There are big plans for this blog!

We might be back in Canada, but I still have big plans for this blog. I think that the best is yet to come, and here is why!

Amazing travel posts!
Editing photos and blogging while on the road is not the easiest thing. I still have 120 days of unedited photos and about twice as many blog posts to go. I’ve kept some of the biggest photo days for the end, and big days mean that we were doing / seeing something amazing. You won’t want to miss these! Here is what to keep an eye out for:

- Indonesia: Rice terraces and white beaches.
– Laos: Monks, temples, waterfalls, rice farming.
– India: Rivers, cows, temples, camel rides, the Taj Mahal, Tibetan flags.
– Turkey: The Hagia Sophia, Cappadocia, wild flowers, Pamukkale.
– Bulgaria: Sofia.
– Bosnia: Nature, war, architecture.
– Croatia: Walled city.
– Greece: Mountain-top churches, ancient ruins.
– Zimbabwe & Tanzania: Luxurious safaris, the big 5.
– Argentina: Big cities, wine, glaciers, waterfalls and mountains. We went there 3 times!
– Chile: Pisco sours, surf beaches, fjords, the W, penguins.
– Uruguay: Old Colonia.
– Paraguay: Jesuit ruins.
– Colombia: Stunning Cartagena, beaches, jungle and sunsets.
– Panama: Jungle, beaches, poison dart frogs.
– Costa Rica: Beaches and jungle.

Tips, tricks, and so much more!
A little “how to” for fellow travelers and those planning a big vacation. There will be some great stuff in there, from budgeting to travels truths nobody tells you about. We’ll also include trip tallies, top fives and other fun reads.

New city, new life updates!
Once our trip is actually over, we will be moving to Kelowna in British Colombia. I will try to blog about starting our new life on a more day-to-day basis, so that these updates are more current.

With all of these great things coming soon on the blog, you won’t want to miss a post. With a combination of back-dated and day-to-day posts going up at the same time, the simplest way to keep up with everything will be by following one of these easy options.

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Keeping up-to-date with blog posts

As you might know, I am far behind in both blog posts and photo editing. I want my blog posts to have pictures to illustrate the stories of the day, but editing pictures take time. Then, there is the issue of internet: uploading pictures in foreign countries also can take a long time, and finding internet itself can be a challenge. When the stars align, I try to post as much as possible.

To keep blog posts in order, I have been backdating my posts. This mean that what happened on say, today, will appear on the blog with today’s date, even if it might be posted months from now. While this works great in some respects, it doesn’t work too well in others. The issue is mainly that I have been blogging certain posts sooner than others, and so things have been getting blogged out of order (yet with the correct date). The result: it becomes really confusing for readers of my blog to see if there are any new posts by just showing up on the blog’s main page.

There are solutions though to easily keep track of new posts, current or back dated:

  • You can subscribe to the blog’s feed via a feed reader. I use Google Reader and I love it: it allows me to easily track and read all of the blogs that I follow in one spot. Otherwise:
  • You can subscribe to the blog and receive blog posts via email using the “Follow Me” feature on the right-hand sidebar on the blog.
  • If you are a WordPress user, you can subscribe to the blog via WordPress using the “Follow” button on the toolbar at the top of the blog’s page.
  • Lastly, I share some blog posts on Facebook, as long as they are noteworthy.

I encourage you to pick a solution that works best for you, and this way you won’t miss a post.

Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged | 5 Comments

Zōjō-ji temple | Japan

When I was putting together my post explaining the reason behind my current trip to Japan, I came across some writing about Zōjō-ji temple in Tokyo (link in original post). As it turns out, this is one of the main temples in Tokyo offering mizuko ceremonies, along with the possibility for families to purchase a mizuko Jizō statue to commemorate their child.

Since I had never been there, I wanted to make sure that I would stop by Zōjō-ji on this trip.

I arrived at the temple at 7 AM, but the temple buildings did not open until 9 AM. This gave me time to eat breakfast, and to watch commuters stop by for a quick prayer before work.

breakfast of champions

{A breakfast of champions: salmon ongiri (rice ball) and a banana.}

It also allowed me to tour the grounds with hardly anyone around. This was a really good thing, because I found it difficult to contain my emotions when I entered the area dedicated to these mizuko Jizō memorial statues. Now, I think it is important to mention for those who do not know that in Asia, there is this concept of “losing face”, and that this is something you do want to do. Not only does it make you look bad, it makes other people around you uncomfortable. Crying is something that makes you lose face (so would be yelling, or anything that shows a great amount of emotions), so you shouldn’t do it in public. So when I got a bit teary eyed, it was good that no one else was around.

