Celebrating Christmas at Leavenworth



Recently, my family and I did a day-trip (higaeri in Japanese, 日帰り) to the town of Leavenworth to enjoy Christmas. Leavenworth is in Washington state, but it’s on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, so we have to drive 2.5 hours on Highway 2 to get there. We decided to visit late, so all the hotels were full, so instead we decided to day a day-trip only. We had a lot of fun.

Leavenworth is a small town of 2,000 people, but the city center has been built to resemble a town in the Free State of Bavaria in Germany. For Japanese readers, it is called バイエルン州 (baierun shū). It’s also called Freistaat Bayern in modern German.

Anyhow, we left around noon time. The drive through the mountains was very beautiful, and my daughter took some photos from the car:




We drove for about 2.5 hours, and arrived at Leavenworth around 3pm. Since it was winter and we were behind the mountains, it was already growing dark!


Somehow this reminded me of Transylvania from the novel Dracula. Thankfully, Halloween has already passed. ;)

Anyhow, Leavenworth was extremely crowded:


The lines for food were very long. You had to stand in a long line for both restaurants and food-stalls. We decided to get some Bratwurst with sauerkraut,1 fried-onions and German mustard (not that mild, American crap). It was delicious. We also bought some Christmas items for home. My daughter really wanted a nutcracker, so we found a store that sold many nutcrackers. Some nutcrackers costed hundreds of dollars and some were much cheaper. We bought her a cheaper model, but she was happy. :)

Leavenworth in December is famous for its Christmas lights, and it was worth the visit. At 5pm, they turn on the lights. Here’s the same street at night time:



Das ist nicht eine brezel!


Overall, the food in Leavenworth wasn’t very good. We had some pretzels and pastries which were OK, and we also had some coffee and hot chocolate. The hot-chocolate was sickly-sweet (like most American food) and the coffee was too bitter. Frustrated, I put the coffee and hot-chocolate together and it tasted much better.

We did buy some imported food from Germany though. This is German “curry sauce”:

German curry sauces

You can put it in any meat or other dishes. It’s really delicious! I’ve been using daily. :-)

We also bought some German chocolates, but they had cinnamon in them, and my wife does not like cinnamon, so I had to eat myself. ;)

Anyhow, around 6:30pm we decided to go home. Once we left Leavenworth, the road was very dark.2 I have never driven on a mountain road at night, and to be honest, it was a bit scary. Some of the turns were a little sharp, and the signs were sometimes hard to see, but we made it safely. Next time, I might try to stay overnight, or leave before sunset.

Despite the food, we enjoyed Leavenworth quite a bit. It was a lovely Christmas festival and fun for the whole family. Little Guy is an outgoing baby, so he loves crowds. He was happy to see people and their pets. Princess, my daughter, was happy to get a nutcracker and a Russian ornament for our tree. My wife and I had a lot of fun too. We will probably come again sometime next year, maybe during Spring.

Danke Schön, Leavenworth!

P.S. When I was in high-school, I studied German language for a couple years, but I was terrible at it. It wasn’t very interesting, and eventually I quit and switched to Chinese instead. Having visited Luxembourg, I wish I had studied more German, but at the same time, I am glad I learned Chinese. :) Interesting fact: Luxembourg is a very small country. You can drive across it in about an hour. However, the western-half is mostly French (French names, French spoken, etc), while the eastern-half is German. So much culture for such a small country.

1 My wife asked me what sauerkraut. I told her it was like Korean Kimchi, but not spicy. ;)

2 They had lights near the small towns along Highway 2: Skykomish, Baring, Gold Bar, etc, but between towns, it was really dark. The very top of the mountain road was snowing a little bit too, but the snow didn’t stick, so we were OK.

Posted in Family, Seattle, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sakura Blossoms in December

Sakura cherry blossoms in December.

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to share some photos my wife took. Last week, we attended Sunday Service at the local Buddhist temple, and in the parking lot we noticed these cherry blossoms. I was holding Little Guy, so my wife took these photos.

Sakura cherry blossoms in December.

I didn’t know that cherry blossoms can bloom in winter, but I did a little research and it does happen sometimes. In Japanese this seems to be called either jūgatsu-zakura (十月桜, “October sakura”) or just fuyu-zakura (冬桜, “winter sakura”). However, there is a difference between the two:

  • October Sakura are really just a variety of the Yae-zakura (八重桜) cultivar. They have 5-18 petals typically.
  • Winter Sakura only have the standard 5-petals.

However, even Japanese people sometimes confuse the two. The term fuku-zakura is more general, and is used for both. There are some great tourist spots in Japan for viewing winter sakura, such as in Gunma Prefecture and Saitama Prefecture. In Saitama Prefecture, home of fellow blogger “Cocomino”, they have a lovely park named Jōmine-Kōen. You can see photos here.

