Archive | January, 2014

The Singing Monk – Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

A chunk of time ago, I got to spend 5 weeks in the Kansai region of Japan. Friends were teaching English in Kobe and Osaka and generously offered me a space to lay my head at night. During the days I’d wander – a particular favourite was Kyoto – and do my best to figure out the transportation system and in the evenings I’d make my way back to enjoy dinner with my friends – the perfect combination really for a solo traveler: new and adventurous in the morning, “old” and familiar in the evenings. 

If we’re lucky enough through our travels, we’re rewarded with memories that remain alive far longer than all the others. A sight, a smell, a noise or a piece of music that takes us back to that moment when they first occurred. For me, in Kyoto, Japan, that place was the Ryoan-ji Temple and that item, a scented bookmark.

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I bent down on one knee, lacing up the hiking shoes that I’d removed before entering the temple. The day-pack on my back slid to the right, a distraction. I stood, reflexively stretching my back out. 

A quiet voice behind me queried politely, “You’re Canadian?”

The head monk stood lightly behind me, very much in the demeanour with which you would expect a head monk to stand. I’d forgotten about the Canadian flag stitched to my pack. 

“Yes”, I replied. “Have you ever been to Canada?” How does one carry on a conversation with a head Zen monk? 

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “No, no”, he breathed, lowering his head as if the idea struck him as worth consideration. 

The Japanese tour group that had arrived ahead of me and gathered on the temple’s veranda had slowly drifted away. I’d almost not come to see this small temple known most for its beautiful zen garden. 

Perusing the Lonely Planet Kyoto guidebook, I’d come across a brief mention of a small temple, Ryoanji, with a highly acclaimed Japanese rock garden. It wasn’t highlighted as one of the main temples to see in Kyoto – and there are many, many temples to choose from in that city – but the description of the garden as one of the finest examples of its kind had intrigued me. 

I made my way through the building as soundlessly and as gingerly as I could, as if one heavy or misplaced step might traumatize the monks or this structure they lived within, a Zen temple that had existed since the 1400s. Every creaking floorboard made me feel like a boorish interloper. 

Stepping out onto the veranda, I was confronted with a group of 20 – 30 middle-aged Japanese visitors. I could try to admire the garden with them or I could return inside and wait for their tour group to move on. It was an easy choice. My time was my own – it’s one of the big reasons I love roaming solo. I wanted the chance to sit in silence on the veranda and absorb whatever lesson or wisp of wisdom I could from those who created the kare-sansui – the zen garden – and from those who’d sat in contemplation before me. Perhaps I could learn something from sitting, observing, watching. 

But what was I watching? Nothing changes or moves in a rock garden, not in minutes or hours. 15 boulders were placed purposefully and meticulously, only 14 of which can be seen from the veranda – it is said that achieving enlightenment is the only way to see all at the same time. A calmness really did settle over me as I sat and stared, my gaze slow and calm, floating from one to the next. It was like I was studying them, but for what purpose, I didn’t know. 

I can’t remember the sounds – in my memory it’s quiet – although I imagine instances of  floorboards creaking, intervals of hushed Japanese voices and lulls of rustling leaves in the breeze. I do remember the smell of incense, a scent I’ve known almost my whole life. Weekend visits with my grandmother to the Chinese Buddhist temple…. It’s a dark and rich aroma that brings with it a warmth and acceptance. I’ve always felt safe and quieted within the walls of that temple and there, in Kyoto, seated on the Ryoanji’s terrace, the sharp, pungent incense comforts me, lending this place and this city that is so very far from my home, a familiarity. 

I wanted to sit longer, hypnotized by the stones, the gravel, the safe enclosed space of a hundreds-year old structure that stood behind, below and before me. There is a release in the need to do nothing more than sit and observe. 

Eventually, it was time for me to leave. I made my way to the small gift counter near the main door. I wanted something that would always remind me of this temple, where I’d done nothing momentous or remarkable, but rather, was stilled. A package of 3 bookmarks caught my glance, paper envelopes roughly 3 inches in height by 1 inch in width, wrapped around a scented object, a straw length knotted at the top with faint printed images and calligraphy on the surface. To this day, almost 12 years later, the fragrance remains: soft, powdery and slightly floral. 

The head monk continued to chuckle softly at my question. As I pondered what to say next, he looked up, smiled and began to sing the first few bars of the Canadian national anthem. “Oh Canada! Our home and native land!….”

What do you do but listen, smile and say thank you. 

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No pics for this entry at the moment: I was shooting in film those days and can’t find the negatives just yet (what comes from living out of a storage unit and boxes), but for more information on the temple, have a look at its website: http://www.ryoanji.jp/smph/eng/index.html. 

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What places still have a special hold on your heart and mind? 

‘Til next time…. 

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New Zealand: A Second Home

In 2006, I left Toronto with a 2-year plan in mind, one that started with living and working in New Zealand for a year, then moving on to Australia to do the same. As most people know and as I came to realize, making plans for travel can, at times, seem like wishful thinking, while making plans for a 2-year travel period is simply absolute nonsense. I ended up staying in the one country and creating a life for myself there.

