29 Sep

Japan Shrines and Temples

Which shrines and temples to go to and which to skip in Japan, based on my personal experience. Here goes. . .
(click to enlarge photos)

Tokyo

Senso-Ji Temple

Located in the Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo, Senso-ji is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of its most important.

Senso-ji

Why should I go?

Senso-ji is a large and significant temple to see. The temple is busy so you can witness first hand how the faithful observe their religion and pay their respects. However, you can find spots around the large grounds that are quieter and peaceful.

The main street leading up to the temple is lined with shops so if you like browsing for souvenirs this is a good place to visit.

The temple is located right near Kappabashi-dori, Tokyo’s kitchenware neighbourhood. Who doesn’t love shopping for kitchenware? (The answer you are looking for is: no one)

It’s free.

Senso-ji

Why should I skip it?

If you dislike crowds of tourists, this might not be the place for you.
So. many. people.

Senso-ji

Meiji Jingu Shrine

This Shinto shrine from 1921 is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife. It is located at the centre of a forest near Harajuku in Tokyo.

Meiji Jingu

Why should I go?

The huge torii gates that mark the sacred ground are majestic.

The large grounds surrounding the shrine are covered by forest making the Meiji Shrine a refuge from the busyness of the city. It’s a good place to go to get away from it all.

The shrine itself is less busy than the Senso-ji temple, so you can appreciate it without having to fight the crowds.

You can see huge barrels of sake and wine that are donated every year to the shrine.

It’s free.

Meiji Jingu Sake Barrels

Why should I skip it?

You probably shouldn’t.

Meiji Jingu

Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine

This Shinto shrine is located between the Gion and Hagashiyama districts of Kyoto making it a popular spot for both locals and tourists.

Yasaka Shrine

Why should I go?

You’ll see a number of young women dressed in traditional Japanese dress, praying and paying their respects at this shrine. It’s worth the experience.

There are a number of lanterns through the buildings of the shrine grounds. If you go at dusk or night you can see them illuminated.

It’s free.

Yasaka Shrine

Why should I skip it?

I don’t think I’d go out of my way to get here, but if you’re in the area (which you probably will be, as the nearby districts have loads of tourist attractions) then why not?

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kyoto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of foxes, rice, and business.

Fushimi Inari

Why should I go?

This shrine is SO cool. The shrine itself is at the base of a mountain and includes 4kms worth of trails up the mountain that are tightly lined with bright orange torii gates.

You’ll never see anything else like it.

It’s free.

Fushimi Inari

Why should I skip it?

It takes about 2 hours to walk the trails and walking up mountain can be strenuous.
If you just walk in the lower part of the trails, you’ll encounter massive crowds and miss some of the serenity of the torii gates.
If you are able though, you really should make this a ‘must-see’.

Fushimi Inari

Sanjusangendo Temple

This is an iconic Buddhist temple in Kyoto is known for its 1,001 life-sized wooden statues of the goddess Kannon.

Sanjusangendo

Why should I go?

It’s phenomenal to see 1000 identical statues liked up like this. You’ll be impressed, I promise.

Sanjusangendo

Why should I skip it?

It’s not free.

You can’t take any pictures of the statues. (Though, probably not a valid reason to skip). You probably should put this one on your ‘must-see’ list too.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Located in Arashiyama, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a temple for veneration of the supreme Buddha surrounded by some of the nicest gardens.

Why should I go?

The gardens are beautiful and are original to the temple in spite of losing the buildings several times to fire. They include a large koi pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees, and mountains.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Why should I skip it?

It’s not free.

Nanzen-Ji Temple

Located in Kyoto this is one of the most important zen temples in all of Japan.

Nanzen-ji

Why should I go?

The wooden Sanmon Gate that marks the entrance to the grounds is a large, beautiful structure and you can actually climb up the gate’s balcony.

There are several halls, temples, and gardens on the grounds that you can choose to visit for an extra fee like Tenjuan Temple, the Hojo, Nanzenin Temple, and Konchi-in Temple each with beautiful rock gardens. We visited Tenjuan Temple.

There’s an unexpected Italianate aqueduct on the temple grounds that makes for fun photo-ops.

You can visit Nanzen-ji then walk the canal-side “Path of Philosophy” to another popular temple, Ginkaku-ji.

Nanzen-ji

Why should I skip it?

The grounds are free but visiting any of the temples and gardens will cost you.

