26 July 2010

"The political genius of supply-side economics"

This post by the Financial Times' Martin Wolf is extremely insightful, plucking out the heart of the partisan economic debate over supply-sidism and what it means. It's hard not to just quote the whole thing, but the heart is here:
To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.

The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch?

How did supply-side economics bring these benefits? First, it allowed conservatives to ignore deficits. They could argue that, whatever the impact of the tax cuts in the short run, they would bring the budget back into balance, in the longer run. Second, the theory gave an economic justification – the argument from incentives - for lowering taxes on politically important supporters. Finally, if deficits did not, in fact, disappear, conservatives could fall back on the “starve the beast” theory: deficits would create a fiscal crisis that would force the government to cut spending and even destroy the hated welfare state.


The evidence shows, then, that contemporary conservatives (unlike those of old) simply do not think deficits matter, as former vice-president Richard Cheney is reported to have told former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill. But this is not because the supply-side theory of self-financing tax cuts, on which Reagan era tax cuts were justified, has worked, but despite the fact it has not. The faith has outlived its economic (though not its political) rationale.
I highly recommend you check out the whole thing.

25 July 2010


Recently I was questioned a couple of times about the other nation in which I am a citizen and official, the Kingdom of Talossa. I thought a quick explanation might be in order - luckily, most everything is already written up and I only have to quote. From the webpage:

The Kingdom of Talossa is an independent, sovereign nation in North America, which seceded peacefully from the United States in 1979 (but we're not sure the United States noticed). Our Kingdom is located on the western shore of La Mar Talossan (Lake Michigan), surrounded by the U.S. city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but today most of our active citizens live in other parts of the United States and Canada, Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa.

Talossans cherish and enjoy their own unique (some would say "quirky") culture. At any given moment, you can find citizens of the Kingdom actively exercising their linguistic skills to learn, use, and nurture the beautiful Talossan language, honing their skills in the ancient arts of heraldry, putting on pompous airs to serve the nation in its legislative, judicial, executive, or royal offices, enjoying the performing arts, planning and running political parties (and the other kind of parties, too!), and doing any number of other things that they haven't found themselves able to do for any "real" nation.

Talossa is a constitutional monarchy, headed by a non-political King, and governed by a democratically elected Government. We invite all persons worldwide to become Talossan citizens and participate in our ongoing political and social adventure. In Talossa, you can become anything, from the lowliest pauper to the Seneschal (Prime Minister) of the Kingdom. Say the word, and you become a major figure in Talossan politics! (Talossan politics is real-life politics, only smaller and more accessible.) Learn to speak and write Talossan! Draft legislation and shepherd it through the Ziu (Parliament)! Design and register a Talossan Coat of Arms! Crack silly jokes on the Kingdom's bulletin boards! Make friends, share ideas, run for office, have fun!
Talossa has a highly-developed language of its own, a busy political system and set of laws, and so on. I have been a citizen for some years, and I love participating. I have been a local official in the provincial government, a Senator representing my province, and of late I am the Seneschal, or Prime Minister, of the Kingdom. From the relevant page:

The thirty-seventh and current Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Talossa is the Most Honourable Alexander Davis. S:r Davis was selected Prime Minister by the Raßemblamaintsch Unusual dels Misfätsilor Pareßeis (RUMP), that party having obtained a majority of the Cosa seats in the elections to form the 41st Cosa on 14 April 2010.

The King appointed S:r Davis to the Prime Ministry on 21 April 2010, replacing outgoing Prime Minister Iustì Canun.
If you're interested in the country, by all means check it out. And of course I will always happily answer any questions you might have about Talossa.

24 July 2010


My friend Leisha is in Busan now! She's always been enthralled by asiatic stuff, and I bet she's going to have a hell of a great time. Even now, I bet she's begun accumulating a variety of ornamental cups and different socks. And because she's tiny, she'll be able to go shopping with impunity.

A belated welcome to Korea, Leish!

20 July 2010


In the United States Congress, sometimes Senators or Representatives feel the need to organize in pursuit of common goals. In the big scale, they form parties like the Democrats or Republicans. On a smaller scale, they unite in caucuses based around smaller ideas. Some of them are relatively famous and powerful, like the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of conservative Democrats who united to leverage their power (and are an endangered species nowadays) or the Congressional Black Caucus. And then there are some less famous and less powerful ones. There are hundreds of caucuses, ranging from the Congressional Scouting Caucus to the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. It's really hard to think of a cause without a caucus. Let's look at some weird ones.

