Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sakura, Cherry Blossoms!

"Sakura" flowering front lines should have gone further north than 38 degrees latitude. This is the week the cherry trees burst their buds in grand style worldwide. Just a few days ago, the Washington Post featured a historical presentation ceremony of the Potomac Bank cherry trees with the photograph of First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the then Japanese Ambassador.

Sakuras in Washington were gifts from the Capital of Tokyo, or Edo, the old name under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Yoshimune Tokugawa (1716-1745 ), the 8th Shogun had cherry trees planted as one of the city beautification projects along the River Sumida so that visitors to the bank could enjoy a picnic and boat rides in the Spring. The scenes were drawn as Ukiyoe by famous artists of the day. However, a shrewd guess is that the increased unemployment in Edo was the real motive that made Yoshimune decide on this public undertaking, thus succeeding in killing two birds with one stone.According to one of the oldest chronicles of Japan, Emperor Saga (786-842) had a cherry blossom viewing in the year 812, inviting poets, singers and aristocrats. This was the first cherry blossom viewing that was recorded in Japan. We see poems about plum blossoms imported from China rather than the cherry blossoms in the the oldest Manyo Anthology (Collections of Ten Thousand Leaves). The number of poems about cherry blossoms increase in the later Kokin Anthology.

Feasting under blooming cherry trees is humble and modest in its origin. It was more like an offering with prayers by village farmers living and toiling under the mountain cherry blossoms. In our neighboring countries, such as China and Korea, the viewing of plums, peaches and peonies are popular but seemingly without the picnic or dinner banquet.

We owe the ingenuity of "Ihei Ito", a horticultural pioneer, in creating today’s Somei Yoshino , a special kind of cherry tree species that can flourish by easy grafting. Somei is the name of the district in Tokyo (today’s Komagome in Toshima Ward) where Ito resided. The name Yoshino was taken from Mt. Yoshino in Nara, a famous location of magnificent cherry trees. Somei Yoshino is a cross-breed of two species, Oshima Sakura and Edo Higan. Today Somei Yoshino has a variety of 400 species.

Sakura now enjoys worldwide popularity , pleasing people with its fragrance and beauty. It is also a symbol of peace and friendship.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Showa -- Days of the Enlightened Peace

My old friend Todasan, who lives in Hachioji (Eight Prince City), Tokyo, drove me to his neighboring Musashino Imperial Mausolea, about a few kilometers from the JR Nishihachioji Station. These Mausolea were familiarly known to the old timers as Tama Mausolea where the Emperor Taisho (1879-1926) and the Empress Teimei (1884-1957) were buried. Apparently the name has been changed after adding Mausolea of the Emperor Showa (1901 -1989) and Empress Kojun (1903-2000).

The wooded site was the ancient battlefield where Hojo Clans fought against those of Takeda Clans 400 years ago and Tokugawa Shogunate possessed it for a long time. The local magistrate, named Egawa, promoted planting a special root spreading cypress from nearby Mt. Takao, known today by his surname. After Meiji Restoration, the estate was under the custody of the Imperial Household Agency. When Emperor Taisho died, the Agency constructed the Mausoleum there, modeling it after Momoyama Mausolea in Kyoto.

Four Mausolea sit today in about a little over 100 acres (460,000 square meters). All of them face south , and are shaped round in the upper part and square in the lower part. Before and after reaching the guarded gate, visitors enjoy Zelkova and Egawa cedar lined approaches (plenty of ballasts laid inside the entrance). I found the Tama Forest Science Garden I had visited before for cherry blossoms, bordering the Mausolea. What a shame that I didn't visit the Mausolea when I resided in Tokyo.

My mind flashed back - about 35 years ago, when Showa Emperor and Empress visited the U.S., invited to Washington by President Ford. On their way home, they visited two oceanography research centers, one in Woods Hole, Mass, the other in La Jolla, California. I was residing in San Diego then, and through the Japanese Consulate Office in Los Angeles, about half a dozen local Japanese expatriate volunteers were assigned to escort the Imperial Household staff accompanying His and Her Majesties. I was one of them. I escorted a chamberlain (not the Grand Chamberlain "Irie") and a court lady. Upon their arrival, the party split into two, one to visit the San Diego Zoo, including the Majesties, and the other to set up resting quarters during a day stop at the Sea Lodge(now the La Jolla Shores Hotel) in La Jolla. I was in the latter party.

