Monday, April 18, 2016

My 2016 New Year’s Adventure

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to visit the so-called Kogo-Ishi (神籠石), the mysterious earthen works or stone rampart discovered in the Meiji era (1868 - 1912), about a dozen of them concentrated in Northern Kyushu, including that of Goshoyama (御所山) and Yukuhashi-City ( 行橋市 ), about 30 km southeast of Kitakyushu City. The debate has been whether these sites were fortresses or religious sites?

Last summer, my friend in Munakata City invited me to join his continuing group trips to visit a mecca of mid-Kyushu burial grounds around the Kikuchi River Valley, Yamaga City in Kumamoto. He mentioned the next trip in September includes “Chibusan, Obusan, and Tonkararin" I asked him 'are they Japanese?'. He answered, half chuckling, “Yes, they’re just like ‘Obasan, Sanbasan.’” They are famous ancient barrels, some ranking as national treasure”.

Tonkararin is a combination of a natural cave, ditch and/or drained culvert like an underground tunnel along the hilly slope 450 meters long where man can wiggle through in the dark. It is unknown why it was made. Named after perhaps the clinking sounds of a stone thrown in. You have to bring your own light and attire you don’t mind getting dirty in.

I joined them for a full day microbus tour, venturing into the Tonkararin tunnel, peeking into old tombs and mounds, side caves, expansive excavation sites and remains, to examine earthenwares, iron works, etc. One of the tumulus,”Eta Funayama”, was famous for a treasure class sword with an inscription inlaid in silver with the oldest characters ever found in Japan. The Korean style octagonal drum tower and the archaic commissariat complex, including a set of barracks for garrisons and storage house of rice, reproduced on the Kikuchi Castle Site Park was the highlight of the trip. I've heard a speech made by one of my Toastmasters' friends living in Yamaga, of a century old legend but I was unable to connect it with the AD 663 'Battle of Baekje' between the allied Tang Dynasty / Silla Kingdom forces and allied Baekje / Yamato forces, which resulted in the demise of Baekje and the defeat of Yamato trying to save Baekje.

Panicked Yamato, in fear of Tang and Silla's invasion, guarded Dazaifu and homeland, building castles at Mizuki, Onojyo and Kizan with the help of exiled Baekje generals and artisans. That much I knew, but didn't know Yamato also built another castle in Yamaga, 80km south of Dazaifu. The Kikuchi Castle was supposedly the last backup depot for the worst scenario, serving combat support and military logistics.

At the Kikuchi castle information desk, I learned also that 20 semi-castles or ramparts were built, a dozen of them heavily concentrated in northern Kyushu. These dozen have held annual Summit meetings for the past 10 years to discuss mutually common findings and subjects. The Goshoyama Kogoishi I mentioned above is one of them and quite close to Kitakyushu, where I live. I added it to my bucket list for 2016 if I could tolerate the climb.

I first targeted it on my birthday, March 4. The family had some plans for me, so I waited a week for a fine warm day. Climbing was hard and tough for this octogenarian. I recalled El Teposteco, the sacred mountain, near Cuernava, Mexico (2000m above sea level, but 800m above Tepostlan land level) was one of my last climbing experiences. That was 15 years ago. Goshoyama is 250m high. But Kogoishi is at the Middle Gate, about 150m high. I climbed over and above the Middle Gate to Keiko Shrine close to the top and had my lunch. While on the trail, I came across a dozen group climbers in decent mountaineering clothes. I celebrated my belated birthday with a tea cup toasting. Now I proudly declare that the photos in the blog are all mine. I truly enjoy these adventures.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Christian Samurai: A Piece of Japan's History on Christianity

Ukon, stared at his own death, in a mortal combat with swords.
So dark to discern friends or foes. He felt he won the battle but was
struck down unconscious. He was saved miraculously and told the blow was
his friend’s. Ukon was touched as an act of God to punish him yet He
saved him. (the moment Ukon turned to real Justo)

“Anybody who holds swords will be ruined by swords.” by Justo Takayama

Photo Courtesy of Takashi Suzuki
In 2003, the Japanese bishops' conference submitted a lengthy application for the beatification of Ukon Takayama (1552-1615), who was dubbed as Christian Samurai. When and after Tokugawa Shogunate banned Christianity, Ukon refused to disavow his faith, even losing his de facto status as a feudal lord. Eventually he was expelled from Japan and died in Manila, Philippines. His baptismal name was Justo.

