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The storm raged outside.  Okinawan typhoon, Jelawat, raged furiously, equivalent to a category four hurricane.   We felt safe and snug inside: warm, dry, blissful, behind sturdy, solid concrete walls.  We’d spidey wrapped 100 pound test-cord and seven bungees all around the satellite dish, to stabilize the disc from moving against the mount, bolted to that hefty wall.  Our labors paid off handsomely.  In the past, storms half as fierce knocked out our signal.  But not today.  And, AFN showed a few great flicks for once.  We watched movies and mindless sitcoms.  We played backgammon like crazy.  I was actually becoming quite good, for a beginner.  I probably lost nine games out of ten; but, Nasser has been playing nearly fifty years.  I was learning from the master.   We worked on the computer, cooked, baked, played music.  What a wonderful, uninterrupted, fabulous four days.  We made seafood pasta to die for, loaded with fresh scallops, crab, shrimp, squid and octopus. 

Tiny tentacles randomly pierced through the thick, creamy sauce and miniscule tangerine colored fish eggs brightly studded the delicious concoction.  I’d added fresh cream, sweet garlic, tangy shaved parmesan and a little turmeric to the sauce.   Absolutely divine.  We created culinary masterpieces as we waited out the worst typhoon in ten years.   Most pleasant case of cabin fever I’d ever contracted.  We were finally able to venture out the third day.  The morning was warm and fresh.  Sun seekers were out in droves: dog walkers, entire families pushing strollers and coaxing along straggling children mounted on razors and little bikes.  We sipped fresh coffee, basked in the delicious morning light, skyped our families, surfed the net.  I spotted a spalted mango ukulele I wanted for Christmas.  He was a bit shocked at my sudden inclination to the quirky musical instrument.  I clucked, “Oh, no, it is quite a charming piece of musical gear.” I played him a delightful Hawaiian melody on YouTube.  Then, in my internet ramblings, I ran across a Jack Johnson song; though it is an acoustical guitar piece, it was along that honey sweet style:  “We’re Better Together”.   We danced in the sweet morning sunlight on the Persian carpet, every few steps mindlessly catching a glimpse of waves behind the swaying palms; completely lost and enraptured in the moment.  We finally set out, he to retrieve Hunter, and I to the store to pick up a few necessities, and to drop of the movies, which were hopelessly late because of the typhoon. The kind old Japanese store owner gave us a freebie on the late fees.  We had a most pleasant afternoon. 

We all set out for a walk at sunset, and then settled into our favorite local restaurant.  I had veggie crepes, and some of Nasser’s festive platter full of raw delicacies from the sea: octopus, squid, and an extraordinary variety of fresh fish in vivid colors.  Hunter had some sticky bean sushi thing.  It was tasty as well, but for some reason, it always formed a tense, persistent string from the plate to your mouth (I discovered this particular dish is notorious for this).  We returned home to watch a movie, something about a drug that allows you to utilize 100% of your brain capacity (yielding a “four digit IQ”), very interesting concept… attractive, seductive for intellectual types, but as with all drugs, came with tremendous consequences: untoward side effects and scary, life threatening  withdrawals.  Anyway, it may be sexy to some, but it did not entice me in the least.  It was, however, very thought provoking.   We retired to bed after the movie.  The next day, Hunter parted ways, setting out to explore a remote Okinawan village with Yuan and her sister.  Nasser and I worked on tiling a table, studied, went for a run (which was not easy after so many days off because of the storm).  Along the way, we spied a huge fruit bat clinging to a tree as we jogged by.  His fat head rotated smoothly, his enormous eyes locked on us, following us along the path…kind of creeped me out a little.  They don’t bite, but, they do have claws and teeth, and he was merely feet away.  I could have touched him as we brushed by.  We don’t usually see them hanging upside down like that, adjacent to the path, but so many trees had been spoiled by the fierce storm, it must have affected their nesting places.  We witnessed the destruction of a multitude of trees along our running path.  But the China sea seemed nonplussed, unaffected, untouched, impervious to the effects of storm. The sea remains constant, a deep molten azure, pristine, full of life, undaunted by the recent fury.  I love the sea.  I love this life.

