Sunday, October 25, 2009

Land of 8 Million Gods.

"Memories of home I sit in Kyoto Crows caw in the hill"
- Harold Wright.
Yes, I know it has been two months since returning from my vacation and I am still blogging about the events, but these pages aren't exactly in high-demand, so I trust I shall be forgiven for my lackadaisical attitude and dearth of punctuality. So then, where shall I resume? I left Tokyo and hopped on the bullet train bound for Kyoto. It had been a fun night of partying and I had unregrettably had no sleep. I sat tired in my seat on the train wishing for sleep, but unwilling to give in to the impulse with the Japanese landscape staring in at me from out the window, so I sat there, still in my chair as rice fields and mountains, and farms and cities, and small homes all passed by me. I arrived in Kyoto, anxious to see what the city would offer. Kyoto was the traditional capital of Japan, and is still considered the heart of Japan and her cultural capital. More than perhaps anywhere else in the country can you see people walking around in traditional Japanese kimonos. I searched the city, and all cities in Japan I visited, for a kimono for myself, but as I far exceed the average height of Japanese men, alas I could find nothing that would fit. Kyoto is known for her abundance of UNESCO world heritage sites and wealth of shrines and temples. Japan itself is rich in temples and shrines, those made by man, and those made by the Divine. I could not possibly have visited even half of the sites of the city in the four days I remained there, but I would let my tired feet find no rest in my effort to try.
I arrived in Kyoto and made my way to my hostel, though really a guest house. The first place I stayed, had one employee, the owner of the hostel. It was a small place with only a few rooms, but excellent hospitality and in the center of Kyoto's famed Gion district. I threw my bag down on my bed and immediately began my journeys for the day mapping out a few of the sites to see. One site I visited joined a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine on the same plot of land, the two great religions of Japan in a harmonious union. The Shinto shrine was famous throughout Japan as the shrine for lovers, a place to pray for success in love and relationships, and the shrine housed two stones called Lovers' Stones and if you close your eyes and successfully walk from one stone to the next, then you are to soon find fortune in love. It is said to have someone at your side to aid and guide you in the journey, a true semblance of relationships themselves, but in Cordell fashion, I was there alone with no one to guide or help, so I took off my sandals and with my feet I felt the lines in the stone pavement that led from one Lovers' Stone to the next, and safely made it there, and I know it has only been two months, so still I'll be patient for what the Shinto Gods have promised me, hoping they will remain more true to their word than the Gods of my past.
I walked out of the shrine, and out past the temple where I entered, looking back at the two great religions of a country dedicated to the sacred, and I took my thoughts and my feet out through the city, up and down the streets and alleys of Kyoto, stopping for green tea ice cream, or local pastries, wandering in and out of what shrines and temples I passed, and as the sun began to set, I found myself in a small patch of lawn and trees guarding a bridge and small pond of water where flowers stood out from the banks, the busy road above me, and I stared out above the overpass near me and watched the sun slip down over the city, a giant flame in the western sky, far far to the east. I watched the sun slowly sink in with the horizon and I walked among her subtle rays as the sky began to bleed with the colors of sunset and dusk embattled, and I found myself at Inari Shrine. It was dusk, with the coming of night and few people were there. Inari is famous for its thousands of
red tori forming covered pathways. Walking through between the dusk and the dark, alone in the silence of the shrine was a calming stroll with the spirits of great shintoist. Inari at night, it is a place for lovers. I walked the halls in the night, the sky itself serenading me with her silence, and I thought of the women whose hands I might be holding at the moment. I imagined the divine silence between shared under the lit tori, and stolen kisses in sacred hallways. I stopped off at a pond, feeling my way through the darkness down the slippery bank through the trees and bushes and watched the stillness of water at night, hearing soft sounds about me, though unable to see from whence the sounds came. I imagine it is the very feelings I felt that night, walking through the tori, that these shrines were built for, and if you can ever visit any temple in silence and solitude, than I implore you do.
Later that night I walked down into the Gion district for Kyoto cuisine and began to walk the famed cobblestone streets at night. The occassional Geisha would pass by, only she and I on the road, only lamplight shining down on the bobblestones and our faces. I saw more Geisha the next day, but unlike my first night in the dark and
quiet, crowds stood around waiting and watching, and the poor Geisha as they approached were animals parading through a zoo. I preferred at night, no pictures, no people, nor the flash of cameras. I wondered through the streets at night, behaving like my father on some wilderness trail, needing to know where every road would take me, and I found my way in to another Buddhist temple long after dark, no one else on the grounds. I sat and stared at the temples and bells and roof lines. I could have stripped and run naked, but instead strode through under the trees dripping softly above me. I made it back to the hostel and and finally lay myself down for sleep around midnight, still not having slept from the night before. This was but my first day in Kyoto, land of temples and gods, heart of Japan. There was a feeling there in Kyoto, and the people seemed to know it, seemed to respect the heritage of the city, her culture and customs, but why would I use my own words, when others will always say it better?
"The charm of Kyoto is where nature fuses well with the human-made"
-Mizuno Katsuhiko and Kayo
"Kyoto has a wonderful embracing capacity. In a way you feel small and insignificant, as if looking up into a night full of stars. And yet it feels so personal, unlike in the elaborate buildings and castles of Europe. There is a more humble feeling about Kyoto; a sense that she was built by hands, not money."
- Sugihara Iona
I visited more places in Kyoto, and switched my last two nights to another guest house, also small, this one with two employees, one a very attractive Japanese gal named Jumi. I visited many temples, walked the famed creeking boards of Nijo Castle, saw the tallest wooden pagoda in all of Japan, attended a Japanese flea market on the grounds of Buddhist temple, with monks walking in processions and burning incense through the shops and shoppers. I took a train out to Arashiyama and the temple and gardens there and walked the river and monkey hill. I so hoped to swim int he river and jump from the bridge, but the water below was only ankle deep and offered no calming pool to escape the heat and sun. I visited famous Zen gardens and sat in silence staring out at the stones manicured in to a deep simplicity. I cannot recall all the places I visited, nor the names of the many temples and shrines and gardens that I saw. Often I would visit a temple only for the gardens, more marveled at the blend of water and stone among the trees than with the great temples. I sat on lawns and watched both sky and people. I relaxed in sacred shade. I breathed, and enjoyed, and prayed the many prayers I do always pray. I think my favorites in all of Kyoto were the Inari Shrine and the Golden Pavillion. The Inari Shrine I loved for my silent walk through the red torries, the dusk and the dark, and I captured in the long halls of the torries. The Golden Pavillion, or kinkakuji temple is a temple of gold serenely standing over water with lillies and coy and ducks floating and swimming. I walked all around the large pond, with the pavillion standing magnificently blended in with the trees and
water, yet standing out as if to say in triumphant voice "Here I am. Remember me among the water and lillies . Here I am and have been." I loved the pavilion for how it stood above the water in vibrant gold surrounded by a living pond. Also, I enjoyed my beautiful new friend, Jumi. We stayed up talking each night I stayed at the guest house till 5:00 a.m., and I enjoyed a fun and fleeting crush.
Like Tokyo, Kyoto offered me precisely what I hoped for, temples and shrines, and a glance in to an old culture, a city rich in heritage and history. I'll remember, like I remember the many sacred moments and sights of my life.
Were I a building I would be a little shop in old Kyoto maybe selling rice paper or erotic prints. . . Or I'd be an ancient inn built of smoke black wood or stained gray foundation stones hauled from burned temples. I'd prefer not to be tall like Takashima-ya or sturdy like the palace or Nijo castle; I want to shake in earthquakes and be rattled by lovers.
-Harold Wright

