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The image on the home page is of a beach near Telaga Papan, in Terengganu. Its a place I love to spend hours reminiscing, reflecting about my life and those around me.  Sometimes I catch glimpses of fishermen bring in their catch of the day.  But wait for the sunset.  Its fantastic mix of colors.

Check out my latest article “A Kind Of Paradise” under Category – Terengganu.  Actually this article was written for a submission to a writing competition.  It is about a beautiful kampong called Kampong Mangkok with Pantai Penarik.  Pantai Penarik is a popular beach with locals.

 

Regards

Husna

2 Months of Pain Over Little Red Pills

Figure 1: My favourite place for some cool pineapple juice under the shade of the coconut trees in serene Mangkuk. You could get 40 prawn fritters for just RM10 here.

It was a real hot, dry afternoon with no sign of relief from the rain clouds. I could feel beads of sweat trickling down my neck and elsewhere even as we sat underneath the shade of some coconut trees with the wind softly blowing from the sea (Fig 1).  Even cold, sweet pineapple juice in tall glasses could not douse our hot discussion about drug use and remand prison time with two pill kuda users.

 

Pil Kuda is locally referred to as methamphetamine. In Kelantan, its retail price is RM10 but in Terengganu, it is RM15 – RM20. The pills are smuggled from Thailand into Kelantan and are what some people term as a poor man’s drug. Ketamine is called pill kuda because its use was for calming horses.  Then we have syabu or pure methamphetamine, heroin, ganja (whose real medicinal value is as a pain killer), cocaine (like cocaine tooth drops to relief tooth ache) and ecstasy party pills (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). I did not realize how bad the drug problem in Terengganu was until that morning in Permaisuri.

 

Seated in the front row of the lower court that morning, I had an opportunity to listen to many remand cases while waiting for the specific case of interest to be mentioned.  It seemed that out of 24 remand cases mentioned that morning, 23 were drug related and all involved Malays. This is an alarming trend. One remand case I heard was a well-dressed 65 year old man with dark glasses called Cikgu (teacher in Malay). He looked more like a headmaster of some remote school than a drug user or a drug peddler.  The 65 year old drug user made an appeal for the magistrate to reduce the charge of RM6000.  He made all attempts using poetic language in his appeal  to impress the magistrate.  The magistrate, a sweet young lady with hijab and beautiful painted lips,  granted him a reduction of RM2,500. But he was far from satisfied.  As he was being led out by a policeman, I heard him swore under his breath, with a look of disgust on his face. The “headmaster-look” completely disappeared and in its place, the face of an unrepentant drug peddler.

 

A young drug user on remand failed to attend the lower court hearing that morning , forcing his old man to present himself at the court since he was the one who posted bail.  In Malaysia, you can pay bail to go home instead of going to jail while waiting for hearing.  The lady magistrate did not hide her disgust and threatened to take away the old man’s bail money if the son failed to attend the next hearing.  Then there was a young man about 20 years old who presented himself.  He was dressed in short-sleeved tee shirt revealing old scars on his arms indicative of intravenous drug use.   Almost all prisoners made gestures of defiance as they were being lead away. Many were young men maybe in early twenties and a few seasoned-looking hard-core drug users or drug pushers. One was a fresh-looking man in his early forties whose charges were duly dropped.   And later when we met him outside, he related to us how he tried to help my friend’s worker during a raid by ADDK.  But having watched too much American cop movies, his story made us a little skeptical. Could he be an informant?

 

Mezoh, a Patani who was working on my friend’s house, is a recreational drug user, resorting to pil kuda once or twice a week when he felt a physical burnout after his daily work on site. He is only 45 years old and very lean-build.  Although from Patani, he spoke little Thai. On the day he was arrested in an ADDK (Agensi Anti-Dadah Kebangsaan or National Anti-Drugs Agency) raid on a house in Permaisuri, 2 months before, he was with some friends, smoking.  The raid happened suddenly and quickly.  ADDK officers appeared out of nowhere as if an informant had a hand in it.  Mezoh suddenly found himself in jail waiting to be charged (Fig 2).   If the court decides to put you on remand, it means you will go to prison until your hearing at a magistrate’s court. Mezoh was kept in jail for two months due to investigation by the police who had to be extra-careful with cases involving foreigners.

 

Figure 2: A Lock-up for remand cases in Merang Police Station.

Mezoh related how much he suffered mentally and physically while on the two-months remand in Merang.  65 prisoners were confined to a space of about 30 feet by 30 feet. Space was so tight that if he left his spot to ease himself, he would find his space “gone” by the time he got back, duly occupied by another prisoner. The same space was also used for sleeping and there were no beds.  Food was scarce. Prisoners were allowed five spoons of rice twice a day. Tea drinks were without any sugar and sometimes prisoners fight over tea. He looked like he did not lose much weight but then none of the prisoners did any physical work.  They were not even allowed to attend weekly Friday prayers.  Mezoh thought such conditions were unheard of in a Thai prison, on remand or not.

