Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Xie-Xie Taiwan Project

I traveled to Taiwan in mid November to attend the D67 Fall Convention in Taichung. It was my 10th visit to Taiwan. I had a special mission of my own. To thank the Taiwanese for showing their compassion towards the Japanese plights on and after 311.

Convention programming is usually a hectic one, allowing no interruptions and changes. Foreign visitors are usually recognized by the District Governor and I dared to grab the opportunity, with the prior consent and approval of DG Grace Shih, through Dennis Chen, an old friend and the founder of Taichung Central Japanese club. My speech went like this:

Hello, Taiwan Toastmasters! I wanted to come and thank you personally for the very much needed help from the Taiwanese who pitched in right after the 311 Earthquake/Tsunami that hit Tohoku Japan. Thank you, Taiwan.

I didn't attend the Spring Conference but got your jia-yu (加 油)messages posted on the wall during the Spring Conference that was carried back by our delegates to convey to the rest of Japan.

Taiwan topped all quake donors through the Red Cross along with your rescue teams and relief goods that were dispatched.

So in order to physically express gratitude, the Japanese swimmers did a 110 kilometer open water swim in relay from Yonaguni Island of Okinawa to Su-Ao Taiwan, despite the approaching typhoon, calling it the Xie-Xie Taiwan Project. I'm a swimmer myself. I would have joined them if I was younger.

Please accept our Xie-Xie Taiwan voices from District 76. All of the Japanese Toastmasters are very appreciative and deeply touched by your warm feelings for the Japanese.

After the session and during the break, some Taiwan Toastmasters came to shake hands with me. I was happy that I got my message through.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Month Long Trip to Kunming

Old timers may recall the 700 mile (1150 kilometers) long Sino-Burmese Road used during World War II, a vital transportation route for wartime supplies to China. The Road runs through the mountains from Lashio, Myanmar and ending in Kunming. Today, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province (similar in size to California), is getting popular as the marathoners' training base and as the venue of the international horticultural exhibitions. Population of 30 million people includes members of 24 different ethnic groups, which represents a third of the total population in the province. This diversity is also a draw to visitors. There are a couple of theme parks featuring ethic villages.

Kunming, Shilin, Dali, Er-hai. How lovely their names sound! I yearn to go back. That's where I spent my second summer (1995) after returning to Japan from the U.S. when I retired. The general altitude is about 2000 meters (Approx. 6000 ft), so they are great summer retreats from the heat, even though bordering Laos and Myanmar in the south.

It was during one of my regular commuting flights between the U.S. and Japan that I first heard the name Kunming. The guy who sat next to me was a tall, rugged looking American. He unloaded his backpack before settling down in his seat. I asked him how he found the Japanese Alps. His answer surprised me. "I didn't climb Japan's Alps. I did the Chinese mountains." I continued, "How interesting! Where were you? Which part of China interested you most?" He replied, "Kunming in Yunnan, the city of eternal spring". The name stuck with me.

Later on, I made friends with a Japanese woman who had been to Kunming. She told me that Kunming and its backwoods are just paradise, and that you see exotic butterflies there that continually reflect various colors. She kept sending me articles on Yunnan even after I left for Japan. Then she sent an email about a special tour sponsored by the University of Vermont. I emailed the tour contact person and asked if I could join from Japan. I got the answer that the tour was for U.S. teachers to learn about China, but they could bend the rules. I jumped at the chance!

Vermont and Yunnan are in a sister state relationship and they have been exchanging teachers to learn about each other's cultures. It was at a hotel near Beijing Airport where I was introduced to the members of the group. There were four men and ten women, mostly from Vermont. The exceptions were a man from Connecticut, who became my roommate, and a woman from New Hampshire.

The Yunnan College of Teachers, our host school, had a welcome ceremony and dinner reception on the first day, attended by the College President, the faculty who would teach us various subjects of study for the next three weeks, the corps of interpreters, and staff members in charge of taking care of us, including a microbus chauffeur. That is how the three week "daily routine" project began.

Mornings were for Tai-chi exercise on the rooftop before breakfast and an easy Chinese lesson by Mrs. Wang, plus culture and art class (subject changed daily: calligraphy, brush painting, history, etc). Afternoons were for the extra-curricular programs such as visits to the children's palace (musical training for talented children), a hospital of Chinese medicine and acupuncture, Provincial museum and exhibits and temples in the city (including Yuantong-si, Xishan). Dr. Wu, a young assistant professor who specialized in minority races, accompanied us the whole time for the afternoon projects and he spoke excellent English. One evening he surprised us by taking us to his own apartment. He shared a one room apartment with his wife and a daughter 5 years of age. One curtain separated their bedroom from the others. We found out that other teachers and the chauffeur were living in the same apartment complex. The University operated like a big enterprise with hotels, restaurants, apartments and transportation.

Two weekends were for longer trips. One weekend we took a train to Lunnan Shilin, a geological phenomenon known as a stone forest. It is composed of closely knit outcrops of dark limestone karst. It was such a wide expanse of stone forest that you could easily get lost. Another weekend our chauffeur drove close to 10 hours (on a highway under construction) to reach Er-hai, one of the big inland lakes, famous for its pu-er tea. Rough weather made the lake a wild ocean with choppy waves and we had to wait to cross in order to visit a small minority group (subculture) village.

Our conversation with the villagers, including the village master, was the highlight of the entire trip. They live in their traditional homes on the slope of a hill with narrow roads of crushed rock. They were not bashful and very talkative yet modest. Many children gathered around us. Some female teachers had brought souvenirs for the smaller children and they cheered.

During our stay in Kunming we met a number of different minority groups: Na-Shi zu, Tai zu, Yi zu, Pai-zu, etc. Pai (white) zu did not look Chinese at all. They get special scholarships from the government and are allowed to bear up to three children.

Graduation, or the farewell ceremony, was held over dinner. Each member received a certificate, and a seal that was engraved with our names in Chinese characters.

We flew back to Beijing for one more week at another university hotel. A representative from the Chinese Cultural and Educational Exchange Bureau accompanied us on a city tour as well as a one day excursion to The Great Wall. Since the group was eating only Chinese meals throughout the visit, everyone wanted an American breakfast, but they were disappointed with the quality of it. I enjoyed the Chinese dishes during the trip. My favorite was rice porridge for breakfast.

The month long trip ended at Beijing Airport, where I said goodbye to my schoolmate teachers, and promised to correspond over the Internet.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Asian Literature by Women

The Japanese view recent Thailand floods as if it happened in our own country. We see hundreds of Japanese manufacturing plants submerged under water, causing severe supply chain shortages in key electronic/automotive/medical industries. It invokes the same feeling as the Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami disaster that hit Japan this past March. It’s unbearable to see Thai priests working hard with sandbags in the water. We sincerely pray for an early relief.

