Wednesday, August 31, 2011



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hakodate: A hidden treasure

Hakodate one of my favorite cities in the world. The old town (motomachi) is built on a peninsula that just out between two seas and rests on the side of Hakodate mountain, which overlooks the rest of the city. The views from atop Hakodate Mountain (you can go up to the top using a ropeway car) or Motomachi, a bit further down the mountain, are spectacular, particularly since Motomachi has some wonderful architecture, particularly the beautiful churches, temples and shrines that are intermingled with old traditional Japanese style homes, many of which now house highly atmospheric cafes and restaurants.

It is often said that Hokkaido, with its spaciousness, colder climate, and European influences, combines the best of Japan and the West. This adage rings true for me. The people in Hokkaido seem more relaxed and have a different style to those in the more heavily populated areas of Japan, such as the metro-Tokyo area, with its super high-fashion and its bustling subway stations. Hokkaido was settled only recently, and so it's almost like Japan's "Wild West" (although there's nothing much really wild about it). It feels much more "outdoorsie" and open, and is often praised for the beauty of its nature. Yet it still has the incredible food, service, and amenities that the rest of Japan enjoys, making it the perfect place to visit, whether you like outdoors activities or not.

Here are 10 great things to see/do/eat/visit when you're in Hakodate:

1. Milk products. Hokkaido is well known for its dairy farms. They take good care of their cows and the milk products here are out of this world. I highly recommend trying some of the local milk puddings (utterly unlike anything called "pudding" in the US), and the ubiquitous "soft cream" (soft-serve ice cream) -- again, try the "raw milk" flavor first (called "nama miruku"). It's delightful! Also amazing are the milk confitures that you can get in a stall in the Kanemori red-brick warehouse shopping center. Their most popular one--Camambert--is ridiculously good.

2. Ramen. Ramen (Chinese noodle soup) is one of the great things you can get in Japan, but can't really get anywhere else. Although technically you can order Ramen in Japanese restaurants in the West, it's nothing like the real thing. Most places in Japan have specialty ramen, and Hokkaido has its own style, too. Despite being a chain, "Ajisai" restaurants in Hakodate make great ramen, using squid in the broth (Hakodate is famous for its squid--but don't worry, there's no actual squid in the ramen). I'd recommend the "shio ramen", but the others are good, too.

3. Cafes. Hakodate has some incredible little cafes that are rich with their own personalities. Each one has its own character, and many of them are rustic in style. Although cafes are beloved all over Japan, Hakodate cafes are typically much less commercial-feeling than those in the bigger cities on the main island. My favorites are: Peacepiece Cafe, Cafe Tutu, and Cafe Mountain Books (all in Motomachi). Peacepiece is very old school, and has the most serious coffee-maker as its owner or "master" ("mastaa"). Cafe Tutu has incredible milk-based drinks (try the hot almond milk, or hot caramel milk--delicious!). Cafe Mountain Books has one of the most beautiful views of any cafe I've ever been too, and is wonderfully relaxing, with tons of books and magazines to browse through. I was also introduced to Priscilla Ahn's newest album there, since the master was playing it. Another great cafe near Goryokaku is "Peaberry," which has nice tea and cake sets. Also worth checking out is the traditional English tea house in the old British consulate (also in Motomachi).

4. Restaurants. For the best food try: 1) Sprout, 2) Pazar Bazar (a tiny Turkish restaurant run by a young Japanese couple with amazing food and a great little atmosphere), 3) Ajisai Ramen. Hakodate is also known for its squid, as mentioned, and other seafood. To get the freshest seafood, go to the morning seafood market (located in Motomachi) before noon. Also worth checking out is the Carl Raymon sausage shop/restaurant/museum (yes, it's all three!). You can get hot dogs, chilli dogs, etc., here, but it's really worth checking out the museum upstairs to learn about the life of Carl Raymon, a German who emigrated to Hakodate, married a Japanese woman, and started a sausage factory in his adopted homeland. He lived for 93 years (died in 1987) was a peace advocate, and suggested that Hokkaido focus more on dairy farming (which is now one of its major industries). Oh, and he also designed what is now the flag for the European Union! A remarkable person and a symbol of what kind of a city Hakodate is.