Here's a mostly complete list of caucuses.

EDIT: The Huffington Post did a completely identical story today. That is really annoying and probably prompted by the same news that prompted my story, the formation of the Tea Party Caucus.

19 July 2010


I consume a lot of news, and there have been some shifts in what I read.  I thought I'd mention some of them again, and maybe others might have some suggestions.

I read from cover to cover every issue of The New Republic, the Economist, the London Review of Books, and the New Yorker. I read the headlines and features of the Washington Post, the New York Times (with especial attention to the Opinionator and Stanley Fish), the BBC, ProPublica, the Atlantic, Seed Magazine, Harper's, Mother Jones. I subscribe to the main feeds of RealClearPolitics, Media Matters' Wonk Room, the Columbia Journalism Review, FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and Ezra Klein's blog. I follow a rough assortment of webcomics, winnowed down from numerous to the best of them: Achewood, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Something Positive, Hark! A Vagrant, Order of the Stick, Questionable Content, XKCD, and Dinosaur Comics. I catch the week's highlights from Lifehacker and the Sunday collection of PostSecret. I follow some half-dozen science or regional blogs like Brian in Jeollanam-do, Neuroskeptic, Enviroknow, and Language Log. I catch the amazing beauty of the Big Picture, How To Be a Retronaut, and A Journey Around My Skull. I subscribe to most every major book review, although I skip past most of them.

Google Reader informs me that "[f]rom your 82 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 7,316 items." This amounts to about 220 items read per day, although in many cases "reading" consists of just zipping past it after seeing it is redundant or uninteresting. Still, I feel well-informed and there's always something waiting for me.  I highly recommend the program for getting through a big mess of news.

EDIT:  Changed wording slightly, after someone pointed out that this post doesn't seem to have a point beyond self-promotion.

14 July 2010

Let's Review

I hate to cheerlead here (not really) but I'm proud of Obama so far, by and large - with Pelosi and Reid deserving their fair credit too. The biggest complaint is just that he's terrible at getting out the message. Obama has done an enormous amount for the base who elected him and for the country as a whole, enacting a series of sweeping and amazing laws that make this Congress one of the most progressive and effective congresses in decades.
We can add in here some "lesser" achievements: two fairly liberal Supreme Court justices confirmed, several jobs bills, elimination of $7b in discretionary spending, and so on. And of course there's the complete shift in tone and ethics in the government, which may fall short of where we want it, but is still a thousandfold improvement over the Torture President. And bear in mind that all of these things have been accomplished in a Congress with an unprecedented level of Republican obstruction, where government has to run almost exclusively on filibuster-beating supermajorities.

You may not agree with the merits of one or all of these bills. But to say that Obama has done nothing in a year and a half is just profoundly ignorant.

13 July 2010

Traveling to Jeju?

So many people are coming to visit us or thinking about visiting this year on Jeju, that I thought it might be a good idea to make a little guide with advice about coming out here.

Jeju (제주도) is a volcanic island, centered around the huge Mount Halla (한라산). It has two major cities - the big Jeju City (제주시) (home to most people here) on the northern shore and Seogwipo (서귀포) on the southern shore. It was once an independent kingdom called "Tamna," and a lot of that spirit remains in the people - especially as evidenced in the distinctive Jeju dialect and the province's special "self-governing" status. The Tamna kingdom fought the Mongols and the larger mainland kingdoms briefly before being crushed, and they have museums dedicated to their resistance. Jeju was also host to the 3-4 Uprising in 1948, a local rebellion that began against the U.S.-backed regime installed after World War 2 (a museum dedicated to it is worth a brief visit if you're nearby).

Jeju is sub-tropical, with snow and ice in the winter but incredible heat and humidity in the summer. The end of spring and beginning of summer is the "typhoon season," where it tends to rain a lot - but can still be beautiful. Even in the middle of the rainy season, there will be stretches of bright sunny days. One thing tends to be true: if it's rainy, it will be rainy for some days. If it's sunny, it will stay sunny for a while.