I saw a dozen books of Asian women literature on the shelf of the Kitakyushu University Library I often visit. They look very different because of their non-commercial style binding, no fancy artwork or book belts around them. All the books acknowledge that the translation, printing and free distribution to educational institutions was made possible by the generous contribution of the Daido Life Foundation. I looked up the Daido Life Web page which said the foundation was established in 1985 as its 80th anniversary project to promote international understanding and to bridge the language barrier between Asian nations and Japan. Translations were done both ways. The books I saw were the Japanese translations from Tagalog, Malay, Thai and Burmese. Now, for its 100th anniversary event, Daido’s project has entered its second phase by moving into construction of school facilities. In Thailand, for instance, 16 schools were built in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, etc. by mid-2000 and the effort is going strong.

One book that stood out for me was a book titled “When Sarapi Flowers Bloom” written by Suwannee Sukonthiang (1932-1984), a Thai woman of my generation. The translator is Mineko Yoshioka, who taught at the Bangkok Japanese Language School (1981-83) and is now a lecturer at Tenri University in Nara.

The author Suwannee was born in Bangkok but at the age of 11 she moved to Phitsanulok Province, about 400 km north of Bangkok as her father had to serve as the village doctor. Phitsanulok is a midpoint between Bangkok and northern Thailand, surrounded by several National Parks. The village must be a pretty place. Suwannee wrote in her message to the Japanese readers that she would not have been a writer if she was not raised in Phitsanulok. Her family kept a number of livestock and she dearly cherished memories of a horse named Kee-oo.

That is the horse her father had to ride to visit patients’ homes. She was very attached to him. She fed him, played with him in the stables, and took him out to nearby pastures. She could never have imagined being apart. The horse had to be offered to the Japanese army.

The following is a partial translation from the book:

As the war spread, news came that Japanese soldiers landed. First a glimpse of them but soon we began to see them everywhere we went. They were deep in our turf. I knew some Japanese - “Arigato”, “Banzai” and Konnichiwa”. I learned more Japanese and those words still come to the tip of my tongue even now. The Japanese were inside coconut palm orchards, vegetable farms, and when the village was fully filled with the Japanese, my father moved Kee-oo to outside the village. The Japanese bought up bamboos to make beds, set up bivouac camps, like neighbors. Rumors ran that the Japanese buy up horse as they needed horses to transport military supplies to Mae Sot, by the Thai-Burmese border, with no other way to do so in those days. They said they would buy but we Thais knew it was mandatory and we were unable to oppose… Kee-oo was no exception. Most Japanese soldiers behaved, were disciplined, frugal as well as friendly. They excited us children greatly with the conversation mostly through body and hand gestures. We liked them.

Then one day march began. Horses and soldiers marched westward with many troops and in long lines. Marches, however, seemed lackadaisical and cheerless. Perhaps soldiers were weary away from home and families for many years with no ceasing sign of war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers marched on and disappeared. I was there on and along the roadside eager to catch a glimpse of Kee-oo. And luckily, I found him among the herds. How could I not recognize him? Alas, he was overloaded and weighed down with things. The luster of his hair under our care was gone. I screamed “Kee-oo!” and ran to him. A couple of bearded soldiers looked back at me. Kee-oo shook his tail towards me as he always did to me and I took it as his good-bye.“Kee-oo!” I shouted again in my quivering voice with sobs and tears.

l) Sarapi is a species of flowering plant in the calophyllaceae family. “Mammea Siamensis or Ochrocarpus Siamensis” bearing sweet scented, jasmine-like flowers.

Known in Thai as “Sarapi,” it is a small evergreen tree distributed in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. The flowers of this plant have been used in traditional Thailand medicine as a heart tonic. Investigations of different parts of the plant have revealed the presence of several coumarins and xanthones.
(Source: The Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society, Vol. 18, No. 5, 2007)

2) County of “Sarapi” is in Chiang Mai Province. Chiang Mai is known as the rose of the North.

3) Mae Sot
Thailand and Myanmar are attempting to establish relations. The Friendship Bridge) connects the two countries across the Moei River.

4) The Bridge over River Kwai, known as the Death Railway Bridge during Word War II, is near Kanchanaburi, 130km west of Bangkok.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cover Girl

My June blog post Ultimate Champions described my granddaughter Alina who was on the University of California, Santa Barbara team that won the North American Collegiate Ultimate Frisbee Championship.

CARAMBA Y SORPRESIVA, Alina appeared on the cover of the USA Ultimate Official Magazine of Fall 2011! Please see the photo. Actually it is on the back cover but equally awesome as on the front. The families are thrilled and proud to see her as the cover girl.

The Nadeshiko Japan women soccer captain Homare Sawa was among the honorable guests this month at the Akasaka Garden in central Tokyo to meet Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Also accompanying her was her coach Norio Sasaki and Kyushu native Sumo Ozeki Champ Kaio, who retired recently. Homare was clad in a light blue “Furisode” formal Kimono. By analogy, I likewise picked Alina’s photo in her formal dress in order to show how happy and proud this grandpa is!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Peacock Garden in Pasadena, California
(In memory of Adele and Guy Stone, our family guardians)

”Ah my heart dances like a peacock,
the rain patters on the new leaves of summer,
the tremor of the crickets' chirp troubles
the shade of the tree,
the river overflows its bank
washing the village meadows.
My heart dances.”

- by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

For over 30 years of residing in the U.S. (which ended in 1994), we were annually at the Thanksgiving Dinner table in Pasadena of the Stones family of Dutch descent born in Pennsylvania. We loved their Dutch oven dishes from yellow split pea soup, potato stuffing, yams, red cabbage, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, etc. I met Guy while doing business when I was still single in Japan. Adele took me to a dentist when I had a sudden toothache during my trip from Japan.

They changed houses a number of times from La Canada, San Marino, etc. but they were all in the vicinity of Pasadena, settling finally in an Arcadia senior apartment near Santa Anita Park.

They took me to Caltech, Huntington Library Park, Descanso Garden (the biggest camellia garden in the U.S.), Santa Anita Park, the Rose Bowl, Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden. We brought our children and became good playmates with their grandsons. My son was taken to Mt. Wilson Observatory by them when he was in junior high.

