31 January 2009

Japan pt. 2

In the morning, I was up bright and early. I crept out as quietly as I could, to avoid waking my dorm-mates in the hostel, who murmured in their beds as sunlight tracked up the wall with the movement of the dawn. I had a full day of religiousity in front of me, with a city full of temples to see.

The first stop was the closest. I have to admit that the prospect of travel around Japan on my own had made me a bit nervous, despite my success the previous day. I wanted to take it a bit easy, and went to the temples of Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji, fifteen minute walks each from my hostel. They would turn out to be quintessential Japanese temples, with smoothly curving roofs of delicate workmanship, ancient stone monuments, and serious-faced visitors. After entering the ornate gates of such temples, there is a fountain (often quite old and exquisite) at which you are supposed to cleanse yourself. Using the provided ladles, you gather water from the central pool, and splash it over your hands onto the earth, then take a single drink and spit it onto the ground. You approach the temple, removing your shoes at the foot of the steps, and ascend to the door (always a sliding paper traditional door). Within, there is a shrine of one sort or another, usually gilded.

Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji are the seat of Shin Buddhism in Japan. Their names, translated, mean "Eastern Temple of the Original Vow" and "Western Temple of the Original Vow." Of the two, Higashi Honganji was much more interesting, with the gorgeous Temple of the Amida Buddha. The Amida Buddha is the Buddha of the Pure Land, the version of the Buddha most revered by Honganji Buddhists. The amazing shrine within to the Amida Buddha is composed of some absurd amount of gold and jewels. I was in luck to find no one present within, so I was able to take pictures of the interior. This was a privilege I was seldom able to obtain, given the many worshippers at the temples. Despite my wish to preserve what I see on this trip in photos, I hesitate before taking such a liberty. There is the same hushed solemnity that hangs in the air in any sanctified area - a sense of harnessed awe.

Nearby Nishi Honganji, I went to Koshoji, a very small but very pretty temple right nearby. Then I caught a bus and started seeing the city proper.

Nijo Castle was on my itinerary (slapped together the previous evening), and I caught a bus straight there. This was the seat of the shogun in the city during the Tokugawa shogunate, and it remains intimidating today. Surrounded by a wide moat and immensely thick walls, it is entered through a gate that was atypically simple. Clearly its slabs of rock and timber were intended for functionality more than decoration.

The grounds within were another story, of course. Gardens surround the palace compound, which is brightly-painted and gilded. The gates and walls of the compound have carefully forged scrollwork in metal - and of course, security cameras. There had been particularly devastating acts of vandalism at some Japanese historical sites (I will speak more of them momentarily) and security was omnipresent in the form of helpful but persistant attendants, stout railings, and dozens of cameras.

There are several styles of Japanese gardens, but they are all based primarily upon the idea of affording beautiful views. As I was told by a very self-satisfied guide, Western gardens tend to be practical and laid out geometrically, while Japanese gardens are dedicated to beauty above all. I restrained myself from correcting her, it did chafe a bit; the two kinds of garden have rather different purposes, since I assure you that Nijo Castle produced precious few carrots.

Clean flat stones wended their way through the short grass of the gardens, picking a path through the ponds. At the few streams, simple stone bridges made the crossing, arching slightly over the water beneath that rippled with the motion of koi or catfish. It was a pleasant time of year to visit, for all that there were no blossoms; the tree branches creaked slightly with motion as a cool breeze caressed Nijo, and the air is so crisply clean that the cries of a crow had surpassingly sharp edges, notching the memory with its sound.

I left the castle with a quiet smile, and headed for my next stop, the shrine of Kinkakuji. I thought that I was almost becoming numb to beauty, and considered that maybe I should have stopped and taken a break instead. It was like doing some difficult and repetitive task, like scrubbing soot from the inside of a stove by hand. The muscles move and move and move, overworked until they start to lose feeling. What if, I wondered, my ability to appreciate beauty had become deadened?

Going to Kinkakuji was like the sparkling tingles that burst into those muscles, erupting back with feeling. As I stepped off of the long path to the temple and around the dense hedge that fenced in the area, the Golden Pavilion struck me dumb.

Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most famous sights in Kyoto - in fact, it's one of the most famous places in Japan. And for good reason. Built on a mirror-smooth lake, and surrounded by trees, this three story temple's walls are completely covered in gold. In the light of the early afternoon, it was dazzling. A golden statue of a phoenix on top of the temple blazed with the sun, looking as if it were going to actually burst into flame at any moment.

It was very beautiful.