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Land of the Rising Sun

"The city is not a concrete jungle. It is a human zoo."
- Desmond Morris.
I often cannot tell if I am more a fan of the city, large and livley, or of the country, small and serene. One is full of peace, and the other energy, though in both you can find all things needed, if looking in the appropriate places. When I visit and pass through small towns and countryside I am awed and frozen still at the beauty. I am quieted and content and connected with nature and her creator. When in a city I am alive in my energy and connected with this world's other creations, and I watch, observer that I am. I love big cities. I love to visit them. I love walking the streets and staring high in the sky at tall buildings. I love the lit up signs and the skyline at night, jagged and raw. Perhaps after reading Ayn Rand's novel "The Fountainhead," I will look at skyscrapers differently, though I know I have always looked at them differently, and know that I have always looked at them, and not just glanced them over. I love watching the people, those on crowded streets or in busy parks to perform for coins, those making statements to stand out, and those giving equal effort to blend in to their own obscurity. One can never think of a city without thinking of her people, for if nature is God's altar to himself, then cities are man's altar to himself.
Yes, I love visiting these concrete jungles, and some I have always wished to visit more than others. One such city is the bustling megalopolis of Tokyo, the largest of them all. I can now say I have walked her streets. I have smelled, and felt, and heard, and touched, and tasted, and seen Tokyo, what little one can see of her in a mere weeks time, but the blisters on my feet will tell stories of her that the weakness in my words will never say.
I flew in to Tokyo's Narita airport and somehow managed to navigate the subway system and find my hostel. I spent the fist few nights in a capsule style hostel. Capsule rooms are just like they sound. You do not rent a room, or a bed, but rather a box, or capsule, in which you sleep. They are popular among Japanese businessmen or partygoers who miss the last train home at night. They are also becoming popular with backpackers, and I could not pass through Tokyo without a night in an enclosed box, covered on all sides, dark and private.
I don't really know what to tell you about Tokyo. I didn't do any tours there, nor in all of Japan, like I did in Bejiing, but I walked Tokyo and scabbed my feet, the thongs of my flip flops cutting in to my skin, already blistered from China's travels. My first few nights were in Shinjuku, a popular spot in Tokyo for shopping and nightlife, and as I arrived on a Friday night I ventured down to the heart of Shinjuku to find the fabled nightlife. I discovered firsthand, and later re-confirmed through books I read that most of Shinjuku's nightlife is more sexual in flavor. Seductive voices on speakers beckoned passers by in to video lounges or bars. Sex shops donned most streets, hostess bars donned every street, and each corner was crowded with men acting friend to every other man who passed offering sweet deals on women inside his club. Sexy Asian temptresses stood on corners, walking advertisement for massage parlors, and at the sight of foreigners would speak one of the few English words they know, "massagie." Yes, Asians don't seem to grasp the concept of the silent "e."
While I didn't venture in to any of the hostess bars, or maid bars, or theme bars, or strip clubs, or massage parlors, or sex shops, or video lounges, or arcade halls, I didn't try to rush out of the area either. It wasn't really temptation that kept me, nor even curiosity to enter, but the thrill of the moment, watching and listening to the people pass me by, and came back again to that part of town another night, to feel the energy again and eat in in street side noodle stalls, and the men working the clubs just couldn't seem to understand that sometimes all a man wants is a bowl of noodles, and not sex. But how fun it was trying to convince them and their well wishes when they let me pass.
Tokyo is an interesting blend of modern city and traditional Japan, and nothing exemplifies that as much as do the people. While people are not anxious to speak English, even those who can speak English, they are friendly, and if you look lost for long enough, someone will invariably come to assist you. For the size of the city, it is clean, with little litter, which I find surprising due to the aggravating lack of garbage cans everywhere in the city. Cab drivers are all dressed in collared shirts and ties with clean cabs, and store employees genuinely act like they are trying to help you, quite the contrast from China where you know everyone was trying to rip you off for all they could. It was also amazing to me in Tokyo, with as large of a city as it was that not only were drivers very conscientious of traffic laws, but so too were pedestrians. Even if no cars were coming on a small side street, a crowd of people would stand and wait for the walking light to turn green. Most cities, pedestrians rush in to intersections at any chance and weave in and out of cars like Frogger. There was definitely a sense of hospitality in Tokyo, in all of Japan, and I tip my hat to her politeness and propriety.
Not only did I walk the streets of Shinjuku, gazing out at sin and gluttony, but I walked through the temples of Asakusa, spending a few nights there and my days on her small streets lined with small shops that have been standing for decades unchanging. I partied and shopped in Shibuya, and club hopped in Ropongi. I walked the whole city, staring up at the Tokyo tower lit in darkness on the one night I was without a camera. I walked through parks and rode subways and saw the imperial palace, and clothed myself in smoke and ashes from burning incense and washed my hands from holy fountains at Buddhist temples. I people watched everywhere I went, and Tokyo rivals any place I have been for people watching. Modern Japanese goths skulk about in boisterous groups, pink girls dressed like giant dolls with bleach blonde poofy hair parade around, and fashion divas, both women and men, strut the streets. I thought some Korean men looked feminine, but wow, some of those Japanese boys really take it to a new level. Their hair, their fashion, their walk, any one of which would be a bold and brave plea for a mocking and beating back home in the states is in Japan the newest fashion trend, and on Sundays in Harajuka, everyone comes out on full display to show off their costumed creations. It is a thrill to see. I will also boldly admit that after only a short time in Tokyo I quickly and finally found myself attracted to Asian women. There were such beauties walking the streets, though most too short, and many with horrible teeth, but Japan, and Tokyo in particular, did have beautiful women, and even in coming back to small Yeosu, I found myself much more interested in the women here, and my eye has been much more active since returning.
Oh, Tokyo is a crazy city, the largest metropolitan area in the world, near 35 million people within the surrounding areas. I walked across the busiest intersection in the world, passed through the busiest train station in the world, and in general lost myself in the madness that is Tokyo. I walked, and shopped, and ate, and went out most nights, often with whomever I met at the hostel that day, and my last night in Tokyo I came back to the hostel I first stayed at. There I met a small group of people who invited me to a professional Japanese baseball game. Six of us went out to the game and cheered for the home team Giants, who won that night. Four of us were Americans, and we taught our Australian and Irish friend, as well as a few of the Japanese people sitting around us how to sing "Take Me Out To the Ball Game" after the 7th inning stretch. No baseball game is really complete without that song, and the crowds around us looked and stared at the funny foreigners singing loud in English. After the game we met up with more people from the hostel and went around the city looking for places to dance and party. Our group slowly grew larger and we finally found a place we all enjoyed and danced and raved and let all our energy crash out of us till 5:00 a.m. I returned to the hostel and dared not sleep, knowing I needed to check out and catch a train to Kyoto hours later. It was my favorite night in Tokyo. The group I was with that night was awesome, cool dudes, and sexy girls from places across the globe. It was a great way to end a great adventure and send me off on yet another.
I know I haven't written as much about Tokyo, a city deserving novels. I have always wanted to see her, and now I have, and though I did not take any grand tour like I did in Bejiing, from Tokyo I got exactly what I wanted. I wanted only to people watch, shop the stores, eat sushi and noodles, walk the streets and loose myself in the craziness, and that I did, and did it well. In a week there, I touched only the surface and left much undone, but what I did do will stay deep in me in memories.
All that a city will ever allow you is an angle on it -- an oblique, indirect sample of what it contains, or what passes through it; a point of view. Peter Conrad