Ginkaku-ji Temple

Kyoto’s Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist temple originally built as a shogunate residence modelled after Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion.

Ginkakuji

Why should I go?

The meticulously formed “sea of silver sand” and the sand cone in the gardens are amazing, and easily the most impressive things you’ll see in any garden in Japan.

There is also a beautiful moss garden with ponds and streams.

Ginkakuji

Why should I skip it?

It’s not free.

It’s not actually silver.

Only the grounds, not the pavilion or the hall, are open to the public.

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, is a former residence of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and currently is a Rinzai Zen temple. Its top two floors are covered in gold and the roof is crowned with a golden pheonix.

Kinkakuji

Why should I go?

It’s actually gold.

It is situated on a large pond and the sight of it is awe-inspiring.

Kinkakuji

Why should I skip it?

It’s slightly out of the way in that there aren’t many tourist attractions nearby. But there a few city buses that will take you right there.

It’s not free.

The gardens aren’t as nice as Ginkaku-ji, but you’re here just for the temple.

Koyasan

Danjo Garan Monastery Complex

The complex contains a number of temples and was built in the 800s as a place for secret training in Shingon esoteric Buddhism.

Daito at Danjo Garan

Why should I go?

The entire complex offers lots of placards with English descriptions of the buildings, their history, and their uses, making it the most informative religious complex that we visited in Japan.

The Konpon Daito (two tiered pagoda) is larger than it looks and especially impressive.

Why should I skip it?

Only if you happen to not go to Koyasan at all. Otherwise don’t miss it.

27 Sep

Links for a Sunday Morning

Exercise and the Bounce Factor – NY Times

I once thought I pinched a nerve while running because when I took my post-run shower, I felt a stinging in my back so sharp, it was as if that spot was on fire. It was just the water hitting a place where my bra had rubbed the skin raw.

Keep Cadillac in Detroit – City Lab

Cadillac would be better off positioning itself as a comeback story of an American icon—alongside the city where it is based.

Against Apple Picking – Slate

Encourage yuppies and their progeny to come pick your fruit—they’ll pay handsomely for the privilege, buy more than they’d ordinarily consume, and then shell out for all sorts of other value-added products. It’s the best use of child labor since Manchester’s early 19th-century textile mills.

4 Mental Exercises Olympic Athletes Use to Gain That Extra Edge – Emotion Machine

Meditation is an excellent way to train your mind to become relaxed, focused, and “in the zone.” It teaches you how to ignore distractions and instead focus all your energy and resources on the competition.

The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others – Zen Habits

Comparisons lead to feeling really bad about ourselves or others. This is heartbreaking, because we are good people, and so are they. It’s only in comparison that we take what’s wonderful and turn it into something cruel.

Weights before Cardio? - NY Times

The theory behind these claims [that aerobic and resistance-style exercise should not be combined in a single workout] is that each form of exercise interferes, physiologically, with the other, potentially blunting the desired training effects. But the best available science disagrees.

26 Sep

Koyasan and Eko-in Review

We left Kyoto behind from Kyoto Station bound for Osaka where we caught another two trains and a cable car to get to Koyasan.

I was really excited for this part of the trip as I wanted more immersion into Zen Buddhist culture about which I know very little, but was eager to learn. (Side note: I’m not religious but do find religion fascinating. Does that make sense?)

Koyasan is a mountain south of Osaka that is the heart of the Shingon (“True Word”) sect of Esoteric Buddhism—the epicentre of study and practice. The mountain was chosen for this purpose 1200 years ago and the monastic life here is still very vibrant with several monasteries and countless young monks.

It also is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists looking to pay respects to Kobo Daishi who founded the Shingon Buddhist sect and established Koyasan as its centre.

Consequently, many of the monasteries offer lodging to pilgrims (and interested but not-so-religious, tourists like myself).

Koyasan might be old but those monks have some pretty good modern marketing skills to attract visitors from around the globe. They even have a mascot (of course they do, it’s Japan!), Koya-kun, who (like every other mascot in Japan) is utterly adorable.

Koyasan Mascot

Eko-in Monastery

We stayed at Eko-in, a popular monastery among tourists and the place was nearly full the night that we were there. Almost everyone was a foreigner save for a single Japanese family.

Eko-in is run by a great group of young monks and they offer you activities to partake in during your stay. When we arrived we were shown right to our tatami mat room where there was tea ready for us and the heart sutra waiting to be copied.

