Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Detour

Aerial views of Ogi (above) and Shukunegi on Sado Island, Niigata, show a few roofs protected from strong winds blowing in off the Sea of Japan in the traditional way, with stones.
***See the previous post for a photo of a cedar-shingled roof protected in this way.

Scenes from the Year's Last Ride

There was plenty of lovely scenery in extreme northern Niigata on a Saturday in late November.
The roads in this area are closed for winter from Dec. 1-Mar. 31. Fortunately, the weather cooperated on the 29th of Nov. to allow me to do this ride, which had had to be postponed several times earlier in the year.
*** The stones atop the woodshed are unusual for an inland area, in my experience; when seen at all they tend to be found on roofs in coastal areas that are subject to strong winds.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ryokan on Greed

Ryokan, the great monk of the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism, on greed.

One morning death comes before

They can use even half their money.

Others happily receive the estate,

And the deceased's name is soon lost in darkness.

For such people there can only be great pity.

18th Century Japanese Zen Poet Ryokan on Greed

Once again, many greedy people appear

No different from silkworms wrapped in cocoons.

Wealth and riches are all they love,

Never giving their minds or bodies a moment's rest.

Every year their natures deteriorate

While their vanity increases.

Ryokan-sama's Hermitage and Poetry

Recently I've been reading John Stevens's Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Ryokan was born 251 years ago in Echigo Province, as Niigata was then known. A couple of years ago I visited his birthplace, Izumozaki, as well as the nearby hermitage Gogo-an, where he spent the latter part of his life. The late novelist Yasunari Kawabata as well as the renowned author of books on Zen Buddhism, Daisetz Suzuki, have said that one who wishes to understand the Japanese psyche can do no better than read Ryokan-sama. The following poem is one of my many favorites:
My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I've nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after
so many things.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Japanese Primary School English Education

English will be a mandatory school subject for 5th and 6th graders in Japanese elementary schools starting April, 2011 (year 23 of the current imperial era). To assist homeroom teachers of these grades, the Ministry of Education has published the two-volume textbook series English Note. While not perfect, the books are far better than nothing for most teachers, who are not specialists in teaching or speaking the language, and the texts' arrival at schools was eagerly anticipated by educators in Niigata earlier this year. But now comes word from the Ministry of Education that the texts will likely be discontinued the year English becomes a required subject. Why this about-face? In the words of members of the Finance Ministry working group studying this and other Ministry of Education outlays, the texts are muda (無駄) or "an utter waste", quite harsh and direct language for Japanese. If you are concerned about the fate of English Note, you can contact the ministry at the

A Traditional Japanese Boat

In 2001 I had the good fortune to meet master wooden boat builder Douglas Brooks, a friend of a then Japanese teacher colleague of mine. Mr. Brooks was in Japan to build replicas of Japanese wooden boats thanks to a grant from the Japan Foundation, and he had come to Niigata Prefecture to learn the art of taraibune (たらい舟;tub-boat) construction. At that time six fishing villages on Niigata's offshore island of Sado were the only communities in which the once-common boat was still in regular use, and the sole remaining craftsman on the island was in poor health. Mr Brooks spent weeks on Sado learning the art from its only practitioner, and at the end of his stay he visited the junior high school at which I and his friend taught at the time. Mr. Brooks had managed to bring a taraibune with him, and what a treat it was to see the beautiful craft up close!