Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reflections on a Year Past

The year of the Tiger had lived up to it’s namesake full of activity and intensity. It had been indeed a busy year for me with many accomplishments, highs, lows, and much work unfinished. In this past year I had achieved my Jiho rank in Shinkendo and Roku Kyu in Toyama Ryu. Together with my girlfriend and constant traveling companion Tinahime, we followed the steps of legendary Samurai Katsu Kaishu and John Manjiro to San Francisco which resulted in a most vivid chapter in my ongoing historical novel The Setting Sun. By June, I had a small reprieve from my long state of unemployment and worked two weeks at Comcast Entertainment Group. With the funds I had earned, I fulfilled a promise to visit Seattle and make a Shrine visit to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America near the Canadian border to partake in Misogi. Along the way we made some more Japanese friends Atsuko, Imanaka Sensei, and Hiroko while seeing my tomodachi Julien Ikeda leave for Japan.

This year had seen many ceremonies and events all culminating the second and final phase of my most destructive critical two year cycle. Fortunes somewhat changed weeks after performing Shinto Misogi leading me to five long yet very stressful months back at Comcast which has now concluded. And though I left there on less than happier terms I am happy that this allowed me another opportunity to return to Seattle in October for a day to see a soccer match and enjoy the fabulous waterfront and views from the Space Needle. This had been a year that I had become reaquainted with my love of Futbol-Soccer starting with the World Cup and the rest of the LA Galaxy MLS season. This had also seen the first girlfriend to survive a World Cup. Usually they leave me during the cup but this one became a fan and all the better for it. Hence now we are committed season Ticket holders in the LA Riot Squad and the American Outlaws Supporters Groups.

And though I begin the Year of the Rabbit much as I had done with the Year of the Tiger, out of work, broke, and uncertain what lies ahead. I must take stock in Tinahime’s sense of optimisms that I often lack. The Year of the Rabbit will either multiply my problems or multiply opportunities to get ahead and find happiness. I will continue to write and hope this is the year I will become published. I will continue to practice Shinto and be active in the Koyasan Betsuin. My ties in our little community in Little Tokyo will continue to grow and the unforeseen may bring my critical year to an end this March. It is said in Buddhism that we are all responsible for our own happiness or misery. I can’t guarantee that this moody Pisces will always do the right thing but we shall try as we have always try. May the year of the Rabbit bring you all peace and prosperity? Thank you for reading my blog. ありがとう

Thursday, November 11, 2010

神道 - Searching For Shinto: An Author's First Shrine Visit

Shinto, The native religion of Japan is steeped in mysteries and traditions that go back to a time before recorded history. Shinto is a thriving spirituality whose many Shrines can be found throughout Japan and easily distinguishable by non-Japanese by its iconic Torii Gates. It lies past those gates is often not so easily understood or explained to those of us in the west. Rather than veneration for the Western monotheistic concept of a single all powerful God, Shinto venerates the numerous Kami or what best can be described what inspires awe in nature. Shinto has peacefully coexisted alongside Buddhism and often in tandem for many households as the two dominant religions of Japan. Shinto has influenced Japan’s history and culture which now extended beyond the Islands of Japan for as it is said: The Kami are everywhere and for this writer they certainly are!

The draw of the Kami had become too impossible to ignore once aware of their presence. We had long sought to remedy this since we had first made contact with the Grand Tsubaki Shrine of America in the late fall of 2009. So this last July of 2010, we had set about aboard Virgin America flying the two hours northward from Los Angeles passing over the range of snow peaked Volcanoes that dotted the Pacific Northwest. Seattle is not Japan but it was one step closer to our destination which we would take by car the following morning but not before we would visit the Seattle Koyasan Church along our journey. It is a common practice to visit temples long a journey in Japan and this was no exception. We had been warmly received by Imanaka Sensei who opened the Koyasan Temple for us and shared the Hannya-Shin-Gyo better known here as the Heart Sutra to pray for our safety as we continued on our mission to better understand our budding dual Japanese spirituality.

Like many in Japan, we too have learned walk this careful spiritual balance between Buddhism and Shinto which may seem unconscionable by Western Standards to practice two religions at once, but then again it would be impractical to make such judgments from Western eyes. Like the cultural orphans we appeared, the spiritual duality of Japan had answered our call and drew us ever nearer thus committing us to our first Shrine visit to the only known Shinto Shrine existing in the North American mainland.