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"River of Poems."

"He who travels in Guilin hills finds himself in a fairyland...He who sails along the Li River finds himself boating in a sweet dream."
The Li River is called the river or poems and paintings. Floating down the river it is easy to see why. I woke up early one morning, near the end of my China adventure and set off on a boat gently floating the Li River, 54 miles of scenery that in China they say is the best under heaven. We began our boat journey in Guilin, and ended 4 hours later in Yongshuo.
The river was crowded with boats of like mind, passengers wishing for glances at the fabled landscape. Hopefully, each of them discoveredas I did that it is called the River of Poems and paintings not merely for the strokes of pen and paint brush it has inspired over centuries and millennia, but because the river itself is the poem, each drop of water some sacred word, and the mountains and sky and fields and farms and huts and villages, all the envy of every artist, and I am no artist, so what justice can I possibly give to this sacred river, this River of Poems?
The river took us down in to the countryside, green in summer's sweat. The river was calm, like the day itself, and the water looked cool below us lapping against the boat. The river twisted and turned and carved its way through the Karst Mountains, limestone peaks at every view, pyramids to all nature, temples of dirt and stone, and as we floated down, these very
mountains became our bread crumbs leading the way to Yongshuo. The jagged peaks rose and stood mighty, tall juts of stone. Some formed mountains, others stood solo and proud. We passed many villages, farmers in their fields, children washing away
the heat in the winding river. Water buffalo waded through, wetting their skin and dipped and dove to eat the plants growing tall from the river bottom. Fishermen waded through with spears and some fishermen used trained birds to catch fish in their beaks too big to swallow, which then came back for the fishermen to pull the fish from their beaks. It is a way of fishing here practiced for many years.
The weather was befitting the river,forecasted for hot and humid, but perhaps because of the wind rising from the water it felt much cooler on the river, my shirt off allowed the breeze to blow and brush my skin and redden my chest and shoulders. I stood out on the deck, bending over the rails as though each inch out allowed me deeper breaths and a greater understanding of the wind on my face. I needed to feel it, just a little more. I needed the feel and smell of wind and water on my face, and I breathed with every silent awe of wonder.
The river wrapped and carved around the mountains and valley with scenic vistas at every bend. One point provided panoramic views of the scene displayed on the 20 RMB note. It is worthy of the honor. A cave sat silently to the left, and giant chutes stood arrogantly to the right. Monoliths lay at every bend, every corner, and the mountains formed puzzles or held hidden paintings, one held 9 sacred horses eroded into her giant belly. Of this river of poems though, let a poet worthy enough give her final praise. "The river looks like a blue ribbon, and the mountains are emerald hairpin." - Han Yu
The river was glorious and spectacular,
though remember the river was but the journey and not wholly the destination, the means, but not the end. I arrived in Yongshuo and found a hostel with a guy
from Mexico city I had met who had been living in Shanghai for the past year.
We headed out to explore the city, found some small hole in the wall diner, run by a husband and wife and very young child who acted the part as waiter. It was run down and not all too clean appearing, but cheap and filling and delicious.
That night we met up with a gal from Sweden and all went to the famous light show on the river, the second biggest performance in all of China, next to the Bejiing Olympics' opening ceremony, directed by the same guy. The show was good, but made amazing by the setting and scenery. Much of the show takes place on the river or her banks. All the seats stared directly on to a large, private portion of the river, secluded and glass smooth, with those jutting peaks standing guard so close in the background. Hundreds of performers would sing or dance, all in traditional chinese costume. Hundreds of torches carried on canoes, or brightly lit boats floated across the river and spot lights fastened to the mountings lighting them in surreal fashion. It was art to sit and watch the river and those mountains, lights and reflections, and the performers merely interacted, knowing they could never steal the show.
Later that night we met up with a couple from England and all went out to a bar and stayed and talked for hours, and then me and my friend from Mexico went out to the various small clubs in town and arrived back at the hostel late.
In the morning we again woke early and set off on another adventure. We rented mountain bikes and headed out in to the countryside several hours. When you think of rural China, that is what I saw that day. Swamped rice fields held small hay tee pee and hogun style contraptions. Mountains and fields and rivers and ponds and small huts nestled under trees, overgrown with ivy. Water buffalo, ducks, and chickens roamed about. Farmers worked their fields, plowed and picked and gathered and raked the harvested rice grains in Zen like style. Men and women carted and carried
vegetables or hay, or hauled their loads on donkeys. Women washed clothes in the river, beating and grinding cloth against rock and stone. Irrigated fields formed pools of fish farms, corn and rice and peppers and so much more. I picked a hot peppera from a plant to taste and burn my mouth. We travelled small paths through small villages run down brick homes dark and drab and all we saw were those working the fields. It was hot and humid in the sun and we rode around in Chinese straw hats, amazed at every turn and peddle of our
feet. We reached an old stone bridge on the river about 35 feet high and we stripped to our boxers and jumped from the top. The water was perfect on such a hot day and we each jumped again and played and swam in the water with the occasional bamboo raft floating by. It was a grand day, perhaps my favorite part of China. Yongshuo was the postcard I had heard and hoped it would be.
This countryside, the many fields and
farms, and the mountains mixing and
mingling with rivers is often bragged about in China, and for me, one old and famous Chinese saying held true. "Guilin has the
most beautiful scenery in China, and Yongshuo is the most beautiful part of Guilin." Thank you Yongshuo, thank you for every blade and grain,thank you.
