Thursday, 31 March 2011


We recently headed south of Kyoto to charming Nara for a couple of days. Nara was the capital of Japan for a (relatively) short time in the eighth century AD - yes that's right, the eighth century: 1300 years ago!

Some of the first things you will encounter (and I mean truly encounter) in Nara are the free ranging deer, which themselves are actually cultural properties and said to be messengers from the Gods. Apparently the message is: "Give me thy biscuits or I'll headbutt you in the groin."

They wander the streets with aplomb - jaywalking, relieving themselves wherever and whenever they feel the need to and occasionally fighting over food. Similar, actually, to a group of rugby supporters back home, minus the face paint and beer.

Generally though, the deer are very placid (when you don't have anything they consider edible in hand) and will pose quite happily for photos, or ignore you completely as they graze on the sparse lawns of the many temple grounds and parks.

We decided to take a leaf out of the deers' book and wander around the place without any real purpose or direction. As the sun began to sink behind the pagoda of Kofukuji temple to our west, we stumbled upon a garden with an inviting plum tree in full bloom teasing us from over the gabled wall. The entry fee of ¥650 wasn't quite so inviting though, and we decided against it. Adjacent to that garden, though was another garden, named Yoshikien, with a sign saying (in English) "Free Entry for Foreign Tourists". I attempted to cajole my wife into pretending she was of non-Japanese descent, for which I got a glare that would have melted cheese and a sharp retort that I actually wasn't even a foreign tourist, but a foreign resident. So, I bit my tongue and we paid a much more reasonable ¥250 for her, plus nothing for the kids, and in we went.

Being early evening and just before closing, we were the only souls in the place. It was a beautiful garden, apparently privately owned during the Meiji era for visiting aristocrats to have their tea ceremonies, and has only been open to the public since 1989. There are 3 styles of Japanese garden here: a moss garden, a pond garden and a tea ceremony garden.

The teahouse backed out onto a moss garden which was wonderfully enhanced by the sunlight cascading through the trees. Moss gardens of course are at their lushest best after the rainy season in June, but it is still hard not to be impressed by the tricks that these masters of perspective are able to play with your eyes.

As we wound or way through the small streets and alley back to our hotel, we remembered that we had wanted to visit the famous Todaiji temple, but that didn't really seem to matter. Nara had served us a serene garden and a beautiful early spring evening to lap up.

The next day we did get to Todaiji, and although we were a bit early for the sakura there, we did see some early bloomers along the way at a shrine, not to mention some plum trees that had eluded us the evening before.

Friday, 18 March 2011


I was sitting at my desk nine days ago, when my phone buzzed. That was all that happened; my phone buzzed and I broke away from writing reports, rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and picked up my phone to read a mail from a friend. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. The mail said there had been an earthquake and that a tsunami was hitting the coast of Japan. I went to the next room where my wife and kids were playing and I relayed the news to them. "There's a tsunami hitting somewhere up north." I said. "Oh dear", was the reply. Earthquakes and tsunami are part of life in Japan, this news wasn't a shock.

It was an early spring day in Kyoto. The plum blossoms were reaching full bloom, which is always a good sign that the weather is getting warmer and that winter is on its way out. I was looking forward to finishing my reports so I could go for a walk to the park with my kids if it wasn't too cold outside; there was a bag of stale bread that needed to be fed to the carp at the pond and I still had a few hours before my only class of the day. Or, I thought, I could just waste some time on Facebook inviting people to a picnic that a friend had organised for that Sunday. The weather was supposed to be good.

I walked downstairs made a coffee and turned on the TV. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw unfolding before my eyes. I couldn't make sense of the pictures at first, sort of like eyes getting used to the dark, then I realised I was watching a wharf and then dozens of cars being swept away like they were leaves in a gutter. I remember thinking: "Why are there so many cars there?" Such an inane thought, but the gravity of what I was watching was too big to grasp. It was a movie. It didn't seem real. It couldn't be real.

Of course, what unfolded over the next few hours was very real. Terrifyingly real. Words cannot describe it and I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have been witness to it. The devastation in the north-east of Japan is beyond words. The people of Tohoku have been dealt an unimaginable blow that will require years to come back from. But they will come back from it. The phrase that you keep hearing from people in the area is 'Ganbaro'. You hear people say it on the news every night: 'Ganbaro'. I even saw it spray painted on the side of a concrete wall in the midst of absolute ruin. Ganbaro. It is a word that has many nuances but can, I think, best be translated in this case as 'Let's Stay Strong', 'Let's Stand Firm': Ganbaro. It is a word that is part of the Japanese psyche and a word that is often overused. But not in this case, not at this time. At this time they need to keep saying it and keep believing it, because the challenge they face is immense.

Here in Kyoto, there was no direct effect from the earthquake and Kyoto is too far inland to ever be threatened by tsunami. So the feelings here are feelings, of course, of deep sympathy, but also tinged with guilt. Guilt that we have everything we need, and in some cases a glut of things that the people up north are in dire need of. Commodities such as water, electricity and food. Blankets, warm clothes, futons, a television. Not to mention a roof over our heads, a hot shower and the privacy of our own home, which for so many tonight are all hopelessly out of reach. People here have been giving money, sending packages, organising fundraising events, basically trying to do anything and everything we possibly can to help the people in the stricken areas. There is so much that is required, and everyone that I know has been involved in some way to try and get them the help they so desperately need. The sense of community in Japan is very, very strong and everyone is doing their part to help.

The weather has been unseasonably cold since that day, conversations are close and terse, people stand and stare at television sets in restaurants and diners, a look of disbelief across their faces. There is a sorrow that has fallen over the whole of Japan, but there is also an undeniable and overriding sense of purpose and promise here, too. There is still no joy, but the smiles are slowly starting to find their way back onto people's faces in Kyoto. Life goes on.

With this, the promise of spring also grows day by day and the splendor of springtime in Japan truly is a glory to behold. New life is being unleashed and the fleeting cherry blossoms - sakura - have already started to sweep their way north. Japan has a deep bond with the sakura flowers and this year, 2011, they will be of special significance, both as a harbinger of new life and as a symbol of support, blessings and encouragement sweeping up the entire island nation from south to north. These times will be tough for the people of Tohoku, but life does go on and they will get through this. They will get through this because they have the support of the whole country and because the bonds of community in Japan are strong: infinitely stronger than any force of nature. Ganbaro.