Sunday, 24 April 2011

Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto: The Philosopher's Path and Arashiyama

Once a year, a beautiful wave of pink flowers sweeps across Japan from South to North. In Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan, Will Ferguson follows the path of the cherry blossoms up the coast of Japan, riding on the wave of the kind hospitality of strangers. For only a couple of weeks, hundreds of trees in every town are transformed into beautiful pink and white national symbols; ancient poetic reminders of the fleeting nature of all things. Every year, thousands of people flock to the most prominent sites to participate in the ritual of viewing these flowers, taking photographs and "Hanami", which literally means "flower viewing" - a kind of picnic under the cherry blossoms, often involving copious amounts of alcohol.

This year, I decided that I wanted to see some of the more famous cherry blossom sites - at least, a little more than Hamamatsu Castle Park, which is all I saw of them last year. So, two weeks ago, on a Friday night after work, Jeff and I headed up to Kyoto by slow train. We stayed the night at an interesting hotel and set off the next morning to the Philosopher's Walk, a renowned walking path beginning at Ginkakuji and ending at Nanzenji, two of Kyoto's many temples. In Japanese, it is called Tetsugaku no Michi (哲学の道). There are buses running from Kyoto station to Ginkakuji, where you can start the adventure. It's a relaxing, beautiful walk along canals lined with cherry blossoms (well, for a few weeks a year). Observe some photos:

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Japan's Nuclear Power Plants: A History of Accidents

Fukushima Power Plant on March 12th, 2011
You can't have escaped the recent panic over the raised radioactivity around Fukushima nuclear power plant, following damage to the cooling systems after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011. All over the world, people have been panicking. Press reports claim that people in the U.S. and Canada, in fears of radiation spreading across the ocean, are buying up iodine tablets (thought to be ineffective as it is actually potassium iodide that should be taken, which is perhaps even harmful if taken without exposure to radiation - see "Should Americans Take Iodine..." on But while the media is acting as if this is a world-shaking event, a disaster that could be "worse than Chernobyl", something set to shake up the power industry as we know it, to redefine the way we view nuclear energy and to make governments question their choices about power; it has come to light that this is definitely not Japan's first nuclear accident. A brief search into Google's news archives from the last couple of decades has brought some interesting things to light, which I am too young to remember. It seems, though, that the media and the Japanese population have largely forgotten about these incidents, too.

Before you read on, this is not meant to be a full-frontal attack on the nuclear power industry. My interest is more in the short attention span/memory of the media and the public, although the amount of accidents - while long-term or serious damage doesn't seem to be reported - should surely raise eyebrows, if not questions.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Goodbye, 三年生 (third grade)...

At the end of February, my third graders took their high school entrance examinations and finished their Junior High School lessons. I never taught KJHS's third grade, but in TJHS we were quite close. I ate lunch with the students on a rotated schedule, and would chat to them in the corridor. Some of them had amazing English, and even if it wasn't perfect, they weren't afraid to try having a conversation. I would teach at one in three of their weekly English classes, so while I wasn't there, their main teacher got them to write goodbye letters to me.

I have photographed some of my favourite ones. While the English isn't perfect, it's impressive. But it's the little pictures that really do it. They're so cute. So, have a look, enjoy, and understand why I love teaching.

Year 2 Begins...

Well, my first year in Japan has been and gone. With all the recent disasters, panic, sadness and general craziness, my one-year-in-Japan anniversary (Japanniversary?) passed me by, unnoticed. While large parts of Japan are ruined or affected in some way by recent events, the greatest repercussions in Hamamatsu are that the Golden Week festival (and other festivals) have been cancelled. Apparently it is wrong to celebrate while your brethren are suffering - a noble notion, for certain, but one that surely poses a threat to Japan's economy and morale in the long term. Still, other things go on as normal.

With the arrival of the cherry blossoms, Japan finishes one fiscal year and begins another. Students graduate from schools and begin their next steps only two weeks later, businesses reshuffle, ceremonies mark the endings and beginnings of chapters of life. Without researching, I would say that this timing was decided in order to coincide with the cherry blossoms - that haiku-inspiring reminder that all things in life are fleeting, however beautiful. Spring definitely marks a time of change - of movement, of rebirth. And so, while devastating, that world-shattering earthquake and tsunami chose a good time to strike in terms of Japan's psyche - for this week, we move on to the next chapters - we pick up, we rebuild, we start afresh.