Reflections on Japan

I went to Japan with no plan. I just wanted to see cherry blossoms, Mt Fuji and snow. I read something about the Kumano Kodo in my preparations and thought I’d like to walk it but decided to take my bicycle so didn’t think it would happen. Let me just say that Japan delivered!

On my second night in Japan I camped under a cherry blossom tree. It was magnificent even though I didn’t realise that it was a cherry blossom. I rode along roads dusted in the delicate petals of dropped blossoms and saw pockets of mountainsides washed white with the beautiful trees.

Mt Fuji was more than the photos ever could show. The way the mountain loomed large over the road that I followed first covered in cloud and then opened up for me to see. It was like in climbing that long 30km climb across the highlands I earned the joy of seeing its full snow-capped glory. I didn’t feel the need to climb the volcanic mount. Just seeing it reflected in the lakes was magic enough.

And then, somehow, I found snow. Pure persistence got me up the alps and sheer luck left the ski season open just long enough for me to enjoy a couple of long 4km runs down Japanese slopes. I was the worst skier on the field but nothing can take away the magic of that day. I camped up above the snow line and have photos of my bike leaning against tall roadside snow drifts.  At the end of those two days in the snow my cheeks hurt from smiling despite the alpine climbs on my treadly.

But probably the spiritual highlight of my journey through Japan occurred off the bike. Walking Kumano Kodo was a special experience. I walked on a whim after seeing the dual Compastella at the Hongu Visitor Centre. A couple of the ladies there spoke English and helped me organise a coin locker and place to leave my bicycle for two days while I walked this sacred Japanese path. Someone I once knew walked the Way of St James a decade or more ago. I didn’t know her well because she passed away before I got up the courage to go from being work colleagues to friends. But I know she was with me on the Kumano Kodo as she was with me just after she passed when I hiked to the top of Mt Kosciosko (Australia’s highest peak, which is an easy 21km day walk from the trail head).  The Kumano Kodo was a true pilgrimage experience for me and, while I won’t be walking the Way of St James for the dual Compastella just yet, I will keep the Compastella somewhere safe in case I do.

But Japan was more than just amazing scenery and ticking boxes off a checklist. Japan was an experience of personal growth. I faced some challenging situations and managed to keep my cool in almost all of them. Those who know me will tell you that I have a short fuse and can become frustrated or despondent easily. But I watched a few YouTube clips at the airport before I flew to Japan that taught me the Japanese value discretion in emotional displays, especially anger. So I worked to maintain my composure.

First there was the bucketing rain that soaked me through my wet weather gear. I rode all day focusing on the beautiful scenery and enjoying the moment, rather than on how wet or cold I felt. Then there was the broken tent pole. I set the problem aside until I had found somewhere dry to sleep (the shower block) and then calmly composed a solution (chop sticks and duct tape). I tackled mountains that were too steep for my ability but just got off and walked without losing my cool or becoming upset with the strain. And I repaired a pannier bag that broke. The only time I lost my cool was on the day my ride to Shizuoka went from a 50km spin to a 100km epic of unmarked freeways and broken tunnels. But even then I managed to keep my agro to a minimum and was calm again after a one or two minute explosion.

I enjoyed Japan immensely. The landscape is stunning and the people are friendly if a little reserved. I’d like to go back one day to explore the landscape some more. While Japan doesn’t have the magnificent museums of Korea or the delicious food of Malaysia and Indonesia, it has a special place in my heart as a place of natural wonder and calm acceptance of the reality of the now.