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Before the main course, we feasted on spicy calamari rings, dipped in warm, homemade marinara, I’d created myself.  I never imagined myself standing in the kitchen, dancing to Persian music with my prince, feasting on fresh calamari, in the middle of a tropical, Japanese island paradise.  Nasser slipped in and out of the kitchen snagging a morsel of calamari as he returned to the balcony to grill fillet mignon and fresh vegetables.  Nasser has broadened my horizons: opened my appetite to succulent liver, gizzards and hearts flavored with turmeric, onions, garlic and olive oil, fresh baked salmon smothered with milt and shitake mushrooms, or grilled button mushrooms stuffed with sausage.  My eyes have been opened, as has my palate, but mostly my heart.  My life is full of happy moments and fascinating experiences.

Earlier in the day, I visited Shuri castle and the royal tombs as well as the holiest place of worship in Okinawa with my son, Hunter.  We traipsed up the side of the mountain on an ancient stone path, to see a beautifully lit cavern, over-looking the ocean and the countryside.  Two stalactites dripped into small stone pots; Hunter slipped his fingers into the clear water, which had been considered holy in ancient times.  Hunter remarked that the enchanted place, with its cascading greenery and intricate root systems, reminded him of Fern Gully.  The atmosphere exuded peace.   I had a wonderful time with Hunter.  I wished Nasser could see what I had seen, but he had given me this special time to share with my son.  We had already shared many precious moments in this wondrous place.  We had even visited an untouched beach, just as I had with Hunter today.  How sweet to share these experiences with each of them.  Today, my feet sank in the soft, moist sand as I sauntered down the beach after Hunter.  Then, the surface of my boots scraped against the sharp coral stone and slipped on the green slimy moss.  Hunter remarked, “Mom, you can’t come around here, it’s only for boys”, he teased.   He correctly deduced I could not mount the dangerous, sharply inclined coral island, but I did navigate the less treacherous periphery and joined him round the other side (he had mounted the island and slipped through the opening in the center, whereas I had gone around).  The lilt in his voice belied his genuine surprise, “How did you get here?”  Never underestimate the power of a middle aged woman challenged by her strong, young adult son.  The satisfaction that spread across my lips may have been lost on him as I was out of his line of sight, but I savored the moment, then slipped back around the sharp, rocky face and met him back on the other side.  He collected beautiful coral specimens to create treasures for his friends as I plucked up brilliant pieces of sea glass, surfaces rubbed smooth by the gritty surface of the ocean floor.  The sea mist played with my hair and kissed my skin.  A brilliant blue Ryukyu sparrow played on the sea wall nearby.  Though I had slipped down the concrete wall to the beach, my sore shoulder hindered me from mounting it to return to the car; so, we made our way up the beach to a concrete stair way, collecting treasures along the way.  What a delightful time I shared with my sweet son.

            Back at home, we joined to collectively create a fabulous dinner.  I made the salad: fresh, bright greens, crisply baked pecans, slivers of yellow, red and orange bell pepper, bright red tomatoes, shiny black olives, topped off with tiny, deep red, sweet and sour zerescht that Nasser prepared for me.  He and Hunter grilled fish, chicken wings, eggplant, okra, veggie patties for Hunter, and mushrooms stuffed with spiced tofu.  We enjoyed a sweet Riesling with our neighbor, Loryn, who’d joined us.  Later, Hunter and I would walk her to her friend’s house.  The brisk walk in the fresh, cool Okinawan air awakened me.  Everyone went to bed as I put away the food and washed the dishes…a rarity.   Hunter, Nasser and I usually argue over who “gets” to do the dishes.  How different.  How refreshing, from what I hear of many other families.  But my family is not typical… It is unusual, beautiful…abundantly lovely.

How precious to share these moments from such an extraordinary place, this island paradise.  We have traipsed around, visiting farmer’s markets, peaceful remote villages, desolate beaches.  We have danced at midnight, stopped off at noodle shops, treasure stores, sacred temples, botanical gardens. Life is beautiful beyond imagination and this place is ethereal.  I wish all could see what I have beheld with my eyes, held what I have with my hands, felt and experienced what I have.