Ukon set up a semenario in Takatsuki and baptized thousands people each year until he was transferred to Akashi from Takatsuki by Taiko Hideyoshi. ‘Settsu’ Takatsuki, where Ukon’s castle was, is about midpoint between Kyoto and Osaka and an important strategic location during the Age of War Lords.

I spent my early 20s here in Takatsuki. It was during the early 1950s. The school inherited the campus and old wooden buildings of the Imperial Japan’s artillery regiment. I revisited there in the mid 1990s to find the campus had been replaced with Takatsuki City ‘Castle-site Park’ where the statue of Ukon was erected.

Born into a family of local baron, Ukon converted to Christianity at the age of 12 after encountering some Jesuit missionaries, following in the footsteps of his father ‘Dario’. The Gospel message reached Japan thanks to a Jesuit, Francis Xavier, in 1549, which spread quickly. Perhaps Samurai needed a mental cure, similar to Zen or tea culture to dispel fears and unrest, amidst the rampant fierce rivalry among the local War Lords. The friend today may become the enemy of tomorrow. When Taiko Hideyoshi rose to power, his advisors encouraged him to ban the practice of the Christian faith. All the great feudal lords agreed, except Ukon.

Because of his stance, he lost his property, his position, his social status, his honor and respectability. He essentially became a vagabond and was forced into exile. He and his family, and a few followers sought refuge from Shodo Island to Southern Kyushu but to no avail. They were sent to Kanazawa as semi-captives under the care of Lord Toshiie Maeda. Ukon reportedly participated in the Kanto expedition on behalf of Maeda Clans. Finally, as warning to other Christian Samurais, Shogun Ieyasu arrested him, together with the missionaries, and sent him down to Nagasaki.

During the treacherous typhoon season, Justo was forced to sail on the overage vessel to Manila, along with 300 other Christians. What awaited them in Manila was an unexpected gun salute and welcome greetings by the delegate of Juan de Silva, the Spanish Governor of the Philippines. They were taken to his Official Residence for a reception. Jesuits there arranged quarters for them. Justo finally found a place to live a peaceful life, but fell ill and died 40 days after his arrival. "Ukon in Manila, the Blessed Lord", was performed in a joint Japan/Philippines Opera in 2003. It is based on work of Japanese writer Otohiko Kagawa. Here’s the website for details. The opera went around Tokyo, Kanazawa, Takatsuki, Okinawa and Osaka as well as Manila, Cebu, and other cities in the Philippines.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Turkey Now

A few decades ago, the Foreign Ministry of Japan conducted national exams for university students completing their junior year and aspiring to pursue a career in foreign diplomatic services. Four of my classmates passed the exams and bid us farewell as we applauded them with our admiration and envy. About the time we graduated, we learned two were sent to the middle-east, one to Brazil, one to the U.S. Soon news came that Mr. K was killed in an automobile accident in Turkey. Legend has it, the Turkish hit song “Usuku dara” sung by Eri Chiemi in Japanese was translated by K. RIP, K!

The world today keeps a vigilant watch on Syrian truce plans left unresolved. I am glad to see that the agreement reached this week by the U.S. and Russia may put an end to the many years of bloodshed and violence inside Syria.

Turkey, the crossroads since well before the ancient Crusaders between Europe and Asia, has seen quite the flow of history. The latest number of Syrian refugees going to neighboring Turkey since 2011 has surpassed 2 million. Majority of them moved on to EU, either via land or by sea, but Turkey accepted quite a few with its “Misafire” (literally meaning guest) hospitable policy, putting up shelter camps along the Syrian border. The so-called Turkish AFAD (the Disaster & Emergency Management Authority) Cards entitle refugee children with free health care and education. I was very impressed as I read UNHCR’s humanitarian reports.