Tokyo-Narita to Kuala Lumpur

I wake up early and ready to fly home. I’ve enjoyed Japan but there always comes that moment just before departure when you are ready to see those you love. I don’t sleep well because my missed flight from Chiang Mai is still firmly fixed in my memory. But I wake up on time, load the final two pannier bags on the bike and set off for the Tokyo Narita International Airport. It’s only supposed to be a 9km ride from the hostel but I fail to pay attention and cycle about 2km in the wrong direction resulting in a 2km ride back to where I was. The total ride is 13km but I’ve left myself plenty of time so it’s no problem.  photo IMG_20150512_055723_zpsk1uagrmp.jpg

Just before the airport I find one last geocache in Japan. I think I found five here in total. But I needed to find this one because I’ve been carrying a travel bug for over two months that I have been trying to find a cache large enough to place it in. I had seen this cache was a “regular” so knew it would be big enough. It’s a travel bug hotel so I drop the one I’ve been carrying and collect three from the cache. There are about ten travel bugs in the cache and many have been there for a while so I figure it will be okay to take a few and send them on their way.  photo IMG_20150512_075310_zpscgyerefo.jpg

You can ride all the way to the airport along a cycleway. But once at the airport itself, finding the entry is a challenge. The security guards at the entrance to the driveway force me onto a walkway but then the only way to the actual airport entrance is either down some stairs or through a carpark and then into a lift. I take the latter option. I just walk the bike right up to where the Air Asia gate is signed, remove the box from the back rack and pack everything. The box needs to be cut down because it’s far too big but I manage and even can fit it in without removing the rear wheel or rack. I could have put the whole bike in complete but thought that might be a bit cheeky. And yes, I did cycle to the airport with that big wide box sat on the rear rack like that … it was fine.

The Air Asia check in was not so fine. You are not allowed trolleys at the baggage drop which means people have to struggle with their luggage, especially sporting equipment. I slide the bike box along the floor and am not the only one who is having difficulty. To add insult to annoyance there are two check-in areas for Air Asia. One is Air Asia Thailand and the other is Air Asia X. The distinction isn’t signed. So I struggle and wait in one queue only to be sent to another counter, which requires more struggling with my gear. Oh, and the Air Asia counters are in an alcove in an area between the two terminal entrance doors – not inside the terminal itself.

The next joy was discovering that my luggage could not be checked through. The lady said that I should have booked the flight as a through-flight on a single booking. In fact, I had done this but Air Asia decided to cancel my connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur to the Gold Coast so now I have to clear customs with my luggage and recheck it in tomorrow morning from Kuala Lumpur. I will also have to pay for my own hotel in Kuala Lumpur or sleep on the airport floor. I emailed Air Asia to query this and they said that “flight schedules are subject to change at any time” and that Air Asia will not be liable for any loss incurred by passengers due to the airline changing flight schedules. Let’s just say that I am monitoring the flight cancellation situation by Air Asia compared with other airlines that I fly because so far I have had a number of flights cancelled (Kuala Lumpur to Gold Coast leg of my through flight home from Thailand but for some reason they did put me up in a hotel that time, my return flights between Kuala Lumpur and Narita were canceled and I was re-routed to Osaka, this flight home has been cancelled and Paul’s flight from Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur was also cancelled and he was placed on a later flight). Yes, they put you on another flight but I am starting to get annoyed with the cancellations.  photo 20150512_092826_zpsxdigfkrb.jpg

But perhaps this is why the airline is canceling so many flights. This is my flight from Narita to Kuala Lumpur after all the passengers have boarded. I would estimate that the flight was about 25% booked and the rest of the seats were vacant. Everyone on the flight got a whole row of seats to themselves and still there were plenty of extra spaces. It was a quiet flight with lights dimmed and window shades down throughout the plane despite it being a daytime flight. I guess if we passengers can lie down to sleep we all will.  photo 20150512_165215_zpsbl3zcvih.jpg

The flight itself was a little bumpy due to monsoon season in this part of Asia. But the pilot flew very high (41,000 feet … the limit of this aircraft’s legal altitude) probably to fly over the worst of the weather. Once the seat belt sign was off I just turned on a movie and dozed. Oh, the silhouette in the window is Tozzie my travel companion. He was a gift from a friend to Paul and me. We are taking him traveling with us and he has his own Facebook page so I took a photo of him for that page and it turned out to be the better of my in-flight photos.  photo 20150512_191704_zpspo3r7o3z.jpg

 photo 20150512_191804_zpsb9dlyf48.jpgFlight successfully completed I decided not to sleep on the airport floor. For MYR100 ($AU35) for 12 hours I could get a capsule in the airport container hotel. It included luggage storage (including the bike), showers, sitting area, international power point and fast wifi. I only have 17 days to be with my loved ones so why turn up home tomorrow night tired when I can have a good sleep now and depart refreshed in the morning. The capsule is really comfortable and much better than a hostel dorm. And I don’t need much more space than this to write a blog post or two, watch a movie on my laptop and have a refreshing sleep.

