Our last few posts have been focused on a combination of Zen & history as we traveled throughout Japan. There is no doubt that South Korea is full of both with its own tradition of Zen Buddhism as well as a fascinating history dating back to the era of the 3 Kingdoms and continuing through the Joseon dynasty, which was one of the most enduring monarchies in history. South Korea’s more modern history in the 20th century includes the Japanese occupation, the division of the peninsula after WWII and the ensuring war, as well as the country’s meteoric rise as an economic power would all be grist for a great post. But instead of all that we’re going to focus on something truly scrumptious – the delicious food!
Bulgolgi we cooked at Food & Culture Korea Academy (see below)
After a short flight on the absurdly cheap Peach Airlines from Osaka to Seoul (for $30/person!), our first stop upon getting into the city was for the famous Korean BBQ. If you’ve never been to a Korean BBQ restaurant before, its unique feature is that the meats are cooked at the table in front of you with a variety of vegetables and sauces. Our first bulgolgi in Korea!
Our first dish might have had to be the heart of Korean BBQ – Bulgogi. Bulgogi is thinly sliced sirloin that has been marinated in a sauce consisting of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, pear juice, and a bit of sugar and spice. It cooks on a grill in front of you with green onions, carrot, onion, and mushroom. The result is a melt in your mouth experience that has been with Korean people since the time of the Goguryeo kingdom (37BC-668AD). It was immensely popular until Buddhist influence spread over the peninsula and the carnivorous dish took a backseat, only to be reintroduced with a vengeance when the Confucian-focused Joseon dynasty came to power in 1392.
To learn a bit about Korea’s fascinating history, we headed over to the National Museum of Korea. There we saw an amazing gold crown made for the Kings of the Silla Kingdom
(who defeated the Goguryeo Kingdom above with the help of the Chinese Tang dynasty). Its complex symbolism includes tree branches symbolizing the world and horns symbolizing reindeer. It also had little embryo shaped pieces of jade attached to it that may have symbolized fertility. The most impressive piece for us was a gracefully carved bronze “Pensive Buddha” which was also from the Silla Kingdom. Here, Prince Shakyamuni sits contemplating the world with one leg crossed on top of his thigh and his hand gently holding his head. To me it is like the Eastern counterpart of Rodin’s “The Thinker”. Interestingly, the Thinker is muscle bound and hunched over while the Pensive Buddha’s posture is fairly upright and his body thin. Do the two sculptures tell us something about the differences between the cultures of the West versus the East?
The similarities are remarkable - this is our picture of the Pensive Buddha - the Rodin pic is linked to its original source.
Traditional Korean juk
After the museum we headed down to Yeouido Park where we saw that our short hop on the plane had taken us right back into Cherry Blossom season! The Koreans weren’t quite as enthusiastic as the Japanese with their Hanami parties
, but everyone was still enjoying the delicate blooms blowing in the wind along with the flavors of festival food.
Cherry Blossoms at Yeouido Park during sunset
Changdeokgung Palace Throne Hall
The next morning we tried out Korean rice-porridge, known as “juk”. This dish is pan-asian as rice is a common staple across the region, having been introduced by China thousands of years ago. Neda tried the beef and mushroom variety and I had crab and spring onion. While our expectations were high, we have to give the nod to the Thai version of the dish
, which was much more flavorful owing to its high use of ginger, garlic, cilantro and spicy pepper!
After our juk, we headed to Changdeokgung Palace where we were treated to two interesting guided tours of the grounds. First we saw the palace itself, which was constructed in 1405 as a secondary palace of the Joseon Dynasty. It burned during Japanese invasion in 1592, but was rebuilt in 1610. The throne room, King’s bedchamber, and other structures of the palace feature sweeping roofs and the forest-green and maroon color scheme of the royal family. Behind the palace lies a 78 acre “rear garden” with 300 year old trees and lotus ponds overlooking libraries and buildings the royalty used to host guests or just simply to write poetry or watch the moon. Pretty nice life!
Library at the rear garden
Our homemade Kimchi!
variety of kimchi
The next day we decided to go a little deeper into Korean cuisine. We booked a class at the Food & Culture Korea Academy
to learn how to make some of our favorites: Bulgolgi & Kimchi. To those of you familiar with Korean Cuisine, it might seem strange I didn’t mention it off the bat. The spicy fermented cabbage dish is a staple of the Korean diet, appearing as a side dish at practically every meal that we ate while in Seoul. In fact, one of the charming aspects about dining in Korea is the plethora of small sides that accompany every meal – from a simple breakfast to an elaborate dinner. You always have some kimchi, maybe some bean sprouts, tofu in spicy sauce, marinated beans, etc…
Kimchi is the show-stopper however. It doesn’t have to be cabbage, as there are hundreds of versions made with cucumbers, radishes, and other veggies. In fact, though the napa cabbage is the most ubiquitous type of kimchi, it wasn’t the first type made because the Chinese had yet to introduce the cabbage in the earliest years of production. Over 2,000 years ago, kimchi was produced for two major reasons: conservation and digestion
The cold winters in Korea and mountainous topography made whatever veggies that grew quite precious. So the Koreans salted them to keep them edible during the long cold winters. Additionally, rice wasn’t introduced to the peninsula until later by the Chinese. This meant early Koreans were eating mainly tough grains like barley and millet. The probiotic bacteria in kimchi helped people to extract the nutrients from the grains and also boosted their immunity.
Making our Kimchi!
The final product - with Ellie from Food and Culture Korea Academy
The class was a lot of fun as Neda & I received one-on-one attention from Ellie and other cooks in the kitchen as they prepared a smorgasbord of Korean food for an upcoming film shoot. We learned how a specific combination of fish sauce, garlic, ginger, pear juice, seaweed broth, and red chili powder transform salted cabbage into the flavor sensation of kimchi. It was also interesting to learn that early kimchi didn’t contain the spicy flavors of today’s kimchi because the chili pepper had yet to be introduced from the New World. After prepping our kimchi and frying up our Bulgogi, we sat down to eat our creations…delicious!
Dumplings & Japche
After our class we walked along the famed Insadong Street, known for its art galleries and craft stores. We found an artisan who specialized in a unique type of calligraphy in which he creates his own custom stamps from stone, which he then presses onto parchment. We were enchanted by his portrayal of the 4 Guardian Symbols that were found in Goguryeo-era tombs from about 1000 years ago. In the tombs are beautiful drawings of the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Turtle of the North, and the Red Phoenix of the South. We bought parchments of the Azure Dragon and White Tiger to symbolize our adventure from West to East and back again!
After that big cooking class, dinner was at a little hole in the wall serving a Korean classic – the dumpling (in Korean called Mandu)! We got a sampler that contained the whole variety. The classic steamed dumpling stuffed with minced meat, green onions, garlic and ginger was delicious. However, the Japchae Goon Mandu (deep-fried dumpling stuffed with sweet potato noodles and seasonings) was stellar as was the Kimchi Mandu, a dumpling stuffed with minced meat and kimchi.
Here is Japchae - now just imagine this stuffed into a fried dumpling...mmmm!
Delicious Bibimbap in a Stone Pot!
The next morning we had what may be my favorite of all the Korean dishes mentioned thus far. Our first experience with Bibimbap came not in Korea, however, but in Austin. It was there that our friend Catherine (who is half Korean) served it to us after teaching us a great Anasura-based yoga class. Literally meaning “mixed rice” bibimbap consists of a bowl of warm rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables such as shitake mushrooms, spinach, carrots, and bean sprouts along with seasonings of chili pepper, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and garlic. In the middle is a raw egg that cooks as you mix it in with all the ingredients. In Seoul we found a place doing a slight variation called dolsot bibimbap, or “stone pot mixed rice”. The whole dish comes out in a hot stone bowl and the rice becomes slightly crispy as the whole thing cooks into an unbelievably delicious rice & egg mash! It’s truly “Seoul Food”! Dinner with Ricky
It was fitting that we ate a dish that reminded us of Catherine on this day because later that afternoon we met up with her cousin Ricky, who lives in Seoul. Ricky took us to the Namsan Hanok Village, an area where traditional Korean houses have been preserved to show the architecture of the Joseon era. It was great to meet a local person and talk with him about culture in Korea and what it is like to live in a country that is constantly under threat from its belligerent neighbor to the North. At one point as we were walking down the subway stairs and discussing North Korea, Ricky told us that people in Seoul accept that death is a possibility at any time while living there. He said there is nowhere to hide if North Korea decides to launch an attack, as he well knows having served in the military like every other able-bodied male aged 18 to 35. The interesting thing is that he said it with a sort of fierce pride that implied the people of South Korea had less fear of death as a result of it being so close at hand at any given time. It called to mind our Zen teachings, which tell us that freedom from suffering can be found by being intimate with the fact of our death. It is never easy to have death seemingly loom over us all the time, but it can force a change in perspective that if done in a spiritual way, can lead to more peacefulness instead of less as might be expected Ricky's first Irish Car Bomb
Beyond just the philosophy, we had a great time eating Korean BBQ with Ricky and wandering the city with him. He took us to Itaewon, a part of the city known for its Western bars, where we sipped on high quality tequila and smoked hooka together. He also encouraged us to try Makgeolli, which is an off-white colored beverage made of fermented rice. It is a probiotic laden drink that has a pleasant acidic tang to coincide with its milky flavor. Very unique and another belly booster in Korean cuisine!
The Bibimbap was so delicious that we ate it again the next morning to give us fuel for a full day of city exploration. We started by visiting the 1,200 year old Bongeunsa Zen Temple that features beautiful old temple buildings and a huge statue of the Maitreya Buddha
. But the most striking thing about Bongeunsa was the many practioners in the main hall that were engaged in meditation or prostrations. In Japan we had never seen lay people doing these sorts of activities and it was very refreshing to see it here in Korea. We grabbed some cushions and sat in meditation with others, soaking in the pleasant atmosphere of the ancient place.
