Monday, November 28, 2005

Lunch and a meditation session with a Buddhist Monk

Pretty damn cool day... met up with Alex at Tully's before his photo shoot with plans to head over to the Tochigi Dhammakaya Temple for lunch. Alex has Japanese language classes with the head monk at the Temple, who is from Thailand and has been in Japan for 3 and a half years. While sitting around having coffee, I took a couple of shots of these two busy policemen outside their Koban... I swear to god they stood there talking for a half hour while I was sitting there and they were still there when we walked by 3 hours later... of course they may have gone inside at some point... but there's proof that Japan is a safe nation for ya.

So we did the photo shoot thing, then headed to the Temple to meet up with Saychon-san and his followers. It turned out to be an interesting experience to say the least. We were greeted at the door by one of the temple's members who was busy preparing lunch. We were welcomed warmly into what is essentially an apartment building with one floor serving as living\dining area, one floor serving as the Temple and the top floor serving as living quarters for the monks. Quite an interesting setup they have, nice, comfortable, casual kind of place... I was actually surprised to see a monk in full Buddhist dress sitting on a small elevated platform doing his Japanese homework while watching his mentor being beemed in from Thailand via satellite.

Shortly after we arrived and introductions were made, lunch started being served and a few people dropped by to join in the feast. The diners were Alex and I, the 2 monks, and 4 of the Temple's followers... after initial prayers, we proceeded to perform a small ceremony where we offered dishes up to the monk who were seated at a seperate table in an elevated section of the room. While Alex and I could hand the dishes directly to the monks, their followers had to place them onto a small sash, I guess they are not allowed to have direct contact with the monks. It was an interesting way to start out the meal as Saychon-san explained to us that he cannot eat unless the dishes are offered to him... and he's not allowed to cook, so he is totally reliant on his followers to sustain him. All of the food was donated to the Temple, or bought with money which is donated to the Temple... quite a neat little system. And what a donation this was!!!

This was a sashimi set which must have cost a pretty penny... it was quite fresh but I couldn't bring myself to eat a part of an animal which was still staring at me... lol Seriously, I can eat sashimi if I have to, or out of respect when visiting someone's home... but if given the choice, I'll avoid it. You can also see an amazing Japanese style soup as well as some tofu with shrimp and vegetables...

This is the kichen, where the ladies and one gentleman were busy creating the feast... they refused our help and treated us like kings... dishes just kept on coming out for us and they wouldn't sit down!!! By the time they sat down for lunch, Alex and I were already stuffed...

Here are some of the dishes... I think a few more came out after I took this picture and the monks' table was also filled to capacity. The fruit tart which Alex and I brought went over quite well... next time Alex says he'll bring steak... I may make up the Moose Pasta I got from Sean and some pasta sauce...

Throughout the lunch, we learned about the life the monks lead, quite interesting. As Saychon-san put it he eats, sleeps and meditates... simply put of course... he also has a Temple to run, a website or 12 to keep updated and plenty of other work to do.

After the fabulous lunch, our offer to help with the cleaning up was turned down and Saychon-san took us up to the second floor to check out the Temple and give us a beginner's lesson on meditation. It turned out to be quite relaxing and interesting. First he went into a back room, plugged in the big screen TV to their web site, clicked on the link to the "Meditation for Beginners" and started playing a video in the main Temple room. How cool is that? A monk from a 2500 year old religion who holds a degree in Computer Science teaching two white boys (one Jewish, one Catholic) to meditate by surfing to his web site and piping in a video! So after getting a little help with the technique of getting into position, we sat for what amazingly ended up being over 20 minutes in silence (interspersed with the sound of the monk's contacts logging in to MSN Messenger... lol) listening to the voice on the video explaining the steps and what to envision as you meditate. It was totally relaxing... Afterwards, we sat with our monk friend and talked for a bit. He explained about their vision of the Mind, which he says is not located in your brain but at your body's center. He explained to us that your brain is merely the CPU (computer jargon) while the mind is something greater, encompassing all of our thoughts, experiences and previous lives. Meditation allows you to gain access to your Mind, as one would log into a Mainframe, where you can gain access to vast knowledge. Pretty cool that he was explaining basic Buddhist principles using computer jargon. In fact, his use of these analogies and the fact that he is totally wired and hip to new technology makes this quote I found quite relevant.
The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.
Albert Einstein
Pretty interesting that old Albert (we are on a first name basis, just as I call Mr. Gates "Bill" in discussions on the subject) presents Buddhism as able to embrace the search for scientific knowledge... it makes sense since buddhism is essentially a search for knowledge.