I ended my Chinese journey in Shanghai, walking around the city, eating delicious dried mangoes purchased from a fruit stand. I walked down to the Bund, Peoples' Square, and the French Concessions. I walked and shopped and looked and met up with an Ozzy for dinner in some small restaurant, and that night I stayed up late in my hostel room talking with people from around the world, and I was not ready for sleep, though the hours passed and my eyes burdened. I loved the talks. I loved the whole journey. China was a grand place for me, each day some new adventure, always busy, yet always refreshed and relaxed, and the end of China merely brought on the beginning of some new adventure in the land of the rising sun.
I spent my last days as I would have wished, juxtaposed journeys of roaming about crowded cities, and peddling quiet countrysides. Oh when I see the sights I did see on that river, or biking through small dirt paths cutting through farms and fields, I am drawn to the pastoral.
I had so long been troubled by official hat and robe
That I am glad to be an exile here in this wild southland.
I am a neighbour now of planters and reapers.
I am a guest of the mountains and woods.
I plough in the morning, turning dewy grasses,
And at evening tie my fisher-boat, breaking the quiet stream. Back and forth I go, scarcely meeting anyone,
And sing a long poem and gaze at the blue sky.
-Liu ZongYuan.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Forest of Sweet Osmanthus."

"Take me as a grain of rice, husked and one among billions."
-Jerry Grandea
Well, part III begins. I have travelled to Guilin, well known through all of China for her scenery and magnificent vistas. The area deserves her reputation and China has eulogized her through the centuries in poetry, art, and song. "Guilin's beauty is the best under heaven" an adage says, and I am slow to argue, and slower still to forget.
I saw many things in and around Guilin, and will divide her stories in two. Reed Flute Cave was in Guilin. My short venture on a bamboo raft was as well, and so too were long bus rides up tall mountains through treacherous passes, and calming boat trips down soothing rivers. The city itself is pretty, with the river darting through and dividing, parks and paths and the famous hills surrounding, but it was beyond the city I spent my time and loved the moments and the air I breathed.
One morning I woke and hopped aboard a bus to visit the famed Dragon's Backbone rice terrace in LongSheng on LongJi mountain. It is one of the areas I most wanted to see in China. The terraces stretch far out on every mountain, manicured and perfect high in the hills, tops of mountains down to valley bases, steps and steppes for giants
to journey to their temples high above. I visited small minority villages, danced and sang in their celebrations, walked through their homes, corn and rice strung out on wooden floorboards or stone paths, or hanging in bunches like bouquets from the ceiling to dry in the sun. In one house an old man bent over the small family stove tucked in to a corner on the floor, smoke settling and sifting among the odor of the beams and dry wicker baskets, and that very smoke was all part of it, and could never be replaced.
As it is easier for me, I will do as I have done before and tell you only what I have already told myself.
Monday, August 10th, the year of our Lord two thousand nine.
"Today I hopped on a bus and did a day trip down to Longji to see the LongSheng rice terraces. They are the largest in the world, formed 700 years ago. The drive out was fantastic. We headed out of Guilin a few hours east in to pure country and farming villages. Men and women carrying bamboo sticks over their shoulders with buckets tied to each end walked the small roads, small palms dotted the rice paddies, swamped in water, and local farmers waded through working their harvest. The air and sky is much clearer out there and you could see the tall mountains surrounding endless farmland. It was glorious. Our bus rose and rose the narrow mountain road, a river carving down as we carved up. Chinese children played and swam in the river seeking refuge from the sun and humidity. Men waded through with nets or spears in search of food, ducking their heads beneath the river surface for long moments. The mountain too was beautiful and we had to switch to a smaller bus able to make it up the last steep and windy section and maneuver the sharp corners. At top we then had to hike the rest of the mountain, perfectly landscaped with old wooden homes built on stilts the villagers lived in. Chickens and ducks roamed about, free range food, and half-way up we stopped for lunch. I ordered the bamboo rice and bamboo chicken. It is well-known in the area. They take a hallowed out bamboo reed and stuff it with Chicken and sauce and spices and vegetables, then throw it on a fire and let it smoke over coals. They do the same with
the rice. The rice was good, but the chicken was delicious, tender and each bite a flavor of its own. I'll say it is the best meal I've yet had in Asia. I finished hiking the mountain and on top I had an aerial view of all the terraces, perfectly sloping and terraced down the mountain, interrupted only by scattered homes or small villages. It all looked like a well-manicured mountain ski resort town, small and green with summer. The whole walk up and down was filled with panoramic views of picturesque mountains and rice terraces and rustic homes.
On the way back we stopped at the Yao village, a small village of a Chinese ethnic group. They are outsiders, even the Chinese people have only been able to visit within the last ten years. The road to Longji was only completed in 2002. The Yao village is on the river at the base of the mountain. It is a matriarchal society with the women the definite head of the household. The men tend to stay in cooking and caring for the children. What the village is known for is the long hair of the women. The longest hair is 201 cm. I am about 186-187 cm (6'2''). They only ever once cut their hair, and only a portion of it once they marry.
You can tell the status of the women by their
hair. Single women always wear a wrap around their head, their husband needing to be the first person to see their hair. There was a ceremony at the village. It began with all the single women performing dances and songs. Then they grabbed four men, I the only volunteer. We each picked out a girl for our bride and they dressed us up and then we all held hands in a circle and danced about. After that our brides sang to us, then we sang solos to our brides.
Then we stood back to back and exchanged gifts. Then two of us went to the front of
stage and mashed their sticky, gooey rice cakes with long poles and we did toasts with our brides and were marr
ied and then carried our new wife on our back off stage, though in play the other girls chased me around from
side to side of the stage with my new wife on my back. It is custom in the village if they like you and want you stay
they pinch your bum. The harder they pinch, the more they like you.
To your bride, a man gently touches his foot to hers. All through dancing and the entire ceremony women were
grabbing my butt and pushing and banging in to me. It was a riot and now I am married, and of course those women already married did let down their hair for us all to see."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Where Sleeping Soldiers Lie."

