A Memory Stuck and New Years in Tokyo

Written on 2nd January 2017
I’m in writing heaven. I’m sitting on a train looking out at snow covered trees and rooftops and thinking about a moment roughly ten years ago. Some moments stick with you more clearly than others. About ten years ago, I came to the realisation that I should stop buying stuff I didn’t really need and instead spend my money on traveling and collecting memories. It‚Äôs liberating. I still have random spending plurges but they are significantly less frequent. I am also donating vociferously.

This year, Alex and I decided to take a trip to Tokyo during New Years before we head up north to Otaru and Kiroro for snowboarding. It’s out of the norm for us. Usually New Years is spent at home. Now that we’re out, I realise that it gives the trip a different kind of flavor. Every country has their own tradition during New Years and the vibe is different. 

If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, you’d know how crazy busy it can be with everyone on schedules and rushing to get to the destination. The Japanese are orderly, so no matter how busy it is, it’s quiet yet buzzing. Try standing still at Shinjuku station on a busy workday morning and you’d know what I mean.

During New Years however, the vibe is different. From the 30th to 1st, every thing slows downs. People are still hurrying around, but it’s with a suitcase and luggage to go home for the holidays. Faces are relaxed and the general atmosphere is one of relaxation. You can feel it in the air.

Restaurants and shops close early on the 31st so plan your eating schedule well. On the 1st, many shops and restaurants are closed though apparently more and more are remaining open. Even though they are open, I feel that the English speakers seem to be fewer in number.

On New Years Eve and New Year Day, people go out to pray at temples and shrines. We went to the Meiji shrine. It’s also a day of shopping. From the 1st to 3rd, shops go on sale and people go crazy shopping. More details to follow. ūüôā

We’re almost arriving at Otaru now. xoxo  

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The Temple of Philae

There are so many temples, so many majestic sites in Egypt that I dare not say which ones are better than the other.  Each person has their own preferences and what some like, others may not.  I,  for some reason, often find myself liking structures near to rivers or large bodies of flowing water.  Perhaps in another lifetime I lived on the river.  Who knows.   In Egypt, I rediscovered my love for water and one moment I remember clearly is the first impression I had of the Temple of Philae.

On an island of its own, this temple is accessible only by boat.¬† It’s late evening and the sun reflects off the dark blue water that mirrors the sky above.¬† It’s been a tiring day and everyone is exhausted. We had been awake since 2am in the morning with our early morning¬†flight to Abu Simbel¬†then Aswan.¬† This temple I remember being almost our last destination for the day.¬† I was tired and sleepy.¬† I walked down the pier and got onto the boat that would take us across.¬† I wasn’t really expecting too much and was pleased to just be able to sit quietly on the boat, listening to the water splashing on its side as the late afternoon sun flickered through.

I observed a beautiful scenery of birds, trees and water reflecting the afternoon sun. Palm trees offered a beautiful sihoulette to the clear cloudless sky.  All was calm and peaceful until all of a sudden, beautiful structures looking somewhat mythical appeared before me.  I sat there quietly taking it all in.  Stone columns reddened by the afternoon sun rose majestically to the sky.  I felt like I too was on a pilgrimage to this great temple.  I wondered if pilgrims thousands of years felt the same way I did just then. This place must indeed be magical.   As I got closer, the towering columns grew in their splendor and size.  They belonged to the Temple of Philae.   

This temple I am told was believed to be the burial site of Osiris, the God of the Underworld,” and was inhabited by only priests.¬† It was a sacred¬†place of worship for ancient Egyptians and have been mentioned in literature since ancient times.¬† I got off the boat and inside the temple is just as astounding.

Pillars filled with hieroglyphics lined the entrance and the main gate was still in wonderful condition.  Although most of the colours are gone now, they hieroglyphics remain just as surreal.  The complex is large and there are many buildings.  Some were built by the romans and one especially beautiful is the Kiosk of Trajan which has 14 columns and is in a classical style.  Beautiful.   I walk around looking at the lights and shadows. Light and darkness contrasting with each other.   I wish I had more time here, but we are given only 20 minutes to take photos.

I wander around and just fall in love this temple. Perhaps crossing the river in the setting sun with the clear blue sky above made it all the more magical.  Whatever it is, I can imagine this being the resting place of the Gods.

The Journey Begins at Abu Simbel

Having climbed through the Great Pyramid, stood by the Sun boat, and sat on a camel; ¬†I have to say that the ‘real’ journey to Egypt has only just begun.¬† There is much more than just¬†pyramids and sand.¬†¬†The real journey to ancient Egypt begins when you take the magical and unforgettable¬†cruise down the River Nile.¬†¬†

One sees so many temples, all noteworthy and each second to none.¬† I, of course, will not be able to write about all of them for it will take up more than a month’s worth of blogs and have the unfortunate consequence of boring my readers.¬† I shall therefore¬†write about the ones that captured my imagination the most.