I honestly had no idea what to expect from this leg of my spiritual journey which would bring me face to face with real Shinto practice outside of the Islands of Japan. Nor when it was all over how I would conceive how to begin to even write about my experience. I had struggled for the last four months over how to respectfully chronicle this journey in a fashion that would be understood by those who have not had this experience. I had undertaken this journey with my combination traveling companion & girlfriend Tinahime in an attempt to understand the impact on our lives from our first visit to a Shinto Shrine on American soil. Now there have been actual Jinja (Shrines) here in our not to recent past, (twice if you don’t count the existing Shrines in Hawaii). There had once been an actual Pagoda Shrine on Terminal Island California prior to WWII. Sadly, it was bulldozed by a vengeful U.S. Navy during the illegal Internment of Americans of Japanese Ancestry during that war. There had been a more recent Shrine that was founded in Stockton during the 1980’s which ultimately merged with the newly built Kannagara Shrine (Built in 1990 by the current Guji Rev. Koichi Barrish) in Granite Falls, Washington in the early 2001. Bearing Shinto’s history in North America, we set out on Interstate 5 North towards the Canadian border. The early morning mists had made their way across the lands as we traveled north from Seattle to Granite Falls Washington to attend the Summer Shinto seminar at the Grand Tsubaki Shrine of North America.
A glimmer of sunlight had paved the path leading us with a sense of the unknown. An hour’s drive from Seattle took us to our destination along a wood lined path leading down to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. It seemed from the moment of our arrival we had stepped into another world as we passed under the old Torii gate that has since been replaced by a newer one that was made possible by the generous donations of the Shrine’s members and supporters. We had arrived early ahead of the seminar scheduled for 3:00 PM so we could partake in the unique and most important morning Misogi purification rite that is performed daily in the Pilchuck River that runs through the shrine grounds. As part of the fee for attending the seminar, Sunday morning Misogi is included but given I had undergone a tumultuous critical 2 year cycle noted in both Buddhist and Shinto calendars, we found it necessary to purify ourselves twice, one for each year in order to put the trials and troubles of the last two difficult years that has seen anger, despair, disillusionment, strife, unemployment, and even imprisonment behind us. So prior to heading down to the River, a small set of Norito are performed inside the main Shrine.

In Japan, Misogi is normally performed under a waterfall where men are clad in only a wrap and a hachimaki and women in hachimaki and white robe. Not having a waterfall is no obstacle for the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. There is a natural whirlpool containing its own unique natural wonder and power that exists on the Shrine grounds hence according to the shrine builder and Guji Rev. Koichi Barrish led to the Kami’s choice in the location of the Jinja dedicated to Sarutahiko O’Kami. But before Misogi can take place one arrives to purify with water before entering under the main Torii. Following this tradition one gives the customary ring of the Shrine Bell and offering. Once prepared and led into the Shrine hall comes the pre-ritual prayers of “Norito” before descending down past a smaller shrine of the patron Kami who sits holding his spear in a stance of ever presence and authority. Having once been a disciple of the Norse God Odin, this presence seemed familiar yet different and so undeniable. We bow before the Kami and make our way down to the rocky riverbank where Barrish Sensei had lit the flames invoking the call to the Kami our intentions and prayers.
Now when recalling photographs of previous Misogi rites one often asks just how cold can it get? Considering the river does flow down from a mountain glacier the question was soon put out of my mind by a practice known as “Soul Shaking.” We literally work ourselves into frenzy as Barrish Sensei led us into a state of higher consciousness before entering the Pilchuck River. The process happens so fast, the waters temperature no longer concerns you. And in a moment senses of liberation of the weights of past troubles feel lifted. This practice is done all year round and even in the dead of winter. The practice of Misogi is one of the most important rites in Shinto and thus having experienced it we can honestly agree. Concluding Misogi, we dry off and join the Guji upstairs in the beautifully constructed Shrine for some Ocha tea especially brewed for the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America. The construction of the upper chambers and rooms are reminiscent of shrines and inner castle sanctums of Japan. It is peaceful here. The Shrine performs all traditional ceremonies that you can find in Japan here in the United States.
The Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America even host their own Aikido groups which I had the privilege of partaking in one of their keiko sessions in both sword and hand to hand technique. As a student of Shinkendo, this was a unique martial arts experience to compliment this initial spiritual experience. All this became quite exhausting particularly as the July heat had kicked in. Luckily, we had been given traditional Japanese accommodations at the Tsubaki House across from the main Torri Gate. The Tsubaki House serves as both a residence and guest house for members of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. Complete with tatami mat and no shoes past the entrance, the design was both modern and yet very Japanese complete with priceless Kimono’s hanging in every room. One who loves Watshitsu style homes would feel right at home and we certainly did for a much needed rest before the official start of the seminar.