5. Goryokaku. This pentagonal fort was built just before the Meiji restoration in the 1860s, and housed a beautiful housing complex for the Magistrate and local government. That structure only lasted 3 years before it was destroyed in the war to unify Japan, and it lay dormant until 2010, when it was rebuilt. The first time I went to Goryokaku in 2009, it was just a nice park -- still worth seeing. But now that the Magistrate's house has been rebuilt, it's definitely worth a trip. The reconstruction of the house is incredible in terms of the detail and the level of the workmanship. Do take a moment to watch the video on the reconstruction that is shown continuously inside. The wooden architecture used no metal nails, so wooden beams were fitted and locked together, and in some cases bamboo nails were employed. You can also head up the Goryokaku tower for nice views of the city (although the Mt Hakodate Ropeway is probably a better choice for views).

6. Soundtra. Near Goryokaku is one of the gems of Hakodate, the little cafe called "Soundtra." It doesn't look like much (although the cafe inside is surprisingly good, and I'd recommend the "hotto sando set" (hot sandwiches with tea or coffee). But what is great about Soundtra is its music selection. On the walls are a selection of new and independent music from around the world, and you can listen to anything, for as long as you like, on the headphones and CD players provided. The CD's are handily arranged by country of origin, recommendations (including seasonal recommendations), and the "My favorites" section of the "master"/owner. When you've made your selection, you can retire to the back room where the cafe is located, where you can have a coffee and snack and browse magazines. Soundtra introduced me to "The Innocence Mission," "The Weepies," "Azure Ray" and others. In fact, I didn't realize how vibrant the Indie music scene in the US was until exploring that music through this cafe.

7. Mt Hakodate. It's worth taking the ropeway up Mt Hakodate to get the night view. There's a cafe and restaurant up there, and it's considered a romantic spot. There's not much to do up there, though, apart from sip a coffee and take some pictures. On the way back down, people then wander the streets of Motomachi around the churches as they make there way back to the main part of the city.

8. Onuma Quasi-National Park. I'm not sure why it's "quasi" but this is a wonderful park that is worth a visit if you are staying in Hakodate. It's only a 17-minute train ride away by express train from the Hakodate JR train station. Once you're there, it's a large park with two huge, interconnected lakes, that you can walk (or better, bike) around. There's a short 50-minute walking trail that takes you between the two lakes through some islands. There is a great restaurant along the way, called "Table de Rivage", where I'd highly recommend the Onuma Beef Steak (local beef) and the blueberry tart (yum!). Also recommended is renting a paddle boat or row boat (only 1000 yen for an hour) and heading out into the middle of the lake. The lake is so vast, that it's really a thrill to get out there, although you feel a bit unsafe when a big motor boat rides by and your little row boat rocks back and forth (yeow!). You can also ride one of those motor boats if you don't feel like paddling or rowing out yourself.

9. Hotel of choice. There are a lot of housing choices for a stay in Hakodate, but two stand out for me. The first is the very large "La Vista Bay" hotel next to the Kanemori red-brick warehouse shops (kind of on the edge of Motomachi towards the JR train station). Although pricey and a bit out of character compared to the low-rise and old-fashioned architecture of Motomachi, La Vista Bay boasts very nice rooms that are a mixture of the modern and the tradition, and its best feature is its roof-top onset and rotenburo (hot spring bath and outdoor hot spring bath). You get incredible views of the city while relaxing in a steaming hot bath, and if you step outside to the outdoor bath, you can enjoy the view with the cool night air against your skin. My wife and I have been there in both the summer and the winter (when there was snow falling and ice around the tubs), and the winter experience was even more amazing! Truly unlike anything else I've ever experienced. Being able to change into your nice provided pajama-like outfit, hop up to the top floor for the onsen, enjoy your nice soak with the view, then come out and relax in the waiting area (which also has an incredible view) while licking the freely provided milk bars (bars of ice cream) to relax and read a magazine or newspaper, is truly a luxurious experience. Rates are US$200-$300 depending on season (and exchange rate...)