So I've done a little reading on the subject and here is a quick comment on Dhammakaya. Before the following comment begins, please take into account that before today I have never studied buddhism, and that I have yet to take the time to research it in depth... and I'm hungry and want to finish this post before getting started on dinner so I've only done perfunctory research. If I offend some with my layman's-totally-web-research-based interpretation of Dhammakaya, I apologize. From the little I've read about the Dhammakaya sect of Buddhism it is a relatively new (1970s) and increasingly popular branch of the Theravada school of Buddhism and has received recognition of it's work by the Thai monarchy. It seems to appeal to the current middle-class in Thailand which is reeling from years of amazing economic growth which has lef the youth of the nation trying to find it's place and identity. Dhammakaya seems to be trying to make a bridge between a 2500 year old religion and society's current needs. Quite an interesting challenge. Their main focus seems to be on meditation, through which it is believed anything is possible through the expansion of one's mind. They have brought meditation to the masses in the hopes that by achieving inner peace, peace can spread through the world, a lofty goal to say the least. Dhammakaya seems to also be the place to go for some people disilusioned with the current Buddhist establishment which has been racked with scandals (much as the Catholic Church has) recently. Unfortunately, it seems that Dhammakaya itself is currently taking hits from a scandal involving the building of a new massive Temple in Bangkok as well as it's rather aggressive methods of seeking donations from followers.

On the way out, Saychon-san showed us the dozens of bottles of wine which they are saving for a big New Year's shindig. However, don't be fooled into thinking there'll be any drinking at this party... the wine as well as cigarettes will be destroyed in a ceremony shedding light on the problems caused by alcohol and smoking. Sad to see all that wine go to waste... I could never be a Dhammakaya Buddhist, maybe because of my French blood???

Here be the big man himself, wearing a tuque since it is rather cold out when you have no hair...

Anywho, off to make dinner, I won't even try to compete with the food I had for lunch... simple pasta and meat sauce for dinner tonight... lol

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

A party, some cows, an onsen and Japanese style home cooking... what more could a man ask for in a weekend?

Yes ladies and gents, this seems to have turned into another marvelous weekend... I'm getting tired of using that line... but that's just the way it is!

Saturday night, after two looooooong days of work, I was able to wind down for a bit at a little get-together organized by Happy Motoki, party planner to the stars of Utsunomiya. We headed out to "C'est la vie", a restaurant just behind AEON for some drinks and food. Now, don't let the name fool you... it stands for "That's the life" in French, but this does not mean the restaurant is French. I would say it's mostly Italian with some Spanish, Indian and French (Escargot and Frog) thrown in to the mix. Pretty good food though, all in all, and the wine flowed nicely through the evening. Great big thanks to Happy Motoki for putting this together... it was a blast and I apologize for having to make an early exit... ah the life of a busy English teacher...

So here is some of that wine I was mentionning which was flowing so freely. I had my first taste of Chilean wine, not bad... but the New Zealand was better, maybe even matching my current favourite Mission St-Vincent Bordeaux from France...

Quite unfortunate the photographer had so much to drink... this would have made quite a nice picture... lol

Some of the highlights of the evening, steamed Chinese-style vegetables and boiled garlic shrimp.... mmmmmm The rissotto, pasta and grilled mushrooms were also fabulous.

While the presentation of this Paella was nice, I was rather disapointed with my first taste of this famed Spanish dish. The rice was hard, and everything seemed to taste the same... my one critique on an otherwise outstanding lineup of food, and of course great service at C'est la vie.

