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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Furusākuru - Another View

In my last post, Furusākuru (Full Circle) I wrote about my mother's journey across the Pacific to Japan via my daughter's trip there recently. Here is the story from her perspective:

We arrived in Gifu on a train and took a bus to Gifu Park, where Mt. Kinka and Gifu Castle reside. It was snowing quite heavily, but it was not cool enough for the snow to stick to the ground. It was a calming ambiance. The bus arrived at the park and my friend and I made our way through the archway of the park, and began our exploration of the area.

The day I arrived in Japan, I had shown the eye-shadow case full of my grandmother's ashes to my friend, and told him that I intended to spread them somewhere. I didn't know where I would put them, but I knew it would hit me at some point. During our exploration of Japan, I kept the case on my person at all times, ready for that moment.

Gifu Park was beautiful. There were lots of trees and running water, and everything was quite green and mossy. My friend pointed out as he took a picture that it reminded him of Victoria, and I agreed; we could have been in Goldstream Park. The reminder of home, and the peaceful beauty of the park stirred up a sudden realization: this could be the place. I didn't want to make the decision lightly; this was an important task, and this was the first time I had thought about it since I had arrived in Japan. I opted to keep it in mind and keep exploring... and take as many pictures as I could! We wandered around the park some more, and looked at a beautiful red pagoda that was on the side of the mountain. We couldn't visit it due to some construction on the pathway, but we still enjoyed looking at it.

There was a gondola that took tourists up the mountain where the castle was, and since that's where we wanted to be, we bought our tickets and took the next one up. The ride was quite beautiful. As we slowly drifted higher, the trees held more and more snow. We seemed to be ascending into a winter wonderland, and that's one of my favourite things. 'A good sign!' I thought.

We got off the gondola near the top of the mountain. It was still snowing, and we found ourselves surrounded by different shrines and lots of stairs, all covered in a delightful layer of snow. I kept my eye out for places; somewhere with a view would be nice, but I didn't want to decide until we at least reached the castle at the top. We hiked up countless stairs and I took picture after picture. Everywhere I turned was so beautiful, I couldn't help myself! As we neared the castle, it slowly became clearer and grander through the snow. It had gold features on the outside, and one thing I knew that my grandmother and I had in common was a taste for the opulent. The signs kept on coming!

When we finally reached the castle, we were able to explore inside. It was basically a museum with artifacts in glass cases - samurai armor, chunks of the original Castle, and lots of history on the different rulers that resided within it. The very top floor allowed you to go out onto a deck that went all the way around the castle. It was freezing and slippery, and the views were limited due to the snow, and from what I remembered on the gondola ride up, it would have been quite grand, but I enjoyed it all the same. We made our way back down and out of the castle, and headed over to another building nearby which was another smaller museum. There, they gave us postcards that we could stamp as proof that we made it to the top of the mountain.

We wandered back towards the castle, and were following signs to where we could find something to eat. As we neared one particular section between the buildings, I noticed that the sun was starting to peek out through the snow and the environment was filled with a warm, golden glow. It was at this moment that I saw a monument. It looked like a headstone, but it was on a sort of rocky hill next to a tree, and in front of an observation area where there were benches you could sit on and enjoy the, usually, stunning view of the city below. I looked at it and looked at it, in fact I stopped in my tracks and started to analyze the area. I didn't even quite realize what I was doing for a second, but I was searching for where I could rest my grandmother. This place was a definite contender. My friend kept going ahead, and I realized I had fallen behind, so I reluctantly caught up to him and we found a place to grab some food.

As we slurped up our nice hot noodles, I couldn't stop thinking about that stone. It was easy to find, it just stuck out from the other shrines and areas we had already seen that day. I wasn't going to even bother keeping an eye out anymore: I had this one place stuck in my head, and that was all the sign I needed. When we finished our lunch, I asked my friend if we could hike back up to the castle. He said yes without question, and as I pulled out the makeup case from my pocked I said, "There's something I need to do." He realized what that meant, and we headed back up to find the stone.

We got to the area, and I wanted to wait until the coast was clear to do my ritual. It involved a bit of climbing, and I didn't want to be pouring dirt in some place with an audience, just in case it was somehow disrespectful. There was this one man, though, who was standing in front of the tree, and it didn't seem like he was going to move any time soon. It was odd, because he was looking up into the tree with his hand in the air, and his phone in the other hand pointed upwards. I wanted to do my thing, and he wasn't moving. I leaned towards my frozen friend and we pondered at what the heck he was up to, but then I saw a tiny bird fly down to his hand and then back up into the tree. "Oh! He's feeding the birds!" I realized. It wasn't long until the man saw us watching him, and managed to communicate to us in Japanese that we should try. He gave us a few crumbled peanuts and then we stood where he had been; hands in the cold air, camera at the ready, waiting. One came down to my hand briefly and snatched a bite. Then another came down to the hand of my friend, and again, and again. The man had been taking pictures behind us during the feeding, and once our hands were too cold to continue, he offered to take a picture of the two of us together in front of the tree, which was very nice of him. Just as we positioned ourselves in front of the tree, I felt one of the birds flutter down between our two shoulders for a moment. The man took a couple of pictures with my phone, and we thanked him for the experience. As he moved on, I looked around and the coast was clear.