10. Guest house of choice. If you'd prefer a more low-key (and cheaper) option, then Garden House Cha Cha is a great bet. It only has 6 rooms, and sits atop Cafe Mountain Books (mentioned above -- a great cafe). Each room is very spacious and has a kitchenette for cooking and a nice Japanese soaking tub with a great view. Both bathrooms and main rooms have large windows that overlook the city, and since you're situated right behind the Russian Orthodox Church, you get a great view of this church and both bodies of water on either side of Motomachi. The downsatirs rooms sleep 2-3, and the upstairs rooms have lofts and can accommodate up to 6 (the 3 people in the loft would sleep on futons, though, Japanese style). There is internet, but not wireless, so you need to plug in the LAN line into your laptop. Rates are Y110,000 - Y130,000 (about US$140-170) with the upstairs rooms (with lofts) being the pricier ones.

Well, that's it. There's so much more, but I'll save the rest for later. I hope you make it to Hakodate and explore this wonderful city.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Albert Einstein quote

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Eight Verses of Mind Training

Here is the Tibetan text, plus an English translation of it, of the "Eight Verses of Mind Training," one of the most beloved texts of the blo-sbyong (lojong) or "mind training" tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. His Holiness the Dalai Lama recites these verses every day and suggests that others who want to cultivate compassion do the same. He also says that if he's stuck waiting for a flight or something like that, he contemplates these verses rather than getting upset, thereby making valuable use of the time. It would be great if more people followed his example!



bdag ni sems can thams cad la
yid bzhin nor bu las lhag pa’i
don mchog sgrub pa’i sems pa yis
rtag tu gces par ‘dzin par shog

May I, with the thought
of accomplishing for all sentient beings
the supreme welfare that surpasses a wish-fulfilling jewel
always cherish them.

gang du su dang ‘grogs pa’i tse
bdag nyid kun las dman blta zhing
gzhan la bsam pa thag pa yis
mchog tu gces par ‘dzin par shog

Whenever I associate with others
May I view myself as inferior to all,
And may I with a sincere mind
Cherish others as supreme.

spyod lam kun tu rang rgyud la
rtog cing nyon mongs skyes ma thag
bdag gzhan ma rungs byed pas na
btsan thabs gdong nas bzlog par shog

In all spheres of activities, may I examine my own mind
And as soon as afflictive emotions arise
Since they are not beneficial to myself and others
May I forcefully reverse them.

rang bzhin ngan pa’i sems can dang
sdig sdug drag pos non mthong tshe
rin chen gter dang ‘phrad pa bzhin
rnyed par dka’ bas gces ‘dzin shog

When I see a sentient being of bad nature
Extremely afflicted by non-virtue and suffering,
May I cherish them, because they are so hard to find,
Like meeting with a precious jewel.

gdag la gzhan gyi phrag dog gis
bshe skur la sogs mi rigs pa’i
gyong kha rang gis len pa dang
gyal kha gzhan la ‘bul bar shog

When others become very jealous of me
And do unreasonable things like deprecating me,
May I take the defeat [on myself],
And offer them the victory.

gang la bdag gis phan btags pa’i
re ba che ba gang zhig gis
shin tu mi rigs gnod byed na’ng
bshes gnyen dam par blta bar shog

When someone whom I have helped
And of whom I have great expectations [in return],
Unfairly causes me great harm
May I see them as a holy spiritual teacher.

mdor na dgnos sam brgyud pa yis
phan bde ma lus kun la ‘bul
ma yi gnod dang sdug bsngal kun
gsang bas bdag la len par shog

In brief, directly or indirectly,
May I offer help and happiness without exception to all,
And secretly take upon myself
All the harms and suffering of my mothers.

de dag kun kyang chos brgyad kyi
rtog pa’i dri mas ma sbags shing
chos kun sgyu mar shes pa’i blos
zhen med ‘ching ba las drol shog

And may all of these [practices] be unstained
By conceptual distortions of the eight worldly concerns
And by knowing all phenomena to be like illusions
May I be freed from bondage, without attachment.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Tong-Len Charitable Trust: Fighting poverty by aiding the homeless children in India

In Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, a Tibetan monk from Sera Monastery has founded a charitable organization dedicated to helping the children of homeless beggars in India. He came across this idea after seeing children rummaging for food among refuse at a garbage dump, eating leftovers that would be considered inedible by any person under normal conditions. Moved by compassion, he began feeding a few of the children every day, but then became aware of other communities of beggars where the children were in even worse shape than those he had seen. He then established the Tong-len Charitable Trust, a program that takes the homeless children of beggars and offers them education, as well as offering compensation to their families (who would otherwise use them to beg for money) and engaging in other activities to promote systemic change to fight poverty, one child at a time, in India.

