Wednesday, June 18, 2014

48 hours in Narita, Japan on our way to Mongolia

Our journey to Mongolia from Denver started with a last minute visit to the Denver REI sports and outdoors shop to buy a few more travel clothes.

Since Jules and I have lost so much weight on our recent juice fasting, we needed to buy a few more light, quick drying travel clothes.

It was Father's Day and a weekend, which meant that the shops and restaurants in Denver were packed with people. 

We had a lovely dinner at a healthy restaurant in Cherry Creek in Denver called "True Foods."
The restaurant belongs to Dr. Andrew Weil, who advocates a healthier way of eating.
Though not vegetarian, they offer some great vegan dining options, including a fresh squeezed apple-kale-ade which is wonderful, along with a delicious Banana coconut Chia seed pudding and some other food options.

In order to break the series of long flights which will take us to Mongolia, we decided to make a stop in Tokyo, before continuing on our journey to Seoul, Korea and farther, to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia.

We only had twenty four hours in Tokyo, and since our main reason for breaking the flights was  to get over the jet lag caused by the time difference between Denver and Mongolia, we decided to stay near the Narita airport for two nights.

We chose a comfortable hotel and took their offer to upgrade to a spacious suite.

I did not know it, but Narita airport is located in a city called Naritasan, which is home to one of the biggest Edo Period Buddhist temples in Tokyo, visited by millions of pilgrims yearly.

Instead of taking the train to Tokyo, we decided to make a pilgrimage to this Buddhist temple, which is dedicated to Fudo Myoo, the god of FIRE.

The Main Street leading to the temple complex is called Omotosando.
It is lined with old wooden buildings with beautiful roofs, with many shops and little eateries.

If you slow down and explore the town at a snail's pace, you can savor the taste and beauty of this town.

One of the specialities of this area are rice crackers called Senbai.
They are made from rice locally grown in the Chiba Prefecture, which is pounded by hand into a paste, and grilled one by one over charcoal.

The handmade crackers are irregular in shape and are flavored with soy sauce, sesame seeds, or seaweed.
They are crunchy and delicious.

Another speciality is a pickle made from a small JalapeƱo pepper which is stuffed into a bitter melon.
It is sold in a variety of gift boxes and vacuum sealed bags, and many of the shops offer free samples for tasting.

Another speciality is a sweet made from bean paste in many flavors, including peanuts which are also grown in this region.

All those items are also made in many other regions of Japan, but after traveling extensively around Japan, I can attest to the fact that the same looking items taste very different from place to place.

The Buddhist Temple in Naritasan (named Shinshoji) originated in this place around the year 900 AD.
A few of the buildings in the temple grounds were built around the 1700's, and some are much more recent.

In the olden days, when devotees made their pilgrimages to visit the temple and to pray to Fudomyoo, the god of fire, they usually made the long and arduous journey on foot or by rowboats.  

It was believed that the oily and delicious meat of the local eels was a most suitable food to refresh and nourish the pilgrims on their long journey back home.
And so the tradition of serving freshly skinned grilled eel started in Naritasan and is still going on to present times.

The streets of the city surrounding the temple are filled with over sixty small eateries specializing in grilled eel.

The most charming eatery is located across from the Visitor Center.
It is open only a few short hours per day and at the entrance sits an eel master with a few of his helpers whom he teaches how to efficiently skin, gut and clean an eel.

 The dining room in the back was crowded with people, and the menu was simple.
A small, medium or large portion of grilled eel is served with or without rice.
It came with a small amount of pickles and was moist and most delicious. 

We walked around tasting the local specialities until we reached the temple.

It is a beautiful temple with many buildings and pagodas, situated in a glorious wooded garden.

The drums called us to attend the fire ceremony inside the main hall of the temple. 
We felt fortunate to be there right at the time where the sacred Goma Fire rite began.

An assembly of monks in different colored robes based on their rank chanted prayers, played the drums and lit a fire at the center of the hall.
The ceremony included burning wooden sticks decorated with calligraphy (named Goma Sticks).
Goma sticks represent the earthly desires and passions, which are burnt in the purifying flames of the fire in order to free the disciples of their attachments to the world of illusions and it's many earthly cravings. 

Seated on the carpeted floor of the main hall, we bowed our heads and prayed to Fudomyoo, the god of fire.

Jules had some forgiving to do, since many years ago the god of fire burnt down the house that he meticulously built with his own hands and with all the money he could borrow.

Later Fudomyoo also burnt down his craft school which he also started and ran with almost no funds and lots of enthusiasm.