 

Lae, a 60 year old seasoned drug user, was constantly in and out of jail for drug use making him almost resilient. How he “got over” the drug habit was actually a result of an attachment to a tablir group during his parole years. It seemed to have straightened him out a bit, although it is anybody’s guess when he would cave in next. He had been taking drugs on and off since he was 20.  Now he seemed to show some promising signs of discipline and resolve.  He now keeps a dairy to jot down his duas and daily expenses from the little money his children gave him. This was seen as positive step towards recovery.

 

Figure 3: A peaceful, beautiful place in Mangkuk, Terengganu.

 

 

 

It made me wonder why these youngsters and even a few elderly men like Mezoh and Lae (residents of Mangkuk, Fig 3), resort to drug use?  According to a 2018 AADK survey of drug addicts, (https://www.adk.gov.my) by state, showed Kelantan to have the highest number of drug addicts at 4,153 followed by Kedah at 2,693. Out of 25,267 drug cases surveyed, 82% are Malays, 6.3% are Indians, and 96% of this number are males. Among the drug users, the top most prone to drug abuse are the unemployed (3,650), the general workers (5621) and the part time workers (8,086).  Socio-economic factors such as poverty and lack of employment opportunity are cited as some of the causes for high drug use among fishermen, according to Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF)(August 2017,nst.com.my).

 

Malaysia may have the strictest drug laws in the world, but the rising trend in drug abuse may require a rethink of its drug control strategies.

 

(April 2019, 1222 Words)

SUN, SEA, SAND & COCONUTS

Figure 1: Sun, Sea, Sand and Coconuts in Mangkuk, Penarik, Terengganu

Some say dreams are made of sun, sea , sand and coconuts, while some think a coconut is a definition of a taste of paradise. But where ever you are, the coconut has the ability to transport you to some beautiful tropical coastline in your mind. It is as if you were lying on some fine white sandy beach, sipping coconut water in beautiful Terengganu.

 

But do you know how much work goes into your coconut drink? And I don’t mean the sweat behind preparing some exotic coconut water cocktails in the bar or in the kitchen of a restaurant.  I mean the hard work behind getting the coconuts off the trees, some reaching to more than 60 or 70 feet high. In coconut farms in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, coconut farmers use monkeys to pick coconuts. Thailand took coconut plucking to the next level by having a Buddhist-inspired school in Surat Thani to train monkeys.  The school it seemed is funded to teach monkeys how to pick coconuts without use of force or violence.  The practice of using  pig-tailed macaques to pick coconuts started since around 400 years ago (https://www.npr.org Eliza Barkley,2011). Malaysia too has a school in Padang Halban, Kelantan, run by a 63 year old grandfather, Wan Ibrahim Wan Mat (news.com.au, April 2018) to train macaques to pick coconuts.

 

But while travelling around Terengganu one morning, I came across a young man (not a macaque monkey) picking coconuts off a tree on a beach in Mangkuk (Fig 1).  Mangkuk is a peaceful paradise, situated in between the Setiu River and the blue South China Sea.  It is a mix of old and new – traditional Malay houses, with unvarnished timber aged by sea breeze laden with salts and resort-like concrete beach houses. It is populated by hundreds of swaying coconut trees, casuarinas, grazing cows and goats. Occasionally a kampong boy cycles past. The fine white sandy beach stretches from as far as the eyes could see, sometimes tainted by discarded plastic bottles. The breeze blows softly from the sea on most days. The monsoon months however (between November to February), bring endless rain, strong winds and raging seas (Fig 2). During the monsoons, the raging seas would mean fishermen would have to look for alternative source of income.

 

Figure 2: The angry sea during the monsoons, raging on the beaches in Kampong Telaga Papan, Chalok

 

I met a Malay gentleman, his hand holding on to a line dangling from the top of one coconut tree. As I looked up, I saw a boy perched on  top of the tree. The boy would select specific bunches, tie them with the string, and the man on the ground would hoist the bunches safely down to the ground. This the boy would do for several times until he was satisfied there were no more nice pickings.  He would work his way down while clasping the trunk with ease without the use of any gadget or safety harness. Then they would pick another two or three coconut trees to select more bunches of coconuts. It seemed that even though the coconut trees grow in land belonging to some land owner in the kampong, coconut plucking from these trees are a gesture of charity by the land owner.

 

I remember some 50 years ago, seeing one Indian man climbing a coconut tree in my own kampong. He would use a ring made from plant fibre, attached around his ankles before he started the climb. This ring would really hasten his climbing speed.  But this Malay boy Amin did not use any gadget on his feet nor a safety harness on his body. Amin, probably 15 or 16 years old, was slim, with an athletic build and long limbs, browned by the tropical sun. He was fearless. He had been plucking coconuts since he was 14 years old, learning the art from his grandfather.