Temple Naritasan Shinshoji (Honshu)

Narita isn’t a bad place to end my trip to Japan. It’s quiet and quite cute in a touristy way. There are plenty of souvenir shops, bars and fast food outlets all in a compact area focused on the Naritasan Shinshoji temple. I head out on the bike for a ride around and to look at the temple. It’s pretty and peaceful with large sprawling gardens and plenty of paths to take you every which way around the small mountain.
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A big ball decorates the temple entrance. It’s the time I’ve seen this in Japan. It’s more reminiscent of Chinese Buddhist temples than the austere Japanese ones.  photo IMG_6696_zpsaeof1f3q.jpg

As always there are many steep steps to climb. This is something I have come to associate with Buddhism: the penance of steps.  photo IMG_6698_zpsbobohvdi.jpg

The cute turtles in the wishing pond remind me of the temple Paul and I went to in Ipoh, Malaysia.  photo IMG_6699_zpswfl4tmsx.jpg

There are many many tomb stones in this temple grounds. It’s obviously been an important burial place for many many years. photo IMG_6700_zpsz3wnwxdd.jpg

This shrine is the centre piece of the main temple complex. It is very ornate by Japanese standards. Nearby some monks start banging the temple drums and chanting prayers. I stand a while watching and listening. The chanting and drum are enchanting.

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I buy a prayer board and write a prayer. There are coloured felt tip pens and drawings showing some beautifully decorated prayer boards. Most are simple and written in black pen but I go for something brighter. I am no artist so cannot meet the standards of the artistic examples but it’s the thought and prayer that count. photo IMG_6704_zpsuyace45c.jpg

I enjoy walking through the gardens. Many paths lead in all directions, mostly meeting up with each other at various points of the walk. It’s a perfect metaphore for life in that we all have to take our own paths.  photo IMG_6706_zpss8ycuopo.jpgAnd this is the centrepiece of the entire complex. This temple tower can be seen from all around Narita. It is proud and tall and elegant. It’s where all the paths lead. It’s by far the most decorative and glamorous of the temples I have seen here in Japan. The closest other temple was Nachi Taisha back at the end of my Kumano Koda walk all those weeks ago. But even that was just orange and not quite as elaborate as this temple and it’s buildings.

Mito to Narita (Honshu)

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I feel a mix of sadness and excitement as I set off into the morning sun on the final day of my bike ride through Japan. I’ve got the hang of cycling here now. I know what I like to eat for breakfast and when to ride on the footpath instead of the road. I recognise the road numbering system and can usually tell when a road will be hectic and when it will be quiet. Only 27 days ago these things were all new to me but I’ve adapted and come to like the Land of the Rising Sun.
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I follow the cycling path along a canal down and then some quiet roads along the river until I am almost at the coast. There’s something about a cycling path and a canal in the morning. It’s not yet hot but the shade from the trees is still welcome. The sun glints off the water and there is a sense of possibility about the day.
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Rice paddies and vegetable gardens slip past as I ride. I have become used to these sights over my past eight months of traveling through Asia. The seasons have shifted almost full circle and I have been privileged to see them changing from the comfort of my bike. Rice has been harvested, fields have been left fallow and rice has been planted again. The seasons and methods differ depending on where I am but the rhythm of a nature-bound landscape have remained the same. The other crops too have changed. Some are easy to recognise like potato, cabbage and strawberries. Others are incomprehensible to my eye. It’s a lovely landscape to cycle through.