Eko-in Sutra WritingCopying sutras is supposed to be a meditative practice and it is, in fact, quite soothing.

At 4:30pm the monks teach you Ajikan meditation techniques (meditating on the sanskrit letter ‘a’) and leave you to a 40 minute silent meditation.

A Shojin Ryori dinner is ready for you in your room at 5:30pm. Shojin Ryori is the sort of meal you would expect from monks: a simple vegan meal with a variety of small portions or, as described by our travel guide “lacking meat and any exciting vegetables like garlic or onion”. Yeah. The food was thoughtfully prepared, though not as exciting as the meals we had in the Kiso Valley and not as filling.

Eko-in Shojin RyoriShojin Ryori, Buddhist Vegan Cuisine at Eko-in

After dinner, you can opt to go on an guided night tour (in English) of Okunoin Cemetery. We opted instead to do that earlier in the day on our own.

Okunoin Cemetery

This was one of the coolest things that we saw in Japan. I’m a sucker for cemeteries (is that weird?) so I might be partial, but I’d put Okunoin as a ‘must see’ in Japan.

Okunoin is 1200 years old and the largest graveyard in Japan with over 200,000 graves.

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

The reason for the size is because Kobo Daishi (that guy I mentioned in the beginning who founded Shingon Buddhism and Koyasan) is believed to be resting in eternal meditation in a mausoleum in the cemetery.

Everyone wants to buried near Kobo Daishi. This is some seriously holy ground.

Okunoin Cemetery - KoyasanThis is a legitimate headstone among the newer graves in the cemetery. I kid you not.

The cemetery has gorgeous and opulent headstones that span the centuries and is surrounded by huge Japanese cedars that span the centuries as well.

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

We couldn’t take photos of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum but it is lit by literally thousands of lanterns which is striking. The silence and reverence of the pilgrims and monks that visit to pray and pay respects is part of what makes the space feel holy and serene.

It’s phenomenal.

Buddhist Ceremonies

Morning ceremonies back at the Eko-in monastery begin at 6:30am in the temple.

There might have been a wake-up call but we certainly missed it. I woke naturally in a at 6:25am realizing that it must be almost time to get up and was frenzied when I looked at my watch. Luckily, neither Matt nor I is unaccustomed to oversleeping so we were able to get to the temple on time.

Eko-in Morning ServiceMorning ceremony at Eko-in

The ceremony itself involved the monks chanting some sutras. It was cool to hear at first but after 5 minutes became about as exciting you can imagine as any religious service in a foreign language would be (not very).

The ceremony was followed up by the Goma fire ritual which was pretty cool. You watch as a monk builds and consecrates a fire for spiritual and psychological cleansing while another monk is drumming and chanting.

The whole thing is very primitive and mesmerizing.

Eko-in Goma Fire RitualGoma Fire Ritual

Osaka

We had some terrible rain that morning which made us limit our site seeing of the rest of Koyasan and we left earlier than expected to Osaka where we stayed for the night before our flight back to Canada.

Osaka didn’t wow me. It was a busy big city with nothing too spectacular to see or do besides eat, drink, and shop (all of which we were tired of doing). We wandered a bit through Americamura (their America Town) and along Dotombori but mostly found ourselves bored and looking forward to the fancy room upgrade we were offered at the hotel.

Oh, but I should mention that in Osaka there was this:

Pablo CheesecakePablo Cheesecake

Pablo Cheesecake- It’s like cheesecake, but creamier and less tangy, and in a tart shell. A tart shell, you guys!

So good.

Matt and I bought a whole cheesecake thinking “what are we going to do with the leftovers”. We didn’t have any.

Stay tuned for the next post in my Japan series: Shrines and Temples.

22 Sep

Travelling to Kyoto

No one has anywhere to go in Kyoto. That was my theme for the 3 days that we spent touring around Kyoto because, unlike Tokyo, the crowds kept a (rather annoying) dawdling pace. Part of this had to do with the number of tourists that come to Kyoto to get a feel for historic Japan.

. . . And you really do get good glimpses of traditional Japanese culture in Kyoto.

There were numerous women walking about dressed in kimono. There is extensive preserved architecture as well as numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. After extensive research on ‘how to spot a real geisha’, I even spotted what I expect were maiko apprentice geisha out of their traditional dress (apparently the hair is the giveaway).

