Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ebisu festival, Avatar, and Kyoto

The weekend of January 10th-11th was quite eventful! Originally I was planning to go to my writers` critique group in Osaka, but the other members were out of town. But I also knew about a big festival in Osaka, so I called up my friend Kayoko and together we decided when would be the best time to go, and see the new movie Avatar afterward!

So I stayed home and wrote, then headed out Sunday morning for Osaka with my Chinese friend Li (Lee). We got there around 10:00, just in time for worship at J-house (Jesus house) church. Li seemed a little uncomfortable with the very enthusiastic form of worship; he`s much more of a sit down/stand up sort of guy, but he found the message very intriguing. It was given by the Japanese editor of the devotional guide Our Daily Bread. It`s a very new magazine in Japan; devotional books are kind of rare. She preached in Japanese so Li could understand her (after living here three years he`s almost fluent in Japanese), and I had an ear-bud translator with someone in the back whispering the translation so I and the other foreigners could understand. If there was something Li didn`t understand, I would whisper the English to him and he would usually get it then.

She talked about the importance of daily devotions and how through the Bible and prayer, we have a direct connection to God. She stressed that it doesn’t matter whether you use a devotional guide or read straight from the Bible without a guide; the important thing is to have a routine of Bible reading and prayer and to stick to it. Li said that the talk motivated him to read the Bible more.

I was worried all through the service about Kayoko, because she was supposed to meet us at the church before the service started. (She quit her job that she didn`t like in Iga and lives in Kyoto now with her family, looking for another job.) But we found her afterward! She just slipped in a little late. So we stayed for lunch and chatted with the J-house folks. I got to see my old friends Christina and Jennifer. Li seemed excited to meet Christians and wants to go back there some time.

Next we went to the Ebisu festival. There are “seven lucky gods of fortune” in Japan, the most popular being Ebisu (god of fisherman and merchants) and Daikoku (the god of wealth, commerce and trade) which are often paired together as a single, fat and happy god wearing red, covered in gold, and holding a fish. Every year in early January, millions of merchants and business people flock to the Shinto shrines to pray for wealth and prosperity. What does that tell you about human nature? Nobody even believes in the gods anymore, but they rush to buy their trinkets, touch and rub the statue, stand in ridiculously long lines to clap in front of the shrine and get waved over by a paper stick so that maybe they’ll get lots of money this year.

OK, so maybe I’m no better. I wanted to see the spectacle, so I went to Osaka which has one of the biggest festivals. There were so many stalls selling food and souvenirs. Here’s a typical one:

Everything was soooo overpriced. Thirty-five dollars for a reed stick. I don’t know if that’s because they’re supposed to be “sacred” or they just figure people are willing to pay that much. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy one. I’m telling you, festivals are a huge industry in Japan. There were literally millions of people packed in the streets. Here’s what it looked like on video. At the end you can see the green branch vendors, sort of like Palm Sunday branches, hailing the god:

I’m not sure who the vendors are, but there seems to be a difference between the ones selling souvenirs and food on the street and the ones inside the shrine selling “tokens of the god” like the palm branches, prayer paper to write prayers on and hang them from the trees, and golden good luck charms for wealth. For one, the people selling stuff inside the shrine are all dressed up, and are perhaps employed by the shrine itself. I’m sure the shrines must hire extra help at this time, because these people sure don’t work there year round. Most of the shrine vendors were young women, and wore white robes and golden hats. Here’s one of them:

I’ve been told the street vendors are really in competition with each other for the best places (like corners and nearest the shrine) and that many of them have deals with yakuza (Japanese gangsters), bribing them for the prime spots. Some of them are actually yakuza themselves, some say. I’m a little more inclined to believe that at a huge event like this, where a vendor could very easily make half a million yen ($5,000) in one day selling $5 corn on the cob that costs 50 cents at the grocery store, probably less when they buy it in bulk. (That’s a cob every thirty seconds; believe me, they were selling faster than that.)

As we were leaving, we saw a guy dressed like a geisha. He was one of the temple staff, but I have no idea why he was dressed up. He looked pretty convincing! Here’s Li beside him:

On the way to another shrine we passed through an underground garden near the station. Here is Kayoko amidst the fountain and flowers:

Then we went to the REALLY big festival a few miles away. Wow, talk about a lot of people! There were over five million, according to the reports. We were pretty hungry by then, so we got some food from the vendors. They sure had some interesting fare! Here’s octopus on a stick, right beside the raw mollusks:

We avoided that stuff. Kayoko and I shared a beef kabob and I got a candied apple. It was so crowded near the shrine that people were stopped in the wide streets, packed like sardines from building to building with no place to walk. I got impatient of just standing and not knowing why, so I did something really stupid. As I munched my candied apple, I weaved my way through the crowd to see what was up ahead. Li kept close, and I was planning on coming right back to Kayoko, but just when I could see the shrine, we started moving again. We couldn’t fight against the flow of traffic. We totally lost Kayoko. We tried calling her again and again, but her cell phone kept dying. Also, it was getting close to the time when we had to leave to see Avatar, but there was nothing we could do to break free from the swarm, so we had no choice but to follow it into the shrine.

Here`s the trash heap of “god souvenirs” just as you`re entering the outer gates to the shrine.

Further in, they were selling golden bamboo. Here`s what that looks like:

Finally we got to the end of the massive mile-long line, and for what? To be shaken over by a paper stick, one person at a time. Here`s that:

I decided that was silly and bypassed that line, going right into the inner shrine. Nothing fancy there, just more souvenir vendors. If that`s most people`s idea of religion, it`s no wonder anyone with real faith is scoffed as silly, superstitious, and unscientific.

On the way out, there was a man dressed up like the god. Here`s what that looked like.

We finally broke through the crowd back into the street, but still no sign of Kayoko. We had a little bit of panic as we tried to decide what to do. We had no idea where the theater was where the movie was showing in 3D and English. Kayoko had the map. So Li and I finally decided to go to one he knew of that was pretty close, and hopefully that would be the one. At first we were disappointed that it wasn`t, but the good news was that while we had missed the beginning of the other showing, (6:30), we had plenty of time to catch this theater`s 8:30 showing, which also happened to be in English and 3D and miracle of miracles, wasn`t sold out. And we had time to call Kayoko, and this time her cell phone worked, and she came to meet us. Because the last train to Nabari left at 10:30, while the last train to Kyoto left at 11:50 (the movie was three hours long), we decided to stay with Kayoko that night. So it all worked out in the end. We enjoyed a nice relaxing dinner at a café and then went to the movie. We were afraid we would still have to leave early, but before it started Li found the quickest way to the train station and figured out it would only take six minutes, and bought our tickets ahead of time for us. So we got to watch the whole thing.

Wow! I haven`t seen a movie that good in a really long time. The special effects were incredible, the world well-built, the 3D amazing, and the story phenomenal. It`s always hard to get complex sci-fi concepts to fit and makes sense without disrupting the overall story. They did it well, with just the right amount of explaining. The pacing was also really good, and there was a great deal of poetry and symbolism in the camera shots and the metaphors (both visual and spoken) within the story itself. I really loved the part when Jake was able to run the first time in his new avatar body. That really showed just how much freedom this mission would give him, how it would change his life, and really make him a new person.

The one and only thing that brought me out of the movie was the floating islands. Really? How the heck is that even possible? Sure, I have a floating island in one of my stories, but I have a scientific basis for it. How did they explain dozens of them? Some sort of magnetic field? Then it would have interfered with the ship`s sensors. That was purely there for the “wow” factor, but they already had plenty of that, so adding the floating islands was just dumb.