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I reach the sea at Oarai. It’s Sunday and the beach is packed with Japanese surfers. There are hundreds of them sitting out in the sea patiently waiting for waves in the way I’ve seen fishermen patiently waiting for a catch. Is this part of the Japanese psyche? To be patient. Every so often a small set of little rollers comes in and the surfers work hard to catch them. The waves have little power and it is clearly tough work pick onto the waves. The waves are similar to those we sometimes get back home at the beach near my house but I’ve never seen anyone surfing there. In fact, I think you’d get laughed off the beach. But here, it seems to be the cool thing to do. I am sure the surf kicks up here when the winds and tides are right. There are many surf shops and the car park is huge. All day I will see cars driving along with surfboards on the roof. I can see why so many Japanese tourists take surfing lessons along the Australian coast; clearly the sport is popular here.

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Another popular activity here is motorbike riding. I finally get a chance to take a photo of some of the cool bikes that I have seen here. This whole set up with the high back seat is so cool. When the bike is in motion it looks like the seat back is pinned on with velcro the way it bounces around. But it does look so comfortable for the pillion when they are using it. It is also used as a backrest for piles of camping gear. The customisation of bikes here is fantastic too. As a motorcyclist this really attracts my eye. It’s custom everything: paint, seating arrangements and even engines.

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Of course I have to stop and enjoy the flowers while I still can.

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Near Kashima I start to cross the wide rivers that started as streams in the mountains all those days ago. There is a lake network here that looks like a huge inland sea. There are even waves and everything. Bicycle paths lead off around the edge of the lakes. I don’t know whether they go all the way around but it looks like a nice cycling option.

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I follow route 51 until I reach the Tone River. The road now starts to get quite busy and unpleasant so I check Google Maps and find that I can follow some more local roads through riverside farmland almost all the way to Narita. It’s going to add 10km (6 miles) to my ride but the decision to reroute is worth it. Instead of my final hour or two being hectic highway footpaths I enjoy one last spin through the rice fields and Japanese villages.

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About 10km from Narita I reach a gorgeous temple and shrine. It reminds me of the ones I saw on the Kii Peninsula. This place has spirit and soul. It’s what I’ve been seeking in the shrines I’ve been cycling past and now, on my final day, I find it again. I bow before walking through the entrance. I wash my hands at the hand washing station. I offer a prayer of gratitude to whoever might be up there listening. And I leave feeling content.

I’ve booked a cheap hostel in Narita. It turns out to be delightful with friendly owners. An hour after arriving I have found a bike shop who give me a box for my bike. The box is massive and will need to be cut down to size but at least I have a box and will be able to just enjoy tomorrow: my final day in Japan.

Four days in Mito (Honshu)

So I spent four glorious days in Mito. And what a treat it was. On day one I slept and watched YouTube all day long. I only left the room to buy food.

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One day two I sleep in, soak in the bath for ages (that’s my favourite thing about Japanese hotels) and head out to the lake again on my bike. The wisteria is in bloom and looks totally gorgeous. It’s one of the things I wanted to see in Japan because we don’t really have it at home.

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The wild flowers are in full bloom around the lake too. They make an amazing carpet of blue, white and pink. Wild flowers are so cheerful but delicate. It’s a gentleness that big gaudy tropical and subtropical flowers lack. Though I do like big gaudy tropical and sub tropical flowers too.

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Old men play chess-like board games in the shade. It’s a scene repeated in so many collectivist societies across the globe. The games are a chance to socialise, gamble and release some competitive testosterone. It’s not something I’ve seen as much in individualist societies like Australia, America and the UK. Men there still gather but it’s rarely in public parks playing board games. It’s more likely to be in the relative privacy of a bar playing pool or darts while drinking. Neither is better or worse, they are just different. And it is kind of nice to see the old fellas out enjoying the fresh air concentrating on their games.

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The swans here seem to own the place. One plonks itself in the middle of the path despite the many pedestrians and cyclists making their way around the lake. No one shoos it away. Rather, everyone makes a concerted effort to walk around the beautiful white bird. The swans look funny when they walk. They keep their necks bent, sometimes their heads are all the way down on their backs even as they plod across the road. Not to be outdone. Two more birds decide to set up shop on the pathway. It doesn’t take long for them to start fighting and chasing each other into the water. A black swan decides to check out the commotion and the white swans gang up on it. There’s an awful lot of honking and squawking before the birds settle back down.