Getting to the island is pretty easy. Flights leave from the major cities frequently, and are fast and easy. You might save a bit of money taking a ferry, but it takes a lot longer by boat.  It might be worth it to spend the extra on a plane to make your traveling time two hours instead of two days. You don't generally need to book ahead, except at major holidays like Chuseok or during the peak traveling season (August). Even then you will probably be able to find something.

On the island, you can rely on public transportation. As in so many other places, the bus system is great and taxis are pretty cheap. The buses stop at 9:30, but a taxi from anywhere on the island to anywhere else will seldom exceed 30,000 won. If you're going any serious distance, it may pay to try to agree on a price beforehand.

One nice thing to do is to take the bus around the perimeter of the island, on the 1132 road. You can go to as many beaches as you want and grab buses inland when you want to see something on the way.

If you want to rent a scooter here, you'll need a Korean driver's license or an international driver's license. Arrange for a scooter ahead of time. I've never done it, but I imagine it could be pretty fun. Be careful - Jeju can be very windy.

Don't rent a car.

As in most places in Korea, there's three ways to stay: hotel, motel, or roughing it.

Real hotels, like the Hyatt or Lotte Hotel, are expensive. Seriously expensive. The worst room in the Hyatt is 240,000 per night. Except as an extraordinary treat, it's probably not worth it. It's a lot wiser to just visit one of the megahotels when you're down in the resort area near Jungmun beach.

It's probably a little wiser to stay at a love motel instead. If you've been in Korea a while, you're probably familiar with these cheap motels. Originally intended for trysts, now they're often just clean and decent places to stay without spending a fortune. You also have the option of staying in the slightly cheaper "pension" style motels, which are much the same but perhaps with fewer amenities, or in the cheapest option of minbak (민박): essentially just a bare room with blankets and pillows (sometimes with a kitchenette or the like). Love motels tend to be in the cities, while pensions and minbaks are everywhere.  You will almost certainly not need to book ahead of time.

The most frugal option is to camp out on the beach. Last year, it's what we did when we visited - just going around the rim from beach to beach, camping. I highly recommend it.

There's a lot you can do.
  • Beaches - Jeju has some of the most beautiful beaches in Korea, all of them with a different character. There are a lot of them, but the main ones are: Iho (이호해수욕장) is closest to Jeju City, and so while it's popular and convenient, it also tends to be a little dirty. Jungmun (중문해수욕장) is near Seogwipo City and is by far the most popular beach and a major attraction; it's big and gorgeous and can have enormous waves. Samyang (삼양해수욕장) is east of Jeju City, and has greyish sand euphemistically called "black sand;" it's is supposed to have healing properties, but the best property is just that Samyang's not as popular as the others. Gimnyeong (김녕해수욕장) is further east, and has sailing classes that are fun; you can spend 40k for a weekend of sailing classes without further obligation, and it's supposed to be a lot of fun. These are just a few of the beaches; there are a dozen others all along the edge of the island and few of them will disappoint.
  • Outdoor stuff - You can ride horses, ATVs, or go-karts. A lot of these sorts of activities are located inland south-east of Jeju City. On the water, you can go windsurfing, bodysurfing, or regular surfing. You are well-advised to go to Jungmun beach in the south for water-sports.
  • Camping - Almost anywhere you go along the water's edge, you can find camping. As elsewhere in Korea, there are few restrictions. Some places have a set camping area, but in most places you can just set up your tent wherever you like (even on the beach itself, excepting Jungmun and Iho!) You can also build a campfire, although please be safe and don't burn down my island. There are almost never any fees to camp.
  • Hiking - Jeju has dozens of "olles" (올레, pronounced "o-lays") or hiking trails. The ones along the southern coast are local favorites, like #7. They are enormously popular with native tourists, as well.  Along the way, check out some of the wonderful waterfalls in the south, like Cheonjiyeon (천지연폭포).  If you want a good challenge, you can even hike one of the paths of Mt. Halla!
  • Sites - You can check out Samsunghyeol (삼성혈), the hallowed site where the legendary Jeju people sprang from magical caves; the depressing but worthwhile Jeju Uprising museum; the enormous Manjunggul cave system (만장굴) that extends for a full kilometer in a watery lava tube (go on a dark rainy day, since sunshine is wasted when you're spleunking); Hallim Park (한림공원) (huge and beautiful gardens with terrifying ostriches that will glare menacingly); the Spirited Garden (생각하는정원), a large collection of bonsai trees well-worth the visit; and so on. Probably the favorite thing to see is Jeju Loveland (제주러브랜드), a sex-themed sculpture park that hovers somewhere between goofy and creepy.
  • Casinos - There are a dozen casinos on Jeju.  It's illegal for natives to go there, so they're filled with Chinese and Japanese tourists and a handful of other nationalities.  The general idea is that you get free drinks while you gamble, but be careful about minimum hands - some of the casinos insist on a 50,000 minimum bet.  I recommend the Oriental in Jeju City the most.
  • Seongsan Ilchubong - This is so amazing it gets its own bullet point.  See, it's right there to the left?  Yeah, this caldera is called Seongsan Ilchubong (성산 일출봉) or Sunrise Peak.  It's my favorite thing on the island, and an absolute must.  It's on the far east, jutting out from the coast.
There's a whole lot more, of course.  You can take a ferry to Udo Island and have a picnic, go to one of the innumerable museums (like the Teddy Bear Museum), or check out the O'Sulloc Tea Plantation.  But the above are my favorite things.

