Sanskrit/ancient goddess from India, Avalokitesvara, commonly known as the Goddess of Mercy in India.

view of

view of Kiyomizudera Temple

rooftop

rooftop

Our extraordinary guide, Chiaki!  She is with us 24/7!

Our extraordinary guide, Chiaki! She is with us 24/7!

Our day in Gion was wet...pouring rain. Gave a most fitting ambience to the day.  Kimono and Umbrellas

Our day in Gion was wet…pouring rain. Gave a most fitting ambience to the day. Kimono and Umbrellas

A walk through Nishiki Market. Beautiful fascinating market.  This shop is owned by descendants of Samurai Sword makers.

A walk through Nishiki Market. Beautiful fascinating market. This shop is owned by descendants of Samurai Sword makers.

The prized and precious MATSUTAKE mushrooms (they grow in pine tree forests.) Check out the price:

The prized and precious MATSUTAKE mushrooms (they grow in pine tree forests.) Check out the price: $79 for a small container.  They will be chopped up and added to a special rice dish.

We had dinner in an ancient tea house in Gion and a private performance. This is a shamisen player. She is an accomplished Geisha, though a respectful way to refer to her is GEIKO because she has devoted her entire life to be being a Geisha (since she was 15 years old).  Geisha literally means, "a person of the arts", Geiko literally means "A woman of the arts"  Geiko cannot get married.  They symbolize the high culture of Japan.  They are female entertainers (this woman played and sang for us)  who act as hostess and whose skills include performing various arts such as classical Japanese music, dance, games and conversation.  She later went around to our table and spoke to us.  She was lovely in all ways.

We had dinner in an ancient tea house in Gion and enjoyed a private performance of music and dance. This is a shamisen player. She is an accomplished Geisha. A respectful way to refer to her is GEIKO because she has devoted her entire life to be being a Geisha (since she was 15 years old). Geisha literally means, “a person of the arts”, Geiko literally means “A woman of the arts” Geiko cannot get married. They symbolize the high culture of Japan. They are female entertainers (this woman played and sang for us). They act as hostess and whose skills include performing various arts such as classical Japanese music, dance, games and conversation. She later went around to our table and spoke to us. She was lovely in all ways.  Please note that Maiko and Geisha/Geiko are not prostitutes.  I thought I should mention it because some people think they are.  They do mostly perform for men, but they are highly trained to represent the cultural arts of Japan.  If they decide to leave the Geisha house and move out on their own, they will need someone to support them, though they cannot marry. If they move out on their own, they find a patron. The patron is a man who is often married with a legal family of his own.  Geisha/Geiko may or may not have a sexual relationship with the patron.  And if a child comes of the relationship, Geisha/Geiko are allowed to maintain their status (for it is a high status to be a Geisha/Geiko) and are allowed to raise their child, through they still cannot marry. If they marry, they make a choice to no longer be a Geisha/Geiko.

More information on the instrument Shamisen

As the Geiko played and sang, this lovely MAIKO danced for us.  Maiko is a young woman under 21 in training to become a Geisha.  At 21, a Maiko must decide if she will continue to train to become a Geisha. This young woman will decide next year if she wants to continue her path to becoming a Geisha/Geiko.  If she does, she will choose not to marry.  She lives in a house with other MAIKO.  They have a house mother.  After she danced for us, Chiaki translated for her as we asked many questions about her life.  The Maiko-san had a beautiful way about her. She is the embodiment of grace and all the kindness that is Japan.  She also came around to our table and spoke to individuals.  She spoke beautiful English. By the way, this is her own hair!  She spends hours dressing in kimono and doing up her hair (once a week) and putting on her make-up (daily) and learning the arts.  She has two days off per month. We asked her what she likes to do on her day off?  She wears jeans and wears her long hair loose past her shoulders and goes to the movies with her friends, who are other maiko!  She travels dressed like this, always in the company of her female escort, the house mother, to various places of entertainment AND to other countries (yes, she dressed like this on flight...always with a female escort.) Only one man is allowed to enter the MAIKO/Geisha house and it is the one man who ties her OBI (waist ban). Why a man to tie the obi?  Because he has to pull it tight and has the strength to pull it and tie it!

As the Geiko played and sang, this lovely MAIKO danced for us. Maiko is a young woman under 21 in training to become a Geisha. At 21, a Maiko must decide if she will continue to train to become a Geisha. This young woman will decide next year if she wants to continue her path to becoming a Geisha/Geiko. If she does, she will choose not to marry. She lives in a house with other MAIKO. They have a house mother. After she danced for us, Chiaki translated for her as we asked many questions about her life. The Maiko-san had a beautiful way about her. She is the embodiment of grace and all the kindness that is Japan. She also came around to our table and spoke to individuals. She spoke beautiful English. By the way, this is her own hair! She spends hours dressing in kimono and doing up her hair (once a week) and putting on her make-up (daily) and learning the arts. She has two days off per month. We asked her what she likes to do on her day off? She wears jeans and wears her long hair loose past her shoulders and goes to the movies with her friends who are other maiko! She travels dressed like this, always in the company of her female escort, the house mother, to various places of entertainment AND to other countries (yes, she dressed like this on flight…always with a female escort.) Only one man is allowed to enter the MAIKO/Geisha house and it is the one man who ties her OBI (waist ban). Why a man to tie the obi? Because he has to pull it tight and has the strength to pull it and tie it!