Santa Anita Park was one of the so-called Assembly Centers for the Japanese Americans during World War II and we did not know our San Diego friends Ben Segawa, Ted Hirasaki, the Yamadas had spent uneasy days in a horse-stable-turned ‘abodes’ before they were sent to Camp Poston in Arizona. It’s an irony that I knew about Sea Biscuit before the Japanese internees, because of the life size horse bronze statue on display at the entrance of Santa Anita race track. The 1938 match story of the century, Sea Biscuit vs. War Admiral became a book by Laura Hillenbrand in 2001. The story of the Japanese American incarnation of 1941 to 1945 was published by Joanne Oppenheim in 2006. Could it be a case known as “50 miles is as good as 100 miles?” I saw Adele Stone last at the hospital near to Santa Anita Park in 2008. She was reading a book all alone and no nurses attended.

I have frequented Los Angeles County Arboretum even after I left for Japan. I visited Adele whenever I revisited the U.S. and my daughter’s family in Northern California. The Arboretum is on Baldwin exit off the busy Freeway 210. It‘s a good stopover for resting and wandering about the garden to take in seasonal flowers. The pink Ipe and the golden trumpet trees used to greet me at the entrance.

Mind you, this Arboretum is huge, 127 acre (51.4 hectares), 4 times larger than the San Diego Botanical Garden (previously called Quail Garden). You can get a good exercise covering it all. I had covered all corners of the Arboretum on many visits including its historical landmarks such as “Lucky” Baldwin’s ornate Victorian house “Queen Anne Cottage” and the great blue gum eucalyptus tree there, Hugo Reid’s Adobe, etc. Lately, I just stroll the front fountain area, the Stones’ favorite area, and sip coffee at the Peacock Cafe, watch resplendent plumage of male peacocks around the fountain, remembering Guy Stone jokes and his mischievous smiles.

”You know, Rio, Charles Darwin hated Peacocks.”

”Why, Guy?”

”Because Peacocks spoiled his ‘Origin of Species’ theory. He was frustrated by those feathers. How the extravagant plumage evolved was hard to explain. He admitted that it made him always sick, you know.”

When Guy was gone, Adele gave me Guy’s trench coat, windbreaker and jacket which fit me just right. I like to wear them often. Gone is the joy of stopping by Pasadena now that both have passed away.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ten Years Later

Where were you when the Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center Towers on Sept 11, 2001? It was 10 years ago but your memory should be very fresh. I myself was in California. I was just back from my trip to South America the previous night and was sound asleep when my daughter telephoned from her work. “Dad, switch on your TV. See what’s happening in New York.” My son had just flown into New York the night before. Wow, I just couldn’t believe it. The Twin Towers were in flames and collapsing.

We observed its 10th Anniversary a few weeks ago. The paper reported Americans all across the land, prayed at churches and laid wreaths at fire stations and remembered, in their own way, a day that was impossible to forget.

Today I wish to talk about Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), who designed the WTC, the architect nicknamed Mr. Twin Tower. It was in the early 1960’s that I was working in downtown Manhattan, passing the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey when his project started as a big hole in the ground. The Twin Towers, for your info, were part of a seven building complex that covered a total of eight city blocks.

Who was this man, Yamasaki? Time Magazine featured him, so I bought a copy and devoured the article. He was a Japanese-American, born in Washington State. He was a rising star and I recall the IBM Seattle building was introduced as one of his latest works. It looked superb and graceful with modern technology and innovations. I first learned the word “minimalist” applied somewhere in the text. I took it as his efforts to simplify basic structural designs, and save on superfluous cost.

Yamasaki was chosen from among a dozen candidates. I was quite elated that race was not an issue in the selection of the winning architect. When one shows quality and works of excellence, one can ultimately win the job. There were cynical views and comments such as Yamasaki could be easily agreeable in accommodating developers’ demands.

I left New York in 1969, before the towers were completed. The North and South Towers were completed in 1972 and 1973 respectively. I had a chance to visit New York in the late 1980’s. I went to the Observation Deck, or the Top of World, located on the South Tower. As expected, the venue became the most active business center, accommodating the world financial and trading firms.

Yamasaki said: “The World Trade Center is a living symbol of men’s dedication to world peace – a representation of men’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness". His buildings met with disaster, but I’m sure his vision will survive.


Minoru Yamasaki was one of the few Japanese Americans spared from evacuation during World War II because an East Coast architectural firm hired him.
Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles
designed by Minoru Yamasaki

Additional Info about Minoru Yamasaki
Towering Achievements
A Triumph of Talent

Monday, September 5, 2011

English Noh

"When we carefully see and examine things surrounding us in nature, be they large or small, have lives or no lives, there are certain order and principle of cycles of ‘jo-ha-kyu’, jo meaning launch or intro, ha break or change, and kyu speeding or accelerating such as in birds trilling, insects chirping, …"
- Zeami (1363-1443)

"And, in the midst of a performance, I have closed my eyes a number of times, and listened intensely to the sound, the rhythm and the pauses in between. From somewhere within those depths come, clearly and quickly, “images”. This is what I feel Noh is truly all about, not the images of what one actually sees before oneself, but the images that arise from within."
- Toshiki Komazawa (Writer)

Have you seen any Noh play or heard about it before? Can you name some titles, one or two, such as Hagoromo (celestial robe of an Angel) or Tsurukame (Crane and Turtle)?

Noh is a symbolic play and an intangible cultural heritage designated by UNESCO. It is one of the major Japanese traditional art forms, older than Shakespearian plays and attempts to express human feelings in detail through extremely simplified actions or forms. The audience uses their imagination to understand it as a whole and interpret dramas in their own individual ways. That much said, will you be encouraged to get in a mood to see one when it comes near you? Some of us might, but very unlikely to see those from abroad raising their hands.

I saw great news recently that may change that response. An English Noh play troupe “English Nohgaku Theater” was born and they toured Dublin, London and Paris last year and China this past July. They performed a new Noh play titled “Pagoda”, all in English. Jeannette Cheong is a playwright and Pagoda is based on her own story.

A young English woman of Chinese descent travels to the humble village of her dead father in southeast China. There, at a Buddhist pagoda, she encounters a mother, named Meiling with her daughter, who long ago had sent off a young son to work on a ship to protect him from famine. After climbing the pagoda and looking out to the sea waiting for their son and brother to return, the women disappear. The traveler then meets a fisherman who tells her the legend of the pagoda built by the village mothers who parted with their children and prayed for their safety and welfare. The fisherman asks the name of the traveler’s father and stands aghast. The English woman realizes that the two women she had encountered earlier were, in fact, the spirits of her grandmother and aunt and her father was the son they were waiting for. Later, the spirits reappear and tell of their past hardship, before dancing a dance of reunion. The traveler realizes that her family is now reunited in the spirit world as she contemplates the fates of those separated from their homeland.

