Author Archives: kimmiekim28

Human rights at center of effort to secure nationwide legalized same-sex marriage

Kakures

Advancements in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities in Japan to date have largely taken place in social and cultural spheres — think film festivals, parades, and citizen groups — but as the recent same-sex partnership system in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward shifts the conversation toward legal rights, a new initiative is now calling for full legal same-sex marriage across the country within a framework of human rights.

The effort is being spearheaded by the Legal Network for LGBT Rights, a nationwide coalition of legal professionals founded in 2007 to work on issues of inclusion for LGBT individuals (who are often referred to in Japan as sexual minorities, or ‘sekumai’). Through the initiative, individuals who someday hope to enter into a legal same-sex marriage in Japan — and who feel that their human rights are compromised by the absence thereof — are being asked to sign on as petitioners for an appeal to be submitted to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations this summer.

The appeal asks the JFBA to urge the prime minister, Justice Ministry, and both houses of the Diet to implement a full nationwide system of legalized same-sex marriage. A signature drive is also taking place in conjunction with this appeal, to which anyone who supports same-sex marriage in Japan — regardless of their own sexuality — is asked to add their name. In addition to a paper version being circulated by proponents of the initiative, an online version is also available through the change.org website at https://goo.gl/hTGgYs (in Japanese).

There are a total of 77 petitioners at present. These include Rev. Yoshiki Nakamura, a gay male Christian pastor who has presided over non-legally binding weddings for same-sex couples, and who hopes to see full equality with heterosexual couples realized; and Maki Muraki, a lesbian who directs the nonprofit organization Nijiiro (Rainbow) Diversity that works to combat workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals — who notes that she supports legal same-sex marriage from the standpoint of economics in addition to human rights, given the impact of Japan’s present lack of rights on the ability to attract top foreign corporate talent.

The petitioners also include lesbian couple Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Masuhara, who made global news headlines in 2013 as the first same-sex couple to wed at Tokyo Disneyland. The marriage was strictly ceremonial, however, and the couple has continued to campaign for marriage rights in Japan that include full legal assurances. The Shibuya Ward same-sex marriage certificates are a first step in this direction, as they aim to provide couples with protections on occasions such as hospital visits and renting apartments.

A woman asking to be named only as Noriko, who identifies as a lesbian and who recently returned to Tokyo after obtaining her MBA in the U.S., commented in response to the initiative, “I have been hoping for many years to see same-sex marriage legalized in Japan, as I saw happening in the U.S. and elsewhere — but I had nearly given up all hope of seeing it happen. Now, I am so thankful to these lawyers who are working on a pro-bono basis in order to change the course of history in Japan, and I also feel so moved to be able help support this effort myself.”

Noriko explained that she participated in this year’s Tokyo Rainbow Pride march for the first time with a group of lesbian women who are fully or partially closeted about their sexuality, and who identify themselves as “Kaku-les” — a double entendre signifying both “hidden les” (an abbreviation of ‘lesbian’), and “not hiding.”

“If others do not know we are here, it is as if we do not exist. This is particularly true in the case of lesbians,” read an appeal on an event page linked to the group’s Twitter account, which called upon closeted members — or those who were considering coming out regarding their sexuality — to march in the 2014 Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade, using face masks to partially conceal their identity if they did not yet feel fully comfortable marching.

The event page additionally stated on the occasion of this year’s parade, “The same-sex partnership certificates to be issued (in Shibuya Ward) represent the first effort of its kind nationwide, and many people in our community are thrilled at this news. This attitude toward all kinds of minorities — including sexual ones — hints that we are moving toward a society of full inclusion.”

Indeed, this year’s Tokyo Rainbow Week — ten days featuring LGBT events of all kinds, including film screenings, parties, and workshops on various issues of concern to LGBT communities — put a close spotlight on the issue of same-sex marriage. The lineup included a panel discussion and a fair for bridal companies, and one lesbian couple even tied the knot in an onstage ceremony during the week’s kickoff event of Tokyo Rainbow Pride — which organizers say drew a total of around 60,000 participants over the April 25-26 weekend to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, including some 3,000 marchers during the Rainbow Pride parade held that Sunday.

Some community members, however, are regarding the recent moves with a critical perspective. “Shibuya Ward is describing itself as a ‘district of diversity’ that embraces LGBT individuals, but we must remember that this is the same ward that continues to expel homeless people from public facilities,” commented Makiko Ando, a lesbian who works with a nonprofit organization in Yokohama. “It is impossible to carve the matter of human rights into different categories.”

“Applying for a same-sex partnership certificate costs several hundreds of thousands of yen, and there are almost no legal equivalents with heterosexual marriage — so the policy itself is premised upon one of inequality.” Ando continued.

“There has also been almost no debate on the institution of marriage itself,” she added. “I believe we should take this opportunity to reconsider this system — as well as those of the family and the family register– in order to try and truly understand the marginalization and exclusion that LGBT communities have continued to experience to date.”

(Originally published in The Mainichi,  May 2015)

Photo caption:

Kana Narumi, right, a member of a group known as “Kaku-les,” and another member are seen wearing T-shirts describing the group’s mission to encourage members to become visible regarding their lesbian sexuality.

 


Reflections on a long weekend in Burma

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My partner and I adore traveling. During the five years we have been together, we have ventured to a total of 13 countries—and we are already plotting future dream destinations (even though, for the time being, the reality of our long-blown travel budget tells us otherwise!). Some of our most memorable journeys have been to Southeast Asia: Gorging on street food in Bangkok’s famed Khaosan Road in Thailand; observing an atmospheric and deeply spiritual sunset ceremony at a Hindu temple on Bali Island in Indonesia; and relaxing along the beach—as well as learning about war’s ongoing consequences—in the coastal cities of Vietnam (just for a taster).

When my partner announced that she seriously wanted to visit Bagan in Burma, however—famed for its landscape with thousands of temples fanned out in all directions—I have to admit that I was at first thrown off guard. Wasn’t this the country that had freshly emerged from decades of brutal dictatorship? Hadn’t there been a travel boycott in place until merely a few years ago in order to avoid enriching said dictatorship, which would mean that the situation on the ground was still likely quite raw and sensitive?

My ethical antenna was going crazy, but after doing some reading, I determined that although there would certainly be drawbacks in traveling to the country, there could also be benefits. Not least of these might be the opportunity to be a part of its internationalization, however insignificantly, through interactions with people who had effectively been cut off from the world for decades— and then in turn sharing my impressions with others (e.g., this blog post). Obviously, spending a mere four days in a country with such a complex history would never qualify me to speak as anything other than a visiting outsider reporting on surface-level impressions—although I suppose this could also be said with regard to any country, no?

At any rate: Onward to the actual trip. 🙂 We arrived in Yangon at around 3:45 PM on a Friday afternoon after a seven-hour flight from Tokyo, and by the time we checked in to our hotel and set out sightseeing, it was early evening and we were pretty exhausted—which was also exacerbated by the temperature jump from around 18 to 40 degrees Celsius. Yikes! Just about the only thing we had energy to do was walk around to find something to eat, and we were ecstatic when we arrived to a restaurant recommended in our Lonely Planet guidebook and saw some kind of mouth-watering dough being cooked up right out front. Woe be us, however, when we were told that the restaurant was closed, and no, the goods were not for sale.

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Want some bread? Too bad!!

The next couple of restaurants we tried were similarly closed, and with our hunger levels peaking just as fast as our stamina was fading, we hopped in a taxi and simply asked the driver to take us to a restaurant with good Myanma food. (Yes, I’m using Myanmar in addition to Burma…here is a pretty good explanation of the really complicated naming issue). We were surprised at how good many peoples’ English was—including most of our taxi drivers—given the extent to which the country’s education system had apparently suffered during military rule. At any rate, this driver was our new hero because he understood exactly what we wanted, and ferried us immediately to a restaurant that was precisely what our tired bodies and hungry tummies were looking for.

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Coconut rice, and lots o’ spice!!! Mmmm….

The next morning, we set out for the one full day that we had to explore the city. We were staying very near the Yangon River, just by the port, and decided to first head up to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is an extremely important place both religiously and politically (famous speeches have been given there by Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, as well as by her father, Aung San). While walking there, we noticed that there were water stations set alongside the road for people to take a drink from a communal cup—a brilliant idea given the scorching temperatures.

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Communal water station

Speaking of water, we had in fact arrived just after the end of Thingyan—the Burmese New Year Water Festival—a four-day Buddhist holiday in mid-April that includes lots of general partying, as well as a tradition whereby people douse each other with copious amounts of water. In addition to missing the festival altogether, our unfortunate timing also explained why the restaurants had been closed the previous evening. In fact, we found out only after arriving that many establishments actually closed up shop for 7-10 days just after the festival. Oh well!

The gold-encrusted pagoda was stunning, with numerous monks and other visitors praying and meditating, and worshippers lovingly dousing Buddha statues with water and giving them offerings of jasmine flower garlands. Simply beautiful. There were different praying areas with signs indicating a specific day of the week, where people go to worship in the particular section that represents the day they were born. (I had a random idea that I was born on a Tuesday, which later turned out to be correct….whew!)

IMG_5181                   IMG_5094IMG_5178                                                 Shwedagon Pagoda

 

We decided next to go up toward the University of Yangon and Inya Lake area of the city by taking the local train (an experience we had found to be thrilling beyond all expectation a couple of years prior when visiting Mumbai). This of course involved buying a ticket, which turned out to be somewhat of a production as the employee in the train station window took an exaggerated amount of time filling out paperwork, asking us to write down our names and passport numbers, and generally just being ultra-bureaucratic about the whole thing.

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The coveted train ticket…

I eventually turned to the man standing in line behind us and slightly bowed while clasping my hands together by way of apology, in response to which he darted his eyes toward the station attendant and then rolled them with a clear look of disgust. No translation necessary to convey the sentiment there! The man was out of the employee’s line of vision, and I found myself wondering: Was this a taste (albeit an innocuous one) of the average person’s hidden contempt toward government workers? Or just a universal sign of impatience? Hard to say.

Similarly, when we finally boarded the train—which was filled with people of all ages, along with huge cargo sacks and roving vendors—we saw an older man clutching beads in the midst of fervent prayer, and it looked at one point as if he were in tears. Was this someone whose family had been negatively and irreversibly impacted by the military junta? Or simply someone in the midst of deep worship? Again, I’ll never know.

In any case, we got off at the wrong stop, which actually turned out to be fantastic, since it enabled us to take a relaxed walk to the university down a road lined with homes and schools, mom-and-pop type stalls selling all sorts of miscellaneous goods, and street food vendors from whom we satiated ourselves with deep-fried samosas, corn cakes and other spicy treats.

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Lots o’ naughty treats!!

We arrived around 30 or 40 minutes later to Inya Lake, whose periphery was filled with the universal scene of young couples cuddling. 🙂 Since we realized that the university would likely be closed for the New Year holiday, we decided to just go ahead and take a taxi that would get us closer to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Our guidebook said that it could possibly be unsafe for taxi drivers if we asked them to take us there, so we made some vague request to be dropped off at a nearby intersection. When we were nearby, though, our driver casually pointed out, “See that house over there? That’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s.” I guess times have indeed changed!

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Banks of Inya Lake

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Front gate of Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, where she was under house arrest for around 15 years…

Speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi, I have been reading numerous criticisms of her recently by folks who reject her attempts to look at both sides of the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Burma rather than unequivocally condemn the violence against the Rohingya (Muslim) minority. I can definitely get behind that argument, but at the same time, I am also tempted to step back and see her stance as coming from a deeper place, such as Vietnamese spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh’s acknowledgement of the suffering among everyone in war, regardless of which “side” they were on. This may just be wishful thinking, insofar as Aung San Suu Kyi herself admits that her roots are in politics rather than human rights activism, although I suppose time will tell on this one.