And another private performance for our group on the KOTO.

And another private performance for our group on the KOTO.

 

Koto Performance

Ms. Harumi Shimazaki was our professional Koto Player and is pictured above performing for us. We were so lucky to have a private performance by her. Here is her website. It is in Japanese, but there is an English tab you can click to see her bio in English. There are also two video clips on this site where you can see her playing.  I was so happy to hear that she does yoga.  In fact, she told me that she LOVES yoga.  Playing KOTO is very difficult.  You have to use your entire body strength to play so she gets great relief and calms her mind with her yoga practice!

Tsukiji Tuna Auction

October 29, 2016

If you are squeamish, vegetarian, or vegan, I think this blog post may not be for you.

It is late and I must be up early tomorrow morning for yoga and for another full day of activities here in Japan, so will keep my writing on the short side.  I have fallen behind on my blog posts.  We went to Tsukiji a few days ago.

The day started at 1am when the alarm went off. I think I am crazy for opting to get up at this hour to see the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market....but it was an experience I am glad to have seen!

Tokyo: Tsukiji Tuna Fish Auction.  The day started at 1am when the alarm went off. First thought: Have I gone crazy?  I think I have gone temporarily insane for opting to get up at this hour to see the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market….but it was an experience I am glad to have seen!  The first 120 people in line get in every morning.  By the time we got to the fish auction site a little after 2am, there was already a long line formed!  However, getting there early got us in!  No reservations allowed.  First come first serve basis!  Here we are in a “holding tank”.  Squished together like minnows, we sit and wait for hours.

A seller comes in to explain to us how the whole process works. He is funny, speaks pretty good English, and gives us lots of facts about the whole tuna fish auction process! Finally, at 5:35am, we are called in to witness the auction.

A seller comes in to explain to us how the whole process works. He is funny, speaks pretty good English, and gives us lots of facts and explains much about the whole tuna fish auction process! Finally, at 5:35am, we are called in to witness the auction.

Each tuna sells for $100,000 or more. A 250 kg blue fin tuna can sell for over one million dollars

Before the auction begins, the buyers examine the fatty ends of the tuna.  The bluefin tuna are frozen (so they appear white).  Their fins are cut off.  The fattier the end portion is  near the tail, the more desirable the fish.  The buyers use hooks to dig into the flesh to test the fat content. Each tuna sells for $100,000 or more. Highest selling tuna fish ever?  In 2013, a 222kg bluefin tuna was sold for 155.4 million yen (1.8 million USD)

Inspection continues. Security guards everywhere. Tension in the air. I had no idea the bluefin tuna are so big. It made me sad to see their carcasses, but I was also amazed by the whole process of supply and demand. Even today, not much is known about the bluefin tuna. We do know that it is one of the fastest swimming fish, that it has an immense habitat range and that the Atlantic bluefin tuna is endangered.

Inspection continues. Security guards everywhere. Tension in the air. I had no idea the bluefin tuna are so big. It made me sad to see their carcasses, but I was also amazed by the whole process of supply and demand. Even today, not much is known about the bluefin tuna. We do know that it is the fastest swimming fish, that it has an immense habitat range and that the Atlantic bluefin tuna is endangered.

Crazily waiting for the auction to begin. In 20-25 minutes it will be done. Buyers will use their hook to haul away these huge fish. Within minutes, the frozen fish will be cut with a saw and sold to various restaurants. We could see the process taking place as we were exiting the auction hall.

Crazily waiting for the auction to begin. In 20-25 minutes it will be done. Buyers will use their hooks (you can see the hooks in this photo) to haul away these huge fish. Within minutes, the frozen fish will be cut with a saw and sold to various restaurants. We could see the process taking place as we were exiting the auction hall.

close up

close up.

Almost ready to start

Almost ready to start

hook

Here you can see one of the buyers inspecting the fatty tail area with a hook.  There’s a guy just beyond him in a white vest.  This white vested man bought many of the fish.  He signaled to the auctioneer with very fast hand gestures.  It all happened so fast, but my guess would be that he purchased over half of this second row of bluefin tuna…hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fish.

The guy up on the pedestal is doing the auction...

The guy up on the pedestal is doing the auction…

Afterwards, headed to the market and saw these grapes selling for $18 USD! (one small bag)

Afterwards, headed to the outdoor market and saw these grapes selling for $18 USD! (one small bag)

But wait! The darker grapes are less expensive at $16 USD for a small bag

But wait! The darker grapes are less expensive at $16 USD for a small bag

Then we headed to a sushi shop for breakfast. Whose idea was this? This is what Don ate for breakfast. I ate some sushi, too, (it was 6:50am)...when in Rome (Tokyo, in this case) and I must admit I felt a bit queasy afterwards.

After the auction, the outdoor market was not yet open so we headed to a sushi shop for breakfast. Whose idea was this? This is what Don ate for breakfast. I ate some sushi, too, (it was 6:50am).  The sushi shop was filled with customers!  And it is open 24/7.  Freshest sushi in the world.

Last but not least, Cherished Fruit! This Meron (Melon, misspelled) was next to the Fruits Stick (that would be a $5 fruit stick)

Last but not least, Cherished Fruit! This Meron (Melon, misspelled) was next to the Fruits Stick (that would be a $5 fruit stick)


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