The aliens were well made, in that they were tall and skinny in a lighter-gravity environment, with tails to counteract the resulting instability (and would also help in jumping from tree to tree like they always did). But, of course, they were waaaaay too much like South American tribal peoples, (what are the chances that they would evolve like that on a totally foreign planet), but the “message” of the film depended on that point. It was obviously an allegory for destroying the rain forest, global warming, etc. But honestly, the metaphor wasn`t overdone. It was sort of refreshing to see the humans as the bad guys this time. One thing I really liked was the avatar idea; besides it`s obvious essentialness to the plot, it made the aliens falling in love and becoming “a mated pair for life” actually believable. (Come on, humans and vulcans mating and having healthy, fertile offspring? First of all, we don`t even have the same hormones! Second of all, law of extra-species incompatibility! That`s scientifically impossible. Ligers, for example, have compensated pituitary glands, and mules are sterile. If it can`t be done by two species on the same planet, how much more impossible would it be between planets? Who didn`t do their research, Gene Roddenberry?)

Anyway, on a more sociological analysis note, it`s interesting to see the phases films go through. A few years ago, on the heels of the “War on Terror,” we were bombarded with films about the enemy being “out there,” foreign, sneaky, cheating invaders and yea for the American military! Low budget films were also doing pretty well, and sad endings were OK, especially dystopian in nature, showing us what we “should be afraid of.” Now that everyone is eager to bash the old Bush administration and bring in the new, films tend to show military in a negative light, that the enemy is just as likely to be “us” as “them,” and the more flashy, fun special effects and humor to distract us from the economic downturn, the better. A film like Avatar, while good no matter when it is released, would probably not have been so well received a few years ago. And now, try to release a low budget film exemplifying the U.S. military and attacking outsiders, with a sad ending to boot, and you`d probably be jumped in the street.

What I`d really like to see is a novel fleshing out so many of the great ideas in Avatar. How did the neuro network evolve? How does it work exactly? How did the native people come to find out the humans were using avatars? How about the social hierarchy among the native people? How long have the humans been at this? Did it start as pure study or was the “let`s see what we can get from this planet” mentality there from the beginning?

As soon as the movie ended, we rushed out of the theater ahead of everyone else to catch our train. We had plenty of time, it turns out. On the way back, we all chatted about our impressions of the film. It was interesting so see three different cultural perspectives. Kayoko had never seen a 3D movie before, and she loved it, but fell asleep during the first part. Li, however, did not seem to like it much. He found it too fast-paced with not enough breathing room and a little hard to follow. (I don`t think it was a language thing because it was in English with Japanese subtitles, two languages he is fluent in.) I`ve seen Chinese films and they tend to be very slow, with long, silent pauses between characters and scenes of silently strolling through gardens. This has to do with the Zen Buddhist concept of space and time, like a rest in music or a “beat” in a play. These are not simply empty moments, but filled with all kinds of thoughts, dwelling the simplicity of the moment, what came before, and what will come after, etc. I have a lot of respect for this kind of art form, but I must confess I find it quite dull. As an American I have been brain washed to want everything right now, including stories. Too long a beat or pause feels like a waste of time, whether or not it really is.

American films used to be like this. Just think of the great epics like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments and you`ll see what I mean. Camera shots, for one, used to be about ten seconds long. Now they`re an average of about two seconds. The camera is moving constantly, and actors don`t pause between lines, and scenes are cut very short. We have commercials and MTV to thank for that. Give it to me fast, give it to me now, in thirty-seconds or less, every second means money. The MTV and commercial directors of today are the one rising up to make tomorrow’s movies. But that “every second counts” thing is also making movies longer to shoot, and more expensive to make. Interesting oxymoron.

OK, film major rant over. We got to Kayoko`s house around 1:00am and stayed the night there, which was very comfortable. We never saw her mother; she was already in bed when we got there and already at work when we got up around 9:00am. (Monday was a holiday, so we didn`t have to go to work.) We had a nice, slow morning, discussing the history and spread of Christianity (or more like Kayoko and Li asking me questions and me doing my best to answer them) over miso soup and oranges for breakfast. About 11:00 we headed out to see a nearby temple. Kyoto streets are very old, narrow, and charming. Here`s what one looks like, notice the modern touch of pikachu (that`s a popular cartoon character for those of you older folks out there):

Normally it costs money to enter the temple, but that day we were lucky and it was free! The inside was very beautiful, much more ornate than the temples I`d seen in Nara. I wonder if it has to do with the time period it was built in. Nara temples are much older (Nara was the first capital of Japan, Kyoto the second) and the later period of Japanese history is known for it`s more flowery poetry, splendid geisha, and performing arts.

But the temple grounds were fairly plain, with several buildings; some you can go in and some you can`t. Here`s what they look like:

Inside one of the buildings you couldn`t enter were chanting monks. Their music was a capella (no instruments) and sounded a lot like Gregorian chant. Interestingly enough, Kayoko told me it originated about the same time. Very beautiful. Here`s a video of what they sound like. Notice there is a leader and then the others follow. The man in the beginning is Li. I tried to peak inside, but suddenly felt very weird about that, as it seems that would be disrespectful.

We continued to wander around Kyoto for several hours. Here was a rather interesting shrine we found. It looks like an old, Samurai warrior`s hat, and all around were the traditional red posts. There used to be deer, but they were getting eaten by wild dogs, so they were moved to Nara, Kayoko said:

We wound up at Kyoto university. We looked around there for awhile and enjoyed seeing all the twenty-year-old girls dressed in their kimonos for “Coming of Age” day. In that festival, men and women who have turned twenty in the last year go to the local shrine or somewhere similar and have a big ceremony inaugurating them into full-fledged Japanese society. Traditionally it`s a bigger deal for girls than boys because it used to be the time when they could be given in marriage. The fact that they do it all together tells you something interesting about Japanese society, doesn’t it? In the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and South America, the “coming of age” ceremonies are a highly individualized affair. Bar/Batmitfas for Jews, Qince anos (fifteen years) for Hispanic girls, eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays for Americans and Europeans. In Japan, the ceremony is all about the group, coming of age together, so much so that it is a national holiday, so that the whole country can celebrate the new generation coming into their own.

We had lunch at the university student union, and the food was very good and the prices cheap. There was a lot more we could have seen in Kyoto afterward, but we were all very tired, so Li and I went back to Nabari after that. On the way back, we met these interesting characters, probably advertising the Ebisu festival. Japan is full of this stuff, and I can never resist getting a picture:

All in all, it was a lovely weekend, though I think in the future I will avoid huge festivals with gigantic crowds you can`t even swim through.

Right now it is snowing. Mostly all we get is cold, grey, sloppy rain, so this is a nice change. It`s very beautiful. And fortunately, I did not ride my bike to school today.

Prayer request for this week: On Saturday, I`m headed for Korea! I`m visiting some of my Korean Christian friends there and my friend Casey from the University of Tulsa who is now teaching English in Seoul (the capital). Please pray for safe travel and health! (I have been a bit under the weather off and on lately— like a persistent cold that won`t fully go away. The doctor called it “general fatigue” and said I need to get more rest.) Also, I`ve been sending off a lot of stories to publishers and agents lately, but have been getting nothing but polite “no thank you`s” but a few very nice recommendations for others who might be interested. Please pray that something comes through, eventually, in God`s time! (In the mean time, I just need patience.) I`m struggling a little bit with my latest novel, too and some days I just don`t feel like writing or doing anything. Classes are going much better this semester; the bad kids have been broken up into different classes so their friends are no longer egging them on. Attendance to my Christian classes has been a little low because of the cold in the evenings; no one wants to go out! I`ve organized a clothing drive at my school to send clothes to the people in Haiti devastated by the earthquake. Despite my personal appeals to my students in class, so far no one has given anything! Please pray that it goes well; heaven only knows how much the clothes are needed. But good news, Pastor Toshi`s father, who is very sick and dying, recently accepted Jesus! Last Sunday we were all around his hospital bed praying for him, and later he said to Pastor Toshi, “That really touched me. I really want what you people have. You`re always so joyful and giving.” He wants to receive water baptism as soon as possible.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,
L. J. Popp

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Finally, I get around to writing about Christmas and New Year, a month late! Believe me, it was crazy, and the pace hasn`t really let up since then!