MaikoMaiko? I think so.

Our itinerary for Kyoto was almost entirely made up of visiting those various shrines and temples (stay tuned for a post just about them) but we also managed to see a few other really cool things in Kyoto which were more modern culture than historic culture.

Arashiyama

Arashiyama is a neighbourhood about a 45 minute bus ride west of the central Gion district that draws tourists primarily for its bamboo grove.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

While the bamboo grove was a really cool thing to see, it wasn’t that large and we seemed to move through it rather quickly. (side note: The relentless rain may have also played a factor here.)

That just meant we had extra time in the Arashiyama area to go to the Arashiyama Monkey Park!

Arashiyama Monkey ParkSqueeeee!

The park is the natural habitat for 170+ Japanese macaque monkeys. A number of them are always hanging around the visitor centre where you can feed them (you have to be inside, behind the cage to feed them while they stay outside).

Just don’t touch them or look them in the eye. They don’t like these things, apparently. I didn’t test the rules to confirm.

Just feeding a monkey, nbdThis was super exciting for me. Trip highlight.

Otaku

We got more of an otaku fix by finding a better Yodobashi Camera store than the one we found in Tokyo. And by better, I mean bigger toy section. Matt was in heaven.

Otaku at Kyoto Yodobashi CameraYodobashi Camera

We also spent time in the Kyoto Manga Museum which had a small exhibit about the history of manga and where it’s headed in the future. The museum is more like a library of pretty much every manga you can think of… most of them, of course, were in Japanese and pretty useless to us.

Manga MuseumMatt at the Kyoto Manga Museum

Nishiki Market

Another place that we hit up that I loved was Nishiki Market. It was cooler than Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo because a lot of the offerings were ready-to-eat and, let’s be honest, I really like to eat. Pickles, street meat, omelettes, tofu doughnuts, dried fruit, and so much more.

Tip: don’t go early. It seems like none of the stalls open until 10 or 11am.

Nishiki Market

Mowing down on some deep fried chocolate filled goodnessMowing down on some deep fried chocolate filled goodness at Nishiki Market

Karaoke

If you don’t know how much I love karaoke, then you really don’t know me at all.

At first I wasn’t too interested in doing karaoke in Japan because I figured all the songs would be in Japanese and I didn’t think it was worthwhile but we gave in one night in Kyoto and, obviously, it was awesome.

Karaoke KyotoKaraoke Kyoto

They had a decent selection of songs in English that were easy to find. You get your own little room that you rent by the half hour which is awesome because you can make a total asshole of yourself without being in front of a crowd of people you don’t know. You can queue up the songs you want to sing from the get-go or pick them as you go.

It was relatively inexpensive, like the equivalent of $8/person but I could see it racking up quickly if you get hooked (which, obviously you will) and drink a lot.

It was awesome. I wish we had karaoke rooms like this in Windsor.

Next stop: Koyasan. Stay tuned!

21 Sep

Links for a Sunday Morning

 Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty? – Slate

If these or other new forms of contraception were more accessible and less costly, and if more people understood how effective and convenient they are, unplanned pregnancies would decline.

‘Fat Shaming’ Doesn’t Motivate Obese People to Lose Weight: Study – Medline

Discrimination against overweight or obese people, commonly known as "fat shaming," does not help them lose weight and may do more harm than good, according to research from London. Being harassed or treated with disrespect, receiving poor service while shopping or being thought of as stupid may actually lead to more weight gain, the researchers found.

Thirty Things I’ve Learned – Medium

Everyone has a vice. To err is human. Everyone has a fault-line. Don’t spend too much time searching for it, but know it will be there and don’t be disappointed when you find it.

They Said My Thighs Were Took Thick – Fiterazzi

It is not like the day I started yoga then suddenly I loved my body. No, certainly not. In fact when I started yoga I doubted my body nearly every day.

High on Ganja Yoga – The Asian Age

Yoga alters the chemical composition of the body naturally, by producing certain pleasure hormones like dopamine, endorphins and others. On the other hand, when you consume drugs, the body gets attuned to unnatural means of producing hormones and leads to addiction. The essence of yoga is to get more and more natural. So, chemically, physically and psychologically yoga and ganja are not really the right partners.

Pro Bowl Linebacker is Now a Nationally-known Yoga Teacher – USA Today

As a handful of recent incidents around the league have certainly proved, there’s certainly a desperate need for some athletes to figure out how to channel the aggression they’re expected to show on the field so that it doesn’t bleed into their personal lives.