Enthralled Cheong wrote the story in the 1970’s with the intention of creating a “musical”. While Cheong visited the Far East often for her academic career, she apparently had a chance to witness and experience a Noh play. She became aware that the living and the dead coexist in Noh.

Cheong contacted Kinue Oshima, the Kita-school Noh actor and manager of Oshima Noh Theater in Fukuyama, Hiroshima who accomplished the collaboration work with Richard Emmert, writer/translator and Noh actor of the same Kita-school of the University of Musashino. Emmert had been involved in the famous play “Hawk’s Well” written by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and “Drift Fires”, first performed in 1985 at the Tsukuba Expo.

The China project of the English Noh "Pagoda" was reportedly completed with the ardent wish and coordination of Jeanette Cheong at the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts and at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Probably it was the first time the Japanese Noh was ever performed in China in English. Kinue Oshima, who played a major role herself, reported that the play was a huge success with the storm of applause from the Chinese audience. She felt the warmth of parental love and affection which has no national boundaries.

For Further Information:

Kita-School Oshima Noh-gaku Do
Noh Theaters to Present English Performance

Monday, August 29, 2011

Theater Adventures

"My pleasant discovery in remodeling the so-called Gassho style farmhouse to a theatrical setup was l) that the traditional Japanese housing is basically made of collage concept, and 2) that the interior space is dim and ill-lit, which satisfy the ideal condition to effectuate dramatic sensation."

"Because the house, originally built for a big family, is quite large and has rather tall ceiling. When the internal wooden and sliding partitions are taken out, the entire floor is on just one level, except the earth floor. This is ideal for creating a theatrical stage but the problem was there are more pillars than we find in western homes. I solved this problem, by setting the centrally located “O-e” (the cutout fireplace that served as the drawing room for guests in local dialect) as the stage which the audience can see from the three directions (upfront and two lateral sides). Then the surrounding floors were lowered down to the ground level with different steps for the audience to sit. Upon completion, the stage looked like a Noh theater with aged beams and pillars shining black. However, it has no bright-and-open-air-ness as in the modern Noh theater. You may say it’s a Noh theater of the submerged or deserted houses."

- Tadashi Suzuki, Founder of the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) Quoted and translated from his book “Producer’s Perspective”(1994)


A unspoken requirement for an expatriate is to meet compatriot celebrities sent overseas on a cultural mission. In 1985, Tadashi Suzuki and his troupe hit the road in the U.S. and their last stop was San Diego. An art benefactor in Rancho Santa Fe invited him and a few key troupe members for a reception one afternoon in her big hacienda residence. The benefactor also invited a few local Japanese expatriates to mingle and stimulate conversation. Luckily I got the invitation to the reception. There was a woman there who was introduced as Kayoko Shiraishi, the main actress performing “Trojan Woman” the following day at the UCSD Mandeville Theater in La Jolla. She didn’t speak much and sat modestly in the corner.

It was the producer Suzuki, who mostly spoke feverishly about his Village Toga project, where he was building an intercultural training complex for future actors and musicians. Toga is a village in Toyama Prefecture facing the Japan Sea, at the foot of Noto Peninsula, but further inland on an elevated mountain range. It is one of the villages known for the traditional Gassho-style farm housing. Gassho, in Buddhism, means a prayer, two hands put together with the palms facing inward. Perhaps you have seen the photos of the UNESCO designated tall straw thatched-roof to have snow quickly skid down to the ground. Those farmhouses sounded like producer Suzuki’s new home. I didn’t understand then why he had to go to such a remote resort away from Tokyo.

Actress Shiraishi’s performance at Mandeville was awesome. During a dialog between a man and a woman, Shiraishi cast a flood of long oratory in Japanese against her Caucasian actor’s English speech. At first I thought she was speaking English. Actually, she spoke in eloquent Japanese, so smooth and natural, yet full of vigor and passion. It was fascinating.

Ten years later, I was back in Tokyo and was suffering from severe reverse culture shock. The summer heat which I had forgotten about was unbearable. I chose Toga Mura as my summer resort and escaped alone from Tokyo. I got theater tickets and Minshuku (communal lodging) arrangement for one week. My travel plan was to visit Toyama one week before Toga, Hida-Takayama and Kamioka areas of Japan Alps, and go down to Nagoya to take bullet train back to Tokyo after a week.

My plans were unfortunately disrupted because, upon my arrival there, I learned that Toyama was the site of the National Athletic Meet and no hotels were available all around Toyama. I had to revise my plan from scratch.

I enjoyed my Toga Mura visit. I saw plays by Americans, Argentinians and Indians. I watched Suzuki’s King Lear, Noh music and percussions, etc. I did not see Kayoko Shiraishi and later found out that she left Suzuki & Company. (She became a superstar. In 2005, Shiraishi won the auspicious Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon for her life contribution as distinguished performer and story teller).

The inconvenience at Toga Mura was transportation. Minshuku hotel and Theater complex were located far apart, unfortunately not within walking distance. We depended on commuter buses in the morning and in the evening. However, I made a lot of friends during the commute to and from Toga, including many foreign visitors.

A big surprise in Toga Mura was that the construction of the outdoor theatrical stage was very comparable (or more authentic) to Greek theaters of Dionysos and Delphi. The performance at night with torch fires was unearthly impressive. I know producer Suzuki brought his plays to be performed in Athens and Delphi in Greece. He wanted this secluded Toga Mura Outdoor Theater to become an inspirational place for stage goers to experience imperishable human dramas in a timeless and geography-free manner.

Top Photo:
Ancient Greek theater in Delphi – the source of T. Susuzki’s inspiration to build his Toga Mura Outdoor Theater (capacity 800). Thanks to A. Ikeda of Kitakyushu who brought back the Delphi postcard for me from Greece.

Today's (Fri 8/5) Nikkei announced the SCOT's 2011 summer program at Toga Mura, which includes five plays performed from August 19 to 28. They are:

1. Image of Mother in My Eyes, Return of Japan, Newest Edition
2. Hello from the Ends of the World - with fireworks at the outdoor theater -
3. Electra - Greek play by Sophocles
4. Cyrano de Bergerac - with a Taiwanese actress in the main role
5. Extra Issue - Junichiro Tanizaki

Tadashi Suzuki is quoted as saying, "Drama is a history of reminiscences since the days of Greece. I hope our programs this year is worthy of association with great endeavors in the history of dramas."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Requiem for the Dead Japanese in Siberia

During this Obon weekend, I was in Higashiyama Kyoto among worshippers at their family temples and groups of sightseers, while soaking up a distant scent of incense in the air. I felt I shouldn’t miss the last performance of the Russo-Japanese play “When Cherry Blossoms Bloom in Siberia,” performed in Kyoto on August 14, 2011.