According to international organizations such as the World Bank, around two billion people in the world live in poverty, if one defines that as earning under $2 a day, and one billion live in extreme poverty, defined at less than $1 a day. According to UNICEF, thirty to forty thousand children die each day of starvation. When thinking about how to address such deep and troubling problems, the issues can seem staggering, but Ven. Jamyang and his supporters at Tong-Len are tackling the problem in the only way that is truly practicable: by taking action and helping individual children in an individual area one child and one family at a time. If more people look to his example and start more organizations like this, that would be a major step towards addressing this terrible situation.

Here's the link to their website:

Women's World Cup

Fantastically, ESPN is broadcasting all the games from this year's Women's World Cup in Germany. The quality of the soccer thus far has been very good; as well as the quality of the refereeing, the stadia, etc. And ESPN is doing a good job with coverage, with comments and interviews by Viola Odebrecht, Julie Foudy, Cat Whitehill, and others.

At present, women's professional soccer in the US is struggling with only 6 clubs left in the WPS (Women's Professional Soccer) league; it seems two teams on average are folding every year, and at that rate, the league is not going to last long, which is a real shame. My own team, the Atlanta Beat, had an incredible international squad last year, but still finished last, and due to budgetary reasons the squad and staff have been decimated, so that we're operating on a skeleton set-up at the moment (and are in last place, with one win in twelve games). There are rumors that the Puma sponsorship is being withdrawn from WPS (or discontinued), which is again a bad sign for the league. It's going to take a while to establish women's professional soccer in the US, so I hope the WPS will survive for a few years more, but the economics of it are tough. It's important that owners not look for a quick turnaround in profits, but take a long-term view with the best interests of the women's game in mind. Hopefully the USA will go far in this year's Women's World Cup, and that will go some small way to promoting women's professional soccer in this country.

My favorite player in the WWC thus far: Louisa Necib (Olympic Lyon), the women's game's "Zinedine Zidane" (like him, she's of Algerian descent and is from Marseilles). A very nice and skilfull player to watch!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Japanese parents in outcry over radiation levels in Fukushima schools

In another shocking and saddening case of poor leadership in Japan, the government increased the acceptable level of radiation in Fukushima schools by 20 times (from 1 to 20 milliseverts per year) so that schools in the area could remain open, despite protests and petitions by both local parents and international organizations, triggering resignations by government officials and advisors who did not agree with the policy.

Itaru Watanabe of the education ministry allegedly said, "I think 20 millisieverts is safe but I don't think it's good" -- a patently ridiculous statement that was met with derision.

According to the Guardian UK, Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Nobel prize winning organization, claimed that at that rate, children had a one in 200 risk of getting cancer. In protest to the government's opportunistic policy change, Fukushima parents dumped radioactive dirt at the desk of education officials that was measured at 38 milliseverts.

The problem is that currently political awareness and civil society are not developed sufficiently in Japan to resist such obviously political moves by the ruling party. Although Kan's approval rating stands around an astonishing 1%, there are few alternatives, as the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan uninterruptedly for some six decades, is not seen as being any better. This points to a general crisis in political leadership in the country as a whole.

Read the full article on the Fukushima school situation here:
Fukushima parents dish the dirt

Monday, March 28, 2011

Like an earthquake every day - Child hunger

The outpouring of support that has emerged since the earthquake in Japan is heartwarming. Just the other day, I was in World Market and saw that they were donating proceeds from their Japanese goods (which they had put in the front of the store) to the situation in Japan. Every Sony Playstation 3 now has a "Donate to Japan" icon that appears when the device is turned on, and there are many more examples of this. It's a great sign of the innate compassion within us that arises for people suffering in times of disaster.

Although I have friends and family in Japan, about whom I'm very concerned, it's also important to keep in mind that every day children around the world are suffering from the equivalent of several earthquakes and tsunamis, and yet receive hardly any attention. Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 children die every day from starvation and easily preventable diseases. I first learned this shocking fact from a book by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Here's a quote from UNICEF's 2000 progress report, entitled "A Spotty Record":

"The continuation of this suffering and loss of life contravenes the natural human instinct to help in times of disaster. Imagine the horror of the world if a major earthquake were to occur and people stood by and watched without assisting the survivors! Yet every day, the equivalent of a major earthquake killing over 30,000 young children occurs to a disturbingly muted response. They die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death."