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The black swans are sitting on eggs. Some have left their nests unattended, showing that perhaps there are few predators here. The swans that sit on their nests don’t seem too bothered by us people walking or cycling past. Sometimes they open their mouths at us but mostly they just ignore our presence. Some of the swans have cute little babies. I don’t know how anyone could consider these fluffy bundles of floating grey ugly like in the children’s story because they are adorable.

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I leave the swans to their business and head over to the other side of the main road to a big park. There are landscaped ponds and pretty paths through the trees. I can only imagine how amazing this must look when the cherry and plum blossoms are in bloom. It’s gorgeous even now after the weather has warmed up so the transformation between winter and spring must be stunning.

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There’s a shrine here too. An important one from the days when Mito was a castle city. It’s pretty but still doesn’t have that pull that some religious places have. I really can’t say why. It’s strange how in some places (like Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha) I feel a sense of spirit while in others it feels somehow empty. But it’s pretty enough to walk through the shrine.

On day three I again do very little. While housekeeping clean my room I walk down to the shopping malls near the JR station. I arrive just as the crazy clock starts to play the two o’clock tune. I have no idea that it is going to do this so am taken by surprise. It’s fun and cute and tragic all at once. The locals shake their heads at my videoing it but for me it’s new.

The shopping mall is loud and almost obnoxious. There are heaps of floors on which electronic goods are being sold and all are turned on with their volumes up loud. It’s epic so I take a video to share with you all.

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On day four I again rest and then venture out for a few hours in the afternoon while housekeeping are cleaning my room. Today I find a historic building and garden. It was built in the days of the samurai (from what I can tell from the pictures). This is the biggest difference between my travels in Korea and Japan. In Korea, the government tourism department is committed to creating foreigner-friendly tourist sites so everything is translated into multiple languages, including English. Here in Japan, nothing is translated (though I have started to notice that kanji is translated into hiragana because younger people today cannot read kanji anymore due to the introduction of smart phones and spell-check). But hiragana doesn’t help me much because I do not read Japanese. So historic sites are not so interesting to me because I cannot read the stories.

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Mito used to be a walled castle city with entry gates in strategic places. The gates have been retained or restored where possible. I wander along a road and pass two such gates. Here the signs are in English (random how the street locations are translated but museums are not). They tell of the location and purpose of each gate. There’s no big surprises here because the gates were made for defense and were built too low for mounted riders to pass through.

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As an old settlement, Mito also has lots of small shrines. I pass many on my walk. They are nice to see. I am fascinated by the way some are derelict while others are beautifully cared for. Offerings of tea and flowers have been left at this and many other shrines.

I didn’t do a lot on my four days in Mito. These little two to three hour excursions are the only times I left the hotel other than to look for food. For the first two days my body was fatigued. My legs and lower back were sore, and my heel spur was playing up from the pressure the riding has put on my Achilles tendon. I could have ridden on and created some sort of mini route along the coast between Mito and Narita but it was only 100km between the two towns and the hostel in Narita was fully booked. So, instead of splitting the ride with a wild camp (camping grounds along the coast are as or more expensive as hotels but do not have showers or wifi), I decided to stay put in Mito.

There’s something delightful about having a few days to totally unwind. I didn’t require much of myself. Other than the forays into the town I watched movies, listened to radio stations from home on the wifi, did a little work and surfed the net a lot. The surfing led me to some TedX talks, some YouTube documentaries and a real estate website from home. It was almost as if, having experienced so many new and amazing things here in Japan, my mind wanted some time to reflect and consider how to incorporate what I have seen and learned into the bigger picture of my life. I will be home from Wednesday night for 17 days. That’s a short time in which I will find myself racing around doing all the many things I want to do while I am home. It’s almost as if I need some time while I am away to relax and take stock. I did it in Daegu in Korea too and Melbourne when I was traveling in Australia. I wonder whether this will become my thing … to just lock myself away for a few days every few months while traveling alone. Only time will tell. All I know is that I enjoyed my four days in Mito where I barely left the hotel room but feel like I got an amazing feel for Japan and its people.