The story was originally written in 2007 by Nelly Matkhanova, residing in Minusinsk near Irkutsk by Lake Baykal. I read that the playwright was inspired to write by reading Shizuo Yamashita’s book of ball-point sketch collections called Retained for 1,450 days (1993), and the Russian translation of Kyuzo Kato’s Diary of Siberia (published in l980). Both Yamashita and Kato were Japanese prisoners of war held in Krasnoyarsk, in their respective camps.

There must have been plenty of Japanese plays dealing with Siberian Gulags, but this play is important as the first from a Russian’s perspective. As a child, writer Matkkanova had seen Japanese prisoners toiling on streetcar road construction projects in Taishet and felt pity for them.

The play was first performed in Minusinsk in 2009 without Japanese participation. Then a collaborative effort between Russians and Japanese was proposed as the Sakura Project. Funding and preparations for the project followed, supported by the Japanese MOF, Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the Krasnoyarsk Region, Minusinsk Drama Theater, Japan’s People Theater, Maizuru City (the port city facing the Japan Sea that welcomed returnees from Siberia), the Japanese Association of the bereaved families of prisoners and other organizations.

In 1952, Japan regained its sovereignty through the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the U.S. and its allies. However, Communist countries, the Soviet Union and China, did not join the Treaty as they were in the middle of the Korean War. Mostly neglected from that Peace Treaty were 570,000 Japanese prisoners of war, detained by the Soviet Union. The unofficial number could actually total 600,000 if Japanese civilians, such as 270,000 immigrants tasked with developing Manchuria, were included. My uncle, the youngest of five of my mother's brothers, was one of the immigrants and he went missing right after Aug l5, 1945.

The play opens with the arrival of Japanese prisoners of war at the barb-wired Taishet Camp, about 800 km northwest of Irkutsk, and ends with the “Damoi (homecoming)“ departure, after 1450 days of forced labor. The guard calls roll and crossly examines prisoners’ personal belongings, confiscating some. A rosary is spared. Each of the seven roommates are spotlighted after they go to bed to show what he is thinking. Individual episodes ensue; a skilled mechanic repairs a tricycle and establishes a friendship with the Camp Headmaster’s boy and wife; an artist exchanges poems with a Russian interpreter; student-turned soldier meets a Russian girl and is attracted to her; an eccentric unable to handle paranoia attempts suicide in the snow; a fever stricken man saved by a Russian housewife on his way to the hospital gets into a car wreck and is dropped off in the middle of nowhere when the Russian driver leaves him to report the emergency; a soldier is pinned under a fallen tree while attempting to save the life of a Russian female guard; an apprentice medic helps deliver a baby of a Russian guard’s wife, which completely changes the guard’s attitude towards Japanese. At the conclusion of the story, four soldiers out of seven leaves Taishet. Two die in the camp and one decides to stay to marry a Russian girl.

These episodes are continuously played out alongside the hard labor assignments, treading in the deep snow for outdoor duties. Helped with the solemn, yet rhythmical Japanese music, the stage scenery rapidly changes by the actors’ coordinated dexterity and well designed stage set. One basic stage for multi-scene usage was magnificent, worthy of applause.


l) I wish to refer to Yasuo Kazuki (1911-1974), another Siberian artist born and died in neighboring Yamaguchi Prefecture. I visited the Yasuo Kazuki Art Museum in Nagato when I went to Nishinagato Beach (see summer memories - Riosologgers). He spent about half a year in Syya Camp, in the territory of Khakassia (once Kyrgyz but now under Russia). Syya Camp was reportedly one of the smallest (250 prisoners) yet worst detention camps in Siberia. I'm not sure where Syya is but his recollection is that he got off the train at a station called Shira, south of Achinsk, was then trucked to Syya village in the mountain and walked another 3 km on snowy roads to arrive at the camp.

There artist Kazuki saw Dante’s hell. I was so shocked to see the skulls peering out from the prison and explored why Kazuki's experience was so tragic and desperate. I found out why when I read Takashi Tachibana’s (see Note 2) book based on his fact finding Siberian trip. The average mortality rate at the camps was 10% over a 5 year span. The mortality rate at Camp Syya was 10% over a 3-4 month period. The main work for Syya camp prisoners was to bring down timber for the old steam power generating station which supported the Communal Gold Mines nearby. In addition to inadequate food rationing, scandals among the Russian officers were rampant. When this was brought to light, the camp was closed. Kazuki saw friends dying one after another from hunger. Shown here is Kazuki's artwork "Damoi" on S.S. Esanmaru in 1947.

2) Takashi Tachibana (born 28 May 1940, Nagasaki) is a Japanese independent journalist, known for his articles on Japanese social problems. He called the forced labor camps in Siberia the biggest human tragedy of the 20th Century.

He claims, at one point, Siberia had 10 million prisoners, of which 7 million were Russians, 2.4 million Germans and 600,000 Japanese. The Kremlin sent Russian prisoners of war, who were returned from Germany, to Siberia for the camp's administration, without any experience or motivation.

3) Russians appropriated Japanese plants, disassembled them and transported them to Siberia. They used Japanese prisoners to reassemble and restart the plants.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Our Town - Manzanar"

Searching Wilder’s “Our Town” on Google, I was led by chance to “Our Town –Manzanar”, a play by Hisashi Inoue (1934-2010), a Japanese playwright. “Our Town” is, I’m sure, a reference to Wilder, as he liked such wordplay. The question is, if Manzanar, the World War II concentration camp in the U.S., had retained all the spontaneous elements called as a town. He must have visited Owens Valley and Los Angeles to get a feel for "his" town. Quoted among the play references are Toyo Miyatake’s photo albums, Manzanar Diaries of Karl Yoneda (1906-1999), etc. The play was published in 1993, about the time I decided to leave California. I didn’t know that he wrote about Manzanar until very recently. It was January this year that I traveled to Tokyo to see Wilder’s “Our Town” played by the reading circle I once belonged to. I found that the Zushi City Civic Theatrical Group called “Nanja-Monja” had just performed “Our Town – Manzanar” in December as their 25th Anniversary event and their tribute to the author who passed away in April 2010. (Zushi performed the same play in 1996 on their 10th Anniversary). I could have hastened to Zushi, near Shizuoka had I known. I also wanted to read the book, but it was unavailable even as a used book.