"Soldier rest! thy warfare o'er, Sleep the sleep thast knows not breaking, Dream of battled fields no more, Days of danger, nights of waking."
-Sir Walter Scott
Finally, part two begins. I have been back now for a few weeks, and am once again enjoying the oh so unique thoughts and actions of Koreans in my little town. Someday I'll have to try and explain this all to you. It is both the joy, and frustration of living here. But for now, let me pick up where I left off. I left Bejiing after a week there and took an overnight train to Xi'an. The train was suppose to be about 11 hours, but really it was 16. I was lucky to get a spot on any train. Because of high tourist season, nearly everything was completely booked, and they had one spot left for the next 5 days. I took a soft sleeper, 4 bunk bed style cots shared with three others in a small room. There were three Chinese girls in the room with me, one who spoke some English, the other two spoke none. As the train left Bejiing late afternoon, I went out in to the narrow hallway sitting on a fold down chair and stared out the window at the country rushing past me on the rails. I sat for some time, befriended by my Ipod and the music I love, soundtracks of the many lives I try to live. A cute young chinese gal came and sat on the fold down chair the other end of the window, with subtle smiles and bashful stares. I began to talk with her, and soon discovered that she spoke English poorly, yet even with that, we spent many hours sitting out in hallway of the roaring train looking out the windows together, and chatting away about China and traveling and any small talk we could think of. Until late we talked, when her mother called her back in to their room, with some cautious and disapproving glares. Her name is zhaoshuo, my new Chinese friend. I stayed awake a short time longer and went in to my small cot and slept the few hours that I could, waking early and walking the halls before the train pulled in to the station. I met zhaoshuo again that morning, and as she lives in Xi'an, she offered to meet me outside my hostel that same morning and take me around the city acting as my guide. Sure enough, at 9:00 a.m. she was there at my hostel and acted the very gracious guide, taking me to the sites she enjoyed, the food she eats, and the stores she shops at. I don't know where all she took me to, but we entered in to many walls and palaces and parks, walked large waterways, meandered through small museums, stood high on towers overlooking the city that stretched out beyond the water and man made lakes surrounding the parks and palaces. We sat in shade from the sun, under folding boughs and willowing branches, talked on benches gazing out at the scenery of an ancient country. All through pathways of small brooks and statues and carvings we talked and walked in to the late evening when she dropped me off at my hostel to return home. She told her mother she was hanging out with a friend that day, telling me her mother would not like her hanging out with a foreigner. So we said our goodbyes for the night.
I met up with some gals from the hostel and we walked a few miles through the city to one of the famous pagodas in town, this one famous for its many water fountains. Dozens of water fountains, likely over a hundred were strategically places in grids across the slabs of cement walkways. Each night around 9:00 the fountains all begin to shoot off their water with lights and music serenading the shooting gusts of water that transform through colors, yellow, blue, pink, green, white, and the glow of the sky changes with the spray of stained water drops. Only at night do the fountains show their potential, release their purpose and become the fountains they were born to be, and the music celebrates them, the lights celebrate them, and the thousands of people crowding around to watch, join in on the revelry and gaiety, extensions of music and light and a hundred fountains that cascade up and fall down. It is a celebration for more than watching, but for frolic and play, and how many can resist the temptation of falling water on your skin on a hot night in August? Dance and play and sing and shout, and let the water know, let the night and the lights and the music and every bit of summer and all of China know that you are there in Xi'an dancing amongst the many in the largest water fountain show in the world. I came home that night and
slept sound in my hostel bed, and in the morning zhaoshuo met me, again telling her mother she was with a friend, though we had become friends, so it was no lie.
That morning we hopped on a bus and continued our new friendships and journeys out beyond the city to the famous Terracotta Warriors and Horses. These thousands of warriors were created nearly 2300 years ago, but only discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Now, along with the Great Wall, they have become among the greatest treasures of a vast country rich in history. They are each created with their own face and features and armor and weapons, and stand over 6 feet tall, and the horses life-size, and arranged in proper battalions according to rank. They were created for the first emperor of China and placed around the palace made to be his burial, with his clay soldiers left in stance to defend his tomb so that even in death, this army of thousands would guard his sleeping body.
There are several pits and buildings housing the many soldiers, archeologists still digging and discovering, new soldiers fighting through the dirt to stand again in proper rank with their soldier brethren. These are the warriors of China, great and mighty, buried in dirt for thousands of years, now standing again. There are no duplicates among these men, each his own personality etched out through the clay. I have always wanted to see these warriors. I know my sister has always wanted to see these warriors, and so this visit was in great part for you dear sister, and while only one picture is posted here, many others I will show to you someday, when we meet again in person and share our many stories of time passed between us.
We hopped back on the bus and headed again in to Xi'an and walked the muslim quarter again, searched out food and shopped, and this my new young friend bought me gifts and food, and so refused to let me pay for anything, and our friendship will continue on. She stayed with me till night and left to rush back home and we said goodbye, and that night I also said goodbye to Xi'an, the next morning making my way down to Guilin. Most of my Guilin trip I will save for later. Today I will only speak of Reed Flute Cave. I took a bus from the hostel our of the city and up along the river to Reed Flute Cave, a large cave of stalagmites and stalactites lit with neon lights to create some surreal and other worldly planet, caverns of space, and the lights and stones drooping down reflecting off the water and the many colors looked like some spot in the galaxy, gazing straight in to space and the universe and science fiction movies where aliens creep and walk around. No aliens I did see, only myself among the many Chinese. At times I hardly knew myself where top and bottom was, each mirrors of the other wrapping around the mazes of stone deposits. After the cave I climbed up the mountain to gaze down on the river and the road and the other mountains around and at the bottom took a small bamboo raft, big enough only for myself and the boat man, though often I controlled the paddle, a long bamboo stick stuck deep in the water to propel and turn. We floated silently on the cautious water down to the bus stop and I returned back to the hostel to walk and explore this new city and the river that cut through it and the street vendors selling their food and hustlers out in search of naive tourists. For today, this should be enough to write.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Out Riding Fences.