The mandatory place to eat is Bagdad Cafe. This amazing Indian restaurant is near the City Hall area of Jeju City (where most of the best restaurants are) and it is almost a sin to come to Jeju and not go to it.

Right nearby is Zapata's, a Mexican place that's pretty good.  If you are located in a place with few or no Mexican restaurants, the chance to grab a decent burrito isn't something you want to pass up.

Also, be sure to check out a haenyo restaurant.  Haenyo are a special group of elderly female divers on Jeju; they dive among the rocks and coral and pull up seafood and seaweed by hand, which is served in special restaurants.  If you go to Seongsan Ilchubong, right at its foot is a wonderful haenyo place where you can eat an abalone pulled from the sea floor by hand an hour ago.

If you have any other questions, don't hesitate to ask. And if you come to visit, I hope you have a great time!

08 July 2010

Martial Arts

After an initial bad experience ten years ago, I am interested into getting back into martial arts. But so far it isn't working out. I have very specific requirements and a weird situation.

When I was younger, I trained with Grandmaster Sergio Barriga in his art of Shim Shin-do®. Remember that "®" - God help you if you forget the ®!

I don't think much of Shim Shin-do now, but I was brown belt in short order, training for black belt, teaching younger kids at the dojang. The "Art of Spirit, Mind, and Body" was created by Barriga in the late 90s. Barriga is an Argentinian, a black belt in seven different martial arts, and is a master of four of them as well, he has 150 first-place finishes in tournaments, and is super-Christian. He used to tell me stories while we trained.
I was on vacation with my wife, and we were in a taxi. I said to the taxi, I want to go here. But the taxi driver wasn't listening to me. He just kept saying, okay okay okay. He was going the wrong direction. I knew we were being kidnapped. When he came to a stop, I got out of the car, but he kept driving with my wife in the back. I ran up next to him and I just went POW POW POW. I had never been like that before, never been in a situation like that before. There was blood. I took my wife and left.
For a little Argentinian guy, he was scary sometimes. He hit like a truck.

He was very concerned about someone "stealing his art." My father stopped by a couple of times, and the Grandmaster trapped him into a long discussion about how important it was to safeguard Shim Shin-do from the people who wanted to steal it. This might have been a real concern, I don't know.

After a little less than a year, I kept seeibg kids run outside and immediately start kicking each other in the face. I started questioning the whole thing. There was very little philosophy behind it - it was kind of slathered on as an afterthought. I suppose this is because it's very difficult to incorporate traditional Korean and Japanese notions of discipline and qi without the spiritual aspects, which may not mesh well with the "First Christian Martial Art." And without the philosophy of it, what was I doing?

There are several ways to approach a martial art. It can be for practical defense, for personal well-being, and for enlightenment through physical motion. Shim Shin-do was not the most practical martial art, even though the Grandmaster would tell me about how it was the first art to be computer-modeled. For general fighting, Brazilian Ju-jitsu and associated mixed martial arts are pretty much the most effective, and for real-life defense, running is almost always the best option (combined with very simple groin kicks and eye gouges). For general fitness: well, I'd been in better shape when I was in cross-country, and I didn't have to be responsible for teaching children how to bloody noses. And for enlightenment... let's just say that no amount of spinning side kicks will teach you about inner quiet.