The main hall of Bongeunsa Zen Temple, where we meditated with other practioners
From there we walked down to the Seolleung Royal Tombs, which are 500 year old burial mounds that contain Kings and Queens of the Joseon Dynasty. The park provides a pleasant break from the bustle of the city and the carved statues of horses, state officials, and other animals guarding the tombs were intricately carved and well preserved despite their age.
Roofs of Bukchon
Seolleung Royal Tombs
The next day we relaxed before taking to the streets to walk the Bukchon neighborhood, which contains hundreds of old Joseon-style houses lining narrow streets that are criss-crossed with even narrower alleys. The beautiful old roofs shined under the mid-day sun and made us feel like we had traveled back in time a bit. While talking about walking the streets, I wanted to make mention of one of the most popular street foods we sampled while in Seoul – tteokbokki (see pic above). Consisting of sliced rice cakes soaked in a spicy red sauce along with minute amounts of meat, this one wasn’t a hit for me. The rice cakes are quite chewy and the sauce lacked the flavor I had come to expect from Korean cuisine. Originally tteokbokki
had much more meat, veggies, and eggs and was served topped with ginkgo nuts and walnuts. Those versions sounds great, but I’ll have to give the street version we had a solid thumbs down!
Kimbap is like sushi but stuffed with egg, carrot, marinated lotus root, ham, daikon, cucumber and sesame oil infused rice as shown here.
No need to end on a low note, however as we still haven’t reached the pinnacle of on-the-go Korean innovation – kimbap. Clearly originating from the years of the Japanese occupation, kimbap resembles a Japanese sushi roll, but has several distinct differences. Firstly, while sushi rolls in Japan tend to have only one or two ingredients inside, kimbap is more like “American sushi” being stuffed with cooked egg, daikon, cured meat & cucumber. There are other varieties, but this is the kind we saw the most, and it only cost about $1.50 for a big stuffed roll – which we saw many folks lining up for in the morning on their way to work.
Kimbap also differs from sushi because instead of using rice mixed with vinegar, it is mixed with sesame oil
, which imparts a nutty and delicious flavor to the whole roll.
We ate it often and loved it, including two rolls a piece that held us over during our long haul from Seoul to Istanbul. That’s right folks – the eastern swing is over and we are headed back to the West. A grueling 20 hour flight (with stops) awaits as we excitedly head to the cultural capital of Turkey to meet up with Neda’s parents and start the journey home. See you there!
Kinkaku-ji - Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Kyoto and its environs was our last major stop in Japan and many argue it is the most interesting area of the country. The seat of imperial power from 764 until 1869, it is one of the few cities in Japan spared from the ravaging air raids of WWII, leaving much of its historical legacy intact. During our time in the city, we visited an enormous amount of temples and palaces – a sort of sightseeing marathon that pushed us to our physical limits as we neared the end of a very long travel leg. In the end, however, we found that the lasting impressions were not of ornate palaces or the architecture of the temples, but rather of the tiny monochrome pebbles flowing through the gardens of the city.
Ginsyaden Garden in Ginkakuji - the Temple of the Silver Pagoda
Our first Zen temple was Ginkakuji, sometimes called the Temple of the Silver Pagoda. Built in 1482 as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the aged, bared wood of the two story pagoda sits serenely overlooking a pond within an evergreen garden. Offset to the pavilion is the Ginsyaden garden
, a bare rock landscape sculpted to resemble waves and the Kogetsudi, a white sand funnel shaped like Mt. Fuji. In this garden we see metaphor and reality
playfully intertwined. The resemblance to an ocean and a mountain are unmistakable in the forms of the rocks, and yet are they not just rocks? The Zen garden invites us to see how we assign meaning to everything in our world while also prompting us to see the emptiness of that meaning. It is not a denial of meaning so much as recognition that sitting alongside our world of meaning is one much simpler and straightforward – the world simply as it is. Despite its apparent clarity, it can actually be quite difficult to see this world as it is – we so easily fall back into only our world of constructed meaning.
A visit to Kiyomizu Temple challenged how dedicated we must be in order to see this world as it is. The temple is built on a steep cliff in eastern Kyoto with its main porch and altar facing directly off a 50 foot drop onto the ground below. It calls to mind a famous Zen Koan, by Mumon:
“There is a man on top of a hundred-foot pole. Though he has a degree of understanding, he's not yet a man of the Way. From the top of the hundred-foot pole he should advance a step further and the ten directions of the world will be his entire body."
In this koan, a man climbs to the top of a 100 foot pole and is told by his teacher that to advance to enlightenment, he must just climb a step further up the pole, which of course doesn’t exist. Or does it? The implication is that to see the world as it is, we must be willing to cast off our closely held ideas of reality and take the plunge into the unknown, leaving body and mind on the pole, as it were. In the case of Kiyomizu, this may have been taken a bit too literally. It was believed that jumping off the porch would grant the jumper a wish. During the Edo period, 234 jumps were recorded, but only 85.4% survived. Ouch.
Next we visited Daisen-In Temple, which is within the Daitoku-ji Temple complex in northern Kyoto. The Muromachi period garden is famous for its metaphorical representation of the human lifecycle, starting from the vividly three-dimensional Mt. Horai (land of the immortals in Daoism) and moving past various symbolic naturalistic representations of the lessons we must learn to move towards enlightenment. A turtle-shaped rock, for example, appears to flow against the stream of the river, symbolizing the futility of fighting time, while a treasure boat shaped rock floats serenely with the river towards the Great Ocean. It is this ocean that was most captivating to me, a long stretch of carefully raked pebbles broken by only 3 objects. Closest to the viewer are two conical piles of stones rising out of the sea. They represent our brief moment of individuation from the Great Ocean. Beyond them, in the far corner sits a small bodhi tree. The message was vivid to me - we must return to the ocean, allow ourselves to dissolve back into the Great Sea, to find the other shore of enlightenment. Perhaps Zen master Tessho said it best in his death poem:
Finally out of reach -
No bondage, no dependency.
How calm the ocean,
Towering the void.
Ryoanji Zen Garden
Our last rock garden was perhaps the most famous, the 15 stones of Ryoanji. Here we come full circle, for the rocks at Ryoan-ji are said to represent nothing at all in the natural or mythical world. Here a rock is just a rock. The composition of the stones was designed to absorb the viewer, making him/her more conducive to the meditative state. We leave the realm of metahpor that our ego-minds dwell in 24/7 and come fully to this moment. In the end, no level of thought can help us to arrive there. But the message of Ryoan-ji is that inspiration towards “suchness” is to be found in all the myriad forms that surround us in day to day life. If there is “good news” in Buddhism, it is this. The world is full of suffering, yes – but it also offers infinite pathways to freedom and the relief of that suffering.
In the end the paradox of the Zen Garden is that they represent BOTH nothing AND something. It is to live simultaneously BOTH in this world of meaning AND in the world of suchness. Some early historians mistook Zen for a nihilistic tradition, but the truth is that Zen is not a tradition of neither/nor, but rather one of both/and.
Kano naturalistic paintings on the walls of Nijo Palace. It is here that the Shogun met with his daimyo.
Beyond the inspiration of the gardens our time in Kyoto was full of historical sites as well. We enjoyed the architectural paranoia built into Nijo castle with its “nightingale floors,” which are designed to squeak like the little birds with even the slightest footfall. Built by the great shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the long-lasting Tokugawa Shogunate, the palace shows the fear that even great leaders lived under in feudal era Japan. But it also demonstrates the beauty they lived with, as represented by the captivating naturalistic paintings of the Kano painters and the intricate gardens
on the grounds.
The Emperor's Private Garden at the Kyoto Imperial Palace
Being home to the Emperor for so long, Kyoto’s Imperial Palace
was also fun to stroll around, particularly to see the beauty of the Gonaitei, the Emperor’s private garden and the Oikeniwa, a stroll garden that offers different perspectives as you walk. The buildings themselves were largely reconstructed after fire in 1855, but were still interesting because of the relationship between the Emperor and Shogun during this time. The Emperor was effectively held hostage
to the shogun’s demands over a 500 year period, sometimes even having to sign an “Imperial Decree” just to feed the royal family.
From Kyoto we spent a few days in Nara, the first capital of Imperial Japan from 710-784. The most notable sight lies outside the city in the form of the first Buddhist Temple ever built in Japan – Horyuji. Its builder, Prince Shōtoku, is still venerated in Japan as the progenitor of Japanese Buddhism. It contains the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures, dating from 711. Our tour with a local guide who was practicing his English gave us innumerable insights into the majestic old pagoda, which features various Buddhist scenes at its base. The most striking scene is that of the death of the Buddha, where his disciples are depicted as agony stricken over the loss of their teacher.
The oldest wooden buildings in the world at the Horyuji Temple outside of Nara
Japan experiences over 1000 earthquakes a year, a fact brought home to us as we awoke at 5:30 in the morning to our swaying hotel as a 6.3 magnitude shake reverberated out from Osaka. Pretty scary when you’re on the 12th (and top) floor of a hotel! Amazingly, the Pagoda’s engineering has made it impervious to such quakes over the centuries, leading its engineering principles to be studied and replicated in modern-day buildings.