I returned from China Thursday night (Christmas Eve) around 11:00pm, and crawled into bed somewhere around one AM after dinner and minor unpacking and such. Fortunately, I had the first two hours off of school the next day! Christmas morning I got up at 9:00am and made stuffing for the church Christmas dinner that night. Then I took the train and bus to school around 10:00 and got there about 10:30. My friend Kae picked me up at school around 12:00 at my lunch break, and together we went to the church and prepared the turkey and stuffed it. I didn`t realize it was so complicated! Japanese people don`t have ovens, so we had to cook it in the microwave on the “Oben” setting.

By the time we were satisfied that it was cooking well, it was 2:00 and I went back to school without any lunch. Kae, bless her heart, stayed at the church all day cooking and watching over the turkey. That was so nice of her. Two hours was a long time for me to be away from school, but no one minded because there were no kids; they had winter vacation. So why did they make me work on Christmas Day? That`s just irritating. Lots of people have commented that, “Oh, you`re so lucky, Japan has so many national holidays and you get a lot of days off.” In America, teachers get four months off of school all together. In Japan, we get twenty-five days. Joy.

Not that I`m upset with my lot here. I actually am pretty lucky. My job is easy yet stimulating and I like it. I suppose I could have insisted on getting Christmas off and they probably would have given it to me. Next year, I`m going home for Christmas, so they won`t be able to make me work regardless.

Then Kae picked me up again at 4:15 and we returned to make mashed potatoes, gravy and finish the turkey. It caught fire once, which was interesting. Fortunately, I had baked my pies the week before and froze them before I went to China, so that was one headache I didn`t have to deal with. I had baked two peach, two pumpkin, and one blue berry/oreo cream pie, which honestly simply came out of the fact that I had run out of other ingredients and wasn`t about to spend another man en (\10,000, or $100) to get more. Nearly everything was from scratch. The crust was smashed cookies mixed with butter, the pumpkin came from real pumpkins that I cleaned, boiled, and mashed myself into puree. It took three evenings to make all five pies. But in the end, I think it was worth it; they turned out very delicious!

At 6:30 before the dinner, we had a lovely candlelight service. Twenty-four people came! Mostly new. The pastor read from John chapter one about Jesus being the Word of God and the creator of the world. He gave an excellent sermon about who Jesus is and what he means for us today. One lady got up and left in the middle, and we wondered if she was offended, but later her daughter said she simply had to go to work. She just left her daughter there! There was another lady there with her daughter and husband who was her friend, so they took the girl home, but still, we couldn`t believe it.

After the sermon, I sang “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” In Japanese and English. (1st verse Japanese, 2nd English, 3rd Japanese.)My voice totally cracked, but it was OK. I didn`t mess up the words. Then I gave my ten minute testimony, (which I previously posted on this blog), and afterward people said it was very moving. Then we sang Christmas carols while holding our candles. That was my favorite part. Most Japanese people know Christmas carol tunes because they hear them on the radio around Christmas time, but the ones on the radio are always in English. We sang with the Japanese lyrics, so I realized that many of them may have never realized the meaning behind the words until now. I told you how my Thursday night class was shocked that “Christmas” literally translates to “Jesus worship.” They just have no idea, because no one has ever taught them before!

This is a picture of everyone after the service:

The woman holding the little girl is Pastor Kumi (Kumi sensei), and the little girl is her daughter Ia-chan. I am standing beside my Pilipino friend Karen and the woman kneeling in front of us in the red sweater is Kae, and the woman kneeling beside her is Kaumi (I think that`s spelled right). They are both members of the church, along with Kaumi`s husband on the other side of the room, holding their son. The old man with glasses standing in back is Yoshida-san; he is also a member and just lost his wife Emiko to cancer. Pastor Toshi (Toshi sensei), Pastor Kumi`s husband, is taking the picture. His eighty-two year-old father is sitting in front. He was a psychiatrist in Tokyo, but he`s very sick now so he is living with Pastor Kumi and Pastor Toshi. Kumi Sensei was pastor of the church first, and then she was joined by Pastor Toshi, and they soon got married. The church is in the bottom floor of their house.

After that, we had a wonderful dinner! We had turkey and stuffing and chicken and sandwiches and mashed potatoes with turkey gravy and of course, Christmas cake! That`s a really fancy layered strawberry shortcake eaten by Japanese people around Christmas time, introduced by the American G.I.s after World War II. My pies turned out really well; everyone loved them. At first I was really disappointed with the blueberry/oreo cream pie, because it was very viscous and didn`t hold together as a pie should, but then I discovered it made an excellent topping for the other pies. We didn`t have any ice cream, so others quickly followed this example and it was great! Several ladies asked for the recipe afterward.

Blueberry/oreo cream topping:
Half a pound of frozen blueberries
A quarter pound of smashed opon man cookies (any type of cheap sugar cookie)
A quarter pound of smashed oreos:
Half a cup of milk
One tablespoon sugar
One tablespoon butter

I suppose if you actually want it to be a real pie, you could substitute condensed milk or cream for the milk.

Best of all, I had a lot of leftover pie, so I took it home to enjoy with my friends for the next week or so. Pastor Toshi said that next year we shouldn`t have turkey. It was a lot of work. Maybe we`ll have honey-basted ham instead. Unlike America, Japan is pretty good about not putting nasty allergy-flaring preservatives in pork products. (American pig always gives me a migraine.)

So to make myself feel better about working on Christmas, I pretended Christmas was actually Christmas Eve, and the next day (Saturday) was Christmas. I slept in, talked to my Mom and Dad on skype (it was still Christmas for them, thanks to the fifteen hour time difference), opened a few presents friends gave me, put my Chinese candy in a santa hat and enjoyed it throughout the day as if it were from a stocking. Here`s a picture of Chinese “cactus candy.” Yes, it really is made of cactus. You can even see the spines on it still. It wasn`t particularly fun to eat, so I gave most of it away as omiyage to the teachers at work, who seemed to love it. I call this picture "cactus candy man" because it looks like a little person.

I spent the day editing my short story, “Tapestry of Time.” Sunday was church again, and I stayed almost the whole day planning the New Year`s Eve and New Year events with Pastor Toshi and Kumi. Monday I had to go to work, but I had Tuesday through Friday off! I spent the time writing and submitting my novel Dargon, the Human Slayer. Thursday (New Years` Eve) I submitted “Tapestry of Time” to the international Writers of the Future Contest. If I win, I get some prize money and a free trip to a week-long conference in LA where lots of agents and publishers will be waiting. Wish me luck!

Thursday night the church was planning a big count down celebration, but Kae got sick and the pastors decided no one would show up (Japanese people are really busy cooking and cleaning on New Years Eve), so I was really disappointed and lonely. All my friends were off drinking or visiting family, so I decided last minute to go to the Universal Studios count down party.

Don`t go. It was a waste of time and money, loud, crowded, and with a freeeezing cold wind. It was almost a hundred dollars to get in, plus the twenty-five dollars it took to get there and back. It was just a bunch of people dancing on a big stage. Here they are:

Sorry the picture swivels weird-- I was trying to get a crowd shot put all you can see is a wave of blackness for a few seconds.

Here`s the giant color-changing Christmas tree:

And here`s the hip-hop dancers. They were slightly interesting:

Here`s the countdown:

The fireworks look impressive on video, but when you`ve been standing outside for several hours waiting for them (the fireworks were the main reason I went) in a negative ten degree wind chill, and that`s it, they were extremely disappointing. The staff was planning a whole half-hour display, but with the wind they said it was too dangerous.

