I awoke at 5 this morning and hustled to the subway station. From there we took a commercial train an hour and a half outside of the city. Then we took a rail car half an hour up a mountain. Then we took a bus for 45 minutes. And then we walked for 10 more minutes.
During this excursion, we had lots of time to view the Japanese landscape. We saw misty mountains, farms, with lakes and forests, and everything in between. I even saw a deer from the rail car, casually watching us roll past it. I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but growing up I always thought Japan was coast-to-coast cities, with no nature remaining, let alone with fully inhabited forests! Words cannot explain the lush waterfalls, the greenery or the plant life. It was like a rain-forest!
Arriving in Koyasan, we went to our Buddhist Lodge. It's exactly what you imaged a lodge would be like: rice screen doors, waterfalls next to the rooms, trees, nature inches away. A very earthy, yet clean, experience. And best of all, no mosquitoes!
What did surprise us though, was how modern the lodge was. Not only was it in tune with nature, but it also had satellite TV, running water and fairly stable wifi. After all, this is Japan!
Once we were settled, we got a lesson on Japanese shoe customs, something us Westerners never think about.
When you enter a building, you are not allowed to step on any wood with your shoes. But you also cannot step on any stone without shoes. To enter a building often results in an awkward dance of taking off shoes while stepping on them, and then stepping on the wood one foot at a time. Once inside, you have to put on slippers, but they are only allowed in the hallways. You remove them when entering rooms and go barefoot, or with socks on. Except for bathrooms. In bathrooms you wear specific "toilet slippers".
Pretty simple, eh?
After our lesson, we went out for lunch. I'm still anxious on trying authentic Japanese food, so I got a dish that was fried chicken pieces and cheese on rice. I was taught during this meal on how to properly use chopsticks... which still needs some practice.
Then we went to the temples.
The first temple we arrived at was one made by a Japanese missionary who went to China for 3 years to learn Buddhism. He then returned home and began to teach his own form of Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, which became the most common form of Buddhism to date. The temple was beautiful, but without knowing more about his accomplishments I didn't really understand the history or the importance of it.
The next group of temples were far superior. The biggest of these temples had a massive stone Buddha inside. This temple was made in honor of the man who founded Zen Buddhism.
Near these were another region's temple, the Shinto religion, which lived hand-in-hand and in peace with the Buddhists, something the religions of the West have always struggled to do.
I found the contrast between the quiet forests of Koyasan and the busy streets of Osaka to be incredible, and I especially noticed it at these temples.
We then went into the nearby cemetery. Like most cemeteries, this one was full of stones and status, but unlike most cemeteries, it was completely void of bodies. That's right; there are almost no bones at all in this cemetery; just spirits. To the way nature had grown around the stones reminded me of pictures of Aztec and Mayan structures, with mold and trees growing around the buildings, forever absorbing it into nature. The cemetery was massive, but beautiful and humbling. After that, we arrived at the sacred grounds, washed our hands and mouth and witnessed the monks pray.
We hiked back and had a full, meatless, vegetarian supper waiting for us. During supper we talked about Hiroshima tomorrow. We learned that in Japan, they don't say "America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima", they said "The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima". This is because the Japanese feel responsible for the war, and feel the Americans only did what had to be done.
After supper we learned how to make some paper cranes and took a communal (but same-sex) bath, and relaxed in our kimonos.
Sorry if this seems rushed, but today was an incredible day and I am so tired. The steam bath probably isn't helping any either.
Talk to you tomorrow, from Hiroshima!
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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As I stood in the courtyard of Fort Henry, I heard screams emanating from within. Fort Henry was constructed to protect the Kingston Royal Dockyard from the invading American forces during the War of 1812. The threat was so real that the capital of Canada – which was then Kingston – was moved to Quebec to protect it. The docks are all that stood between the United States and the St. Lawrence River and both countries were all too familiar with how easily it would turn the tides of battle.
As the screams from inside Fort Henry faded, I turned to the man beside me. He had come with his family. We got talking, trying to calm our nerves as bloodied clowns and undead mimes began wandering out from inside the fort.
Imagine the bustling streets of New York, then times it by ten. Add a dash of Chinese culture, a wallop of nature and half dozen fish balls that don’t actually contain any fish, and you have the beautiful city that is Hong Kong.
At 7.2 million people, Hong Kong is a dynamic city with an incredible history, towering skyscrapers and a unique mix of English and Chinese that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. While Hong Kong has existed for a millennium, it was officially founded in 1842 to solidify a truce between Great Britain and the Qing dynasty of China during the First Opium War. A decade after the British took control of Hong Kong, the Black Death swept into China, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It would remain part of Hong Kong’s life for a century.
During World War II, Hong Kong was captured by the Japanese. For three years and eight months the British-Chinese culture of the city was destroyed, replaced with Japanese text, language and art. The booming city of 1.6 million people was slashed to only 600,000. Japanese occupation was incredibly harsh for the Hongkongese, being the darkest part of their history. Japan ceased occupation on August 6th, 1945, in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For forty-two more years, Hong Kong was controlled by the British, with the reunification between Hong Kong and mainland China finally occurring in 1997.
Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shut its doors in 1970. A year later, in 1971, it would briefly reopen and house inmates from Holmesburg Prison after a devastating riot. After the prisoners were returned to Holmesburg, Eastern State would sit empty for over two decades. It would rot, decay and collapse. Trees and shrubs would grow into the structure and a clowder of cats would take residence. These hallowed halls would sit empty, the only noise being the chatter of startled birds and the trotter of feline paws.
The following decades would see various discussions of what to do with the building. Eventually, it was decided to preserve it and turn it into a tourist attraction. Although it officially opened for tours in 1994, attendants would have to sign a waiver and wear hardhats before entering until 2008. They had 10,000 visitors the opening year, a number of tourists not seen in the prison since 1858.
From 1829 to 1970, Eastern State Penitentiary underwent a variety of changes and transformations. This massive, sprawling, 11-acre complex was founded under the belief that solitary confinement was the cure needed to prevent criminals from committing future crimes. It was believed criminals who served in solitary confinement would turn to a higher power to reconcile with themselves for their crimes – hence feeling "penitent". To assist in this process, each cell was equipped with a slit window on the ceiling nicknamed "The Eye of God". It would be the only light source available to the inmate.