I'm not knocking Shim Shin-Do, really, although I sometimes have some harsher words about it in private and a lot of people say really nasty things about Barriga. It's great for what it is. But what it's not what I want.

I am interested in something to keep fit and help my mind grow. I am uninterested in anything that is about hurting other people. I thought about Tai Chi, but no one here who teaches it will agree to teach a foreigner (I think because of language or my age). I thought about Aikido, but even though one particular teacher is very impressive, more investigation of Aikido tells me that it's still almost all about hurting people. Maybe Judo? I don't know. I think it will still just have to wait.

05 July 2010

My Trip to Japan: Revisited

Last year, I went on a trip to Japan. I spent almost all of my time in the Kansai area (southern mainland), especially Kyoto. It was, as I have since called it, a "perfect trip." Nothing went wrong, everything went right. I saw everything I wanted to see and many surprising wonders, had nothing but great experiences with the people, and walked away feeling like I had seen a lot of the country. I subsequently wrote up an account of my trip, but neglected to finish the last part until now. Finally, I have compiled the three previous sections into one, and added the last part. Plus, now it's illustrated with my pictures. I hope you enjoy it!


Day One:  Travel from Yeosu to Busan, then across the water to Fukuoka, Osaka, and finally Kyoto.
Day Two:  Kyoto.
Day Three:  Kyoto and Fushimi.
Day Four:  Nara.
Day Five:  Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Day Six:  Osaka
Day Seven:  Fukuoka, then travel back home to Yeosu.


Day One:  Busan, Fukuoka, and arrival in Kyoto

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.


Day Two:  Kyoto

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.


Days Three and Four:  Kyoto and Nara

I'll repeat a bit of where I broke off last time.

Leaving the Golden Pavilion one my second day in Kyoto, I waited at the bus stop with a cigarette in hand. It was fairly chilly, with a persistant breeze that stole the smoke from my lips. Next to me on the bench were a young couple, who I noticed appeared to be Korean. I can't always tell apart asian ethnicities, but they had the plump and low cheekbones of the typical Korean. The man was fumbling with a very small map of the city, squinting from under the brim of a generic baseball cap, while his wife rubbed her arms to stay warm. I greeted them in Korean, venturing an "annyonghaseyo" in a questioning tone, and offered my own fold-out map of the city. They spoke a bit of English, and we hit it off very well and went to lunch together before proceeding on our separate ways. We had pan-fried noodles and soup; simple and savoury.

The rest of the day was much more relaxed, as I had seen most of the big items in the city. Now that I had seen the "musts," I could adopt a sedate pace and visit the more optional sights. These included Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion (not silver), whose most impressive feature were expansive Buddhist sculptures of packed gray sand, scraped into cones and patterns with what must have been meticulous care. I walked down the "Philosopher's Path," a well-cared-for set of stone walkways that winds in broad curves down the east of the city and goes past a dozen temples and shrines. And in the evening, I went to Kyoto Tower to see a view of the city as it descended into night. My dinner came from RamenTown at the station; I had takoyaki, a local specialty. These large dumplings are dusted with salty seasoning and filled with a rich gravy of octopus shreds.

My third day, I had scheduled a visit to the Museum of Kyoto. Fellow travelers told me it wasn't very good, but they also said that this was because it had too much "historical stuff." Based on the strength of their unwitting recommendation, I had decided to go. I was not disappointed; the temporary exhibit was an amazing retrospective of Japanese cinema, including a section on Kurosawa (the most famous and notable of Japanese moviemakers). Only about half of the exhibits had accompanying English explanations, but most of them didn't require even labels; it's hard not to understand the significance of a director's chair with Kurosawa's name on it in Japanese.

Notable within the museum, as well, was Roji Tempo, an enclosed recreation of an ancient Kyoto merchant street. It hocked assorted touristy items, such as handmade paper and the ever-present cheap fans. Roji Tempo didn't quite have the desired effect on me, but it was very amusing to look at some of what they had available.

From the museum, I went on to the Imperial Gardens of Kyoto. And let me tell you: from what I can tell, the emperor loved gravel. Fully half of the gardens were taken up by the extremely wide streets crisscrossing the grounds, covered in gray gravel. I'm not sure what the purpose of these streets were then, but in the modern day they served only to make me feel extremely small as I walked down the center of a lane as wide as a city block.