This cruise down the River Nile¬†is the¬†part of the journey that I’ll never forget.¬† Before we get to actually board the Cruise, we are are taken on a flight down to Abu Simbel and later flown to Aswan.¬† Some tours don’t include Abu Simbel, but I think if you have the opportunity, you should definitely see it.¬† It’s what movies and dreams are made of.

Abu Simbel is a temple¬†literally carved out of a solid cliff to honour Ramses II.¬†¬† At first, as you are walking behind the structure everything seems just ordinary, that is until you start catching glimpses of the colossal statues of Ramses II¬†looking out towards the river.¬† It’s undescribable.¬† Ramses II here is 33 meters (108ft) high and he undoubtedly has the effect of putting all those before him in awe.¬†


You feel like a grain of sand standing next to this awesome structure.  I suppose that is what you are supposed to feel like.  Here the King assumes a godlike status and is wearing the crowns of both upper and lower Egypt.  Here he has been immortalized next to his wife Nefertari, who has another smaller temple of her own next to his. Amazing what love can do.

I enter this temple and am greeted by an impressive hall lined with statues of Ramses as Osiris, the God of the Afterlife.  Towards the back of the temple in the Inner Sanctury you find Ramses sitting next to the Gold of Amun-Ra (the King of Gods),  Ptah (God of Regeneration and Underworld) and Ra-Harakhty or Horus (God of Protection, the Sky and War).  

Now, imagine this being built in 13th century BC.   Imagine how well they had to calculate the position of the temple so that on only two days a year on October 21 and February 21 (61 days before and 61 days after the Winter Solstice) light enters the temple and shines on the gods sitting in the inner sanctuary.

The sun shines into the Inner Sanctury and lights up three Gods.  One is left in darkness: the God of the Underworld, the God Ptah.   Its breathtaking.  All this calculation, all this done thousands of years ago.  Millions of lives before be have stood in awe in front of this great structure.

It’s no wonder that it is a UNESCO Heritage Site and even more fortunate that the world realized its significance and actually relocated this entire temple structure before it was submerged under Lake Nasser, formed by the building of the Aswan High Dam.¬† I thank you all those who helped in the relocation of this temple.¬† Without them, it would have been lost underwater and instead serve as an incredibly beautiful home for the fish.

Pray at Senso-ji Temple (Asakusa), Meditate in the Garden.

 
The Thunder Gate
After we eat at Tokyo, we go pray.¬† Somehow this sequence reminds me of the novel Eat, Pray, Love.¬† As a first time visitor to Tokyo, I had to go see Tokyo’s oldest and most significant temple, the Sensoji-temple or also known as the Asakusa.
 
 
The temple is¬†dedicated to Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy and is supposed to have first been built in 645.¬† Although most buildings have been destroyed during the World War, they have all been rebuilt and it continues to be an important temple in Tokyo.¬† People still worship and pray at this temple.¬† While I was there, I witnessed a ceremony taking place with a few monks but I wasn’t able to ascertain what the ceremony was about.

 

It’s a fun place to visit even if you’ve been to a dozen shrines already.¬† I particularly enjoyed seeing how this place of worship just suddenly¬†appears to you walking down the street.¬† The entrance is dominated by an enormous “Thunder Gate” under which hangs an equally gigantic paper lantern.¬† It’s supposed to be painted like¬†thunder and lightning.¬†¬†The gate and entrance, coupled with the massive crowds of tourists and locals alike is feast for the eyes.¬† The energy is just buzzing all around the place.¬† It’s so international, I spy several tour groups while I’m there.¬† One can get a little dizy but you’ll find peace once you reach the temple.

The Nakamise-Dori
I particularly enjoyed the Nakamise-Dori which is a shopping street centuries old lining your way towards the temple.  While I was there, to signify autumn all the trees lining the path were dressed in paper golden leaves.  Beautiful.  Seasons are important in Japan.  The street is filled with shops selling japanese souvenirs from postcards to yukatas. Snacks are sold too, but they have a season.  Autumn is the time for potatoes, pumpkins and chestnuts.  I wonder what is sold during other seasons of the year.  
Once you reach the temple you can pray and even ask the Oracle any questions you have. Of course its all in japanese ūüôā¬† My book tells me there are a 100 answers so it must be pretty precise!