 "If we fail to reach the Great Wall, we are no heroes."
I am back in my little town of Yeosu.  I have spent the past month building a better relationship with my backpack, and yes, we are more acquainted now, greater friends, and with a better understanding of what life may hold, or at least a hope of what it will. 
  It was a long journey, and I cannot hope to ever tell you, or let you in on the secret of my travels.  With a thousand entries I could not get it right.  With one entry, I could only get it wrong, so I may break the month in several blogs, perhaps keeping them shorter than I have in the past written. 
  I started the month off with an overnight bus trip to Seoul, from where I took an a.m. flight to Bejiing, China.  The hostel I stayed at in Bejiing was great, though they were doing major road construction on the entire street, and wow the Chinese do construction interestingly.  Instead of bringing in bulldozers and tractors and heavy equipment, they had lines of men with small shovels and pics tearing away at the road one scoop at a time and shoveling it into wooden wheelbarrows or buckets.  The entire road looked like a landfill, or perhaps like a clean up crew after a major bomb raid.  Bricks, stones, garbage and rubble was thrown everywhere across the road with only one small path to walk across, and often not even that.  It was a busy road blown up and obliterated by Chinese un-modern construction techniques.  While it was noisy, in rambles, and resembling Dresden or your local dump, I thought the whole street added charm and authenticity.  Still the little shops stayed open, people walked and passed and dodged workers and debris.  
  I saw the things I most wanted to see in Bejiing.  I went to an acrobat show, spent hours in Tianmen Square, a day at the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.  In Korea, I expect to be looked and stared and pointed at.  I am an obvious looking foreigner in a place sparse with foreigners.  In Bejiing, there were foreigners and westerners all over, and I thus expected a vacation without the constant stares and giggles, but at least 20 times a day were people asking to take pictures with me, and far more often than that taking pictures of me, most often secretively trying to sneak taking the photo of me without my knowledge.  I am sure most of them were chinese tourists themselves from more rural areas of China where foreigners are a not-so-common site, especially the blonde curly hair and blue eyed type.  It is as though some of us westerners were part of the tourist attraction of the big city, and had become a niche in their vacation, with photographic memories and proof to show their friends and family back home of the blonde white person they saw in Bejiing.  Yep, I am a pop star in more countries than one.
  The forbidden city is enormous, and I made the mistake of exiting the side opposite from where I entered, and then walking the circumference of the exterior.  That was a bit like skateboarding across the whole of Rhode Island, but I was able to see many of the Hutongs, or old traditional neighborhoods with thin alleys and rustic homes.  What can I say about the Forbidden City other than that it is both massive, and no longer so forbidden.  Yep, there were crowds and crowds.  August is hight tourist season bringing not only a steady flow of foreign tourist, but swarming rivers of Chinese tourists rushing from site to site of their beloved countries capital and her historic sites.  I like the Forbidden City, though I think I like the Summer Palace more.  While still there were crowds, it seemed more relaxed, and was surrounded by a beautiful lake, with small mote like rivers cutting and dashing through, passing under bridges and through shops and and lilly gardens.  I met two japanese women and one chinese woman there who I spent the hours with walking around the palace and grounds.  There were trees and boats made of stone, and temples and parks and gardens, and people paddling out on the lake to enjoy silent ripples of water smoothing the sides of their boat.  
The temple of heaven was even more enormous, and I found myself lost in there.  Really, it is just a giant wooded park with pathways crisscrossing all directions through the vast span of trees and benches nestled safely in shade.  The grounds contain several temples, each living up to the splendor of ancient Chinese architecture, and families spread out in the park to play cards or dance or play traditional instruments with small crowds gathering in for a listen.  I found myself thinking if I lived in Bejiing, that is where I would go to rest and think and write in my journal, some forested escape from the masses and craziness of the city.  As it was, I had one day, one half day, and then I left for some new place, some new city, some new adventure.
  Of course though, no trip to Bejiing is complete without the Great Wall of China.  I met many people either in other cities in China, or in Japan who said they weren't sure if they wanted to visit Bejiing, and wondered if it was worth visiting.  How could you visit China without seeing the Great Wall.  As the quote above says, though sometimes translated slightly different, "If we fail to reach the Great Wall, we are not heroes."  I my friends am a hero, and can now add one of the worlds great sites to my list of conquests.  The list is thus far short, but ready to grow.  Of the Great Wall, I will simply say, yes, it is worth it.  
I woke up early one morning and headed out with small group from the hostel.  We did a part simply called "The Secret Wall."  It's the oldest part of the wall, built 2,000 years ago.  It's also an unrestored portion few know about or visit.  Our group was the only group anywhere on the mountain.  It was several miles hike up the steep mountains, several miles across, and several miles down.  It was spectacular.  The wall was broken down and crumbling and overgrown with plants and flowers, and still it stood out and stretched and carried on.  It is humid in China, and walking around always brings out a sticky sweat.  Hiking up the steep hillsides in the hot sun of a Chinese summer brought it out fierce.  I wished to strip down naked and jump in a cool and clear river and feel the chill of the water on my body.  The mountains alone were beautiful and the wall added to that beauty in a subtle, yet forceful accent.  The peak where I stood reached 888 M above sea level, marking a special and holy spot in a now revered and sacred wall, 8 being a special and lucky number for the Chinese.  After the hike, we ate a traditional chinese meal cooked and served by a family in a small village at the base of the mountain.  Only I dared venture to to try the chicken feet, holding on the the little claws like toothpicks to strip off the fleshy meat from the soles of the feet.  The meal was good and well needed after the long hike in the sun, miles across the wall, the very ancient stones at my feet.  
  Well, friends, that is Bejiing.  I'll share more of the rest of China later.  Now, I have couch surfing responsibilities to attend to, so I am off to play the good host.  
  Be Well
  Stay Well