I received a surprise 2016 New Years greetings from my Taiwanese friend who is an avid photographer. She wrote that she just returned from Turkey after a two week stay, where it was pretty cold, but luckily she saw little rain during the normally wet December. Isn’t Turkey a hot spot at the moment? I asked her if she had faced any signs of danger. She answered ‘No,’ but shortly after she returned, a suicide bomber attack killed 13 at Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet Square near the Blue Mosque on January 12, 2016.

As usual, she sent me a well-sorted photo album (totaling almost 1000 photos). The cities in her itinerary and visiting order were as follows:

Well-preserved Ottoman city, Black Sea region, UNESCO Wold Heritage sites

Capital with 5 Million population, Anitkabir or Ataturk’s Mausoleum

Historical region in central Anatolia, Fairly Chimney Rocks

Capital of Seljuk Empire, Whirling Dervishes (Mevlevi)

Turkish Riviera city facing the Mediterranean with population one million. Antalya Museum for a notable archaeology collection.

Inner Aegean region, hot springs, travertine terrace formations

Known as Constantinople and Byzantium before and largest European city with 15 million population. Turkey’s economic, cultural and historic center, straddling the Bosphorus Strait. Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya, Suley Maniye Mosque.

With her permission, I am happy to give you access to her two albums.

2015 Turkey Impression 1

2015 Turkey Impression 2

Her name is 李繼瑛 (I call her Virginia) who lives in Taipei. She has quite a photo collection of Taiwan’s natural beauty as she traveled around the entire country. My favorite is her Yangmingshan National Park's album. I know she also traveled to mainland China, sometimes far out to Gansu and Xinjiang, Tarim and Junggar Basins bordering Kazakhstan and Kirgiztan.

She writes: "I love to see the world by traveling and capturing sights through my lenses. Being there, seeing with my own eyes, smelling the fragrance, and hearing the sound is the driving force that keeps me moving forward. I am passionate about foreign languages and cultures, for they not only widen my horizons but also keep me humble and calm.”

When she is not traveling, she says she is a music teacher for parent-baby (toddler) classes with 16 years of experience. Remarkable! I learned much from her travels. Enjoy!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Shipwreck, the Movie

In 1889, Sultan Abdulhamid II dispatched the Imperial frigate Ertuğrul with 600 crew members to Japan under his Admiral Osman Pasha. The voyage was a goodwill mission signaling growing friendship between the Ottoman Empire and the new rising power in the East, but it ended in tragedy.

The jointly produced Japan-Turkey movie Shipwreck (aka Kainan 1890) went on general release in early December 2015 to great fanfare. I was able to see it in a Kitakyushu movie theater in early January 2016. It is comprised of two parts: one the 1890 Ertuğrul shipwreck and the Japanese rescue; the other the last minute Japanese expatriates escaping out of Teheran Airport on Turkish airplanes during the 1985 Iran-Iraq War crisis. The movie was over two hours long and here’s why.

The impetus to make the film started 10 years ago with Katsumasa Tajima, the town mayor of Kushimoto, the southernmost coastal point of Japan proper, where the Ertuğrul hit the reefs of Oshima Isle and fell apart in stormy weather. The Oshima Isle fishing villagers, alerted by the Kashinozaki Light House keepers, made their frantic efforts to save 69 members from the sea, carried them to the temple and schools, and offered medical help, clothes, supplies and food. Some were seriously injured but once rescued, no one lost their lives. Town Mayor Tajima, while engaged in the recent Turkey/Japan anniversary events at the Shipwreck Monument, and sister town exchanges of student programs, felt the dire urge to produce a movie, consulted with his friend Mitsuoshi Tanaka, movie director. Director Tanaka, half in doubt at first, broached the subject repeatedly on his trips to Turkey, which gradually led to an agreement of Tanaka’s proposal.

In 2013, Tanaka’s proposal was included in the topics of conversation between PM Abe and President Erdogan and the production finally launched as a joint country project with a 15 million dollar budget, the location to start in December 2014 in Japan and July 2015 in Turkey. PM Abe agreed to assume being the Supreme Film Adviser.