Inoue was generally known as a slow writer. When we see the list of his works and a number of literary prizes (over twenty something), I acknowledge him as a prolific writer, covering a wide range of subjects, from Shakespeare to Chekhov, mysteries and scientific fiction, with a humorous touch and many twists. Inoue likened himself to a bird - his poems come from the head; plays from the body; novels, both polite and popular literature from two wings; and others like biographies, etc. from the tail.

The first Inoue play I saw was fascinating: Misako Watanabe’s “Kesho” (Makeup), which I volunteered to help promote in Southern California. A 50-minute show, wherein, an actress preparing her makeup and costume, keeps talking to her unexpected visitor and troupe members (to the audience), until she is ready to perform a play within the play. Could this visitor be her son she deserted years ago? The drama comes from the heightened emotions of the actress and likewise, the audience. English subtitles were supplied for the audience.

Upon my return to Japan, I read his “Face of Jizo” (translation by Roger Pulvers, literally “Life with my Father”). The “Face of Jizo” dealt with a female survivor of the Hiroshima Bomb. She is reaching marriageable age, and the dialog between father and daughter was all in Hiroshima local dialect, somewhat hard to decipher. Inoue was born in Yamagata, northern Japan and he was an expert in Tohoku dialects, but not Hiroshima dialect. Maybe he spent a lot of time in figuring out the Hiroshima dialect. The English translation is much easier to read.

Five girls appear in "Our Town – Manzanar". They are Sofia Okazaki, an LA Japanese Newspaper staff; Otome Amatsu, a Japanese immigrant from a farm village and “Naniwabushi” (3-string shamisen accompanied ballad) reciter; Sachiko Saito, a stage magician; Lilian Takeuchi, a singer; and Joyce Tachibana, an actress. These five girls were instructed by the Manzanar camp superintendent to perform a reading drama “Our Town, Manzanar”. The reading script was said to be compiled by a Relocation Center Intelligence Officer, but it was later disclosed that it was written by Sachiko Saito. While they practiced reading, girls were split into two groups, pro-American and pro-Japanese. Sachiko stayed aloof, joining neither. Sachiko admitted that she was a Chinese American sent from the State Department. They went through the feminine slanders and accusations, but settled down amicably to pursue the essence of being human, regardless of race or color.

The play starts as the curtain rises:

Sofia: Where the Sierra Nevada Mountains range in Eastern California

Otome: Where Mt. Whitney soars

All in Chrous; Manzanar! Manzanar!

Joyce: Our town, our plaza!

Note: Jizo is a guardian deity of children

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wilder, Wilder, Thornton Wilder

1969 was the year I left New York City. I saw a number of great Broadway musicals while residing there, but I realized I was leaving the city without seeing a play. So, one day, my wife and I drove down to a theater without much planning. We saw the Merchant of Yonkers. Larchmont was where we resided in Westchester County. Yonkers is in the same county and that might have drawn us in hindsight. All I remember of the play was that the merchant was a curmudgeon, who begrudged paying even 15 cents to his barber.

It was much later when we moved to San Diego did I found out that play was written by Thornton Wilder. The second version of the play, known as The Matchmaker, became a huge success, and led to the hilarious musical Hello Dolly. In the l980’s, we drove to Los Angeles to see it. The name Thornton Wilder was inscribed in my memory.

I heard the Wilder name again back in Tokyo when I joined a local reading circle of English literature. The circle initially started among the Tsuda Woman University graduates, but later invited the public to participate. Tokyo had changed a lot while I was away. There were no universities around when and where I lived before. Upon my return, I found more than a dozen universities moved out from downtown Tokyo to the western suburbs along with the faculty. I found my teacher from my alma mater lived close by across the Asakawa River. I could see Chuo University campus from my backyard. The closest university was Meisei University, the faculty of which included exchange professors from Mississippi State University. When the circle invited them as guests, we became friends, traveling together to see flowers, Noh plays, etc. One year several members visited a professor from Mississippi in the U.S. and I joined them. This professor was a graduate from Ole’Miss and she drove us to Rowan Oaks where William Faulkner resided.

Back to Wilder. The circle decided to read Our Town in the beginning of 2010. It was recommended by Dr. Caldwell, a professor at Meisei University, who also provided production guidance. The circle decided to put on a production as their 20th Anniversary project. I left Tokyo for Kitakyushu then and was unable to participate, but promised to come by.

I did my homework to know that Wilder created Glover’s Corners, a fictitious town in New Hampshire, just like Yoknapatawpha country in Mississippi by Faulkner. However, Our Town can be any town in the U.S. or any town worldwide.

Acts 1 through 3 of Our Town was performed beautifully in January 2011 after a full year of practice, in one of the small citizen center halls by the Asakawa River. Great thing about the play is that no stage setup is necessary. However, the problem was that there were very few men in the circle. They overcame the problem, casting women as men in disguise, including the stage manager. The performance was for club members and guests only. It was a shame it was not open to the public.

Dr. and Mrs. Caldwell were also invited from Chiang Mai, Thailand, the home they chose to retire in. Dr. Caldwell told us that Meisei University students once performed Our Town as a one act play, combining Act 2 (Love & Marriage) and Act 3 (Life & Death) and omitting Act l (Daily Life). I heard Dr. Caldwell complimenting the circle, telling them their version was better than Meisei’s.

Eighty percent of Wilder’s quotes come from Our Town, particularly from the ubiquitous Stage Manager’s fluffs. No wonder Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Late in Act I, the Stage Manager tells the audience that he will leave the script in the cornerstone of a new bank so that “a thousand years from now" people can see "the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” This struck a chord and motivated me to travel to Kobe to see another Wilder play performed.

While Googling Our Town, I found out the play was performed by elite Japanese actors earlier in the year in Tokyo. I also happened to come upon a Kobe Youth Group planning to produce Wilder’s A Happy Journey in English in April. I obtained the script and discovered to my delight that the journey was from Newark to Trenton and Camden, New Jersey. The locations were all familiar to me. I lived close by in the 1960’s and drove all over New Jersey on sales trips. Wilder chose a family of four - husband, wife and two children - visiting another married daughter in Camden who was sick. For such a trip today, traveling the New Jersey Turnpike isn’t a big deal. But, I see the excitement of the family excursion, from their conversation with the neighbors and stage manager. I see aspects of our children in the children in the play.