Cult Rush Week: I Punched Myself at Dahn Yoga – Gawker

First I became more dizzy, then nauseous. . .Why am I doing this. I am going to ralph all over this special floor. It was somewhere between five and ten minutes, probably, but could also have been a lifetime. This is never going to end. This is how I am going to die.

18 Sep

Travelling to the Kiso Valley Japan

After four nights and three days in Tokyo, we continued our trip by travelling to the Kiso Valley Japan. We took off via the Limited Express Super Asuza 5 from Shinjuku station to Shiojiri, then transferred to the JR Chuo Line bound for the Kiso Valley.

This valley follows the Kiso River (the strongest in Japan, a kindly man told me on the train) through the Nagano prefecture in the Japan Alps. It’s a relatively quiet area with several small farming towns and a few preserved Edo period towns like the Narai, Magome, and Tsumago. We visited all three and the latter two being ones where we stayed the night in ryokan (traditional inns) with tatami mat floors, futon beds, delicious food and intensely hot baths.

The three towns were all beautiful, quiet, and like stepping into a Japanese time warp. It was a great way to escape from Tokyo and I think some city slickers felt the same way as the area drew large crowds of Japanese tourists on the weekend as we were leaving.

There isn’t much to do but eat soba, buy souvenirs, and generally ‘get away from it all’, but that didn’t stop the Kiso Valley from being my favourite region that we visited.

Narai

Narai was just a lunch break on our way to Magome. We hopped off the train in Narai at about 11am to stretch our legs and take a couple hours to explore the town and eat. The main road in the town is mostly made up of shops peddling sweets, sake, laquerware, wooden combs (they’re known for combs, historically) or other souvenirs.

Narai

We visited all the shops and stopped for lunch at Kokoro-ne for a soba noodle lunch which, for just noodles, was borderline pricey (something I noticed to be common in Japan).

Soba at Kokoro-ne in NaraiSoba at Kokoro-ne in Narai

We then headed back to the train station to get back on the 1:30pm JR Chuo to Nakatsugawa where we caught a bus for Magome.

Magome

DSCF7413DSCF7414

By the time we made it to Magome and checked into our ryokan, Magomechaya, it was 5pm and all the shops were closing and there wasn’t much left to do so we relaxed in our room until dinner time.

Dinner in the ryokan (in both Magome and Tsumago, and later in Koyasan) was a treat. They serve a kaiseki-ryori or multiple course meal with a variety of locally sourced foods and Kiso Valley specialties. We sampled some interesting foods like raw horsemeat in Magome and wasp larvae in Tsumago. (Both of which I enjoyed, by the way).

Dinner in MagomeDinner in Magome

The ryokan dinners (and even breakfasts) are part of what I loved so much about the Kiso Valley.

After tucking into our tempura, and salted fish, and omelette, and mochi, and pickles, and raw horsemeat(!) we donned our yukata robes, bathed, and read until lights out.

The next morning, after a solid breakfast of fish and rice, we left on foot for our next destination:

The Hike

We took advantage of the 500yen luggage forwarding service (even though we each only brought a backpack with us to Japan) between Magome and Tsumago so we could hike without the extra weight.

MagomeRice Patties in Magome

The best part of our visit to the Kiso Valley was the 8km Magome to Tsumago “hike” (more like a moderate intensity walk) that Matt and I tackled along the Nakasendo Road, a route that connected Kyoto and Tokyo in the Edo period.

The hike takes you through rice patties, woodlands of cedar and bamboo, and very (very!) tiny towns. The forests are home to bear and there are bells dispersed at regular intervals to ring loudly and warn bears away.

Bear BellDon't go chasing waterfalls
Don’t go chasing bears. Or waterfalls.

About halfway through the hike an elderly man in a conical straw hat stopped us and asked us where we were from and invited us inside for tea and watermelon and pickles.

Offerings at the official rest stop of the Nakasendo TrailOfferings at the official rest stop of the Nakasendo Trail

He was the official rest stop on the Nakasendo road. Literally. He offered us a few pamphlets about Tsumago and told us to write our name in his guestbook and sit as long as we would like before moving on. It was adorable.

If I were to do the hike again (and I would love to do it again) I would start in Nakatsugawa then hike to Magome and Tsumago from there. There seemed to be a lot of historic sights to see near Nakatsugawa that we missed by going straight to Magome. That, and it would have been nice to spend more time hiking.

