May 29, 2008

This morning I had a single class at Miyagi Gakuin University (MGU). It is a women's university about 6 km from my apartment. The picture is the view from the window of the teachers' room where we part-time teachers have to sign in so that we can get paid and where they have free coffee. The room also contains a table with chairs so that we can work and four soft chairs arranged around a coffee table for relaxing. Best of all, it is no smoking. MGU is more than 100 years old and is a Christian university. However, this does not effect the students too much and from their point of view it is just like every other university. I teach in the English department - first year business English, second year listening and speaking (separate classes with the same students), and academic English in the Grad School.

Today I had second year conversation. The students are very good and well motivated. I really enjoy teaching them. Of course, teaching a room full of thirty 20-year-old women will bring out the best in any male.

Actually I took this picture a few days ago. Today it rained and the clouds came right down to the ground. I walked home anyway.

May 27, 2008

The Entrance to Shinrin Park

Today Ian and I took our regular Tuesday morning walk around Shinrin Park. (The character pronounced shin means forest or woods, and rin means tree.) We meet at a nearby station and walk to the entrance of the park, from where we do two 3 km counterclockwise trips around the park and then return to the station, where we stop at a Mr Donuts for coffee.

The picture on the right is at the highest point on our route. The station is about 1.5 km off to the left and the park entrance is immediately to the left. Behind me is a subway stop and a center for old people.

The tall building on the right is one of the highest around and it is an apartment building, actually a condo. Can you imagine being on the top floor during an earthquake. I heard that the horizontal movement during the big quake we had a couple of years ago was more than two meters. I get seasick in my apartment, I can not fathom what it would be like up there.

Also off on the left side, there is what looks like a white tower (not the lower white blob to its right which is actually a building). This white tower is a huge statue of the Kannon Bosatsu, an enlightened one just below the rank of Buddha. Kannon has changed his/her sex a number of times during the last 2500 years and is now the Lord of Compassion and Mercy, particularly in relation to childbirth and health. Kannon was one of the Lords who attended on Amida Buddha.

This statue is very interesting because it was put by one of the new Buddhist sects (cult?) and was part of a hotel complex. The problem was that they did not tell the city what it was going to be. Apparently the city thought it was going to be a large tower containing additional hotel rooms. The hotel complex was very cheap and has, I believe, been sold to a non-religious group who are trying to make a financial go of it. The city would like to remove the statue but no one can decide who will pay for the work and for the religious fees that would be necessary for some Buddhist priests to come do the necessary ceremonies to allow the destruction of the statue without everyone around having bad luck for years. It is going to be interesting to see what happens when statue starts to decay and fall apart.

This picture shows the entrance to the park. You can not see but there are about 50 old people exercising in front of the trees. Ian and I walk off to the right and return from the center of the picture. When the old people (many of them were born after me, by the way, but I am not old), finish stretching they go around the same trail that we use. Some go in each direction, so they are all over the place. It is proper etiquette to greet the other walkers, so Ian and I spend much of our time saying konnichiwa, or Good Morning.

So far today I have walked more than 13 km. In about an hour, my wife Masayo will drive me to Tohoku Gakuin U so I can teach two 90-minute classes. When I finish at 5:30, I will walk home, adding another 4 km to my total for the day.

May 26, 2008

Cell phone problems gone

I discovered why I was unable to get email to my home account. My computer thought that the pictures were spam, pictures of real imitation watches or something. Anyway, I can now show you the photos from our walk in the rain on Sunday.

This first picture is the Tatekoshi Shrine. The doors are always (except at special festival times) closed so it is not possible to know what the manifestation of the god looks like. More often than not, the idol is a mirror, reflecting the sun (if there were any). The temple is off to the right. Actually the small building on the right is part of the temple and is the building that Kukai (Kobo Daishi's Buddhist name while alive) is said to have built. Of course, it is more than 1,200 years old so it have been rebuild any number of times.
The second picture shows Ian in his bright red Got-Tex rain suit returning from reading the signs in front of the buildings. The explain about Kukai's connections and the rest of the history of the temple.

It is still raining hard at this point. You can see the standing puddles of water just on the other side of the paved path.

The colored flags were left over from the festival that they held the previous weekend. Some of the workmen were still there taking down the temporary stage and other structures. They got all excited when they saw us. Their trucks were parked off to the right in front of the main temple buildings. When we moved over to that area one of the workmen was still there and greeted us. He seemed happy to discover that we spoke Japanese, but left quickly to start work.

The final picture was taken in front of the main temple buildings, which you can just see in the background. This statue shows Kukai as he supposedly looked as he traveled around this area setting up temples. According to the signs, one of the things that he did was to carve a statue of Buddha for each new temple.
I tried again last night. I used my cell phone to send three emails to three different addresses. All were, according to the phone, sent successfully, but none arrived. I must have changed some setting on the phone. I will try again this afternoon, once today's classes are finished.

May 25, 2008

Cell phone email problems

Ian and I went back to the place where we walked last Sunday. This time we stopped at the temple, which is said to have been started by Kobo Daishi, who is the same monk who started the Henro trips around Shikoku. We explored the temple and an attached Shinto shrine (there was not clear division between the two). We then continued down the canalside path that we followed last week until we came to a large kofun ( a grave mound, most of which are at least 1500 years old). We climbed up to the top and found that it was key hole shaped, which means that it came from the last stage of the kofun culture. Early mounds were round, then the added a platform extending from one side, and finally they broadened the outside end. We then walked west into the foothills, finally turning north then east to get back to a different station on the train line.

I took some pictures in the temple which I had intended to post here, but for some reason the emails are being sent but not arriving at my home computer. Hopefully I will be able to figure out what is going wrong and eventually post the pictures.

May 23, 2008

This week

It turned out that the storm was really bad, almost a typhoon. Actually it was the tropical storm that resulted when a real typhoon lost a lot of its power.

This week I had a full load of classes for the first time in three weeks. In addition to all the classes, I also had exams and papers to correct. I walked home for Miyagi Gakuin (about 6 km) on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. This morning I have been catching up on paperwork, but plan to go for a short walk this afternoon. I hope to do some sketching.

Wednesday on the way home, I wrote a new fib and took a picture to illustrate it. However, I discovered that my cell phone will not email the largest size pictures so I can not post it here. I will retake the picture next week and post it then.

The fib was about walking and ends on a Buddhist note.

The world's
Eyes up and searching,
I know everything's part of me.

May 20, 2008

A day of rest

No walking today. The remains of a typhoon are passing over, so it has rained hard since yesterday and there were high winds to accompany the wetness. Ian and I decided not to walk. I still got some exercise by working out for a while on my walking machine. It simulates climbing stairs and builds the muscles in my upper thighs, ones that are particularly weak.

May 19, 2008

A Sunday hike

Yesterday I went by train with Ian and his friends, Mr and Mrs Sato, to a town about 20 km south of Sendai. We met at Sendai station and while waiting I composed the following fib:
Walks in
Long day of hiking
Returning from a short train ride
When we arrived at the assembly point, we found that there were at total of 58 people starting on the walk. About a third were a group who had spend close to three weeks walking from Tokyo. Yesterday was the last day of their trip. I tried to take photos of the group during the opening speeches. The Japanese start every event with numerous dignitaries blabbering on and on, giving little more than information that everybody knows already. The funny part is that I have become so used to it that I miss it when it does not happen, even though I am bored to death listening to the actual speeches.

As I said, I tried (which implies I could not) to take photos but I was using my new cell phone and, while learning how to use it, I made some setting that I could not get undone, so no photos. This morning with the help of the manual I got it so that it works correctly again. Tomorrow, Ian and I will go out for our regular Tuesday walk, so I will take a picture and post it.

Near the end of the walk, I wrote another fib.

Feet hurt
20 K
Walk with 50 souls
Simply for the pleasure of it

May 17, 2008

A beautiful day

Yesterday I went out for a 10 km walk and composed the following fib.
In spring
Out walking
One step at a time
The movement is reward enough

May 15, 2008

Telling FIBs

Fibs are an esoteric form of poetry. Like haiku they have a strict structure based on syllables, but unlike haiku's 5-7-5 formate, fibs follow the Fibonacci sequence (0,1,1,2,3,5,8, where except for the first two each term is the sum of the previous two terms). A couple of years ago a started writing fibs to kill time in class while the students were talking in groups. I could walk around the room and look like I was paying attention them, but my mind would be working on a poem.

I have pretty much decided to write a fib everyday during the Henro pilgrimage, so I have started writing them again. Today I took long-cut home and wrote the following. The empty line after the title is the 0 term at the beginning of the sequence.