In any case, after heading next to our domestic airline office to sort out the tickets for our super early flight to Bagan the next morning, we walked through some more of the city’s bustling streets, had dinner at a chilled out little restaurant featuring Myanma food with tables set up outside, and then headed back to catch some z’s before we had to wake up at 4AM.

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Yangon street food market

Fast forwarding to the next day, we checked in to our hotel in Bagan by 8AM, and after a meal and a nap, we set off to begin exploring the temples in the Old Bagan district via bicycles that we rented from our hotel. We were actually warned against it since the temps were again pushing 40 degrees, but hey, what’s a little sweat!? (Or, as I like to periodically, point out, “I grew up in a desert; I can handle it.”) 😉

Bagan’s temples were immensely gorgeous and peaceful, with an atmosphere that was somewhat reminiscent of its two sister cities–Siam Reap, Cambodia (the site of Angkor Wat) and Luang Prabang, Laos, both of which we had absolutely loved–although the architecture here was of course entirely different. Almost every temple that we visited had four entrances with four different large Buddhas seated in different postures that were facing each of the cardinal directions—some with a fifth Buddha, said to represent a future era—which were unlike any temples I had ever seen elsewhere.

IMG_5212IMG_5309We went inside seven or eight different ones, and at one point while I was sitting and waiting for my partner, a friendly woman struck up a conversation with me, and then offered to take me to her nearby stall to give my face a fresh coat of thanaka (a paste made from bark similar to sandalwood, which people here apply to their face as a skin protector and cosmetic). It was unexpected, but she was so sincere when she offered that I just went with it. It was a sweet little interaction, and my partner and I both ended up buying a couple of longyis (the national dress of skirt-like cloths) from her stand as souvenirs.

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Making the thanaka paste

Later that day, as we were coming out of a little cafe where we had stopped for a late afternoon snack and thinking about where to go next, a young guy approached us on his motorcycle and offered to guide us to one of the best sunset viewing spots. Since he was so persuasive (and we had no idea where to go), we followed him on our bikes to a temple, and climbed up to the top to settle in for the evening view.

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Our friendly guide, a university student of politics…but let’s just say he preferred to talk to us about what most 22 year-old guys want to talk about. Mm-hmm, that’s right.

Bagan at any time of day is stunning, but I have a hard time finding words to describe what it was like to watch the sun set over a landscape dotted with what seems like millions of temples. In actuality there are now around 2,000, but in its heyday more than 1000 years ago, there were apparently more than 10,000. Totally unbelievable.

We headed out again on our bikes the next day to New Bagan for some more temple exploration, and lunch in a very atmospheric cafe overlooking the river. While walking around afterward, we saw what seemed to be a local festival, with folks dancing to what sounded like a gamelan ensemble–although due to the language barrier (and cultural ignorance), it was hard to know exactly what was going on.

A family motioned at one point that they wanted to take a photo of me together with their young daughter, and later, a man who came over to talk to me and said he was a junior high school teacher seemed like he wanted to go deeper than the social pleasantries we exchanged—although language again prevented this. Was there more to it, though? Knowing the history whereby communicating with foreigners was something that could at one time land people into trouble with authorities here, I wondered: Were there political topics lurking underneath the words of those who tried communicating with me? Or was that all literally just inside my own head?

With this question—among others—naturally still unanswered, it was time for us to head back to our hotel to prepare for our flight back to Japan. It had been a whirlwind trip, but I was definitely glad we had done it. We had managed to get in lots of sightseeing and yet still relax, chat with local folks, enjoy delicious meals, and feel as if we were making some kind of contribution–however miniscule–to the country’s (hopefully) emerging democratic economy by trying to patronize local businesses as much as possible.

Or had we? What if the money we spent just ended up right inside the pockets of military-connected government cronies? I will say one thing for sure: If we had seriously been committed to completely responsible tourism, we would have spent far more time doing our pre-travel research on places to stay and other logistics. As it were, however, it was basically a last-minute trip that we did not meticulously research in advance, and after we arrived, I suspected that the hotels we ended up staying at in both Yangon and Bagan (which we had reserved online) were likely affiliated with the government in some way.

It truly is hard to know…but I will also say this: The possibility of enriching corrupt and morally dubious regimes is most certainly not restricted to this country. Obviously this is sensitive territory I am broaching, since a military dictatorship that has disrespected the rule of law so egregiously—and apparently continues to do so regarding media freedoms, in addition to other issues—is blatantly unacceptable, end of story. But what about other places where my partner and I have recently traveled, where the corruption seems just as disturbing?

In other words, even if our tourist money didn’t end up in the hands of despots, couldn’t it also be said that our being there was not contributing toward a deepening of democracy, but rather toward the erosion of the country’s existing spiritual and cultural fabric by encouraging the advance of soulless capitalism, which is already so apparent in places like Vietnam?

And as my partner and I also discussed, what about our own countries—hers, Brazil, to which tourists are now flocking for the World Cup, which she points out is still very much influenced by its own military dictatorship that officially ended almost 15 years ago? And how about my own country, which loves to chest-thump itself as the worldwide democracy numero uno—wait, did someone say “endless overseas warmongering and homeland prison state”?!

I guess what I am trying to say is that while trying to be sensitive to the reality of visiting a country at such a delicate period in its history, I also want to acknowledge that it is easy to fall into a patronizing “us vs. them” dynamic which actually masks the fact that there are plenty of other locales where inequalities also rule—including our own.

Alright, I am not sure whether anyone is still reading or not by this point (!), but if you’ve made it this far, I thank you! I will end by saying that a friend of mine does amazing work with an organization called Mekong Watch that helps bring accountability to Japanese-funded development projects in Burma…please do check out the very interesting blog that she maintains if you are interested.

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This street art seemed to have special significance in Yangon…


India: Two Amazing Weeks

The Taj Mahal...she goes up top.

The stunning Taj Mahal…she goes up top.

It has taken me awhile to put words to paper (err, screen) following my recent trip to India, if for no other reason than I felt myself distinctly unqualified to write anything at all about this incredible country. Obviously I could just stick to my own travel anecdotes, but given my tendency to start delving into social matters, I felt I might be way out of my league in this case. While strongly interested in the spiritual pursuits of yoga, meditation and Ayurveda, I also felt I was nearly entirely ignorant about this country and its complexities prior to visiting. (Not that every country doesn’t have complexities, but for some reason, India strikes me as perhaps being especially so). Okay, I could probably go on and on with the caveats, but I think I’ll go ahead and just get down to the writing. 🙂

After a few weeks of research, my partner Sheila and I finally decided upon an itinerary of a week sightseeing in Delhi (including a day to go see the Taj Mahal in Agra), followed by a weeklong stay at an Ayurvedic center down south in Mysore, and two days visiting Mumbai. I would then head back to Japan, while Sheila’s continuing travels would take her onward to the Vipassana meditation center in Igatpuri for several days as a volunteer, followed by a monthlong yoga course in Rishikesh. LUCKY!!

Delhi was a whirlwind experience, including (in no particular order) visits to incredible religious sites (the awesome Qutb Minar complex, the Nizamuddin Dargah tomb of a Sufi saint (reached after a long and interesting maze of twisting alleyways), and the Baha’i Lotus Temple, among others), as well as exploring all sorts of markets–from the artisan crafts at Dilli Haat to the upscale boutiques at N Market to the amazing chaos of the Chandi Chowk street marketplace–and  spending several hours in contemplation at the Gandhi Memorial museum, among many other highlights.

At the Qutb Minar complex

At the Qutb Minar complex

Chandi Chowk street stalls

There were small disappointments, such as when the owner of the B&B where we stayed caught a cold and was unable to schedule our much anticipated cooking course; and other frustrations that turned into delightful experiences, such as when deep fog turned our four-hour train ride to Agra into an eight-hour one…and we ended up sharing snacks, playing board games, and studying Japanese and Hindi words with a fun-loving ten year-old Delhi girl and her lovely parents. There were also just purely amazing moments, such as happening upon a cozy looking organic restaurant when we were cold and hungry…and realizing it was none other than Navdanya Slow Food Cafe run by Vandana Shiva, the famous ecologist who runs a nonprofit seed-saving organization of the same name.

Our first thali plate at Navdanya. Fantastic!!

Our first thali plate, enjoyed at Navdanya. Fantastic!!

When we arrived, the city of Delhi was still reeling from the recent shocking rape and murder of a 23 year-old woman (as was the rest of the country, and much of the world). Although we would have loved to show our solidarity at one of the demonstrations for women’s rights, we did not know if or where any such events were taking place, nor how to go about accessing such information. The depth of the problem of violence against women in India was clear, however–even if only going by numerous revolting newspaper headlines that I saw during our stay regarding the rapes and murders of women, teenagers and little girls–many under age ten, and some as young as two years old. If there was any silver lining to be found after the Delhi case, it appeared to be in the national conversation that was generated regarding the need to address the matter of violence against women, including this thoughtful piece, which touches upon the fact that such crimes against lower class and caste women are systematic–and normally go both unpunished and unnoticed.

While exploring Delhi was fascinating, the city was experiencing its coldest winter in nearly 50 years, and our B&B was not exactly equipped to offer protective warmth from the chill…so we were definitely ready after a week to take our flight down south to Bangalore, where we couldn’t change fast enough into our T-shirts and sandals following our arrival. Ah, sun! And the gloriousness of its warmth upon our skin!! We were loving our three-hour drive down to Mysore, accompanied by funky Indipop tunes cranked up high courtesy of our taxi driver.

Tikka powders from the main market in Mysore, which we toured toward the end of our stay

Strikingly colored tikka powders from the
main market in Mysore

We arrived around dusk to the outskirts of Mysore, at our much-anticipated home for the next week–the Indus Valley Ayurvedic Center (IVAC)–and spent the first evening doing nothing more than drinking in the absolute tranquility of its atmosphere.

Our plan was to begin a seven-day panchakarma course, which is the Ayurvedic version of detoxing, involving a purge-induced cleansing of the system that is initiated by drinking large quantities of ghee (clarified butter), among other  pretty hard-core treatments. It was a major frustration, then, when I was told by the doctor that I couldn’t complete the course because my period was likely to come within the next day or two, and I would be better off signing up for the “rejuvenation” course instead. Despite my extreme disappointment, I managed to bounce back because really, who can complain about a week’s worth of massages (as opposed to spending most of the week hovered over the toilet and sink)? 😉

Sheila also opted for the rejuvenation course, and truly, the next several days were some of the most relaxing of our lives. The treatments were many and varied, including, among others, shirodhara (where a warm sesame-based oil mixture is slowly dripped over your forehead, apparently to help open the third eye, among other health benefits); abhyanga (an amazing full-body  massage using a similar oil mixture);  and–my personal favorite–Patra Pinda Sweda (PPS), where an herbal concoction is grilled in oil, tied up in a cloth, dipped in the warm medicated oil, and then pounded (hard) over specific points of the body to help move toxins into the bloodstream for elimination.

Neem paste used in various Ayurvedic
treatments, including facials

Yantra (diagram used to call forth spiritual
energies) at the IVAC entrance

Before each treatment, the practitioners (all very sweet twentysomethings, most of them from neighboring Mysore) would recite a Sanksrit prayer before offering me a Q-tip dipped in the warm oil mixture to clean my ears; and then follow up each treatment with a dab of medicinal powder on the head to help regulate body temperature (or at least I think that’s what I was told!), before serving me a cup of hot tea. Pure bliss…truly.

