Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Earthquakes and Empathy

Maori legend tells of Papatuanuku, mother earth, carrying an unborn baby named Ru, who at times kicks and stretches, as babies do.

Japanese legend tells of a giant catfish named Namazu, on whose back the islands of Japan sit. The catfish is subdued by a demigod named Kashima, who wields a rock which keeps Namazu in its place. Every so often, though, Kashima is distracted and Namazu flails about.

Although these two legends are distinctly different, the result is frighteningly the same: earthquake.

The islands of Japan and New Zealand have always struck me as being very similar, although whenever I say this people look at me as if I'm crazy. But the fact is, when you strip away all of the human interference, all of the cultural differences, all of the infrastructure, all of the farming, you can't help but see the two countries as geographical companions. To break it down: Japan is an island country in the Pacific, so is New Zealand. Japan is a country where mountains jut violently out of the landscape , so is New Zealand. Japan boasts a glut of beautiful lakes, rivers, hotsprings and waterfalls, so does New Zealand. And as an unfortunate consequence of this dramatic beauty, Japan lives daily with the terrifying prospect of earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami. And so does New Zealand. There is an undeniable affinity between the two island nations, and I have never felt it more than during the past couple of days.

In the wake of the terror and despair that hit Christchurch yesterday afternoon, I have been truly touched by what I can only describe as an outpouring of concern from family, friends, students and co-workers here in Japan. We have had emails and phone calls from every corner of the country, and thankfully we, and our friends who live here that are actually from Christchurch, have been able to reassure them that our loved ones are safe albeit displaced or out of contact for now. There is a feeling of empathy that runs very deep here, a genuine connection among people who have shared the same experiences and know how devastating an event like this can be to communities and families.
I have talked to people who experienced the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, when over 6000 people lost their lives in and around the city of Kobe in Japan. The look in their eyes and the emotion in their voices when they remember that time is as if it had happened yesterday, not 16 years ago. I can only suppose that kind of experience never leaves you.

Watching the footage of the Christchurch earthquake on Japanese TV and the internet has been utterly surreal for me, personally. The familiarity of the faces and the surroundings just does not match the carnage. New Zealand isn't a country that has wars, it doesn't demand revolutions or dispute borders. The violence that has caused this devastation has not come about because of government or religion, it has come about because of the land itself - te whenua. And that, I think, is why the compassion has resonated so much with everyone here in Japan. People here understand as much as New Zealanders do, the ferocious power of nature.

As we wait for news on the missing and trapped in Christchurch, Japan waits also. The 24 Japanese people who are still unaccounted for have the whole country praying for them. But the connection runs deeper than that; it runs right through an ocean, from yama to maunga, from kawa to awa from one island nation to another. Thousands of thoughts and prayers are crossing the Pacific to those in Christchurch tonight: Stay strong. Hold tight. Be safe.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Snow on, Kyoto

Of the four (or five, depending on who you talk to) distinct seasons that Kyoto morphs through each year, winter is surely the least memorable. The mountains that briefly turn a fire red during November descend into dour gray, the temperature plummets and for a lot of people the winter revelry involves cosying up to a kotatsu heater, sharing a nabe hot-pot with friends, finding a warm bar with warmer sake, or soaking in a hot spring - all fine ways to escape Kyoto's infamous wintry doldrums, by the way.

That said, whenever Kyoto gets a hit of the white stuff - snow that is - the city is transformed. The gosling gray streets are momentarily illuminated and the mountains frosted. The temples, shrines and gardens take on a surreal quality that can make you appreciate them on a whole other level: half concealed.

One of my favourite memories of Kyoto under snow is when I dragged myself from a toasty slumber and peered out the window to see my neighbourhood blanketed. I quickly made the decision to head for Ginkakuji temple with camera in hand, which turned into an experience that will never leave me. Fortunately enough it was Monday morning, so there were only a handful of people about; I swear that the only sound I could hear was that of the snowflakes patting the trees.

I had visited Ginkakuji on a couple of occasions, but to be honest this was like a different place entirely, and when the sun spilled out from behind a snow cloud it was like I was seeing it, and Kyoto below, with new eyes.

That is but one example. There are dozens more across Kyoto silently waiting to be visited. By all accounts, Ginkakuji's brother Kinkakuji - the Golden Pavillion - is breathtaking when cloaked in snow.

Another way to make the most of a snowday in Kyoto is to head to Kurama (take the Eizan line from Demachiyanagi terminal) or Ohara (Bus No. 17 will take you there from Kyoto Station, Shijo Kawaramachi Sanjo Keihan or Demachiyanagi). Both these rural towns sit just high enough in the northern mountains to be knee deep in snow when there is but a skerrick downtown. Well worth the trip.

The Eizan Line with Mt. Hiei in the background.

Rice field under snow in Ohara.

Jakkoin Temple: Ohara

So if you are in Kyoto in the next month or so, pray for snow and wake up early. Of course, being February winter is already grinding its way south, but if yesterday's dump of snow is any kind of talisman we could be in for a bit more before spring is ushered in and the snow recedes into distant memory.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The creature down the stairs

We are all creatures of habit to some degree. Whether at home, work or play, we tend to gravitate to what we feel comfortable with and there are certain places that appeal to us; nourish us; cajole us into coming back again and again. For me Cafe Independents on Sanjo Gokomachi is such a place, and I have recently been trying to work out why I am drawn down these stairs again and again.

For one thing, walking through the door always feels nostalgic to me, and although you could say it's because I've been eating lunch there for more than 5 years, I'm pretty sure I had the same feeling when I walked in for the first time. It certainly doesn't have the precise, refined atmosphere of many of Kyoto's cafes and restaurants, in fact the chipped brick walls and exposed wires hanging above you could easily make you forget you were even in Japan, let alone Kyoto.

It might be this rough and ready vibe, then, that coaxes me back. It reminds me of home. I took my students there for a drink after our final class once and one of them remarked how much is reminded her of Soho. Now, I've never been to Soho, but perhaps it's just that the cafe exudes a kind of strange familiarity - like second hand jeans from the St Vincent de Paul, but not quite as musty. On the contrary, although the surrounds down here are quite worn and dim, the staff are far from it and always on hand with a smile at the ready.

But what good is a cafe without the food? Well, this is definitely another spell that this place has over me: the plate lunch is always outstanding and the coffee some of the best around town. For less than a senner (that's ¥1000, or between ten and fifteen bucks depending on your passport), you can indulge in, depending on the day, anything from Thai green curry to Japanese style pork to Cajun chicken with the soup of the day (pictured here) as well as a freshly drawn cup of java. Blissful.

So, I guess it is a combination of these factors that has lured me back here countless times over the years, and no doubt think I'll think of another reason or two to justify my habit, the next time I'm walking by these stairs.