Japan, Reflection

Off to Japan again?

It was 2019 when we last went to Japan. My wife, three boys and I were visiting my wife’s family – her parents and older sister – a trip we have tried to make more often but once every two or three years is about as regularly as we can manage. They live in a city called Kashima (鹿嶋市) which is in Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県) on the Pacific coast, around a 45 minute drive from Narita International Airport. I spent a couple of years there teaching English at the end of the 1990s, through something called the JET Programme. This was when and where my wife and I met.

Kashima in many ways is a fairly typical mid-sized city situated in the Japanese countryside but at its heart, both geographically and spiritually, is a Shinto shrine called Kashima Jingu (鹿島神宮). Now I am not a religious person, at least not in the practising sense, but each time we go back to Japan I make a point of Kashima Jingu being one of the first places we visit. The forest around the shrine is immense – around 24 hectares or 30 football pitches. It is mainly Japanese cedar including some absolute gigantic trees around 50-60 metres tall and hundreds of years old. In Japan, and around Shinto shrines in particular, the trees themselves are considered to contain their own spirit and have ceremonial ropes hung around their trunks from which hang pieces of paper folded into lightning shapes, very much like the tail of the Pokemon character called Pikachu. As you stand at the base of any of these trees you cannot help but feel a spiritual power contained within them. Indeed, rather like a mobile phone in need of electricity, I swear I can feel my spiritual battery taking a rapid charge whenever I am in their presence.

For obvious reasons, it has been another three years since our last visit and it looks like we might be able to travel as planned this summer. Entry restrictions into Japan are still tight. Much has been made of the opening up of borders in recent weeks, although if you want to go as a tourist at the moment your only option is as part of an official tour group. Fortunately, as we are visiting relatives, I am able to get a visa for that purpose and my kids and wife will be travelling on their Japanese passports.

The trip this year is, unfortunately, tinged with sadness as we won’t be able to see all the usual family members and enjoy what is ordinarily a happy time of reunion. Tragically, my father-in-law passed away suddenly towards the end of last year. It was at the height of the Omicron variant wave of COVID-19 and although my wife was able to get back home, the journey for the rest of us was nigh on impossible with all the travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in place at the time. I don’t think that I have yet fully accepted his death and know that there are going to be some moments of sadness as the realisation that we will not be able to see him again, at least in the normal sense, sinks in. What I would give to enjoy one last visit to the local pub with him for a few drinks. However, there is a very special time of the year in Japan, a festival called Obon, when the spirits of the departed are said to visit the household alters. I am hopeful that us being in Japan around the time of Obon, especially this first one since he departed, will allow us to feel close to him as the gateways between the spirit world and our world open up for a brief moment of convergence.

I plan to write more about my experience in Japan. A meagre two years living there means that I am far from an expert but my time in Kashima has given me a insight into life in Japan quite different from that of those who have only experienced Tokyo or another of the major cities.

Until then, I hope that you enjoy the photos accompanying this blog post and that a little bit of the spiritual calmness rubs off on you.

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Japan, Reflection

#あれから10年

Today – 11th March 2021 – is the 10th Anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

The 9.1 Magnitude earthquake struck at 14:46 JST and was the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan. Honshu, the main island, moved east by 2.4m and the earth shifted on its axis by 10-25cm. The tsunami that followed reached up to 40m in height and travelled at 700km/h.

The tsunami caused the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Over 150,000 residents within a 20km radius were evacuated. Many will be unable to ever return with estimates that it will be 40 years before radiation levels have fallen to safe levels again.

Over 120,000 buildings totally collapsed, over 280,000 partially collapsed and 700,000 buildings were damaged. 4.4 million households in northern Japan were left without electricity, 1.5 million households without water.

100,000 children were uprooted from their homes. 1,580 children in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures lost either one or both parents. 378 school students lost their lives, 158 disappeared without a trace.

15,899 people died. 2,525 people went missing and have still not been found.

Japanese TV has had a full schedule of programmes today from formal ceremonies taking place across the country through to individual tales of loss. Every life is precious but the stories of children who were literally swept away by the sea are heartbreaking and even a decade on the grieving process continues. As a parent myself, I cannot or more accurately do not want to dare to imagine the pain of mothers and fathers whose children’s lives were snatched prematurely on that fateful day. The hours of waiting before finding out if their son or daughter was safe must have been unbearable and for those who faced the unthinkable news, I am genuinely lost for words.

On this day each year, I make sure that I find the time to pause for a moment to reflect. This year, I have been thinking mostly about those poor children and hope that their physical lives, whilst short, were happy ones and that their spirits have found a peaceful place of rest.

あの日から10年ですが、忘れない。

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Japan, Motivation, Nature

How short, this life?

Around this time of the year people all over Japan are on the lookout for the sakura cherry blossom which comes into full bloom between the end of March and the very beginning of May, depending on where you live*. The celebration, called hanami written using the characters for “flower” (花) and “watch” (見) involves groups of family, friends and colleagues gathering together under their favourite tree to enjoy meticulously prepared food and (more than) a few drinks.

What surprised me the first time I experienced  the cherry blossom in Japan was how soon after coming into full bloom did the petals of these delicate flowers come fluttering to the ground like confetti at a wedding. It is for this reason that hanami is so hard-wired into the psyche of the Japanese; it marks not only the beginning of the new year for schools and companies but also serves as a reminder of the fragility and fleeting nature of life itself.

There has been plenty put out there about how much time over the course of a typical life we spend working, sleeping, eating, washing up, cleaning or even on the toilet.  However, I came across a graphic on a website called WaitButWhy which represents a 90-year life as a series of weekly blocks. There’s not that many of them – 4,680 to be precise.

I have had times in my life when I have been looking forward to something in the future or longing to get over something unpleasant in the present. The weeks have disappeared, sometimes turning into months.  How often have you said to yourself “I wish this week would pass more quickly” or “I’ll just get this month out of the way and then I’ll…” or something similar?

As I finished the first paragraph of today’s post, I received a telephone call from the son of a dear friend of ours who has been in hospital recently. It was not good news; he had passed away after 92 years on this planet, that’s 4,784 blocks. Listening to some of his stories, he made the most of his life and the time he was given. None of us really knows how many blocks we will be blessed with, so make each one count.

I know that I’m going to.

*****

*You can plot the progress of the sakurazensen cherry blossom front on the Japan National Tourism Organization website

 

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