The Emperor, after the zoo, hurried to Scripps Institute of Oceanography as soon as he arrived at the Sea Lodge without resting. Showa Emperor's enthusiasm for marine biology was a sure manifest of his love of nature and respect for all living things and I had difficulty in distinguishing his war-time authority from his scholastic image. I didn't see him at all, although I was very close to him at the Sea Lodge. Instead I saw Empress Kojun strolling away to the beach to watch scuba divers practice . All the escorts and press followed her and Takeo Fukuda, then Vice Prime Minster, heading the mission, was sitting alone by the swimming pool by himself. I walked up to him and introduced myself and he accepted me for a casual chat for a while until the Empress party returned. The moment remains a very fond memory of mine. Fukuda later became Prime Minister of Japan.

It was at one of the San Diego Japanese expatriates' family picnic day in the late 1980s, that Showa Emperor was reported in critical condition and I remember we refrained ourselves from any alcoholic drinks for the day. We saw his obituary soon afterwards, which confirmed that he was only human as he declared in his 1946 Humanity Declaration.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Visit to the Salt Caves of Colombia, the Country with the El Dorado Obsession

(from Chris Brogan's blog)

Included in my 1960s jaunts to South America was Bogota, Colombia. Although labeled today as a dangerous destination, there was no cocaine trafficking or guerilla threats at that time. Bogota sits as high as Mexico City at the elevation of 2,600 meters and has a population of close to 8 million, competing as the 5th largest city with Lima, Peru. By coincidence, I saw the latest bird's eye photo of Bogota taken from Montserrate by Chris Brogan, an American social media promoter, whose blogs I've followed for some time. He challenged readers that "most everything you know about Bogota is outdated. It's a city on the rise. The streets are filled with people pursuing their dreams." Yes, certainly, that's the hope of all young people around the world including Asians; youths of India, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc. The digital world has inspired the hopes and dreams of what comes next, creative people working hard, while we remember the stereotypes of the past. This is the time Colombians can break the spell and get freed from the long gold obsession, as well as severing themselves from the cocaine business.

My Japanese Colombian friend accompanied me to a deep salt cave one weekend, together with another visitor from the NTT, about 50 kilometers north of Bogota, called Zipaquira. The salt mines date back to the Muisca period (700-1600) and have been extensively exploited, but they still contain vast reserves. They tap into virtually huge mountains of rock salt. In the heart of the mountain, an underground salt cathedral has been carved out and was opened to the public in 1954. When we visited, the cave was 5,500 square meters wide (2 acres) and had the capacity of accommodating 8,000 people. I heard that a new cathedral was built 60 meters deeper below the old one and reopened in the mid-1990s with high tech lighting and acoustics.

I remember the wall glittered, reflecting the salt crystal (85 percent sodium chloride and 15 percent carbonized), which gave us an austere sensation. It was a surreal and amazing experience. The photo shows the new cathedral with a cross.