Breakfast on the restaurant patio

Breakfast on the restaurant patio

In between the treatments, the wonderful meals in the restaurant, the yoga and pranayama courses on offer, and the one-day detox that I was allowed to perform, I sat on the patio of our cottage–surrounded by beautiful banana trees and frangipani shrubs, among other flowering plants–and read for hours and hours on end. Days before we left, a friend had sent us a copy of a book titled The Path of Practice: A Woman’s Book of Ayurvedic Healing by Vedic monk Maya Tiwari, which was filled with wisdom about incorporating healing and grounding practices into everyday life.  It was a a beautiful book, as well as an example of an amazing synchronicity, as the friend who sent it had no idea that Sheila and I were on our way to an Ayurvedic center in India.

Sweet little view from our cottage

Sweet little view from our cottage

I also found some fantastic reads from the center’s library, including God/Goddess the Astrologer: Soul, Karma and Reincarnation by  Jeffrey Armstrong, a scholar who has introduced Vedic teachings to the west, and whose book makes the powerful point that the five Ayurvedic  elements of earth, water, fire, air and space provide a far more clear and logical approach to organizing the world than Western science (whose convoluted formulas make no sense to the average layperson), and also outlines the insidious way that Ayurveda’s 5000 year-old teachings were suppressed during the era of British colonialism while being arrogantly (and wrongly) regarded as inferior — and later  began to be targeted by pharmaceutical companies for blatant patenting and profiteering.


IVAC founder, Dr. Talavane Krishna, explaining Ayurveda as a “Science of Life”. In contrast to Armstrong, Krishna’s vision involves a harmonious blending of Ayurveda and Western science.

After a week at IVAC, both Sheila and I truly felt rejuvenated, and I can’t recommend Ayurveda highly enough for anyone looking to incorporate a more healthy regimen into their daily lives. Even if traveling to India is not an option (!), there are many, many resources out there for self-study. In addition to the books mentioned above, a great introduction to the Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle is Deepak Chopra’s Perfect Health, which gives an extremely clear and well-written explanation of the three different Ayurvedic body constitutions, as well as a quiz to help you figure out your own, and  diet/exercise  suggestions targeted to each one to help you feel more balanced and healthy. (His website is also a vast treasure trove of information, as is the IVAC website–a good place to start might be here).

Session with a Vedic astrologer...got many fascinating and helpful tips!

Session with a Vedic astrologer…got many              fascinating and helpful tips!

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Our new friends from IVAC…guess
which one is the yoga teacher?! 😉

Needless to say, it was extremely hard to leave the serenity of the center, but we were nevertheless pretty excited about visiting Mumbai. Our two days of sightseeing included visiting a Jain temple, watching a Bollywood movie, walking through different city neighborhoods while enjoying yummy treats at the street food stalls, and stocking up on goodies to take home.

We had decided to do our exploring via train, as Mumbai’s subway system is not scheduled for completion for another decade or so. (Delhi, by contrast, had an amazing metro system–definitely far more modern and convenient than most I have seen in U.S. cities).

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Feasting on pani puri…YUMM!!!

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Mumbai trains…hold on!!

We set out on the rail system, and were mildly surprised to see that the trains had no doors (at least, not the ones we were riding). Surprise turned to fear, however, when we also realized that a) the trains barely stopped when they approached the station, and then gave no warning when they took off again, and b) there was a whole lot of pushing and shoving going on. Indeed, a woman right behind us  decided to try jumping on the train while it was in the midst of pulling off, and ended up half-in and half-out, with several of us having to drag her up to avoid her being pulled underneath. Quite honestly, one of the most frightening moments of my life (and undoubtedly hers).

As in Delhi, the extremes of pockets of ultra-rich living set against the backdrop of the deepest, most large-scale poverty that we had ever witnessed in our lives were once again in our face.  Although Mumbai is India’s richest city, it also has one of the largest slums in Asia, where apparently there is one toilet for every 1000 residents (no, that’s not a typo),  although it has about a $650 USD GDP yearly from the cottage industries found within it…what?! Our taxis were also continually approached by people begging for food or money, and while we tried to give something to everyone, it was clear that this was a tiny band-aid solution to a profoundly deep-rooted problem.

A friend commented on one of my Facebook posts that she felt like a complete hypocrite  while traveling in India, and I totally knew what she meant. As a white westerner with money, I was clearly somehow implicated in the unfair structures I was witnessing around me…whether it was in the streets of Delhi and Mumbai, or at the Ayurveda center in Mysore, which is mostly patronized by foreigners (and well-off Indians), and whose therapists work six days a week from morning to night collecting and preparing herbs, giving treatments, and cleaning up–often with no days off at all during the high tourist seasons (such as when Sheila and I visited).

I also noticed that many Indians whom we encountered were apt to approach and speak with Sheila while ignoring me (often commenting that she looked like a local), and that it inevitably took twice as long for airport officials to scan my passport, often done with exaggerated scrutiny before it was finally tossed back to me. Given the humiliations suffered by the people in this country’s not-distant history, the point being made here was definitely taken.

All in all, it was an extremely meaningful two weeks, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have visited. Shortly after arriving back to Tokyo,  I was also pleased  to find that another powerful synchronicity had come knocking. I normally consult an astrological sort of website daily for tips on navigating energies (mkay, non-spiritual types, you can stop reading now! 😉 ), but I had stopped reading the site during our trip, assuming a complete separation between Western and Vedic (Hindu) astrology. I was most pleased, therefore,  to find that the site had begun incorporating an element of Hindu mythology practically at the exact same moment that I was reading about such themes at the Ayurveda center in Mysore.  The link is here, but the project is newly developing, so there isn’t much there yet. For anyone interested in delving deep into this sort of mind-expanding content, check this out and see where it leads you (or not…haha!)….the site is massive.

Although I hardly feel more knowledgeable about the country than before traveling there, I guess that’s part of the lesson: maybe it really is about the learning and the open-mindedness, and not so much about the “knowing”. In any case…even though the travel budget is more than blown, I am already secretly plotting our next visit back… 😉

Mumbai coastline at dusk...check out the kites!!

Mumbai coastline at dusk…check out the kites!!


‘Free Pussy Riot Tokyo’: Japan-based artists gather to raise consciousness, funds for jailed Russian duo

Pussy_Riot

(Originally published on Ten Thousand Things blog, November 9, 2012)

With calls mounting around the globe to release the two jailed members of the Russian feminist punk band “Pussy Riot”, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (“Nadya”) and Maria Alyokhina (“Masha”), Tokyo joined the list of numerous cities worldwide hosting ‘Free Pussy Riot” events, protests and actions.

Drawing inspiration from the earlier traditions of British punk and USA Riot Grrrls, the group gained fame both locally and internationally for its edgy performances aimed at increasing awareness of issues such as feminism and gay rights, as well as protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin. The women drew fire from Russian authorities earlier this year, however, for a performance given by four group members on February 21, 2012 at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, donned in their usual balaclava head coverings, where they denounced collusion between the country’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Last Sunday’s event, held at the Tokyo Salon event space in the city’s artsy neighborhood of Aoyama, featured a lineup of performances and panel discussions including local bands, writers, and various other artists. All proceeds from the evening’s sales of tickets and ‘Free Pussy Riot” goods were slated to cover the two jailed women’s ongoing legal expenses, and event-goers were also encouraged to pen messages of support, similarly to be sent directly to their lawyers.

FPRT
The first panel discussion included Andrey Bold, editor of the contemporary art online magazine Gadabout, together with three members of the artist collective known as Chim↑Pom. Bold, who is Russian himself, began the talk by explaining that most of the country’s artists strive to please the government and other rich funders, with protests nearly nonexistent. He also said that because the church had rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the fall of Communism, any offenses against the church essentially now constituted protests against the government—meaning that the Pussy Riot members, in the eyes of the country’s power elite, had committed the worst possible double-offense. “They had to have known exactly what they were getting themselves into,” he commented.

Ryuta Ushiro, the leader of the Chim↑Pom collective, began his talk by stating that he actually felt great empathy for the jailed band members, as he and other members of his group had also been the subject of a criminal police investigation following their “defacing” of a mural by famous artist Taro Okamoto in April 2011 inside Tokyo’s busy Shibuya station. Titled “Myth of Tomorrow”, the mural served as a statement on nuclear issues by depicting the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Daigo Fukuryumaru** incident, to which Chim↑Pom added a piece titled Level 7—its statement regarding the Fukushima nuclear accident, which featured images of the still-smoldering reactors.

While some may criticize Ushiro for attempting to draw parallels with two individuals who now sit inside freezing Siberian prisons, the fact is undeniable that Chim↑Pom does echo Pussy Riot in terms of its subversive art that is deeply critical of the state. On April 11, 2011, exactly one month following the nuclear disaster, he and another band member parked their car near the Fukushima Daiichi reactor and walked 40 minutes up to a nearby lookout spot, where they unfurled a flag and then proceeded to spray-paint it with what first appeared to be the symbol of the Japanese national flag—which then turned into the radiation warning symbol.

The video, titled “Real Times”, is a powerful juxtaposition between what seems like a walk through the forest on a lovely day–belied by the eerily haunting reality of nuclear meltdown. It may be viewed here.

This was followed by a second talk session, including panelists Hiroko Okada, a contemporary artist concerned with women’s issues; Yoshitaka Mori, a professor of art and sociology and pioneer of cultural studies; and Wataru Tsurumi, a writer whose works have focused on controversial social issues including suicide, prison, drugs and anti-capitalism.

FPRT_II
While each offered different commentary based upon their different life experiences, there was indeed a common thread: the need for devising completely new social and economic structures and speaking truth to power by challenging the existing status quo—something that Nadya and Masha’s continued detention demands that we continue doing in our respective locales around the globe.

*name of a Japanese tuna fishing boat that was enveloped in a cloud of radiation fallout from U.S. a nuclear test on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1954

–Kimberly Hughes


Weekend of my dreams


Yume no Ie (Dream House), Niigata, Japan

A few weeks ago, on a crisp, early autumn Saturday morning, I excitedly boarded a train for a weekend adventure.

I was going together with my good friend My–a fun and outgoing Swede whom I just adore–to spend the night in a 100+ year old traditional Japanese house that had been refurbished into a permanent art installation in Niigata prefecture, one of the coldest regions of the country, wearing special magnet-lined “dream pajamas”. Oh, and sleeping inside a wooden box.

That’s right: We were on our way to the Dream House–the love child of Serbian performance artist Marina Abromovic and her own psyche–to take part in one of the weirdest dream-related rituals I had ever heard of. I had only recently become familiar with Abromovic’s work after having helped translate her recently published (and aptly titled) “Dream Book“, a collection that recounted the project’s history and also included descriptions of over 100 dreams that previous visitors had recorded in the specially provided “dream diaries”. Having lately become very interested in interpreting my own increasingly vivid and bizarre dream life, I was fascinated. I snagged one of the few remaining available reservations for overnight stays at the facility before it closed for the winter, and convinced My to join me for the adventure.

Abramovic originally designed the Dream House as part of the Echigo Tsumari Art Trienale, an outdoor art festival that was designed to help revitalize the  rural Niigata villages, which were facing decline and a rapidly aging population as young people abandoned them to move to the cities. In addition to helping visitors access their latent potential to get in touch with their subconscious selves through the usually-ignored realm of their dreams, the project also aimed to involve local residents with the ongoing management of the house, which would itself also serve as a clearinghouse for local culture.

My and I arrived to the local village just before dusk, after having enjoyed a relaxed lunch of delicious soba (buckwheat) noodles, a long and relaxing soak in the waters of the Matsunoyama Onsen–one of Japan’s top three  medicinal hot springs–and a soul-warming cup of coffee at an adorable little jazz cafe that we were lucky enough to find just before embarking upon the 20-minute uphill climb to our destination.