Arriving in Kobe earlier than the matinee hour, I had a chance to meet the producer, saw their rehearsals on stage and even had a chance to wish the young actors luck. The play was wonderful. You can safely say that I am immersed in Wilder's dramas.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Youth Stage Performance

”There has been a comet come near to the earth of late and the earth has been parched and sultry so that the gods are drowsy and all those things that are divine in man, such as benevolence, drunkenness, extravagance, and song, have faded and died and have not been replenished by the gods.”

- from The Gods of the Mountain by Lord Dunsany


“Popcorn, 15 cents!” My son was rehearsing proudly his play script with all his might. It was his first stage appearance at a kindergarten in Forest Hills, New York. It was just a few months after his arrival in the U.S. He was unable to express himself fully yet but he was thrilled that he got a part in the play and was very proud. My involvement in school acting came much later in youth than my son. During World War II, there were almost no arts related extra-curricular activities. Prevailing then were martial arts, such as Japanese Kendo or Judo. I practiced Kendo and have participated in the intra-city competition, boys section. There were no school classes when the war was going on. We were either in the rice paddies irrigating or harvesting, or in the factory as worker trainees.

The university I attended held an annual Art Festival day, when 20+ Language Departments each performed plays in their respective language of study. Usually juniors get the assignment, since seniors were too busy getting ready for job placement interviews. For some reason, our class got assigned two years in a row both as juniors and seniors. I found an old album with photos from the two plays we performed.

The first was The Gods of the Mountain, the other, Golden Doom, both written by the same Anglo-Irish romance author, Lord Dunsany (1878-1957). I asked recently one of my classmates why he picked Dunsany. His answer was to the point. Our class had no woman. He went to the SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers) Library for the search. Dunsany’s plays were perfect under the circumstances. The parts for The Gods of the Mountain required an all males cast.

On both plays, I was lucky to play key roles - Agmar, the old beggar, in The Gods of the Mountain that has three acts, and the chamberlain serving the Babylonian King, in the shorter play Golden Doom.

Agmar, per author Dunsany, is an ‘imperious’ but cunning strategist. Organizing a bandit of beggars, he marched into the city of Kongros disguised as a deity, modeled after the seven gods of Mt. Marma in green raiment. Each beggar flashed a piece of green garment underneath his rags and was treated with more hospitality than expected, even being offered a valuable Woldery wine. Fearing suspicious eyes of citizens, Agmar never touched the food and spilled the special wine while being served, but began devouring voraciously after the citizens left. Their trickery was short-lived. The Marma gods struck them down and turned all seven beggars into stone and left. The people found the stone figures and became convinced they were true gods all along. The story could be both a tragedy and a comedy.

On the other hand, Golden Doom is a comedy. The King and his entourage are whooping it up around an innocent scribbling of a poem by a child by the guarded King’s door while the guards have an unauthorized break for the bash. The cause of trouble is that the boy claims the scribbling was written with a lump of gold found in the river Gyshon. The King and the chamberlain find the scribbling and send for a prophet to decipher. The country is doomed, says the Chief Prophet, and recommends to the King to make a sacrifice to the stars that envy the King’s pride. The King seems so humble and has never displayed hubris.

“I inherited a rocky land, and windy, ill-nurtured, and nursed it to prosperity by years of peace and spread it’s boundaries by years of war. I have brought harvests up out of barren acres and given good laws into naughty towns, and my people are happy, and lo! the stars are angry.”

I haven't acted ever since.

In retrospect, acting in Dunsany’s plays was almost like being in a Japanese Noh play. I had to wear archaic English and classic robes. I did not discover Noh until much later in my mid-thirties.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ultimate Champions

There’s a joke in Japan “entrust your son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter if you want to be Number l in anything in Japan or worldwide.” I lived to see the joke coming true, to my very happy surprise. I shouted, “Banzai! Banzai” (Hurray, Hurray)! She did it.

This Memorial Day weekend in May brought me fantastic news that my granddaughter’s Ultimate Frisbee team won the U.S./Canada Ultimate Championship in Boulder, Colorado. My daughter traveled there from California with a group of parents who rooted for their daughters and witnessed the moment of victory and domination over the 20 discreet women’s teams, including Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina - Wilmington, Ottawa, Washington, etc. Colorado was chosen as the central location of the U.S./Canada for the meet.

I have traveled to Coors in Golden and the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado. Had I known there was going to be a tournament with my granddaughter, I would have been there at any cost.

Although my wife and I now live in Japan, we often visit my daughter’s family, and were able to watch my granddaughter Alina’s growth in athletic competitions. In her high school days, my Alina was a cross-country runner, and I saw her compete in the high school league events in various places in California. I also saw her compete in track and field.

We were thrilled when Alina was accepted by many University of California affiliated Universities: Berkeley, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Irvine. It was a tough decision for Alina to choose Santa Barbara, as it is the closest one to her home, but its chemical engineering department is one of the best programs in the nation. I thought she might drop long distance running and concentrate on her studies.

During our last trip to San Diego in 2009, Alina invited my wife and I to observe her frisbee game competitions for two-days at the UCSD campus field in La Jolla. It was our first experience to see the kind of game in which she was involved, and we learned the game basics, glossaries, simple dos and don’ts. One of the impressive codes is self-refereeing and the spirit of the game. No referees are around and each player (7 players on the field) are bound with a high ethical conduct of self-judging.

Frisbee itself has existed since the 1940’s. People say Yale students started it all by throwing pie trays from the bakeries.

Widespread these days are canine disc competitions, but humans were first establishing the “ultimate” form of sports, with a lot of running, requiring physical stamina like a tri-athalon athlete, plus aerodynamic throw & catch techniques, as well as strategic planning and tactics. It is more brains than brawn.

The name of the Alina’s team is the Burning Skirts and we liked the girl’s end of the game cheer and chanting to keep up morale and team spirit.

Alina gave us a souvenir frisbee disc of which she designed the graphics: a picture of a twirling dolphin, with a frisbee on its nose, and a shark gasping with his jaws wide open. This now hangs on our bedroom wall.

Best 10 out of 200 collegiate women teams in 2010 and 2011 listed as below.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dios da a Borda, Borda da a Dios

The silver route runs both north and south from Mexico City. My last blog described the north route up to Zacatecas, 350 miles (550km) from the capital. This time let’s travel south to Taxco, Guerrero, 110 miles out of Mexico City, about halfway south to coastal Acapulco. Taxco has an altitude of 1800 meters (Mexico City is 2300 meters). I traveled to Taxco from Toluca by train and detoured to see a stalactite grotto, called Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, one of the national parks.

Three names associated with Taxco are Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, Don Jose Borda and William Spratling.