The massive Daibutsu statue
The other highlight of Nara is Todai-ji temple, which contains the Great Buddha Hall, or Daibutsuden. It was reconstructed in 1709 and its predecessor was said to be 30% larger still than the current building, which already ranks as the largest wooden structure in the world! But the real highlight is what the Great Buddha Hall houses...a Great Buddha of course! Towering 52 feet high, the Daibutsu is made up of 437 tons of bronze, 286 pounds of pure gold, and 7 tons of vegetable wax. It was commissioned by Emperor Shomu, who believed that if all the people of Japan joined together to make this Buddha image, it would encourage the Buddha to protect their kingdom. As a result, more than 2.6 million people worked on the construction of the Buddha and the hall over the years it took to build the structure and the eight castings required to get the bronze to take shape. In the end it nearly bankrupted the kingdom, so maybe the Buddha was sending a message that he doesn’t care too much about giant images, particularly since he explicitly said not to worship him after his death...tsk, tsk Emperor Shomu!
The Great Buddha Hall, or Daibutsuden in Todai-ji is the largest wooden structure in the world and holds the worlds largest bronze Buddha image (above)
Haiseiden - Basho Memorial
Our last real tourist stop in Japan was the birthplace of Matsuo Basho, the famous Zen poet who we featured in our Tokyo post
. The town features several museums on Basho as well as his childhood home, but unfortunately all of them are in Japanese. Fortunately, there was another tourist attraction nearby that didn’t require much English because Iga-Ueno is also famed as the birthplace of Ninjitsu! During the month of April the city hosts a Ninja festival where everyone in the town is invited to dress up as a ninja (for a $10 fee) and test themselves with various feats of agility and dexterity. While we had had enough dress up for one trip with our samurai and kimono stint
, we had a great time watching the kids and marveling at the little ninjas the town had discretely placed all along the street.
Ninja house tour with little ninjas
We also enjoyed the Iga Ninja museum, where we learned about the way Iga-Ryu Ninjas trained and practiced. Apparently, it was common for them to disguise themselves as farmers until called upon by a liege lord to commit an act of espionage - be it reconnaissance, diversionary tactics, or assassination. As such, they would combine typical farmer’s scythes to make grappling hooks and had interesting ways of hiding their weapons. This was really emphasized in the tour of a typical ninja house, which is full of hidden doors
and escape passageways
that aim to provide the ninja a fast exist but also to hide his secret technique for producing gunpowder (a powerful military secret at the time). Of course, no ninja museum is complete without a live show performance featuring shuriken throwing and mock fighting.
Mock ninja fight showing how an umbrella could conceal a sword! Segoi! (Japanese for amazing)
The ninja festival was too cute to not include a few extra pics. Here are some of our favorites:
Japanese folks had some pretty intricate costumes for their dogs, but I think this took the cake for cutest
Izakaya in action
Finally, it was time to turn the page on our Japanese adventure. We headed to the city of Osaka excited due to its reputation as the food capital of Japan. It didn’t disappoint as we ate our fill of sushi-train
(invented in Osaka along with the instant noodle in 1958), okonomiyaki
(also invented there), and izakaya foods. The izakaya we enjoyed with a couchsurfer named Nathan who was living in Osaka and agreed to meet up with us to show us around town a bit. Izakaya is basically live action grilling combined with the consumption of large amounts of beer. What’s not to like? After dinner, Nathan showed us a cool little brew bar that served up delicious cask-pulled IPA’s and stouts
. Thanks buddy
! We also enjoyed the parks around Osaka Castle and particularly the Japanese mint as it contained a variety of late blooming double-pedaled cherry blossoms that gave us yet another glimpse of these wonderful trees so important to the Japanese national psyche.
The "Torinuke", or Cherry Blossom Tunnel outside the Osaka Mint is renowned for its late blooming double petal varieties of the cherry blossom
Our time in Japan was full of rich experiences – from the reminders of our cherry blossom nature to connections beyond words with our Japanese family in Shiojiri. From the historical pensiveness engendered by Hiroshima to the contemplation stimulated by the gardens of Kyoto. We feel nostalgic about our time here but are also excited as we head to Japan’s neighbor, South Korea, for a 6 day stopover for some Seoul food! See you there!
In Buddhism, there is a worldview which posits 6 realms of existence through which human beings move during their cycles of reincarnation. In American Zen thought, these realms are not considered to be real places, but allegories of how we keep ourselves in “dukka”, or suffering. I remember a wonderful talk by AZC
senior lay-practioner Pat Yingst on these realms of existence where she suggested that in any given day we could move through all 6 realms as we found various ways to divide ourselves from the present moment – to keep ourselves alienated from the world around us.
The "A-Bomb Dome", formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall was one of the few buildings close to the blast radius to survive
As we visited Peace Park in Hiroshima, the site of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945, I felt like I was moving through all 6 hell realms as I tried to understand the the reasons for it being dropped and the devastation that ensued. At first I felt it was entirely unnecessary to drop the bomb and at other times I wasn't so sure. The fact is, it was a messy situation with many different factors involved. In order to capture this experience, we will look at each realm and how it may connect within a historical context to the first half of 1945, when Japan was losing the war but unable to come to a peace agreement with the allies.
1. The Realm of Devas (Gods) and Heavenly Beings
The Deva realm
is populated by godlike beings who enjoy great power, wealth and long life. They live in splendor and happiness. Yet even the Deva grow old and die. Further, their privilege and exalted status blind them to the suffering of others, so in spite of their long lives they have neither wisdom nor compassion.”
The fanaticism of powerful aspects of the Japanese military government seemed to be residing in this realm, where they were completely disconnected from the suffering of their people. Even as Japan’s navy lay destroyed and surrender seemed inevitable, the Big Six or Supreme War Council in Japan, declared a formal policy of the "honorable death of the hundred million"
- national suicide.
2. Asura-gati, the Realm of Asura (Titans)
The asura realm
is populated by powerful beings who experience a life that could be almost as pleasurable as that of the devas in the heaven realm. However, the asuras are very envious and suspicious of each other and the devas, so they spend their time absorbed in great wars and conflicts instead of enjoying themselves. The realm is full of assembling armies and asuras in battle gear. Even though they value justice, wisdom and faith, they always desire to be superior to others, so they are competitive and egotistical.
Sounds a bit like the cold war, huh? The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum outlines how during the February 1945 Yalta Conference including Roosevelt from the US, Churchill from the UK, and Stalin from the USSR, the USSR agreed to enter the war against Japan three months after a German surrender. The US and UK made concessions to achieve this agreement, like granting the USSR railways in Manchuria and Port Arthur. But once the atomic bomb was successfully tested in the Trinity test of July 16th, the US began to fear that the Soviet Union entering the war and providing the decisive step in the surrender of Japan might lead to their expansion of influence throughout the Pacific. They wanted to limit Soviet control and a belief was that dropping the bomb might cause Japanese surrender prior to the Soviet Union entering the war. So with their mistrustful power struggle as a motive, over 100,000 people died unthinkable deaths as the heat, radiation, and shockwaves poured over an entire city.
3. The Human Realm
The Human Realm
is the only realm of the six from which beings may escape samsara. Enlightenment is at hand in the Human Realm, yet only a few open their eyes and see it. Rebirth into the Human Realm is conditioned by passion, doubt and desire.
It’s ironic that the military commanders of Japan claimed they would not surrender unless the Emperor system was retained in Japan. Some argue that by the Emperor system, they simply meant the old militaristic order in Japan, which they controlled. The Japanese Ambassador to Russia, Naotoke Sato, wrote to the Big Six prior to the bombing that an unconditional surrender with the sole proviso of the preservation of the Emperor would probably even be accepted, but the Japanese leadership refused to consider it. Why? The military were all to human in holding onto their positions of power at the cost of their own people, even when given the choice to have the Emperor remain in some position of authority (which he did after the war).
Paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument honor Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to the bomb at the age of 2 and seemed healthy until developing Leukemia 10 years later. She attempted to fold a 1000 cranes in the hope it would help her recover. per old Japanese folklore. Sadly, she only reached 644 before dying on October 25, 1955. Her friends and family finished the cranes for her and now children all over Japan fold in her memory.
4. The Animal Realm
Animal beings are marked by stupidity, prejudice and complacency. They live sheltered lives, avoiding discomfort or anything unfamiliar. Rebirth in the Animal Realm is conditioned by ignorance. People who are ignorant and content to remain so are likely headed for the Animal Realm, assuming they aren't there already.
Even after both bombs had been dropped and the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan, the Army (led by minister Anami, who committed suicide after the war) was unwilling to surrender, wanting to make terms that were more favorable to Japan. There was even a coup, called the Kyūjō Incident, where hardline factions within the military attempted to assassinate key parties to prevent surrender. With this sort of fanaticism, even in the face of clear defeat, was there any choice about whether to drop the bomb? The Army held a crucial seat on the Big Six and could effectively block any entreaties for peace, which they did even after both bombs were dropped. Only the Emperors intervention ordering them to make peace eventually forced Japan to surrender.
Epicenter of blast area - Hiroshima. The A-bomb dome sits shattered in the foreground.
5. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts
Hungry ghosts (preta) are pictured as beings with huge, empty stomachs, but they have pinhole mouths, and their necks are so thin they cannot swallow. A hungry ghost is one who is always looking outside himself for the new thing that will satisfy the craving within. Hungry ghosts are characterized by insatiable hunger and craving. They are also associated with addiction, obsession and compulsion.
The Manhattan Project was achieved at a cost of over 2 billion dollars and the work of over 120,000 people. It was a massive expenditure of resources and those behind it, like Director of War Mobilization James Brynes, worried that if the bomb wasn’t used and proved effective, criticism and investigation would follow. The Secretary of War, Stimson, supposedly said to President Truman that he worried that the already bombed out Japanese cityscapes would prevent the US military from measuring the true effectiveness of the weapon. Thus, potential target cities were not subject to air-raids in the months before the bombing.
6. The Hell Realm
As the name suggests, the Hell Realm is the most terrible of the Six Realms. Hell beings have a short fuse; everything makes them angry. And the only way hell beings deal with things that make them angry is through aggression -- attack, attack, attack! They drive away anyone who shows them love and kindness and seek out the company of other hell beings. Unchecked anger and aggression can cause rebirth in the Hell Realm.