“Soba and jazz cafe with an extremely warm heart” 🙂

We were met at the the Dream House by an extremely friendly woman named Takahashi san, who gave us a tour of the house, took us to two other nearby formerly abandoned homes that had similarly been restored into permanent art installations, and then left us on our own. I chuckled to myself as I realized that our relaxed and easy-going guide had forgetten to remind us of several rules that the Dream Book had made adamantly clear were necessary when staying overnight at the facility, such as listening to a tape recording where Abramovic’s stern voice herself instructed guests regarding the precise rituals to be followed.

Breaking another rule after Takahashi departed, My and I savored our evening meal–a gorgeous spread of local treats including fish, vegetables, soup, rice, pickles and tea– not in silence, as Abramovic had instructed, but while talking for hours about life, love, loss, and yes, dreams. My is similarly interested in  dream interpretation, and so we finally decided to call it a night to see what our dreams would reveal to us. First, we engaged in the called-for ritual of soaking in a bath of fresh, locally-grown herbs before putting on the special dream pajamas and going to bed (i.e., lying inside of fake coffins with–I swear I am not making this up–a pillow made of marbled rock).

Fresh herbs for the bath

Part of my dream exploration, which has been guided by various resources such as the richly informative Dream Tribe website, has focused on “incubating dreams.” According to the dream experts, if you ask the universe/your spirit guides/your own higher self to help provide guidance regarding a specific question that you have asked. you will receive answers within your dreams in the form of symbols, images, and sometimes just even fleeting feelings or understandings . Abramovic’s approach, according to the literature on hand at the Dream House–as well as my own readings on her work–is to help us access this deep intuition through a series of steps designed to coax ourselves into “dreaming mode”: the silence (whoops!), the bath, the placing of 12 magnets inside the dream suit pockets that are aligned with the meridians of the body corresponding to Chinese acupuncture, and sleeping in a manner so uncomfortable as to ensure a light sleep conducive to remembering your dreams.

Above: My room (the purple one)

Right: The red room…can you imagine waking up to this light?!

As intrigued by spirituality and intuitive pursuits as I am, I must admit that my first thought before heading off to bed was a decidedly corporeal one: How in the hell was I supposed to go the bathroom with heavy magnets dangling all over the place inside this freaking oversized “dream suit”?! I inevitably have to wake up once and sometimes twice every night in order to do the deed, and considering the endless cups of tea that My and I had consumed, I knew tonight would be no different. Sure enough, shortly after falling asleep (which must have been sometime around midnight), my first dream came in the form of having to go pee, badly, and actually standing up on the toilet seat for the best aim, urinating in a thick stream that seemed to go on forever. I am soooooo thankful that this did not result in a bedwetting incident (don’t know how I have escaped my entire life without one of these, or at least so I’m told ;), but needless to say, when I awoke, I sucked it up and trudged across the house to the toilet. (Side note: Can you imagine looking at yourself in the bathroom mirror in the middle of the night and having a Teletubby staring back at you? Yeah.)

After crawling back into my box together with some blankets and futons I had grabbed from the closet to try to warm up (do NOT tell Marina Abramovic!!), my mind drafted back to the dreams that I had translated from the Dream Book. I had been shocked at the number of erotic and violent dreams that people had recorded into the dream diaries, and part of me wondered whether some of them had been exaggerating or even lying. Now, inside the house itself, I realized that there likely was some truth to the artist’s recipe for unleashing the raw and wild parts of our psyches that are often kept hidden. Indeed, the next dream that I had after finally falling back asleep was even more bizarre than the first. Before heading to bed earlier in the evening, I had asked for a dream to help me find out what had happened to my sweet cat Yoda, who disappeared three months ago, and whose loss I am still deeply grieving. When I bolted awake several hours later, after my bathroom visit, I was horrified to slowly realize that the dream I had just awoken from was one where I was calmly stripping the skin off of a black and white cat, with a voice speaking the words “We must stop the practice of skinning cats.”

WTF?!

One of the many ways that I had attempted to find Yoda following his disappearance was plastering flyers all over a very wide swathe of our neighborhood, and after I returned from a trip home to see my family in the States one month after his disappearance (which was partially to help take my mind off the despair of losing him), my partner Sheila told me that she found one small flyer posted very near our home with the bodies of skinned cats, which bore something akin to the same message that had just appeared in my dream. What did this mean? Was this truly the fate of my gorgeous, amazingly intuitive cat, whom I hoped would be with me for far longer than just four short years? If so, why did he have to suffer like that?

In this case, I badly want to think that this was “only a dream”; my brain simply recalling Sheila’s words about the flyer, with no connection to reality. And yet, I know that even if this thankfully did not happen to my precious baby, in any case, this *is* the fate of countless other animals, many perhaps equally as loved; none of them deserving such ill treatment. One of the many animal rights organization representatives whom I spoke with in the initial days following Yoda’s disappearance spent our entire conversation telling me that animals were often yanked off the street by yakuza  (mafia) members who sent them to factories for animal testing, and I remember dismissing this possibility completely, disgusted that she would even bring it up. At the time, I was thriving on the positive words that my friends were feeding me constantly on Facebook, telling me not to give up hope, that he would be home soon. What if she was right, though? Yoda is a docile and friendly creature with gorgeous fur–both qualities that would make him attractive for any number of sinister doings. What if our immediate cat-loathing neighbor had not dumped Yoda in a faraway field, as I had imagined at one point, but had done the unimaginable and called some kind of animal kidnapper to come and take him away?

Staircase leading up to the bedrooms

My mind can easily go to this kind of ominous place, and frankly speaking, this kind of mistrust is not something that I wish to cultivate within my own heart–particularly as my partner and I prepare to welcome our own children into the world. And yet, once again I know that it is real, that animals–and human beings, for that matter–are suffering via this type of inhumane and cruel treatment. And since it was *me* who was calmly skinning the cat in the dream, I must ask myself: is this some kind of call to vegetarianism? To become an animal rights activist? Some other message that I have yet to comprehend?

Needless to say, the questions that danced around within my mind as My and I left the Dream House on Sunday morning were not of a light and easy nature. Nevertheless, I found myself very grateful for her friendship as I shared my dreams with her (and she did the same) back at the jazz cafe over yummy breakfast and coffee.

I must also send thanks to Marina Abramovic, for her passionate vision in enabling people to explore realms of our consciousness that are mostly off-limits during our waking life. I will continue to explore my own dreams with regard to the question of my beloved furry one, as well as other looming life questions and challenges–and encourage others to do the same (the Dream Tribe offers a fantastic guide for beginning dream interpreters here).

The Yukiguni blog also has a lovely post on the Dream House (with lots more photos of the interior)…

Me n My 🙂

Gorgeous Niigata countryside


Yoda and Awa, My Loves

This summer has not turned out quite as I had expected.

I had visions of beaches, barbecues, cycling, swimming, doing some work and relaxedly taking on the final bit of organizing in the small house that my partner, our four year-old cat Yoda and I moved into this past May.

Instead, my days and nights have revolved around searching, flyering, worrying, and yes, the occasional lapse into weeping. Today marks one month that my beloved Yoda has gone missing from our home, and my top priority has been to do whatever it takes to find him.

First, let me backtrack to share a bit of Yoda’s story. Shortly before my partner and I met, he came to me as one of a litter of kittens advertised on a flyer that I came across at a hippy-esque organic farmers market/ festival that I attended along the southern tip of the Boso peninsula in Chiba prefecture in 2008. The woman advertising the kittens, a crystal healer who went by the name of Yoppi, had two cats who had continued to mate and produce successive waves of kittens, whom she in turn placed in new homes. She had a sort of meditation/other-worldly theme going with the names of the four kittens in this particular litter, who were named Samadhi, Miroku, Cosmo, and–the runt of the pack–Yoda. The kittens were newborn, so after giving them two months to feed with their mother, I took home two of them: Yoda and Cosmo (whose name I changed to Awa, in honor of the name of the festival where I had been introduced to them).

Ever since they were babies, Awa and Yoda were completely inseparable. They had adopted the regular habit of assuming poses wherein they appeared as an exact inversion of the other—almost as if they decided in advance what would be the position of the day.  They were also like yin and yang in every sense—completely opposite from each other in both color and character. Tri-colored Awa was skitterish, all over the place, and fast.  She always seemed to be getting into trouble, but it was impossible to stay upset with her when she began preening, dancing and prancing—anything to get attention. Look at me, she seemed to be saying, earning herself the nickname “movie star”. She was endlessly generous in the attention that she gave to Yoda, who—because of his tiny size and attachment to his mother (we think) —had developed the habit of suckling on her belly, which she allowed without complaint. Awa was not so interested in humans, however. She could not stand to be held, tolerating it for only a minute or two at a time, never making eye contact, before jumping down to run off and find something more interesting to do.

Baby Yoda, a beautiful deep charcoal color with intense yellow eyes, was slow, calm, and just as attached to humans as he was to his beloved sister. He would often crawl up onto my chest, slowly kneading me with his paws while looking deeply into my eyes. We bonded early—and strong. Yoda wanted nothing more than to be held, for hours at a time if he could, purring drowsily and contentedly the entire time. He was also extremely determined. We thought at first that his development was rather slow, but in fact, he was just extremely patient. Spending hours at a time if necessary, he learned to maneuver his paws in order to pry open every door and window in the house that he wanted access to. There was literally no stopping him from doing whatever it was he set his mind to.

With cats as vivacious and extremely curious as these guys, it was almost a no-brainer for me regarding whether or not to let them explore the outdoors. I knew that there were dangers associated with letting them roam free, but when I saw the looks on their faces when they ran around in the backyard nibbling grass and chasing each other happily, I couldn’t imagine things any differently. Most cats I knew had outdoor access, and to me, it was simply the right thing to do.

In March 2010, at the age of one year and a half, Awa suddenly went missing during one of her outdoor forays. I went out searching, and after there was still no sign of her, I posted flyers with her photo all around the neighborhood. Several days later, I got a phone call from a local delivery person who told me that a cat fitting Awa’s description had been killed several days prior by a car driving down the road in front of our house. In retrospect, it was not surprising. I could very easily imagine Awa darting out into the road without bothering to check around her, and I blamed myself for not envisioning the scenario earlier. But—as one of my friends pointed out to me—once an outdoor cat, always an outdoor cat. There would have been no turning back even if I had begun having second thoughts along the way. And as another friend consoled me, Awa had a rich life that she lived to the fullest, in her own way, up until the moment of her death.

My partner and I were living in a shared house at the time with several friends, and we all grieved Awa’s death. It was Yoda who took her absence the hardest, though, searching and keening for his missing sister for weeks. We all tried to give him as much love and attention as we could to help ease his pain, and finally, slowly, he began to return to his usual genki self. We knew that he had not forgotten her, though, and suspected that a part of him would always be waiting for her return.

Life went on, with our friends moving out of the house and onward with their lives, followed by the shock of 3.11, after which time Yoda and I temporarily took shelter at a friend’s home in Hiroshima (a story I have recounted in detail here and here). Otherwise, however, life fell into a predictable routine. Yoda continued to come in and out of the house freely, romping in the jungle-like yard, occasionally bringing home lizards, birds, and yes, rats, and continuing to remain as affectionate and clingy as he had been as a kitten. He was not allowed into our bedroom due to my partner’s severe cat allergy, and during the night I would often wake up to his crying and scratching at the door, and would go hold him until he calmed down and went back to sleep.

With Yoda’s seemingly endless desire to be held and cuddled, I even resorted at times to using a shoulder bag as a sort of baby sling so that I could fold laundry or do dishes with him snuggled at my side. But as affection-starved as he seemed to constantly be while at home, he was just as equally independent and gregarious when it came to his much-loved outdoor adventures. He would sometimes be gone for a night or two at a time without coming home, and each time the agonizing worry would make me yet again consider trying to “make” him an indoor cat. I knew, however, that this would be impossible. Besides, I reasoned, he was trustworthy. I knew he would never run into the street when a car was approaching, and that he had an impeccable sense of direction and would always find his way home.