We both prayed to be released from any fears we might have that a future fire might burn down our homes, and to be released from our earthly attachments.

I could see that Jules made some peace with Fudomyoo, since his disposition seemed brighter.
Everything that has happened in the past has led us to the freedom and strength we have today.
The fire has released Jules to his highest good and to newer experiences.

We strolled the gardens and felt refreshed by the beauty of the Japanese garden.
We felt refreshed and happy that we had decided to break our flight with a stop in Narita.

When you stroll all day the hours seem to fly by so fast!
When we left the temple the shops around town were already closing down.
Pickles and cracker trays were pushed back inside and shopkeepers were rolling down the front iron curtain that covers their shops.

We ate a nice simple dinner at a Ramen Biashi eatery.
They offered a few vegetarian ramen soups with vegetables and noodles.
It was a light and tasty meal.

Back in our hotel we took showers and put on our robes and were asleep before you could turn off the light.
The next day will bring us an early Japanese breakfast and a shuttle bus to the airport for our flight to Seoul and Ulaanbaatar.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Grace is hidden behind misfortune... Suspend judgement until you gain a wider perspective

My beloved Rocky Mountains in Colorado

A Bird feeding a Cuckoo Baby and Cuckoo's eggs "hidden" in other birds' nests

A Toxic mining copper lake in Butte Montana 

Many times in life, we make judgements based on limited knowledge and a narrow perspective.

We are not aware that we have limited vision, and so we might become impatient or discouraged with events when we do not understand why things happen.

With time, or with a wider perspective, we might discover that something that looked to be a tragedy, a travesty or a misfortune, is actually part of a grander Divine scheme that is full of grace.

I will illustrate this point with two examples from Mother Nature.

I have heard both stories on Colorado Public Radio, years apart, but both stories stayed carved in my memory, since they illustrate how grace operates despite what appears to be a misfortune.

The first story is about the Cuckoo bird.

For ages, the Cuckoo bird was thought of as a "freeloader" for its weird parenting habits.

Cuckoo birds do not build a nest nor incubate their eggs.

They shrewdly place a single egg in the nests of other birds.

The unsuspecting birds sit on the collection of eggs that includes their own eggs and the Cuckoo's egg, until all the eggs are hatched.

The "adoptive" birds go on to feed and raise the Cuckoo baby into adulthood alongside their own offsprings.

Often the adoptive birds are tiny in size compared to the large Cuckoo baby, but size does not deter the loving adoptive parents from raising the Cuckoo as their own.

Recently, new studies were found that alerted the scientific community to new possibilities....

It was found that Crows' nests that have had a Cuckoo baby in them, were more "successful" than Crow's nest with no baby Cuckoo.

You might be asking yourself what makes a bird's nest "successful?"

Well, apparently, very few Crows' nests are successful in providing a safe place for the baby Crows to grow up in.
The majority of recently hatched baby Crows are eaten by wild or domestic animals, so the babies do not make it to adulthood.

But.... Nests that had a "secretly planted" Cuckoo baby in them, all made it to maturity.

Well.... The scientists were puzzled by this finding for a long time.
They entertained many far fetched theories, including one in which they theorized that maybe the Cuckoo parents had some "psychic powers" that allowed them to intuitively know which Crows' nests will be successful.
But at last, the scientists made an amazing discovery.

Apparently, a newly born Cuckoo baby excretes a toxic black substance when touched even lightly.

This toxic black substance is not excreted from the intestines, but from the body of the baby, and it contains a mixture of toxic components with a vile smell that repels wild animals.

Scientists gave hungry feral cats some fresh meat that was touched with this substance, and observed as the feral cats turned away in disgusted and refused to come near it.

This discovery shed a whole new light on the Cuckoo bird, which initially had been given the reputation of a parasitic-freeloading-sponging-bird……

Well.....A Parasite? Or A Savior?.....

The second story takes us to Butte, Montana.

Previously a mining town, Butte is surrounded with a desolate landscape with a putrid sulfur acidic smell, that was badly damaged by human hands, but is now.......slowly being saved by the grace of Nature?......

In the hills surrounding Butte, there is an open pit copper mine that leads to a toxic lake filled with corrosive runoff.

This toxic, red, chemical laden copper pit lake, is a result of the copper mining industry that once took place in Butte.
In the 1920's, a third of the copper in the USA came from this area.

In later years, copper prices dropped and the copper mines in the area closed down.
When they shut the pumps, the acidic lake kept on bubbling with deadly toxins that has been getting worse with every passing year.