After a detour to Shokokuji Temple and the Jotenkaku Museum within the garden grounds, I went on my scheduled tour of the Imperial Palace. The tour and admission were all free, provided as a courtesy of the Japanese Imperial Household Agency. Unfortunately, all of the buildings were closed to entry to help preserve them. Their exteriors were very beautiful and covered in gilding and detailed carvings, of course, but the fact that we were barred from entry made the tour seem inadequate. I also couldn't help but reflect on historical injustice when looking at some aspects of the Palace; the roof was composed of eighty layers of cypress bark held together with bamboo nails, all made by hand and entirely replaced every eight or ten years. The amount of labour required for such a feat must have been staggeringly oppressive to the serfs forced to it.

After the Imperial Palace, my next stop was the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shrine was south of the city, well out of range of the normal bus and train lines, so I was forced to buy another ticket in addition to the intracity tour ticket I purchased each morning. A small local train took me down to the shrine, bumping and creaking down the less-used track along with a load of tired-looking commuters who had finished their day.

Shinto, the traditional Japanese animistic religion, has many inari shrines throughout Japan. These shrines pay homage to the spirits or ancestors with displays of torii, the crimson-painted arches that are so emblematic of Japan. The Fushimi Inari shrine is one of the most famous inari shrines thanks to the thousands of torii that have been accumulated there. Years ago in 711 AD, a series of mountain paths led from the small town up to the main shrine compound. A handful of mighty stone torii dotted the paths. But in the modern area, donating torii has become a very popular past-time. Over the long decades, wealthy individuals and organizations have donated arch after crimson arch. Now the archs are packed in like sardines up and down the mountain, crammed in until they have become solid corridors, interrupted at long intervals by the original stone torii or the occasional broken arch whose timbers have rotted. The accumulated effect was gorgeous in the low light of evening, as bright red lines leapt out of the green-and-brown side of the mountain.

I got back to Kyoto that evening having seen almost everything I wanted to see in three packed days of sightseeing. I have omitted in this account many small temples, shrines, shops, and other such things that filled the gaps between the most impressive items. But perhaps these lesser sights were the most important. I may have gained a better understanding of the city and Kyoto from a meal of sushi grabbed at a stand-up sushi bar next to a trio of giggling sukeban ("girl gang" equivalent of punk girls found in Japanese schools) than I did from the twanging words of a palace tour guide. In other words, and as in all traveling, it's in the little things that you experience the land.

The next day I rose very early and caught the first train to the city of Nara. Lacking the modern-city feel of Kyoto, this area was the capital of Japan during the whole of the eponymous Nara period, and has dedicated itself almost wholesale to the presentation of that history. It was an excellent day-trip, since almost everything of importance in the city was located either in Nara Park or within walking distance of it. Here in Nara Park was the Nara Five-Story Pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Japan, and it greeted me as I walked from the train station as it erupted into the sky from behind a hill.

Nara Park had relatively sparse trees, being mostly composed of gentle hills and wide grassy meadows. Because of this, it seemed even larger than it was, spreading out to all sides before sloping up seamlessly into the surrounding mountains. Its main inhabitants were the Nara deer, whose presence was continual. Fat and bold from year-round handouts, these animals slunk in packs of twenty or thirty near the vendors who sold overpriced deer food. They pounced on anyone foolish enough to buy some, like myself (twice). While not quite impudent enough to wrench the whole pack from my hands, I suspect this was mainly because I held it out of their reach and ran screaming like a little girl. It was very difficult to take pictures of them, since if I didn't have food they weren't interested and if I did then they constantly rammed into me or nipped my jeans. Rubbery deer lips left trails of saliva as they tried to mouth my sweater and myself into submission.

After the feeding frenzy, I went to main attraction, Todaiji Temple. This is entered via a long path surmounted by the immense Great Southern Gate, the oldest wooden structure of its size in the world. The Gate housed two beva kings of Buddhist legend, and their sixty-foot towering presences wielded worn wooden spears and offered angry scowls at those who might seek to harm the Buddha.