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Finding ways to stay positive and productive while living abroad long term can be challenging. Depression abroad is significantly more encompassing than that at home, at least in my experience. In your native environment, the same old triggers are lurking in all the familiar places, but the further from home you get, the more surprisingly lost you can feel.

It’s been six years since I left my hometown, wandering instead through much smaller towns in Japan where I teach English and pretend, sometimes convincingly, that I know what I am talking about.

But not today.

Today I am looking out into the sea, and letting the waves consume my thoughts.

This ritual has become a necessity, though I only do this from time to time and most frequently when I am at odds with my husband or confused by the cultural barriers I see daily. The natives must think me strange, a foreign woman pushing a baby stroller out to the tourist spots and staring mindlessly into the water, but I need it.

For sometimes only in those tumbling waves do I feel at peace. Reminders that I am not smart enough or quick enough or good enough all die out under the chorus of crashing water. I’m left with a brief look into infinity, and I can remember what it is to breathe. The cool constant flow reminds me that my problems, however overwhelming they feel, are nothing compared to the sea. The waves will come no matter how many dishes I wash or meals I make. If I fail, the waves will still come. The world won’t end for any mistake I can make.

But for 30,000 people in 2011, this spot and others like it were the end of the world. The beautiful bay I look out into and take comfort in was home to the tsunami caused by the largest earth quake on record here in the land of the rising sun. A significant part of the population of these little coastal towns was washed out to sea. The lucky ones were able to find and bury their loved ones, but many more were lost to the water.

A tiny voice in the back of my head claims that those people were more entitled to the life I am living than I am. This was their home and they lost their place in it for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am just a visitor who didn’t leave. They were citizens. They belonged here.

For half a second, I almost believe it.

Scores of men, women and children– more people that I have ever known– were gone in the blink of an eye, and I cannot explain or understand why I am alive when so many people are not. It wasn’t intelligence or money, class, creed, or anything I can so easily identify. Even if I could, it wouldn’t change anything. They deserved to live. Everyone does. Even me.

Continual motion conveys force from one medium to another. Waves crest and fall. People are born and die. Choices and mistakes are made. Accidents happen. Watching the water, I feel that twinge of survivor’s guilt perish the way my thoughts in this place often do, replaced by the sound of the ocean and the knowledge that some things are not mine to control. The best thing I can do is keep my head up and keep moving forward, helping who I can when I can.

Years have passed and some scars have healed. Many people are still homeless, unemployed, or otherwise disadvantaged. Others are getting lives and businesses back on track.

We are surviving.

And watching the waves.

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Mongolia Warrior Training

Five Great Holiday Activities You’ve Never Considered

Do you have a thirst for adventure and contempt for convention when you travel? If the thought of lounging around on a beach for two weeks fills you with revulsion, panic not: there are alternatives. Whether you want to sculpt your body, hone your intellect or nail a new skill, the world has much to offer those looking for new challenges when they travel. Check out these top activities for a break that breaks with travel convention.

Mongolia Warrior TrainingWarrior training in Mongolia

Yes, you too can become a fierce and majestic warrior, just like Genghis Khan, but with a mortgage, and better shoes. Fly to Ulaanbaatar for some grounding in Mongolian history before venturing into the grasslands, donning some traditional 13th century warrior garb, and learning the not-so-subtle art of war. Horseriding, bow and arrow training and battle tactics are some of the new skills you’ll learn, just perfect for asserting your authority in the office on your return home.

Learn ninja skills in Japan

Have the adventure of a lifetime in Akame, and learn some important life skills at its ninja training school. You’ll learn stealth, self-discipline and control, all while wielding super cool weapons like throwing stars and the katana sword. At just Y1,700 for a ninety minute session, your official ninja certification is one savvy investment.

Fishing in Dubai

Fishing in DubaiIn Dubai, fishing is one of the most popular activities, and it’s easy to see why. Escape the heat by skimming out over the Persian Gulf, command exquisite views of one of the most otherworldly skylines on the planet, and grill freshly-landed food. Fishing charters typically cater to groups as large as ten, and make for a challenging afternoon for all ability levels. If it’s your first time, just be warned, it’s easy to get hooked once you’ve landed your first catch!