To green
(Seasons change)
Life springs forth anew
The wheel spins, the cycle repeats


Blog -
Counting syllables,
Maybe I won't become senile

May 14, 2008

Temples and Shrines

Temple is used to refer to a Buddhist place of worship and shrine is used if the place is Shinto (called Kami no michi, the Way of the Gods, in Japanese). It is actually fairly easy to tell the difference.

Shrines have a torii at the main entrance. You can see part of one is the last picture of me that I posted. There are two vertical posts with a cross brace toward the top and a beam that extends past the posts at the top. There is often a tasseled rope strung between the uprights. (You can see this just over my head.) The word torii is constructed from two Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese). The first pronounced tori means 'bird' or 'birds' and the second i means 'exist or reside', a torii is a place where birds reside.

Temples will have some kind of a gate at the main entrance, but there will not be a torii. At larger temples the sides of the gates will contain large spaces in which there are larger-than-life carvings of warriors who protect the temple from evil.

There a few, and I do mean a very few, temples that have torii. In this case the enshrined Shinto god has been adopted into the Buddhist pantheon and is considered to be one of the myriad of Buddhist gods. Since the god was originally Shinto, much of the Shinto symbolism is retained.

May 12, 2008

Sunday hike

Sunday Ian and I went out for a hike and walked 18 kms. Toward the end we stopped at a Shinto Shrine, Yasaka Jinja. Behind me in the picture you can see a diagonal red line. That is the beginning to the 90-step stairway that leads up to the shrine. Most shrines and Buddhist temples are located on the tops of hills. I believe that this is both for isolation and to insure that they do not occupy useful land, particularly any place that can be used to grow rice.

I am wearing my Gore-Tex rain suit so it looks okay, but my usual baggy clothes are underneath and came out again as soon as it stopped raining.

May 10, 2008

Time is a scarce commodity

I have little time these days. I try to keep up my walking schedule - and do more or less - although I take a day off when something hurts too much. However, most of my time during the day is occupied by teaching and preparing to teach. This year students at three universities have the pleasure, or pain, of my classes.

Tohoku University
This is the local national university and teaching here is supposed to be very prestigious. The students here are, on average, the best in the area. Before I 'retired', working part time at Tohoku U. impressed people far more than my being a full professor at the prefectural university. This year, to save money and supposedly to improve the teaching, they standardized the pay rates. As one of the highest paid part timers due to age, education, and experience, this meant that my pay dropped by almost 50%. I would have changed to a different university but there were no appropriate jobs available.

I go to Tohoku U. on Mondays and teach two 90-minute classes in the morning. During the first semester (April to July), I teach two sections of scientific English for second year students. During the rest of the year (September to January), I will teach basic conversation for first year students. All the classes are in the Dept of Basic Education and I teach students with different majors each class.

Tohoku Gakuin University
This is an old Christian university and one of my best friends is a professor there. A couple of years ago, he recommended me for a part time position. This year on Tuesdays, I teach two year-long sections (90-minutes each) of Oral Practice for first years students in the English Dept. On Thursday evenings I teach a English communication course, but on a different campus.

Miyagi Gakuin University
Another old (120 years?) Christian university, but for women only, Miyagi Gakuin U is a very pleasant place to teach. On Wednesday afternoons, I teach a class on Academic English in the Graduate program. I have one student registered for the class and she is very good. Next I teach a Business English class for first year English Dept students. Finally at the end of the day, I have a computer assisted language lab (CALL) course in listening. The students work independently and all I have to do is answer questions. I usually spend the time studying Japanese. I have the same group of students again on Thursday mornings for a conversation class. I have been very lucky recently because the people who make the schedule have given me the class with the best students (streamed on the basis of their first year grades). They are a pleasure to teach.

May 8, 2008


In addition to wind, snow, and rain, we may have an earthquake during the trip. We had a large one last night at 1:45. The first tremors woke me up and then about five minutes later there was an even larger quake.

A few months ago, NHK, the national broadcasting system, started a system that gives you a few seconds (up to 15) of warning before the tremors arrive. It also tells how strong it will be. This at least gives you a chance to get under a table or something if it is going to be large.

The Japanese system for rating earthquakes is much more useful than the scientific system used in the US. Although the papers and TV give the Richter scaler reading, they primarily report using the Japanese system of 1 to 8. I do not have the actually explanation here but the following is my understanding of it:
1 - you can feel it if the conditions are right, sitting down in a multistory building, for example
2 - you can feel it, unless you are moving
3 - generally everyone feels it
4 - a few books or loose bricks may fall and it feels strong
5 - some damage to buildings, includes the first use of + and - to give a more graded evaluation
6 - extensive damage and some buildings collapse, uses + and -
7 - severe damage to buildings, roads, etc, also uses + and -
These numbers represent the human experience on the surface. The Richter scale indicates the intensity at the origin and may have little relevance to what happens on the surface, depending on the depth of the origin.