Todaiji Temple, just beyond the Gate, is the largest wooden structure in the world. It has to be, of course, since it houses one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, the Vairocona Buddha. This site was the center of Vairocana Buddhism, and the Buddha's serene face had seen the passage of many centuries. I lit a stick of incense at the temple, and paused to reflect on its spicy scent. It was a cloudless and bright day.

After Todaiji, I went to Nigatsudo. Nigatsudo was to stone lanterns was Fushimi Inari was to torii. Carved stone lanterns, weathered by rains, were everywhere in neat rows. They were lit only once a year, a process that took the whole day. The area was a good introduction to the Kasuga Shrine, which replicated the impressiveness with hanging metal lanterns that dangled from the ceiling by the hundreds along the brightly-painted wooden halls. They were of varying ages, with some so old that their copper had darkened almost to black, while others were still bright-shining and new.

On my return to Kyoto that evening, I felt steeped in ancient history. This would be a fitting preface to the next day's journey. I was going to Hiroshima.


Day Five:  Hiroshima and Miyajima

Let's start off by saying that it is impossible to visit Hiroshima and not feel guilty if you're an American.  Even though there are a thousand reasons why it's irrational to feel responsible, the sheer enormity of what happened makes it hard to understand that.  Moreover, it raises ethical questions that can make you ill with their implications.

Put baldly: on Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 in the morning, the city of Hiroshima was annihilated by the atomic fire of the United States.  It was not just bombed, and buildings were not just scorched.  When you see the pictures and the depictions, what you see is a metropolis that has been scoured away by the heat and power, like a great blazing fingertip touched the planet in that spot and brushed away the life.

I was anticipating a pretty depressing day.

Most everything along the lines of memorials are located in a big grouping around where the epicenter of the blast was in 1945.  This Peace Park area has dozens of monuments and museums and memorials, including a massive stone cenotaph and eternal flame.  For obvious reasons, almost everything is dedicated to the principle of peace.  The folded paper cranes that are sent here by the thousands (in memorial to Sadako Sasaki) are often inscribed with the universal sentiment: never again.  Please, never again.

The target of the bomb was thought to be the Aioi Bridge, which was been rebuilt.  It missed slightly, although a "miss" in this context is almost meaningless.  Almost all buildings were destroyed completely, reduced to piles of melted or broken glass and slagged metal buried in piles of concrete.  Only a single building of significant size survived, a convention hall.  It is now called the "A-Bomb Dome," and it is kept in a condition close to what it looked like then.  Bits of glass are studded in its walls from the force of the explosion.

I thought it would be better to go to the Atomic Bomb Museum on an empty stomach.  I was right.  Presented chronologically, the museum is extremely graphic at times.  Some of the stories were terrible enough to make me sick, like the tale of a boy who walked through the ruins in despair with a bucket, trying desperately to bring water to the dozens who lay screaming and dying, burnt and blind.  At the worst point, wax statues depict two survivors staggering through rubble, their flesh melting from their bodies.

Outside again, I skipped lunch and looked at some of the other monuments.  Especially of interest was the monument to the sizable population of Koreans who had been enslaved for wartime labor in the city; the Republic of Korea had erected the monument and it was draped with the remembrances of visiting Koreans.  There was a corresponding monument from the DPRK, but it was much smaller and a little sad in itself.

I left Hiroshima around noon, taking the train to a nearby port.  I felt very still and quiet.

The trip to Miyajima, a nearby small island, gave me time to gather myself and cheer up a little bit.  This island holds one of the three traditional Views of Japan, an ancient set of picturesque scenes in the land of the rising sun.  The ferry was modern and efficient, sliding out noisily into a mist that still lay lightly on the waters.

On the island is the Itsukushima shrine, a Shinto shrine that rests mostly on piers.  The shrine was originally built in the sixth century, but like most such places it has been burnt and reconstructed many times since - there are serious perils to having constant sacrificial fires in a big wooden building.  Of all the shrines, this one was the least populous... only a handful of people walked on the creaking wooden planks.  This is unfortunate - Itsukushima is supposed to be one of the holiest places of Shinto.  But far more people came to see the immense O-torii.

The largest of all Shinto torii, it lies off the shore of the shrine.  Its base is blackened by the rising and lowering tides, and birds land on it and perch squawking at the crowds of people who fight over the best location on the nearby sandbars and beach to get a good photo.  I followed a trio of Japanese children down from the shore and rock-hopped with them to a place to the side, where I could get my own photos.  But there was too big of a crowd; I just didn't feel in the presence of the sacred.