I climbed up the rocks to the stone, and noticed a small pool of water in front of it. I emptied the contents of the makeup case into my hand and grabbed my phone and hit record. I crumbled the ashes into the little pool gently, and then turned to see the view. It was a good view. Very peaceful. Quite perfect. I climbed back down the rocks carefully and then took a few more pictures, and rejoined my friend waiting patiently at the bottom.

As we made our way back to the gondola, I felt a little clench in my chest. I had done it. My grandmother finally had her place, and had now circumnavigated the world, and I helped her do it. I quietly got a little misty-eyed.

We took the gondola back down the mountain and explored the gift shop, as one does. My friend and I huddled together as he looked up which bus we needed to catch to get to our next destination. As we searched, the bird man from the top of the mountain approached us again. He handed us each a little cardboard token, and my friend deciphered from the man's Japanese and partial English, that these were charms that you are to put in your wallet, and they were for good luck - which he must have gotten from one of the shrines from the mountain. We thanked him again, and placed our charms in our wallets. What a nice fellow!

That evening we went to see The Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra's 50th Anniversary concert, which was our true reason for being in Gifu - something my grandmother would have appreciated as she loved the symphony. I think she just wanted to make sure she had a really good seat for the concert: one with a great view, and alongside some birds, which, I didn't learn until after the experience, was one of her favourite things. At first the castle was just something to do to kill time before the concert, but it turned into so much more - a very special experience that I will not soon forget.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Furusākuru (Full Circle)

More than 65 years ago, my mother embarked on quite an adventure when she boarded the Danish hospital ship Jutlandia for a year-long tour to Pusan, Korea during the Korean War. I've told a bit of my mother's story before and awhile back, I even found a YouTube video with footage from that tour of Korea. You can see it here if you are interested in knowing more.

Sometime during that year, the Jutlandia sailed to Japan, possibly to re-supply and to give the passengers, doctors, nurses and support staff a bit of a rest from the war itself.

Having immigrated from Denmark to Canada shortly after the war, my mother always told me that if she had flown from Vancouver to Japan, she would have travelled the circumference of the earth. She never had that chance. When she died in 1972, my father spread her ashes in the back yard at my suggestion. All I could think of at the time was that my mother loved the garden and the flowers. I obviously didn't give it much forethought, and when my father and stepmother moved out of the house years later, my Dad decided to save me some of the dirt from the back yard. He put it in an old antique creamer that my mother had bought years before, and I've kept it on a bookshelf for all these years since.

A few months ago, my youngest daughter decided she was going to take a trip to Japan to visit a friend who is teaching English there, and the thought hit me: why not send some of the dirt to Japan with her so my mother could finally make it there?

I made the suggestion and my daughter was immediately on board. The only thing we were worried about was how she was going to explain a bag of dirt to customs and security at the airport! So we devised a scheme.

We took some of the dirt from the creamer, and my daughter ground it down to a fine powder.

Then she added a little bit of water and made a tiny pancake that could fit into an eye shadow make up container.

When it dried, she dusted it with a little bit of glitter just to give it some panache!

I told her that when she got to Japan, she should wait until she found the perfect spot to spread it.

The other morning, I got a text message on my phone at about 5am. Knowing it would likely be from her, I got out of bed and went to the living room to read the message. It was a picture that I didn't quite understand at first because there was no accompanying text:

A snowy scene on what appeared to be the side of a mountain.

Then another pic came in:

It looked like some sort of stone monument from the same place. And then another picture came in and it all started to make sense:

This was the little make up container that we had put the dirt into.

The next thing I received was a video that my daughter took of herself crumbling up the dirt and sprinkling it into a little pond of water beneath the stone monument. And finally, she sent a picture of where she was:

This is Gifu Castle, about 40 or 50 miles north of Nagoya, where my daughter is staying during her visit. She sent other pictures of herself walking around the castle grounds in the snow. It was beautiful. It was perfect. I always told my daughter that she had inherited my mother's love for the beautiful, the glamorous, the lavish. It certainly didn't come from me! So I thought her choice of placing a little bit of her grandmother at the base of a castle was exactly the right place.

Let's face it, it's just a little bit of dirt from a garden that had my mother's ashes spread in it 45 years ago. I don't know if it was from the same area, or even if my father remembered exactly where he spread her ashes. But it doesn't matter. I think my mother would be absolutely delighted that her granddaughter would smuggle a tiny part of her memory to another country so that she could finally claim to have made it all the way around the earth.

Furusākuru. Full Circle.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Ignore the Gift Guilters!