I wasn’t expecting there to be so many statues, all with their caps and bibs and toys. I wasn’t expecting there to be such a vast sea of dead babies. I mean, how can anyone not be sad witnessing such a greatness of loss? Yes, cemeteries in general are sad, but usually people buried there had lived their lives – at least some of it. This was just a large gathering of denied possibilities, a large void.

Some of the statues were new, some were old. Some were well tended, some were neglected. There must have been hundreds… There was also a shrine to pray to, with a Jizō inside and toy offerings in the front. In spite of being so darn sad and depressing, it was also beautiful and peaceful. And they did somewhat cheer things up with all of those pinwheels!

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front and back of a mizuko memorial
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memorial statues recent and old
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mizuko jizo shrine and wishes
mizuko offerings

While there were numerous memorials for the children who never were, the focus here wasn’t on the Jizō deity himself. This site was more of a graveyard, rather than a place to pray. In that respect, this temple did not compete with those I will be visiting in Nagano. Still, it set the tone for my trip, and started the healing process.

Once the temple opened it’s doors, I went in for a prayer and meditation. I did shed a few tears, all the while trying to totally not look like I was crying. Once I was ready I went through the gift shop (you can always buy amulets and charms and souvenirs at temples), and bought a little “self-rightning” Jizō statue (their wording, not mine) to add to my home altar. I also got my first go-shuin of this trip, which will make a nice little memorial for my pilgrimage. (This post has an image explaining the different sections of the go-shuin). Here it is bellow!

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I walked around the temple a bit more afterwards, and so here are photos from other areas of the grounds. One thing that makes this temple pretty special is that it stands before Tokyo Tower, a famous Tokyo landmark. Can you believe that of all of my trips to Japan, I had never actually seen it? Apparently this temple makes for a great shooting location at night when the tower is all lit up.

zojo-ji temple and tokyo tower
fortunes
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My first evening in Tokyo | Japan

I left Texas on the 8th in the early morning and landed in Tokyo on the 9th, in the afternoon. You can read all about the flight and getting into Tokyo here – this post is the second half of my super long day into Tokyo.

After checking in and dropping off my bags, I headed out right away. From the hotel I walked to Asakusa, an area popular with tourists that’s about a 30 minute walk away. The main attraction: Senso-ji temple. I visit every time, because 1) it is close to the hotel, it’s 2) where the better food is around the hotel, and 3) it’s still full of life at night.

I walked around the temple a bit before dinner. Just before leaving the temple, I noticed that everyone was staring into the horizon and taking photos of the sky. It turns out that the full moon had risen, and it was orange and huge! Unfortunately it wasn’t big enough to make any photo attempts worth sharing, especially without a tripod and a bigger lens.

gate at night
pagoda and gate
taking photos of the pagoda
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For dinner I stopped for ramen at this tiny shop just off the temple area. This bowl of ramen was really unusual, for two reasons. First, the egg had a double-yolk. Apparently this was a big deal and this restaurant’s signature touch, because it was widely advertized in the window and on the walls (in Japanese only). The egg felt much larger than a regular extra-large chicken egg, but all I know is that they come from somewhere near a mountain that’s 2038 meters tall (a quick Google search turns up Mount Iwate, “one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful mountains”). Perhaps it was a goose’s egg? Who knows. Second strange thing about this bowl of ramen was the addition of lemon zest. At first it was different and fun, but in the end it was a bit too much. Overall though, it wasn’t a bad bowl of soup – just an unexpected one!

ramen dinner

On my walk back to the hotel I went to the shores of the Sumida River (not a big detour really, just one block away from where I was needing to be) to try to get a better shot of that moon. Unfortunately, by that point clouds had rolled in and it has gotten smaller. However, I still took a few pictures because the moon was beside Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest radio tower. We had seen Skytree under construction during our last visit.

everyone is taking photos
sky tree, the moon, the river, and a boat

I made it back in time to the hotel for my scheduled soak in their private bath. Traditional baths in Japan are not like baths back home: here, it’s treated more like a hot pool. You wash yourself first, then you enter this really hot bath that does not get drained. I mean, it does get drained, I just don’t know how often. Anyway, this one is on the top floor with a view of the city, and it’s pretty nice because it is private! In most hotels the bath is communal. After such a long travel day, my tired body really needed that hot bath!

my date for the evening
happy to be here

Now it’s finally time to get some sleep! Hopefully I have a good night’s rest because I have an early date with some fish tomorrow.

Posted in Asia, Japan, Post with photo | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Let the journey begin | Japan

Getting up at 4 AM this morning was only made easier by the fact that I did not manage to get any sleep last night. This seems to be a recurring problem of mine: I have a really difficult time sleeping before a travel day. Usually it’s not so bad, but when you are about to embark on a 21 hour journey just to get to your destination, having had a good night’s sleep helps.