The name “de Alarcon” seems to evoke images of the ancient homeland of the Spaniards. Taxco de Alarcon is the officially adopted name of the city in honor of Juan Ruiz de Alarcon (1581 -1639), who was born in Taxco, and who studied and lived both in Spain and Mexico. In Spain, Juan had a government post but was better known as a poet and playwright, representing the Siglo de Oro Spanish writers. Taxco stages Juan Ruiz’ plays every year after Christmas. The Mexican people liked his comedies with a Latin influence. His father was superintendent of the Taxco mines and one of his brothers was a local educator.

Don Jose de la Borda Sanchez (1699 -1778), a Spaniard of French descent, arrived in Taxco at age 16. Legend has it that Conquistador Hernan Cortez discovered silver and Borda rediscovered silver here. Borda spotted a rich silver vein while riding and wandering Taxco hills and made a fortune. In gratitude and as quoted above at the outset in Spanish “God gives to Borda and Borda gives to God”, Don Jose built the most exquisite baroque Santa Prisca Cathedral, the centerpiece of Taxco (Don Jose’s son Manuel served as priest in this church), as well as schools and roads. In addition, he managed costly projects such as the Borda Garden in Cuernavaca and Casa Borda in Mexico City that cost him more downs than ups in his career and resulted in death in obscurity. Despite his good conducts, Borda is remembered as one who made his fortune by cruelly exploiting native labor. I visited Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca almost everyday when I traveled there. It is the most elegant and restful garden I’ve ever seen. I added my name to the list of visitors, which include VIPs such as Hernan Cortez, Emperor Maximilian and Carlota and many others.

William Spratling (1900 - 1967), an American architect who was a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans arrived in Taxco in 1929. He designed Casa Manana, Cuernava for an American owner. He was associated with artist Diego Rivera in helping Diego’s exhibits in New York and he initiated and challenged in creating a silversmith workshop of his own. Gradually the artistic and economic foundation of the workshop he established continues to flourish until Taxco became recognized as the silver capital.

Today Taxco boasts 5,000 shops, large and small, embracing 400 silversmiths and apprentices in the city. I read that Tiffany’s silverware are made here. Spratling is acknowledged as Taxco’s Restorer, and the Father of Mexican Silver and honored with having his name attached to Taxco’s Silver museum. It is unfortunate that he got killed in an auto accident. Taxco's narrow, hilly and winding streets are hazardous.

While in Taxco, I took a minibus ride to the top of the hill to see a Giant Jesus statue. The bus started climbing the hill but appeared to go nowhere near the statue. The bus driver finally suggested I go out and walk to the top. I had a great view from the top overlooking the city fully of natural charm accented with colonial ambiance by red-tiled roofs.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trekking Mexico's Silver Route

"Receive your barbarous bearded guests from the coast, who brings a signal of God, which comes to us in mercy and pity. The time of our life is coming.”

“Heaven and Earth are in flames! People beseech forgiveness. Bread is lost, so the foods. Owls hoot and weep. Corpses piled at every crossing and flies swarm on.”

- Prophecies by Chilan Balam, Mayan Priest

La Via de la Plata (Silver Route) is the longest of the pilgrim routes in Spain starting from Seville in Andalucia to Santiago de Compostela. The name “Via de la Plata” derives from the Romans transporting silver and gold from the Iberian Peninsula. Via de la Plata in Mexico connects over 50 silver mines, including World Heritage sites along the northward route; beginning at Mexico City. The route was established by the Spanish Conquest to transport unearthed silver back to Spain. I have visited some of the sites along the path, such as Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Taxco (see the next blog entry), etc. and posted details in my travelog some time ago, but silver was not the main topic then. I’m glad I took an extensive trip to Bahio, based in Guadarajara, which was on the original detour silver route, but later changed when a straighter and more direct route was established.

It took Mexico about 300 years to become independent since Hernan Cortez invaded and massacred the Aztecs. At the beginning of this post, I quoted two prophecies by a Mayan priest. Cortez was probably seen as the return of the Mayan Deity Quetzalcoatl, feathered-serpent, but the first quote cautioned that the “time of our life is coming”. The second quote referred to the Seven Gods of Owls, predicting an ill omen. It was a prophecy of doom.

Even Cortez wasn’t named Viceroy, the ultimate title he had sought in controlling Mexico, though he acted as one. His soldiers, with little conferment of honors and grants, had to satisfy themselves with the encomienda and/or repartimiento systems with which they would get paid either by tribute or labor of indigenous Indians assigned to them. Frequent conflicts and revolts followed wherever interactions of Spaniards and Indians took place. Religion as a means to ease conflict and support Spain was not in place until much later.

Discovery of silver fueled more conflicts – in 1546 at Zacatecas and in 1552 at Guanajuato. Traders and merchants were assailed by Chichimeca Indians, nomads turned ferocious insurgents living in the highlands. Spaniards sent troops to conquer Chichimecans at the battle of Mixton. Prisons flourished, filled with insurgents, and Indians from the south increased in the silver mines. Epidemics hit them as well.

I was interested in this type of gradual colonization and I found a travel book written by a Japanese photographer, Shuji Abe. He was born in l947 in Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture (the region affected by the Tohoku Earthquake / Tsunami). Shuji visited Tepotzotlan, near Mexico City, and was impressed with the numerous exquisite baroque churches. He wanted to return to re-photograph them and he most likely spent half a year or so traveling along the entire Silver Route. It is a very unique travelog, an accomplishment earned by his legs and camera. There is none like it anywhere because no one has spent the effort to go on the same adventure.

I have fond memories of Tepotztlan. I still regret that I did not finish climbing the mountain Cerro del Tepozteco. On the map I found two Tepotztolans, one north and another south of Mexico City. I went to the one in the south. Shuji went to the one in the north. They had the same name, same spelling and it was easy to confuse the two. Both have a number of great churches. I realized we did not go to the same Tepotztlan because I did not see a Jesuit church in southern Tepotztlan. Otherwise, I used the same travel style as his, changing buses at major cities, and using taxi as a last resort.

In tracing the silver route, I was happy to find Dona Maria, or Malinche, the name of a Mexican volcano as well as the one who served Cortez as a translator and mistress, married to Juan Jaramillo and settled in San Juan del Rio, between Tepotztlan and Queretaro. I did not have time to visit a typical Hacienda, so I enjoyed reading his book and wondered why the deported Jesuits had possessed so many Haciendas (over a hundred).

Zacatecas, 540 kilometers from Mexico City, boast the best silver mines, even today, and the land used to belong to Chichimecas. This was all new to me. Before then, all I knew about the area was that it was close to Agua Caliente, where I found a number of Imamura surnames recently and started corresponding with them.