 

The most enjoyable part of the temple visit though was walking through the quiet and meditative garden just towards the right of the temple.¬† It’s so quiet and calm in this garden, that I somehow feel like I’ve stepped into another world.¬† It’s hard to believe that this garden is only a few steps away from the busy temple front.¬† It’s a traditional japanese garden complete with japanese maple trees, a pond filled with healthy red carp and a japanese bridge¬†to finish the landscape.¬† Towering over the garden you have a beautiful view of the 5-storey pagoda.¬† All this is in a tiny little area.¬†¬†Small yet¬†it is¬†enough to give¬†one peace of mind after walking down the¬†busy shopping street. ¬†It’s amazing how much power these gardens can have over you.¬† Perhaps we should all have such a little garden in our homes or offices.

The Japanese Garden

Japan’s First Capital: Nara and the Todai-ji Temple

The Todai-ji Temple

On holiday one goes to so many sites within the space of one day that after two days you feel like you’ve seen so much, experienced so many things and nourished your senses. Yesterday I went to visit Nara, founded in 710 as the first capital of Japan and it is definitely a site not to be missed. There are eight Unesco Heritage Sites in Nara alone and the best part is that a lot of them are within walking distance (though make sure you have comfortable shoes.) I like it because it doesn’t have the large bustling atmosphere of a modern city. I can feel its history in the air.

The main sites are located in Nara Park which is an area so large you would probably need an hour or so to walk around. Being someone who loves to just soak in the atmosphere of the place, I took longer, much longer. I spent at least two hours walking around. I couldn’t help but just stand and look at the large wooden columns that towered over the entrance of the Todai-ji Temple. On each side of the towering gate were two enormous wooden guardians fiercely guarding the entrance to Japan’s largest Daibutsu (Great Buddha). It reminds me of the fierce giants standing guard over the temple entrances in Bangkok. I suppose buddhist countries all have similarities.

The Daibutsu (Great Buddha)

I like this temple not only because it houses Japan’s largest buddha, but because its completion set the capital as the center of buddhism and ensured that the religion would prevail. This was the start of Japan as we know it today. Its amazing how decisions over 1,300 years ago can have so much impact on millions of lives.

Hoards of tourists walk in and out of the temple as if there was a big festival going on. I am so busy taking photos, soaking in the atmosphere and trying to capture the roaming deers on video I feel like I should have another pair of hands. I spot parents out with their children brought along in a little buggy cart, I see students on class trips walking in orderly lines, and I watch elderly couples walking together to see this great buddha.

Upon entering the large wooden hall you cannot help but feel how insignificant you are next to this Great Buddha. How short our lives are compared to eternity. Although only two-thirds of the original cast in 746, the present buddha was built in the Edo period and is still a staggering 16 meters high! Can you imagine that?? I stare up at this huge buddha image made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kgs of gold and wonder how heavy it must be, how expensive it must be at today’s prices.

So big yet so peaceful is this great buddha. Size doesn’t mean you have to be large and fierce. You can be large and gentle. Large and calm, large and at peace.

With a Messenger of God

Heads of black, brown and blonde bob up and down around the Great buddha, taking pictures exclaiming sounds of joy and all sorts of languages can be heard. In previous times, this place must have been a place of worship. It must have been so austere and terrifying. It must have been accessible only to a selected few. Now it is for all to see and worship.

I’m lucky these past two days the weather has been absolutely divine. The sun is out, the sky is clear and a soft breeze blows. I walk slowly down the walkway, playing with the “messengers of gods” (the deers) and succumbing to their big doe eyes. How incredible sweet and tame this animals are. How lucky they are to live in such a beautiful place. I wonder if they will be reborn as humans many many many lives from now. I wonder if they know they are the messengers of god.

Family Outing

Kyoto’s Treasures in One Day

Today I was as tourist in every way possible. I went around most of the major sites around Kyoto together with my guidebook, a large camera hanging around my neck and a video camera for those moments you just want to catch in action. I visited the beautiful Golden Pavillion of Kinkaku-ji whose shine radiated across the peaceful lake amidst the mountains and the towering Japanese Black Pines. It’s beauty reflected in the water in front of you and the whole place radiated a sense of peace and calm. If only there were less “tourists” like me around it’d be so much better, but who wouldn’t want to visit a site so marvelously beautiful?

I went to Nijo Castle, built to demonstrate Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s power not far from the Imperial Palace , gazed at its beautiful painted panels, and treaded on the nightingale floors which made bird-like squeaking sounds. The large planks of wood really sound like birds chirping. What methods do they use to build it? The design is absolutely mind bogging. How could one have thought of such a thing in the 16th century? That was the shogun’s alarm system for intruders back then. So natural, so simple, but incredibly complicated at the same time.