This is a bit like the Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature scales. The Celsius (Richter) scale is more convenient for science, but the Fahrenheit (Japanese) scale is better for relating the phenomenon to daily experience.

May 7, 2008

Religion in Japan

On the Henro pilgrimage, most of the 88 temples are Shingon Buddhist but some of them belong to other sects. It's as if a pilgrimage of Catholic cathedrals included some Protestant churches - very strange for people not familiar with Japan. Actually most of the Henro pilgrims also stop to pray at the Shinto shrines along the way as well as Buddhist temples that are not part of the 88. There are probably some churches in the big cities, too, but I have no information about them at this point. I guess this is something to look into.

Most people in Japan consider themselves to be both Buddhist and Shintoist and maybe even a little Christian thrown in to add flavor to the pot. People go to both shrines and temples to pray, and they see little or no contradiction in this. Also marriage ceremonies, conducted by some kind of Christian ordained minister, are extremely popular. I know some foreigners here, who became ordained in some fly-by-night, mail-order ministry and are now making large amounts of money by presiding over church weddings.

One of the reasons that this situation exists is that Buddhism accepts all gods as real, under the Buddhist concept of reality, and uses them to teach Buddhist ideas. This means that the Shinto gods, even the Christian God, are Buddhists and reflect certain aspects of Buddhist ideas.

May 6, 2008

Tuesday morning walk

Ian and I took our regular Tuesday morning walk - about 10 kms through Shinrin Koen (Park) along a three km loop that has some pretty steep ups and downs.

At present my training schedule is the following:
- Monday - three hours of pacing in the classroom
- Tuesday - 10 kms in the morning with Ian and then three hours of pacing in the classroom followed by a 25 minute walk home.
- Wednesday - 90 minutes of pacing in class and then a 6 kms walk home
- Thursday - 90 minutes of pacing and a 6 kms walk home then 1 km to the subway and another km to school with 90 minutes of pacing and then a 10 km walk home.
- Friday - at present it varies but next month I will start walking 8 kms to go to a go club and then after an afternoon of playing an 8 km walk home.
- Saturday - Ian and I walk together: a different place each week but we try to make it difficult and long (at least 12 kms).
- Sunday - is a day of rest and a time to do the New York Times crossword puzzle.

You might note the pants I am wearing in the picture. They were altered after I started losing weight and now are much too big for me, but they are very comfortable as walking or lounging clothes. Also you can see that I have removed my beard. I wore it for almost 25 years, and will probably not shave during the pilgrimage, so next year I may have it back again. It depends on how I feel.

May 5, 2008

The Beginning

This is the first in a regular series of post describing our experiences as Buddhist pilgrims. I have long been interested in doing a long trek. I have thought about hiking the Appalachian Trail, walking down the east coast of the US, and trekking in the Himalayas. However, as a semi-retired university professor, I no longer have the wherewithal to finance such a trip and had added this to the long list of regrets for things undone in my life.

As a sometimes Buddhist, I became aware of the Henro Pilgrimage around the island of Shikoku and read about it on various websites. My interest was piqued and one night, while out drinking with friends, I mentioned it to Ian, who immediately expressed interest. A few months later, after consultations with respective wives and a check of our financial situations, Ian and I decided to take the pilgrimage.

Since we both teach at universities, the only time available for us to go was during the winter break, which lasts from the beginning of February to the end of the first week of April. For various reasons, the first available year was 2009, so we committed ourselves.

Recently we started getting in shape for the trip. We will have to walk around 30 kilometers every day for a month and a half, carrying everything that we will need. At the moment, we are walking together on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and I am also walking on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. As the older and most our of shape, I definitely need the extra work. We plan to gradually increase the lengths and difficulty of the walks so that we peak just before starting out on the pilgrimage itself.

Today my legs are quite sore. Yesterday (a Sunday, because Ian had to work on Saturday) we climbed about three quarters of the way up a local mountain, Izumi-ga-dake. It was the most strenuous thing that I have done in years. Tomorrow we plan to take our regular 10 kilometer hike though the low hills of the Shinrin Koen Park.