    Pictures taken with my point-and-shoot in 2006 and 2007

    Ninety-Mile Beach, Northland
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Cathedral Cove, Coromandel
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On the Road – Sunset, QueenstownSunset-Drive-back-to-Queenstown

I miss New Zealand. Or maybe I miss who I was when I was there.

Me at Franz Josef Glacier & at the Tram Lookout in Wellington (2006)

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We fall back into old patterns when we come home. Or at least I do. Relationship patterns, work patterns… behavioural patterns. There are some emotional ties that bind stronger than others.

My time living abroad was the best experience of my life to date and I am drawn back to it often – in memory and in emotion – and with increasing frequency of late. As much as travel is about the interactions without – the people, culture, food, smells and sounds – it is also about the resulting tumult within – the (sometimes) fundamental, intellectual, emotional and psychological effects that leaving your comfort zone can have.

A few years back, I wrote a piece for a publishing contest that talked about this idea of no longer fitting in with the place you’d called home for so long.

What makes a place a home? Is it simply where you were born? Perhaps where your family or friends are? Or is it that place where you feel comfort, safety and familiarity?I could never have been prepared for feeling torn in two, forever missing another place and another family of friends. Nor could I have known how this unquenchable thirst for more – more travel, more exploration, more knowledge – would gnaw at me, intruding far too often when least welcome or expected.”

If you’re interested in the full piece, click here or on the Writing link at the top of the page

It was written with the contest as the stated goal, but in reality, I think it was a way for me to try to answer the question – asked repeatedly and offhandedly – “How was your trip?”. It wasn’t a trip. It was my life for the better part of two years. Am I supposed to be able to sum up two years in a neat little three sentence package? It’s hard to explain to even your closest friends how strange it feels to come ‘home’, to return to the same people, sights and sounds, feeling like a foreigner. I’d visited several websites of people who’d gone home after several years abroad and they all cautioned that re-entry would not be easy; they just didn’t say how or why.

Pictures taken during my return visit in 2011

House Overlooking Matai Bay, Northland
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Matai Bay, Northland

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Long Bay, Auckland

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In the end, I guess I’m still grappling with the real and lingering impacts of that period. I feel like I’m well past the age where I should already know who (and what) I want to be. But then, life and fear get in the way and I’m thrown back into the submerging weight of indecision and uncertainty. The encouraging part is that, eventually, I surface and find my way back to the writing and the photography and the irresistible pull of travel.

What are your stories about returning home after extended time abroad? How did it change you? Or did it?

 

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Home, Sweet Home…? Toronto’s Ice Storm

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2014 is off to a great start for all with lots of travel to come!

Back at home, the winter of 2013-2014 has not been fun in Toronto, nor for the rest of Canada and much of the United States. Nor England, nor… okay, not for a lot of places around the world.

The official start of winter for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere was December 21st, the date of the winter solstice. But weeks before this date, Mother Nature was dropping big hints (lower than normal temperatures and early snowfalls) that this was not going to be a gentle winter.

On the day of the winter solstice, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) was hit with an ice storm of a magnitude not seen for at least a few decades. Given all the news warnings about potential power outages, we’d have been silly not to seek out flashlights and candles and keep them close by. As predicted, after a few flickers in the late hours of Saturday night, the power went out completely around 1am on Sunday morning.

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We were one of the luckier households regaining power (I’m not counting the 1 minute teasing flickers) around 10 or 11pm Sunday night, just under the 24 hour mark. We had to toss some food from the fridge, but everything in the freezer was safe. More fortunately still, the weather overnight was relatively warm. Neither situation was the case for many others in Toronto. At its worst, more than 300,000 hydro customers were without power, most for several days, some for up to 9 days, and in some cases, as temperatures dropped to almost -20 degrees Celsius.

Lying in bed with my book – one of the few things you can do these days without electricity – I heard a drawn out cracking noise. Pulling apart the blinds, I was immediately struck by the source of the sound: a sizable piece of the birch tree out front had splintered away and had landed upside down, resting on its twigs as it were, just metres from the kitchen window. Over the next few hours 3 more branches would break away, the largest, easily 7 to 8 feet in length and about 5 feet across at its crown. As I walked around the neighbourhood a few days later, pieces of bark were exposed all around. There were stories of trees taking down power lines, crushing cars and creating holes (or worse) in houses. Mother Nature is a seriously powerful beast.

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But the sun came out occasionally and in those moments, with the sunlight refracting and reflecting off the vast amounts of ice that covered sidewalks, ceilings, light posts, trees and fields, I saw the beauty of Mother Nature too.

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While it has finally warmed up in Toronto (I know, I know – it’s nothing compared to other parts of Canada, never mind other parts of the world), the overwhelming greyness of winter here always gets me thinking of other places and other times. A little nostalgia coming up next….

To all you fellow northern hemisphere dwellers, stay warm! And for those of you in the south, I wish I could be there with you!

 

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