I brought a small bottle of sparkling cider left by my predecessor to drink in cheers of the New Year, but it broke in my bag and the juice got everywhere, making everything sticky. I also lost a really nice glove, but again, I can`t complain too much because it was a pair left by my predecessor so I didn`t have to pay for them, and a replacement pair only cost ten dollars. I stuck around for the New Year parade at 1:30am, thinking it might be some consolation, but it was only about two minutes long and really pathetic. The whole party was catered to Americans, nearly all the songs American pop, almost everything in English, but the only foreigners there were the performers, and I hated it, but the Japanese seemed to love it. Weird.

So exhausted, miserable, and missing my family, I got the 2:00am train back. (Normally trains stop running around 10:00-midnight, depending on the area, but New Years is an exception.) I set my alarm and was trying to stay awake for my stop, but I must have nodded off and my alarm malfunctioned. I missed my stop. I woke up, didn`t recognize the station name where we had just stopped, and stammered, “Nabari wa doko des ka?” (Where is Nabari?) A nice lady sitting next to me helped me figure out that it was two stations back, but I would have to wait five more stations before I could get to one with a train back to Nabari. So I got off at that stop around 3:45, and had to wait until 4:00am for the next train in the freezing snow. I didn`t get back home until 4:45. It was definitely my worst night in Japan so far, but I really only have myself to blame. Lesson learned; not making that mistake again.

The next day was much better. I got up at 10:00 to go to our New Years church service at 11:00. New Years is the biggest holiday for Japanese people, one of the only times they don`t go to work and get to spend time with their families. The mothers cook a huge meal and the father actually eats and sleeps at home. As far as I can tell, Japanese men typically don`t stay with their families most of the time, but often eat and sleep in hotels or a separate home even when the family is not divorced. At least, this has been the case in every household I have visited, and every Japanese family I have gotten to know with the exception of Christian families and my supervisor, who is newly married.

So suffice it to say, not very many people came to church, only seven, counting the pastors, their daughter, and Pastor Toshi`s father. But we had a nice service, praying for the New Year, and afterward we toasted in the New Year with sparkling grape juice. [“Cheers” is “Kampai” or literally “Drain the cup.” Usually at Japanese parties, they toast with saki (rice wine) and no one can eat or drink anything until the host makes the kampai. Japanese people drink A LOT and in some business circles, men can not be considered close friends until they get drunk and do karaoke (singing) together. Of course, at the church it`s strictly no alcohol.] Kae taught us how to make rolled sushi and we ate that with machi in miso soup. Miso is bean paste, and machi are rice cakes. Totemo oishi des yo! (Very delicious, for sure!) Here is a picture of us all preparing the lunch:

And this is Aia-chan eating rolled sushi:

And this is me, Kae, and Ia-chan with our New Years gifts. They were lovely candles given by the pastors in thanks for the work we do at the church:

We stayed and talked and joked and planned for the year until about 5:00 in the afternoon. So New Years Day was much better than New Years Eve. My church family made all the difference. Still, I`ll be glad to spend it with my biological family next year. I miss them so much!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Adventure in China Part VII

My final day in China I awoke bright and early and came to Lu’s apartment again as his dad was playing the violin. I packed up all my things and put them in the car and said my goodbyes to Lu’s mother, grandmother, and dog Burbur. We left about 9:30 to go to Lama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist Temple.

The Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty ordered the construction of Lama Temple in 1780 to welcome the Sixth Panchen Lama to China from Tibet. (In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a ranking system similar to the Catholic Church, only it has to do with the reincarnation of gods or really important people. So instead of the pope saying he is St. Peter’s successor, it would be like the pope saying he is St. Peter. Dali Lama is the highest, Panchen Lama is the second highest.) The building of the temple was meant to promote peace between the Tibetan and Chinese people. If I understand the history correctly, this was a time when China had very little power in Tibet, though they were trying to gain more by controlling the Dali Lama.
There are a great many religious relics at this temple, and dozens of statues of various versions of Buddha.

It’s interesting to note that the Indian version of Buddha tends to be thin, while the Chinese version tends to be outrageously fat, and the Tibetan seems to be somewhere in the middle. Of course, pictures were strictly forbidden inside the various temples, but I could take pictures outside. Here’s one statue:

Here’s another one. I don’t know what the colored tassels hanging from the ceiling are for, but if they’re like the much less colorful Japanese version hanging in the Iga museum near my home, they are trappings that follow the statue whenever it moves somewhere. Just decorations, basically, like stained glass windows.

And these are some of the instruments used in worship; shells lined with gold, though I’m not exactly sure what they were used for. The explanations were all very vague, my questions unanswered by the tour guides, and sometimes I had to wonder if anyone really remembers what they were for.

Here is the robe the Emperor wore when he came to worship here:

Lama temple was the only temple I went to in China where there were actually worshipers. And lots of them. The smell of incense was thick in the air and made me a little sick to my stomach. Traditionally people take three sticks of incense and bow before the statue. Here’s what that looks like, at a respectful distance, but with zoom:

You can’t see it in the video, but after that they go into the temple with the incense and bow again, then put it in a little incense holder, and prostrate themselves before the statue. I didn’t think it would be very respectful to video tape them doing that in the inner temple.

Whoever said religion in China is dead-- lied. Or did they? It’s hard to know whether the people even know what they’re doing. But I’ve covered that before with reasons why I think they don’t understand, (for one, they tell me they don’t understand it), so I won’t restate my reasoning, except a few new insights on Buddhism I learned recently.

I just felt very sick being there. And sad. It’s a statue. Yes, I realize it’s supposed to symbolize something more, but no one seems to know what that something is. There are dozens of sects of Buddhism, and none of them agree about who or what God or gods are, or even if they exist. While denominations of Christianity do not always agree, we at least all believe in one God, that Jesus is His son and our savior, and in the Bible as the Word of God.

Some Western Christians think that the parts of the Bible that go on and on about not worshiping idols are obsolete, except in a symbolic way meaning that idols can be money or power or approval or success, etc. That is true, but sorry to break it to you, Western Christians, there are still millions, maybe billions of people in India and China and Tibet and probably other places worshiping idols, so those parts of the Bible are NOT just symbolic. Some people still need to hear them.

OK, off my soap box. I’m not saying I didn’t like Lama Temple; I’m really glad I went there. It was a real eye-opener. I shared some of these thoughts with Lu, and we had some really deep, interesting conversations. I think our friendship has grown much stronger since we were able to share these things.

Moving on, Lu and his father took me to lunch at another instant boiled mutton restaurant. Man, that stuff is soooo good. It amazes me what genius ideas haven’t crossed over from culture to culture, whereas some really stupid stuff you would never imagine (ehem, some anime shows) have made it over. For example, carrying stuff on your head in Africa! Nobody does that anywhere else, but look how much straighter their backs are! Chocolate cheesecake. I made it for my friends, and they said I should get the patent in Japan, because it doesn’t exist here! Half the stuff I cook my Japanese friends ask, “why don’t we have this in Japan?” But of course, I’m using Japanese ingredients you can’t get in America. The other day, I took some delicious Japanese mochi (rice cake) and mixed it with Brazilian dark chocolate to make the most amazing desert ever! Apparently no one has ever done it before. I can’t believe that! How long have the Japanese had access to chocolate? How long have Americans had rice flour? Not that hard to figure out! The problem with America is that we don’t have all the delicious fresh seafood, giant fruits, and sweets the Japanese have, and the problem with Japan is that they don’t know how to cook their delicious food well! They pickle and boil everything. So, I prefer a mixture of the two cultures.