Anyhow, there are many varieties of Sakura blossoms and trees. This website (Japanese only, sorry), has a great chart showing the differences between them.

Great photos, honey! :)

P.S. Taking a break from talking about politics and/or religion, too. Sometimes it’s nice to blog about other, lighter subjects.

Posted in Japan, Travel | Leave a comment

Understanding Buddhism through Donuts

I found this on Twitter recently:

This is a whiteboard-list of Western philosophers and a summary of their ideas using donuts. For example Nietzsche says “Stop at nothing to get your donut,” while Plato says “all donuts share in ‘ideal donut-ness'”.

So I got to thinking: how would you summarize Buddhism through donuts?

I guess my answer would be:

No matter how many donuts you eat, you will keep wanting more.

But then there’s many different Buddhist traditions each with their own nuances:

  • Zen: There is no donut.
  • Esoteric Buddhism: The donut is symbolic of deeper truths and requires empowerment.
  • Pure Land: There are lots of donuts in the Pure Land.
  • Theravada: There are exactly 47 types of donuts in the Pali Canon.
  • Nichiren: The Lotus Donut is supreme compared to all other donuts.
  • Madhyamika: Donuts are really just flour, sugar, eggs and milk. It has no inherent “donut-ness”.
  • Yogacara: The donut is a projection of one’s accumulated experiences.

I’m being tongue-in-check of course. :)

P.S. Thanks to reader Ruairi for suggestion on correcting Madhyamika.

Posted in Buddhism | 4 Comments

Talking to my Daughter about Ferguson

Every night, when Little Guy is asleep, I sit with my seven-year-old daughter and read books or play Legos. Recently she asked me about Ferguson. Until now, we didn’t really talk about violence or racial issues around our children because they are still pretty young. Our family and friends are pretty diverse so my daughter hopefully learns something positive from that.

But at school she told me that another girl told her that a policeman was going around killing “thousands of dark-skinned people”.1 She asked me if that was true.

That was a hard question to answer. I don’t remember exactly what I said but I think this is what I told her.

I told her that, yes, a policeman did kill a young, black man recently and a lot of people were sad and angry about it.

She asked me why he killed the young man and I told her I wasn’t sure. I told her that the young man and a police officer got into a fight, and the policeman shot him.

She asked me why policeman kill people. I told her that sometimes they have to stop dangerous people but then I told her that sometimes they make a mistake too. I don’t know what happened here.

She told me it was wrong for policemen to kill black people because they are the same as everyone else. I told her she was right, but I also told her that the Buddha taught us that killing anyone (or anything) is wrong. And so, regardless of what actually happened, or why, the fact that the young man was killed is sad and his parents are very sad now.

Now, you might be wondering why I said what I said to my daugther.

First, as the Buddha taught in the Dhammapada:2

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

131. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

132. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

Thus, I disagree with those who say that Mike Brown deserved it for whatever reason. It is always better to restrain oneself from taking life if at all possible. If there really was no alternative and Darren Wilson did the only thing he could, then even if he is blameless, he still bears the karmic responsibility of killing someone, and has to carry that with him for the rest of his life. So, it’s a lose-lose situation. I wanted my daugther to understand this.

Second, as the Buddha taught:

A [fully enlightened] monk whose mind is thus released does not take sides with anyone, does not dispute with anyone. He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it.

In other words, the Buddha taught that it is best not to take sides in disputes or arguments. Regardless of what I think happened, I wasn’t there and thus I am not sure. I do believe certain things, but I also could be completely wrong. People have a tendency to project their own idea of “what happened” based on their background, beliefs, etc. But none of this has any substance. It’s all in one’s mind. Worse, people argue over it, and project these beliefs onto their own children.

So, I don’t want my daughter taking sides in the dispute either. When she’s older, she can investigate for herself, and make an informed decision, but for now she’s just too young. Further, I want her to have a healthy respect for all people, be cautious in taking sides, and respect life over death.

Other parents might have to talk about these things with their kids, and I hope those parents will try to focus on goodwill, equanimity and respect for all life.

P.S. See the Metta Sutta for more.

P.P.S. Double-post today. Catching up on things. :)

1 My daughter doesn’t really understand different ethnic groups yet. She tends to see them as just people with variations in skin-tone.

2 Apologies to readers who’ve seen this quote before. It’s worth re-posting, I think.

Posted in Buddhism, Family, Politics, Religion | Tagged | 1 Comment

Introducing the Kokinshu

A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.

A copy of the Kokinshu I purchased recently.