Friday, July 31, 2009

Soft Art and Sunrise.

  It has been five months now since landing in Korea.  My situation here has changed, though my feelings remain mostly constant.  I don't say much about my going ons here.  I often say little of a great deal.  Now, it is summer, and my time here is nearly half complete.  The first rainy season has come, and is now ending.  Here in Yeosu the weather is more mild than the rest of the country, and this first monsoon season passed quickly over us with no horrid flooding or downpours, though we did receive our share of rain.  You can always see the rain in the clouds before it comes, and smell it hanging there in front of you deliciously.  Some days I would drive my motorcycle to school and get caught in some torrent coming home, splashing through puddles dotted across the slip n slide of the pavement.  I was soaked, the rain tumbling down on me, my clothes doused and dripping, and all the water wetting me, the puddles and pavement, and the fog on my helmet visor, all that rain, all that rain, I just smiled, and laughed some reminiscent laugh. I laugh like that so rarely, but the rain, the rain does things to me, some emotional, bi-polar lover.  
  Some nights the wind would whoop and whish so loudly out my door, the thunder booming and beating, and lightning some melodic trance of hypnotic strobes. I would lay in bed, the window so close to me, and hear the night and the storm and violence, and I had reason to be awake when I knew I would be anyway, and I was in love with the rain again.
  What have I done in Korea?  How am I to make report of five months time?  Is it worth the read, or my time in writing it, when this night, this night I have much to do, but I don't forget you, nor of the absence I know is coming, so I write. 
  Well, in wanting to experience a culture different than my own, Korea certainly answers the call.  The people, while outwardly friendly, are also very traditional, and not easily accepting.  Being a foreigner in the most homogenous country in the world, where 98% of people living here are natural born Koreans, I am an oddity, and in the small coastal town I am in, I stand out more so than other areas.  I cannot go anywhere without being stared and pointed out.  Children and high school girls giggle, and often the boys as well, and the attention we as foreigners draw is like we are some Korean pop star, though a pop star feared with having some contagious disease, for though we are certainly an oddity and curiosity, we will always be outsiders, and always be treated as such here.  I am taller than most, though by no means the tallest person in town.  South Korea is the tallest nation in all of Asia, though I am certainly well above average height, and in a continent where everyones hair and eyes are the same color, I certainly stand out with mine.  "Oh, hairstyle good," is a common phrase I hear, and the curiosity to touch the foreigner gets the best of the children here, particularly my blonde hair, or my arms and legs, as body hair is not so common here.
  Favorite activities amongst the Koreans are in the Bongs, the Jim Jil Bong, PC Bong, and No Rae Bong.  The Jim Jil Bong is a public bath house, usually divided in to 5 floors, men's changing room, women's changing room, men's bath, women's bath, and the Jim Jil Bong floor.  The bath portions are filled with saunas, steam rooms, and pools of various temperatures, both hot and cold.  Many of the baths are filled with spices or herbs, and of course, as it is a bath house, dozens of men walk around naked, stretching out for massages, showering, or relaxing in the warm baths.  The bath houses provide soap, towels, toothpaste, lotion, and more, and it's common for people to frequent the bath houses each morning before work, or at night before bed.  The Jim Jil bong floor is essentially a large cultural hall where there are often thin mats or blankets and wood blocks or pillows to rest on.  This floor is co-ed and as the Jim Jil Bongs are open 24 hours, they also make cheap hotels, as you can find a corner somewhere on the floor and crouch down for a night's sleep.  During our first experience in a Jim Jil Bong, we woke surrounded by hundreds of people matted across the floor, and carefully tip-toed over them.  
  PC Bongs are essentially internet cafes, but really only used for on-line gaming purposes, as this is a nation addicted to computer and video games.  I asked a group of students to tell me what their dream vacation is, if money was not an option, and several answered that their dream vacation would be to stay home and play video games as long as they could.  This would be a typical response.  No Rae Bongs are karaoke bars divided in to individual rooms.  This is the popular form of karaoke in Asia.  Instead of busting out your incredible singing voice in front of the whole bar, you rent a room with your group of friends and are given the privacy to make a fool of yourself in front of only those who know you and are willing to photograph and video your embarrassing moments to later document on facebook.  
  My own experiences here are perhaps not so grand, though to me still memorable.  My friend Justin invited me to his gym to work out with him.  Well, this gym is a Jiu Jitsu studio, and my first day there the Gwang Ja Nim, or master, asks me to grapple with him, so here I am going at it with the teacher.  I've returned several times, and though I haven't learned any moves or really how to perform the art at all myself, still I am asked each time to wrestle by others there, and I act as their little rag doll to toss around as practice.  I am the sparring partner who allows you to hit them, but never hits back.  It's funny really, and I have even wrestled one of the Korean national champions several times, and I struggle through with him, but in the end, he always has his way.  I did once make someone tap out as I wrapped both ankles around his throat and victoriously choked him with my feet.  In the humid air that is Korea, wrestling around in a building with no AC works up a mighty sweat, and I love it.
  I think other than my adventures in the mud some few weekends ago, my favorite experiences here in Korea are in riding my motorcycle out through the country side, and across Dolsan Island, or out past Yeo-Chun to some beach, though it is not always the destination, but the journey that I go for.  One destination though was lasting and a favorite of mine.  It is Hyangiram, a temple atop a mountain at the end of Dolsan Island, on a cliff staring out to the yellow sea.  Rather than attempt again to recapture what I cannot, I will copy what I wrote then, on my two separate journeys to Hyangiram.  