Wine and painting in Tuscany

If you need to feed your inner artist, treat him or her to an adventure in Tuscany, land of heavenly sunsets, wine and staggering landscapes. When you’re not lathering paint onto canvas under the tuition of experienced artists, you can trawl medieval towns, hike, cycle, and seek inspiration at the bottom of a glass of heady Tuscan wine.

Yoga retreat, anywhere

Sometimes, we all need to take stock, detox, and reclaim our senses with a little concentrated personal time. What better way to get away from it all than a dedicated yoga vacation? Whether you choose to venture into the mountains of northern Thailand, onto a Goan beach or chill in Ibiza is up to you, but a yoga retreat is a serious treat for stress heads.

There’s adventure to be had in every corner of the world, it’s up to you to go and seek it out.

Images by Google Images and Guilhem Vellut, used under the Creative Commons license. 

Author Bio: Chris is a consultant to FishFishMe, an online resource that helps you find and book fishing trips all over the globe.

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Dear Mt. Fuji,

I first saw you during the first sunset of 2011—fierce, beautiful. On New Year’s Day, my friend and I walked into the Yokohama Sheraton Hotel and took the elevator to the top floor to see the city stretched below. Beyond the city lights you stood, a symmetrical cone framed by an apricot and pomegranate sky. With my nose pressed into the floor-length glass window, I decided I would stand at your summit before I moved back to the United States.

One and a half years later, and two days before I flew home to the U.S., I swigged water and adjusted my backpack straps in the dark at Kawaguchiko Fifth Station. A lot had happened in the eighteen months between gazing at you and getting to you. The earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, the region I was teaching in. A toxic relationship. Things in my control, others out of my control—everything weighted my body. I double-knotted my hiking boots.

At 9pm, my friends Jeff and Akiko and I switched on our headlamps; our goal was to reach your summit for sunrise. Surrounded by night, we started climbing the trail that snaked up your eastern side. As we climbed, I gazed at all of the headlamps winding up the mountainside like fireflies. Above, a full moon glowed. The world was silence and soft stars, and the crunch of boots on pebbles and dirt. I relaxed. I was in nature; I was free.

Buddhists say you are a gateway to a different world. I believe them. At 4:30am, ribbons of color stretched across the base of the dark sky. The three of us sat near the red torii gate at your summit, and watched the sky transform into light. As the sun broke the horizon, all of us climbers resting on your peak hushed in collective awe. Below us, a sea of clouds rolled across the landscape. Far away, billowing towers of clouds stood in place—castles in the sky are real. The full warmth of the sun stretched from the horizon, and my face gladly accepted it. Here, I existed in the present. The past didn’t matter; the future wasn’t a concept.  Here, I could let go. In the light of the sunrise, I sat in vibrant stillness and peace.

The hike back down lasted forever. My friends and I were exhausted and covered in black dust. Looking back, I’m glad the descent took a long time. You didn’t let me grab my experience at the summit and go, or grab and forget. Since that hike, I’ve thought countless times about breathing in the sunrise from your summit, about how I live my life a little more openly because of it.

I think about this: almost every day I travel from some Point A to some Point B, and back to Point A. When I climbed you, I started at Kawaguchiko Fifth Station, reached your summit, and hiked back down to the Fifth Station. The Station looked exactly the same when I got back. On the outside, save the black dust creased in my face, I looked the same, too. But my insides had changed. Thank you for breaking me open, and for giving me perspective at the summit that I could take down the mountain.

I don’t remember to greet each day like I did that morning, but the desire to welcome each day like I did at your summit is there. The desire sustains me.

With adoration,



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A Small Community Centre in Tokyo, Japan

Ana Prundaru

There is something magical about children playing outside; mesmerized by little things adults take for granted. Unfortunately, when I visited Tokyo for a summit, I barely saw any children chasing butterflies, or playing ball. Walking past playgrounds and museums with the scope of researching the community’s impact on educating children, I realized that, despite its powerful technical and educational advances, the Japanese capital often lacked green areas for children to roam around freely. Sure, there are a number of bigger parks, such as the Yoyogi Park, however only few children are lucky enough to live nearby. Thus, as I walked past hypermodern constructions, I wondered if the next generation of children would be playing in artificial indoor playgrounds, laced with AC and plastic plants. I felt grateful for my own upbringing that allowed me to spend countless hours outside, playing, or making little discoveries in the fresh air. It is my view that children benefit tremendously from being outdoors, because it is there that they improve motor skills and brush up their social skills, among other things.