Hi Everyone,

Some readers might remember that I am a fan of Japanese waka (和歌) poetry. Waka poetry, is an older form of poetry that came before haikus. When people think of Japanese poetry, they often think of haikus, but haikus are relatively new, so there’s lots and lots of poetry written as waka, not haiku, that Westerns don’t know about. The main difference is that haikus are 5-7-5 syllables, while waka are 5-7-5-7-7, so there’s two extra lines of 7 syllables.

Waka poetry was very popular in the “golden age” of Japanese culture, the Heian Period. Noble men and woman, and their attendants, wrote poetry to one another all the time as a way of communicating their thoughts. Poetry could be a path to success too.

But also, poetry was so popular, that there were official anthologies too. There were 21 anthologies total, and some were better than others. I wrote about the 21 anthologies in greater detail on my other blog. The most famous of these anthologies is probably the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) or just Kokinshū for short. It’s name literally means “A Collection of Poems, Old and New”.

The Kokinshu anthology was completed in 914, but start 15-20 years earlier. It took the committee, led by one Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之) a long time to compile all the poems and then organize into an anthology. It is not as famous to Westerners as the Hyakunin Isshu, which I made an entire blog for, but the Isshu is a private collection. Althought it is very famous and influential, it was not an official, Imperial anthology.

The Kokinshu is far larger than the Hyakunin Isshu too. It has hundreds of poems. Instead of reading specific poems, Ki no Tsurayuki and the committee organized the anthology by “books”. There are 20 books, with different topics like “Autumn”, “Love” and “Miscellaneous”. What’s clever about the anthology is that the poems within each book are carefully organized too.

For example, in the “Autumn” book, the first poems talk about early fall, and tend to sound similar to each other. However, as you progress through the book, the poetry topics subtly move into other subjects, and then into late autumn. So as the reader progress, the season of Autumn progresses too. The trick is to not focus on one poem, but the progression of poems together. It creates a seamless progression through different subjects within the same book.

There are very few translations of the Kokinshu, but thankfully I found a good one by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius. This book does a nice job translating the poems, and providing useful footnotes, but also translates Ki no Tsurayuki’s originally forward. Ki no Tsurayuki walks the reader through a brief history of Japanese poetry (relative to his time) and critiques famous poets of the past, namely the Six Immortals of Poetry. His criticism is pretty harsh, but I think this was typical of the era.

I haven’t through the entire book, but I tend to jump around and find a section worth reading.

There’s a lot of good poems in there, and I hope to share some soon. I don’t know if I could make a blog devoted to the Kokinshu, like I did with the Hyakunin Isshu, but instead I hope to post here and maybe the other blog from time to time. I hope to also read the Shinkokin Wakashū someday. This was a later anthology, and was intended as a kind of “sequel” to the Kokinshu.

But if you do like Japanese poetry, especially Waka poetry, the Kokinshu is among the best of the 21 Imperial Anthologies.

Posted in Japanese, Language, Literature, Poetry | 2 Comments

Frustrated with the Heisig Method

As readers probably remember, I started learning Japanese kanji using the Heisig method almost 3 years ago. Some people can learn all 2,200 kanji in 4-6 weeks but I work full-time and raised a daughter so progress was much slower but I still made pretty good progress. However when Little Guy was born, progress stopped. I was too tired for the first year and lost motivation. Once I lost motivation, I started to fall behind, and my kanji studies were neglected.

So I stopped around 1260 kanji and haven’t resumed. 1260 kanji is pretty good for a foreigner who doesn’t even live in Japan but it’s still not enough. Plus, after several months I started to forget many of the kanji. Lately, I started to get back into Heisig, and trying to remember all the kanji I forgot, but at the same time, I find myself getting frustrated with the Heisig method. There’s a few reasons for this:

  • The English words used for the kanji are not always the best choice for a kanji. For example the word “I” in this 吾, but usually in Japanese it is 私, 僕 or 俺 or some other kanji. Also, in Heisig’s system prosperous is 昌, but usually I expect it to be 栄. These often confuse me because I already know some Japanese, and I tend to pick the wrong kanji based on what people natively use, not what’s in the Heisig system.
  • Some of the word-choices are strange or awkward. For example, the 又 in Heisig’s system is “crotch” as in the crotch of the elbow, but frankly it sounded kind of weird. So, I changed the meaning to be a “dude” as in yatsu 奴 and I was able to make better stories from that. Other Heisig veterans have noted that they often have to change the primitives to something easier to remember. I also changed 隻 from “vessel” (too vague) into a Klingon Bird of Prey from Star Trek. It’s different and I could make more fun stories for each kanji.
  • Many of the English words are very, very similar, but the kanji look completely different. For example “yearn” is 憧 while “pining” is 慕. Then there’s kanji for admonish 警, criticism 批, rebuke 諭, and so on. When you first do the Heisig system, you only know a few kanji, so there’s not much confusion, but as you learn more and more words, there’s more and more risk of getting confused. Heisig doesn’t give you much advice either in remembering the differences. You’re expected to somehow imagine stories for each kanji that avoid confusion.
  • The system often begins with obscure kanji, then gradually moves into more useful kanji. You have to be pretty patient, because if you learn Japanese at the same time, you’ll find that you won’t learn the kanji that you should learn first. This can be pretty frustrating. This is why learning it the grade school way is often useful.1

I’ve been contemplating giving up on the Heisig method and using the grade-school method instead. I know the 1st and 2nd grade kanji pretty well, so I have a foundation at least.