Exclusionary Rule

Great piece from the Times about the Herring case and its import. Check it out.
This month, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority in Herring v. United States, a 5-to-4 decision, took a big step toward the goal he had discussed a quarter-century before. Taking aim at one of the towering legacies of the Warren Court, its landmark 1961 decision applying the exclusionary rule to the states, the chief justice’s majority opinion established for the first time that unlawful police conduct should not require the suppression of evidence if all that was involved was isolated carelessness. That was a significant step in itself. More important yet, it suggested that the exclusionary rule itself might be at risk.

The Herring decision “jumped a firewall,” said Kent Scheidegger, the general counsel of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims’ rights group. “I think Herring may be setting the stage for the Holy Grail,” he wrote on the group’s blog, referring to the overruling of Mapp v. Ohio, the 1961 Warren Court decision.

28 January 2009

Travelogue soon.  Haven't had time.  Did put up more pictures in the same album, though.  Check them out.

26 January 2009

First days in Japan

My trip to Japan was undertaken with relatively little preparation, it must be admitted. With a vague sort of plan consisting of places I wanted to see, I set out yesterday from my home city of Yeosu for the port city of Busan.

Busan is the second-largest city in Korea - it doesn't hold a candle to Seoul, of course, but it is still quite immense. Like so much of Korea, it looks built over the landscape; the forested mountains and hills that make up the Korean countryside are visible in their swelling magnificence, quite unchanged beneath the very new city that has sprung up over them like ripe tan mushrooms of apartment buildings. Certainly it is nothing like what Korea once looked like, before Japan and the war, but the cities are built following the contours of the land as it exists now.

I don't see much of Busan, however, since in short order I am on to Japan. Embarkation is confusing and difficult, and the ticket agents discuss my case in heated tones. As it turns out, the Korean friend who helped me book my tickets chose the wrong destination city. I am booked for the opposite side of Japan that I had intended. Instead of going straight to Osaka, it seems, I am instead for Fukoaka. So be it. I am an amiable traveler in the face of the unexpected, since my experiences here have taught me that any other attitude is an invitation to madness.

So to Fukoaka. The ship was not a ship as I have seen, but instead a high-speed hydrofoil. It took only four hours, with the two-hundred-passenger boat rising up on skids as it sped over the waves. The waters of the Eastern Sea are very blue, deepening as they darken until they are a rich velvet. I sat in my narrow seat (well-cushioned and warm) and eagerly waited to see Japan.

I had been staring for hours when I saw a darkened shape ahead. Leaning forward, I scrubbed the condensation from the window with my sleeve, clearing a view of a rocky spur emerging out of the sea, flanked by a rust-streaked and immense white trawler. This was Japan.

The first thing I noticed, as I reached the harbor of Fukoaka, was the immediate contrast with Busan. The Korean city lay across the surface of the land like a blanket of snow, but its Japanese cousin was slashed into the mountains next to the bay. This was an impression that would only be reinforced as I later traveled the countryside - everywhere, the land was cut and moved into place, and then the cities would exist in the cleared flat wells and valleys of Japan. The difference speaks, I believe, not so much of a difference of character between the two peoples, but rather just of the way they have developed. Almost all of Korea is new, with only some rare buildings being older than forty years (much like Florida). Japan, even though it endured a great deal of punishment during the Second World War, maintained many of its older buildings, and the subsequent American occupation brought a strong-arm way of construction.

I traveled from Fukoaka (an entirely uninteresting city) to Kyoto by way of shinkansen, or high-speed bullet train. This was an amazing device, slashing through hill and dale in straight lines or arcing over bridges in lightning curves. It was sleek and high-tech, moving almost silently, as if it was pouring forward along the rails. In between the spates of darkness that were the tunnels, there were visible long flashes of Japanese neighborhoods. Their roofs were tiled and curved at the ends, and their tops were heaped with melting snow. They gathered in the carved out floors of valleys like marbles dropped into a hollow, clustered closely along narrow streets.

So few people! Compared to Korea, where in any city of even a moderate size one must always elbow people out of your way, Japan was deserted. A few knots had gathered to play baseball, I glimpsed as the train flashed by the snow-dusted fields. And some walked the streets, going about their business or leaning on each other as they laughed. As the train whipped across the country, I saw a bit into the lives of thousands.

On the way to Kyoto by way of Osaka, I befriended a pleasant British fellow, Matt, who as it happened was also an English teacher in Korea. He taught on the opposite side of the country from me, but our shared experiences formed a good basis for discussion about comparisons and a base towards a swift friendship. Matt was a consummate planner when it came to traveling, very much my opposite; whereas I had only a vague set of ideas, he had meticulously planned out each day of his vacation in the land of the rising sun. This turned to my advantage when he had an amazing tip about a place to stay for the night: the hostel he had found was very cheap and well-recommended.