Heading to the airport, I was really worried. Worried about traveling alone – even though I’ve done it before and have been to Japan 5 times. Worried about my back, both for today’s travel day and every day that will follow in Japan. [Because those posts haven't been written yet, let me explain quickly: I threw my back out in August and learned that I actually herniated a disk. Lots of chiropractor visits, massages, stretching, and reclining later, I was doing fine. Except that a few days ago, I decided to go on a really long walk... and to run part of it... and I hurt myself again.] I was just worried and anxious in general… and I had to keep telling myself that once I land, this will all seem foolish.

So, this is my journey today: Austin to LAX, LAX to Narita, Narita to Tokyo, Tokyo to my hotel. 20 hours of flights, plus over an hour of trains to the hotel.

The first flight went well, even though the seats were ridiculously uncomfortable. The sunrise was amazing, going from this red grow to golden flares. Then the clouds came, and made everything funky. The clouds transformed themselves from peach fuzziness to giving the impression of flying through water. It was pretty cool. I kept shooting the sky on my phone, and made this little movie while eating breakfast in LA. I have to say, that must have been my first video editing experience devoid of cursing.

the first light of the day
strange morning moonscape

In LAX I searched the airport for some (somewhat) private floorspace so I could stretch. My back was really hurting, with a weird pain extending to my right ankle. I have to admit, I made a lot of wincing faces walking to my gate, and even had to stop walking a few times to breath through the pain. Not fun. Not fun either was the total lack of space anywhere to stretch. I had to just do it in public… which felt awkward. But not as awkward as trying to stretch while wearing jeans. What I am grateful for is having had the presence of mind to pack my sarong in my carry on, so I could stretch on top of it. Because let me tell you. I don’t think they know what a vacuum is at LAX.

leaving LA

The flight to Tokyo though was fine. The seats were comfortable. The plane was new, with fancy dimming windows and electrical outlets. They fed us well, although weirdly (breakfast was a ham and cheese sandwich with ice cream, lunch was scrambled eggs). I nearly finished my book. I watched some movies. Now even though I hadn’t slept at all the night before, for some reason I was not feeling tired. I knew that I had to sleep though, so I took some motion sickness medication (it always puts me to sleep), put my eye mask on, and forced myself to sleep. I think that I may have gotten in 5 hours of sleep?

flight progress map

We landed on time and safely. Customs took a long time, but went well. I was out in the amount of time I had anticipated, and had a little bit of time before my train left. I took that opportunity to activate my Japan Rail Pass, and to book my train ticket for Nagano.

The train into town was super easy: I even treated myself to the fasted train and saved myself the extra 30 minutes. I was surprised at how empty the train was – to top things off, no one else in my wagon went as far as I went. I had the whole thing to myself!

made it!
no one else is going to ueno

Finally, I made it to my hotel. My good old hotel, my “usual” spot for Tokyo. It was really nice to already know where I was going, and what to expect. Even though it is located in one of Tokyo’s worst neighborhood (because of the Yakuza – honestly this place is really, really safe – safer than so many other places in the world!), it is relatively convenient and quite affordable.

Here is my room: it’s slightly bigger than a closet but has a lot of storage. Rooms in Japan are calculated in terms of the number of tatami mats they can hold (all mats are roughly the same size): this one holds 3. It’s big enough for me. And brings me back memories from my first trip to Japan: I stayed in a room just like this one back in 2005!

my tiny room

The rest of today’s adventures will be blogged under tomorrow’s date, since landing in Japan resulted in losing a day. See you in the next post!

Posted in Asia, Japan, North America, Post with photo, USA | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

My home altar | Personal

Not knowing when I would ever get to make my pilgrimage to Japan, I decided to get my own mizuko Jizō statue to keep at home. I found one when I wasn’t looking, in a gardening center. It’s a small statue made of cement, and I am pretty sure that it is the Chinese deity Guanyin and not actually Jizō. Still, it fit was I was after and has been my Jizō ever since.

With the move to Austin and my belongings not being able to enter the country until I got my paperwork, I had to wait a long time to get my Jizō back. Then, it was sort of thrown into a bookcase in the moving shuffle, awaiting proper organization of said bookcase.

Today, I figured that it was time to give Jizō the predominant place it deserves, and the space that I needed. I moved the bookcase, changed everything around, and set up a small altar for Jizō. It’s not much really, just a few stones that I love and a candle to light. I may add to it with time, but until then, I am happy that it has a dedicated space. I can now sit by it and meditate, and talk to my babies.

my home jizo altar

Do you have an altar in your home? What should I be adding to mine?