So I left the gathering around 10PM, with my girl coming down to pick me up. This morning we headed out for a drive to Nasu, just to spend time together and check things out... nothing special planned... it was a great day! The weather was great, and since it's a bit chilly and the leaves have mostly all fallen, there weren't many people out there. You'll recall my first trip to Nasu in July? resulted in Scott, Yoshiyuki and I being stuck in traffic for 2-3 hours... YUCK! Today was great, I really enjoy just being out in the mountains, and there were still some colours out and about...

Our first stop was a nice farm\amusement center where I got to get re-acquainted with some animals which I've missed in the last little while. Having been around farm animals since childhood while visiting uncles\cousins or others and helping out with the chores, I think I may have surprised a few people when I walked up to a cow and started scratching it behind the ears like a dog... lol It was obvious by the way they were trying to feed the cow (by leaving food on top of the fence, too scared to lose a finger or something) that they weren't comfortable with this relatively large animal being so close to them. I even got to pet some dogs today!!! You have no idea how much I've missed having a dog around the house. Little Pinotte certainly livens up the place and is always there if you need some company... it was nice to play with some pups today.

While the landscape was pretty nice out there, I found it quite difficult to frame shots without including some power line\power tower\pachinko parlour... here's one of my few succesful attemps at doing so...

Next stop was a foot onsen along the shores of a river, and while we waited for it to free up a bit, we took a walk accross this suspension bridge.

The bridge spanned this river, one of the more natural sections of river I've seen here in Japan... notice only one side of it has been destroyed by concrete... the other side is natural rock...

On the road out there in Nasu, we spotted this construction project which neither of us could figure out a purpose for. It seems to be this rather large overpass being built over a field... and well off the highway on what is essentially a residential road connecting 2-3 houses together... this must be one of the colossal wastes of taxpayers money we keep hearing about out here... it's unbelievable the amount of pointless construction going on out here and with every extra dump of cement, another piece of Japan's countryside (mountain, river, stream, waterfall, forest) disappears... quite sad if you sit down and look at it for a second... which many people out here seem to be quite happy avoiding. The Japanese PM is hell bent on pushing government reform starting with the postal service, let's just hope his push eventually carries his party into taking a look at these "make work"\"spend money" projects that are defacing this once beautiful land of theirs.

We leisurely made our way back home where I was treated to my very first Japanese Nabe!!! This picture is a bit off, but Nabe is essentially meat and vegetables cooked in this ceramic dish, usually at the table before eating. It was great!!!

So that was last night and today... tomorrow I'm meeting up with Alex and we're heading over to a Thai buddhist temple for lunch... should be interesting.

Turning to my hometown of Ottawa now, the weather there was a bit nuts this week. To all those who are complaining to me about the cold (High of 12 during the day, low of 5 at night... celsius that is) Tochigi weather... have a look at what Ottawa dealt with this week... First here is a screen capture I just took of the live webcam overlooking Parliament Hill. This was essentially the view I had from our offices when I worked with OR... notice the white stuff, and yes, they had to shovel the snow off the walk to Parliament...

Next, let's have a look at a picture from Camp Fortune, where I was a frequent visitor last Winter and which I will miss dearly. Fortune is a ski hill which offers night skiing only a 15 minute drive from work... I could work until 5PM, hop in my truck and actually be skiing by 5:30... how cool is that!!! And yes indeed, they are open... with the blast of Winter Ottawa got last week, they were able to get enough base down to open up a run... a relatively early start to the season I beliee...

And third, the nastier side of Winter in Ottawa... there is always a period of adjustement where people aren't used to driving in the snow, don't have their Winter tires on yet, aren't slowing down when conditions are bad... this is what happens... this was the scene of a fatal collision on the highway through Ottawa last week when the first major snowfall of the season hit. Not quite sure how a front end loader ended up in this position... but there it is.