When my partner and I were told this past spring that our landlord’s family would be selling the property following his death, and that we had to move out immediately, Yoda was our top priority in finding a new place to live. Wherever we moved, it would have to be somewhere where he would be able to come and go freely, and located in a safe enclave with no busy roads nearby. After weeks of searching, my partner found a small “terrace house” (which meant, essentially, sharing a wall with neighbors) very near to a gorgeous park, and set back in a quiet residential area that would give Yoda plenty of space to roam. It was perfect for all three of us.

On the day we moved in, Sheila and I ditched the boxes and headed immediately for lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant while Yoda headed out to explore. Although I panicked midway through lunch that he might not be able to find his way home, and rushed home to put his litter box outside so that he could follow the scent if necessary, he returned soon thereafter, obviously thrilled. He sat purring contentedly on the couch with us, making clear his approval of his new digs and his new territory.

Saturday morning family pile on the couch

The excitement was short-lived, however, as we soon realized that there were some big, tough stray cats who were not so happy about the arrival of a newcomer. In our old neighborhood of Kichijoji, Yoda had always been the boss of the hood—not through aggression or dominating tendencies—but rather, according to some cat-related research I had done, likely due to his ability to reason and stay calm in all situations, which was apparently a trait highly respected by other cats. Despite the occasional scuffle with other felines, particularly during spring when all of the cats seemed to go a little zany, Yoda’s life had mostly been a predictable affair. Here in our new neighborhood, however, the lay of the land was a bit more menacing. Yoda stayed inside for several weeks, obviously glum, obviously missing his former life.

This too passed, however, and he gradually began venturing out more and more, returning to his usual happy self. He once again fell into a routine, and in the weeks before his disappearance, was especially affectionate toward my partner and I, anxiously waiting for our return outside of our house in the evenings, and excitedly rolling over whenever he saw us so that we could rub his belly.  Despite our busy work schedules, I always made time for at least one good cuddle session with him per day, telling him how much I loved him, and not to stay away from home for too long at a time.

One morning the week before Yoda went missing, I noticed that he had come home with his collar and ID tag missing, which gave me an extremely unsettling feeling. We had a vet appointment scheduled that morning for a series of vaccines that I had decided (after much agonizing) that Yoda would get to prevent infection from the local strays, and the vet told me that yes, cats were sometimes able to work themselves out of their collars. I wasn’t convinced, because he had never done anything like that previously—and had also never scratched at or appeared bothered by his collar in any way. There wasn’t much I could do, however, and so I went ahead and bought him a new collar, figuring he had somehow managed to get it off in a bizarre one-time incident.

This happened again several days later, and I reluctantly again bought him another collar. When it happened for a third time, however, I thought it was extremely bizarre, and decided to keep him home until I could a) get him another collar, and b) figure out what the hell was going on and what I could do about it. Although Yoda hates being locked inside against his will, I knew it was for his own good, and so I did it anyway. Or so I thought. When I awoke the next morning, the window screen had been pushed open enough for him to get through, and he was gone. This was the last time I saw Yoda, exactly four weeks ago to the day.

In Awa’s case, we were able to gain closure relatively early since we knew what had happened to her. With Yoda, however, the possible scenarios are endless. Most people I have spoken with, when told of the bizarre circumstances just before his disappearance and his extremely warm and sweet personality, have theorized that he has likely been “stolen” by someone—which apparently is not uncommon in Japan (or perhaps just in Tokyo?).  I have seen him hop without hesitation inside friends’ cars, so it is also possible that he got inside a vehicle that then drove off and is now who-knows-where. Our immediate next-door-neighbor—in front of whose house Yoda would wait for us nightly to come home—had made her intense dislike for cats adamantly clear as soon as we had moved in, so I wondered whether she might have driven him off and dumped him in a faraway field somewhere (as one of the many websites I read said sometimes happens). Having seen two raccoons in our area since moving in, it is also not altogether impossible that Yoda might have become part of the local food chain. Or—among the other difficult scenarios to contemplate—he became trapped somewhere, perhaps in one of the three-tiered parking structures behind our house (whose bottom two layers are underground); or, in the ultimate betrayal, simply ran off somewhere to find a new home. I have no idea which of these scenarios happened to him, if any, and don’t know if I ever will.

The websites that I read about finding missing cats suggest an exhaustive search of the cat’s immediate territory—”three to five houses away”, they say. This was obviously written with the simple grid-like style of most U.S. cities in mind rather than somewhere like the twisty and randomly-patterned streets of Tokyo, however, as Yoda’s immediate territory (which was admittedly far-reaching due to his adventurous nature) would have included two apartment complexes, several parking lots, and a row of local restaurants and businesses in addition to probably a dozen houses—and possibly the enormous Olympic Park located across the street.

Even though I truly felt like I was trying to locate an individual drop of water in an ocean, I nevertheless set out for hours upon hours roaming the neighborhood a mile in every direction, at all hours of the day and night (and often in scorching hot temperatures), endlessly, calling Yoda’s name, posting nearly 200 flyers, checking with every nearby vet’s office, regularly calling the animal shelter, getting in touch with several animal support organizations, posting his photo and information on a digital bulletin board for lost pets, and doing countless searches in the park. And yet, every lead has turned out to be another cat with just a slightly different shade of fur than Yoda’s.

After weeks of this, however, I am no longer able to emotionally or physically sustain this type of schedule, and know that I must now move into a new phase beyond that of active searching. I have been greatly inspired by the many stories I have heard from friends and read on websites about missing animals who have turned up weeks, months, and sometimes even years later, and naturally I hope with all of my heart and soul that Yoda is somewhere safe and that someone somewhere will see one of the flyers and we will be reunited. The thought of never being able to cuddle  his warm little body again honestly leaves me heartbroken. I am prepared, however, for the possibility that Yoda has joined his sister in the kitty afterlife, which in fact gives me great comfort in accepting this possibility.

I am also immensely grateful beyond words for the friends who have been in touch both collectively and privately through Facebook and e-mail to give me words of comfort and inspiration, as well as concrete advice and suggestions for finding Yoda. I am also extremely thankful for the kindness of neighbors who continue to keep a look out for him, sometimes going far out of their way to do so. While typing this post, I actually got a phone call from a woman saying she accidentally dialed my number while programming into her phone “just in case she saw Yoda”.  The local mailman has told me he is looking for him, as have local shopkeepers and other kind neighbors. To everyone, I extend my deepest thanks.

Most of all, I thank both of my little sweeties for giving my life so much richness and joy, even if it was for a time far too brief. You are both loved, by me and by many, and for always…


Brasil: Best Live Music of my Life!!

I know I have not been updating my blog lately…since the disaster last spring, to be precise. I’ve considered being a regular blogger…but somehow Facebook has seemed to win out until now. I sense that might be shifting…we’ll see!

In any case, while most of the photos from my incredible monthlong tour through  my partner Sheila’s home country of Brazil are indeed up on my Facebook page, I would like to devote a special post to documenting some of the incredible live music I was able to indulge in during our visit….seriously, probably some of the best music shows I have been fortunate enough to attend—ever.

I’ll start with São Paulo, near  Sheila’s hometown of São Bernardo do Campo (not to mention one of the largest metropolises (metropoli?!) in the world!), which seems to be dotted with amazing live music venues everywhere you look. On our first night in town, our incredibly sweet host Barbara (an old friend of Sheila’s) took us to a live performance of Funk Como le Gusta, an amazing ten-piece Brazilian ensemble that straddles the genres of samba-rock, funk, salsa (and probably more!).  Here they are singing a tune in Spanish with an incredible groove, “Muchaca Fantástica”:

Toward the end of the evening, the band members came down off the stage with their instruments (those small enough to carry 🙂 ) and jammed  right in the midst of  the dancing crowd…totally amazing energy. I would say this was easily the best live show I’ve been to in my life! It was put on by an organization known as SESC whereby students and employees pay a monthly fee and get access to a variety of cultural programs for a very low price. Nice!

Around midnight, after stopping for a snack of salgadinhos (fried yummies) at a local convenience store, we made our way to a cozy little samba bar lovingly referred to as the “quadradinho” (little square box, that’s how small it was!) with live musicians in the house. Again, a totally amazing atmosphere. Here are Sheila, Barbara and our lovely friend Camila samba-ing away…it’s a short clip, and I was trying to keep my filming low-key by not shoving my iPhone in peoples’ faces (!), but it gives a taste of the music and the vibe:

After catching a few hours of sleep back at Barbara’s place, we made our way the next day to a fantastic street fair about an hour’s bus ride outside of São Paulo (err, I’ll check on the name of the town and update later 😉 that apparently happens every Sunday. The market was spread out for blocks and blocks, with lots of crafts, plants, clothes, food, and yes, music! After wandering leisurely around the stalls for awhile, we made our way to a restaurant with outside tables to indulge in some yummy food and beer while enjoying the chilled-out atmosphere. This little live music session was happening right near our table, so of course as soon as I heard this fantastic song, I had to run over and film (!). Great stuff…and I love how the dude at the bottom left of the screen seems to be getting into it as well!

On our last night in the city, Barbara took us to a fantastic little Italian restaurant featuring live jazz musicians. The atmosphere speaks for itself, so here it is:

While much of our trip was about family, friends, food (and more food 😉 ), I also have to admit that I did do a fair bit of groupie-esque show hopping, as I was determined to see my two very favorite Brazilian artists, Ana Carolina and Seu Jorge, performing live during our stay. Ana’s official website had shown no performances happening at all…and it was only *after* arriving in Brazil that I found out that the site was  in fact undergoing a transition, and that she was going to be playing in several cities during our stay! We nearly went to see her perform at the Festival de Inverno (Winter Festival)  in the must-visit northeastern state of Bahia, but realized scheduling would be a bit too tight. I got over this initial disappointment in a big way when I discovered that not only would Ana be playing in Rio the following week, but that the Back 2 Black Festival would be taking place in Rio in the interim… featuring not only Seu Jorge, but also Chaka Khan and Prince! My music angels were on my side here for sure. 🙂

Back 2 Black was held in a now-closed train station that had been converted into an event space for the weekend, and the festival featured a combination of live music performances, DJs, and speakers on various political and cultural issues. The big shocker of the weekend was when Prince suddenly canceled his performance just days beforehand in a one-liner e-mail with no other explanation. While this was a huge insult to fans–particularly since he had top billing for the whole event, with his own separate stage and performance ticket– the rest of the festival was just so fabulous that I found myself not even caring!

Although I’d always wanted to see Chaka perform live, I couldn’t bring myself to pay the insanely high price of tickets in Tokyo.  (For perspective: I can see Brenda Vaughn, who I’d say is just as talented, perform in Tokyo about five times for the same price as seeing Chaka once!). However, being in the second row of her show was actually an even more thrilling experience than I imagined. Here she is, getting real and personal with the audience before giving a stunning performance of Angel. The lighting makes it hard to see her face for a good part of this, but the vocals–pure Chaka–come through great!

And speaking of being high (!), here is Seu Jorge with his band Almaz performing Pai João (My Father John) on the last night of the festival. While his voice is as rich and gorgeous as always, he seemed kind of aggressive and pissed off during his performance. Sheila and I were wondering whether he might have been irritated about the fact that the festival was taking place in his hometown, Rio, surrounded by favelas (where he himself grew up), while the combination of the high ticket price and continuing socioeconomic problems facing black people in Brazil meant that there was a pretty weak representation of black people at the event itself…pretty ironic to say the least given the festival’s ostensible purpose. The lyrics of Pai João focus upon the poverty of the favelas, and actually he sang it again during the encore…perhaps to drive the point home. (Or maybe what we sensed  was just from the weed (!)…hard to say.) In any case, here’s the clip…and a great article where he discusses politics, culture,  music and more can also be read here.