It was however an encouraging and heartwarming experience to visit a small community center, complete with a playground, nestled between tall buildings in Eastern Tokyo. It was run by predominately retired volunteers, who aimed to give children a safe and nourishing learning environment. As they explained to us visitors, quite a few neighborhood kids spent their entire day playing, studying and crafting art projects at the centre during the holidays, while the majority came by to play during the afternoons on school days. Watching the volunteers assisting them in creating origami animals, or doing homework, I felt a huge sense of relief washing over me, because I knew these kids would not grow up isolated, in front of gadgets. Additionally, I felt the gratefulness those children had toward their caregivers, who invested so much of their time and energy toward their upbringing. Most of these kids appeared to have parents who worked full time, or their mothers worked at least on a part-time basis. Therefore, without the community centre, they would have been left home alone after school. There is no doubt to me that kids not only have an enjoyable time at the centre, but also learn crucial life lessons, such as treating each other with respect and compassion. Naturally, a small community centre will only be able to help a limited amount of children, but it is a remarkable establishment that will hopefully inspire other people to provide similar help for children. I was touched by this experience, because it showed me just how much a small group of dedicated people can achieve.

Moved by this visit, I started to put my foreign language skills to good use and volunteered as a translator for various children’s and youth causes. Frankly, my contribution is minimal, yet I felt grateful that I could offer some help in creating a better environment for future generations. My message with this essay is that, with the right mindset and a bit of help from likeminded individuals, nothing is out of reach.

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As a pessimistic, nine-year-old kid that doesn’t travel much, I was nearly blown away with the news that we were going to visit Japan. I was so excited! It was December of 2008, and we were leaving in just two weeks.
We arrived to Japan at the airport terminal. As soon as we got off the plane, I was already so excited. The cold air and the black, mysterious night twinkling with sparkly, diamond-like stars electrocuted a spark in me, a spark that wanted to find out what the mystery was. It practically lit a fire in me, an innate passion in me so deep and so beautiful that at that moment…something I’d never felt before. Staring into the deep, black ominous sky, I was seeing a new part of me.
Excitedly hauling my overstuffed suitcase down the ramp with its steep inclination, I was so excited! My heart was overflowing with bubbly, white emotions of excitement and contentment and joy and awe all at the same time.
Inside the airport as people bustled about, I was in a little kid’s wonder land. I felt like Alice from Alice in Wonderland when her whole world turned upside down…when everything went from black and white, to a paradise filled with color, filled with a whole new spectrum that was there the whole time—it just hadn’t been seen before. All of a sudden, I was capable of seeing pink, magenta, and gold, silver— this whole time Yokohama was there, I just hadn’t seen it. Paradise was in my backyard, but I’d never bothered to open the door.
After getting through the airport, we took a taxi cab to the apartment that we’d be staying in. We got inside the apartment, and it felt just like home. The best part was the bathroom…ELECTRONIC TOILETS!!! Woo hoo!
The apartment was compact, but in a good way—it was very cozy, and our family felt a lot closer when we were all living in a smaller space.
The next morning we went to Mount Fuji. It was a heavenly body…so tall, towering and majestic…it was so gallantly, magnificently mesmerizing that I couldn’t even begin to fathom, in my wildest dreams, how such an amazing work of art, could be thrown right onto the raw face of the Earth.
The giant mountain, stretching into the clouds so far up I begin to lose sense of space, is grey in its coarse, rocky nature with big mounds of rock, jutting outwards. Its every nook and cranny is filled with snow. For the first time in my life, in the presence of the majestic mountain, I feel free. I throw my hands up in the air, twirling around, seeing the entire country of Japan like its just a speck in the distance, stick my tongue out to taste the heavenly snow falling from Paradise, breathe into the air to see white smoke. I jump and dance and twirl and am one with the nature that surrounds me.
The cherry blossom trees with their beautiful, pink blossoms and the bareness that surrounds me become one. My eyes sink into the snow and my breath into the rock. The white, misty, bottomless, blue sky becomes my canvass and my emotions become my paint. My inner emotions come flooding out like raw colors on an easel, reds as scarlet as blood, orange more golden and sweeter than honey, blue saltier than grandma’s saltine sardines, pinks that sound like mockingbirds and nightingales singing in melodious harmony, and a cascading, blinding white that glares into my eyes and into the piercing night…breaking away like a terrestrial body. My body becomes a distant memory, an emotion. My heart combines with the nature. I take in the cold, bitterness of the air, the white, powdery snow into my hands…the flying reds and blues and pinks splattering paint all over the canvas. I look into my heart and my eyes and the ocean surrounding us. I’m on top of the world.
For the first time in my life I feel free. Free to dance, to sing, to forget about time, about television, about the drama, about school, about life. I feel free to forget and forgive and let it all go and become one with nature, one with Yokohama, one with Mount Fuji. Standing there on the mountain, time stands still. The clock has stopped ticking. I’m standing on the line between life and heaven. It’s a feeling that you can’t mistake. I don’t just feel “free” in the usual sense of the word. I am free.