 

Figure 3: Amin picked coconuts off the trees in Mangkuk, Penarik, Terengganu

 

 

 

Figure 4: Amin happily climbing down the coconut tree with no harness of any kind.

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed a monkey can pick about 1,600 coconuts a day in Thailand, and about 800 coconuts a day in Malaysia.  A boy  like Amin probably could pluck about 80 coconuts a day. But the difference is in the delivery and the target market. Monkeys throw down coconuts from the top of the tree, which could break the fruits.  But climbers like Amin would deliver beautiful green coconuts safely in one piece, perhaps more for tourists like me to savour the coconut water.

 

But would you pluck coconuts for the money? Maybe, if it is the only means of earning a few ringgit a day.  But plucking coconuts may not be for the faint-hearted though…

 

Two &Half Days of Saigon Culture

Figure 1:

 

When I first flew into Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, remembered fondly as Saigon, the weather was pleasantly warm-820F with some clouds.  Visiting for the very first time, I tried to strike up a conversation with the taxi driver about the city.  It struck me as revealing that taxi cab drivers I came across (at least two out of three), voiced a feeling of nostalgia for the old Saigon under American occupation.  After 30 years of independence, there is still leftover animosity towards the north when touching on the history of old Vietnam. But looking back at how Vietnam finally became a republic, I could begin to understand why.

 

 

This animosity could have stemmed mainly from differences in  ideology and geography between the old North and South Vietnam, but mainly from the brutalities of the civil war itself.   Back then, North Vietnam was essentially a socialist (Marxist-Leninist) state while the South was a non-communist state, a largely Buddhist or Confucian state.    In 1954 when the French and the American forces  were defeated, Vietnam was divided into North and South, with Ho Chi Minh (Fig 1) put in charge of the North and Emperor Bao Dai put in charge of the South.   But when Saigon, capital of South Vietnam, fell to the Communist in 1975, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and  Vietnam became a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.

 

The North and South differ in many ways, especially topography (North more natural beauty, bordering the mountains of China), weather (winter temperatures can go down such that you would need a winter coat in the North), culinary, dressing (more subtle dressing in the North compared to the South), language etc.

 

I found three cultures unique to Ho Chi Minh city. One is surely the motor culture. In a city where pavements are dominated by motorcycles, a proper walking space, free of motorbikes is a welcome.  Nguyen Hue Street is busy with a different kind of crowd at night (Fig 1).  I noticed during the nights, the crowd would come here to socialize, sing, dance and ride boards. 900 meters opposite is located the Saigon River (Fig 2).

Figure 2: The Saigon River,at dawn, as seen from the Reverie Saigon on Nguyen Hue Street. Barges ply the river carrying sand and construction materials down the river. Water taxi is a common sight on the river bank.

 

We had a most challenging experience of our lives in an attempt to cross Ton Duc Thang Street (a main street) to get to the bank of  the Saigon River.  Street crossing is almost life threatening in Ho Chi Minh.  I agree that it was after-office hours, and probably the wrong time to cross a main street filled with endless motor cycles, cars and buses. None of the vehicles stopped and we were advised to just go with the flow with steady steps. It seemed that vehicles will naturally manoeuvre around you as you cross. But I was not about to take any chances. So I had a local help me cross the street.

 

Then there is the scooter tour also unique to Ho Chi Minh City. The scooter tour is part night excursion and part street food adventure. Biking is the fastest way to get around the city but it is not for the faint-hearted.  Your life depends on the expertise of the scooter driver turning and snaking around the traffic on the streets of the city. I did not have the time to try one scooter tour though.

 

The third culture is the street food culture.  Along the alleyways, you can find blue chairs (Fig 3) lined up to sit patrons to enjoy their pho (noodle soup) or bun bo hue (beef noodle soup) or com tam, broken rice with grilled pork. Pho is cooked using fish sauce, spices, onions and ginger to give that special flavour, using either beef or chicken.  I read delicious remarks by LegalNomads recommending street food.  But knowing that these soups may have blood cubes and intestines added, I was not about to try any of it.

 

One of the few historical buildings we visited was the Central Post Office in District 1 (Fig 4 & 5). The post office first opened for service in 1864 but its architecture reflected those of the French colonial architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3: A typical scene along the streets in Ho Chi Minh city. These locals, after working hours, were drinking local coffee, while seated on blue chairs along the street.  This is coffee culture.

Figure 5: The inside of the Central Post Office is impressive for its interior architecture. The building is large and spacious and counter tops on the side looked more like those in train stations in Europe (m.vovworld.vn).

Figure 4: The Central Post Office, located close to the Notre Dame Basilica, the central cathedral. This beautiful building was constructed during French Indochina in 19th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 6: Inside the Ben Thanh Market, teeming with local products and swarming with shoppers. Caucasian tourists have learned the art of negotiation in Ben Thanh. A trader offered me a tailored suit for RM300. Now was that cheap?