While we unfortunately didn’t make it to the discussion sessions on issues of ecology and communication, we did attend the first evening’s program titled “democratization, non-violence and social media”, where Wael Ghonim was videoed in live from Dubai to talk about the Egyptian revolution and  the potential that it holds in terms of showing the world how to create societies built upon respect, inclusion, and justice. Love that this is now continuing to spread and deepen all around the globe right at this moment…yay! 😀 His talk was absolutely fantastic…while I unfortunately can’t find it on You Tube, here he is via TED.com speaking on similar issues:

Finally, last but oh so most definitely not least, the exquisite Ana Carolina. 🙂 After visiting with close friends for a week in Brasilia and Bauru (and falling in love with our friends Marcio and Junior’s adorable, completely lovingly handcrafted Thai restaurant), we headed back to Rio for one night to pick up our bags that our AirBnB host kindly let us leave at his pad…and to see Ana’s show.

Once again, being so close to such an incredible performer and human being was an amazing experience. Here she is at the end of the show…all of the camera-waving (and bad singing : ) from the folks in the crowd make this a bit of a rough watch, but it all just goes to show what an icon she is (particularly among her lady fans). 😉

And just to make up for the crappy video quality, I’ll throw in Ana and Seu Jorge performing during their incredible joint live show in 2005:

Brazil is an amazing country, and I am so thankful for all of the incredible people I met (including Sheila’s huge lovely family), as well as all of the experiences I was able to have. As Seu Jorge points out in the article linked to above, it is a country that is experiencing huge changes at this moment, with deeply entrenched problems remaining (as anywhere, I guess?), but also with many opportunities now within reach in a way that they weren’t before. This piece gives an interesting take on the Occupy Brazil movement now underway…and I’ll finish this post with a clip from Curitiba Zero Grau, a film that is now screening at the Cinema Brasil Festival in Tokyo that shows the complex intersections between class and race, and how human warmth and connection can help us transcend these divisions.

Obrigada gente!! Até a próxima vez.. ♥


Finding Hope in Hiroshima

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Nineteen years had passed since I lived in Hiroshima as an exchange student, and as I sat in the bullet train that carried me back to the city, I mused that this was not exactly how I’d imagined my homecoming would be. My bag had been hurriedly packed at the crack of dawn that morning in Tokyo, my home of ten years, with a two-day change of clothes—although I had no idea how long this trip would last. My heart had been heavy as I picked up and kissed my peacefully sleeping cat early that morning before firmly affixing my face mask and hat in place and heading outside into the chilly March air.

My partner and I rode the train in silence, and when we parted later as I made my way toward Hiroshima and she went to work, she promised to join me in a day or two. Somewhere just beneath my own level of perception, however, I knew that she had only said that to make me feel better, and that she wouldn’t be coming.

Three days earlier, the monstrous disaster of a 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear power accident had quickly twisted a beautiful Friday afternoon into something that nobody saw coming. Immediately after hearing the news, a worried friend had called and invited me to come visit her in Hiroshima. While fleeing to safety was indeed tempting, and I did have work flexibility as a freelancer, I did not want to leave my partner behind. After much  hesitation (and at her insistence), however, I finally decided to accept. While there, I also planned to meet with hibakusha—survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing—in order to get their perspectives on the situation unfolding in Fukushima. And so it was—the irony of my destination noted—that I joined the throngs of “genpatsunanmin” (“nuclear power refugees”) who were heading westward for safer climes.

My first week or so after arriving was a bewildering swirl spent mostly in internet cafes frantically trying to follow and then e-mail/post/tweet to others multiple conflicting news reports about the unfolding nuclear disaster, while also feeling guilty about my own safety when others were left behind in harm’s way–particularly those suffering with few or no relief supplies in the bitter Tohoku cold.

After several days of this, I finally ventured out with some  Hiroshima-based anti-nuclear activists to the site of an ongoing struggle against a nuclear power plant in neighboring Yamaguchi prefecture.

Around this time, I also met up one night with a friend for dinner. She was interpreting for a Canadian journalist who had similarly come to Hiroshima in order to make the connection between those exposed to radiation then and now. My friend chided me teasingly for not having brought my business cards with me—a must for any remotely professional social situation in this country—and I blurted out that I should be forgiven given my status as a nuclear power refugee. Immediately, the air shifted in the small room where we were sitting, and I could suddenly feel the presence of the three ladies seated next to us. They had stopped talking, and focused their attention on us. My face burned as I realize I had spoken too loudly regarding a subject that was far too sensitive in this city.

The ladies immediately smoothed over the discomfort by engaging us in friendly conversation. People in this city are extremely outgoing—a characteristic I recalled from my experience studying there nearly twenty years prior. While Tokyo residents largely ignore one another unless they are already acquainted, the energy between people in Hiroshima—even strangers—tends to be lively, animated, engaged.

The Canadian journalist told the women that he was in town to speak with hibakusha about the disaster, and two of the three women said that their own parents were also survivors. One woman murmured that after her mother saw the images of the destruction in Tohoku on television on the night the earthquake and tsunami struck, she had nightmares of her own childhood experience. When they asked where I lived and I mentioned that I had left Tokyo due to the recent disaster, they immediately commented upon the earthquake and how frightening it must have been. I replied that yes, it had been indeed, but that the fears of possible radiation exposure also motivated me (and many others) to leave the city. They remarked that they thought it unacceptable for the Japanese government not to be releasing the true extent of the damage at the Fukushima plant, but behind their words I sensed a hesitation, a subtle unease. After the evening was over, I again regretted my own insensitivity, being so forthcoming with my own fears given their family histories.

As each and every person I met responded to my having come from Tokyo with some version of “oh yes, it is much less earthquake-prone here!”, I soon learned that the issue of hibaku (exposure to radiation) was indeed layered with complex sensitivities in this city—a subtlety that my twenty year-old self had apparently missed back in my university days. This was definitively confirmed for me several days later when I met with a hibakusha herself, who was the founder of an organization called Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace. Unlike most others I encountered, she was keenly interested in discussing the connections between Hiroshima then and Fukushima now.

Keiko Ogura was eight years old when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on her city in 1945. Some premonition had told her parents to keep her away from school on August 6th, and she recounted that after the devastation struck, dazed survivors with strips of burned flesh hanging from their bodies slowly walked past her home, begging for water. Trying to help, she obliged by bringing them a drink from the family well—after which time several of them began vomiting and then died right in front of her eyes. When her father returned home that night and warned his children not to give water to anyone because it could kill them, fear and shame kept her silent about what she had done. She suffered nightmares about the experience for decades—and it was only after her father passed away that she finally began to speak with others about what had actually happened on that day.

Obviously, this experience speaks to the depths of what any human being should ever have to endure, much less an eight year-old child—and nothing compares to the hell of nuclear destruction as deliberately wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki by United States government order in 1945. For Ogura, however—as well as the mother of the woman I met in the restaurant, and perhaps for many other survivors—the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster dislodged certain memories that had long lain dormant.

When she saw the images on television from the Tohoku disaster, Ogura said, she had an instant childhood flashback to the day after the bombing. Curious to see what happened, she had climbed atop a hill near her home and was shocked to see that the entire city was crushed, flattened and burned to complete unrecognizability. The two images, she says, were identical.

She told me that within the movement to abolish nuclear weapons, the issue of nuclear power had been marginalized and ignored due to political reasons, but that there were definite connections between the two—particularly at the level of human suffering. “I am very afraid for those now living near the Fukushima nuclear power plant,” she said. “Everyone within 20 kilometers was evacuated following the accident, but those in between the 20-30 kilometer radius are being told to stay inside their homes, while no trucks will dare bring in supplies due to fears of being irradiated. It has been two weeks since the disaster happened, and so those people are starving right now.

“I also fear they will face social discrimination similar to that which we hibakusha from Hiroshima and Nagasaki have endured,” she confided. “People have an image of us as being dirty and contaminated, and unfit as marriage partners because our children might be born dead or deformed—so many survivors actually lied about their status as hibakusha, sometimes making up stories about having been travelling away from the city on the day of the bombing.

“In fact, some survivors have had children born with problems related to radiation exposure, but since everyone is afraid of attracting negative attention, many people have not reported them—and therefore we still have no accurate data. In order to avoid a repeat of this situation following the accident in Fukushima, we absolutely need to break through this culture of silence and misconceptions in order to get real facts about the effects of radiation—and then make sure that this information is neither exaggerated, nor used to fuel further discrimination against hibakusha,” she emphasized. “What we survivors can do for those in Fukushima now is reach out to encourage them and help them to rebuild their communities, as well as help organize solidarity and support internationally, just as we did following the Three Mile accident.”

Ogura’s words heavy on my mind, I left shortly thereafter to take a day trip to Nagasaki to meet Crystal Uchino, an activist from the United States who was living in Nagasaki. Although we had communicated through e-mail on several occasions, we had never met in person. Shortly after I arrived in Hiroshima, she had sent me an intensely poignant essay titled “Rise Like Tsunamis after the Earthquakes” that she composed in the days following the disaster.

Her words touched my core, and I knew that I had to take the opportunity to reach out. Crystal and I spent the day talking like old friends as we walked through Nagasaki, which is a beautiful bayside city dotted with temples, shrines and rivers. It was only a short visit, but I found it immensely healing to be spending this time with someone who turned out to be a true kindred spirit in many ways.

Riding the train back to Hiroshima that night, I decided that the following day would be my last day there. I was tempted to stay longer, to explore the city further, to go deeper with the connections I had begun to forge. I decided, however, to return to Tokyo to move on with life—in whatever direction my partner and I would decide that to be.

The next morning, I set out to take one last walk along the city’s glorious riverbanks. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both two of the loveliest Japanese cities I have ever visited, and in thinking about the connection, I found myself recalling the words of an Iraqi intellectual I once saw interviewed, who theorized that the United States war machine deliberately targeted sites of beauty for destruction. I realized that I now understood the comment even more deeply.

As I continued pondering the strange twists of life while enjoying the picture perfect weather, I found myself feeling twinges of guilt as I imagined those in eastern Japan shut up indoors and unable to enjoy the simple pleasure of a walk outdoors while inhaling fresh air. Again, the irony of this was not lost on me as I passed by numerous signboards with photos of the horror from 1945, when many of those dying from burns and acute radiation poisoning poured into the city’s rivers to seek relief.

I also recalled the words at that time of writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams, who grew up downwind of nuclear testing in Utah and saw abnormally high rates of cancer in her own family and community. During a 2006 interview, she said the following:

The Japanese have a word — aware — which, in my understanding is that full range—both the joy and the sorrow of our life. One does not exist without the other. And I really feel that. I recently got back from Hiroshima and it was fascinating to me how the Japanese accommodate this paradox. We were talking about this word aware, which on the page looks like “aware,” which speaks to both the pain and the beauty of our lives. Being there, what I perceived was that this is a sorrow that is not a grief that one forgets or recovers from, but it is a burning, searing illumination of love for the delicacy and strength of our relations.

These words continued to play in my mind the next day, back in Tokyo, as I stood in line at the U.S. Embassy. One more reason I had decided to return from Hiroshima at that point was because of an urgent announcement regarding a limited-time distribution of potassium iodide pills to U.S. citizens, which were to be taken in the event of a nuclear emergency. While I was not so concerned for myself since they are apparently not effective for those over 40 (I am 39), I did not want to miss the opportunity to secure an allotment for my partner, who is nine years younger. She is Brazilian, but her country’s government—in addition to being slow to provide its citizens with information regarding the crisis—offered no such service. Although skeptical of chemical medicines, in this situation I did not want to turn away any potential remedies.