Before I saw the movie, I read the Shogakkan book “Shipwreck of Ertuğrul - Story of Bounding Heart between Turkey and Japan”, by Michiko Ryo (author) and Ryoichi Iso (illustrator). Michiko Ryo had worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before becoming a writer. The narrator of the book is Ertuğrul, the shipwrecked boat itself, built in 1863.

It’s interesting to learn that the voyage from Istanbul wasn’t accident free, because it did not go through full refurbishing because of a short notice to set sail. Just patch repairs were not enough for the long voyage. It took almost one year to sail from Istanbul to Yokohama. Repair docking was needed at Suez Canal for two months and at Singapore for 6 months. As per Ertuğrul's self confession, shipwreck was definitely a man-made disaster.

While still in Yokohama, about a dozen sailors suffered from cholera and one sailor died. The Turks requested burial at sea but Japan, being afraid of further infection, was rejected. Ertuğrul went through quarantine at the Nagara disinfecting station in Yokosuka.

The majority of shipwrecked survivors were transferred to Kobe through the good offices of German SMS Wolf, four days after the shipwreck and at the good discretion of then Kushimoto Town Mayor Oki. The Japanese Government dispatched medical specialists and nurses to Kobe.

In Part 2, the leading Turkish actor and Japanese actress of Part l reappears, saying “Have we met before?” The actor plays a Turkish Embassy diplomat and the Japanese actress plays a Japanese language school teacher in Teheran. The actress in Part l played a voiceless role, as she in utter sorrow who lost her fiancé at sea, as well as her voice. The actress this time brought a breath of fresh air, as she spoke beautiful English. (I learned the background of the actress - born and raised in Australia).

The Teheran escape of the Japanese at the eleventh hour was not made without the heart-touching and bold Turkish actions for which all the Japanese showed great appreciation.

Turkey and Japan are both under earthquake zones and have been helping each other whenever tragedies hit us. The historical 1890 Ertuğrul Shipwreck case leads the true, friendly and reciprocal relations between the two countries.

Monday, February 15, 2016


(Originally presented as a 2015 Christmas Party Speech on Dec 11, 2015)

Ever been to Tango Land or Tango Country? I do not mean that fancy Tango for two. Tango Province located north of Kyoto. This Tango is paired with Tamba. You have heard about Tamba Kingdom rivaling Yamato Kingdom. Tango branched out of Tamba in later years retains the same legendary traditions of Tamba.

My topic tonight is Amanohashidate, Bridge to Heaven. I'll call it AHD hereafter, Okay?

AHD, one of the Japan's three scenic views is in Tango.

(#60 of the Ogura Anthology of One Hundred Tanka Poems by One Hundred Poets)

"Oeyama Ikunono-michiwa Tokeredo
mada Fumimo-sezu Amano-Hashidate"

(How could my mother help me write this poem?
I have neither been to Oe Mountain nor Ikuno
nor have any letters come from her in a place so
far away it's called— The Bridge to Heaven.)

Beautiful Tanka! This Tanka has got quite a story. The poetess is Koshikibu no Naishi. She sang the poem when she was fifteen years old. She is the daughter of the famous poetess Izumi Shikibu, the author of great women’s journal ‘Pillow Book’.

The daughter was often the target of envy by the community, gossiping that perhaps her mother was privately helping her daughter. One day, Koshikibu was the guest of Fujiwara’s Tanka party and she was bullied by one of the Fujiwara’s princes “Don’t you need mother’s help?” Koshikibu answered "mother had been away in Tango Land and hadn’t corresponded lately. The steep mountain paths of Mt. Oe blocking my trip and I haven’t set my foot in AHD.

Alas, this poetess passed away young and left us with only a few songs. Her name, however, is eternally remembered with the Tanka.

I personally was at AHD last Monday. I cleared Mt. Oe by rapid express through the tunnel. I rented a bicycle and made a round cycling trip, one way, three kilometers each. As you know, it’s a unique narrow stretch of sandbars inside Aso Sea, no automobiles or motorcycles allowed. It’s December, during off-season. I enjoyed my cycling along the shore and was rewarded with great views and a great exercise.