On another Winter related note... the Red Hot Ottawa Senators continue to rule the NHL this season, racking up 18 wins and only three losses in what has been a history making start to the season. They also lead the league with the highest goals for (100) and the lowest goals against (43)... Woohoo! Too bad I won't be home to see them take home the cup this year... I'll be cheering from the other side of the planet though...

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

National Holidays... aaaaahhhhh

So here I am, basking in the sunchine pouring in from my patio doors, nice and comfy. The difference between today and yesterday is that today, I must leave this comfy place and work for my pay... ah the sad tale of a salaryman's life... lol

Yesterday was great, it was such a relaxing day... rolled out of bed around noon, headed out for a quick little lunch, stopped in at a French bakery to pick up some fresh bread, sat at Starbucks having a coffee for a while, checked out a book store, headed home to find some inspiration on what to make for dinner, settled on a spanish style cous cous, went to Nagasakiya to pick up a few things, made dinner and watched Moulin Rouge... pretty mellow day.

On Monday, Scott and I took our usual walk around town, first stopping in at one of Utsunomiya's oldest surviving wooden buildings. This is a view of Enmei'in temple, located on a small hill overlooking Izumi cho (a red light district) near my apartment.

This building was originally built within the walls of Utsunomiya Castle, at some (unknown to me) point in the past, and was moved to its current position in 1620 when the castle was expanded and re-organized. The castle was of course destroyed some time later, so this building was quite lucky to have been moved. It then survived the great fire of 1773, the Boshia war, as well as Allied bombings of Utsunomiya during the Second World War. And there it still stands, overlooking the hostess clubs and office buildings of Utsunomiya.

A couple more shots I took on the Temple grounds, this is the incense burner in front of Enmei'in.

I usually make a point of avoiding pictures of graveyards, but the contrast here between the old graves and the city in the back was quite remarkable. The cell tower you see there is on top of the building across the street from AEON.

Berries with temple in the background.

We then made our way to Yamaya to stock up on provisions. On the way there, I snapped this Fall scene of Kencho near the prefecture office.

And then I was quite disapointed to see that these lovely trees were about to be transformed into these bald nubs of wood...

The work crews are hacking away busily at all the trees in town... wouldn't want to have to do something as difficult as raking leaves and such... so they trim the trees right down to the stump every year, which I guess is why there are barely any sizeable trees (or shade) around here... quite sad for a people who professes to have such a love of nature to feel like they must control every last aspect of it.

So anywho, better get going.... I have a meeting today at 2PM about my contract renewal. I think I am only ready at this time to renew for three months... and the situation will be reviewed further in February. Life here is good, but Canada is calling for sure, we shall see what develops in the next little while. Today's workload is doable but my Friday\Saturday combo has now become quite the challenge. On Friday, I teach for two hours, have a meeting for an hour, have one hour for lunch and then teach for four hours straight. I consider it to be my busiest day now since I have only the one break. On Saturday I teach 3-2-2 with 2 breaks in between... so the Friday 3-4 with one break is certainly a lot to handle.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Day trip down the Tobu line to Asakusa...

Headed in to Asakusa today to check out the so called "old-downtown" area of Tokyo. We hopped on the Tobu line first thing this morning since it's a direct link between Asakusa and Utsunomiya (and also about half the distance than the JR station, it's pretty nippy these days out here in Tochigi) and only makes a few stops on the way down making it the best option by far. Settled in to our comfortable reserved seats on the train and enjoyed the panorama unfolding before us as the train took us past the mountains around Nikko, including of course the massive Nantai-san which was covered in snow.

After a nice relaxing ride in, we arrive in Asakusa around 9:30 and proceeded directly to the Excelsior cafe across from the station where I had a delectable Maple latte. Yum!

We then headed out for a look at the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) where hangs this huge lantern. As with all of the tourists around, I got the following typical picture of said gate and lantern...

After walking under the gate, we were faced with every tourists dream (or nightmare depending on your point of view), a long street of shops catering solely to tourists... this is Nakamise, a shopping arcade\street with a history stretching at least a few centuries. picked up 4 Christmas gifts here... lovely stuff. Unfortunately, once you head outside of this tourist area, shops immediately revert to selling western style clothing and goods... so I haven't yet completed my Japanese-themed Christmas shopping yet.

Here is a shot of the lovely Pagoda located on the grounds of Senso-ji temple which lies at the end of Nakamise.

We eventually made our way through the throngs of shoppers and arrived upon Senso-ji Temple, this behemoth of a building teeming with worshipers. We proceeded inside where we threw our coin into the largest donation box I've ever seen. We actually launched the coins over a few rows of worshipers to get it in there, I guess the size is necessary... lol

This is the incense burner outside the temple which worshipers use to purify themselves before entering. I understand the smoke may have some healing properties as well.

And of course, what visit to a popular Tokyo temple is complete without the requisite flag-waving loud-speaker-using tour groups to add to the fun!

After diverting from the tourist district to find a Mizuho bank for my stupid-ass self who didn't have time to withdraw cash yesterday, we walked around Asakusa for a bit getting a feel for the ol' 'hood. One some side street, we found this cat sleeping the afternoon away in sunshine that is unfortunately slipping away as the day progresses. Now I'm not a cat person, not sure I would ever go so far as to own one, but they can be rather cute and adorable, on occasion...

These little alleys litter Asakusa, some leading only to residential quarters, others to fancy Ryokans... interesting area...

After putting around for a while, we headed back towards Senso-ji for another go at the tourist shops... here's a different view of the Temple, complete with a traditionally dressed young lady.

After a final assault on the shops, we decided to head to Ueno to check out a neat market district and the zoo. The market is called Ameyayoko and it houses some of the most boisterous vendors I've seen in Japan... from their respective stores, you'll here them calling out to you and haggling with customers on prices... quite interesting.

And then, the (culinary) highlight of the day. What could it be you ask? Fresh sushi? Kobe beef? Oconomiyaki? Some other delectable dish? NOPE! Today's outing appeased a craving I've had for months now, a craving for some kind of middle-eastern food. After living and working within such close proximity to dozens of great Shawarma\Fallafel\Donair places in Ottawa, the move to Utsunomiya has substantially lowered my intake of ethnic foods. Right here, in the middle of all the madness that is Ameyayoko, stood this stand... we initially walked by ignoring the calls of "Umai! Umai! Ichiban number one kebab in Tokyo" from the vendors... but once we got downwind from the stand, it stopped us dead in our tracks and we headed back.

If anyone is in the neighbourhood and craving some good turkish\lebanese food, I'd suggest giving these guys a go... this lovely chunk of food heaven cost 500 yen, worth every last yen.

We then headed towards Ueno park to find the zoo. Now, while I will admit to being entertained by the monkeys and the porcupine, and while it was nice to see the animals actually out and about doing their thing, I found the overall zoo experience to be rather sad one. I think what set the tone was the very first exhibit, that of Ling Ling the Giant Panda. There was Ling Ling, cuddled into a corner passed out in a small enclosure surrounded by flashing cameras and shouts of "Kawaii!!!"... I found it quite depressing actually. The state of disrepair in which the Ueno Zoo finds itself is shameful, cages are rusted, viewing windows are opaque with dirt and mold, living environments are not much more than concrete pads with leaves strewn about... Now seeing as my only previous zoo experience was a visit to the zoo St-Felicien, Quebec, where the HUMANS are the ones in cages, and the animals are roaming freely, I guess I don't have much to compare with... are all zoos like this?

Like I said, the monkeys were of course amusing, running around doing their thing in their cages. They are rather social animals...

This is a shot of the biggest monkey enclosure, which hosts over a dozen Japanese mountain monkeys, like those which can be found up around Nikko, though I have yet to see any in the wild, after 2 trips up there. Now, for those of you with good eyes... no they aren't doing what it looks like they're doing.

Hungry hungry hippos... it was at this point, after spouting out factoid 392 of the day: "Did you know that some consider hippos to be the most dangerous animal in Africa? Far ahead of lions and crocodiles? They've been known to capsize boats and swiftly kill it's occupants with their massive teeth" that I realized my head is filled with a crap load of useless junk... Sir Lewis, I think I have officially joined ranks with you in the "knows a little about just about everything" category... glad to join the club.