Which is why I love Chinese culture so much. I think it’s the perfect balance. Japanese ingredients, fried in sauce. Politer than Americans, but not so much that they embarrass you like the Japanese. Laid back, but hard working. Generous and considerate, but not afraid to tell you if they need something or if something is inconvenient for them. They hug and touch you (unlike most Japanese), but not too much like some Americans. Friendly, but not obnoxiously so. Very family centered. Ancient culture, modern mindset. I’ve never met a Chinese person I couldn’t get along with; in fact, I’ve never met a Chinese person I didn’t want to be friends with. They’re always very appealing to me.

On the way to the airport, I saw some guys playing traditional Chinese chess. Here’s what that looks like:

Lu was hoping to show me a famous Cathedral while I was there, but we couldn’t fit it in. That just means I’ll have to go back next year! I was kind of sad to leave. But on the previous note, Christianity is much more popular in China than Japan. Only about 6% of the population, but that’s 70,000,000 people. So there are quite a few churches.

Lu dropped me off at the airport and I was able to find my gate just fine. It was Christmas Eve, so on the way I found these girls dancing and singing to Christmas songs. They pulled me up and got me to sing “Jingle Bells” with them! That was fun! We were being video taped, so maybe I’ll be on China television twice! Crazy. Here’s a picture after the song.

Afterward, they gave me a Christmas card and the little...bat(animal)/bat (thing you play baseball with) I'm holding in the picture. I have no idea what it's supposed to mean. I wanted to stick around and just get a video of the girls, but they kept pulling me up to sing and dance with them and I didn’t know the moves or the words, so I took off! That was embarrassing; I won’t show that video. I’ll just remember how lovely and fun the first song was and forget the one after. It was nice, because I felt like I got to take a little part of China home with me for Christmas.

My plane arrived in Osaka 8:30 pm. I hadn’t realized how good I had gotten at Japanese until I landed and was wondering how I would find a way back to Nabari so late. Then I heard some girls talking in Japanese, and low and behold, I understood them! Going from a country where I only understood a handful of words and phrases to where I had been studying that language for almost a year made a world of difference! Then I was glad to be home. I asked the girls what bus I should take, and they helped me find it. I talked with them all the way home in Japanese and English. They were really nice. Japanese people are nice too and mostly I get along with them just as well as Chinese people. So I wasn’t sad anymore.

And my Chinese friend Li was at Nabari station at 11:00pm to help me with my luggage. He wanted to hear all about China, and told me about his trip to an island south of Osaka to go fishing. He promised to take me some time, maybe when it’s warmer.

So that was China! The next few days, Christmas and so on, were crazy, but I’ll save them for another post!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Adventure in China Part VI

We started out the sixth day very pleasantly and slowly. While I was taking a shower at Lu’s house, I heard his Dad playing the violin. It was very lovely, and reminded me of back home in Oklahoma, where all day long our house was filled with music, either my mother or brother practicing the piano, or me or my father singing. I knew one traditional Chinese song, and sang it for them, and they were really surprised. They gave me two CDs, one of Chinese violin music and one of traditional Chinese folk songs. I’m enjoying them very much. Over breakfast, Lu and I chatted about our childhoods and the pets we had. I didn’t know he liked animals so much. It was fun comparing popular pets from two different countries and what we called them. (America seems to have weirder pets than China; Lu almost freaked out when I told him my family keeps a pet snake.)

We finally left the apartment about 10:30 and went to the food processing plant of Lu’s dad’s friend for lunch. I have no idea why he invited us; I guess people in China are just really nice and do that sort of thing for each other. We waited for him a very beautiful room filled with vases. Here it is:

And this is a traditional Chinese tea set on the table. This frog is a traditional good luck charm for a business man. It has a coin in its mouth, but, a rather funny detail Lu told me, it has no buttocks. So money can only go in, not out!

Then we had a very nice dinner, one of the best I’ve ever had, with the business man and his colleagues. All of it was food from their plant, mostly smoked. Smoked pork, smocked vegetables, smoked chicken and beef and all manner of traditional soup. The best was the smoked peppers and shrimp, though I avoided the smoked pig intestines. They ate traditional Chinese style with a revolving table top. When the food you wanted passed you, you took some. I’ve only had that once before, at a Chinese restaurant in Malawi, and it’s a very good system. I think the Chinese like food a lot more than the Japanese. At least they know how to cook it right. The Japanese have all these great ingredients available to them, fresh fish and rice and sea weed and all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables you can’t get in the U.S., and what do they do? They boil and pickle the heck out of them. I’ve told you about how shocked my students are to see me eating fresh vegetables, right? It’s like they’re poison to them. They eat raw fish, for goodness sake, why not raw vegetables? So sad. Anyway, here’s a picture of the revolving table and dishes, so you can get an idea:

Then Lu and I went to the National gardens. When we first arrived, there was a lady dancing and singing opera. Here she is:

She asked me if I could sing. I sang for her some of my favorite traditional Christmas songs. She knew some of them, and we sang together. I really miss singing. I do it in my apartment all the time when I’m alone, probably much to the annoyance of my neighbors, and I get to sing at church of course, but I miss singing in a choir and really performing. Our church is too small to have a choir. When I get back to the U.S., I would really like to be a church choir director. That’s a fun, artistic job that will also give me lots of time for writing. Between my two passions, music and writing, I think I could make a living for myself. Either that or go to seminary. So many choices…

Then we went into the arboretum. Orchids seemed to be their specialty. Here’s a picture of a rare one I’ve never seen before. Beside it is a classic Venus flytrap:

There were lots of brides getting their wedding pictures taken, all in traditional Western-style dresses, though not all of them white. I guess that’s the place people go to get winter wedding pictures taken, since the flowers outside are all dead.

That reminds me, Mom, I keep forgetting to tell you! You asked if there are any flowers still alive in Japan. Actually, there are. There are these really pretty bushes covered in pink flowers that bloom year-round, and pansies, just like in America, can survive even the hardest freeze. So can violas and Johnny jump ups. And it stays green; the bushes and grass don’t turn brown like in Oklahoma. So it’s actually not that bad. Normally I get a little depressed during the winter, but when I feel down here, there are plenty of places I can go to get my “flower fix,” so this is a good place for people with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Honestly, I’d call the climate in central Japan “borderline subtropical.” There are palm trees, and they never go brown. It snows every week now, but it never sticks. Not so in China. Everything’s been dead there for awhile, and it’s extremely dry.

And here are some replicas in the garden of terra cotta statues found in the Qin tombs, from back before Christ was born. They found thousands of these, and each of them with its own distinct features, as if they were real soldiers! They were to protect the emperor in the afterlife. Isn’t ancient China amazing?

They were selling whole, giant coconuts for only $2, so I bought one for a snack and drank the milk. Here’s a picture:

Wofu temple, or the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha, was also located in the National gardens. Very interesting. There were many beautiful, colorful statues of the Buddha guards (he is asleep, after all; you wouldn’t want someone sneaking up on him and doing him in unawares— so much for being all-knowing). The statue itself was huge, cast of a single hunk of bronze and covered in silk and velvet blankets. Actually, it was covered so much you could barely see the actual statue. Sorry I couldn’t take pictures; not allowed. The one picture I did get was of the bell tower. Every temple has a bell tower and a drum tower; their name explains their function.

There were a lot of cats playing around the temple; I enjoyed watching them for a bit. Unfortunately they wouldn’t sit still long enough for me to get a picture.
There was a lot more to see in the park, like butterflies and cemeteries, but it closed about 4:30, so we had to leave. Lu said it is most beautiful in the spring and summer when the outdoor gardens are in bloom. I guess I’ll just have to go back some day!

On the way out, we saw a lady doing a sword dance. Here she is:

Then Lu took me to a very famous modern street in Beijing to do some shopping. I bought a few small things for myself and souvenirs for my family. Everything was so cheap! Here's the gate and the traditional Chinese buildings all with modern businesses inside.