The rest of the town of Miyajima supplied me with some local snacks to take back to people.  It's a charming little place, where the publicly-funded tourism sights compete with the local businesses in a way that manages to be charming.  I waited out a light rain and ate some fresh fish, then boarded the ferry back to the mainland, where a train waited to take me back to my hostel.


Day Six:  Osaka

For my last full day in Japan, I thought I would visit some stuff that was modern and urban.  Most specifically, I thought I'd go to a cup, a club, and a coffin.

I got into town in the late morning after breakfast with a Japanese college student, who treated me to some udon noodles.  The first thing I did was check into my hotel for the night: one of the uniquely Japanese capsule hotels.  But more on that later.  I dropped off my stuff and went out to see the streets.

It was drizzling, and I walked through the back alleys and urban areas skipping from overhang to overhang, trying to stay out of the wet.  I walked through Osaka's Koreatown and Chinatown, stopping to get lunch, then hopped on a train.  After a short journey, I was at one of my most-anticipated destinations: the Instant Ramen Museum.

Ramen noodles are well-known to everyone by now, especially the college students who frequently subsist on their salty goodness exclusively.  This museum, the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, was dedicated to their inventor and created by the huge "Cup Noodles" brand.  There was a replica of the wooden shack where he first devised the formula, a long wall that tracked every brand of noodles from their invention to now (including some disgusting varieties like seitan ramen), and a mini-factory where you could create your own Cup Noodle.  I drew happily on the outside of the cup before adding my chosen variety of noodle and individual flavors.

Returning to the main city, I decided I seriously needed a beer.  My ramen cup bounced on the end of a bright-red bit of yarn as I selected a place pretty much at random.  It was called "Jokerman," one of my favorite Dylan songs.  It had six barstools, a few other patrons, and an awesome bartender who was completely enraptured with Gillian Anderson of The X-Files.  I made some new friends, including the bartender ("You are my best American friend!") and two Japanese girls whose names I never quite got but who were very friendly.  They were so friendly, in fact, that they invited me to go with them to their next stop: their favorite club.

The club was about the same as a western club.  The music was pulse-disruptingly loud, the girls were drunk and laughing, and the guys stood around and tried as hard as possible to look disaffectedly cool.  I was the only gaijin (foreign person) in the place, but these worldly Osakans didn't really care.  Like most Japanese, they are very accustomed to westerners - I was treated like a person, not a foreigner (a welcome change from Korea).  At most, my smattering of Japanese phrases got some giggles (私はビールを与える?)

When I was tired and bored with dancing terribly, I retired to my capsule hotel.  I was very excited about going to sleep.

A capsule hotel is essentially what it sounds like: a hotel composed of individual capsules, stacked up on each other in rows.  Even though they're cheap, they must be very profitable to run: you can fit six or eight "rooms" in the same space as a standard hotel room.

Putting your things into one of the big lockers, you change into a provided set of pajamas.  The hotel is gender segregated, so there's little risk of embarrassment.  You can use the television room, the computer room, or just go to your coffin: a seven-by-four plastic cubicle with thin mattress, pillow, and recessed pay-per-view television.  I slid down the rattan cover that was the "door," and went to sleep, drunk and happy.


Day Seven:  Departure

I had mixed emotions in the morning.  On the one hand, this was the day I was leaving Japan.  But on the other, how could I have asked for a better trip?  Getting on the train to Fukuoka, and then the ferry back to Korea, I thought about my good fortune.  What had I done right to be so lucky?

As near as I can tell, it's because I had a rough list of things I wanted to see, but I still left some time for spontaneous fun and kept my schedule loose.  I tried to be friendly and courteous, and was fortunate enough to be able to read simple Japanese and speak a little.  Plus, Japan is a great country to visit, with well-organized but rewarding sights and ample public transportation.

If you go to Japan, make sure to see both old Japan and new Japan.  Vary your sites: it's easy to just go from one temple to another, but try to mix in the gardens and palaces and other sights.  And of course, make sure you have your spirit of adventure with you.

The waters of Japan swirled away in the eddy of the jetfoil, and I watched them go and was content.