About the author:
I’m a high school student that enjoys reading, spending time with family and laughing to anything and everything. I like watching reruns of “I Love Lucy” and older shows that evoke lots of laughter.

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I was jolted out of sleep by a panicked feeling, fearful that I had overslept and blinded by the morning brightness that had infiltrated the room through the thin screen doors. The space heater had automatically turned off in the middle of the night and the mountain chill permeated the room. I pulled my blankets over my head, curled up into a ball and closed my eyes for a moment. I stretched my achy back, sore from sleeping on the floor, even though I had added an extra cushioned layer to my tatami mat. My hand ventured out from underneath the blanket onto the floor to find my cellphone, which flashed 5:30am. I took a deep breath and kicked my blankets back so that the cold could shock my body awake. It was time to get up for the main reason why I had come to Koya-san, Japan.

I feel most free to be my true self when I’m on vacation in a foreign country, but this was taking it to another level. Being in a Buddhist monastery on top of a remote mountain in Japan made me feel like I was far removed from the rest of the world and at the same time deeply connected with the world.

As I pulled back the screen doors, my breath came out in small puffs of cold fog that disappeared as quickly as they appeared. The blue sky was clear and the Ekoin temple was calm and quiet. I quickly changed out of my yukata and kimono into jeans and a heavy black fleece pullover, and joined my travel group in the main lodging area. Shivering and groggy, the seven of us were quiet this morning as we made our way to the main room to observe the morning prayer service.

When we arrived in the main prayer hall, the limited seating area was mostly filled with a mix of foreigners and Japanese elders. We shuffled into the back of the room, kneeling on our knees or sitting cross-legged Indian style on the carpeted floor. The sounds of the monks setting up for service echoed sharply in the sleepy, yet alert silence. I stared at the Amida Buddha that was staged in the center of the room and breathed deeply, inhaling the incense smoke that wafted through the air. The monks were wrapped in layers of dark orange and maroon robes with layers of prayer beads around their necks. An older monk, I presumed him to be the most senior one in the room, settled down in front of the main Buddha statue with a prayer book in front of him. Three younger monks sat on the floor to his right with prayer books in front of them. One monk stood near a giant drum on the left. At six thirty am, the prayer began. The sound of the tonal chanting in Pali filled the room and wrapped around me like a security blanket. It reminded me of my childhood, when my mom used to have me kneel in front of the Buddha and Guan Yin statues, and recite mantras in Cantonese until the incense stick had burned to the end.

I had sat right in front of the incense urn, front and center behind the head monk facing the Buddha. I didn’t understand any of the Pali, but let the chanting lull me into a state of meditation, focusing on the image of the Buddha. At some point, people began to take turns lighting and offering three sticks of incense to the Buddha. Everyone patiently waited their turn to make their offering. As the morning prayer service began to wind down, the head monk continued chanting while he got up and shook his mandala in our direction, I assumed to bless the visitors. One of the monks beat the drum a few times and then all was quiet. The head monk bowed and spoke to us calmly in Japanese about the truth of suffering in the world and how we have to face the things that happen in life directly. He motioned for us to rise and make our way around the rest of the prayer hall to pay our respects to other bodhisattvas in the room. Whenever I reflect back on this experience, I am reminded that the greatest freedom, no matter where I am, is to focus on the things that are within my control.