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We are not alone | Personal

This is going to be the most personal post as of yet. This isn’t easy. So why am I doing it? Not because I necessarily feel the need to share. No. I am doing this because people need to speak up. By staying silent, I feel that I am helping to keep a very painful, and very common, reality hidden. By not speaking up, I am helping to make women feel isolated in their grief. That is the last thing I want.

This is my story, our story.

Like many couples we wanted to have a family. Like many couples we tried to get pregnant. And like many couples, we had complications. I had two miscarriages, one at about 7.5 weeks and one at about 4 weeks.

When this happens to you, you learn a lot of things. Like that up to 55% of pregnancies end up in a miscarriage, at times with the woman not even realizing that she even ever was pregnant. That most miscarriages are due to chromosomal issues, and that it’s just nature’s way of sorting itself out. That most couples who keep trying end up successfully carrying a child to term. Does any of these facts make it better? Easier to accept? Absolutely not. Even the word miscarriage made me uncomfortable, like I had poorly carried my child and brought this onto myself.

Even though I had done nothing wrong, and had spent 6 months prior doing everything right to get myself to be as healthy as possible, I still felt guilt. Could have I done more? Was it because I didn’t want to get too excited before we reached the 2nd trimester? Was something wrong with me? Was God punishing me or testing me? And why us? What had we done to deserve this?

It has now been more than a year, and still, this is hard. I can’t read or watch something that reminds me of my miscarriages without wanting to cry, scream, or both. Sometimes I am fine and sometimes I feel like I am drowning in a sea of grief. And you know what? That is OK. Being angry and sad and whatever else you feel is perfectly fine, regardless of the circumstances of your loss.

What really marked me though throughout this whole ordeal is that as we shared the news with select friends and family, almost everyone we spoke to knew of someone who had experienced a miscarriage, if not themselves personally. How is it that miscarriage affects so many and yet we hear so little about it? Why is our grief so taboo, so hidden? Why does it feel wrong for us to mourn a life we never got to meet? To mourn an unknown amount of love and infinite possibilities?

Well, there is a place where mourning miscarried, stillborn, and aborted babies is engrained in the culture and publicly accepted. That place is Japan. I had learned about this on my first trip in Japan back in 2005, and this has stuck with me ever since.

After the miscarriages, I was really sad and upset and all I wanted was to do was to travel to Japan on a pilgrimage in order to mourn. Well, my awesome husband is making this happen for me. For my birthday, he offered me a return flight to Tokyo, so I may grieve, meditate, and hopefully, find some closure and heal.

This is the reason as to why I am writing this post: I want to extend some healing and closure to you. If you have lost a baby, be it for any reason, before or soon after birth, I am offering a little bit of help. On my pilgrimage to the temple in Nagano which has lovely Jizō statues (see photos bellow, plus the explanation about the tradition), I can also do the following, for you:
– Splash water on the Jizō statue (this part of the normal ritual for mizuko)
– Light incense
– Carry a letter or note (many parents leave letters for their children)
– Mediate / send loving thoughts / say a prayer on your behalf

I will be heading to Japan on the 8th of September 2014, and will be in Nagano starting on the 11th. If you are interested, simply drop me a line in the comment box (or using the “contact me” information). Just let me know what sort of offering you would like, and for how many children. You do not need to let me know how you lost your baby, if you do not want to.

I really hope this pilgrimage can help you, as I am sure it will help me. You, we, are not alone.

***

Bellow you will find more information about Jizō, mizuko, and some links that do a really good job about explaining the tradition and iconography.

Jizō (the Japanese name for Ksitigarbha) is the Buddhist guardian of children, but more specifically, children who died before their parents. In Japan, he is worshiped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, (lit.: water child) the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses. Some Jizō statues are dressed with red bibs and/or hats, and these statues are sometimes found by the hundreds in temples and cemeteries. Jizō is everywhere in Japan, and actively worshiped. The great thing about Jizō statues and temples is that it gives grieving parents a place to go to mourn, give offerings, and extend something tangible to something otherwise intangible. {Learn more about Ksitigarbha and about Jizō and his associated rituals/iconography/etc in Japan.}

Grieving parents in Japan can also have a memorial service for their unborn child. This is called mizuko kuyō. On top of a memorial service where parents make offerings to Jizō to ensure their child’s protection while in limbo and ensure eventual reincarnation, parents can also have their own Jizō statue, giving them a very personal place to mourn. These statues are visited like one would visit a grave: parents bring flowers, gifts, and wash the statue. Parents visit and pray. There is something tangible. Something real. Parents there have an outlet for their grief, an outlet that no one questions. {Read more about the ritual here, here, here, and here (PDF).}

Here are some example of Jizō statues and temples across Japan, taken on my previous trips.

In Nagano:

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In Miyajima:

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In Tokyo:

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Posted in Asia, Home, Japan, Miscellaneous, Post with photo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments