The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Merry Christmas Mega-Post

Hi everyone! Sincere apologies for not having done any updates for quite a while. And, more than likely, this will be the last you hear of me until after New Year's, so Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone.

I had a week off in November so I took a 3-day trip to Kumamoto, one of my favourite places in Japan. It's a city that is very proud of its prominent samurai heritage. For one thing, it has famous Kumamoto castle, a very large and well-designed castle that was once considered impregnable.

Kumamoto was also the final home of famous samurai wanderer Miyamoto Musashi. He is well-known throughout Japan because he fought more than 60 duels (many to the death), and never lost. He was thought to be a very brutal man, but in his later years he cultivated his artistic side and left a number of masterpieces of ink painting, sculpture, calligraphy, and design. His philosophy was that, if you pursue one thing thoroughly enough (e.g., swordsmanship) and penetrate to its very essence, then you understand all things. So, he was able to master anything he set his mind to, because he had discovered the universal truth in all things by unlocking it through one pursuit. I went and visited his gravesite...

...and the cave, Reigando, where he retired to meditate and compose his famous treatise on the martial arts, Writings on the Five Elements before he died.

The approach to the cave is surrounded by numerous Buddha statues. They all have a different expression and one of them is said to look like you.

Kumamoto also has a beautiful garden, called Suizenji. In the background is a miniature Mount Fuji.

Back in Beppu, I happened to see an interesting annual festival, called the Onna Matsuri, or Women's Festival. Now, I'm not sure that I'm right about this, but I gather that the festival is for any woman, but especially the women who work in Beppu's numerous bars, cabarets, massage parlours, clubs, and brothels. First up was a parade of women dressed as maiko, or dancing girls. People in the west usually refer to them as geisha, but this is somewhat incorrect; geisha and maiko are apparently "ranks" with maiko being the apprentices. Only after being a maiko for an extended period does a girl rise to the rank of geisha; the majority of "geisha" one sees are actually maiko. In any case, the majority of maiko work in Kyoto, and these women were just dressed up as maiko for the festival.

I think I love her!

Festivals in Japan tend to be predominantly Shinto affairs, and women do not usually participate except as spectators. The Women's Festival, however, is an obvious exception and we even saw women carrying Mikoshi, the elaborate, portable (but very heavy!) shrines which are thought to enshrine Shinto deities.

"Sisters are doin' it for themselves..."

Another very odd event was a parade of men, cross-dressing as maiko (or perhaps as court ladies). I can only speculate that they might work at gay clubs, and are therefore granted honorary status to participate in the Women's Festival.

Is this a man?!? I'm so confused.

Then, last weekend, Michelle, Helen and I rented a car for a day trip. The first stop was a little souvenir shop in Yufuin, which has a bunch of interesting statues of the Seven Gods of Good Luck. My favourite one has always been, Fukurokuju, the god of happiness, wealth, and longevity. Like me, he is fat, bald, and has an abnormally high forehead.

Our main destination for the day was the suspension bridge in Kokonoe. It was built last year (and seriously, I have no idea how!) and is the longest such bridge in Japan. I don't like heights but, even though the bridge sways a lot, it also feels very secure and well-constructed. It was pretty cold and windy, though.

The bridge passes over a gorge, which has a couple very nice waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. Japanese traditionally believe that dragons live behind waterfalls. I'd like to think so.

I was navigating, which meant that we got lost somewhere after the bridge. The real problem was that we had a paper map, in addition to our car satellite-navigation system (all cars have these in Japan) and the two didn't agree on very much. So I thought we were on one road, when actually we were on another road... Anyway, we ended up at this weird place where evidently somebody really likes making topiaries. Here's me with a kangaroo or something.

"High five!"

A lot of people think Japan is one big Tokyo from coast to coast: neon signs, traffic, skyscrapers ... but actually, once you get out of the big cities, Japan is beautiful and has lots of nature to explore. Here's a shot of Mt. Yufu, which is just back in behind Beppu. Pretty nice, huh?

So anyway, that's what I've been up to (plus the normal stuff like teaching, and iaido). I have no big plans for the Christmas/New Year's holidays ... I'll probably hole up with a few good books and videos, and get a sore back from sleeping too much. I hope you all have a great holiday. I'll be thinking of you and missing you! See you in 2008.