We didn't make it to Laguna de Guatavita, a meteor created circular lake, 70 km northeast of Bogota. I think we were very close to this sacred lake from Zipaquira. The lake was one of the ritual centers of the Muisca Indians. Like the Aztecs and Mayans in Mexico, the Incas in Peru, the Aymaras in Bolivia, the Muiscas thrived in the Colombian highland savannahs and cultivated Muisca or Chibchan culture before the Spaniards conquered them. The Muisca culture is regarded as the most advanced pre-Colombian civilizations. The Muiscas used "Queske" (estolicas or sharpened wooden darts) as their primary weapon against the enemy. It seems they preferred throwing darts to using bows and arrows. The internal troubles among the Muiscas aided the Conquistadores.There is a legend that the Spaniards saw the ritual at this lake where the Muiscas offered gold, emeralds and foods into the lake in their prayers to ensure abundant crops and God's protection against misfortunes. Muiscas interpreted the meteor as the arrival of god, living there at the bottom of the lake. This legend motivated many goldmongers to hunt El Dorado, the buried treasures in the lake. There were many attempts reported of digging, draining, pumping, siphoning and even diving since the 16th century, which included efforts by Colombians, British-Colombians, US-Colombians, but to no avail. Upon the failure of the US-Colombian project in the 1960s, the government finally banned further exploration and the laguna has remained in peace. Some pieces of gold were found, the most famous being the Balsa (raft) Muisca, found in 1856 and is now displayed at the Bogota Gold Museum.
I understand that the Muisca Indians used coca leaves as an all-around medicine, as pain relievers, anti-inflammation lotions, revitalizing and rehydrating drinks, etc. I found it surprising that coca leaves were sold legitimately in the pharmacies in Bogota until the mid-20th century. I wonder if the Colombians inherited the custom of the Muisca's?

Lastly, re Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the Godfather Liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Panama from Spain. He said: "Colombians! my last wishes are for the welfare of the fatherland. If my death contributes to the cessation of party strife, and to the consolidation of the Union, I shall descend in peace to the grave." He had a special attachment to Colombians.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Waitomo Cave and a Maori's Promise

A tribute to my Kiwi friend, the late La Peres

My Kitakyushu friend and an English teacher who chaperoned her high school students to New Zealand recommended, "You shouldn't miss the mysterious Waitomo. Once there, even the noisy students sat quietly during the tour."

Waitomo is a famous stalactite cavern full of glow worms. Glow worms are a kind of fly. After they hatch from eggs, the larvae spins a nest out of silk. They hang down threads of silk which glow through bioluminescence to attract their prey. The cavern tour proceeds in a boat without any lighting. The guide advances the boat by pulling on a guide rope. When you enter this mysterious world, it seems like you are seeing the shining stars and the Milky Way.

One can choose a full-day bus service to Waitomo from Auckland or an overnight stay at the cavern hotel. I was on a tight schedule, so I arrived at Otorohanga at midnight and stayed one night. I visited Waitomo the following morning and returned to Otorohanga to catch a noon train for Wellington.

I had to tackle two basic problems. One was the hotel at Otorohanga and the other was transportation to and from Waitomo. I found a hotel in a guidebook and showed it to my Auckland friend. He said that it wasn't listed in the hotel source directory and therefore was not recommended. I ignored his advice. When I arrived at Otorohanga, the station was just a platform. All the stores were closed and a taxi was out of the question.

I walked to the hotel street with my luggage on wheels. I saw a group of dark figures gathering around shabby cars. The hotel was a bar. The bartender called a middle-aged woman who took me upstairs and showed me a room. She said, "No rooms with private bath and toilet." I nodded and asked if I could call a taxi early in the morning. She then introduced me to "Cee," a young dark-skinned Maori who was the bouncer of the disco-hall. He patted my shoulder and said, "OK, get in disco if you wish before sleep." I wasn't in the mood, returned to my room and lied down. The music downstairs was loud and noisy but faded off with my heavy eyes.

When I woke the following morning, the upstairs hotel rooms were mostly occupied. Some doors were open and I saw some women sleeping. I thought that maybe they were disco sleep-overs. I went downstairs and found the cleaning woman. I asked her if "Cee" could come to pick me up. She said that someone would come. I packed my things and waited at the entrance.

A little before 9 a.m. a Maori woman and boy got out of a pickup truck. They went into the hotel and said nothing to me. The Maori woman talked with the cleaning lady. "Let's go," the Maori woman shouted as she came out. It was a godsend to me that the Maori was true to his word. The ride was only about 10 minutes to Waitomo.

I made it to Waitomo just as I planned, but not in an easy, convenient way, even ignoring my friend's advice. I will not forget the Maori's help nor the mystery and delight I experienced in the cavern. I telephoned my friend from the Otorohanga Station that I made it.

La Peres