 

 

 

Ben Thanh is very popular with the Malaysian shoppers who fly in just for a two day shopping spree. In fact in front of the Ben Thanh market (Fig 6) is a street called Nguyen An Ninh Street , fondly named the Malaysian Street because of the endless patronage by Malaysian tourists.  On this street too, there are halal cafes and restaurants.

 

Another historic place we visited was the War Remnants Museum in District 3.  It is a sad reminder of the atrocities of war. The museum (Fig 7) exhibited gruesome photos of war victims where the use of, among other weapons, Agent Orange which contains the deadly toxin dioxan. Exposure to dioxan cause cancers and lasting health problems . The war called the Second Vietnam War (or Second Indochina War) is also called the American War.  It lasted for 20 years from 1955 to 1975.  The Second Vietnam War is one of the 27 wars or armed conflicts America has engaged in with two still on-going.   American presidents constantly used the domino theory to rationalize their involvement in wars across the globe. With South Vietnam, it was President Eisenhower who used the theory as an argument to justify increasing American military involvement in South Vietnam.

 

Figure 7: Schoolchildren resting next to a tank, at the War Remnants Muzeum in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

 

It seemed that during the Vietnam War, many South Vietnamese fled the country to migrate to countries like Australia, America etc.  After 40 years, many of the descendants of these refugees came back to Vietnam, mainly South Vietnam.  These Vietnamese are called Overseas Vietnamese or Viet Kieu (https://culturetrip.com).  They are mostly settled in Ho Chi Minh city.  They look Vietnamese, but speak perfect English with American or Australian accent. And with this migration, comes the American fast-food life style. In the South you can find many fast-food restaurants like KFC, Burger King and even McDonalds…..an American lifestyle that is creating an upward trend in obesity.  Foreigners (Japanese and Koreans mainly) working and living in Vietnam, live in the South, mostly in and around Ho Chi Minh City.

 

However, I was more interested to meet another group of Vietnamese while in Ho Chi Minh City….the Cham Malays. The Cham Malays is a minority ethnic group found mainly in South Vietnam. This interest stemmed mainly from the knowledge that back in Malaysia, there is a village in Terengganu where Cham Malays live. In fact later I was to find out there are many places in Malaysia where Cham Malays are found such as Jalan Bayam in Kelantan, Batu Pahat in Johor, Pekan in Pahang, Sungai Buloh in Selangor.

 

Dr Basiron (Fig 8) is a Cham Malay living and running a halal certification company in Ho Chi Minh city. He is 40 years old, with a PhD in Arabic studies. He studied in a Malaysian Islamic university and speaks five languages namely Vietnamese, Malay, English, Arabic and Khmer language.  He was soft spoken and spoke English fairly well. We decided to take a slow walk towards Ben Thanh market.  In fact in front of the Ben Thanh market (Fig 6) is a street called Nguyen An Ninh Street , fondly named the Malaysian Street because of the endless patronage by Malaysian tourists.  On this street too, there are halal cafes and restaurants.

 

Figure 8: Dr Basiron, at the halal restaurant on Nguyen An Ninh Street, Ben Thanh Ward in District 1. Nguyen An Ninh is sometimes called Malaysian Street due to popular patronage by Malaysian shoppers.

Dr Basiron is one of the fortunate Cham Malays, educated and running a small business. Halal certification is important with Vietnam’s growing Muslim tourism. There are about 72,000 Muslims in Vietnam, making up 0.1% of the country’s population of 95 million.  Muslims in Vietnam are of three groups:1) Cham people; 2) inter-racial Muslims (who are offspring of mixed marriages between Vietnamese and Muslim traders) and 3) those who converted to Islam after interacting with Muslim traders (extracted from the writing by Tan Jo Hann). Ever since the French colonial rule to the end of the Vietnam war in 1973, the Cham Muslims have been victims of forced assimilation. Categorized as ethnic minority, the Cham Muslims are depicted as “poor”, “backward” and “deficient”.  Perhaps Dr Basiron represents the new generation of Cham Muslims in South Vietnam…educated and independent.

 

I also noticed some young locals eating while seated on the pavements. I saw this while on my way to the central Musulman mosque on Dong Du street. I was more inclined to eat at the Nyonya restaurant on Dong Du owned by a Malaysian entrepreneur and run by a Malaysian Chinese, especially their seafood char kuey teow.  Down the Dong Du street, opposite the Musulman Masjid, is the Turkish kebab shop.  I ate there once but I could not convince Dr Basiron to step inside.

 

 

Ho Chi Minh City, District 1, has unique cultures worth experiencing, without a doubt. If you are a shopper, the city is an attractive shoppers paradise.   But Hanoi would probably be more attractive to a traveller who loves nature.   Jaw dropping natural wonders would be more my thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Spaces in the Garden

Figure 1Another view of the Golden Pavilion, the beautiful Kinkakuji temple

 

It’s common knowledge that Japanese regard religious practices of Japan as part of the nation’s culture rather than a matter of individual belief or faith. As such many Japanese observe many rites: rites of the native Shinto religion, and those of Buddhism and even some of Christianity. It is therefore not surprising for a Japanese to celebrate a local festival at a Shinto shrine, hold a wedding at a Christian church  and conduct a funeral at a Buddhist temple.