And so, two masks affixed firmly over my face, having passed through several guarded Embassy checkpoints and placed my belongings through a scanning machine, I found myself facing the surreal quality of the whole situation with an emotion whose poignancy did indeed have qualities of both the pain and beauty that Williams spoke of. I was conscious first and foremost of a profound sadness at my country’s militarizing what in my opinion should be normal situations, such as flying on an airplane or visiting a public facility. At the same time, however, I felt a surge of hope deep in my bones that we had indeed arrived at the historical moment called for by the Hopi—the  people indigenous to regions including my home state of Arizona— to transcend our present socioeconomic systems that had caused so much suffering for human beings and our Earth, and together begin creating the positive, sustainable future that would ensure our survival rather than our destruction.

Back at home, pills secured, I continued my Internet searching for further sources of inspiration. I find this You Tube video dated March 24, 2011, titled “Pray for Japan: A Message from Dennis Banks”, featuring a well-known Native American rights leader.

I had the honor of speaking with Dennis Banks in Hiroshima following the atomic bombing memorial ceremony on August 6, 2007. His connection with Japan is longstanding, as he was in the U.S. military stationed near Sunagawa in the environs of Tokyo during the 1950s, where he told me he witnessed a group of activists and monks who were brutally beaten by fellow soldiers while engaged in peaceful organizing to protect their farmland from being confiscated for military use during the Sunagawa Struggle of 1956—an experience that he said radicalized him enough to leave the military and go into a life of organizing.

Sitting in Tokyo watching the video, I did indeed feel a great reason for hope. I was also reminded, however, of the difficult situation that people in Japan found themselves in with regard to the situation unfolding literally by the minute. After the disaster, I had been speaking several times a week with a close friend of mine who is an organic farmer along the southernmost peninsula jutting out from the prefecture of Chiba, which lies east of Tokyo and due south of Fukushima. She and her partner began successfully cultivating a large field of beautiful vegetables and a field of rice after both recently moving away from the city to pursue a more natural lifestyle. Although she would have loved to do nothing other than plant her summer crops, as Dennis Banks advised, she was instead facing the real possibility of irradiated water and soil.

She asked me whether I might be able to find her a Geiger counter from someone in the U.S., which would help gauge the level of danger she was working with. In the meantime, she said, she was fortunate because she lived in a tight-knit community of farmers and activists who shared information with each other on a daily basis—the wind currents, the local radiation levels—as everyone tried their best to figure out which moves to make next. I heard the anger underneath the surface of her words, even as she tried as hard as she could to stay positive, to continue holding an image of a healthy harvest. My heart ached for her situation, which was also now being faced by so many others in Japan as well—particularly those in Fukushima— but I joined her in trying to transcend the fear and anger in order to focus upon a positive future.

It was this delicate dance between anger and love—politics and spirituality—that to a large extent defined the climate amongst activists that I witnessed in the weeks following the disaster. Several days after 3.11, one well-respected community leader posted a message on her blog asking people to meditate and send love to the inner children of the nuclear power reactors, who were suffering and needed reassurance. This type of approach was harshly ridiculed by other organizers, who called upon people to instead focus on venting their anger toward electric power company and governmental officials.

I could not help but feel that my own personal truth combined elements from both of these perspectives. My emotions were complex, for example, as I recalled patronizing comments from people in years’ past about my attending one of those “cute little anti-nuclear demonstrations”—but I then felt grateful that the present disaster had indeed served to wake up many people to the immense suffering upon which the system of nuclear power rested. My mental state was similarly complicated as I felt sorry for myself for not being able to open the window and enjoy the combination of fresh breezes and golden sunlight outside as I sat composing this post on a gorgeous afternoon, due to fear of radiation lurking outside—but then I remembered the people remaining within the 20-30 kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant, whom I learned were still confined in their homes with no relief shipment of food or supplies having arrived—one full week after I had spoken with Keiko Ogura, and exactly three weeks after the tragedy struck.

And so it is now other writers to whom I turn for support and inspiration in this time of transition. In a piece titled simply “A Poem for the People in Japan” dated March 16, 2011, Oakland, California-based writer Lena-Nsomeka Gomes tread this fine line between anger and positivity as she faulted human complicity in creating this tragedy, while also offering hope for humanity’s capacity to provide solace and healing. She wote:

The Bones Cracked

Earth stirred and beat

Water sunk the city

Heat caused the leaks

Steam broke the sky—

Will the wind drive

It out to sea?

Oh, please—no drizzle

Don’t let it rain—

This misery!

Can we stop the rain?

Control the wind

Will Mother Earth

Cede her rule

In response to what man did?

Stay inside—stuff blankets

Fill up spaces between planks on the floor

Wait for Man’s direction

Please, Wait some more

Wait to see what engulfs the sea

Wait to see What you will breathe?

Don’t wait for His instructions

Don’t wait for His tears

Run while the wind is soft

Run before It gets inside the water

And stains the rocks

Run into Our arms!

We will hold you

Away from This harm

This poem touched me deeply when I came across it on my second or third day in Hiroshima, amidst all of the uncertainly. I also found immense comfort in this post dated March 19th, titled “Full Moon: Hearts Breaking Open” on a blog called Midnight Apothecary written by healer Dori Midnight, who is herself a survivor of thyroid cancer resulting from emissions at the Rocketdyne nuclear lab near her home in the San Fernando Valley; as well as the virally circulated letter from Sendai resident Anne Thomas several days after the tragedy.

The shift reached Tokyo, as well. On the morning that I left for Hiroshima three days following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power accident, while having coffee before boarding the train, I could sense a palpable feeling of change in the air. People seemed more aware of one another; more accommodating; less inclined to judge. In Japanese, the phrase I heard used after the tragedy was yasashikunatta: quite simply, people became kinder.

Once again, however, beautiful spiritual realities notwithstanding, I realize harsh realities must continue to be deal with. As I finish this piece, several overseas news sources have noted worsening conditions at the Fukushima plant and predicted radiation blowing today across the entire Japanese archipelago. While the majority of the Japanese public appear to be unphased—with children and pregnant women walking outside unmasked—alarmed activists are continuing to pressure the government and media to come clean to the public with the truth.

These same activists are warning, in fact, that we are now literally sitting atop a time bomb in the form of the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka prefecture, which sits 200 kilometers away from Tokyo atop the convergence of two tectonic plates that are now overdue for a major quake. They fear that the recent disaster has triggered a period of seismic instability, and that this region could be next—possibly also setting off an eruption of the nearby volcanic Mt. Fuji. They are demanding the plant’s closure—an action with which the present complacent government is not rushing to comply.

“Without pressure from outside countries, it is unlikely that Japanese officials will ever consider closing the plant,” a close friend tells me over lunch at a vegetarian café, where we overhear conversations about the ongoing disaster taking place at nearby tables. “If Hamaoka blows,” he says,“ we are looking at the end of Japan.”

Undoubtedly, these words will be amongst the jumble of information that I will mull over tonight as I use our rapidly dwindling supplies of bottled water to make a pot of miso soup, which I will load with wakame and konbu (seaweed and kelp)—foods that apparently help protect the body against possible radiation poisoning. Regardless of what continues to unfold, and whether my partner and I choose to stay or go, I will focus upon nurturing a feeling of gratitude in my heart for being in Japan at this moment where humanity begins to choose her future.

At the head of the Nagasaki Peace Park, there sits a massive blue figure seated atop a rock in what appears to be a trance-like state, titled simply the “Peace Statue. Its explanation reads as follows:

The elevated right hand points to the threat of nuclear weapons, while the outstretched left hand symbolizes tranquility and world peace. Divine omnipotence and love are embodied in the sturdy physique and gentle countenance of the statue, and a prayer for the repose of the souls of all war victims is expressed in the closed eyes. Furthermore, the folded right leg symbolizes quiet meditation, while the left leg is poised for action in assisting humanity.

Crystal Uchino in Nagasaki Peace Park

With the present tragedy having reminded us so starkly just exactly what is at stake, it will be this duality—action grounded in a still heart—that I will strive to cultivate within my own self. In doing so, I hope to be doing my own miniscule part in helping to ensure that we humans may transcend our past failures and move into a new era of healing, sustainability and unity.

Freelance translator, writer and university lecturer Kimberly Hughes blogs at https://kimmiesunshine.wordpress.com and http://tenthousandthingsfromkyoto.blogspot.com/.


Welcoming a new world

Supermoon on March 21, 2011, taken by my friend Cynthia Yeung (photographer extraordinaire!), in Hong Kong

It has been the longest–no, maybe the shortest–in any case, definitely *the* most bizarre twelve days of my entire life.

Friday, March 11, 2011: The day that my world was completely rocked–literally and figuratively–to an extent that things will never be the same.

2:01 PM. I finished a call on skype with a dream consultant, having felt that the intensity of my recent dreams seemed to be trying to tell me something. This was one of the first times I had spoken with anyone about this, and I felt vague and uncertain as I tried to relay my experiences. Before we hung up the phone, her last words were that whatever message was trying to come through, she sensed it was a powerful one.

After hanging  up the phone, I spent the next 30-40 minutes perusing websites on good recipes for breastfeeding mommies, since I had told friends of mine with two-week-old twin baby boys that I was going to cook a meal and bring it over to their place that evening. I finally decided on papaya chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, a salad of dark, leafy greens topped with raw almonds, and lentil beans—apparently, foods that help stimulate the flow of breast milk.The simple act of planning a menu for a new family gave me an incredibly warm and grounded feeling, and I was calm and happy as I gathered my things and started to get ready to go shopping.

2:46 PM. The room started shaking, slowly at first and then gradually stronger. Having lived in Tokyo for the past ten years, earthquakes were nothing new. Since I was on the ground floor of our 80 year-old two-story wooden house, however, I decided to play it safe and head outside.

Almost as soon as I got outdoors, it became clear that something was very, very wrong. In every earthquake I had experienced in this country previously, going outside immediatelymeant you could no longer really feel the shaking. In this case, however, the convulsions only got stronger after I went outside–to an extent I never imagined I would ever experience.

Not even sure where I was going, but certain that I could not stay still, I exited the gate onto the road in front of our house. People had started to spill out of their homes, dogs were barking, children were screaming—and still, the earth continued pitching, dipping and swirling all around us. A woman at a nearby bus stop was crouched on the ground saying “kowai! kowai!” (“This is scary!), and seemed to be nearly in tears.I made my way toward her, and we huddled together, hanging on to each other for the next several terrifying minutes. Yes, this was a stranger, and no, strangers do not huddle together in this city–much less say hello to each other on the street. But then again, feeling as if the earth is about to open up from the inside out is not a scenario that shows up in the guidebook of Tokyo street protocol. We were acting on the level of pure, primal instinct, and in a moment like this, being together with another human being felt immensely comforting.

When the pulsating finally stopped, we thanked each other and went on our way–me back to my garden, where I stayed for the next two hours together with my terrified cat, who was running away in a panic from every leaf blowing in the gradually colder, swifter wind. I was tempted to go back inside to fetch my hat and gloves, to use the toilet, to check for damage…but I was too afraid that aftershocks would come. And come they did: Hundreds of them, all through the rest of the evening, all night long, and into the next day.

For many reasons, I was one of the very lucky ones in this tragedy. Yes, I was dazed and freaked out, but since university was not in session and I was doing my translation work at home, I was in my own comfort zone. As I waited out the first of the aftershocks in the yard, messages began steadily pouring in from around the world on my iPhone through e-mail and Facebook since news of the tragedy had already begun spreading. Many others in Tokyo were not so lucky, however. Most people were stranded, either having to spend the night at their workplace or at one of the many public facilities such as schools and community centers that opened their doors for the night. Or—as in the case of my partner, who left her office at 6PM and arrived home at 11—they joined throngs of others in the streets and walked.