Wednesday, April 15th, the year of our Lord, two thousand nine.
    "...We walked up the mountain, the many steps, through the rocks carved out to pass through, me ducking low to fit the trail.  We heard the resonance of the temple bell hum out her tonal beauty.  We saw the monk slowly swing the wooden beam and rope of a pendulum, as an invitation for the bell to sing her songs.  We heard the monks chant, their followers bow, and kneel, and pray.  This was among one temple on the mountain.  The other, the peak itself, the ridge and rise of the mountain standing tall above the other temple below.  Are all mountain peaks temples?  Did God design them as such  We walked to that temple too, the burn in our legs prodding us still upward.  I must always reach the top.  I always wish to walk inside the temple, not merely stand at the doors or across the way.  I walked in that temple and there was a prayer inside me, released through my reverent awe.  Perhaps we all had prayers, the solemnity of a windy mountain peak.  I shall pay my homage in all temples of this kind..."
  Thursday, April 23rd, the year of our Lord, two thousand nine.
 "...We hiked straight to the top of the mountain, skipping over the temple in order to see the sun set. Kelli and I headed straight up, able to go faster than the rest of the crowd and made it up to see the sun slip down behind a mountain across the way from our own peak.  The rest made it up after that, but the glow beaming out from behind the mount was soft and luminous.  dusk is a glorious time to be on a mountain.  The gentle mix of blue and white hang well in the sky.  The islands around seem to stand out more in the subtle colors of dusk and the water calm and silent below.  The wind blows brisk and cool and I always find comfort in the wind.  Is it some memory of home?  The canyon winds that stream down and blow out over the orchard?  I wonder if one reason I love the ocean, the beach so much is because of the wind.  She always calms me.  I feel she has some song that only I can hear.  We walked off the mountain to the temple to show the others .  They were impressed and amazed as we were, though I do not think anyone saw the beauty I saw there.  I am always curious to meet people who see what I do, the beauty, who understand.  It was dark when we walked down.  Kelli and I looked for a place to eat, though the shops had closed down.  The Elders gave us snacks and that was our dinner.  Hyangiram does not have a temple stay program, but they let Kelli and I spend the night anyway.  Everyone else went home, but we slept at the temple on blankets on the floor and watched the sun rise.  It is known for its sun rise and means "standing where the sun rises."  There were no mountains to block the view of the sun rising up above the water, a giant orange and yellow circle like a Japanese flag.  Hyangiram is one of the four sacred praying places in all of Korea and if you stand and pray toward on the Goddess of Mercy statues, it is said your prayer will be answered.  I offerred my prayer, the same prayer of mine for many years, the prayer I am not sure I believe in.  We ate breakfast with the monks, rice and various kim chi and headed down the mountain for work.  I am happy we stayed, slept in a Buddhist temple, sacred and holy, woken at 3:00 a.m. from the prayers of the monks, watched the sun rise, standing where the sun rises, ate our rice with monks, and fell in love again with the mountain.  We sayed in a temple that does not offer temple stays and I made my wish."
I have said enough for now, and must be about other business.  In a couple hours I will be sleeping the night away on a five hour bus ride to Seoul from where I will fly to China, and then Japan, a month with my backpack, i-pod and camera, no plans or itinerary, only myself and the hopes of a million breaths.  I leave you now with the poetry of So Chong-Ju, a Korean poet, and his ode to these Korean mountains, and mountains everywhere, temples of their own. 
"One morning I suddenly looked with fresh eyes at our ancient mountains. They were just squatting there, as usual; they seemed to have quite forgotten how rough and stupid they were, and the clouds in the sky were all the time clustering and snuggling round them; there was no way I could understand why those clouds were pressing so closely against such repulsive old things.
But as I gazed at the familiar sight of them wooing each other, the next day, and the next day, and the next, I finally realized what it was all about.
It's just like when our young human couples kiss each other's cheeks, and stroke one another's hair; only these gestures have been going on for perhaps several hundred thousand years! As if all that remains of earth's sordid battles has been cleansed and gone soaring up to become clouds, that now for ever flow over a unified jade-coloured space: by their constant gestures of unrestrained longing the clouds have perhaps been consoling the mountains ever since they were young.


That night I heard the sound of a mountain singing in a clear ringing voice. Yes, rising out of a darkness still as if submerged a thousand fathoms beneath the sea, I clearly heard that mountain sing.

It must have been past midnight. It sounded like a song sung softly by a new bride alone, venturing to open her lips only a few weeks after her arrival at her new husband's family home. It was the kind of song that gives a glimpse of flowery fields seen when still a maid, and it brought their fragrance floating by. The mountain sang in a soft deep voice, seeming eager to arouse not just those flowers but even their very roots.


  Can anything remain so long unforgotten? Sometimes we hear of a young widow who has stayed intact and chaste, living alone for thirty years or more, still in the bright clothes she wore when first she entered her dead husband's home. But for how many years has each mountain stayed in one place?

A voice as clear as that of waters that grow no older though they endure the fall of countless dynasties: it seems that such a voice can be heard ringing in every mountain.


The next day

there was something which kept attracting my gaze in the bright daylight: the green shade there that seemed to have some secret to tell me. Here and there in the checkered shadows, it was as if grazing things were whispering, glimmering pale and green, then suddenly they were parted by what seemed to be the passing of a vast fragrance and there came thrust towards me a gilded swing bearing a melancholy youth. It seemed there was a desire to make famous, if not the mountain itself, at least its sons and daughters..."