Even though I was dog-tired from the journey, Matt and I just slung our gear and headed out once more. We decided to go to a Japanese bath-house. Both of us were familiar with Korean jimjabangs (bath-houses), myself rather more than him, and we wanted to compare.

Jimjabangs are quite nice in Korea. You go to a big facility where the sexes are segregated, strip down, and enter into a huge bathing room. Saunas, steam rooms, massage pools, cold pools, and multiple spas make for amazing relaxation. Japanese bath-houses are much the same, as it turns out, but more extreme. Entering a squat wooden building, Matt and I put our shoes in lockers with hugely clunky wooden locks, paid the equivalent of five dollars, and entered the changing room. We removed our clothes and put them in another set of lockers whose keys were on elastic bands (for your wrist, so it isn't lost), and went into the bath-house - ignoring the Japanese men staring intently at us. The bath-house had a sauna, four spas, and a cold pool. The sauna was at 110 Celsius (much hotter than its Korean equivalents) and the cold pool was at some ridiculously low temperature, and switching from the one to the other was an experience not to be believed.

The next day I was up early and on my way, and had a full day. I will recount it later.

15 January 2009

FUCK YOU, JUSTICE ROBERTS!

Fuck you and your deciding vote and authorship of the split decision to overturn the exclusionary rule's previous standard! The Herring decision is the most appalling thing I have heard since the USAPATRIOT Act!

I'll update later with more. Too pissed now.

UPDATE:
Okay, so a brief summary for those who aren't nerds: the exclusionary rule was a ruling laid down by the Supreme Court whereby if evidence was improperly obtained through police misconduct or negligence, the evidence could not then be used at trial. The phrase often tossed around is "fruit of the poison tree."

Herring, a newly-decided Supreme Court case, yesterday revised the rule. Now a "good-faith" exception is extended to police officers in errors of fact - in other words, if they were just mistaken and not criminal in an improper search or seizure, the evidence is admissable. It's pretty well-summarized by Tom Goldstein (who was involved in the defense) on SCOTUSblog:
The rubber will hit the road in cases in which the officers’ error is one of fact, not law. Herring is such a case - the officer is said to have reasonably relied on the information provided by a police warrant clerk. But what about the more common circumstance in which an officer, based on information not provided by anyone else, negligently but erroneously concludes that probable cause exists. For example, the officer believes that an individual is wanted for arrest but doesn’t call to confirm that fact, or the officer believes that a bag contains marijuana but a closer inspection would have shown otherwise. In the past, those cases would have automatically triggered the exclusionary rule - the Fourth Amendment violation required exclusion.
I understand that many people will have no problem with this. After all, isn't this just eliminating a "technicality" that gets criminals off all the time?

The problem is that this rule has provided incentive for police to be professional and accountable. Herring itself springs from sloppiness: the defendant was stopped and searched under the authority of a warrant that hadn't been valid in months, but the police had neglected to keep their database of warrants current. The exclusionary rule would have thrown the case out because the search was illegal, but that is no longer the case. So why the hell would this police agency ever worry much about keeping their databases up to date in the future? Absolutely no one has any reason to harass them about it except the people who will be screwed - and lone victims are notoriously voiceless.

I bemoaned Roberts' entry into the Court, and it has gone just as I feared. The man's a brilliant legal scholar, but he swung the precarious balance of the Court over more than any one man has done since Rehnquist, asserting his own hyperconservatism with the opposite effect but same persuasiveness as that liberal titan of old.

12 January 2009

Hertzberg on the Transition

Over at the New Yorker, there's a good brief piece about the transition and popularity.  It includes a pretty decent summary of Bush's term and his remaining approval rating.
A gangly Illinois politician whom “the base” would today label a RINO—a Republican in Name Only—once pointed out that you can fool some of the people all of the time. We now know how many “some” is: twenty-seven per cent. That’s the proportion of Americans who, according to CNN, cling to the belief that George W. Bush has done a good job. The wonder is that this number is still in the double digits, given his comprehensively disastrous record. During the eight years of the second President Bush, the unemployment rate went from 4.2 per cent to 7.2 per cent and climbing; consumer confidence dropped to an all-time low; a budget surplus of two hundred billion dollars became a deficit of that plus a trillion; more than a million families fell into poverty; the ranks of those without health insurance rose by six million; and the fruits of the nation’s economic growth went almost entirely to the rich, while family incomes in the middle and below declined. What role the Bush Administration’s downgrading of terrorism as a foreign-policy priority played in the success of the 9/11 attacks cannot be known, but there is no doubting its responsibility for the launching and mismanagement of the unprovoked war in Iraq, with all its attendant suffering; for allowing the justified war in Afghanistan to slide to the edge of defeat; and for the vertiginous worldwide decline of America’s influence, prestige, power, and moral standing.
A good summary, you can read the rest here.