Slowly, more news began filtering in of the unbelievable destruction in Tohoku. Entire communities crushed and swallowed whole. Thousands killed and wounded, still thousands more displaced in the freezing temperatures. Our housemate, who is from Sendai, was unable to reach her parents, and at one point in the evening, a report came in over the radio that between 200 and 300 bodies were found right in the neighborhood where their family business was located. With phone service out, I finally reached her by skype later that evening and then again the next morning. She stayed at her office, unable to sleep at all, and finally reached her parents—who were stunned but safe—the next afternoon.

We were all shocked by what came next: Multiple reactors (and their backup systems) at the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants failing due to the earthquake and tsunami, with radiation threatening to spew out into the atmosphere and/or leak into the ground water supply unless they could be cooled–and fast. While the perky Japanese media assured us that there was absolutely nothing to worry about unless you were in the immediate vicinity of the plant, reports coming in from overseas painted a picture of  a living nightmare, such as physicist Michio Kaku’s blog post from three days after the disaster, which read “We are witnessing a gigantic science experiment, with the Japanese people as guinea pigs”, or this report from Democracy Now! one day later, where nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson mused that we could be looking at “Chernobyl on steroids.” OMFG doesn’t reallycapture the reaction here.

These two opposite extremes pretty much summed up what was to become the news options for those of us frantically trying to understand what exactly we were dealing with over the several days that followed. For every expert claiming that we *were* looking at very possible worst-scase scenarios (and these did include some Japanese experts and media commentators in addition to the foreign ones), there was a report issued claiming that those of us who were worried were simply succumbing to sensationalism and scare tactics, like this piece, whose author claimed that “the lack of information in Japan, partly due to the vague expressions used by the language, has created a vacuum into which the dark sludge of paranoia from the foreign press has poured.”

My feeling in this situation, which I know was also shared by many of my friends, was that it was up to each and every one of us to do our own research, get educated, and then decide on the best course of action to protect OURSELVES, since nobody else would do it for us. History has shown that governments have assured their citizens that a situation was safe when it turned out to be anything but so—and it was then up to average citizens to do the work of discovering the truth. Two examples among  many are Japanese director Hitomi Kamanaka, whose film  “Hibakusha: At the End of the World” explores the link between all radiation victims worldwide, including those living downwind of the Hanford nuclear power plant in the United States, among whom she finds numerous cancers and illnesses; or this incredible photolog website of a Ukranian woman who traveled to Chernobyl twenty years after the nuclear disaster there to document what she sees.

And so, at the insisting of my partner and my own instinct for self-preservation—not to mention consideration of the fact that I did not want to stack any further odds against my chances for delivering a healthy baby (since I will be forty this year, and not planning to try for at least another year or two)—I made the decision to accept the invitation to come visit a friend in Hiroshima, (yes, irony noted), where I was an exchange student nearly twenty years prior. And so, with a two-day change of clothes, a heavy heart at leaving my partner behind (she assured me she would join me in a day or two, but couldn’t be sure due to her work responsibilities), and no clue what the immediate future would bring, I became one of the many so-called “genpatsu nanmin”–“nuclear power refugees”–who were fanning westward toward safer climes.

Once again, I realized that my situation was worlds better than most others. Instead of sitting in a freezing gymnasium with little to no food, like the folks in Tohoku—or crowded together with several families, as I know others now are doing still—I was heading to a large apartment in a safe city that was far from the danger. For the blur that was the next several days, my sanctuary became a warm and comfortable internet cafe with free wireless service, computer plug-ins, great music and delicious coffee (with cheap refills!) from morning until night as I sifted madly through all of the different news sources, frantically e-mailing, blogging, Facebooking and Twittering in an attempt to make sense of a nonsensical situation. I tried to do whatever I could to help translate pieces of information for friends lacking one language or another, but I was never sure which information was most reliable, and I was somehow left with the feeling that the more I tried to educate myself, the less I actually knew.

I would then head back to the home of my extremely generous-hearted friend when the cafe closed around 10PM and try to get some sleep. The nights were more like a series of short naps, however, each one punctuated by my bolting awake in a panic to scan my iPhone for any pieces of news that might have come through about the nuclear power plant crisis—news that would encourage my partner to finally come join me in safety, or that I could relay to my countless friends who were facing the agonizing decision of whether to leave the Kanto region themselves. Several days and nights of this was exhausting, and I realize now (with the clarity of hindsight, since the last several days have become calmer) that although my situation was paradise compared to countless others, I was still in a sense of shock and low-grade trauma.

Despite all of the doomsday scenarios afoot, some incredible sources of inspiration were also coming through as well. The messages that others across the world were sending to us—and that we in Japan were sending amongst ourselves as well–were  of a single voice: that love and strength would overpower whatever difficulties we were facing. We just had to keep staying positive, sending each other encouragement, checking in with each other daily, sometimes hourly, in order to be sure we were all safe and okay. It truly was this outpouring of support that kept us going through all of the fear and uncertainty. Even in the hard-hit areas, hopeful stories like this extremely uplifting letter from a woman in Sendai were speaking of a collective shift in  awareness—and some are saying that the disaster in Japan is evidence of the beginning of the ninth cycle in Mayan cosmology, known as the Cycle of Unity of Consciousness.

This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me at a gut level of feeling, and given my message-laden dreams (which I will not go into here, but suffice it to say that they were powerful indeed)—as well as the fact that I actually felt as if I were undergoing a deeply significant personal shift on March 9th, apparently the first day of the new cycle—I feel an incredible amount of hope with regard to this new world that we now seem to be entering. There is a whole world of resources out there for those interested in taking a radically new approach to living more sustainably—which I will be attempting to synthesize in the coming weeks and months as we continue trying to educate ourselves on very basic issues—such as whether water is safe to drink and food is safe to eat—and as we try shift this tragedy into positive directions that will benefit both ourselves and all living beings, including our Mama Earth. In this regard,  this piece from a healer who runs a blog called Midnight Apothecary about how we can transform our fears and grief into compassion and positive action is practically helpful as well as poignant beyond words.

Another prophecy that seems relevant to this whole situation is that of the Hopi, whose tribal leaders were horrified after learning that plutonium and uranium taken forcibly from their land were used to create the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and decided to go public with a prophecy that had been passed down from their elders. The message described how humankind has now come to stand at the crossroads of two possible futures, depending on which actions are taken–either total annihilation or peaceful sustainability. (I learned all of this from  the 1986 documentary Hopi no yogen (The Hopi Prophecy) by Japanese director Miyata Kiyoshi, a classic among social activists in Japan that describes the response of Hopi and Navajo tribes in the southwestern United States to the resource colonization of their lands that have been repeatedly plundered for plutonium and uranium, or—in their words—“carving out the earth’s vital organs”). This blog post from the Sacred Land Film Project ties together last week’s earthquake and tsunami disaster with warnings given from the last of the four messengers chosen to interpret the prophecies, Thomas Banyacya,who repeatedly tried to reach decision makers with the prophecy before his death, but had little success.

While many question marks loom ahead, one thing I feel deep in my guts and my bones is this: We MUST begin implementing alternative and sustainable energies NOW, because the present system that puts the lives of so many at risk in both present and future generations–and has the potential to cause so much suffering, as we have seen this week in Fukushima—is simply criminal. I have much to educate myself about in terms of the ins and outs of the nuclear power system—for anyone wanting a primer, I suggest this post from journalist Tim Shorrick (who grew up in Japan and has been a longtime researcher into nuclear industry-related issues), as well as this heartbreaking article from 1980 about the subcontractors who do most of the nuclear dirty work, and the racism inherent in the system. And, for understanding the economics of the whole system, see this 2007 post from Money Week whch offers, in all its disgusting glory, concrete advice on how to profit from the industry.

I could go on and on, but I will stop here and save the rest for subsequent posts. Because I want to end on a positive and hopeful note, I will conclude with this piece about the creative anti-nuclear movement in Japan, since the time  for us to start heeding the concerns that they have been vocalizing for decades is clearly now. I attended a demonstration yesterday of committed nuclear activists outside Chugoku Electric Power Company who are trying to permanently stop construction of the Kaminoseki nuclear power plant in the gorgeous Seto Inland Sea, and tomorrow I will be meeting with a hibakusha (survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing; literally “one who has received radiation”) to discuss her work as a peace activist, as well as her views on the new hibakusha from the Fukushima accident.

For those who wish to help with relief efforts, I highly recommend the website  “Japan Volunteers”, which was compiled after the disaster by longtime Tokyo resident and NGO consultant, Sarajean Rossitto, who has many strong connections with Japan-based organizations working in disaster relief.

In closing, I will also say this: One thing we can do help usher in this new world is to simply cultivate the feeling of gratitude in our own hearts (as was also mentioned in the Midnight Apothecary blog post). This is something that anyone can do anywhere and at any time, and which has such an incredibly powerful and immediate effect of creating positive energies. So, in this spirit, I say to everyone who has offered your love and support over the past week and a half: THANK YOU. It has meant more than you know.


Final thoughts after an amazing month

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I consider myself very, very fortunate—given the economic and social times we are now living in—to have had this incredible opportunity to travel to four countries in four weeks, experiencing so many different sights, sounds and tastes. Although my fundamental belief at heart is that each one of us are individual soul beings—henceforth my distaste for people relating to and judging others in terms of outward categories such as nationality and race—the fact of the matter is that I retain a tremendous privilege because of my passport, which allows me to travel freely to nearly any place in this world.

In addition to the Pagani detention center mentioned in an earlier post, I also saw many immigrants—presumably, some of them also refugees—trying their best to eke out a living in every European city that I visited. In Paris, it was groups of Asian ladies who were dressed for the night in broad daylight, standing in front of the same train station with groups of African men standing nearby. Whether it was all a connected operation I cannot say for sure…one can only wonder.  But it seemed clear that in these economic times, people will resort to whatever they have to.

In Barcelona, Athens and Florence it was groups of African men spreading cheap goods on large white sheets that they hawked to tourists—having to remain vigilant at every moment in case the police cars showed up, which they often did, sending the whole operation scattering in a matter of seconds as everyone grabbed their wares and dispersed. While I did not see any cops actually chase the men down, the message was clear: they were unwelcome to continue earning even whatever meager savings they may have been able to scrape together thus far.

One guy I talked to along the neverending stretch of Barcelona beaches had it a bit easier. A black South African, he was among the numerous beach artists who spent the morning building elaborate structures out of sand, and then collecting small donations from passersby. I could kick myself for not having batteries in my iPhone to take photos, because their creations were phenomenal: large animals, replications of famous Gaudi buildings…even this replica of Barack Obama that I just found on the internet (must have been deconstructed before I arrived!).  Actually, while the piece art was created by a famous artist who obtained official permission for the project, my new South African friend told me that although they are generally left alone by the cops, they do have to take down the art at the end of every day in order to avoid getting into any trouble…and then begin again the next morning.

Well…I will be wrapping up my nearly ten-year stint in Japan hopefully within the next year or two, and although my partner and I do not know where we will head next, we were extremely tempted by both Paris and Barcelona, which we visited together before branching off in our own directions for the rest of the month. Whether we end up somewhere in the Mediterranean, Brazil (where she is from), Canada, the U.S. (the latter being the least likely due to its sadly backwards stance on gay marriage!), or some combination of the above, I look forward to continuing to make efforts to contribute to social justice while soaking up as many experiences as I possibly can on this amazing earth of ours!

On the streets of Athens...love this message. :)
On the streets of Athens…love this message. 🙂  Fin