Tsumago

Tsumago was our last stop in the Kiso Valley.

Tsumago

We arrived on foot a just past noon and spent the afternoon visiting the souvenir shops which were not unlike those in Narai. I bought myself a wooden canister for tea.

We tried to kill time by stopping for a drink in a small coffee shop in town where the owner who spoke decent English was surprised that I wanted my coffee hot (this wasn’t the first time I got that reaction in Japan) and didn’t want, say, a beer instead. After we told him that we thought his town was beautiful he also told us that he hated it. He was easily the only outwardly disgruntled person we met in Japan, but over course he was disgruntled with a smile.

We checked into our ryokan, Fujioto, where the proprietor gave us their best room (maybe because I booked, like, 5 months in advance?). We sat drinking tea on our balcony overlooking a manicured garden, a koi pond, and the main street in Tsumago while we waited for dinner.

Our room at FujiotoFujioto Ryokan

Dinner at Fujioto was slightly better that Magomechaya because there were more courses and the servers went to lengths to give you great detail about everything that you were eating, where it came from, and why it’s relevant to the region.

DSCF7454Sampler, first course of 8

DSCF7462Shinshu Wagyu (Beef), course 3 of 8

The whole dinner reminded me of our experience at Grant Achatz’s Next in Chicago, but cheaper and more authentic.

Gohei-mochi: The BEST thing I ate in JapanGohei-mochi: The BEST thing I ate in Japan

I was a bit sad to leave the Kiso Valley the next day but we had more sightseeing to do. .

. . . this time in Kyoto. Stay tuned!

15 Sep

Overview of Travelling to Tokyo

After our 2012 trip to Greece (my top destination pick) Matt and I had just one more place left to visit to officially clear our travel bucket lists: a lovely little archipelago in Southeast Asia better known as

Japan!

Japan was Matt’s pick for the otaku culture and all things kawaii. I was mostly along for the ride.

Actually that’s an understatement.

I meticulously developed a 30 page itinerary (excluding the appendices, of course) that detailed how to get from place to place, things to look out for a things to avoid, and everything we could possibly want to do/see/eat in a mere two weeks.

There is so much to share, I don’t even know where to start. In this post I’ll give a brief overview of Tokyo and, so as not to bore you with thousands of words, I’ll dive deeper into it all in subsequent blog posts.

I’ll start where our trip started: in Tokyo.

Shibuya CrossingShibuya Crossing

Tokyo

I fully expected to hate Tokyo. I hate cities in general (The people, the concrete, the noise, the smells– what’s to love?) so visiting one of the most populated places on earth didn’t really have much appeal to me. Of course I ended up not hating it at all.

The city is orderly, organized, efficient, and clean. Some beautiful combination of Confucian philosophies of conformity and the knowledge that maintaining order is the only way to survive in a city with 6000 people per square kilometre has created a culture or obedient rule-followers that makes the whole city tolerable. it was my favourite of all the cities that we visited in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka).

Tokyo Neighbourhoods

There is SO much to do in Tokyo. Every neighbourhood is practically a city on its own and an experience all in itself. We based ourselves in Shinjuku but explored:

Asakusa, a very touristy, historic entertainment district centered around the Sensoji Temple;

Asakusa - Sensoji TempleAsakusa - Sensoji Temple Asakusa

Harajuku, home of slightly bizarre fashions and teenagers;

HarajukuHarajuku Harajuku

Shibuya, a busy, busy, busy transportation hub; (pictured above) Ginza, a classy neighbourhood for high-end folks;

Kabuki-za Theatre in GinzaKabuki-za Theatre in Ginza where we saw a Kabuki play

Odaiba, a slow(er)-paced getaway for locals;

OdaibaCool mix of architecture in Odaiba

and of course Akihabara, the geekiest district in Tokyo and centre of electronics, toys action figures, and arcades.

Akihabara Akihabara

Favourite Places

My favourite district was Odaiba, which was slightly quieter and offered fantastic views of the Tokyo skyline, decent shopping centres, with the highlight being the giant Gundam.

Odaiba Giant GundamOdaiba Tokyo Skyline

Naturally, Matt’s favourite was Akihabara, headquarters of all things otaku (that’s Japanese for ‘nerdy’).

DSCF7149While in Akihabara we made sure to play games at Hey! arcade where all the pro Street Fighters play. Even I took part by playing a sufficiently feminine fight game.

Shinjuku, our home base, was also a great location to explore with the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden nearby and all the massive department stores like Isetan, Takashimaya, Lumine, OIOI, etc… Shinjuku at Night

A note on shopping. . .

Matt and I typically both dislike shopping, rarely do it on vacation, and even more rarely do we buy anything while on vacation. Japan was a bit different. We spent lots of time exploring the complexities of the Japanese department store, some of which encompassed whole blocks and more than one building structure like some sort of shopping campus. In addition to the really great food halls, toy sections, and stationery departments in these stores, what garnered most of our attention were all the kawaii (cute) things that were for sale. Matt and I are both suckers for cuteness, hence much shopping (and buying!) was done.

Matt at Yodobashi CameraYodobashi Camera, Akihabara

Matt’s favourite shop by far was Yodobashi Camera an electronics paradise located in Akihabara.  It’s a department store with multiple floors of phones, televisions, cameras, watches, musical instruments, kitchenware, health and fitness gadgets, action figures, and other toys. It has its own theme song set to The Battle Hymn of the Republic that you’ll hear on repeat and that you will not be able to stop singing. What I’m saying is, it’s like Best Buy if Best Buy were awesome.

. . .

After cramming in as much as possible into our days in Tokyo (from eating, to eating, to museums, to temples, to more eating) we set off into the mountains to the Kiso Valley. Magomachaya Stay Tuned!

13 Sep

Links for a Sunday Morning

I apologize for the lack of links the past few Sundays.

Actually, I don’t.

I was on vacation in Japan with ample internet access but limited time to use it because I was too busy having an awesome time.

SanjusangendoSanjusangendo Hall, Kyoto

When I have a moment, I fully intend to give you some recaps of all the awesomeness I experienced. In the meantime, you’ll just have to settle for interesting things I read this week.

Drink Soda? Take 12,000 Steps – NY Times

Walking at least 12,000 steps a day effectively wiped out all of the disagreeable changes wrought by the extra fructose. When the [study participants] moved more, their cholesterol and blood sugar levels remained normal, even though they were consuming plenty of fructose every day.

Can Recommending Sandwiches, Eggs and Roasted Chickens Really Be Considered ‘Elitist’? – US News

There’s no doubt that the inconvenient truth of healthful living is that it does indeed require effort. There’s also no doubt that there are some people who, for a myriad of reasons, are so disenfranchised that regular home-cooking is genuinely impossible. But simply put, sandwiches aren’t elitist.

Decriminalize cocaine and psychedelics, global group urges – CBC News

The risks associated with drug use increase, sometimes dramatically, when they are produced, sold and consumed in an unregulated criminal environment. The most effective way to advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation.

Seniors and the Generation Spending Gap – Maclean’s

The dramatic change in the fortunes of seniors, from the impoverished pensioners of yesterday to today’s wealthy retirees, is among the greatest policy success stories in Canadian history. . . and governments continue to focus so much of their resources on supporting the plight of economically fragile seniors at the expense of their far more fragile children and grandchildren.

Fighting Words with Windsor’s Randa Markos – Windsor Star

The Ultimate Fighter Episode 1 featured Randa in the first fight of the season — in which she emerged victorious over top-seeded Tecia Torres with a decision win after three action-packed rounds.

Forget blue or pink: For newborns, it’s the greener the better – Digital Journal

Where a family puts down roots may make a difference for expectant mothers. Eco-friendly neighborhoods, ones with green trees and open areas with grass have been found to positively influence a baby’s birth weight and other growth factors.

12 Sep

Getting Caught Up in the Visuals

Every Body is a Yoga BodyImage Source: Etsy – When Guinea Pigs Fly

Through countless images primarily depicting yoga as lithe white women in impossible contortions has come the prevailing idea that you need to have a certain body shape, skin colour, gender, or BMI to practice yoga. This idea needs push back.

Yoga is diverse enough to be accessible to every body, but we’re driving people away from continuing to practice or from even attempting it by making them feel unable to fit in in a yoga class and giving them the impression that they don’t belong here because they don’t look like a Yoga Journal cover model.