I slurped on japanese udon in a tiny little udon place not far from finding peace at Daitoku-ji temple. I like this temple especially the Daisen-in subtemple which is my first encounter with an actual zen temple. They offer a Muromachi-period dry garden which is basically one of those raked zen gardens with stones and mounds of gravel. Each stone and each tree is carefully placed with accompanying lessons on life. I feel like I should sit there for awhile to ponder about life, eternity, and the temporariness of our little lives.

My last stop was perfect. I ended the day at Kiyomizu-dera temple watching the sunset from high up in the mountains. This temple was built without nails and juts out from the cliffside on vast pillars of wood. It offers spectacular views of Kyoto. Pure water from the mountains flow down to the temple and is considered sacred for its “purifying” power. Lines of people patiently await their turn. Everyone wants a good and happy life. It’s amazing beyond words.

I got a good workout walking today..the temple compounds are vast and breathtaking. I even meet one of the Indians who arrived on the same flight. Small world this planet earth. I am falling in love with Japan already. There is much more than just visiting sites in Japan..it’s the little things that matter. They always do.
Oyasumi Nasai my dear friends, until tomorrow.

An Encounter to Remember

I love vacation. Who doesn’t right? ¬†From your childhood days, through your teens, college and later in working life, vacation seem to take on a whole different aspect. ¬†These days, an interesting and fascinating part of vacation seems to me to be the people we meet along the way. ¬†Of course if you’re traveling in a group it can be a little different, but if you are traveling alone then I guess it takes on a whole new meaning.

I’m not traveling alone, but I did get a seat alone next to someone who turned out to be a very interesting fellow with a wonderfully unique character of his own. ¬†I just HAVE to write about him.
Conversations start like they always do when strangers meet for the first time. ¬†A smile followed with a few nods of the head and then some opening question like “Hello, isn’t it nice we have an empty seat between us to put things on?” ¬†“Yes it is.” goes the reply and then conversation continues..
It was all small talk until he asked me where I was from. “Thailand” I replied. Simple answer. ¬†His answer though wasn’t quite so simple, ¬†he apparently was an “Indian” who wasn’t really “Indian.” ¬†He didn’t look indian. ¬†He could have been from eastern europe or even turkish. ¬†An unidentifiable face. ¬†He called himself a “Parsi” or rather someone whose origins come from ancient Persia. ¬†It’s fascinating. This guy is talker, he likes to talk and you can tell he wants to talk and so I continue on asking questions out of curiousness. ¬† I have a 5 hour flight so I don’t mind using some part of it chatting. ¬† Of course I have no clue if he’s just telling a story but its fun to listen to anyways.
He tells me it’s a long story but we have time so he continues. ¬†His community he tells me originated from ancient Persia near to the Caspian sea ¬†(basically modern day Iran) ¬†and arrived in India in 780 AD after being driven out by the Arabs. ¬†There are only 50,000 people like him around the world and they have their own unique religion which isn’t Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. ¬†It’s a religion that focuses on three main aspects namely: Good words, good deeds, and good actions.
Then he goes on to tell me about his belief of two twin forces in the world that are twins yet opposite. ¬†( I somehow feel like I’m hearing something from Dan Brown’s The Symbol or some excerpt from Eat, Pray, Love about unifying forces and reaching the “Divine.”) ¬†I continue on listening. ¬† These forces he tell me exist in all of us and through the real practice of yoga is how we learn to control and synchronize these forces until they live within us as one unifying force. ¬†Believing in reincarnation, he says each birth is to teach us how to improve on ourselves.
I wonder if there is a temple. ¬†There is. ¬†There is a temple which is a vast hall with a fire burning in the middle, lit only by the priest under certain incantations. ¬†Mantras are said over these fires fueled by the sweet smelling sandalwood. ¬†The fire he says symbolizes the fire within the human soul which must eventually evolve into the “divine.” being. ¬†As humans, we are all part of this “force” and must learn to merge them. ¬†Fascinating. ¬†Never really met someone who thought like this.
“Humans” he says come from the persian words “hu” and “man” which mean the “will” that is part of the divine “hu”…. ¬†Oooh I have to check this out. ¬† This persian thing is fascinating.
The food comes and the conversion ceases.  After the meal, he sits back in his chair, takes out the toothpick and plays with it in his fingers, puts it in his mouth and fiddles with it as if it were a cigar.  He sits there for awhile cigar smoking his toothpick while drinking red wine.  Then with a quick flick of his hand he flicks it onto his food tray, stretches his hands, pushes out his white socked feet and falls into a doze.
Unbelievable. ¬†People are all so different, so marvelously fascinating. ¬†So much to learn….