Despite having no bargaining chips, the Japanese military developed the Ketsu-go strategy, which was to have such a fierce defense of the Kyushu beaches that Americans would take incredibly heavy casualties on their first assaults of the Japanese mainland. They hoped the Americans would blanch at such losses and negotiate peace in a way that would grant the military continued power over Japanese society.
Still, there is belief among some historians
that even without the use of the atomic bomb, which killed between 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima (of acute symptoms alone) Japan would have surrendered. This assumes a continuation of the conventional air raids that had already pulverized most of Japan’s cities. We have seen the results of this as we travel around the country to find most of the gardens and castles to be reproductions built since the war. Amazingly, by March of 1945 “conventional” warfare was nearly the equivalent of the atomic bomb in destructive capacity. Waves of small napalm like bombs were dropped onto the city’s civilian population and the fires spread and connected into a huge firestorm that sucked all the air out of the atmosphere. In one such raid in Tokyo, 125,000 people perished. The Allies bombed Hamburg and Dresden in the same manner, and Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, before then bombing Tokyo a second time.
Flame of Peace & A-bomb Dome as seen through Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Well, we’ve moved through the six realms of human existence and examined the different aspects of the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. For me it was an incredibly emotional experience to read about the abstract decision making on the part of both sides but to then so viscerally see the effects of those decisions on the innocent civilians of Hiroshima. So often it is the least of us who suffer for the ignorance and delusion of the powerful.
We've shared many of the pictures of the Hiroshima Peace Park & Museum above, but to see all the pics of the area as well of Miyajima (mentioned below), click here:
Feeling a bit somber after the museum and exploration of Peace Park (which you’ve seen in pictures above), we headed off to the famous institution of Okonomiyaki-Muri, where there are 3 floors of cooks all dishing up the Hiroshima version of the Japanese pizza/omelet. All the cooks entreated us as we looked at the different stalls, which featured Okonmiyaki made up of layers of ingredients instead of mixed together.
The next day we paid a visit to the rebuilt Hiroshima Castle, where we learned about the different construction styles of castles throughout Japan. This ranges from mountaintop castles built for defense in the early days of the Shogun to later peace-time castles built on flatlands that served mainly administrative functions. Then we took the ferry over to the famous Miyajima Island, right off the coast of Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea. The island is famous for the Itsukushima Shrine, a Shinto shrine with a beautiful Torii gate that appears to float in the water at high tide. We also enjoyed the Shingon Buddhist Temple of Daishoin, which features a cave symbolizing the entire 88 temple pilgrimage route of Shikoku
and humorous Buddhist related statuary like the five hundred Rakan
(many of which sported adorable quilted hats). The colorful temple also sported a long nosed Tengu
(mountain spirit and defender of the dharma) and fierce looking Myo-o Buddhas who are committed to “encouraging” humans to follow Buddhism. Glad I didn’t meet one of them when I first started meditating!
Itsukushima Shrine off Miyajima Island
Tahoto Pagoda in Miyajima with an honor guard of cherry blossoms
From Hiroshima we took another trip on the Shikansen to arrive in Okayama, famed for its Korakuen Garden
. Hungry for lunch, our first stop was at Okabe Restaurant, which specializes in home-made tofu. Oishi! (Japanese for delicious). Then onto the park, which was full of cherry blossoms in full bloom. One of the most interesting features of the garden is its use of "borrowed scenery", incorporating the nearby Okayama Castle
into the various views you experience as you stroll along its paths. But the highlight may have been after the garden, as we walked along the Asahigawa Sakuramichi Walk, lined with over 250 Someiyoshino cherry trees in full bloom. The trees were lined with revelers having hanami parties (cherry blossom viewing parties
) so we figured, “when in Rome!”. We bought ourselves some snacks and beers and sat down under the trees to enjoy them Japanese style
The next day brought rain and a day to relax (and for me to write this blog). We also had an excellent lunch sampling the local specialty of barazushi and a wonderful dinner with duck cooked on a charcoal grill and cold soba salad. Perhaps most charming in this small town was how the servers at both places we ate dinner walked outside to say goodbye to us, making us feel like family.
Despite the sordid history discussed in this post, traveling through Japan today certainly seems more like traveling through the Deva realm rather than the hell realm it had become by the end of World War II. But maybe by remembering how easily we can move from one realm to the other, in our individual lives and in our national policy, can help avoid such wanton destruction in our future.
For all the pictures of Okayama & the Korakuen Garden click here:
"Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching.
But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water.
The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbolized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching.
When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak.
“I have experienced the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma Gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.” (www.katinkahesselink.net
The story of the flower sermon, Buddha's transmission of the truth beyond words and letters, above the main altar of the Butsuden in Eiheiji monastery
Miso soup was waiting for us!
From Tokyo, Neda & I were excited to head up to the mountains of the Nagano prefecture, in the small town of Shiojiri, to visit our friends from Bodhgaya, India
who had invited us to their hometown. When Rika first heard we actually were going to visit her up in the mountains, she was surprised and ecstatic. After all, she had invited other “gaijin” (foreigners) on her travels, but none had actually come to visit. She wrote excitedly, “Miso soup will be waiting for you!” and we knew that we were in for a warm welcome and looked forward to seeing Japanese culture from a more intimate perspective.
The first place we stopped was at Kouryu-ji Temple, the home of Toha-Osho and his family. Toha was one of two Zen Priests we met at Nippon-ji and he had taken care of us while we were in India. While we caught up over tea, we told Toha we would try to visit Eiheiji Temple after our visit with them, but only for the day because it seemed impossible to arrange for a longer visit when we called with Rika from India because we didn’t speak Japanese. It is a training monastery and they can only handle English speakers on specific dates when they have prepared for it. Eiheiji is an important place of pilgrimage for Neda and me because it is the home monastery of the Soto Zen Sect, which we practiced at the Austin Zen Center. We also talked to him about recommendations on where to buy some calligraphy, which we wanted as a souvenir from Japan. He told us, “Calligraphy very expensive to buy. I will make some for you.”
Delicious Sanzoku-Yaki, (山賊焼き) (deep fried teriyaki chicken thigh) with homemade greens
It was this kind of utter generosity that made us feel like we were at a home far away from home. Arriving at Rika’s house her mother had brought us some of the local specialty, Sanzoku-Yaki, (山賊焼き) (deep fried teriyaki chicken thigh) and prepared fresh miso soup and greens. We waited until the evening for our friend Riko (also from Bodhgaya in India), who came up to join us from Chiba, near Tokyo.
Rev. Ogasawara and his granddaughter
Then it was off to a busy day as we headed to Kotaku-ji Temple to visit with Rev. Ogasawara (the senior priest from Bodhgaya, who had led the sesshin there). We enjoyed tea with him and discussed Zen before everyone got to try their hand ringing the temple bell
! Then we headed off to Matsumoto Castle, which features the oldest five-tiered keep in all of Japan. The sun gleamed off of the “black crow”, named after the dark hues of the stained wood of the castle. Hitoshi-san (Rika’s Dad) told us about an interesting feature of the castle, which is that it actually has 6 floors (instead of the 5 you see from the outside), one of which is a hidden floor where gunpowder and other valuables were stored.
From left, Rika, Neda, Jeff & Riko enjoying a day at Matsumoto Castle
On our return back to Shiojiri, we visited Toha-osho’s temple again, where he told us that he had spoken to the folks at Eiheji and they did have a foreign group visiting on April 1st and we could join them, if Toha-osho came along. So he told us he would drive us out to the temple (5 hours!), stay with us overnight and then head back. Sugoi! (Amazing in Japanese). Rika agreed to join us and we had our road trip/pilgrimage set!
Chizuko-san and Humina-San try Bulgarian appetizers Japanese style (with chopsticks!)
The next few days passed like a spring breeze as Rika’s brother Shu-san, sister-in-law Humi-san and little niece Yuki came to visit for the weekend. We had an amazing time as we cooked them a Bulgarian meal (served Japanese style)
and went out with Shu & Rika for a night of fun Karaoke
(which for those who might not know, originated in Japan). The next day was all preparation as the family readied the “irori” for a grand feast that night
. Their irori was built by Hitoshi-san and his father in a small separate house off the main house. It consists of tatami mats surrounding a special pit filled with sandy earth. Over the pit goes the grill, and when the fire is ready all sorts of delicious meats and veggies are lovingly cooked
. We sampled tender grilled scallops still in the shell and finished off with some butter, marinated beef, Japanese mushrooms, succulent chicken legs, shrimp, and hand caught little sweet-fish
that you eat whole. Toha-osho joined us for the gathering and on his way in, nonchalantly handed us some beautiful calligraphy he had made for us, despite being terribly busy with a funeral service over the past couple days. The night finished with the family sharing some special Cherry-blossom infused sake
with us to try – the delicate blooms still floating in the fragrant liquid.
Rika enjoys a scallop from brother Shusuke-san during our irori feast!
On Sunday, our last day together with the whole family, we took everyone out for Kaiten-zushi
(sushi-train), which is adorable in Japan. Not only is there the normal sushi moving around the conveyor belts, but when you make custom orders it comes to you on a mini-bullet train (Nozomi Shinkansen) that stops at your table before zooming off to the next stop. Sugoi!
The evening was another highlight as Chizuko-san, Rika’s mother, took us into the kitchen and taught us how to make home-made soba noodles. We learned to serve them warm where they are dipped into a vegetable laden soup with a bamboo strainer. But the local specialty is to serve them cold on a bamboo basket (zaru-soba) where you eat the noodles by dipping them into a light soy broth and then quickly slurp them into your gullet! Hitoshi-san showed us how it was done brilliantly the first time, but I wanted to capture it on video. Sufficed to say, the 2nd attempt wasn’t as cleanly executed, but it made for this hilarious video!