I’ve had so much positive feedback and commentary on my recent interview with Yoga Journal regarding yoga and body image because this is what people want to hear. They want to know that it’s okay for them to try yoga even if they can’t touch their toes. They want to know that they won’t feel like the odd one out if they have to modify a pose. They want to know that they won’t be judged for their body and its limitations. In other words, they want to feel safe.

In response to the interview, a reader sent me an e-mail saying
I am always amazed at how society gets caught up in the visuals in life and forgets to look at the whole picture”
100% true. We suffering to make ourselves look perfect even when ‘perfect’ feels pretty terrible. We are more afraid of appearing flawed than of losing out on some really great experiences that don’t uphold appearances. It’s shit, really.
And it’s something that even I struggle with. In fact, I think it is because I myself struggle with getting caught up in the visuals that I can understand why other people do too. In a yoga practice, I can motivate them to listen to their body and forget about aesthetics.
I’ll look at pictures or see yogis doing crazy poses and think ‘That looks so cool. I wish I could do that!’. I try it and fail, or I find it doesn’t feel quite as awesome as it looks. Then I struggle to let go of my ego and modify poses in a way that may not me the most attractive, that may not win me any praise, but in a way that feels pretty damn good.
From my failures and ‘imperfect’ poses I end up learning about the subtle idiosyncrasies of my body. It gives me this real connection as if my mind and body are in on a little secret that no one else will ever be able to experience. And that kind of intimacy feels better than anything else.
Cobbler
02 Sep

What to Read When You’re Expecting – Mindful Motherhood

As part of my Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training with Mindful Mamas, I was tasked with reading at least four books related to pregnancy and/or prenatal yoga and review them.

Each week for 4 weeks I am posting a  brutally honest review so all you pregnant readers know what books to read and which to avoid. So far, I’ve discussed my surprising enjoyment of Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, severe disappointment of Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful, and how Iyengar Yoga for Motherhood impressed me.
Last up . . . 

Mindful Motherhood

Mindful Motherhood Review

Mindful Motherhood by Cassandra Vieten is a book I would recommend to every pregnant woman and new mother and, because of its practicality and universal message, I’d probably recommend it to people outside its target demographic as well.

Vieten’s book teaches the reader to use mindfulness techniques to handle stresses, emotions, and challenges that arise from the life-changing act of becoming a parent. The book is divided into 3 sections: Mindful Motherhood Basics, Qualities of Mindful Motherhood, and Mindful Motherhood in Everyday Life. The beginning of the book tackles the fundamentals of mindfulness, which are applicable to all people, but with a parenting spin. The latter part of the book dives deeper into how to approach situations with compassion, acceptance, curiosity, and non-judgment and without reacting on gut-instinct. It also provides more specifics about how to use mindfulness to connect to your baby and develop a degree of synchronicity with your baby’s needs.

The author is honest and straight-forward about the content and delivers it in a manner that is approachable, factual, and comprehensible. She easily convinces the readers that they can reduce stress, improve mood, and persevere through adversity by implementing mindfulness techniques, and most importantly that they don’t have to change their lives to do it.

Mindfulness, generally speaking, is a relatively simple concept to grasp: Be aware of your senses, your emotions, and your thoughts in the present moment without qualifying these things as good or bad. That’s it. However, Vieten manages to get so in depth into such a simple concept—to spin it and look at it in so many different ways—while delivering it with an honest writing style that made the material fresh and interesting to read.

Vieten’s presentation of the concept of mindfulness is straightforward. She does not try to glamorize it, or wrap it in bows, or market it as the next big thing, yet she is still able to get the point across that, as simple a technique as it might be it, it is extremely beneficial to improving mood, and handling stressful situations with a cool head and sound judgment. She encourages the readers to adopt mindfulness slowly when they have time and not to try to overhaul their life for the sake of adopting the technique. By the same token, she developed the book in such a way that the chapters are brief and simply written and the short and easy mindfulness exercises that accompany the chapters are equally realistic and accessible.

The exercises that were included in the book were great and I not only have made an effort to incorporate them into my yoga practice but also into my own life. Exercises like Quick Body Re-Entry (find your centre of being and relax into it), Quick Connect with Baby (match your breathing to baby’s and breathe side-by-side), Curiosity (wonder about and become fascinated by baby), and Expanding Your Container (breathe through and explore your sensations in an uncomfortable situation) are all simple techniques that provide a number of different ways to become more present and fulfilled.

Overall this book is a fantastic resource for parents and those working with new parents and the techniques are applicable to individuals from all walks of life.