I found a small museum near JR AHD Station. I got fully educated. The present-day sandbar was formed around 1500. The formation of the unique sandbars was the result of two colliding currents - the coastal current of Aso Sea and the Noda River flowing out into the Aso Sea. Gravel was carried in and deposited on the seabed.

The local government and volunteer groups are coping now with how to keep the beauty for the future, including measures against wilt disease, typhoon risks and damages. I saw a display of fallen pines caused by typhoons. Some hundreds of pine fell a few years ago.

If you haven’t been to Tango, I encourage you to go. Besides AHD, Tango country has many more exciting things including the Legendary Demons subdued by Minamoto Yorimitsu and his four lieutenants, the sad orphan slave story of brother and sister Anju and Zushio, the year 1600 Sekigahara War time siege, the story of Tanabe Castle involving Yusai Hosokawa and Hosokawa Garacia.

The main objective of my trip was to visit the newly refurbished Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum for my blog post. Thank you for listening.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Maizuru Repatriation Museum: Part 2

Pray day and night to the southern sky
where Japan is
Bracing up with chins high

- Osamu Seno, 1908-1995, author of the Birch Diary

Encountering Flowers

A free flyer I picked up at the Maizuru Repatriation Museum was written by Torajiro Wakasa, resident of Kyotango City, Kyoto. According to his brief history, he was born in 1926, finished Army Airborne Communication Academy in January 1945, was sent to Anshan Airport in April, and then sent to Siberia in the fall of 1945. He returned to Maizuru Port in the summer of 1948. He succeeded father's profession of Tango silk crepes in 1952, acquired master title license of flower arrangements of Mibu School in 1987 and opened his own flower arrangement school.

Torajiro and his 2000 mates were sent to Angren, Uzbekistan, 200km east of Tashkent. He wrote that Angren was in a mountain 2000 meters above sea level, on the west end of the Pamil Mountains, close to the Himalayan Peaks. His description of general winter was of despair and misery. Hunger always dogged them.

Russian Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) mentions Angren in his Gulag Archipelago as one of the Soviet towns that grew next to a gulag labor camp of coal mines. The dissolution of the Soviet Union seemed to have resulted in the demise of the coal mines.

What cheered up Torajiro’s spirit were wild tulip and poppy flowers blooming with the arrival of spring, turning mountains flaming crimson. He remembered his father arranging flowers when he was a little boy. He started to decorate his gulag quarters with flowers, with his resolution of acquiring skills and proficiency of flower arrangement if he ever went back home alive. His reflection - a few flowers casually placed and bound together like human couples, husband and wife, the minimum unit of our lives. Flowers arranged do help and support together each other like a family. Beauty of life and strength to live, this he learned from flower arrangement.

Encountering Brown Bread

A long overdue story appeared recently in the Nikkei Newspaper. A nonagenarian named Michio Kashiwara, was hailed as a brown bread master in Tokushima farming village. His brown bread making expertise was acquired during his Siberian prison life of four years. After having engaged in the harsh Baikal-Amur (BAM) Railroad construction works, he was assigned to a brown bread factory in a small town called Novy Urgal, 350 km northwest of Khabarovsk, Siberia. He improved the baking process, speeding up fermentation, quadrupling daily bread production. The plant manager personally thanked Kashiwara for his contribution on the “damoy” day he had long waited.

Back in Naruto, Tokushima started to sow wheat in vacant lands, baking brown bread upon harvesting, delivering to city schools for lunch. Brown bread is nutritious, as it uses unpolished flours, including embryo and cuticles. Naruto, known as a German internment town, is now as popular as the Russian brown bread town.

Photos related to Mr. Kashiwara are all from Mr. Yutaka Tabuchi, ex-Naruto City Congressman, who carried on returnee Kashiwara's brown bread making expertise and is promoting direct distribution from local producers to consumers. Mr. Tabuchi represents "Naruto Citizen Council to promote the Brown Bread." Check out their Web site.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Maizuru Repatriation Museum Part 1

The North Shore and Tango Peninsula of Kyoto shares the west end of a designated quasi-national park of Wakasa Bay, well known as a deeply indented rias coastline, clear water and white sands, embracing its Maizuru Bay and Miyazu Inlet Aso Sea. Maizuru, "dancing crane" in Japanese, is a graceful name. The name originated from two possible sources. There was a (Tanabe) castle built by Yusai Hosokawa during feudal times that is no longer there. The Tenshukaku (The Tanabe Castle Tower) of the castle was said to have looked like the dancing crane. The other is from how the bay is shaped like a wing span of a crane. I prefer the latter explanation.

Maizuru Port, bordering with Fukui Prefecture at Oura Peninsula, once thrived as a Japanese Imperial Naval Port and after the war, served as one of the main ports to disembark 70% of homecoming Japanese, particularly from Nakhodka, Russia. They were there for years, sent to hundreds of Russian Gulag Camps as war prisoners for forced labor and survivors of bleak diets and harsh conditions.

The Repatriation Support Bureau, together with citizen volunteers, received them with a hearty welcome at the pier and boarding quarters. Many emotional reunion scenes and episodes were recounted on multimedia by their kin. The pier was the haven where mothers awaited sons of war

Maizuru Port was the only port which continued to be opened for 13 years between 1945 and 1958, even after other repatriation ports closed, reflecting the long time detainees remained in Siberia. Maizuru Port has recorded 664,000 returnees and 16,000 departed souls who never made it back. It follows Hakata and Sasebo Ports of Kyushu, both of which recorded more than 1.4 million returnees from China (Huludao, Liaoning) and Korea.

Maizuru City and Port have been taking the lead to build the Repatriation Museum. The initial site was housed in the old redbrick quarters once owned by the former Navy until the end of 2014. It was later relocated to Taira Bay, consolidating all the facilities, pier, parks (62,000m2 or 15 acres), monuments, epitaph posts, and the newly refurbished museum (1000m2 or 11,000 sq.ft) into one area, close to where the boats actually anchored and returnees landed on barges in groups. Thus the reason the site was located far from downtown Maizuru.

The returnees have been contributing their mementos to the Maizuru Repatriation Museum as exhibits, including diaries, artwork and artifacts, which total 12,000. The Museum has submitted selected items for UNESCO memory heritage application. Now they are successfully registered “documents related to the internment and repatriation experiences of the Japanese 1945-1956” as of October 2015. About 1000 items are shown as permanent exhibits.

The highlight attraction is the diaries written on birch tree barks. The idea was very reminiscent of the narrow strips of wood used in the Nara Period (710-794) for message and other writings among court nobles. Necessity is indeed, the mother of invention.

I visited the Museum, extending my Kyoto visit in December. I was aware there are no buses from December to March to and from Maizuru Station. I bargained with a taxi driver to go to the museum. After first circling around the Naval brick building. I was at the museum a little after 9am, an hour earlier than when the museum opens.

However, I had plenty of time to go up the hill where I could view the modern bridge crossing Taira Bay and look down on the small wooden pier where the repatriates landed. The bridge across Taira Bay is called Maizuru Crane Bridge. On the top of the hill are a number of commemorative stone monuments. Also along the paved walkway on the slope are hundreds of epitaph posts, standardized in size and height, each representing groups they belonged to, such as battalions and gulags. One of the docents confided that each post cost 30,000 yen to erect.

Just before leaving the museum, I noticed a tall foreigner, alone by himself. I guessed he might be Russian. We were in a room with a large Russian Federation map depicted on the floor, which showed the various locations of gulags where the Japanese were imprisoned. I started a conversation with him to test my theory, while standing on the City of Almaty, Kazakhstan. I asked, “"Do you know where apples originated?” He said he didn’t know. I told him Almaty. When asked where he was from, he pointed in the direction of Europe. I wanted to talk some more but time was approaching for me to leave.

I had to catch a noon bus to return to JR Maizuru. I stood alone at the bus station and the volunteer docent I talked to saw me and offered me a free ride. He was on his way home. It was a lucky and unforgettable day.