As we walked out of the temple, I turned around and bowed deeply one last time to the Amida Buddha. In that moment, I felt humbled and grateful to be alive.

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Ready to visit Koya-San? WSGT found these travel books and gear to help you prepare.

Japan Lonely Planet-The number 1 travel guidebook in the world.

Japanese customs and etiquette-Make the most of your trip with knowing Japanese etiquette!

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Winslow - JapanAccording to “Nihon Kokujisekikou” (“Observations About the Remains of Japan’s Civil Affairs”), Confucian scholar Shunsai Hayashi’s painfully titled book chronicling his 17th century travels through Japan, Itsukushima ranks among the country’s three most scenic spots. Our own travels did not include the other two locations – Matsushima and Amanohashidate – but my husband and I will give Hayashi the benefit of the doubt based on his assessment of Itsukushima, commonly known as Miyajima, or “Shrine Island.”

In addition to Miyajima’s natural beauty of blue sea, serene forest paths and the towering Mount Misen, there are countless man-made diversions making this World Heritage spot worth the hour-long tram ride from Hiroshima: the island’s vermillion shrine and its famous “floating” gate; Gojunoto, the five-storied pagoda; an aquarium; a folklore museum; and the prestigious Shingon temple, Daisho-in.

And let’s not forget the Miyajima O-shakushi. At 7.7 meters long and 2.7 meters wide, this wooden rice scoop is said to be the largest in the world. Wow.

Perhaps the most entertaining feature of Miyajima, however, is the island’s population of wild yet tame deer.

As soon as Matt and I stepped off the ferry and onto land, we were greeted by a very fuzzy, very forward, deer. He introduced himself by munching on my map – apparently a common hazard on the island.

“The deer on Miyajima are wild,” our complimentary map warned. “They may eat paper and cloth. Please pay attention and keep an eye on your personal belongings – especially tickets and souvenirs as the deer might eat them.”

At least that’s what it said before the deer ate it.

If mingling in a city-sized petting zoo isn’t your thing, it’s possible to spot wild deer and monkeys on one of three hikes leading to the top of Mount Misen, a mountain proclaimed sacred by Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, in 806 A.D.

We began our hike at the Daisho-in Temple, a 12th century temple serving as headquarters for the Omuro Branch of Shingon. According to temple literature, the sect teaches that enlightenment can be obtained through rituals combining physical, spoken and mental disciplines.

While the temple offers an array of halls, gates and even a cave to explore, I spent a full half hour on the steps, walking amongst an army of stone, calf-high statues sporting colorful knit caps. No, this wasn’t the world’s largest collection of garden gnomes. The 500 statues are Rakan, representations of Shaka Nyorai’s (the Historical Buddha) disciples, and each has a unique facial expression. The caps (and sometimes bibs) worn by such statues are often supplied by parents who have lost a child. They take care of the figures as representations of their dead children.

From the temple, Matt and I hiked an hour and a half to Mount Misen’s summit. We were racing the setting of the sun and ours was not a leisurely stroll. In fact, every person we encountered on our way up was working his or her way down.

Near the summit we encountered the Reikado, a hall containing a sacred flame lit by Kobo Daishi in 1200 A.D. The flame, which has burned ever since, was used to light the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Park.

We allowed ourselves a few minutes to take in the 360-degree view of mist-shrouded islands offered by Mount Misen’s peak until a familiar melody began blaring from the distant Shishiiwa gondola station.

“Is that ‘Auld Lang Syne?’” I asked Matt.

It was. And alone, with the sun about to set, it sounded a bit ominous, as if the mountain itself was urging us to leave.

We raced down the Momijidani Course, the shortest and steepest path, through the Misen Primeval Forest, back to town.