Our homemade zaru-soba! Note that the thicker noodles were the attempts by Neda & me!
You might be wondering by now why this post opened with the story of Mahakasyapa. In the story, Mahakasyapa is the only disciple to understand that connecting deeply to the reality of all things is not dependent on words, but comes only from direct experience. A corollary of this lesson could be that our connection as human beings is also not dependent upon words. There has been no time where we felt this more deeply than at Rika’s house, where other than Rika, no one else in the family spoke more than a few words of English! Here we were bonding with the family, cooking together, playing with the little Yuki-monster
and yet not actually communicating in words. We truly felt like a part of the family and yet we hadn’t actually ever “spoken” to anyone in the family besides Rika. The experience taught us the power of just being present together to bind and connect people in a fundamental way. We left the family laden with gifts of calligraphy and art that Chizuko-san and her teacher had made and with heavy hearts that the time had passed so quickly. Toha-Osho came for us at 5am to start the road trip to Eiheiji. Chizuko-san (by now called Mama-san) made some coffee and tea and she and Hitoshi-san (who we called Papa-san) saw us off as we left for the next adventure! To see all the pics and videos of our time in Shiojiri and Matsumoto click here:
Butsuden at Eiheiji
Eiheiji is perhaps the most important place of pilgrimage for Soto Zen practitioners. It is here that founder Dogen established his training monastery in 1244 and where his first writing, the Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen) is stored. Today it is a full training monastery with over 200 monks in residence.
But we didn’t go straight to Eiheiji – instead Toha Osho took us on a historical tour of Zen Buddhism in the region, taking us first to the remote Hokyo-ji Temple
, which was founded by Dogen’s friend and student, Jackeun after Dogen’s death. It is unique because it is one of few Zen temples founded by a foreigner and was founded after a schism at Eheiji over leadership caused Jackeun to leave. Jackeun’s students would continue to lead Eiheiji until 1468 when the lineage of Keizan (who founded Soji-ji temple) assumed leadership.
Next we visited Kippo-ji, a temple where Dogen lived over a cold winter in 1243, writing many parts of the Shobogenzo during that time. It is important in Zen practice because it was during this time that Dogen started to elevate monastic practice over lay practice
. It is thought this may have been because the winter had caused the monks’ morale to be very low and that Dogen was attempting to inspire them while Eiheiji was being built. Interesting how even great Zen Masters have to make compromises to keep popular support, huh? One of the most memorable parts of the visit to the monastery was a flat rock in the back of the grounds were it is said that Dogen meditated.
Dogen's meditation rock at Kippo-ji. The writing on the pillars behind lists the lineage of teachers reaching from Buddha to Dogen
Finally, we made it to Eiheiji, a temple completed only 10 years before Dogen’s death. It was his realization of a dream to have an ideal training monastery nestled in the mountains and rivers of nature. Rev. Kuroyanagi, head of international students, had come from his home temple in Nagano to lead a group of Karate practitioners on a tour of the temple and to receive and introduction to zazen. We knew the zazen part, but we still appreciated seeing the Joyoden (founders hall)
, where Dogen’s remains are interred and to practice the morning service in the Hatto (Dharma Hall). It was quite an experience to walk down the isle to offer incense while surrounded by the reverberating chants of 200 Zen monks. They even offered my name during the chants for well-being (my name had been on the register of guests). While doing all of this, Toha-Osho cheerfully tagged along and pointed out tiny aspects we might have missed (he practiced at Eiheiji when he was younger). We felt such tremendous gratitude to this man who had sacrificed his time just to show a couple of foreigners around this special temple!
One further note on Eiheiji – it was the first time we had seen a Japanese Soto Zen monastery functioning fully with monks and it made us truly appreciate the training we had received at the Austin Zen Center
under our teacher Seirin Barbara Kohn. We understood all the forms they were using at the temple and in many ways it felt a bit like home. Barbara did a great job of creating a little microcosm of a Zen monastery right there in the heart of Austin! Strangely, American Zen Centers now seem to retain the forms and practices of Eiheiji and Soto Zen to much greater extent that temples in Japan, which have largely become places for ceremonial practices rather than zazen and zen training.
When the morning came (bright and early at 3:30am!) and zazen, services, and breakfast were over, we left Eiheiji and thought we would head to the station to say our goodbyes. But Toha-Osho had one more surprise in store for us. As we all nodded off to sleep (we only slept 3 hours or so the previous night) he took us to the Ichijodani Asakura Clan ruins, where they have reconstructed the town built up around the Asakura Family Mansion
, which was burned down by Oda Nobunaga in 1568. There Toha-Osho and Rika cajoled us to don a samurai costume for Jeff and a kimono for Neda, making for some of the most hilarious pics on the trip so far! See all the pics of our pilgrimage to Eiheiji here!
Our time with Toha-Osho, Rika, and her family, was inspiring beyond words. It showed us the power of love and generosity to shine through even when there is almost no connection through language. It was a metaphor for all of Zen practice for us – to find compassion and wisdom beyond words and letters and to thereby live more authentic lives. There is no greater gift. Domo arigato gozaimasshta!
The cherry blossom tree, or sakura, holds special significance in Japanese culture. They bloom for only a week or two in the springtime and the lack of any green parts of the plant results in the delicate snow-white blooms transforming ordinary streets into magical pathways of ephemeral beauty. Indeed, the cherry blossoms have a distinctly Buddhist symbolism in that they produce stunning beauty for a short time before their flowers float down to the earth. As the famous Haiku poet penned:
cherry blossoms flitting
Kannon (Avalokitesvara) at Kencho-ji Temple, Kamakura
Issa points out the essence of the cherry blossom teaching. It is not just the fact of our transient nature, our limited time on this earth. It is the movement of surrender to that nature and the contentment that comes from trusting in it. To appreciate time’s inexorable hold over us and our ability to transcend it by embracing it.
Cherry Blossoms lining the moat of the imperial palace
Could we have been any luckier? We arrived in Tokyo to find the cherry blossoms (sakura) in full bloom – nearly two weeks earlier than expected! We arrived at our hotel late in the evening and as we walked to reach it, we saw our first cherry blossom tree – leaves twinkling in the light like the season’s first snow. That night we got our first taste of real Japanese cuisine (the kind you don’t find in America) when we stumbled into a little restaurant and asked in broken Japanese what they recommended. The hostess/proprietor came out with a bowl full of cabbage, shrimp, squid, cheese, egg, and flour mixed with water. We were supposed to cook it ourselves on the teppan (grill) in front of us, but when she realized our ignorance she helped us along, plopped it all down and expertly cooked it so that within minutes we had delicious Okonomiyaki! I think of it as a Japanese omelet, but they called it Japanese pizza.
Our first day in Tokyo we walked down to the Asakusa area, home of the famous Senso-ji temple. Senso-ji is a Tendai Buddhist Temple and is the oldest temple in all of Tokyo. Feeling serendipitous in our timing yet again, we were able to meet up at Senso-ji with Neda’s cousin Iliyana, who was leading her family on a tour of Tokyo that week. What a coincidence to be able to meet up with Bulgarian family half way across the world! Illiyana and her old classmate Heidi showed us how to ritually wash our hands and mouth
and also how to cleanse ourselves with incense smoke before making an offering to the statue of Kannon (their version of Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion). A little mystical for us pragmatic Zen practitioners, but an enjoyable culture experience nevertheless. The temple also featured a beautiful stroll garden called Denbo-in, which bursting with cherry blossoms, made for a contemplative walk.
Denbo-in stroll garden with views of the 5 storied pagoda of Senso-ji
From Senso-ji we cruised down the Sumida River, enjoying a view of Tokyo by the waterway which used to be the predominant transportation veins of the city. We capped off a busy day back at our hotel, which was hosting a cheerful sushi making party
! The staff patiently showed us how to make sushi rolls and also fed us delicious sashimi and nigiri.
The next day, it was time to head off to the most famous cherry blossom viewing area in Tokyo – the expansive Ueno Park. Our hotel was located between Ueno and Asakusa, so we were able to walk to Ueno as well that day. It was a Saturday morning and the massive park was as crowded as a subway train during rush hour. Yet everyone’s head was craned slightly upward and there was a quietly reverent tone to the whole affair as the cherry blossoms painted white brushstrokes against the overcast sky
. It was truly absorbing – as the famous Zen poet Basho wrote
Clouds of cherry blossoms!
Is that temple bell in Ueno
The only break in the quiet came from the picnickers who had set up tarps under the trees and were busy eating, drinking, and laughing. These impromptu gatherings are called Hanami, which roughly translates as “cherry-blossom viewing parties”. It is seen as a celebration of our cherry blossom nature to gather under the trees with friends and loved ones and celebrate life and beauty even as they are passing away above us. The spiritual intonations of Hanami were even stronger as we walked north to Yanaka cemetery
, where the graves of the city’s famous citizens were lit from above by the blossoms. Even alongside the graves Tokyoers had set up their tarps and were toasting life while sitting next to reminders of death. Truly a Buddhist party!
After all that walking we needed to relax and thought it was the perfect time to seek out a uniquely Japanese relaxation technique we had heard about on NPR several years before. We rode the elevator to the 8th floor of a building near Ueno station and the doors opened to a truly quixotic scene. A cat café! Walking into brightly a lit room full of cat toys and furniture, we were given a “menu” to peruse the names of the different cats that were available for viewing, playing, and cuddling. Some Japanese people sat sipping coffee and gazing at the cats, others snapped photos or played with them. Having experienced a bit of kitty deprivation recently as we’ve been too long away from our little Brandy cat, we jumped right in and played around with the cuties. But not for too long, the cat café charges about $4 per person every 15 minutes so the prices can add up. Only in Japan, where apartments are often too small to have an animal and the people have an inordinate love of cats, could this business survive!