When visiting a Shinto Shrine there are traditions and etiquette that must be strictly adhered to. Buddhist temples in America may give you some latitude but this is Shinto. Everything has a purpose and a method of doing that must be followed or risk a scolding in one form or another which may seem unfair from a Western standpoint but remember this is Japanese and better you learn here than the hard way back in Mei. Shrine etiquette is important and not to be taken lightly. Ignorance will not earn you an easy pass. But the only way you will know is to experience this for yourself and learn as you go.

During this time we had met other Shrine members mostly not of Japanese descent who like us had been drawn to the power of the Kami and the culture it inspired. Japanese people do visit the Shrine but many of its members are not Japanese. This is so because Shinto is not exclusively as once thought to be for Japanese only. If there can be Korean Evangelical Christians there certainly can be American-Jin Shinto. But before you jump to conclusions, there is nothing American about the Shinto practiced here. All Shinto Norito (prayer) is done in Japanese. If you do not speak Nihongo a prayer sheet is provided for you. The ceremonies are beautiful as they are elaborate and all of them performed by both the Shrine’s builder and the only American licensed Guji in the world Rev. Koichi Barrish. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine of North America is licensed and part of the Grand Tsubaki Shrine in Mei Prefecture in Japan. During our visit, there were many opportunities to ask questions and I likely proved to be a handful to other guests but no one weekend can answer it all. But then again, I came to learn and I make no apologies to those who glared at me in silence. I had a real Shinto Guji before me to field questions to ranging from understanding the Divine and Heavenly Kami to the role of the Heisei Emperor in modern Shinto as opposed to the now discredited “State Shinto” which was enforced during the war. I didn’t get all the answers I sought but as time would tell, they would come to me in their own time as does all things in nature.
Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to ask so many questions while everyone sipped their tea. It wasn’t that I was trying to show off my knowledge or spiritual development, it was more like I flew some 1300 miles to understand the meanings and significance of what I have come to know as Shinto. I had spent years asking people in the Japanese community for a reasonable discussion on the matter without being treated like a total outsider who would never understand but could only until rather recently could only find. People either love me or hate me for reasons I can neither explain nor understand. I do not possess an abrasive personality but I have always had this effect on people my whole life. I will never understand what that is about but that is how fickle nature can be. Much like dealing with the old Pagan Gods, the Kami can also show their fickleness like a stern warning of an authoritarian parent or the nurturing grace of the Divine much like the wind bending the branches of the trees. Shinto is a living experience just like the Kami it venerates. It is to be experienced that explanation can not in many cases suffice. I can’t go into too much of those details here but know that if the Kami hear your call, you will not be disappointed. I have had one life altering experience that made me a believer. They are everywhere like all things that inspire awe in nature. With this we concluded the summer seminar with a closing ceremony came followed by a wonderful Falwell Meal provided by Mrs. Barrish at the Tsubaki House.

So did I learn anything? Absolutely! There are some things you just can’t get out of a book. It is the duty of anyone who takes up Shinto to visit a Shrine at least once in their lifetime. But did I learn it all in a weekend? The answer is not so easily explained. It took time to take in this experience hence it took three months before I could write this article for American Mishima. Since that time my luck had improved. I was called to work within two weeks of my Shrine Visit and have been working ever since. Because of this I have been able to fulfill some of my other commitments. It has unfortunately brought much of my writing to a slow crawl but all things lead to their natural progression. I still maintain a Kamidana in my little home and practice my norito while still attending the Koyasan Betsuin in Little Tokyo. It is my hope that along side a future visit to Mount Koya I will also visit the Grand Tsubaki Shrine in Mei. I feel no less divided or conflicted. If anything, Shinto is part of a continuation of a long spiritual journey I started many years ago without being aware of it as I would come to know as such one Goma Ritual where the flames of Acala raged I noticed the bearded Kami walk across the field carrying his spear whistling to see if I would notice. Trust me, I noticed much like I noticed there has always been a bearded spear holder watching me all my life. This is no coincidence hence re-enforcing what the 95th High Priest of the Grand Tsubaki Shrine

Guji Yukitaka Yamamoto had recognized after the war that Shinto is open to anyone who sees the awe in nature hence Shinto’s non-exclusiveness to those not of Japanese ancestry.