It seems to be one of these hopeless man-made-disasters.... Where ignorant men had laid their greedy hands on the fragile ecosystem of earth, resulting in irreversible damage that keeps on multiplying, causing a sad ripple effect of contaminated drinking water, runoff into rivers and fumes of toxic air that cause acid rain and cancer in the nearby population...

Where is the saving grace in this hopeless situation?....

A few years back, a pile of 340 beautiful and graceful snow geese made an ill-fated landing on the toxic lake.
They were tired from a long migrating flight and they needed a rest and some nourishment.... their snow white bodies were a sharp contrast to the bright techno-red color of the water....

The beautiful Geese rested and drank the water, and the very next day.... The bodies of 340 snow geese floated dead on the water.

A postmortem operation showed that the toxic water virtually melted their throats, their esophagi and intestines.
The newspaper reported this sad tragedy nationwide.
Everybody who lives in Butte knows this sad story....

One day, local scientists, who were working diligently and unsuccessfully to try and repair this environmental man-made disaster, were presented with new evidence.

A piece of wood was found in the lake that was coated with slime.

The slime was ALIVE.
It was the first form of LIFE to be found in this deadly pit.

In this toxic lake, NOTHING had been able to survive or grow for decades.... And here there was the first sign of a thriving living organism.... Maybe not all was lost after all....

But there was more.....This organism was not just alive...... it was doing MORE than that.... It was CLEANING the lake water.

This new organism thrives in the toxic water by removing and separating the metal from the water, leaving behind clean water as it grows.
It acts like a sponge.
It absorbs toxic metals and leaves behind clean water.

It was a miracle.....
But HOW did it make it into the deadly lake?

Believe it or not.... But in all of Nature...this slimy organism can ONLY be found in the intestines of Snow Geese.....

This sheds a new perspective on the "tragedy of the Geese..."
Was it a death trap that killed the Geese....Or a graceful act of Divine intervention.... bringing about the secret to renewing life and a renewed hope.....

Now, since I have not written in my online diary for awhile, here is a little bit about us:

It is the end of winter in the high Rockies.

While the rest of the Country is tired of winter and looking for signs that spring is in the air, here in the high mountains the majority of people, or at least those who love to ski, are still praying for snow.

Ski season has been fabulous, with packed snow, powder days and sunny days with groomed slopes.

Often, when we take a breather during a long ski run, I stop to look with awe at the tall peaks, stretching seemingly forever in all directions.

To me, the landscape seems mysteriously similar to the Himalayan peaks, tall, serene, snowy, empty and with the most azure blue sky above them.

I know that in the Rockies, unlike the Himalayas, there are no caves in which masters meditate, and no ornate Buddhist temples hidden among inaccessible peaks.....

But every morning when I meditate in our mountain home, tucked away at the edge of of a National forest, I imagine that our modern home is not dissimilar to a timeless meditation cave...

On occasions when my mind is flooded with realizations, I see that just because we have a hot steam shower, modern comforts, high speed internet, technology and design all around us, it does not mean that one cannot live a life devoted to inner exploration and self realization.... Just like the masters did and do throughout the ages.

My own life is no longer devoted to achieving more comfort for my body, nor in fulfilling the ambitions of my insatiable ego.

I spend all of my days contemplating, thinking and doing only what I feel is helping me to move in the direction of Self Realization.

I have moments of inspiration and realizations, in which I feel like I am standing at the precipice, looking into the enormity of life... Life magnificent and eternal that stretches in all directions like a web of intelligent information, vibrating with light and grace...

Living here in the tall mountains, surrounded with wildlife, time becomes stretchable and fluid.... It takes on an unreal quality, as if the solidity of time is revealed for its mass hypnotic illusory quality, and it simply fades away....

There are no noises and no disturbances coming from the outside world, here in the mountains..... The only turmoil that one might feel, is the one coming from inside, as the mind churns up images, ideas, memories, fears or fantasies from the past or of the imagined future.

My love of a meditative life is made complete with my love of travels.

During our travels, we interact with people daily, put to the test our truth, our philosophy and our ideology, and we get to see how they all work in the "real world."

Next week we fly to Iceland, for a bit of an icy adventure.

Going to Iceland in the wintertime.... Whose cold/ cool idea was this anyway?....

When I think of the cold weather in Iceland, I think of a woman who once told me:
"Ice-land is actually very green, it is a Green-land that is very icy..."

I hope she was right...