Engaku-ji Temple, Kamakura
Sweet Potato & Cherry Blossom Ice Cream!
Our last day we took a day trip out to Kamakura, which was Japan’s first Shogunate Capital from 1185 until 1333. Founded by famous samurai Minamoto no Yoritomo, Kamakura became a bastion for Rinzai Zen and contains many beautiful temples. We visited the largest of those temples, Engaku-ji and also the oldest training monastery in Japan, Kencho-ji. Then we walked along the streets of Kamakura City and tried their famous sweet potato soft serve! The Japanese have wonderfully different flavored soft serve here with some of our favorite flavors so far being green tea matcha, black sesame, and the seasonal cherry blossom flavor!
No visit to Kamakura is complete without viewing the ancient Daibutsu (Great Buddha) cast in 1264 that uses distorted proportions to make it appear balanced (a use of perspective that may show Greek influence via the Silk Road). The 44 foot tall Buddha sat gazing at a beautiful cherry blossom in bloom, bring another Issu haiku
the Buddha too
looks this way...
Daibutsu (Great Buddha) Statue - Kamakura
Japan marks the beginning of the end of our grand adventure. We have tickets booked to Seoul and then Istanbul before we return to Bulgaria for the summer. Our time in Tokyo was a perfect reminder to enjoy each moment of the trip because the days will fall like blossoms caught in the wind…
The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark --
This is the wondrous power of Buddhism.
Zen thought is rife with the theme of interconnectedness, sometimes called dependent co-origination. The basic idea is that everything in the world arises together and only exists together through a delicate balance of certain causes and conditions. As any one thing changes, so does everything else in the world. Perhaps the most famous metaphor in Buddhist thought for this idea is Indra’s Net. Francis Harold Cook, in his book Hua-Yen Buddhism: the Jewel Net of Indra
, describes the net as follows:
Indra's Net - Copyright Gail Atkins
"Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering "like" stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring."
Neda on the reef
Enter the Great Barrier Reef. Composed of billions of tiny organisms called coral polyps, the reef is the largest single structure made by living organisms and the only one that can be seen from space
. As Neda & I swam through the reef and witnessed its dazzling hues, it occurred to us that it is a living embodiment of Indra’s jeweled net. Literally billions of animals swim in an intricate dance that is both awe-inspiring and yet also extremely delicate. It took millions of years for the reef system to form - for the net to be woven as it were. But current threats to the reef show us that just a few of the jewels breaking are enough to make them all stop shining.
The threats are numerous. Shipping traffic over the reef is quite high and accidents occur too often. The last major accident was in 2010 when the Chinese bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 was traveling outside the regulated shipping lane and struck the reef, scraping along its surface and creating a 3 kilometer scar where no marine life lives anymore
A beautiful giant clam
With the Australian economy booming from coal exports sent to support China’s voracious industrial machine, shipping accidents will only increase. The Australia coal industry has plans to build another 9 coal ports along the Australian coast, increasing even further the traffic passing through the reef. Many of these ships use a chemical called Tributyltin, which preserves the condition of ship hulls, but is toxic to the sea life it touches. The increased traffic will also increase the oil spills that occur on the reef – there have already been 283 spills on the reef since 1987.
Global warming is another threat to the reef that is already occurring. Warming waters are killing off the algae that populate the coral (which are what give the reef its vibrant colors). As one might expect from the Indra’s net analogy, the damage to the algae results in the death of the animals that use it as their food source and so on down the food chain until all that is left are “bleached” corals devoid of color and of life.
The most iminent threat comes from the burgeoning numbers of Crown of Thorns starfish attacking the reef. These bad boys latch onto coral and eat its tissue. A high enough concentration and whole sections of the reef can be rendered lifeless. The high numbers of the starfish are believed to stem from the agricultural run-off in the area feeding the algae that the Crown of Thorns starfish eat.
Jeff with a 3,000 year old "boulder coral". These guys take hundreds of years to build each subsequent layer...
All in all, I know this paints a grim picture for the reef and is perhaps a rather sad illustration of Indra’s net. Experts seem to believe that it is quite possible the reef will only be a natural wonder enjoyed by the next generation or two humans before becoming part of the history books. According to a 2012 study by the National Academy of Science, since 1985, the Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half of its corals with two-thirds of the lost occurring from 1998 due to everything discussed above.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something you can do, regardless of the odds. For more information on positive change you can make, click here
Indra’s net is a powerful concept that can be explored at multiple levels. The ecological example of the reef proves how interconnected our lives are with the billions of lives that surround us. Perhaps you can’t singlehandedly save the reef, but think about how you can apply the analogy to other parts of your life. You are a jewel in the net, reflecting outward to all the other jewels. Perhaps the smile
you give a stranger changes her day for the better and affects her husband, kids, co-workers, etc… In what other ways can you spread light through the net instead of watching as the darkness comes?
The biggest nugget of gold
Melbourne is a city born out of gold. Originally founded via settlers from Tasmania, the city was a small farming settlement until the discovery of gold inland in the state of Victoria. The gold rush led to the city doubling in population within a year and continuing to grow and boom for nearly 40 years – a time when Melbourne was known as a “working man’s paradise”. By the end of the boom in the 1890’s Melbourne’s population was nearly half a million and for a time it was the 2nd largest city in the British Empire after London.
For me however, Melbourne was more interesting in its connection to our personal history because Mick McKiterick lives there. Mick was a good friend of mine when I studied abroad at Utrecht University
Neda does her version of the pose
Back then I was studying philosophy with several mates in Utrecht and Mick was studying law. We had great times contemplating philosophical and ethical issues while coming of age in the charismatic Dutch city. I most recently had seen Mick in 2005 when a visit to St. Louis saw us heading to a pub-crawl together with good friend Josh Finnell, who had also studied at Utrecht with us as well. On that fateful evening, I would meet a charming Bulgarian girl who liked to sing karaoke and throw back shots of tequila. Add to that her intoxicating laugh, quick smile, and generous heart and it wouldn’t be long before I asked her to marry me…and the rest is history! By being there on that special night, Mick has always had a place in Neda & my relationship mythology. To add to this dynamic, it is a particularly exciting time in Mick’s life as well as he is due to marry fiancée Marlene this coming May. Sufficed to say, we were excited to reunite on his home turf and meet his wife-to-be.
Dinner in Echuca with Mick, Marlene, Terry, and Allison
Old Steamer on the Murray River
The adventure started with a weekend trip out to Echuca, Mick’s home-town. There his Mom Allison treated us to delicious baked cookies and cakes (thus the sugar in the title). Both Allison and Mick’s Dad Terrence opened up their home to us and we shared delicious food and good conversation. Marlene, Mick, Neda and I also floated down the Murray River while enjoying the Aussie Labor Day.
With the weekend ending, Mick & Marlene generously loaned us their car and their camping equipment and we set off on the Great Ocean Road along the coast of Victoria. Built as a way to give jobs to returning WWI servicemen, the road winds its way down the coast passing stunning sea formations at multiple points. Hikes in the area feature the history of the Shipwreck Coast (over 50 ships were lost in the area between 1836 to 1940) as well as the beautiful limestone and sandstone rock formations of the Twelve Apostles, the Loch Ard Gorge, the Grotto, and the London Bridge. The Loch Ard Gorge is named for a ship that wrecked there in 1878. The only survivors were a ships apprentice who was washed up into the gorge and then rescued a woman who had also washed up on a piece of wreckage nearby.
Loch Ard Gorge
The Twelve Apostles
Koalas huddled in trees
Another highlight along the Great Ocean Road was camping in the Cape Otway National Park. The campground itself at Blanket Bay was filled with flies and not the most comfortable, but on the way out we saw heaps of cuddly Koala Bears huddled in the trees. But most of them were seemingly passed out as they nestled in the trees. Why you ask? It turns out that koalas only eat eucalyptus leaves, an ecological niche that they have cornered because the leaves are tough, oily and difficult to digest. This turned out to be a particularly good niche for them because the leaves act as a mild narcotic to the koala’s biology which means they are basically hanging out high all day long. With this in mind we felt lucky to see a few of the critters wake up out of their daze and forage along the branches for another “hit”
Look at that koala face! This one loved the camera!
Emus at Grampians Natl Park
Neda and I camped in Port Fairy at the end of the Great Ocean Road and had a romantic evening of ice cream and strolling around before waking early the next morning to head off to the Grampian National Park. We passed through the Brambuk Cultural Centre where we learned a bit about the aboriginal population who used to live in the park’s area and also saw some Emu in the wild. Then we pounded off on some great walks
including the Pinnacle Walk
, which passes through the Australian “Grand Canyon” on a fun rock-hopping hike. We also enjoyed the Boroka and Reeds Lookout walks and were dazzled at the end of the day by the sun piecing the mist as it shined down on majestic McKenzie Falls.
That night we bedded down at Trooper’s Creek campsite and some local kangaroos came around looking for some chow. Neda and I gave them some shredded carrots and got up close and personal with these fascinating marsupials!
The next morning we headed to Hollow Mountain for a morning hike. We climbed over rocks formed under water millions of years ago and lifted up during the formation of the continent. The water had left fluid marks on the rocks that made this hike incredibly unique and interesting to explore. The morning sun also shone wonderfully off the tangerine orange cliffs, making for some great photos!
On top of hollow mountain
Feeding the roos!
Mick & Marlene with some BBQ
We returned to Melbourne to a delicious homemade pesto pasta dinner with our generous hosts – Mick and Marlene – and a wonderful evening of chatting and catching up. Saturday morning, Mick took us to his yoga studio for a great class to start off the weekend and after we explored some of the hip Melbourne neighborhoods. That night we celebrated Mick’s birthday at the local bowling club (rain made for no bowling) which had delicious BBQ (the closest to Texas we’ve had)! We were amazed at the moist smoked brisket at Fancy Hanks
and painfully missed our old hometown of Austin. The next day, we explored Federation Square
and enjoyed Thai and Greek festivals, Chinese dumplings, and many cute lanes (Aussie for alley) decorated
with street art
, and packed with hidden restaurants and bars and street performers
. Mick and Marlene, thank you so much for your hospitality! It was solid gold!
Hosier Lane Street Art
Sydney – can one place better epitomize mankind’s egregious sin as well as her capacity for redemption? In the middle of January 1788, the first fleet of settlement ships landed on the coast of the massive continent at Botany Bay, which Captain Cook had suggested as an ideal settling place when he explored there in 1770. Finding Botany Bay ill suited for settlement, Captain Arthur Phillip sailed down the coast a bit and found that Cook had overlooked the area known as Fort Jackson. Far from a tiny inlet, as Phillip sailed inward he discovered one of the greatest natural harbors in the world and the city of Sydney was born.
Sydney on a beautiful sunny day
Hyde Park Barracks from convict times
A full half of the contingent of 1,500 settlers were convicts sent from Britain. Why was Britain sending so many convicts to Australia? The answer is twofold. First is the so-called “Bloody Code”, the legal system in Britain at the time that carried the death penalty for over 222 crimes, including cutting down a tree, stealing goods worth 5 schillings (scarcely above the cost of a loaf of bread), or stealing fish from a rive
r. The legal system was so draconian (particularly towards the poor) that magistrates often downgraded the punishment to transportation rather than death in an effort to circumvent the code. Convicts were also sent for political reasons. For example, nearly a 1/3 of the early convicts sent to Australia were Irish Catholics whose land had been taken during the Protestant “settlement” of Ireland (see the Fields of Indulgence Post “Weeping Buddha, Smiling Buddha” for more
insight into this issue). At that time in Ireland, strict laws prevented Catholics from traveling more than 5 miles from their home, entering university, or being able to vote. Many were forced to a life of crime to survive – crimes punishable by transportation off the island or death. Other convicts sent included pirates, pickpockets, and women with “loose morals” (who often were just women who had intentionally offended authorities in order to travel with their husbands)
The 2nd reason for the large shipment of convicts to Australia (nearly 160,000 people in total between 1788 and 1868, when penal transportation ended) was that a certain colony now called the United States of America had rebelled and stopped accepting the transportation of prisoners that England had previously sent to its shores.
Sydney Harbor Bridge and Opera House
The sins of Sydney’s past didn’t stop with the largely unjust transportation of convicts, but also lie in the terrible way they were treated in the first years. Many arrived to the continent half starved and quickly died while those who survived could be beaten mercilessly or hung for minor offenses while the female population of convicts was routinely sexually exploited.
But perhaps life for the convicts wasn’t so bad compared to the treatment of the Aboriginal populations. Having declared the land “terra nullius” (land belonging to nobody) due to the lack of agricultural activity present on it, the British essentially justified the invasion and destruction of the native population, who had lived there for an amazing 60,000 years prior to any Europeans arriving. The Aboriginal population consisted of over 250 distinct tribes, each with different languages and customs. Captain Cook, upon his discovery of the natives, speculated they might be happier than Europeans. Maybe it’s not surprising when the average aboriginal week consisted of about 20 hours of hunting/gathering with the rest of the time devoted to arts, music, and social activity. Granted living conditions were arduous, but could Europeans have learned something from this simple living rather than just destroying it for their agrarian machine?
Didgeridoo art display in Museum of New South Wales
Unfortunately, early friendly reactions towards the Europeans by the Aboriginals (who thought the settlers were ancestors returned as ghosts – after all they were quite white) quickly turned sour as the colonists intentions became clear. There was to be competition for resources and land and the locals were ultimately considered to be in the way. Early efforts by Governor Phillip to mediate with the locals (most notably by kidnapping, acculturating and later befriending an Eora tribesman named Bennelong
) eventually fell apart as smallpox decimated the local population, leaving hundreds of native bodies floating in the harbor in the early years. As Europeans continued to settle on Aboriginal land, guerilla warfare broke out and hostility would rule the day from then onward.
National Sorry Day
This violent attitude towards the Aboriginal population may have reached its most disgraceful point between 1910 and 1970, when nearly 100,000 children were forcibly removed from their Aboriginal families to be placed in mixed-race children in orphanages, boarding schools or white homes.
The idea was to promote assimilation, but the end result was to cut the children off from their culture, leaving them alienated both from their own people and the foreigners with whom they were thrust. This “stolen generation” has left a gaping wound in aboriginal culture today and has left many native people disenfranchised, unemployed, and isolated as they have been moved off the land they traditionally roamed upon to be put onto government-run reserves (if your from America this sounds familiar). In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Aboriginal people were even included in the national census and began making strides towards equality in the eyes of the law.
We’ve taken some time to examine the sin at the heart of Sydney’s history, but there are tales of redemption as well. By 1822 nearly half of the convicts who had been transported established themselves as landowners or tradesmen once earning their freedom through good behavior. James Squire, a convict transported on the first fleet for stealing several chickens, was to become the first man to cultivate hops on the continent. Squire ran a tavern, a butcher shop, and a credit union and his death in 1822 saw the largest funeral ever held in the colony, completing his move from “shame to fame”. His name is now attached to a brand of craftbrews in Australia
. In fact, the move from “shame to fame” is something that many Australians take pride in today. It is considered quite “vogue” to have had a convict in your family history. It is proof that your ancestors turned things around in this new world down under.
In regards to the Aboriginal population, redemption is a continuing process whose end result is far more murky than the turnaround the convicts achieved. The government has now recognized a National “Sorry” Day (later renamed the National Day of Healing) that has seen both whites and aboriginals joining together to recognize the injuries done and start the path towards healing. Though much can be said for the power of an apology, the question remains how a nation can ever recover from such violence?
Goldrush Life Exhibit
For Neda & me, Sydney was a welcome return to the big city after the rural adventures in New Zealand. Upon arriving, our generous couchsurfing host Gav cooked us up some kangaroo steaks (didn’t think I would eat a kangaroo prior to seeing one live in the wild!) and introduced us to the city. The next few days saw us walking the city as we explored the beautiful botanical gardens, the Hyde Park Barracks (where convicts were originally housed in the colony), and a fascinating exhibit at the Library of New South Wales on the Goldrush in Sydney. The discovery of gold in 1851 in Victoria would launch a massive goldrush on the continent, bringing in the wealth necessary to develop Sydney and Melbourne into the large cosmopolitan cities they are today.
Kangaroo Steaks courtesy of our Couchsurfing Host - Gav
We enjoyed some of that cosmopolitan spirit on our 2nd night in town with a visit to Victoria park for some slacklining with the locals followed by a hilarious improv comedy show at the University of Sydney, where we sampled the James Squire beer mentioned previously. Of course no visit to Sydney is complete without several different viewpoints of the architecturally stunning Sydney opera house and Sydney harbor bridge, which makes it the most beautiful harbor that we have ever seen. But beyond the bridge and opera house, the harbor is a truly massive affair, stretching 19km inland and providing access to many different areas via ferry. Neda and I took a day to explore one such area when we took the ferry to Manly beach and walked the harbor coastline from the Spit Bridge back to the city. We enjoyed sweeping harbor views as well as our first introduction to some interesting Australian wildlife like the St. John’s cross spider and the big water lizards living along the coast.
Fish market scallops
We ended our time in Sydney with a visit to the local fish market where we sampled barramundi for the first time and delicious fresh scallops grilled in the shell! We also visited the wonderful museum of New South Wales, which features Aboriginal art as well as quirky exhibits displaying a variety of modernist and post-modernist art.
Our time in Sydney was a combination of appreciation for the society that has been built here and a feeling of deep loss for the civilizations that were displaced and destroyed. Still, Australia today is more multi-cultural than ever as it continues to work towards reconciliation with its first people, welcomes refuges from around the world and integrates its Asian neighbors into the cultural mix. It is a country working to fight its reputation as a “cultural backwater” by embracing the arts and globalizing its strong economy. It is a country that continues to strive towards a deeper awareness of the sins of its past while building a brighter future for all of its people. Redemption isn’t a tale that is told overnight, but rather a road that is laid brick by brick. There are many more bricks to lay, but at least the road is under construction.
Sunset Cruise in Sydney
Well here we are. The last chapters of the chronicles, making it higher in number than Game of Thrones, though not quite as long :). It was only fitting for our final foray in New Zealand that we head to the beach. But not just any beach – Mount Maunganui is a fantastic spot where smooth sand splays out in the shadow of an extinct volcano. Perfect place to reunite with our travel buddies Grant & Jess for a day of relaxin’ and exploring the beach's rock outcropping. We had so much fun with the couple that we all started traveling together for the next few days as we headed inland to Karangahake Gorge via a campground at Dickey’s flats. But first we passed by one of the ancient Kauri Trees that grows in the north – this one is more than 600 years old!
Once at Dickey’s Flats Campground, the hike to the Gorge via the Crown Track was a pleasant bush-walk along the river, but things got more interesting as we approached the ruins of the gold mining operations that had taken place there between 1880-1950s. Diana Clement from the New Zealand Herald gives an informative snapshot of our time there:
“The Crown Track Tunnel is 180m long and not much more than 2m high. Just high enough for the horse-drawn mining trucks that carried quartz back to the Crown battery on the Ohinemuri River.
Grant & Jess in the Crown Track Tunnel
We learned from the numerous signs how water- and steam-powered stampers crushed the quartz, and cocktails of potassium, cyanide and other nasty chemicals helped with the extraction process. One of the batteries even cooked the quartz to remove the valuable metals within.”
The Gorge with the walk along the old mining route below
Grant goes out the "window"
It was a brutal process on the environment to extract all the gold, but luckily these days the whole area is a protected park. One fascinating features of the old mines was the “Windows Walk” alongside the canyon wall of the gorge. The tunnels burrowing through the rock here have “windows” where miners would dump the debris while digging their tunnels through canyon. It makes for a lot of fun to walk through these old tunnels as sun beams stream in from the intermittently spaced windows. To cap it off, on the way back Scott
directed us to some hidden pools near the tunnel entrance. We splashed through a dark tunnel
with water flowing through it and popped out to some beautiful pools with waterfalls at the far end. Time for a swim!
Swimming in the hidden pools through the tunnel (click link above to see tunnel entrance)
With our rivers and waterfalls quota met it was back to the beach with Grant and Jess! Waihi Beach was a perfect freedom camping spot right on the sand and we all cooked up together and played Rummy to the sound of the waves. The next morning saw a beautiful walk to Orokawa Beach, an isolated “pristine stretch of sand and surf backed by sprawling Pohutukawas”.
Getting ready to chill at Orokawa Beach
Perfect place to inhale the fresh herbally infused air and have a day chillin’ on the beach with G&J (Grant & Jess aka Gin & Juice). The fun took a brief hiatus when a local council member wearing a sweet-as cowboy hat told us to move on. That is always the risk of freedom camping, even when it seems like a legitimate place! Luckily, some German campervanners told us about a back-up freedom camping spot also with a public bathroom on Tuna Road so we took our chocolate porters to the beach. I woke up to the sounds of a local Kiwi woman in her 80’s running an automated sled out to her “torpedo" - essentially a little mini-submarine with a fishing line attached. As she pulled the torpedo in she had caught 8 snappers on it! Then she rolled away – all under battery power. Now there is a Kiwi who refuses to bow to age! As the Kiwis say, “Good on ya mate!”.
Next stop was heading up north to the Coromandel for some classic tourist attractions. The score was split with the Hot Water Beaches getting a thumbs down due to being way overcrowded and only offering the tiniest bit of hot mineral water spurting up through the sand into the beach – not nearly enough to compete with all the people busily digging holes with rented spades.
Hot water beach was a hot mess
Yoga in sea cave
Cathedral Cove was nearly a bust with an overcrowded car park and heavy crowds but the lush scenery won the day. A 45 minute walk past several beautiful bays brings you out to the gorgeous beach. This place truly has everything with a high cathedral-like rock arch, multiple offshore rock formations, and good rocks for jumping down into the sea. It also features hidden sea caves only accessible with a short swim. Inside the ambient light darkens whenever an incoming wave occludes the entrance. Could it get any better? Yep, just throw in a freshwater waterfall
at the end of the beach where you can wash the salt off after all those adventures. Truly one of the best beaches we’ve ever been to!
A drive over some coast hills took us out of Whitianga and to some of the only affordable camping on the Coromandel at Simpson Beach. Our last night with Gin & Juice was a memorable one as we stayed out late drinking on the beach and singing 90s song we all remembered with no one listening but the wind. The unruly mosquitoes forced us to say our goodbyes to G&J as we headed around the top of the peninsula and down into Coromandel town. There we indulged in a bit of paid tourism as we took the Driving Creek Railway (DCR) toy train up to the “Eye-full” tower. The DCR is interesting not just for the ingenuity of the track, which features multiple switchbacks, direction changes, and bridges as it snakes up the clay filled hills. It is also interesting because the potter turned conservationist who founded it has used the money for a massive native forest restoration project.
The view from the "eye-full" tower
Neda's oreo truffles won over 3 generations of Kiwis!
The couple is fantastically generous. We walked to the store to get some groceries and when we got back they had already cleaned up the outside of Faith to get her ready for sale. A post on Gumtree yielded quick interest. As Neda and I were driving downtown to put up flyers a couple contacted us who was nearby. Their mechanic thought our car was in great shape and well cared for so we agreed on a price and it was over! With the sale we covered all of our transportation costs in New Zealand (minus petrol) making it a heckuva lot cheaper than a rental which would have cost $5-7k!
The rest of the week with Wayne and Eve was full of fun socializing, cooking Bulgarian and Kiwi dishes, playing a bit of poker and also some "work" as Neda and I sort through heaps of pictures, write blog after blog and do research so we are prepped and ready for our trip off to Sydney and then later to Japan! New Zealand has proven to be one of our absolute favorite places with a great mixture of kind people and unbelievable landscapes. The Campervan Chronicles were a unique adventure for us, but between you and me (and the rest of the internet), we don't mind sleeping in a bed one bit now that its over!
“This is my last word," said Elrond. "The Ring-Bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid..."
- J.R.R. Tolkien
We awoke in the darkness of a new day, eager for what is touted as the “Best Day Walk” in all of New Zealand – the Tongariro Crossing. As we boarded the shuttle bus to head to the trailhead, the sun crested above the horizon and for a moment we glimpsed Mt. Ngauruhoe
(a.k.a Mt. Doom) outlined in fiery hues of pink and orange. Was it the heat of Sauron’s forge we were seeing?
The walk itself is truly spectacular as it traverses the active volcanic terrain surrounding Mt. Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu
. Flowing water merges with wildflowers and volcanic rock as one tramps along this unique landscape. With each footstep, we got a bit closer to Mt. Doom until we passed her on the eastern side. From there, a climb up the Red Crater gives stunning views of the mountains and of the Emerald Lakes found below. The Lakes are filled craters which get their brilliant colors from the dissolved minerals present in the thermally active area.
Steam rises out of a vent near an Emerald Lake, which is fed by a blood red creek off to the left...
Clear Hot Springs
Mt. Doom isn’t the first place you think of when it comes to romance, but the walk’s beauty proved both amorous and exhausting. As we finished up the walk the perfect end to the day for our sore bodies presented itself. We drove down out of the park to the shores of Lake Taupo where the little village of Tokaanu is nestled. There the local Maori people have a wonderful hot-spring which is heated from the depths of the earth and filtered through the rocks so that it lacks the sulphuric smell and cloudiness of other thermal pools. Neda and I splurged for a private pool and sat in our birthday suits enjoying the soak and each others company. To top it off, we found a sweet-as freedom camping spot at the Tokaanu Wharf and toasted a unique and splendid Valentine’s Day while drinking white wine and watching the black swans float idyllically by the water’s edge.
To see all the pics of the Mt. Tongariro crossing, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjEbBaC5
Huka Falls with a rainbow
Then it was off driving along the shore of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. Its fascinating origin goes back nearly 27,000 years when a supervolcanic eruption in the area left behind a massive caldera hole which would later fill with water and become Lake Taupo. For the modern day tourist, this volcanic activity means lots of fun! Our first stop in the area was the Spa Park Hot Springs, a local park where the Waikato river is joined by a flowing hot spring. The fun part is to sit in the water where the cold river mixes with the burning spring and enjoy a free temperature controlled soak courtesy of nature! Even better, while hanging out at the spring we happened upon our travel buddies Grant & Jess (mentioned at the end of Chronicles Park 6
) and camped up with them that evening at the free Reid’s farm campground outside of town.
Craters of the Moon
The next day we cruised through Taupo’s other attractions like the phosphorescent surging waters of Huka Falls and the hissing cauldrons of Craters of the Moon, a geothermal area that was created when the nearby hydroelectric power plant siphoned off water for electricity and left the remaining liquid near the craters to boil up to the surface. The last stop was the Aratiatia Rapids, where the Waikato River is diverted out of the turbines and into its naturally flowing path every 2 hours. The result is a dry canyon transforming into raging rapids as the dam releases to oohs and ahhs from the watching crowd.
The Aratiatia Rapids are released!
Farting mud pools
The thermal wonders continued as we drove up to Waiotapu, where it seemed like magma was bubbling just below the surface of the whole area. We giggled at the belching and farting noises of the Mud Pools
. The hot water here has turned the soil into liquid-hot mud that splatters and shoots into the air at random intervals. Then as the sun began its descent Jeff charged up Rainbow Mountain for a 360 degree view of the whole area. Up at the stop sat a firetower where a local ranger named Barry was scanning for possible danger due to the dry climate. Barry pointed out the various geological formations surrounding us, including hills that were shaped like waves when a shockwave from a long-ago eruption had emanated outward only to rebound off of the distant granite hills and come back to strike the volcano. The evening closed with freedom camping along the banks of the tiny Lake Okaro, where Jeff enjoyed a swim in the warm waters.
The "shockwave" hills and various Lakes in the distance. Lake Okaro, where we would camp that night is the little one in the front.
The vibrant colors at the Champagne Pool in the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland come from the interaction of the mineral waters with various compounds such as arsenic and antimony sulfides.
For our commercial fix the next day the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland was on the ticket. This thermal park involves a 90 minute self-guided walk through a particularly geothermally active area. Highlights included the multi-colored steaming champagne pool and the vividly green Devil’s Cave. On the way out, Scott
gave us a riddle to find a wonderful secret in the area. A hidden waterfall hot spring! With no signs and no people, a short tramp through the bush led to Neda and I enjoying our own personal hotspring showers- wicked!
Though you can't tell in the picture, that is hot mineral water pouring over me in a secret spot in the woods! No tourists here!
Taking the plunge
Then we headed to Rotura for a quick viewpoint hike and new warrant and an oil change for Faith. Last stop was the Okere Falls/Kaituna Rapids where we saw a raft plunge down Tutea’s Falls, which at 7 meters is the largest commercial raft drop in the world! Having gotten our fill of rivers and waterfalls, we knew it was time to get back to the beach to finish off our journey! We'll finish up the Chronicles on the Coromandel Peninsula in the next post...
To see all the pics of thermally wonderfully New Zealand click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjEbM6Y3