Researchers talk about "empathy burnout," and it's certainly true that at first glance we might want to turn away from this horrifying reality, thinking that it's too big for us to take in, or that there's nothing we can do. After all, that is 11 million children each year dying unnecessarily. But if 11 million people around the world each took responsibility for one child (at a cost that might only be about $100 per year), the tragedy might be ended, or at least very significantly reduced. If each person took responsibility for a few children, maybe you'd only need 2 or 3 million.

Seeing the response to the situation in Japan, and the earlier response for the situation in Haiti, I do not at all believe that people simply do not care about these children. I think the problem is rather that too few people know about the situation. Definitely we need to spread the word, so that people can support the many organizations that are trying to feed and take care of these children.

Here are links to a few I know of. Let me know if you know of others that are good:



Stop Hunger Now

Children's Hunger Fund

The Situation in Japan

The recent disaster in Japan has taken a toll on the Japanese people in a variety of ways. Here's one recent example, which doesn't seem to have been taken up by the western press.

A vegetable farmer in Fukushima who had meticulously grown organic cabbages for thirty years committed suicide after a ban on spinach and a limitation on cabbage was extended by the Japanese government. His son reported that he repeatedly uttered "This is it for Fukushima vegetables..." before his death. The farmer had devoted his life to growing safe and healthy cabbages and supplied them for a local school, taking great pride in their high quality and method of cultivation.

Asahi news reported that although the farmer's house and barn had been damaged by the earthquake, 7500 stalks of cabbage remained safe. His daughter told reporters, "All the farmers are anxious. I don't want there to be another victim like my father."

Original article in the Asahi newspaper (Japanese language)

Not very good English translation of the Japanese article (by Google Translate)

Picture: Asahi Shimbun

Nespresso Pixie

Just picked up a Nespresso Pixie on Saturday. After searching for an espresso machine for two weeks and reading everything I could find on-line, it seemed like I would have to spend $400 for a machine, $200-400 for a grinder, and $50+ on additional accessories (tamper, etc.) and then another several weeks experimenting to find the right grind size, temperature, tamp pressure, etc. in order to make reasonable espresso.

Then I stumbled across this little wonder at $250 (plus a $50 off coupon on coffee, from Williams-Sonoma). It's brilliant! I had reservations that it wouldn't feel like "true espresso," but after three days of using it, I'm already sold. It's just so simple, practical, small (in countertop size) and easy to clean and maintain. And the espresso is reliably yummy.

Since buying it I've come across numerous stories of people going from a full semi-automatic set-up to the simpler Nespresso way. Someday I may still go for a Gaggia Classic (the semi-automatic machine I had set my mind to, prior to coming across the Pixie), just to learn the trade of pulling espresso shots and being able to select my own beans. But for the time being, this little wonder is doing just fine. Apparently, all Nespressos make drinks of the same quality, so my only thought now is whether to trade it in for a cheaper model like the D90 (which is $149).

Photo source: Williams-Sonoma

Marina Abramovic

I didn't know much about performance artist Marina Abramovic, but had read about her retrospective last year at MoMA, and her performance of "The Artist is Present," in which she sat for some 300 hours in silence, and museum visitors could sit face to face in front of her.

Fortunately I heard about her invitation by SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) to come down from NYC and give a few talks. Having heard her in person and seen some of her works, I'm really amazed. She is in a league of her own: a very reflective, courageous and exceptionally talented artist whose broad vision of art makes me think of other pioneers of modern and contemporary art: Breton, Dali, Picasso, Pollack, Yves Klein. We don't have the good fortune to chat with them and see them work, but we do have Marina Abramovic.

I was also glad to hear her mention H.H. the Dalai Lama several times in her talk. She has spent time working and meditating with Tibetan monks and she takes what I feel is a deeply spiritual approach to her art. As she put it, she confronts aspects of humanity that are alien, frightening and suppressed, in order to show others that they, too, have the courage and ability to face and transform their fears.

Here is the link to her keynote address for SCAD. If you are at all interested in modern art, in any medium, watch this:

Marina Abramovic Talk At SCAD

Photo credit: MoMA