In conclusion, we made some friendly acquaintances and likely irritated others with our enthusiasm and inquisitiveness but all in all, we shared an experience that will live with us and continue on as we visit more Shrines and partake in more ceremonies. The local Kami became aware of us and saw us off as we lifted into the air and into our hearts. And though Shinto may be difficult to understand it is not impossible to find. Our journey of spiritual growth and learning will continue on.

To find out more about Shinto and The Grand Tsubaki Shrine of America, please visit their website at:

Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America

真言宗 Shingon Buddhism – A Rare Look Inside Goma

Not so long ago, I was granted a very rare opportunity to photograph the famed Goma Fire Ritual practiced by Shingon Buddhists of Japan. A visiting Sensei from Mount Koya had asked for my assistance to photograph the event to which I was fortunate enough to have my own means of digitally capturing this most mystical and important rites of Shingon Buddhism. Due to the sensitive nature of these rites, I can not say when this took place or show all of the photographs but can show you glimpses of Esoteric Buddhism at its core.

For those not familiar with Buddhism or Shingon Esoteric Buddhism in particular, I will try to explain in brief. The practice of Goma predates Buddhism in India and involves many deities and offerings. As with Shinto, Buddhism is not a monotheistic religion that worships a single all powerful God nor does it revere the historical Buddha has a sole savior as with Christianity. It is far more complex and oddly agreeable. As far as I know there have been no great religious wars over disagreements in the way Buddhism is practiced as opposed the other monotheistic religions of the West.

Taiko drumming adds a unique element of intensity that builds as the rite progresses. Through the practice of Goma spiritual obstacles can be overcome and wishes can be attained. It is through this monthly practice I have gained both understanding and a sense of peace as my hardships and impurities are consumed by flame. This ceremony is performed monthly throughout the Shingon Buddhist World. If you can attend one such Goma, you are in for a uniquely powerful spiritual experience. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

雨の中のリトル東京 - Little Tokyo in the Rain

It’s been awhile since I have had time to write something for American Mishima. My contract job at Comcast Entertainment Group has left me little time or energy to be creative but the desire and though involved never tires. I assure you I will find a way to continue writing and not abandon my faithful readers like I have unintentionally done with my cooking blog which at some point I will do my best to resurrect. I have been working on an entry on my recent Shinto Shrine visit but it has been long and coming. So while I was on my way to the Koyasan Betsuin this early Sunday morning, I took note of the light rain that came down over Little Tokyo and took these three images of the newly renovated Japanese Plaza with my new Digital Sony Cybershot camera.

Little Tokyo has a magic of its own and particularly at New Years and Obon. But when the rain comes to the City of Angels, Little Tokyo takes on a more natural setting. In a sense, as if you were somewhere else like it might had been originally intended without leaving Los Angeles.

It is in these images taken outside the newly installed stage & fountain in front of the Nijiya Market you can appreciate the renovations without being lost in the crowd.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

日本映画: ゴテンダ ですか? Sideways Re-envisioned Nihon-jin Style

Here’s a new film where an actor who is engaged and about to be married joins up with an old wine affectionado friend for a one last blast tour before getting married in the California Wine Country. But before you do a double take and spit up your Chardonnay you will know that sounds an awfully a lot like 2004’s “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, the lovely Virginia Madsen, and that oh so Sandra Oh! That's because it is the script from Sideways! OK, well not quite. You'll just have to read on or watch the movie. What we have is 2009’s Fuji TV’s Japanese Sideways (Sidaweizo) shot entirely in California’s Napa Valley with a Japanese Cast starring Oscar nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi of Babel as Mina Parker (in the Sandra Oh character minus motorcycle helmet) Fumiyo Kohinata as Michio Saito (Giamatti’s character Miles) Katsuhisa Namase as Daisuke Uehara (Hayden’s Jack Cole), and Kyoka Suzuki in her first American comedic role  as Mayuko Tanaka who is better known for her work on Otoko Tachi No Yamato and Sengoku Jieitai 1549.

It’s not all so uncommon for American films to remake foreign films for American Audiences like The Vanishing, or my dreaded upcoming 47 Ronin remake with Keanu Reeves, and dare I say a little film I starred in with Robin William & Billy Crystal called Father’s Day. But this is something entirely different. Rather than make a shot by shot remake, Fuji TV loosely adapted the story and the characters which make for a totally different take from the original film. For starters Saito-San (Miles) is not the bitter divorced unpublished writer. Instead his girlfriend has recently moved out and instead of anger he has given into the system by becoming the teacher at a school that teaches screen play writing. OK, it’s still similar to the original character but with a different personality. Michio does not share Mile’s anger but does share his love for wine.

Now if you saw the original Sideways, you’ll remember the larger than life soap opera star character Jack Cole. His Japanese counterpart is the former star of a silly kids TV Action show called Captain Ninja whose catch phrase Goten-da!(Got it!) sticks in your head and has you saying it along with the characters on screen. This leads to some entertaining situations such as the hilarious scene where Daisuke rushes a pharmacy to buy condoms and gets instantly recognized as Captain Ninja by kids in the store and has to run out in embarrassment.

I don’t want to spoil the entire movie for you. The frame work of the original is all here but the plot twists and character differences make this an entirely different film. One Blogger went as far to suggest that something may be lost in translation. We’ll, to a degree one could say that if you are not familiar with Japanese people. But if you are then there is nothing to be explained that you don’t already know such as the corporate culture, overcrowding, customs, etc. What may not be so explained is the cultural differences which ultimately define the characters from their original counterparts as well as the direction of the plot’s resolution.

Fuji TV’s Sidaweizo is indeed a unique adaptation of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Shot under three million on location in Napa Valley, “Japanese Sideways” features mostly Japanese actors and in Japanese. Paul Giamatti was offered a cameo role but turned it down on the grounds his career had not sunk low enough. Truly something was lost in translation here. I feel he was being a little unfair in dismissing the project and for describing actor Fumiyo Kohinata as an “Ugly Little Troll” playing his part (like Paul could really win any beauty contests - seriously!).
As much as I like Paul Giamatti as an actor I have to respectfully disagree. Kohinata was perfectly cast as a 40 something whose dreams of being a screenwriter had been reduced to giving into the system and becoming an insignificant teacher that has gone out of business due to a corruption scandal. Anyone familiar with NOVA in Japan would be familiar with this. His only unspoiled loves are his love of wine and his one time affection for Mayuko without the snobbery of the original Miles and his distaste for Merlot. This film premiered at the Napa Festival, it also premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Hawaii Film Festival. If you are a fan of the original you may find this a bit bizarre but if you can see past Giamatti’s pass on the film you may find it delightful.

So please enjoy and make like Captain Ninja: Goten-da!   

Monday, August 30, 2010

一日の画像 - きょのしゃしん - Picture of the Day

Photo By Louis Rosas from Niesei Week Grand Parade.
さよなら なつ! - Goodby Summer 2010!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

侍冑 Samurai Yoroi – Up Close & Personal

Every August in Little Tokyo Los Angeles brings about another fun filled Nisei Week of festivities that have been going on since the late 1930’s. The streets become alive with traditional dances, Tanabata streamers, parades, martial arts demonstrations (including Shinkendo), Taiko drum performances, and many cultural displays. And regretably I missed this year’s Grand Nisei Week Parade (due to scheduling conflicts), I did manage to catch the some of the always popular Taiko groups and displays at the JACCC center that featured beautiful bonsai trees, Kabuki showcases, and my personal favorite from The Samurai Store, Samurai Yoroi Armor. 

Back in 2007, I had the privilege of meeting some of the exceptional craftsmen of the Samurai Store at the Japan Expo held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. They were kind enough to even let me try on Ichimonji Retainer styled Yoroi made for the Akira Kurosawa film RAN. Now I have worked in the film business before and have worn everything from elaborate costumes to alien armor but nothing I have ever worked with compares to this. These authentic looking Yoroi is so well constructed you could probably fight in them and survive and that's because they take their work seriously just as the craftsmen did generations ago in Japan.

Well fast forward three years later, these guys still remembered who I was and were kind enough to let me inspect their latest display for this years Nisei Week as well as try out their one Iaito sword. And as student of Shinkendo I can say I was impressed with their well crafted Iaito. I would certainly would like to get one for my own use before moving up to a real shinken for tameshigiri (test cutting). As certainly as I can attest, the Samurai Store produces some of the finest Yoroi you can find without raiding a musuem or an actual castle!

Based in Tokyo, the Samurai Store has been providing quality craftsmanship Samurai Yoroi for Samurai Films, Martial Artists, and Private Collectors. They do make custom armor and nobori to match any Clan replica or display. Of course, owning armor is quite an investment. For those looking swords for display or actual martial arts training, the Samurai Store also makes quality Iaito Swords which are excellent for Shinkendo Tarengata & Iaido demonstrations. So if you are looking for some quality work from Japan or just looking to live out your Samurai dreams, talk to the Samurai Store. Enjoy!

Friday, August 6, 2010

広島記念 Hiroshima Commemoration 2010

Every first Sunday of August and every August 6th since that fateful morning in 1945 people gather to commemorate one of the greatest tragedies (if not atrocities) committed by a civilized nation against a civilian population during a time of war. Well over 166,000 men, women, & children, civilians all, wiped out in a single bright flash and resulting mushroom cloud of ash. And what was even worse, the horrors did not stop there for those who were lucky enough to survive the initial nuclear blast. Every year I write about these things and every year I will get one unapologetic American arguing for the bombings justification for avenging the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 3000 military deaths do not justify 166,000+ civilian deaths in any war or any such instance. Who started the war is not a relevant argument. American history books will tell you The Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. What they wont tell you is how the US imposed an oil embargo essentially bring Japan to it’s knees in 1941 before the Arizona sunk nor will they tell you how American Planes were fighting in China under the guise of the American Volunteer Group weeks before Pearl Harbor. But we can argue about who was right and who was wrong well past the last Hibakusha passes us on and it still will not erase the fact that this great tragedy took place and yet despite it all, what Hibakusha I have met bears no malice towards the nation that wiped out their families and forever left them with scars no American textbook will talk about. It wasn’t that long ago that Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets went on to his grave unrepentant for his actions during that raid. What saddens me is to hear that his 66 year old son is equally unapologetic and very angry that the Obama Administration has done the moral and correct thing by sending the first US Ambassador John Roos since the war’s end to participate in this years commemoration at peace Park in Hiroshima. I would rather see Obama himself attend but this first gesture by a fair and just president is perhaps the first of many steps to true reconciliation that has been long overdue.

It was a year ago that I attended my first Hiroshima commemoration service at the Koyasan Betsuin in Little Tokyo where I had met my first Hibakusha who insisted we call her Oba-Chan. It struck me how happy the Hibakusha were to have so many Americans come to these memorial services and this year was no different. Oba-Chan was happy to see us again and so was this years Hibakusha guest speaker Kaz Suyeshi thanked us for attending this years Hiroshima Memorial service led by Asahi Sensei at the Koyasan Betsuin in Little Tokyo. Each year the Hiroshima Peace Flame is brought out and each participant offers a candle for the victims long past. It is a moving solemn experience that brings the tragedy to life. In school we were taught that this was necessary to end the war and that our government had no other choice. When you listen to the humble words of the Hibakusha survivors they will tell you there was always a choice and I am inclined to agree. I have come to develop strong feelings about this issue. While I will still get criticism from people who claim they had some relative they never knew killed in Pearl Harbor, I now have met people who were just school children who watched the lone silver B-29 drop the single atomic bomb over their city obliterating the world around them. It is hard to hear their stories as you take notice of their half covered scars that they have lived with since that day and yet they say tell it without hatred or resentment. They are a better people than me and that’s one of many reasons I say Nippon wa Ichiban.