On the other hand, I read a really good critique of the Heisig Method, and I was surprised to see that this person had the same frustrations that I had. But he argues that the Heisig method is still worth it.

I’m still thinking about it. We’ll see.

1 When I mentioned all these complaints to my wife, she said I was thinking too much, and should just learn the same way my daughter does: the grade-school method.

Posted in Japanese, Language | Tagged | 8 Comments

Adventures in New York and New Jersey

Hi Everyone,

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I was gone last week on a business trip to New Jersey and New York. The business trip has nothing to do with the blog, and isn’t particularly interesting anyway, but we did have an opportunity to visit New York City and such. So, I wanted to share some photos from our visit to New York.

Hamilton, NJ train station

We took the NJ Transit train from Hamilton, NJ which is a lovely small town that had an old, “colonial American” feel.1 The train ride was OK, and after 1 hour, we arrived in Penn Station:


And then outside:


New York is pretty crowded, like downtown Tokyo, so it was a bit overwhelming at first. I’ve been Tokyo many times, so I am used to it there, but this was first my first time in NYC, so I was a bit disoriented.

After we got some work done in the city, we went to the Empire State Building:

The Empire State Building

Outside, a number of vendors were trying to sell us tickets stating that the line was one-and-a-half hours long, but one of my teammates had lived in New York before and knew this was not true. The vendors were very persistent, and annoying though. We ignored them and went inside. Indeed, the line was very short:


The inside of the building is very pretty though:


We skipped most of the exhibits (we only had 1 day to visit New York) and went to the top. It was very windy and cold, but gorgeous:

World Trade Center from Empire State Building

The tall building in the background is the World Trade Center.

Seriously though, it was cold:


Here is a panoramic shot of New York, facing Central Park:

New York skyline from Empire State Building

After all that was done, we took the New York subways toward the World Trade Center:

New York Subway

The empty tunnels reminded me of Hollywood movies:


We arrived outside near the new World Trade Center:

The new World Trade Center profile

It’s really, really tall:


I always wanted to see the 9/11 memorial because I wanted to leave some flowers or say a prayer. Thankfully, the Memorial was right next door inside a very beautiful park. I took a video of the memorial. This is the foundation of one of the original buildings, which is now a fountain:

I said a quick Buddhist prayer for all the people who died when my coworkers (hopefully) were not looking and then we left to get some dinner.

Later that evening, we went to the harbor for a late-night tour. The harbor was dark, and even more cold:


The boat tour was pretty good. They talked about the history of New York City, made some jokes about the British (which was annoying since my teammate is British and some of the passengers were British tourists) and then we got to see the Statue of Liberty:

Statue of Liberty at night

It was hard to take a photo on a windy, rocking boat at night, but it was nice to see the Statue of Liberty at last.

Another teammate, an avid photographer, took much better photos of the same trip. You can see them here.

You can find the full album of photos I took here.

So what did I think of New York? I’ve been to London, Paris and of course Tokyo and New York was similar, but somehow less friendly.2 It’s big, crowded and has a lot of history so, it was exciting to be there, and I am happy I finally visited the 9/11 Memorial, but I think visiting New York once is enough.

Still, I am glad I was able to go once (my wife went many years ago before we got married) and it was a good experience for the whole team, so it was definitely worth going.

P.S. New Jersey had a lot of good food in general. One time we found a small Thai-food restaurant called Thai House Rock. The menus are made using old LP record albums and the food is made to order and it was delicious. We also found a good deli run by a very nice, old lady at a gas station. The sandwiches were huge and delicious. I’d probably go back to NJ just for the food. ;-)

1 They also had a small Italian restaurant there with a delicious Philly-Cheesesteak Hoagie. I didn’t even know what a hoagie was. In Seattle, we call them “sub sandwiches”. Interesting how the same country can have regional differences like that. :p

2 Paris doesn’t feel friendly either, unless you speak a little French. I knew a few words and phrases and that helped a lot. It helped in Luxembourg too. I was surprised to see a lot of Japanese tourists in Paris. We had a good time overall, especially the Louvre and the Champs Elysees. I would definitely go back but I would like to learn more French first.

Posted in Photography, Travel | Tagged | 2 Comments