Finally, some Canadian company on this day... This was the first of 3 Cannucks I saw... the North American Porcupine... this fella had climbed a tree near the walking path and was being admired by quite a few people. The other Canadians? The Canada Goose and of course the Beaver.

So after completing the hike around the zoo, which tacked on a couple of clicks to our shoes, we headed to Ueno station for the trip back. Unfortunately, the ride home wasn't quite as comfy as the ride to Tokyo since we had to use the JR line, and didn't get a seat on the train until about 45 minutes down the line. After a day of walking, that seat sure felt good though! Picked up some veggies and I made up a quick dinner before seeing my lovely little lady off. Great day!

Tomorrow, I'm meeting up with Scott for our weekly "Tully's and a Walk tour"... and again later when I will introduce him to a friend of a friend over dinner at Al Noor... best Indian food in the prefecture! mmmm, I can taste it already. Following dinner, the three musketeers might head out to Kegon for a relaxing drink and maybe settle in for some comedy on DVD shortly thereafter. This week promises to be a good one with Wednesday being a National Holiday and Motoki planning a party for Saturday night...

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

A new friend...

My chief complaint over the last 6 months has been the difficulty with cooking since I only have one burner. Of course, it has been suggested that I just go out and buy some kind of seperate unit, but I'm just lazy and don't want to spend the cash... so instead, I've made a new friend. Pad Thai noodles... ok, everybody repeat after me... Pad Thai noodles... I didn't realize this the first time I cooked this dish, but Pad Thai is stupid fast to make! The main source of expedience is the fact that the noodles don't need to be boiled... in fact, here they are cooking right here, with my one burner is free to start the rest of the meal prep!

It's great! Just boil some water, (which takes about a minute with the ridiculously high setting my hot water tank is on), remove from heat and throw the noodles in for 5 minutes before straining them and setting them aside. It's great!

This entire meal took me about 10 minutes to make, keeping in mind that I'd cut up the veggies and meat this afternoon while on my marvelously wonderful 3 hour break.

At the 5 minute mark, the noodles are ready to go, the chicken is cooked and I've thrown an egg in there...

A minute later I throw in the veggies and start sizzling...

2 minutes later the noodles go in.

And voila, a lovely meal ready less than 20 minutes after I walk in the door from work... what more could one ask for? I also added bean sprouts (not pictured) which added a minute or two... and made me realize I may need a bigger pan... lol

So that was tonight's action, let it be inspiration for those of you who feel they can't cook out here. (Anna, I'm not sure if you're reading this but this is directly directed at you! and if you're not reading it, I hope your friend from Nishi-Nasuno gives you the heads up... lol)

So this week has been good so far, 3 days down 2 to go before the weekend... woohoo! Weather's getting a bit crisp and I've let loose with the old lamb skin coat... It now officially look like "The Sopranos do Japan" out here... lol Haven't lowered myself so far as to turning on the heat yet... place warms up nicely with the sun during the day and it stays plenty warm until I get to bed. The night does get pretty cold but I've got a huge duvet to hide under so I should be fine. My folks and brothers are heading out camping back home this weekend, god bless 'em... temperature is beloew freezing this time of year, have fun! I miss camping... but soon... soon my hammock and I will be reunited...
Last night we headed out for our regular Wednesday night beer with Scott's Frontiers class, checked out the German place we went to once before and I tried the "Onion Soup au Gratin" which was honestly quite disapointing... next time I'll stick to the pastrami sandwich...

Tomorrow evening the boys will be returning to Kegon at the Tobu Grande Hotel, I'll try and get some wider shots of the place to give you an idea of the atmosphere... and will try and get a more flattering picture of Scott than last week's... lol

Saturday night I get to see my girl again and we're heading in to Asakusa (Tokyo) on Sunday where I expect to purchase gifts to send back home for Christmas. It's a good life.

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