Here’s the silk shop. I had no idea there were so many different kinds:

I really wanted a silk scarf, but that shop was too expensive. The next one we went to was so pushy! The lady saw me looking and kept shoving one after another in my face, saying, “very cheap, very pretty! Matches your eyes.” I almost bought one, but Lu said we could get one better and cheaper somewhere else, so I handed the scarf back to the lady. She was so mad! She almost made us pay for it, chasing us out the store and yelling at Lu in Chinese! I can only imagine what she was saying to him.

There were a lot of statue advertisements along the road. Here’s one for Levi Jeans; I have no idea what a horse and buggy has to do with Levis, but here I am in the buggy.

And this is me in a traditional hand pulled rickshaw:

And for some reason there was a whole lot of steam coming from under the street. This is me pulling a Marilyn Monroe pose.

This is a more traditional, narrow barter street. I got the best prices there. Always be on the lookout for those interesting side streets; they’re worth a peek, even if you don’t plan on buying anything. Watch out, though. The peddlers are pushy!

For dinner we ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was curious to see what it would taste like in China. The chicken sandwich is better, but the cole slaw’s no good. KFC is really popular in China; I bet they changed the name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC for the foreign market. Anyway, it seemed to be the foreigner hotspot. I heard Mandarin, English, French, Turkish, and Japanese while I was there, and those are just the ones I recognized! Sorry, no Spanish.

On the way back we ran into a lot of beggars. Of course, you can’t tell who’s legitimate and who’s not, but I’m such a sap. You just don’t see that in Japan. Maybe the needy are there, but are too proud to ask. The Japanese would rather commit suicide than ask for money from strangers, and often they do. Japan has the highest suicide rate of any country in the world, and a high percentage of what’s called “self-inflicted shut-ins” or people who never leave the house EVER simply because they can’t face the world outside. They’re not sick, they’re not old, they just can’t deal with life. And according to a recent Gallop poll, 30% of Japanese people wish they had never been born. Now THAT’s sad. Talk about a country that needs Jesus. The thing is, they think religion is just another weakness. They don’t want God, so they think they don’t need Him.

China, on the other hand, while it has more problems on the surface, seems more willing to admit them and is quicker to realize their need of a savior. Christianity is just exploding in China right now, and I’ve never met a Chinese person who wasn’t at least curious to learn more about it, whereas many Japanese just nod politely and in the most unobtrusive way possible tell me I’m wrong. Not all. There are many Japanese who are curious too, especially young people. The world is changing. We’re in the midst of the first world-wide Great Awakening. Korea, China, Mongolia, Africa, South America. I pray that it’s only a matter of time before we can add Japan to that list. I just hope that someday, when I’m old, I’ll be able to look back and say I was a part of God’s plan, like Jonathan Edwards or C.S. Lewis. That would be a life well lived.

My Adventure in China Part V

My fifth day in China was my second favorite! As I was climbing the stairs to Lu’s apartment, coming from his aunt’s, I saw some elderly folks doing a fan dance. I stopped and watched them for awhile; they were very good! But I couldn’t get a good video because they were so far away, and through the barred glass. But it was fun to watch! If you ever go to China, be sure to get up sometime in the early morning (8:00 is still OK) because that’s when retired people do their outdoor tai-chi, kong-fu and dance exercises.

Then Lu`s mom made a delicious cake for breakfast; soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Around 9:30 we headed out to the Great Wall of China, but the bus didn’t leave ‘til about 11:00 and it was a very long way. The guide told us a bit about the wall`s history as we went (in Chinese; Lu translated). Construction began in the 5th century BC and continued off and on for two thousand years. The current wall stretches 6,259.6 km, or 3,889.5 miles, not including natural walls like rivers, hills and mountains. Its primary purpose was to defend the northern boarder of China from warring clans and Mongolians. It is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space.

We went to one of the most famous sections called Badaling about fifty miles northwest of urban Beijing. There are actually many different sections because of various natural barriers that didn`t require a wall. We got there around 1:00, so we had lunch at a little jiaozi shop. Jiaozi are Chinese dumplings, stuffed with pork or mutton and spices. The Japanese have something similar called gyoza, which is fried instead of boiled. I think I prefer the Japanese version because they`re soft on the inside and crispy/crunchy on the outside, whereas the Chinese version is soft all around. When I told Lu`s mother the difference, she laughed. Turns out the Chinese only fry the leftovers, so fried jiaozi is seen as second rate in China.

Approaching the wall we met a man with a camel. I suppose you could ride the camel around the great wall, but it was really expensive. He even charged for taking a picture! I sneaked one when we were about twenty meters away. Here’s the famous two-humped camel of China’s Gobi desert:

Then we climbed the great wall. That`s right, climbed. Some places were so steep we almost had to crawl on our hands and knees! Here’s a picture near the beginning, of the sign that was erected for the 2008 Olympics:

And this is a shot of an adjacent wall. You can see just how long it is! Also notice the square, low towers. Those were watch towers where fires could be lit if an invader was spotted. The blue thing is a mini-roller coaster that can take you down when you’re finished climbing. There was also a Japanese gondola that I really wanted to take down, but it was closed, probably because it was off season.

It took us about an hour and half to get to the top with only a brief rest. (Sometimes we even ran up the steep hills to make them easier.) At the top we met a Dutch man and his blond-haired, blue-eyed freckled son. Reminded me of my Dutch cousins. He took Lu and my picture at the top. But I already put that picture in my first China blog entry! You can refer back to it if you like.

This is a video from the top:

And here’s another one; notice how windy it is!

Going down, we got to watch a beautiful sunset. Here it is:

We missed our bus, but we were lucky and were able to catch another one in ten minutes, the last one, actually! It was so full we had to stand for part of the ride, but I didn’t mind. We got back around 7:00pm and ate “Muslim food” in Beijing’s Muslim quarter. We had rice with sweet red beans, roubing (flat bread with beef, vegetables, and herbs stuffed inside), pita pockets, kabobs, sugar rolls and honey buns. It was a lot of food, and really good! Here’s a picture:

Lu said it was called Muslim food because there's no pork in it. Actually, it tasted a lot like the Jewish food I had at Temple Israel in Tulsa during Hebrew fest. Don't tell them I said that...

We’d been planning on spending a night out on the town, but we were both pretty tired from climbing the Great Wall, so we decided to turn in early. I hung out with Lu’s family a little bit first. His dad was watching a modern Chinese drama, and I was intrigued by their use of real American actors playing American characters. I was impressed by this, because in American films, we usually have foreign parts played by the wrong nationality (for example, The Jungle Book— who’s brilliant idea was it to get a Hawaiian/Chinese guy to play an Indian, or in Star Trek a Lithuanian to play a Russian; talk about accent mix-up- Russians pronounce their Ws like Vs, not vice-versa!) If you find an intelligent director, the most you usually get is a Chinese-American playing a Chinese native, who may or may not actually speak Chinese (the exception being Bruce Lee).

I went back to Lu’s aunt’s house. We shared some chocolate and watched TV together. She let me choose the channel and assumed I would pick the only English-speaking one, but that was pretty boring and I was much more interested in seeing what other Chinese dramas were like. It amazes me how every culture has their own version of the soap opera. Not that it differs much. The stories are always based on so-and-so getting pregnant with so-and-so’s baby and somebody else wants to beat up the father. The acting is so overdone and the plot so obvious that you really don’t have to speak the language to understand what’s going on. But the thing that interests me about Japanese and Chinese soap operas is that they’re usually based on historical events. I like the costumes and traditional elements mixed in, and trying to guess who the characters are from history.