Teenagers of Mito

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A girl runs up behind two friends and throws her arms around them giggling quietly. Smiles break out as those surprised turn to recognise her face. Conversation breaks out as it always does with teenagers.

Two boys walk along.  They are clearly childhood buddies from the way the taller one has his arm draped over the shoulder of the smaller. They are grinning from ear to ear and their eyes fall on the girls the way all boys’ eyes do.

School uniforms are worn with disdain.  A requirement that is seen as a way to strangle individuality. I did the same when I was theit age some twenty years ago in a land across the oceans. Some skirts are hitched up to fall above the knee. Shirts are shabbily tucked with corners starting to show from the waist bands. Fashionable t-shirts show through white blouses (do men wear blouses or should I use a different word?). Ties has come loose and, if you look closely, you’ll notice that leather shoes are scuffed.

But there’s still a sense of style.  This is how uniformed teens show themselves. They don’t want to be confined or restrained. None of us did when we were that age. They might speak Japanese but they are just like the kids at home both now and in the past. It’s refreshing and fun and pure. Like teenagers everywhere,  they have their whole adult lives to conform to society’s demands. It’s good to see them rebel and try to find themselves through the rigours, stresses and confines that come with secondary education. 

More musings from Mito

Before I came to Japan an old Australian man scolded me for being unAustralian in visiting this horrible country. Why so horrible you might ask? Well for what happened in WWII. See, as we all know,  the Japanese were on the other side of the battle. And, as I have seen at museums in Thailand and Malaysia, they did some really bad things. The old man was too young to be a WWII veteran.  Maybe his father or uncle was. He’s held a grudge for a very long time.

So of course,  I have come to Japan despite the old man. And I think little of that war to end all wars. ANZAC Day comes and goes. I feel little for the day as my Facebook feed is dotted with photos by military personnel who boast about being drunk at the march. One posts a photo of himself carrying a beer while riding a skateboard at the march. There are also many posts about the glory of warriors. About how we should venerate soldiers, sailors and airmen and women for deciding on that as their job. I cannot connect. War only conjures up two images in my mind: hatred of humans and waste of life (and, today in my country, a career choice made in uncertain economic times).

But I do stop to reflect often on other days about our shared history and the lessons not yet learned. In Korea I was moved by the memorials and museums of their ongoing civil war. I saw farmers with backs bent who were directly affected by military action.  Innocent civilians whose farms were destroyed but who I were now harvesting rice. In Thailand the River Kwai bridge and death railway rocked my mind with the horror prisoners of war experienced.  And in Malaysia the Cameron Highlands were not always so peaceful as the many jeeps that remain from the war can show.

But what about Japan? What have I learned here? I just went to a peace museum. A tiny two room display without English translations. It was the same photos from a different perspective.  Some uniforms and ordinance. Military personnel marching and civilians supoorting their countrymen. But then there were five photos of Hiroshima and I felt the tears well up. Our side did that. We created that destruction. We crossed that line to destroy a whole city with one bomb blast.

I look around at modern day Japan. It is peaceful and calm. Every day I pass signs that say “May peace reign on  earth”. Every day. I see no monuments to soldiers lost. No lists of names. No cenotaphs  Just this simple wish written in both Japanese and English. And I see it every single day in parks, at shrines and in random urban locations. And it makes me wonder … which country is Japan currently invading? Are they currently at war? I know my country is. But what about this nation the old man warned me to stay away from? 

I make no apologies for being a pacifist. I believe all people are one regardless of race,  religion or politics. I know there are bad people who do bad things.  But I am also not so naive as to believe what I am told to believe.  As long as we are rich and others remain poor there will be conflict. Perhaps,  instead of creating fear,  we need to look at ways to reduce that poverty. And to step outside our perspectives to see a bigger picture. One in which we all play a role and no nation is innocent in times of war. Seeing the photos of Hiroshima today has changed me forever.  At the very least, lets stop glorifying warriors and start focusing on one simple wish: Let there be peace on earth.

That doesn’t mean lets fight evil. It means let us all create peace on earth through peaceful measures. However small or large they might be.