By 6 p.m., Miyajima’s shops and restaurants were closed and the waters of the Seto Inland Sea had receded to reveal mudflats and easy access to the 16.6-meter-high O-torii Gate. But we had a ferry, a tram and then a bus to catch before we arrived in Kyoto the next day. I waved good-bye to the deer as Matt ushered me toward the ferry terminal.

That song, try as we did to dislodge it, would remain stuck in our heads until morning.

“…We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.”

About the author:  Megan V. Winslow is a writer and photographer who recently returned to the U.S. after a 6-month adventure around the world with her husband, Matt. Originally from Florida, Winslow relocated to San Francisco in January. She enjoys hiking, gardening and swing dancing.

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TanukiWe approached the clearing cautiously, snatching glimpses of the abandoned building’s interior through gaps torn in its sliding screens. There were frayed tatami mats covered in a thick layer of dust and a solitary paper lantern hung half-heartedly from the ceiling, its washi paper yellowed unevenly by prolonged exposure to the sun.

The evening air was still, without a hint of a breeze. It was clear that, apart from the occasional bird or squirrel, Robert and I were the only sources of movement in that quiet portion of forest, hidden high in the mountains of Kyoto. Every snap of a twig or rustle of leaves sent goosebumps rocketing onto the skin of our arms.

“I don’t want to disturb anything,” I whispered, imagining spirits gathering once the sun had set, equipped with spectral casks of sake for that evening’s festivities. But despite my over-active imagination, as we looked back at the abandoned building before rejoining the mountain path, it was abundantly clear that any sounds of merriment (human or otherwise), had long since dissipated into the chilly air.

We were treated to picturesque views of the surrounding valley on our way up to Jingo-ji temple. Huge trees with vividly green canopies and dark, gnarled trunks stood sentinel as we passed. In the distance an azalea forest bloomed, as intensely purple as the oncoming dusk and all around us lay great carpets of moss, wrapping the earth in a delicate shroud.

A red lantern bobbed into view as we reached the top of the stone steps. It leant precariously to one side and looked as though a strong gust of wind would knock it over. Yet despite its garish colour, my gaze quickly came to rest below it, where a statue of a tanuki stood. I felt it watching me through small, dark eyes.

Though I’d heard of tanukis once or twice before, I couldn’t recall what kind of place the raccoon-dog held in Japanese folklore. Was he there to help us on our path to the temple, or was he intent on distracting us from our journey? The intelligence that seemed to resonate from his black eyes contradicted the foolish grin spread across the lower half of his face. The more I looked, the more uncertain I became.

“I don’t trust him,” I said finally, speeding towards the entrance of the temple. But as we got closer we saw that the tall wooden gates were shut ― we had arrived too late to visit the grounds. Somewhere behind me I knew the tanuki stood, grinning, his fat white belly as round as the Moon.

With our original plan scuppered we sat as close as we dared to the rock face at the edge of the trail and gazed down at the tops of the many trees we’d passed on our ascent. A few crows flapped noisily through the air to our left, their guttural cries fading into the distance before I had time to even focus the camera.

Sat amongst that remarkable congregation of nature, the importance of time seemed to weaken with every beat of a bird’s wings, loosening its grip on us as surely as the wind released blossoms from their branches. On the mountainside we were witness to events that were at the same time ordinary and extraordinary, that were unaffected by our arrival and that would continue to occur long after we had departed. Our insignificance was strangely inspiring.

Although we’d leave no trace of ourselves behind, I smiled at the fact that we were fortunate enough to have been there, in that moment, enveloped in the wondrous sights and sounds of Japan’s nature in early bloom, half a world away from home.

When the staff at the ryokan asked if we’d enjoyed our visit to the temple later that evening, disappointment at it’s closure couldn’t have been further from my mind. Not knowing enough Japanese to enquire about the tanuki and finding ourselves with some spare time before dinner, I quickly searched the internet for information on the mysterious creature. The phrase ‘feigned ignorance’ appeared on Wikipedia.

I knew it.

About the Author: Georgina Miller lives in the UK and has a deep love for all things Japan. She knows she wants to be a writer, but isn’t sure which genre she’ll end up focussing on. For now, she is simply enjoying writing in various forms. She holds a joint degree in English Literature and Journalism.

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