And that was my fifth day in China!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Adventures in China Part IV

Monday was most definitely my favorite day in China! I got up bright and early to go to Summer Palace with Lu`s friend Jing, the daughter of the family I`d been staying with the past few days. She`s the same age as me and her English, while not as good as Lu`s or Haiden`s who spent time in America, was mostly understandable. Because she works at Summer Palace at night, I was able to get in for free! How awesome is that?

The summer palace was built after Forbidden City and wasn`t nearly as big, but it was much more beautiful and lively than Forbidden City in my opinion, at least in the winter time. (But then, it`s called the “summer palace” because it was the Emperor’s summer get away he only lived in five months out of the year, so maybe it`s even better in July). There is a frozen manmade lake, one of the great fetes of ancient China. (They were building dams and canals and walls surrounding vast gilded cities when Europe was still wallowing in the misery of Black Death.)

When we arrived, there was a man singing opera under a pavilion. Here he is:

This is quite a common sight in China. Random people doing tai chi, kung fu, dancing, or singing in public places. But they`re not doing it for money! They just enjoy it. Maybe they can`t do it in their cramped apartments without disturbing their neighbors. But really, I think it`s mostly for the attention. Only older retired people do it, and when others stop to watch them, they seem to put on extra pizzazz. It`s certainly not something you`d see in Japan, where everyone is so self-conscious and heaven forbid they ever stand out! “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” (Ancient Japanese proverb.)

Here are some statues. For Forbidden City I posted a picture of the lion statue representing the Empress. Here is the emperor statue in the Summer Palace. The ball under his foot represents the world:

This is a mythological Qilin statue. It`s part stag, dragon, and lion:

And this is a view from the top of Longevity Hill, overlooking the lake:

Longevity Hill was made from the soil they scooped out to make the lake, by the way. A very remarkable fete of engineering.

And for my brother Tony the architect, an ornate pavilion, sort of like a pagoda only three stories instead of five. Traditionally, the Japanese are fond of building things that are big, tall, close together and plain. The traditional Chinese like small buildings, lots of space in between, and many tiny details. Of course, modern China is another story all together.

I think I`ve mentioned before just how ornate Chinese art is compared to Japanese art. Just take a look at this pavilion roof. Notice all the little animals carved on it? There`s at least thirty hand-carved animals on that roof, each with intricate detail, and that`s just one roof! There were at least twenty of these roofs scattered throughout summer palace!

And definitely my favorite thing was the long outdoor corridor leading to the Tower of Buddhist Incense:

It must have been a mile long! I suppose the Empress (the most common visitor to the Summer Palace) would have used it to go on walks on a hot summer day to protect her from the rays of the sun, or when it was raining. And all of it hand painted! I could have spent all day there, just looking at the paintings. Here`s one of my favorites:

While we were walking along, there were many vendors selling things. I bought some hot corn because it was so cold, and Jing bought some of the famous Chinese hawthorn candy that I showed on my first China blog post. She let me have some; it was good but Lu`s Mom makes the best!

And this is a traditional Chinese gate. These were on almost every building, and you can find them in a lot of China towns around the world:

Near the end of our time there we ran into a Chinese tour guide who spoke very good English. He was leading a bunch of Americans around. But he didn`t really have many interesting things to say, except that at the time when the Summer Palace was most in use, anybody who was somebody had four wives, even if they were poor.

“How could that possibly be?” I asked. “There would be a shortage of women. Some men would have no wife!” But no one seemed to understand my question, going on about how things aren`t like that anymore, after the Marriage Reform Law of 1950. Seriously, how could a great number of men have four wives unless there were far more females than males, which is naturally not the case? The only thing I could think of was that there must have been a lot of foreign wars the men were compelled to fight, an influx of foreign women, or lots of celibate priests. Here`s a thought: in order to keep a dictatorial military empire expanding at an exponential rate (producing more people) and from having so many widows, a government can choose between two obvious options: force polygamy or compel “serial monogamy” (as soon as a woman`s husband dies, if she`s still of child-bearing age, force her to marry again). Or…women who lost their husbands might be compelled to go to the battlefield in their stead. After all, revenge is a powerful weapon. Hmm, terribly cruel, but an interesting concept. Could come in handy for a story someday. And here`s another thought. In a society where the women fought instead of the men, it would be the women with more than one husband. That is, assuming the cause of polygamy is a gender imbalance caused by lots of war and soldiers dying. Interesting…

As we were coming out of Summer Palace, there was a man flying a long string of kites. He was selling them, of course, but I enjoyed just watching him fly them. My grandpa loves kites, so I think he`ll like this picture:

Then I treated Jing to lunch to thank her for her and her family`s wonderful hospitality. We ate at a very fancy Chinese restaurant. I had real Chinese spring rolls for the first time, but I think I prefer the Tai version, which are crispier. Everything was very good, and afterward, there were some musicians setting up in the lobby to play their traditional instruments. I really wanted to stay and listen, but Lu was already waiting for us at Heaven`s Temple, so we hurried on there. But here`s a picture:

The instrument the man with the long hair is holding is called a Morin Khur, or horse headed-violin (because it used to be made out of a horse`s head and hair and was played by Mongolian warriors). But it`s played more like a cello, and sounds somewhere between a cello and a violin. Like these Western instruments, it is meant to imitate the human voice and most often plays the melody. Personally, I think the popularity of this instrument in ancient China is what made the cello and violin so popular in modern China. In modern Chinese orchestras, traditional folk songs played on this instrument are often reproduced on the violin or cello. The man beside him, I believe, is playing the zheng, also called the gezheng, a plucked instrument similar to the Japanese koto, or maybe it`s the yang-qin, Chinese hammered dulcimer. Isn`t it fascinating how such different cultures, separated by so great an ocean, came up with the same musical instruments seemingly independent of one another? But the music is so different. If you want to know what they sound like, you can go to for some sample songs.

The Temple of Heaven (literally “Alter of Heaven” in Mandarin) was very interesting. It was built in the early 1400s by Emperor Yongle, the same man who built Forbidden City, the Grand Canal of China, ordered the Yongle Encyclopedia to be written, and sent sailing expeditions to explore the known world. He was a pretty busy guy. He also killed thousands of people just for being related to those who spoke a word against him. A very interesting character, and the subject of my current short story “Emperor of the Dead.”

Anyway, Jing left and Lu gave me the tour of Heaven`s Temple. We also got in there for free, because Haiden`s mother worked there. The entrance was very beautiful, thickly forested with lots of people playing games, and at a pavilion I saw a woman doing tai chi. Lu took me to the Hall of Heavenly Music. I wish we could have heard it; from looking at the instruments I have no idea what they would have sounded like. Lu suggested that they were probably each a kind of gong that would have been hit with a mallet, with each tuned to a different pitch. Each monk would have had their one or two notes that they would play when it was their turn, and when all the notes were put together, they would form a melody and harmony. So Mom, it was kind of like an early form of hand bells! Here`s a picture.

Near there, Lu showed me a wall commemorating some of the atrocities done by the Japanese to the Chinese in World War II. The wall was the last remaining part of a concentration camp used by the Japanese to do experiments on Chinese people, like the Germans did to the Jews. They tortured thousands of Chinese to death in camps like these.

It`s not something the Japanese like to talk about, just like they don`t like to talk about Pearl Harbor. It`s not that they`re not sorry. I think that they`re so embarrassed and ashamed, even though it was their ancestors and not them who did it, that they don`t know what to say. And it didn`t really make it into the history books. Many Japanese people have no idea it even happened. But I think there`s still a lot of resentment. I`ve heard some non-Japanese Asians say they really don`t like the Japanese, and some Japanese people say they feel resented when they go to other countries. (Of course, part of that might be because they`re so rich compared to other Asian countries.) And there definitely is a sense of superiority among some Japanese, similar to the obnoxious patriotism displayed by some Americans. (There`s absolutely nothing wrong with patriotism; I love my country. But going around saying you`re better than everyone else when you`ve never even left “the great state of Texas,” now that`s just stupid.) It`s funny how we can still be mad about something that happened so long ago, before our parents were even born.

But things are getting better. Even though the Japanese complain about the “poor state of China,” they still admire their culture and give it credit for being the mother of Japanese culture. And China sure does love trading with Japan, especially CARS! (The traffic situation in China is so crazy!) I have a metaphor for how the world works, based on the history and perspectives of China, Japan, and the U.S., but it`s not very nice to any of the three parties, so I think I`ll just keep it to myself. (If you want to know what it is, you can ask me privately. Lu, I think you already know.)

So back on track, we met up with Haiden (Lu`s Chinese female friend who`s also a TU student who went to the zoo with us two days before) and continued into the actual temple part. What was the Temple of Heaven actually used for? To worship various deities in the Taoist tradition (and some that pre-date Taoism). The sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, the snow, the planets, basically anything in the sky or that comes out of the sky. Sacrifices were offered by the Emperor himself, who served as the main priest at this temple. (He was considered to be the Son of Heaven and the god`s way of letting their will be known on earth.) There were buildings for housing the items for worship and sacrifice, for sacrifice preparation, for practicing ceremonies, and for the actual ceremonies. It reminded me a lot of the temple complex in the Old Testament, only each god has its own alter and name plaque. Sometimes several gods shared a building, which always tended to be small. It`s interesting to note that there was a central, creator God with the largest name plaque, and it was written very similar to the Japanese name for the creator God, Amenonakumishi, God in the Glorious Center of Heaven.

There was also the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Alter where the Emperor prayed for good weather. Here`s a picture of the first one, one of the most famous buildings in China:

Then we went into the museum and I learned about the ceremonies performed there. The king came to the temple twice a year in a huge procession to pray mostly for a good harvest. Apparently these were very grand a showy, but no ordinary person could watch or enter the temple. So I don`t think Taoism, if I`m understanding it correctly, was a religion for the “common people,” but rather for the emperor and other high ups.

Then we proceeded to the “Center of the Universe.” If you stood there, it was built to precise engineering specifications so that your voice would be amplified. Anyone shouting from there could be heard miles away. Weren`t the ancient Chinese ingenious? Here`s a picture of me in the “Center of the Universe.” 

To answer my little brother`s question that he asked me all those years ago, Yes, Benjamin, I really am the center of the universe.

We even got to watch the sunset from the top, but I couldn`t get a good picture of it. As we were coming out, there was a place where you could dress up as the Emporer or Empress. Here you can see a guy dressed in the emporer`s costume:

For dinner we ate at a little “hole in the wall place” that served what common people eat everyday. It was very good, though I can`t remember exactly what we had. Typical stir-fry stuff.

After that, Lu went home and Haiden took me to the Beijing Exhibition Center Theatre where we saw the Premiere of “The First 3D Acrobatic Musical of the World,” Goodbye UFO. Wow! It was great staging, great music, great visual effects, great dancing, great acrobatics! I know you`re going to ask me this, Mom: the music was recorded, I think, because there certainly wasn`t room on or under the stage with all the performers and scenery and 3-D screens, but you really couldn`t tell. There was a director under the stage and the program said it came from the China National orchestra, so maybe there was a place for them and I just didn`t see it. It was filled with variety, from Western classical sounding stuff to 1920s vaudeville to very modern spacy stuff. But no traditional Chinese music; it didn`t have a very “Chinese” feel to it, though it was all traditional Chinese acrobatics and all the designers and directors and composers and performers were Chinese. It was a very beautiful mix of present form, futuristic nightmare/costumes and past traditions.

The story wasn`t so great, but that wasn`t the point, I think. The way it was set up is that there would be some dialogue advancing the plot, then a song and dance, then an acrobatic scene to accent the dance or incorporated into it, and all the while 3-D images of the location being displayed on the screens flanking the stage. Very well put together. Video taping was OK, and I don`t feel morally wrong about it because if anything, it`ll make you want to pay for a ticket to go see the show when it goes on tour! Let me just point out the highlights:

It took place in the future when the Earth is covered in trash (sounds like Wally, doesn’t it)? A little girl is wandering through the trash and bends to pick something up. It cuts her and she`s infected with some unknown virus, then everybody shuns her because they don`t want her to spread it. (How a blood-born disease could possibly become contagious was never explained, or what it did to her except turn her hair red, but as I said, most people weren`t there for the story.) She`s found by the “science lady,” a flamboyant blond who wants to recycle all the trash. She`s ignored by everyone, especially two scientists who want to contact aliens to come get rid of the trash. The scientists` cronies have to “jump through hoops” in order to round up all the trash. (Apparently that clichéd phrase exists in Mandarin as well as English) and after that, the trash still doesn’t want to be rounded up. Here`s the pinnacle of that scene:

Then a robot comes along who was sent by the aliens to survey Earth to see if they can take the trash. The science lady and the robot meet and fall in love. Here`s a video of that acrobatic scene:

She convinces him that they should recycle the trash instead of put it out in space. So she, the robot, and the infected little girl go on a journey to get public support for their endeavors. Along the way, they meet all kinds of crazy characters, like mutant tree insects and “rice balls from another planet,” which I called “star ladies.” They`re doing acrobatics with the traditional giant Chinese yo-yo. In this first video, I don`t know if you can see it very well, but they`re tossing the yo-yos off their strings into the air, flipping onto each other`s shoulders, and then catching them on the string again. Pretty amazing:

And this is the robot showing off his skills, some of the more traditional yo-yo tricks. I thought you might like this one, Benjamin and Grandma, since you both love to play with yo-yos. Have you ever seen anything so amazing?

But my favorite was definitely these guys. I have no idea who they`re supposed to be; the English program just called them “Dream—Equilibrium.” But I nicknamed them the “Terrian dancers” because their dance reminds me of the way my alien characters called the Terrians dance, only with them it`s always a guy and a girl, not two guys: (And in case you`re wondering, they`re not naked. It`s hard to tell in the video:

In the end, nobody cares, so the robot and science lady aren`t able to convince people to recycle. But that`s OK, because the UFO comes and picks up all the “trash,” including the little girl who`s been infected. In case you can`t tell, the aliens and the little girl are balancing balls of trash on their feet while being tossed back and forth between the humans. Here`s that scene:

Then it goes back up in the sky and everybody is happy. Hmm…a little deux machina problem here? Not to mention a bad message. “It`s OK to pollute the earth, because somebody else will fix the problem.” Sorry, sorry, it wasn`t about the story, that was obviously an after thought but I`m a writer and these annoying inconsistencies really drive me up the wall! But the show was absolutely amazing, and I thought of lots of ways to use the acrobatics and 3-D as embellishments of a much better story. Maybe someday one of my stories will have a show like that. Add a 4-D element and it would be ever better.

I understood most of it because Haiden translated. It was also quite funny. The two scientists acted as the comedians, and the science lady had a hilarious nickname for the robot. “Robot” in Mandarin is jiqiren. She called him “jien” for short, which is “You really tick me off.” So every time she called him that stupid nickname, so lovingly, the audience roared with laughter. And such talented actors! They could sing, they could dance, they could act, and they could do acrobatics! The robot was the most amazing: he juggled, sang, flew, flipped, balanced, danced, everything, all in what looked to be a very ridged, hot robot suit. The little girl was also particularly amazing. She couldn`t have been any older than ten, but she sang, danced, and did the most amazing stunts. Maybe she was a really skinny midget.

That night, I went to Lu`s aunt`s house to sleep. Such hospitality! Better than a luxury hotel. She even had a pink piggy humidifier in the room so my lips and hands didn`t feel dried out when I woke up.

And that was my fourth and favorite day in China!