Today is August 6, 2010. I was invited to a special Hiroshima commemoration at the Garden of Oz atop Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. (Sorry I could not take any photos of this event due to the sign posted.) It was a solemn event that started at 7:55 Am marking the start of the Enola Gay’s approach to Hiroshima. Steven Velez played a moving cello piece while Keiko Nakada Sokei performed a special tea ceremony for the dead in full kimono. The cello continued until 8:15 the minute the bomb was dropped. Hibakusha Kaz Suyeishi rang a Tibetan bowl ten times in remembrance of those lost at that fateful moment so long ago. This was not some random footnote out of a history book. This was real. Suyeishi-San was only 18 years old when she saw the bomb drop. The flash had knocked her to the ground. She had tried to cover her eyes and ears as she had been instructed but could have never imagined what happened after she awoke from her state of unconsciousness. The blue sky had gone and the city was silent. “Yare itai!” went the cries of her in the distance as she lay there with third degree burns under the wooden pilings of what was her house. It’s difficult to imagine being there with her at that moment yet there she was all these years later sharing her experience with us as tea and dove sweets from Kyoto was served to all who joined to pay their respects for those who had suffered so long ago. As repeated from Sunday’s service at the Koyasan Betsuin last Sunday, Suyeishi-San asked us to pledge to love and understand one another and that there be no more Hiroshima’s, No more Nagasaki’s, no more war. Once again I thanked Suyeishi-san for extending the invite to the beautiful Garden of Oz Contemplation of Compassion Hiroshima ceremony. As I left the ceremony I took notice of a single plague at the gate to the garden which read:
Cherish the sun for those who no longer can not’
Koyasan Betsuin 08.01.2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

神 Kami の Rainier-Yama?

It is often said in Seattle Washington, that Mount Rainier is known as the ever disappearing mountain. Seriously! Up until now, I had not much interest in seeing Mount Rainier or never considered Mt. Rainier’s similarity to another famous mountain Fujiyama, but there we were on the deck of a tour boat starring at this majestic sight that slowly emerged from the haze of Puget Sound. Neither, Tinahime or I had ever seen such a large volcano before and were instantly awestruck by its massive scale and beauty. What a sight indeed in all its natural wonder and majesty! Seeing Mount Rainer’s 14,000ft snow capped peak in the middle of July from the Seattle Waterfront, one could not be remiss without recalling that first image of Fujiyama in the 2003 American film epic The Last Samurai. Despite this not being Tokyo Bay, I could not help but be mesmerized by the power of this towering volcanic peak.  Mount Rainier does not share the romantic smooth slopes of Mt. Fuji but it does have a beauty all its own.

Awe and natural wonder aside, this was just the start of where our troubles began. You see Tinahime and I had come to Seattle to visit the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America located just north of the city in Granite falls to study Shinto and participate in Shinto ceremonies there. In by doing so I had come to recognize the Kami and their ever present nature around us. Call it crazy, but I started to think of Mount Rainer in such a fashion. I had recalled that scene in the German film Kirschbluten-Hanami playing in my head where Rudi travels to Fujiyama in hopes of seeing it but is repeatedly daunted by Fujiyama’s repeated disappearing acts into the haze and cloud cover. Rudi goes as far as to rent a room at a Ryokan with a view of Fujiyama so he can open his sliding shoji door and see if Fujiyama is there. He of course opens it and finds clouds over and over again until finally one morning the powerful Fujiyama stood before him starring right at him in all its magnificence!

Perhaps I had become carried away or dialed-in to my experiences at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, but in any case I got into this habit of calling Mount Rainier “Rainier-yama.” And very much like Rudi, I found it frustrating to get a clear view of it. It was on our second day there that the sun cleared the sky of the clouds and revealed this incredible sight of this massive snow peaked volcano overlooking Seattle. Now to try to get a picture of it! Or at least try.

We had previously tried to get a good view to take a picture of Mt. Rainier two days earlier when the volcano first appeared. We had set out in our Avis rental car and started driving down the 5 freeway to get a better glimpse but the closer we would get something kept drawing us to keep driving even closer to it. Suddenly, I was really feeling like Rudi on his quest to see Fujiyama and going far off the beaten trail to get close to the towering volcano. Either I had gone insane or there indeed exists Kami there for as I endearingly mentioned the name Rainier-yama I got this amusing thought shouted back in my head in a Japanese accent from a distance yelling: “I’M NOT FUJI-YAMA!” Ok, I know I’m a bit eccentric and in tune with the nature of things but this started to get amusing and a bit weird if I may say so! But it didn’t stop there!