 

But when it comes to gardens, Buddhism shapes the way Japanese gardens are designed.  The style of a Japanese garden both depicts the core of Buddhism as well as the anxiety of civil wars that raged throughout the country in the second half of the Heian Period (8th century to 12th century). The wars made people recognize the precariousness of life.  The incessantly altering state of the garden echoes the Buddhist teaching about impermanence of our being and the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.  People find reasons to be more sensitive to the momentary beauty of nature and the changing of the seasons – plants budding, flowering, changing of the leaf colors and magnificent blooms dropping off with the approach of autumn, and colourful foliage that fade in the bitterness of the winter.

 

While the Heian gardens mirror the unpredictability of life, the Muromachi rock gardens completely rejected transitory facades of the material world. Garden makers in this period stripped nature bare.  Zen gardens were created mainly out of rocks and sand in order to reveal the true substance of life and nature. During this Muromachi period, the growing influence of Zen Buddhism and its emphasis on contemplation led to a change in garden design. The purpose of the zen gardens were to provide the monks with a “place to walk and contemplate Buddha’s teachings.”  The design of the garden was supposed to promote a feeling of peace and harmony in a space.  By the 13th century, Zen gardens were heavily integrated into Japanese life and culture.

Figure 2: The aesthetic kyoko-chi pond for contemplation at the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji.

 

The garden in one of the most famous temple in Japan, the Kinkakuji, is an extraordinary example of a Japanese strolling garden of the Muromachi period.  A path leads around the kyoko-chi pond (Fig 2) offering great viewing access for beautiful shots of the temple.  The richly-decorated golden temple seemed to float over the pond.

 

The Ninna-ji temple represented a balance between aristocratic elegance and Buddhism simplicity (https//jal.japantravel.com).  The temple was established in 888, during the Heian period, and  is situated in north west Kyoto, a short distance from the Ryoan-ji temple.  The gardens of Ninna-ji temple became the model for many Japanese gardens.  The white sands were raked to perfection (Fig 3) to reflect waves.  Figure 4 shows the pond in the North garden.

Figure 3: Neatly-raked sand at Ninna-ji temple to reflect waves.

 

When it comes to garden fencing, famous temples like the Ginkaku-ji and the Kinkaku-ji have their own styles. Traditionally materials like bamboo and wood or brushwork are used for fencing. Bamboo is is one of the most versatile, fast-growing and sustainable material.  It is an integral part of daily life in Japan and provide material for many Japanese traditional crafts. Bamboo ages gracefully over the years – the fresh green fades to a honey colored gold and ages with time to a silvery grey. Moss has also been a central element of the Japanese garden for centuries.  There are over 120 types of moss used in the Zen gardens. Figure 5 shows moss growing around a tree near the entrance to the Ginkaku-ji temple garden. Moss can keep water up to 20-30 times its own weight.

Figure 4: The Ninna-ji north garden pond with rocks, arranged together with the trees. The 5-story Pagoda formed a balance in the background.

 

A well-constructed Zen garden draws the visitor / viewer into a state of contemplation. The garden, usually relatively small, is meant to be seen while seated from a single view point outside the garden, such as the porch of the hojo , the residence of the chief monk of the temple or monastery.

 

Reduced colors and little vegetation let the eye rest and calm the mind, giving the garden a peaceful atmosphere.  This is where a subtle, yet intriguing design feature of Japanese gardens comes into play – The carefully raked gravel patterns of rock and sand gardens. When the low morning or evening sun casts long shadows in the garden, the texture of rocks and gravel take center stage.

 

Figure 5:  Beautiful moss growing around a tree in Ginkaku-ji zen garden, temple of the Silver Pavilion. 

 

Zen stones are placed in Zen gardens to represent various elements of life (Fig 6). Stones are natural and reflect the balance between man-made structures and nature. Zen stones represent what is not actually featured in a Zen garden, such as islands and water.  Each rock shape and formation has a different name and is represented by one of the five elements- kikyaku (earth), shigyo (fire), shintai (water), taido (forest) and reisho (metal).

 

Reclining rocks that are placed in a Zen garden to represent the earth are called Kikyaku. This stone is often known as a root stone and is placed in the foreground to bring harmony to the garden. Shigyo represents the fire element. When placed in a Zen garden, Shigyo stones are called branching and peeing stones. Shigyo stones arch and branch out, the way a fire looks. They are placed next to other shapes in a Zen garden.  Stones which are horizontal and flat represent water in a Zen garden, and also the mind and the body. These stones called Shintai, harmonize rock groupings (Fig 7).  Stones which are vertical and tall act as high trees in the garden and are also known as body stones. Taido stones are put into the back of other rock groupings, much like a forest is the background to other scenery.  Reisho stones (also known as soul stones) represent metal. These stones are vertical and low to the ground. When placed in a Zen garden, Reisho stones are often put with tall, vertical stones such as Taido (www.sciencing.com).

Figure 6: 15-rock Zen garden in Ryoan-ji temple, the famous rock garden was created by a highly respected Zen monk, Tokuho Zenketsu.  Only fifteen rocks and white gravel are used in the garden.  Fifteen (15) in Buddhist world denotes completeness. 

Figure 7: Totekiko garden in the east of the Ryogen-in temple is the smallest stone garden in Japan where the small traces of wave pattern remind visitors of the far-reaching ocean. 

 

 

For curious tourists, who may not be a follower of any particular faith, participating in a meditation session in Ninna-ji or any other temples under the guidance of a monk (Fig 8) should be an interesting eye-opening experience. However, one Tripadvisor member warned to not walk into the meditation room during a  session, because the monk might just give you a very unholy reprimand.

 

One thing that I took away from the temple garden visits in Kyoto, was one profound saying.  The saying I found in Ryoan-ji temple was as follows:When I change, everything else changes.  Someone used this saying during a management course I attended a very long time ago, a Zen philosophy we could all use in our daily lives.

Figure 8: Student monks I met at the front gate of Ninna-ji entrance. These student monks were trained on various areas such as tea-ceremony, meditation, etc. 

A Big City With a Small-Town Feel

Figure 1: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)Temple is a Zen temple whose top two floors are covered in gold leaf.

Kyoto is synonymous with incredible temples, cherry blossoms, parks, markets, serene gardens, tea ceremonies, traditional ryokan and craftsmanship.  It was once the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years and the finest gardens have been developed over centuries by many levels of society  namely the aristocrats and the monks.  It is no wonder that Kyoto was voted by travelers as the world’s best city, twice.

 

Learning that Kyoto was nearly bombed during World War II, was shocking .  Kyoto was the first target proposed to test out the capability of a nuclear bomb, the Little Boy, if the military brass had its way.  The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have included Kyoto as well.  On that fateful day in April 1945, when a meeting in Pentagon was held, the Target Committee decided to play God and met to discuss the selection of targets for nuclear bombing (according to Alex Wellerstein on blog.nuclearsecrecy.com).  Had it not been for the personal intervention by Henry L Stimson, the then US Secretary of War, Kyoto would have been  nuclear-bombed, its gardens  destroyed and buried under a sea of rubble.

 

It took us about two hours by limousine bus over a distance of about 100 kilometers from Kansai International Airport to reach Kyoto bus station. Our first destination was the air b&b accommodation, Mountain Retreat.  Mountain Retreat was  neatly tucked in the quiet neighbourhood in the periphery of the mountains in Kinugasa Akasakacho Kyoto-shi, in the Prefecture of Kyoto in the Kansai region of Japan.  Kinugasa Hills was a convenient choice because museums such as the Insho Domoto Museum of Fine Arts and the Kyoto Museum for World Peace were within walking distance.  Located at the foot of the gently-sloping Kinugasa Hills is the famous temple Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion (Fig: 1).  Taking a bus from  Kinkakuji temple, would bring us to the Central Bus Station in downtown Kyoto.

 

Kinukake-no-michi Road runs between Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion Temple and Arashiyama. Along the way it passed through many of the famous world-heritage sites such as the Ryoan-ji temple (famous 15-rock Zen garden), Ninna-ji temple (Fig: 2) in Omuro and Tenryu-ji temple in Arashiyama, also campus of the University Ritsumeikan, Museum of Fine Arts of Insho Domoto and the Museum for World Peace.

Figure 2: Kyoko-chi pond in Ninnaji temple with the pagoda called the Kondo Hall,  in the background.

Koji and his son were already waiting to greet us when we reached Mountain Retreat that morning.  Koji was a slight built man of about 37 years of age. He and his partner were tinkering with plants in his greenhouse.  Growing the plants was by no means a mere passion but one that paid him well. Koji spoke very little English but was always ready with a smile. I later found out that a little greeting of “sumimasen” or “ohio” and a slight bow will get you attention and possibly answers in English.

 

I was excited to be able to get a feel for traditional Japanese style accommodation. Tourists can experience staying in a washitsu (Fig: 3) in a ryokan or a temple to get a feel for Japanese living. The room called a washitsu, came with tatami mats and a futon mattress.  This futon mattress can be folded and stored away during daytime thus giving the room an impression of space.  The tatami mat is made of dried, woven rushes which are then wrapped around and sewn to a core.  Traditionally, the core consisted of rice straw, though now it is often synthetic material.  The washitsu room was introduced during the Muromachi period and was used by the nobles as a study room.

 

The washitsu came with a low table for us to eat from and a low, legless chair called zaisu tatami chair.  I may be Asian and used to sitting on the floor with folded legs but having to sit in a zaisu tatami chair to eat was tricky even for me.  There was no sliding door, thank goodness for that.  The downside to this accommodation was that the bathroom was located outside, some four flights of steps below our room.

Figure 3: A typical washitsu in one of the temples we visited in Kyoto.

The next thing we did was rent bicycles from Koji at ¥500 each.  Cycling around  Kyoto is a must.  It allows a more intimate look at the regular Japanese going about their life.  We did not manage to cycle through the oldest streets of Kyoto i.e Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka  but as we made our way back to Mountain Retreat, we did see traditional wooden shop houses like this one below (Fig:4).

 

Figure 4: A traditional wooden shop-house, on the street we took to get back to Mountain Retreat.

For most locals, cycling is a normal mode of transport. I saw mothers packing their little ones in baskets, the small one in the front basket while the bigger one was seated behind.  I also saw an old lady, in the  80s, effortlessly paddling on the road.  Her stamina would put you and me to shame.

 

Kyoto is voted to be one of the best bicycle cities in Asia for so many reasons.  The city is relatively  flat, the roads are well maintained and more importantly, Kyoto drivers are sane and patient.  There were also plenty of places where you can easily rent a bicycle. Besides, there were  ample parking spaces for bicycles in the grounds of the temples and museums.  And the Japanese in Kyoto were so honest that you could actually leave your bicycles unlocked.  Visiting the city in May would be perfect for cycling.

 

Among the stops we made while cycling, was the Kyoto Museum for Peace.  It is the world’s first peace museum, established after  two world wars and tens of millions of lives lost.  It was established by the Ritsumeikan University, as a social responsibility to reflect upon history and promote the development of a peaceful society it thought was necessary to build a peaceful world.  The museum was located far down the road parallel to the Ritsumeikan University campus that you could almost miss it, if you were not careful.  After going through the two floors of the museum for about two hours, I came to appreciate  how going through natural disasters and the World War II have conditioned the Japanese into a resilient, tolerant and disciplined people.  And more importantly, they were  able to draw on a sense of social order, unlike scenes in natural disasters in Haiti and New Orleans. There was little anger or looting amongst the Japanese, according to abcnews.go.com/ report, following the aftermath of such natural disasters like tsunami, earthquake in 2011, 2014 etc.

 

The first day we cycled a total distance of 15 kilometers, with some stops in between, mainly for a gasp of air.  We visited at least two temples (namely Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji). Another stop we made while cycling around Kyoto was for vanilla ice cream at an ice cream parlor on Nishioji Street. The cafe made beautiful concoctions of fresh fruits and ice cream. The second day we cycled another 12 kilometers to Ninnaji temple and the two museums.  On other days we took buses and trains.

 

Cycling along the streets of  Kyoto gave me a sense of being in the midst of an ancient centre of Japanese culture.  Kyoto’s history is tangible and accessible on many levels.  Going about in Kyoto means coming face-to-face with that heritage on a daily basis.  While walking on the street towards a bus stop, glimpses of that traditional  life surfaces – an old wooden entrance gate; a sweeping temple roof; a tree-covered mountain;  a traditional wooden shophouse (Fig4) ; ladies in  kimono walking on the streets (Fig:5); a zen monk wearing a traditional kasa straw hat walking past (Fig: 6); and a traditional hand-pulled rickshaw (Fig: 7).  Kinugasa Hills in north western Kyoto was perfect, being completely surrounded by nature.  The nature, the old buildings, the surrounding mountains and a population density almost 3.5 times lower than that of the Tokyo metropolis, all convey a small-town feel to Kyoto.

 

I love Kyoto….the big city with a small-town feel.

Figure 5: Korean tourists clad in traditional kimono walking towards the entrance to Tenryu-ji Temple, Arashiyama.
Figure 6: A Zen monk (?) in traditional Japanese robes and kasa straw hat walking past. I did not notice any straw sandals.
Figure 7: A traditional hand-pulled rickshaw, in Sagano bamboo forest in Arashiyama…a muscular young man tucking the ladies in the pulled rickshaw.
Cherry blossoms painted on a hand-fan symbolizes richness and good luck.

September 2016

The Dance of Death

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Figure 1: Up close image of a veronica pass in a bullfight in the Madrid’s Las Ventas- taken from Wikimedia Commons, 2014.

 

As the first bull entered the ring through the gate charging with a soft galloping rush, the matador and his team immediately began assessing the bull’s reactions using their capote and their voices.  The work with the capote is often seen as one of the most visually appealing parts of the bullfight. The basic and most classic pass performed during this phase is called the “veronica”.  Each bullfighter tries to give a personal interpretation of this pass (Fig 1).

 

It was a known fact that Ernest Hemingway the writer, was a regular at bullfights across Spain, forming friendships with some leading matadors of that time (http://www.telegraph.co.uk).  He explored his own thoughts on the fear and courage involved in bullfights.  If there was anyone who could describe a “veronica” pass well,  it had to be Hemingway:

“Without hesitation, the bull charged at Chicuelo.  The kid stood his ground, simply swung back on his heels and floated his cape like a ballet dancer’s skirt in to the bull’s face as it passed.  “Ole” roared the crowd. The bull whirled and charged again.  Without moving Chicuelo repeated the performance again.  His legs rigid, just withdrawing his body from the rush of the bull’s horns, he floated the cape with that beautiful swing.  Again the crowd roared!  Each time he gave the bull a free shot at him, missing him by inches”

(1923 Hemingway Papers, Ernest Hemingway)

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Figure 2: End of Phase 1, the matador in green suit of lights together with his band of support crews of banderilleros and picadors (on horse-back) (as seen from the top of the stadium where we were seated).

I heard many ole from the stands that Wednesday evening (Fig 2).   All of a sudden, the entire stadium stood up exploding in a gasp of horror, triggered by an adrenaline rush. A body was suddenly tossed up into the air by a bull in a moment of a careless pass.  Even though the toss was not fatal, it was easily an eight foot toss no doubt.  The matador picked himself up while his banderilleros tried to avert the bull’s attention with their capes and voices. But his finery was stained by the bull, bloodied by the piercings of the lances of the banderillas and picadors.

 

It seemed that some matadors were not so lucky.  In early July 2016, 29 year old professional matador Victor Bario was tossed into the air and then gored in a bullfight in eastern town of Teruel.  He died on the way to the hospital.  Incidentally Victor Barrio was at the San Isidro Bullfighting Festival in Madrid in May 2016.  He was probably one of the matadors on the Wednesday bullfight that I attended in Las Ventas.

 

Once the matador gained control over the bull, a picador (wearing wide flat hats) sitting squarely on horseback, entered the arena for that final spike of the lance to inflict injury to the large muscle on top of the bull’s neck, the “morrillo”.  There was argument made by a veterinary group in a Madrid’s university, claiming that with each spike of the picador’s lance or the matador’s sword, the fighting bull would release high levels of beta endorphin hormones which produce pleasure, switching off the pain (https://www.telegraph.co.uk). Spain’s animal-rights group may not agree.

 

THE COUP DE GRACE

The final phase was the matador’s one-on-one encounter with the bull using the famous one-handed red cape, the “muleta.   The performance with the muleta, was the climax of the matador’s artistic display. The matador strove to display an aesthetically and technically coherent performance which culminated in the killing of the bull.  A skilled matador could kill a bull with one artistic pass and a swift, precise single thrust of the steel blade into the bull’s neck (the coup de grace).   The perfect kill comes from a perfect sword thrust accompanied by a stroke of good luck.

 

A few tourists left halfway through the bullfight, unable to continue watching the gory scene. The dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses as  the entire  stadium grew aesthetic.  The crowd sparked by intense euphoria and chanting all the time, rushed into the midst of the arena to ‘shoulder’ and parade the king of matadors around the arena.  Even though Ernest Hemingway never apologized for it, there is no other way of looking at bullfighting as just a systematic and brutal killing of an animal for sport, putting aside the artistry of matador passes and technical precision using the banderillas and the cape.

 

Opinion polls have shown that 60% of Spaniards do not want the bullfighting tradition to continue. Despite the argument that bullfight enthusiasts put forth that execution of passes and the final kill is a dance of skill and art, the animal rights activists claimed that bullfighting is a cruel, barbarous blood sport in which the bull suffers severe stress and a slow tortuous death.

 

It seemed that bulls killed in the Las Ventas are sent to a slaughterhouse.  In Portugal, it is unlawful to kill the bull but in Spain, the bull is killed at  the end of the bullfight.  As one matador, Juan Jose Padilla put it, “In our culture, bulls are born to be killed” (vice.com, Guille Alvarez, June 2017).  I thought I saw  a restaurant in the neighbourhood of Madrid’s Las Ventas, suggesting “rabo de toro de lidia” which is a stew made of the tails of fighting bulls which came from the bullring.   Bull meat has a wild taste because the bull dies in the fever of the fight, according to http://www.livescience.com.

 

There were two images that would haunt me for a very long time.  One was when the bull’s legs buckled under him, staggering and collapsing as the steel blade was driven into the back of his neck in the midst of the cheering and screaming of approvals by the stadium.  The other was when the dead bull was dragged around the arena by the horses for everyone to see.

 

During the long walk back to the hotel, I began to understand why, on my way to the Plaza de Toros, the taxi driver kept asking me if I knew anything about bullfights and if I was really sure I wanted to watch one! No matter how one sees it, a bullfight is just a cruel, elaborate dance of death between man and beasts.

(May, 2016,  1133 words)