I have a guitar student for whom the madness begins sometime in September. She has to start ordering stock for her small retail business then, in preparation for Christmas. For her, as for many small businesses, Christmas is a make or break deal. I haven't seen her since November :-)

It seems that ever since I can remember, people have been railing about the "commercialisation" of Christmas. How awful it is that we focus so much on gifts, and not as much on being together. I've even gone off the rails a bit myself when seeing Christmas decorations in Costco in August. I mean, come on. Are people really thinking about the yuletide when the ocean tide is still calling? Maybe in Hawaii!

The fact is, however, that I don't see the harm in gift giving at all. If you choose not to, then by all means, keep it that way. But don't try and guilt trip the rest of us! I like giving presents and watching someone eyes light up at what I've given them. I like receiving something that I love, or something that makes me laugh.

And yes, I even like the commercials.

Writers and producers can be so creative, and know how to hit the soft spots. Sure, it's their job to sell a product or a service. But I can certainly appreciate a commercial that has been really well executed, especially the ones that tug at my heart strings. I'm not going to automatically turn into a zombie and mindlessly buy a product I don't want or need because of them. Are you?

Yes, we are a materialistic society. We have been since Coca Cola came up with the image for the Santa we all know and love today. That was in 1931, by the way, right around the beginning of the Great Depression, oddly enough.

We like things.  We enjoy giving things. It doesn't make us monsters.  Most consumers like myself also know that Christmas isn't just about things, but we often get blamed for over-indulging or spending too much. I think we need to come out of the shadows, we Gift Givers and fight the Guilt Givers. You'll see them show up in your Facebook news feed over the next while posting articles with titles like "Christmas Has Become Too Commercial" or "We've Lost The True Meaning of Christmas". As if the spirit of Christmas could actually be obliterated by the sound of cash registers. It can't really. But a lot of people think it can. The Guilt Givers have actually been trying to convince us of this for years. Still, I haven't seen any evidence that Christmas and the true meaning of it has died yet.

In fact, see a lot of great things at this time of year: people organising fundraisers, special meals, donating to charities and buying gifts for people they don't even know. At a fundraiser that I volunteer for every year, I see people donating clothes, toys and money with big smiles on their faces. I see people politely letting someone in ahead of them in lines, and then I see it happen again. Sure, there are frustrations when everyone and everything gets so busy. But there is a positive energy to this busy-ness.

So here's what you do if you meet a Gift Guilter who throws your materialism in your face. You ask them if they've ever received a Christmas gift that they'll never forget. Because I can almost guarantee you, they'll remember one. Even if they don't tell you.

Gift Givers unite!
And Merry Christmas :-)

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Light Gets In

I must have been just conscious enough to hear the ping on my iPad, which was on the night table beside my bed. I knew what it meant.


It was one of the news organisations I was subscribed to announcing the winner of the U.S. election. And I knew who that was, but I refused to check it out and confirm it. Who cares? I thought to myself. I rolled over and tried to sleep a little more. But I couldn't. The whole night had been a write off anyway.

Like many others, in the last few months I have been glued to every news organisation I could find an app for, with my TV on in my little office almost all day, and scanning Twitter constantly, hungry for news of any new scandal about him. I won't say his name because it makes my stomach churn. And every day, it seemed he found a new low.

I rolled over and reached for my iPad. Okay, I thought, I'm not going to read the results, I'm just going to log on to Facebook. There was still a tiny speck of hope in me that things had turned around and I wanted to hang on to that for just a little while longer. Then I came across a post from Dan Rather, who was attempting to calm the fears of his readers. I have been reading a lot of his posts in the previous weeks, and he has been a thoughtful, intelligent voice of reason for me, someone who can still my deepest anxieties. At the end of his post, he wrote the word "Courage". And I cried. I don't think I've ever, ever cried at the results of an election before. It surprised me.

Later on in the morning while I sat drinking coffee with my husband, he said "Remember, things aren't always as good as we imagine, or as bad as we imagine." And that's when it hit me. I have to find some kind of peace with what has happened, and especially with myself. So I've barely paid any attention to news of any kind in the days since.

I know what's going on. Pundits are yabbering on and on about what this means, what's going to happen, why the election went the way it did. After every commercial break, CNN is declaring "BREAKING NEWS!!" even though they'll be talking about the same thing they were 10 minutes before. Reporters will be following his every step, his every word as he gloatingly grabs his prize. And I don't want any of it.

I also have to still my own horrible thoughts, which come out of nowhere, even on a nice, quiet walk in the sunshine. The temptation is to imagine what will be a very different future, and how this could even have happened.  But the fact is that I am powerless, there is nothing I can do except to stop allowing myself to be swallowed up by fear. I'm still here. We're still here. There is good in world, good people with big hearts who do wonderful things.

Instead of imagining the Apocalypse, I will focus on the positive and work on being a better person. The world needs us all to become better people. That's the whole point of our existence, isn't it?

Instead of fearing the future, I will remember that human beings have always found our way past adversity, through the worst of circumstances created by mother nature, and our own nature.

Artists and poets always seem to find a way to reveal to us the truth and the beauty in ourselves. And so I leave you with a phrase from Leonard Cohen, who sadly passed away just yesterday.

There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.