We kept on driving and damned if it was coincidence or this volcano’s Kami was seriously messing with me. It was like a game. Each time we lined up a good photo while driving the mountain would disappear! Ok, not really! Or did it? The road took dips and turns and then out of nowhere sprang tall trees and magnifcent forests and if that were not enough, hills just popped out of nowhere! It’s like the mountain was having a hysterically good time sticking its tongue at us and having a ball at our expense. Tinahime was like “What is going on?” It became unreal as now we were both hearing “I’M NOT FUJIYAMA!” It wasn’t a mean or scolding voice shouting in anger but more like something out of a crazy comedy sketch but we were still driving and it didn’t end there. We put this out of our heads for awhile and concentrated on why we were there in the first place. We toured Seattle one last time on our last day there and paid this no mind until it seemed the mountain was literally peaking around a building to see if we were paying him attention. Oh boy! The game was on again and there we were trying to catch a photo of this elusive mountain whose Kami was having a good time playing with us.

I am sure some people who will read this will relegate this as whimsical nonsense. It’s ok. You don’t have to believe in Kami (Shinto expression for natural things and godlike spirits that inspire awe in nature) to find this story amusing. But there at last we had boarded our Virgin America flight back home to LA when we noticed out of our window was that mountain again literally grinning at us in the beautiful red skies we had not seen before. “Remember now, I’m not Fujiyama,” went the Kami much like in the way Walter Matthau once repeated “I’m Not Rappaport.” It seemed the mountain had fun with us as we did on our crazy adventure with the mountain. And as an added bonus or a final farewell, Mount Rainier presented us with the most spectacular view from the air. I swear if that thing had arms it would have been waving bye to us as we waved back and bid Sayonara. It was something else!

Mountains can truly inspire as do many things in nature. The Native Americans recognized this and very likely had their own tales of Mount Rainier. Perhaps we caught Rainier on a good day for it has been known to be both a powerful and dangerous mountain particularly to the brave climbers who face death on its slopes. So powerful, I can feel it’s Kami from here in LA as I write this. And though it was not my beloved Fujiyama, Mount Rainier's Kami-Sama definitely left us with a lasting impression we will never forget and will always treasure for the rest of our lives.
Arigatou' Gozaimashite’

To find out more about Mount Rainier
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

すごいい! Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa: Up Close and Personal

It has been over 65 years since Japan's catastrophic defeat at the end of the Second World War. During the war, thousands of fighter aircraft were built for Japan and fought throughout the Pacific Theater. Many planes were lost in combat and many more survived to the August surrender of 1945, yet so few of those surviving planes exist today. So when I discovered by chance there was a surviving Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa “Peregrine Falcon” fighter of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, I jumped at the chance to go see her in person.

You see, when I was growing up we all watched television and movies about the war usually filmed with models dangling from visible wires. In other cases, American A-T6’s were used to double as Mitsubishi Zero’s such as the Baa-Baa Black Sheep Squadron series which I used to see being filmed out of the Oxnard Airport by where I lived as a child in the 1970’s. I was disappointed back then to know there were no real Zero’s. There were plenty of original F-4U Corsairs for the show but no real Japanese fighters. I was seriously bummed. It would be some thirty years before I learned the real truth of the fate of the surviving planes.

If any of you have seen the recent Japanese film Ore-Kimi you will know that the American conquerors of Japan deliberately destroyed 99% of the surviving aircraft to prevent Japan from breaking the peace. From the standpoint of an aircraft history buff, I found that move to be as tragic as the entire war itself. But fortunately some planes do survive in museums thanks to the dedicated work of skilled restoration specialists such as GossHawk Unlimited of Casa Grande, Arizona who helped recreate this Hayabusa in 2008 from the wreckage of four planes that were based in the Kurile Islands.

The Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa served the Showa Emperor from late 1941 to the end of WWII. Close to 6000 of them were built and is said to have been more maneuverable than the famed Mitsubishi Zero. She was 29ft in length with a ceiling of 37,400 ft, and a range of 1,320 miles. Her cruising speed was 275 mph but suffered from the same problems of inadequate armor and firepower which cost the lives of many brave men who flew them. This plane bears the markings of the 3rd Chutai, 54th Sentai assigned to protect Hokkaido from attack from the Aleutian Islands.

In examining this Ki-43 up close, what struck me was how cramped the cockpit was. Even more so how small the flight suit was. The average pilot must had been no more than 5’8 to have fit in this thing! The restoration is flawless! My thanks go to Doug Champlin for finding the parts to restore her and to Col. Hiroo Murata of the JASDF for their dedication to this plane’s restoration. It is really worth seeing in person which stands as a living testiment to the men who flew them. This plane can be found at the Museum of Flight in Seattle Washington. 

To find out more about the Ki-43 and other great warbirds please visit: